Elizabeth Forum


Representing Cities

Representing cities will probably always be problematic.  For the first generation of professional historians at the turn of the twentieth century, cities were not primary topics.  Arthur Schlesinger Sr (1888-1965) is generally credited with breaking new ground with the subject in the slipstream of F J Turner’s magnetizing focus on the Frontier.  Schlesinger tried to capitalize on the new awareness of the city as an historical force and in effect argued it was equal to the “Frontier” as a shaping historical influence. In the 1920s, when cities became for the first time the residential place of most Americans, the city became a novel fascination.  Early studies fell into the political biases of a previous generation of historians. From Arthur Schlesinger Sr The Rise of the City to Bayard Still (1906-1992)’s Milwaukee (1948), city changes followed the lead of a particular sequence of mayors and political campaign issues. The city rose in the historical profession as Progressivism gained momentum, and the city became a central precipitating event for that era. Postwar historians like Oscar Handlin (b 1915) gave special thematic treatments of cities as in Boston’s Immigrants  (1941) or later Richard Sennett (b 1943)’s  Families Against the City (1970). The emergence of the New Social History of the 1960s, driven by the grass roots values of the civil rights movement, began to attend to ordinary persons and migratory groups, particularly as registered and documented by the national census.

The new Social History was particularly well served by a cohort of imaginative historians. In particular, Michael Katz’s The People of Hamilton (1975) was one of a series of breakthrough studies that showed the possibilities of demography.  The empirical aggregates of new social historians finally put substance into the “middle class” as a historical force rather than as a residual and amorphous category of change agents.  Katz’s use of “boarders” in middle class and working class families documented with great originality the strategic hedges some social classes have used in stabilizing their place in a given social structure.  Katz also insisted – a point often lost among sociological historians – that the reconstructed social structure which emerged from census data represented historical context rather than historical cause. There were not direct linkages between class arrangements and actual historical events, though the two had links which needed to be interpreted. The New Social historians took the conception of the cities from its political to a broader social conception.

In the latest decades of the 20th and early 21st century historians have attempted something of an integration of these several traditions:  the political city, urban sectors or themes, and urban demography via the new social history.   If earlier historians overplayed the force of larger-than-life personalities in their narratives, later historians tended to finesse historical agency in the excitement of documenting the characteristics of entire groups and populations. Would it be possible to join these different emphases in a single urban conception? One impediment that demographic work on the city introduced was the permeable boundaries of any particular city. The essence of the modern city, as William R Taylor argued In Pursuit of Gotham (1992), was motion itself. The city was an entity on the move. People commuted to and fro, often crossing the formal limits of the city, moving in and out of multiple constructs. The inference was unmistakable: any city worth the name experienced metropolitan dynamics. Cities became the mere center point of still larger county, state and, in the case of New York City, national and international cultural exchanges. Precisely how could a single historian find a framework to encompass such a scope? Was the history of a city actually a global narrative?

In the face of such a conceptual problem, what precisely should any urban program teach to shape the skills necessary for the task?  Harvey Graff’s work on both literacy and later urban culture has used the agency of historical myth to great advantage.  His history of Dallas, Texas  – The Dallas Myth: The Making and Unmaking of an American City (2008) – develops a multilayered approach to his subject, narrating both actual, select events and inflated urban self-conceptions that themselves become historical drivers.  The compass of myth is both sweeping and provocative, organizing a wealth of empirical material and recognizing an emotional, fictive element often left out of earlier narratives, the aspirations of both citizens and leaders at distinctive moments in time. Graff’s fascination with urban myth also helps him underscore the value of interpretation, which at times earlier historical research ignored in their pursuit of empirical documentation.  Analyzing and teaching the history of cities must be more than the accumulation and reportage of factual data.

One should hasten to add that the collection of empirical data is no small feat in the face of a metropolitan experience.  Janice L. Rieff and her colleagues have done Chicago proud with their massive and authoritative Encyclopedia of Chicago (2004) and other cities, notably New York, have created analogous products.  Such works are indispensible in the shaping of a new interpretation of the city. And these and more recent  encyclopedia, like The Encyclopedia of American Urban History (2007) have given urban teaching programs powerful tools in the starting point of economizing new research and fashioning innovative questions. These encyclopedias also check overly facile formulations for urban change, since they make very clear the substantive mass of experience that any plausible interpretation must encompass.

