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Urban History Association Conference Report

The Urban History Association held its sixth biennial conference at Columbia University, October 25-28. The final session that Sunday was a bit discombobulated as people were scurrying about trying to verify travel arrangements before Sandy hit.

As you can tell, this is a comparatively new association and it was reported that at it s first meeting as part of a conference of the Organization of American History (OAH) only six people attended. By contrast the current conference had over 500. Again, my reasons for attending were because it was local and had many presentations related to New York. I suspect that contributed to the higher attendance as well as many local people only attended for their session or the day they were speaking before going home.

I can only report on some of the sessions I attended. The first one that Friday morning at 8:30 was sparsely attended. The topic was “The Empire City and the Empire: The American City and the British Military in the 18th Century” chaired by Barnet Schecter. The three speakers examined the role of New York City in British imperial thinking in the administration of the colonies prior to the Revolution, the lessons learned from occupation during the war, and the poor image of cities within the colonies, the infamous anti-urban bias which existed even then. This session seemed to be the only one with a military perspective and that may have contributed to the minimal attendance as the interest of the participants was elsewhere.

The second session I attended was unexpectedly poignant in retrospect. The topic was “The Design, Engineering and Politics of Large Urban Structures: Case Studies in the New York Metropolis.” On one level it was fascinating to hear the stories of how Grand Central, which I had just walked through, and the Holland Tunnel were built and how some airports and bridges were never built. This discussion occurred with the backdrop of Gov. Christie’s cancellation of a new tunnel even after the work had been started and Gov. Cuomo’s push for a replacement for the Tappan Zee Bridge.

Furthermore it seems if the privately built Grand Central Station could only be done because few if any people lived in the huge area it encompassed. Also it led to the later construction of Rockefeller Center and the rise of Midtown Manhattan. The more tragic presentation was on the efforts to rebuild Ground Zero including the museum just prior to arrival of Sandy. Then the tunnels and museums took a beating that no one anticipated that Friday morning. First I go the Mohawk Valley just before Irene, then I go to a NYC conference on tunnels and bridges just before Sandy. I am leaving shortly for Chicago, I wonder what will happen there.

One theme which crossed sessions was alternative transportation systems. The presentation on the quest to create an interstate bicycle path in 1900 with images of sidewalks, paths, and paved roads paralleling each was an eye-opening window in the past that is part of the present and future transportation solutions in urban areas. Strange as it may seem, the train itself once was a new transportation system. Presentations on where railroad lines should be built, the huge concentration in Jersey City to serve NYC now minimized (much like the rail yards in Manhattan), as well as the challenges in communities trying transform abandoned rail lines into bike bypaths ran the gamut of the life span of the railroad even though the presentations were in different sessions.

The most animated session aided perhaps by one speaker not showing was on “Herald Square to Desk 137: The Reel U.S. City before Movies Talked” by Douglas Muzzio, CUNY Baruch College and “Big Cities and the Small Screen: The Urban Crisis and the TV Movie, 1964-1984” by Michael McKenna, SUNY Farmingdale. These two talks continued the theme of the anti-urban bias that had been mentioned back in colonial days but instead by examining movies in the early and late 20th century. Everyone in the audience had a story to tell about the image of cities, especially New York, in the movies. My own example was The Out of Towners with Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis where everything that can go wrong on a visit to New York does go wrong and the promotion to the Big Apple is rejected. I remember shortly after I saw it I was working on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, which is a very isolated spot, with people from Utah who thought the movie was a documentary about life in New York.

Naturally, therefore, I had to attend the session on “An Unlikely Critique: ‘Car 54, Where Are You?’ Takes on Urban Renewal.” The episode shown, a far-fetched and funny satire on urban renewal in New York and elsewhere turns out to teach many lessons underneath the humor. The story of a woman (Molly Picon) displaced from her tenement for the construction of a modern high-rise with all the technological trimmings for its time (and well behind schedule!) touched on many of the issues still present in urban communities but did so in story form and not a heavy-handed essay. When the displaced residents were given the chance to add their own preferences to the design of the new housing the result, an award-winning design for the architect in the final scene, was the treasured Lower East Tenement of a true neighborhood!

This session really got me thinking. For one thing, the previous day, Morris Vogel, the president of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum had participated in a panel discussion on the role of the museum in urban history. That museum has come a long way and is going gangbusters. I was particularly impressed by the training the staff undergoes to be knowledgeable in the history of the times they are exhibiting, curating, and guiding visitors. Truly an impressive effort which teachers should experience as well. Neighborhood really is important as perhaps was made obvious as people turned to neighbors during Sandy. A community where nobody knows your name really isn’t a community and architecture does have a role to play in fostering community and nurturing a sense of belonging.

Furthermore, it was Car 54 which introduced me to Jane Jacobs even though not by name although as it turns out the creators were steeped in her writings. The episode which did it for me was on where a by-the-book inspector wrote Toody and Muldoon up for every single infraction you could possibly think of. The chart of their beat was covered with pins representing infractions. The inspector was reading the sergeant the riot act for these violations which had occurred on his watch. Of course, none of them were for hard crimes. They were for having a fruit cart stick out too far onto the sidewalk. While this idealized view of the neighborhood where there were no broken families, no drugs, and no mental disabilities is not real, it also is real about what makes a community and how people need to be part of one. Communities are the wetlands of human existence that nurture and sustain us and absorb and dissipate the storms of life as the literal wetlands would do during storms like Katrina and Sandy if we only recognized their importance. Good conference.