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“AMERICAN CITIES AND PUBLIC SPACES“:

Intellectual Rationale and Project Description

by

George L. Scheper, Project Director

The Community College Humanities Association, in collaboration with the Office of Scholarly Programs at the Library of Congress, is offering to twelve nationally selected community college humanities faculty the opportunity to conduct systematic, guided research and collegial collaboration at the Library of Congress on individual research projects on the topic of “American Cities and Public Spaces.” Participants will spend a total of 28 days in intermittent sessions at the Library of Congress over a thirteen-month period from June 2005 through June 2006. Participants will meet every morning for roundtable discussions based on a common reading list, and four renowned visiting scholars will each present a pair of scheduled seminars during the project. The balance of the time is allotted to participants‘ individual research at the Library, facilitated by the Office of Scholarly Programs and the professional staff of the various divisions and collections of the Library of Congress.

The combined summer/ academic year format of periodic sessions spread over a thirteen-month period offers an unparalleled professional development opportunity to community college teachers, whose workload and institutional settings make the conduct of sustained study and writing particularly difficult. This format allows participants the time and the mental space to develop a thoughtful and carefully researched project, and at the same time to infuse into their classrooms the fresh enthusiasm and the new scholarship deriving from their individual research and from the periodic seminars by the visiting scholars. The Institute topic, “American Cities and Public Spaces,” deals with an issue that has been recognized as of overwhelming importance for American national character from the time of Jefferson and de Tocqueville to the present day. This project represents a unique opportunity for community college humanities faculty to contribute to scholarship on American cities and to enhance and enrich their own humanities courses in subjects such as history, literature, anthropology, sociology, psychology, philosophy, architecture and art history, as well as more specialized courses in urban studies and area studies.

The Library of Congress, through its Office of Scholarly Programs, directed by Dr. Prosser Gifford, Director of Scholarly Programs, and Dr. Carolyn Brown, Assistant Librarian for Library Services, joins CCHA in this commitment to extending its outreach to community college faculty. The current proposal continues the Library‘s existing commitment to community college based projects. The Library actively collaborated with CCHA in our previous NEH project at the Library of Congress, “Cities and Public Spaces in Comparative Cultural Contexts” (2002-2004). The Office of Scholarly Programs will again facilitate the project, and staff representing the various collections and departments of the Library of Congress will offer periodic presentations and ongoing guidance to the participants. In addition, four distinguished visiting senior scholars in the fields of urban history and urban cultural studies will serve as Institute faculty. The visiting faculty senior scholars are:

• Thomas Bender (history, NYU);
• Clement Price (history, Rutgers University);
• Ford Peatross (Center for American Architecture, Library of Congress);
• M. Christine Boyer (architecture, Princeton University); (and
• Witold Rybczynsaki (urbanism, Wharton School, University of    Pennsylvania).

The seminars by the visiting scholars will address both paradigmatic case studies and theoretical questions about the interpretation of cities as built environments and about what LeFebvre has called “the production of space.” Each of the seminar leaders will review the scholarship on their subject, and suggest useful avenues of new research, especially in the context of the collections of the Library of Congress. In addition to completing the specific seminar reading assignments prepared by each visiting scholar, participants will be asked to familiarize themselves with a basic reading list prior to beginning the Institute, as a common basis for roundtable discussion.

Thomas Bender (history, NYU), author of Toward an Urban Vision will offer seminars (June 7 & 8, 2005) focusing on the concept of metropolitanism and the public culture of New York City. Ford Peatross (Center of American Architecture, Library of Congress) will offer a seminar (June 10, 2005) on the evolution of the design of Washington, D.C. Clement Price (history, Rutgers) will offer seminar sessions (June 14 & 15, 2005) with a focus on an important case study of American urban history: the city of Newark. He will also serve to mentor participants in their individual research projects. Christine Boyer (architecture, Princeton), drawing upon her seminal study, The City of Collective Memory, will focus in her seminars on some of the more theoretical issues, such as the different approaches of architectural historians and urban studies specialists that complicate the cultural study of cities. She will also serve to mentor participants in their individual research projects. Witold Rybczynski (urbanism, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania) will offer seminars (January 19 and 20, 2006) on the current and future prospects of American cities, and present current research on the Mall in Washington, D.C. as a public space.During the final week of the Institute, participants will present their papers at roundtable sessions for comment and constructive criticism. Clement Price and Christine Boyer will return in this final week to continue mentoring participants on their projects and to hear and comment upon the oral presentations of the papers.

