Leaving Las Vegas: Bringing the Urban History Association to Sin City

Ahhh … the smell of weak coffee, the brightly advertised “free continental breakfast,” and the indignity of pocketing more fruit than reasonable considering the “free” part… it can only be time for the Urban History Association’s biennial conference. This year’s gathering (under the theme “Sustainable Cities?”) took place in Elvis’s home away from home, Las Vegas. The onslaught of ravenous bespectacled academics struck fear in the hearts of even the most depraved Las Vegan (though one cannot be sure if that refers to full time residents or the millions of tourists who visit the desert city).  Who knows how much historians lost at the tables or at the sports book? (“So would it be possible to get a prop bet on the over/under use of the term “built environment”?)

Betting losses aside, numerous conference participants provided great insights into issues across the urban spectrum. Below are several particularly strong presentations. Keep in mind T of M has limited staffing, meaning two guys with backpacks, so many quality papers were missed. (Page numbers for the UHA program are provided at the end of each summary, click here for the link to the conference program…)

Migrating to Mexico: A Material History of Remittance in Sur de Jalisco, Mexico

Sarah Lynn Lopez, University of California, Berkeley

A great look at how remittances have shaped one village in Mexico, redefining public space, altering ideas of community, while reifying hierarchies. Sarah Lynn Lopez adds complexity to both the modern Mexican identity but also those of remitting Norteamericanos. Remittances contribute to the construction of identities and places. Lopez’s insights into the manner in which transnational capital flows manifest themselves spatially and socially provide welcome additions to research on transnational social geographies. (7)

Burning Down the House: Devil’s Night and the Politics of Abandoned Space in Postwar Detroit

Lindsey Helfman, Temple University

Several Philadelphia related historians (in terms of the study of or living in) presented at the UHA giving the metropolitan area evidence of really exciting work. Helfman’s “Buring Down the House” proved one of the best, exploring the evolution of Detroit’s “Devil’s Night” (held over the course of three days prior to Halloween) from petty vandalism to felonious arson. At its peak, the city annually endured hundreds of illicit fires over the three-day period. Detroit emerged as the urban American “boogey man”, playing on ideas of black criminality that collapsed victim (since most of the arsons occurred in black communities) and criminal into one. Somewhere Thomas Sugrue should be proud. (8)

The Soundtrack of Blight: Hardcore Punk and the Promise of Deindustialization in Postwar Detroit

Michael Carriere, Milwaukee School of Engineering

If historians have looked at punk, rap, reggae, and other musical forms as drivers and representations of society, Michael Carriere adds hardcore to the list. A fascinating account of how Detroit’s punk community, led by the legendary Necros, moved into Detroit’s largely black deindustrialized neighborhoods, celebrating the grittiness of the city while rejecting the plasticity of suburbia. “The Soundtrack of Blight” bristles with the “politics of authenticity” while hinting at future insights regarding gender and race that promise to resituate the role of hardcore in urban history and its wider political and social meanings. (12)

Coastal Environment Consciousness in California’s Culture, 1969 – Present

H. Gelfand, James Madison University

H. Gelfand tracks the place of Surfrider and the broader surfing movement in bringing environmental consciousness to the forefront of California’s identity. Gelfand pushes back against the dominant Jeff Spicoli image of surfers revealing a recreational group/lifestyle that became a political force in Southern California land use battles. Gelfand’s presentation pointed to future work on the role of skateboarding and snowboarding in American culture. Gelfand’s previous work Sea Change at Annapolis: The United States Naval Academy 1949 – 2000 explored the history of the Navy’s training grounds. American Historical Review described the work as displaying a “mastery not only of the Academy’s history . . . but also of the evolution of its bureaucracy and curriculum. . . . Politically explosive.” (14)

California’s Fantasy Pasts: Social Studies Politics in Orange County

Elaine Lewinnek, California State University, Fullerton

Building on the work of Lisa McGirr (Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New Right) and providing a useful contrast with East Coast focused education histories such as Diane Ravitch’s exemplary The Great School Wars: A History of New York Public Schools, Elaine Lewinnek constructed an insightful, lucid account of textbook controversy in mid 1960’s LA and Orange Counties. Such controversies illustrated the crucial role public schools played in Southern California social imaginaries and political mobilization. Projecting the possibility of numerous intellectual avenues, Lewinnek’s work suggests new insights regarding the burgeoning home school movement and the role of gender in New Right political movements. Lewinnek’s previous research centered on turn of the century Chicago — “Better than a Bank for a Poor Man? Home Financing Strategies in Early Chicago,” Journal of Urban History 2006 32(2): 274-301. (22)

Public Private Sector Relationships in Suburban Downtown Development

Ann Skartvedt, University of Colorado Denver

Ann Skartvedt’s work investigates the trajectory of public private partnerships providing a valuable historical arc that conceptualizes the changing tensions and power dynamics existing between suburban municipal governments, local businesses, and Denver’s metropolitan communities. Importantly, Skartvedt’s exploration of the Colorado metropolis adds necessary documentation of economic development in the American mountain region. Additionally, Skartvedt coins the term “festival superblocks” in identifying a particular type of economic development in the mountain metropolis. Point of note, Skartvedt’s panel combined to offer historians a terrific snapshot of urban public private partnerships. Timothy White, Irene Holliman, and Michael Adamson created windows into developments in New York, Portland, Atlanta, and the aforementioned Denver. (23)

Unpacking the Packing House: Agricultural Heritage, Development, and Erasure in the California Inland Empire

Genevieve Carpio, University of Southern California

Reminiscent of William Deverell’s Whitewash Adobe and in some ways, Eric Avila’s Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles, USC Ford Fellow Genevieve Carpio uncovers the process of erasure by Inland California townships in their imaginings of their agricultural past. Employing images of ethnic white agricultural workers, local suburbs (notably Rancho Cucamonga) have marketed themselves ahistorically, erasing the presence of Mexican agricultural workers from public memory and spaces.

There’s Always a Tomorrow Land: Visions of the Future at the Dawn of the Jet Age

Vanessa Schwartz, University of Southern California

Vanessa Schwartz had interesting things to say about the democratization of air travel and the reconceptualizing of airport design in the 1950s and 1960s, looking at changes in the way people thought about space, speed, and mobility in the ‘jet age.’ Schwartz suggested that the increasing velocity of travel in this period led planners and architects to design airports that demphasized the building itself, ‘erasing monumentality’ and focusing almost exclusively on moving passengers as smoothly and rapidly as possible through space. Critic Reyner Banham described the new kind of airports a sort of “demented amoeba,” which was turned inside out to disguise its external shell from view. While intriguing in its own right, the paper provoked further questions about how this jet age perception of speed related to an older trope of space and time compression that dated back to the telegraph (essentially, everything is getting faster all the time and space matters less), as well as how the ideas of this period relate to the contemporary age of the airport as mall/prison. Schwartz’s previous publications include It’s So French! Hollywood, Paris and the Making of Cosmopolitan Film Culture.

Ryan Reft