Sarah Mass-University of Michigan

“…I thought that shopping and consumption would be an entry point to analyse my earlier interests around ethnicity and immigration. This hasn’t panned out in the archives the way I expected: “traditional” market shopping is largely coded as English and white.”

For the latest in my series about urban historians at work today, I was lucky enough to be able to catch up with Sarah Mass of the University of Michigan. Sarah’s doctoral work focuses on street trading and markets in post-war Britian, providing insights into the social role that they play and what they tell us about identity, especially amongst migrant communities.

What is your background?

I was born in San Francisco, but spent most of my childhood in a small suburban town north of the Golden Gate Bridge. I became interested in British history in the ways I think many Americansparticularly womenbecome interested in the subject: through novels, mini-series, and royal history. I completed my BA at Tufts University, during which time I spent a year abroad at Worcester College, Oxford. I received my MSc from the University of Edinburgh in Modern British and Irish History before I started by PhD at the University of Michigan in 2011.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

“…the last essay I wrote when I studied abroad at Oxford was on the Sikh community in late twentieth-century Gravesend. My tutor told me, ‘This is it, and this is what you need to be working on.’”

In my first 2 ¾ years of university, I remember writing essays on Imperialism, Chartism, Jacobitism, and all the other “-isms” that seemed to matter. Yet the last essay I wrote when I studied abroad at Oxford was on the Sikh community in late twentieth-century Gravesend. My tutor told me, “This is it, and this is what you need to be working on.” When I returned to the States, I wrote an honours thesis on the comparative experiences of difference among the Irish and Pakistani communities in West Yorkshire, and ever since then I would say my work has been concerned with the relationship between place, belonging, and identity in twentieth-century Britain. I thought I would continue to focus on immigration and community formation, but I veered off towards shopping and consumption. Ethnicity is still one lens in my scholarship (and I’ve pursued it more explicitly in other projects), but my main question has developed into how and why traditional city centre shopping survived an era of urban redevelopment and the rise of planned shopping centres.

Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?

“…one of the joys of urban history: methods, questions, and frameworks are transferable.”

Although I only discovered her work within the last few years, Alison Isenberg’s Downtown America is absolutely the kind of scholarship I hope to produce. Her ability to “people” the often un-peopled fields of planning and economic history is exemplary, and I only hope I can span the 1945 divide in urban history with as much dexterity. Erika Hanna’s Modern Dublin and Dolores Hayden’s The Power of Place have both shown me how to write urban history through a nuanced and careful analysis of heritage movements and public history. None of these scholars work on Britain, but that’s one of the joys of urban history: methods, questions, and frameworks are transferable.

What do you hope that readers take away from your work?

“…I hope that my work makes people think twice about seemingly ‘unbuilt’ features of the urban environment (open squares, informal street markets, etc.)”

On the most basic level, I hope that Americans reading my work can learn to appreciate British urban history beyond London history. Seriously, this is a problem. On a more disciplinary level, I hope that my work makes people think twice about seemingly “unbuilt” features of the urban environment (open squares, informal street markets, etc.). I think twentieth-century urban historians have been quick to see outlying towns or the countryside as victims of urban residential growth, but there are open, public spaces in the centres of our towns and cities which are targeted by infrastructure projects or the real estate interests. Renewed interest in Jane Jacobs and issues around neoliberal urbanism have brought attention to these spaces, but I hope my scholarship can offer a pre-history to these debates in provincial Britain’s town and city centres.

How has your work evolved over the course of your project?

“I found the language of contemporary Leave voters who sold and shopped at the market remarkably similar to market defenders in the 1930s during war and post-war austerity, or through the upheavals of urban redevelopment…”

As I mentioned above, I thought that shopping and consumption would be an entry point to analyse my earlier interests around ethnicity and immigration. This hasn’t panned out in the archives the way I expected: “traditional” market shopping is largely coded as English and white. While I used to write this off as simply a turn in the project, the last six months have really changed my perspective. There have been multiple Brexit features that use the town or city centre market place as a set piece for quintessential, authentic British life. I found the language of contemporary Leave voters who sold and shopped at the market remarkably similar to market defenders in the 1930s during war and post-war austerity, or through the upheavals of urban redevelopment: markets “belonged” to localities, not to transient or outside traders. As I revise and write the last chapters of my dissertation, I’m striving to capture the categories of “local” and “English” as constructed, protected, and contingent categories wherein retail and ethnicity intersect.

Broadly speaking, what role do markets and shopping play in creating and sustaining community identity?

“…markets are therefore doubly romanticized as sites of community identity: they simultaneously represent pre-industrial local commerce and industrial era civic belonging.”

In Britain, many markets trace their charters back to the thirteenth century; therefore, they carry the weight of a deep, transhistorical sense of community. Since the nineteenth century, when local authorities bought market franchises en masse, these retail sites have been the spaces where public oversight meets private business. I think markets are therefore doubly romanticized as sites of community identity: they simultaneously represent pre-industrial local commerce and industrial era civic belonging. This makes their importance for post-industrial community identity particularly fraught.