This insistence on interpretive responsibility and factual authenticity, daunting as they are, does not identify the most difficult factor in representing   cities.   The key pedagogic difficulty in my mind is overcoming “case myopia,” the absorption of a researcher into his/her data to the exclusion of its connection to the larger scholarly discourses.  Both graduate and undergraduate instruction in American departments of History can be faulted here. Students take up a subject with such concentration that every related fact seems to have equal significance to the whole narrative. Analysis degenerates into reportage, and data overwhelms what Paul Goodman once called “the instinct for the original.” Such research sets aside any teaching responsibility, failing to ask what one’s reader needs to know to see what the researcher sees. Even more, how one’s research modifies or changes existing wisdom goes unattended. The research material is presented as if its significance must be patent, not as an argument that must be persuasive to those less familiar with one’s subject.  In other words, research often takes on a dynamic that ignores one’s audience, and the researcher evades the powerful role an audience plays in interacting and sharpening an interpretive argument.

The Public History Program at NYU (1981-2006)  – which I co-founded and directed, worked hard to  re-emphasize the role of the public in interpreting the past.  A minihistory of the program appears in  “The Pedagogy of Public History” Journal of American Ethic History (Fall 1998) but here I would stress something not in that earlier account. The most successful pedagogic strategy for Public History and indeed for representing cities I discovered in offering a course, “The Material Culture of American Life” whose syllabus remains on my portion of NYU’s Department of History website.  The final product of this course was a documentary film of each student’s research project. Early on in the course – within four weeks of its beginning – students presented to the class a one-page storyline of their argument. This presentation was primarily one of images, real or imagined. The visuals – some five or six of them – structured their argument. The educational gain was first, to put verbal argument in perspective by minimizing its primacy momentarily and secondly, to heighten consciousness of how evidence compels the interpretation. Students’ texts both interrogated the evidence (which all their compatriots could also see on a video screen) and invited collegial commentary; it also shifted the onus for language to the connections between their evidence and a larger discourse.  Each presentation functioned as a kind of outline for the full project and could receive critical reactions in time to do something about them, rather than at the end of the course. In a sense, the burden of critic was eased off a single faculty member’s shoulders and onto the many perspectives of fellow students (who knew they were about to experience the identical process). The commentary was inevitably less threatening and more collaborative, with every person straining to sharpen the argument under scrutiny.  No one, especially the faculty member, could predict the range of comments, all of which were not only aired but discussed, sometimes accepted, sometimes rejected in a vigorous give and take.

One central feature of this process was that the evidence – accessed by multiple senses and sensibilities – did not need to be recapitulated and described but rather the focus remained on the inferences to be derived, the constructs that were in play, the degree of originality in the argument. The visual force of the evidence here made all the difference, a point reinforced in Michael Wilson’s work on “Visual Culture.”   By the end of the discussion, each student knew exactly what remained to be done.  Even more important, the essential problem of their essay had been tempered and was far clearer than at the start of the critical session.  Criticism became the educational resource rather than an exercise in final judgment. The shared images gave the entire process a kind of tangibility that never appears in strictly ideological debate or in seminar and classroom repartee.  Gradually, a new consciousness emerged about the researcher’s debt as well as the obligation a research project had to one’s audience. At its most sophisticated, the endpoint became less a defensible argument in film and more, a documentary which made existing wisdom visual, more important as well as more problematic than it ever was. Almost all of the ensuing documentaries out of this course, in my view, were PBS worthy.

This central engagement of one’s public had a powerful force on my own book, Suburb Landscapes (2001) but also it had an afterlife in my emeritus research on American cities. In my middle-level city – Elizabeth NJ (pop 120K) – I manage the Elizabeth Historical Society’s research program and website (http://www.visithistoricalelizabethnj.org).  This working-class city has long been a pastiche of ethnic and racial cultures, each one of which considers its place and contribution to be relatively unique. Moreover, many of these groups are first generation arrivals, more concerned about survival issues than those of their city’s past.  Here both oral history and material culture again exercise a special power on the public consciousness. Over the past decade, the society has conducted neighborhood reconstructions, using 1910-30 federal census schedules and refining this data with oral histories of long-time residents. Usually their memory and indeed the memory of their family lore connect our census research with the present. Particularly in neighborhoods that have experienced substantive ethnic and racial shifts, current residents are surprised at how recognizable urban experiences are between and among distinct groups. Here the citizens rather than student researchers experience a re-education.  The Society’s representations now begin with portraits of the interviewees, the source of our new historical knowledge. This opening is a powerful introductory moment in public venues where the interviewees sit in the audience with their relatives and neighbors.  They evince an incontestably new fascination about how their story fits into larger perspectives and dynamics of the city that hitherto were thought to be disconnected to their lives. Consequently every neighborhood reconstruction methodologically connects to some larger aspect of the city and of the region’s past.

