The Age of Global Crisis
Dr. Walter Greason
Norristown Times Herald
14 October 2014
From October 9 to 12, the University of Pennsylvania hosted the Urban History Association’s conference on “metropolitics” – the study of cities and their surrounding suburbs over the last five centuries. Hundreds of scholars from countries around the world gathered to share the most recent resources to understand how urbanization shapes civilization. Environmental concerns informed many of the panels as the impacts of climate change become more apparent every year. Yet, the public at large rarely engages these occasions to break the cycles of ignorance and alienation that dominate cable television news and public policy debates.
One of the most important, and still emerging, fields of urban history is the critical study of business and commercial interests. Impressive papers on cities like Philadelphia, Cleveland, and New York revealed the long story of how industrial executives used New Deal programs to help minimize risk and expand revenue streams. These public-private partnerships continued after the Second World War, but came into question as a result of the Civil Rights Movement and the War on Poverty. The political response from 1968 to 1992 was to decentralize the control of federal funding for industry to the individual states under the Reagan and H.W. Bush administrations. This shift opened the door for the Clinton administration to embrace microfinance in the public sector as the primary solution to poverty through “community development finance institutions” like ShoreBank. All of these changes occurred in a context where global conglomerates abandoned earlier corporate commitments to the stability of local and regional economies. Meanwhile, small businesses never knew how to fill the resulting void to grow both their revenue and prevent the crises of unemployment, crime, and addiction that emerged in many cities during this era.
The papers on Latin America focused on Argentina in comparative context with Mexico and Chile. In the late nineteenth century, federal leadership in Buenos Aires imagined themselves creating a new Paris or New York City that would attract immigrants and investment from Europe and the United States. Mistaken perceptions and ineffective planning undermined these grand visions. At the start of the twentieth century, public tensions about industrial change led to the Tragic Week of 1919 where hundreds of people died in riots as the trams that brought people together every day burned. The study of Argentina in this period reveals the difficulty of social and economic change when evidence is not taken into account. In many parts of Latin America, the absence of effective research to inform public policy has frustrated the scale of commercial development for decades.
However, the most interesting urban histories at the conference addressed the longstanding patterns of explicit racial discourse in communities like Norristown since 1880. In Winter Park, Florida, Julian Chambliss of Rollins College has found a treasure trove of primary sources revealing the use of black residents to establish new communities, followed by efforts to restrict their voting rights and expel them from the places they helped create. Similarly, David Goldberg of the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown has uncovered the policy debate about racial segregation in Asbury Park, New Jersey, where white business owners argued to annex black residential areas and remove the residents based on the fear of contagion. These works underscore the importance of using Asset Value Analysis to examine the history of industrial capitalism beyond real estate finance maps and the economics of municipal bonds.
In the final plenary session, Tom Sugrue – President of the Urban History Association – gathered premier scholars who addressed the ways the urban crisis of the twentieth century has become the global crisis of the twenty-first. Identifying private policing, exclusionary economics, geographic myopia, and academic isolation as techniques that promote the crisis that urban historians are uniquely qualified to solve, the panelists pushed the audience to enter policy debates and build community programs. The difficulty is that the public and policymakers do not wish to hear these lessons, and, worse, many times the language of the discipline has become so specialized that they cannot understand what they hear.
Dr. Walter Greason founded the International Center for Metropolitan Growth (ICMG_International Center for Metropolitan Growth) and is the author of the award-winning historical monograph, Suburban Erasure. He is also the primary instructor for the “Engines of Wealth” initiative at Monmouth University. His work is available on Twitter (@worldprofessor / @icmgrowth), Facebook, LinkedIn, and by email (email@example.com). For bookings (workshops and speaking engagements), contact NJ History (firstname.lastname@example.org).