A sociologist goes to the Urban History Association meetings, Part Two

I posted several observations yesterday from my time at the Urban History Association meetings. I turn today to the three most interesting ideas or debates I heard when attending sessions and panels:

  1. On a session on public housing, the discussant made this observation: with all of these negative cases of big government involvement in public housing, perhaps we need to turn away from seeing this as the solution. The main issue is this: when the federal resources are earmarked for the poor and redevelopment, it always seems to end up in the hands of the wealthy and developers rather than with those who really need the assistance. (For another example of this that involves lots of government money but not public housing, see the book Crisis Cities about New York City after 9/11 and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.) He suggested then and in later conversation that doesn’t mean that government should be completely removed from public housing. However, more local efforts seem to allow more opportunity for success rather than a completely top-down approach.I’ve argued before that the private market can’t do much about affordable housing in the United States, let alone public housing. At the same time, I would agree that the record of the federal government regarding public housing is mediocre at best. Are there some middle-range solutions? (I’ll also acknowledge that sometimes it does seem to take the federal government to help local governments do the right thing. For example, the Chicago Housing Authority was a mess for decades and required some oversight.)
  1. On a panel on Jane Jacobs, one of the scholars highlighted her upbringing in Scranton, Pennsylvania as being particularly formative. While Jacobs is most associated with New York City and Toronto, she was shaped by this smaller big city, the third most populous Pennsylvania city at the time and a city that attracted a variety of residents to work in the coal mining industry. This made me think of two things: (1) Why don’t more scholars pay attention to smaller big cities that may not be as important on the global stage but still contain a large number of American residents and (2) how might Jacobs and fictional resident and booster Michael Scott of The Office get along?
  1. A later panel discussed the history of Silicon Valley. In a response to a question about the representativeness of Silicon Valley for understanding other places in the United States and around the world, at least one participant suggested the ideas, social life, and spatial dimensions of Silicon Valley were likely to spread elsewhere and become normal. Another participant pushed back, suggesting that many places have no interest in becoming like Silicon Valley or don’t have the knowledge or resources to follow such a path. Such a discussion highlights how a place devoted to creating things for the masses may be in its organization and daily life be very separate from the rest of the country.

A bonus nugget from a session: when the Illinois Tollways first opened, there were not enough customers/drivers. Thus, a marketing campaign kicked off and the commercials featured Mary MacToll. Enjoy.

A sociologist goes to the Urban History Association meetings, Part One

I attended and presented at the Urban History Association biennial meetings this weekend and I made some observations during my foray. Some thoughts:

  1. In the last five years or so, I’ve been to both specialist conferences – usually involving the sociology of religion – and general conferences – the American Sociological Association. They each have their perks. I particularly enjoyed two things about the specialty aspect of the UHA meetings: (1) it was nice to be with a group of scholars who shared a common set of readings and understandings of a particular social phenomena and (2) the smaller size seemed to allow for more conversations during and after sessions. Even though the conference drew attendees largely from R1 schools – and people from liberal arts colleges like myself were in short supply and tended to be from the Chicago area – it felt pretty inviting.
  2. Several quick observations on the discipline of history as I saw it practiced:
    -There was a tension between particular cases – micro history – and broad sweeping generalizations about social patterns. The micro history could be quite minute, perhaps focusing on a particular influential figure (or arguing why that figure should be viewed as influential) or brief time period while other papers and sessions focused on 50+ years or emphasized broader movements like modernism. Individual papers tended toward the micro while panels could think more broadly. I would guess that at least a few of the papers are part of larger works – dissertations, manuscripts – that touch on broader periods or forces.
    -There was an informal dress code for male attendees: dress shirt and jacket. Not everyone followed this but there were more sports coats and blazers than at the typical sociological gathering.
    -Race, class, and gender popped up now and then but this trinity of analysis wasn’t as present as at sociological meetings.
    -There were some interesting instances of trying to connect historical events to current events, particularly in a panel on Silicon Valley. But, often the papers stuck to their particular historical moment.
    -Almost every paper began with a story or anecdote from history. This is more acceptable with qualitative sociological work but rarer in sociology as a whole.
    -Every introduction I saw included a short bio of the scholar’s education and work. Sociologists rarely give this information. Does this suggest that pedigree is more important for the audience or do they benefit from having more information regarding the speaker?
  3. I realize that now eight years into my post-graduate school career, I feel much more comfortable at conferences. I had met only two of the conference attendees prior to the meetings but it was easier to introduce myself to others and participate when I had questions. During graduate school, I remember this being more difficult: who wants to talk to a lowly graduate student? My enjoyment of conferences has gone up as I feel like I have a leg to stand on (I have published works that people can read) and I feel like I can contribute (I’ve wrestled with a number of issues in my own work and in the classroom). These two factors work in another way: even as I do some urban history work, I likely would not have attended this meeting without receiving an invitation from the organizer of a session to submit a paper.

Tomorrow, I’ll present the three most intriguing ideas I heard at the conference from my one day of attending sessions.