The obvious connections in every urban reconstruction are the parallels in all the ethnic and racial histories: how people arrive, how they find work, how they re-create their table cuisines, where they worship, the places of recreation and sport, their organizational commitments beyond their families etc. In every Elizabeth Forum – the public venue for introducing the Society’s research and available now on our website  –  there are large and small stories connected to assure both accessibility and historical significance. Cumulatively each neighborhood’s past bears comparison and differentiation with other studied neighborhoods. The history of the city will not be encyclopedic in its factual thoroughness, but it will rethread select neighborhoods with new data and a broader perspective. Ultimately all the racial and ethnic cultures will receive substantive treatment both demographically and geographically. In addition, all the major sectors of city life will be examined from multiple perspectives, and the histories retold in residents’ minds are not only captured but in the context of others’ views of those accounts, made problematic. In the process, too, images from their photo albums, old newspapers and many repositories create a new and graphic narrative of Elizabeth NJ. The society posts each neighborhood reconstruction on its website creating a Virtual Museum, instantly accessible to all Elizabethans as well as the world wide web.

Do these new representations lead to new conceptions of the modern city? The conditional answer is yes. Each neighborhood contributes its own challenge to existing historical wisdom: re-emigration for current Columbians, a new 1990s political sensibility for Cubans (who up until the 1990s expected to “return”), the stabilizing force of third generation Slavs and Irish, say, who view themselves as survivors just hanging on, African-American initiatives before the Civil Rights movement, the managerial echelon of Germans in industrial corporations like Singer Sewing Machine Co, urban economies dominated by a majority of skilled laborers, etc. All these factors change our present thinking of the modern city. But more importantly, the real novelty here is the recognition that the “modern city” has multiple meanings, incomprehensible apart from the historical process. Each reconstruction is both a local and a global representation.

Incrementally our historical research connects separated neighborhoods; it introduces individuals to ways of thinking about their own and others’ experiences; it makes many once strange practices appear analogous if not actually recognizable; above all, it regenerates data in citizen’s lore and culture and puts it into the public domain, where it probably would never reside if left to the official repositories and archives of the history profession.   In the process of actually engaging and teaching a larger public about city dynamics, the Historical Society becomes more than a passive repository of the past. Instead, it aspires to become an active, civic resource, an agent itself recreating a new meaning for urban culture in the 21st century.

– II –

The Program in Public History at NYU kept the representation of cities as our central work. We knew that however much original data and insight we orchestrated, the city will always be an issue in need of revisiting. In the course of teaching all those students, we did however learn a few basic things. One of the most important things we learned was the power of images, not only in communicating our ideas but indeed in developing the basic argument about the changes in a particular place.  These visualizing dynamics go far to develop the notion of a new representation of cities.

Graduate students seeking topics and historical issues invariably expressed perplexity by my principle suggestion: go walk about in the area you wish to explore.  In part, the suggestion sought an immersion in place; in part, it sought the shedding of our technology-dependent culture. Get beyond cell phone, internet, electronic indexes, and encyclopedic overviews; rid yourself of our aerial mentality and avoid beginnings with skyline sweeps. Reengage one of our oldest mechanisms – walking – and recognize its advantages: the savoring of detail, the use of multiple senses, the engagement with high and low artifacts, the interaction with people unlike yourself, the indulgence of the visual.

Walking through a specific place also privileges sequence. No place is truly static. Simulating process inserts the self in a tempo of comprehension. The historian William R Taylor  (In Pursuit of Gotham) has underscored the essential feature of the 20th century city – motion. How to capture it on canvas drove the early 20th century Impressionists to techniques that changed with the viewer’s relation to the image, a technique that became eclipsed by motion picture camera. But both techniques help us become self-conscious about two features of modern urban perspectives:  1) they are physically static while representing movement and 2) they tempt us to equate visualizing cities with panoramic sweep, assuming scope encompassed the local and its characteristic detail. But motion and locale remain continually elusive in both art and history in our modern time. Here is where sequence is indispensable.