Professional development opportunities for community college faculty all too often focus on narrow institutional goals or pedagogy. This project will enable community college teacher/scholars to enhance their course material in humanities profoundly and directly with the kind of substance that only interdisciplinary and discipline-based study and research can provide. This opportunity to undertake collaborative study and research on individual projects, at the paramount research center in the United States, and under the stimulus and guidance of renowned senior scholars, can effectively provide the intellectual stimulus and sustenance that community college teacher/scholars urgently need. All too often in community college settings institutional support for discipline-based professional activity -- crucial as this is for maintaining academic excellence — is not part of the campus culture, as it more often is in four-year colleges and universities.

The present proposal offers the unparalleled resources of the nation‘s library to community college scholars who often must conduct their own research in relative isolation from major research collections (essential to serious scholarship even in this age of on-line library and archival resources) and in relative isolation from the larger scholarly community. This Institute not only offers the selected community college scholar/teachers the opportunity to undertake sustained, guided research in the collections of the Library of Congress, but also offers them the immeasurable benefits of a scholarly learning community, as participants undertake individual and collaborative study under the stimulus and the mentorship of leading scholars in the field of urban history and urban cultural studies.

One of the great lenses for interpreting human experience in general and the American experience in particular has long been the urban condition. The fundamental importance of cities themselves to civilizational development has long been the focus of scholarship in a wide range of cultural contexts, from ancient Mesopotamia to the cyber city. Study of cities has also, especially since the 19th century, served as a springboard for new paradigms of scholarly inquiry and the development of new economic, social, political, and cultural theory. Attitudes toward cities and the urban experience, especially in the United States, have remained at the center of social and political debate, as set out in such classic studies as Lewis Mumford‘s monumental analysis of The City in History and Jane Jacobs‘ The Death and Life of Great American Cities and more recently in the work of our Institute scholars, such as Witold Rybczynski‘s City Life: Urban Expectations in a New World (1995) and Tom Bender‘s The Unfinished City: New York and the Metropolitan Idea (2002).

 “There is,” L. Carl Brown notes, “a growing awareness that . . . the fate of our cities provides a key to the fate of our civilizations.” Challenged by the automobile and the suburb, by “white [and now Black middle class] flight” and city-avoidance, by globalization of the economy, and by what Manuel Castells has called the breakdown of “the urban contract,” the fate of cities, and of the American city in particular, is again in question. The situation of even historic cities is today peculiarly acute, as we see that urbanization can occur simultaneously with the abandonment of “citiess” in their traditional cultural sense as centers of economic and political power, social status, and cultural vitality. A predominantly suburban/ corporate park vision of the future can treat “cities” as virtually obsolete, or at best as financial center/tourist enclaves surrounded by urban blight. If cities, as Lewis Mumford suggested, are the irreplaceable cultural centers of civilizations, and the sites of “collective memory” (as Boyer has put it), then their abandonment is tantamount to what Doris Hayden has ventured to call “historicide.” As Kevin Starr, a professor of urban planning, has succinctly phrased it: “in the decline of cities comes the decline of everything..” And everywhere, it seems, the great public spaces in American cities have become zones for contested and re-negotiated use, in terms of polarities of centrality and marginality, hierarchy and egalitarianism, openness and restrictedness, and freedom and control.

New scholarship has generated new paradigms. Academic metaphors common in urban studies indicate the new directions in this scholarship. From Munford‘s already antiquated-sounding “the city in history,” we move to Wheatley‘s “city as cosmic machine,” Olsen‘s  “city as a work of art,” and Benjamin‘s “phantasmagoric city,” the city as theatre and spectacle. Above all, the new scholarship has increasingly moved away from conceptions of cities as assemblages of physical structures and built environments to more subtle and problematical notions of cities as simultaneously “assemblages of sights” and “sites of memory” (Liggett), as at once sources of social identity and cultural specificity (Castells) and as “contested terrain” and (re) negotiated social space (Hayden). The city has been seen as discourse and as text (Liggett), but how, asks Castells, should we rethink the city in the age of the World Wide Web? The hyper-communicated “informational city,” he proposes, is no longer the “space of places,” but the “space of flows,” and cities are but metropolitan nodes of global networks. What, then, Castells asks, is the significance of local character, of urban particularity, within this nodal network? Such questions prompt new directions in scholarship and reformulations of humanities curricula dealing with cities and urban culture.

The Library of Congress stands as the paramount archive for addressing these ample opportunities for fresh research and study into the life of American cities.