Sequence requires the alignment of multiple pieces of evidence; each unit brings its own authority, integrity and complexity to their end point. Walking, like historical analysis, is a gathering and a culmination.  At its most original it presents the onlooker with – Edmund Wilson’s phrase – “the shock of recognition,” something new, but sufficiently familiar that one imbricates other ongoing sequences of perception.
Many years ago one of my Public History classes worked collaboratively on “the Lower East Side.” None of the students really had any experience with this place of shoulder to shoulder living, so crowded, so cramped, so unprivate.  At my urging, they walked the neighborhoods and quickly everyone had a topic. One riveting episode bears describing.  A very self-possessed Dartmouth graduate took herself to the Lower East Side on a Sunday morning. She was to meet and talk with someone whose name she had been given. While waiting on completely deserted streets, an elderly gentleman – long overcoat, steady cane, slow gait – approached her. He asked if he could direct her someplace. She explained that in effect she was engaged in a field trip and hoped to meet someone who could talk about earlier days on the Lower East Side.  Intrigued, he offered to talk with her until her companion arrived. It turned out he had come to the Lower East Side as a small boy and had lived all his life there. What, she asked, was the most important first purchase your family made once in this country? Easy, he replied: a cemetery plot. Completely taken aback, she pressed on. “Weren’t there other pressing needs that were of greater priority?” NO, he responded emphatically. “I don’t get it,” she admitted. “Well,” he explained,” it is important to spend eternity with one’s close companions.

One wishes to lie with one’s co-religionists.”  But, she asked, “why was that so high on the list of priorities when often people had no shelter, no food, no work?” Because,” he smiled,” the cemetery plot made all those other things happen?”  “I still don’t get it,” she admitted.

When Lower East Side people purchase a cemetery plot, he explained, they not only secure their future; they secured their present. The Cemetery Association thereby developed a pool of funds to lend for starting businesses or other costly outlays. They were the immigrant’s bank, when established banks would not lend money to newly arrived Jews. They controlled their entire community’s development, and, he smiled again, I happen now to be the president of the Cemetery Association. Were it not for the Cemetery Association and the purchase of a cemetery plot, few of the other necessities would have been possible.” From this extraordinary and serendipitous  encounter, my student took several inferences: a) there is no substitute for field work and walking a targeted space; 2) the familiar sequence of the immigrant’s experience met none of the precedent expectations she had hitherto harbored and she should not indulge them; 3) in context , the new sequence underscored so much of distinctive ethnic tradition that one had to master in order to stand in another’s historical shoes; 4) maybe most important of all, from this fundamental local detail a whole larger, urban perspective arose, not in a single image but in an historical sequence.

Visualizing a city, then, must be an historical process. I would say the process must be locally grounded at the beginning and periodically in the course of the sequence, the process must touch down again and again. A true cityscape requires both local detail and encompassing panorama; it also requires distinctive turning points and historical agents. Urban visuals gather their import and significance by contrasts and reversals, just like fine fiction and arresting art. History is not, like the recent drama, HISTORY BOYS, has asserted, one damn thing after another.

Many of these assumptions recently played themselves out with my work with the Elizabeth NJ Historical Society. Each year the Society raises research funds to reconstruct a strategic neighborhood. We begin with oral histories and segue forward and backward, using the manuscript census record to document the social structure of 1910, 1920 and 1930 (the farthest that the manuscript census now permits). We let the social structure then play through the narratives we collect from individuals who actually experienced the location over time.  Increasingly visuals have played very important roles, not only as historical artifacts but as historical evidence that enhance and carry the narrative. The orienting visuals of choice are maps: to set boundaries, thoroughfares, anchoring points and sacred places. They also recognize a larger city adjacent or abounding the neighborhood under  special scrutiny. They provide context.

We have found in personal photograph albums many riveting pictures of individuals, especially, of course, family members, but also – though a secondary effect at the time of shooting – the neighborhood itself, singular buildings, important open spaces like parks, or ball fields.  It is however rare that people took (or take) photos of the locations that inform their daily routines: stores, schools, churches, streets and roadways, or in a word, the public places that shaped their life chances. However, local papers often include such public visuals, while individuals fine-tune them with meaningful events, like family gatherings, christening, burials, marriages,  birthdays. The family-eye view of a city remains highly personal, even today. It is incumbent upon the newspapers that remain as well as historical societies to collect both and fill in the interstices with the materials of a whole visual canvas.

In 2010 the Elizabeth Historical Society targeted Elizabeth’s Bayway section, a classic industrial neighborhood., and this research will exemplify the point.  The primary ethnic group was Polish and hence church and food played very prominent parts in every event and story. More problematic was the industrial theme, the impact of John D Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Refinery and Cesar Grasselli’s Chemical Factory on individual and family lives. There were other factories in this sector but these behemoths (since 1909) spewed exhausts into the air and into the nearby tidal Arthur Kill. Invariably witnesses would acknowledge long-term health worries, but few could resist the family wages these entities paid. Until late in the 20th century the neighborhood’s pastors and fraternal organizations – the Polish Society – could do little but protest quietly or more frequently quietly arrange for the industrial companies to intervene paternally (which they regularly did), for sickness and death but also for routine recreational facilities. Even when the NJ Turnpike split the city in half (1950s) and eviscerated neighborhoods, the changes were perceived as progress rather than an invitation for collective protest, something that became more habitual from the 1970s onward.  The expansion of the local airport at Newark into an International entity, the coming of public housing complexes, not to mention the creation of the largest mall on the eastern seaboard, Jersey Gardens, elicited little objection from either voluntary observers or elected politicians. (The Elizabeth mayor was not a full-time paid employee until the 1920s). Even the active recruitment of Latino immigrants from the 1960s onward caused few eyebrows to be raised.

Much like their photograph albums, many citizens experienced the city personally. Indeed the temptation to characterize Elizabethans as docile or ignorant of city policies quickly eroded as one established their immigrant origins. Their day-to-day routines filled with survival issues – work, food, shelter, family protection, neighborly outreach. The central memory of actual participants was one of collaboration and cooperation over ethnic and racial barriers, so graphic and so divisive to historians using (more impersonal) archival material.  Perusing newspapers with their more comprehensive visuals indulged later students of the city to ignore the dynamics on the ground. Long ago, Jane Jacobs’ insistence (The  Death and Life  ofGreat  American Cities[1961]) that ground-level community dynamics should trump the high-rise progress offered by city planners and outside investors, made the point (still too often ignored). These rooted dynamics, with one wave of immigrants succeeding another, were indigenous, social, ethnic and racial blends of interaction that could never be designed and implemented. There were fundamentally historical creations, with energy and authority that politicians could only envy.

How could any of these elements be captured visually? Even today I begin as I advised my graduate students. After a walking field trip, begin with no more than 5 to 7 images that structure the transformation you intend in your documentary. Develop a concise statement for each visual that economizes your storyline. Then show it to your fellow students for reaction and critique. Classroom sessions that showcased visuals carrying a narrative never lack for commentary, usually interesting and imaginative commentary (since all students know they shortly will be presenting their material). But the effect is not defensive. Collaborative research and discourse crosses all specializations and privileges no ideology. It probes evidence, small and large, obviously significant and sometimes disturbingly arcane.

But this joint interrogation of evidence available to everyone – the visuals  –  is invariably superior to anything any one participant could imagine, trying to fashion a narrative alone. The visuals make quickly graphic the trajectory of interpretation and open a narrative to issues that an author has time to implement rather than awaiting a final grade, say, at the end of a course. The tangibility of historical recreation is, I would argue, a direct function of trying to visualize a city historically. It draws upon the finest resources of student imagination; it embeds the value of constructive collaboration as well as tolerance of points of view not one’s own – the essence of humanistic instruction. Perhaps most of all, this visual process makes historical analysis a vital feature not only of one’s liberal arts equipment; it renders an historical habit of thought an instinctual component of one’s everyday confrontation with the conundrums of life.

Had we time I would devote an hour or so to the commentary and interrogation of the following visuals: a) Present-day Map of Bayway; 2) the newly formed 1909 factory complex of Standard Oil Company; 3) the Rockefeller model of a worker’s home (later a major recreational facility); 4) a newly wed Polish couple; 5) the neighborhood of St Hedwig’s RC Church;  6)the coming of the NJ Turnpike and its expansions; 7) the Bayway oil refinery today;  8) the “Bayway Boys,” newly returned vets, fully energized in their neighborhood. The actual upshot of the Historical Society’s public presentation now appears in this volume as Chapter 10 and permits everyone to witness the emergent representation of this urban neighborhood as well as the evolving line of historical interpretation.

The Chapters that follow are products of a collaborative exercise. The principal author of essays not specially attributed to others were written by Paul H Mattingly, President of the Elizabeth Historical Society. But the entire production was a much broader effort and not the design of single person. Many individuals, named and unnamed, are a part of the production: staffers, trustees, foundation supporters, ordinary folk. We think that the historical outcome of such a social effort represents a new historical stance, one with greater authority, nuance and fabric.  The product is also unfinished, an ongoing exercise, which we expect to have others build upon as we have built upon our predecessors. The actual construction of a city like its history is an ongoing adventure. The product here is the revelation of grass-roots dynamics rather than an over-arching urban interpretation, but the end result is the documentation of urban dynamics that seldom appear in sweeping city schematics. Nevertheless, the patterns excavated here not only drive the everyday routines of cities but underscore the neighborhood dynamics that are the lifeblood of every metropolis.