How do you go about deciding which case studies to focus upon?

This is a great question and one I still struggle to explain. I knew I didn’t want to study London because it would invariably overwhelm other towns or cities in a comparative project. London also has a very different market culture than other localities, with the tradition of licensed street traders and street markets rather than covered retail markets. Instead, I’ve tried to get as much geographic, scalar, and structural coverage as I can. The one city that’s stayed fairly constant throughout the project is Glasgow, but other than that I’ve taken my cues from trade journals, heritage campaigns, and particularly strong local repositories. It’s not the most rigorous or systematic process, but it’s easier than going to every county record office in the country to look at their market committee meeting minutes!

Has it been fairly straightforward or quite hard to access the opinions and voices of the people and communities that you study?

“This… shapes a very particular rhetoric: markets are either horrendously out-dated or the physical manifestation of local heritage.”

Market traders are not “joiners” almost by definition, so it’s hard to trace them in institutional records. This is really why I’ve turned to planning and architectural sources: markets come into view when they are knocked down, developed, or protected. This, of course, shapes a very particular rhetoric: markets are either horrendously out-dated or the physical manifestation of local heritage. I’ve learned to read almost all of these accounts with an element of scepticism, keeping the politics of preservation and the professional interests of the speakers in mind.

Have you developed a sense of what leads to changes in the way that use shops and markets?

“Planners and developers could only do so much to shift the traditions of market trading.”

If I knew this, I think I’d make a very successful planning consultant! From my perspective, it’s an issue of how citizensespecially womenmade claims for retail stability during socio-economic crisis and change. During periods of interwar depression and wartime austerity, women patronized informal markets to make ends meet. When New Towns or outlying estates were constructed, housewives were often the citizens demanding markets alongside multiples or supermarkets. And as inflation constricted consumer buying power and women spent more time in the workplace, many markets rebranded themselves as one-stop family outings and bargain outlets. I think markets offer a corrective to the story of shopping we usually tell about post-1945 Britain: the usual tale is one of new precincts or modernist centres, but in the basements or outdoor squares of these structures, there were often bustling retail markets that continued to serve material and immaterial needs of sellers and shoppers. Planners and developers could only do so much to shift the traditions of market trading.

Sarah can be reached Twitter and the University of Mitchigan’s History Department, where you can find out more about her work. For more urban history profiles click here.

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Phyllis Nicklin, “Photograph of the Bull Ring street market, taken on the last day of street trading, 12/9/59”, Scanned by the Chrysalis project in 2004, from original 35mm slides held at the University of Birmingham. University of Birmingham all rights reserved

“LCC Municipal”

“What I have enjoyed about collecting and sharing all of this material is the many and varied tangents that the journey takes you on.  I found a load of old cigarette cards that documented the crests of the inner London boroughs.  The GLC campaign and protest badges from the 1980s connect me with my teenage years…”

For the latest in my series exploring how people engage with, interpret and share their interest in the urban past, today I was lucky enough to catch up with Ian who curates the “LCC Municipal” Twitter feed.“LCC Municipal” exploits the potential of Twitter as a visual medium to tantalise its followers with pictures of colourful, poignant and times somewhat eccentric, examples of municipal ephemera from across Greater London.

What is your background?

“When you are at the periphery the sense of belonging can be stronger than when you are at the centre.  You have to try harder to belong.”

Well, it isn’t anything to do with local government although I am fortunate enough to find myself working in one of the more ornate and extravagant former London town halls rendered obsolete in 1965.  My academic background was economics and economic history with a bit of politics thrown in, but after university I trained and qualified as a chartered accountant with one of the so-called “Big Four” accountancy firms.  It may sound defensive, but my interest in all things to do with the LCC, GLC, and the boroughs – past and present – that make up Greater London is purely that of the amateur hobbyist.  There is no professional connection and no PhD in the offing.

I think the fascination with Greater London has had a lot to do with growing up one street away from the London/Surrey border.  When you are at the periphery the sense of belonging can be stronger than when you are at the centre.  You have to try harder to belong.  Even now, I live four houses in from the edge of Greater London – it may be an invisible and largely ignored border for everyone else, but it has always exerted a powerful pull on my imagination.

Where do you find the municipal “relics” and “memories” that you tweet?

Being a dedicated hoarder, I have accumulated quite a few items over the past 25 years or so with only the vague notion that some form of definable “collection” was being formed.  These days, life doesn’t really permit the leisurely trips to Hay-on-Wye bookshops or the aimless wandering around London that used to be such a fruitful source of material.  So, I would be lying if I denied the impact that bookfinder.com, eBay and so forth have had on me!

What encouraged you to start sharing them?

“…I have always thought [that Twitter] is quite a visual medium.”

I tend to use Twitter mainly as, despite the focus on the character limit, I have always thought it is quite a visual medium.  If you go on Twitter in order to be outraged or to indulge in a spot of gratuitous trolling, then I guess it is largely about the words.  But I have always been drawn to the pictures that people post – the digitised archives, the fragments of documents and so on.

My original plan was to photograph and tweet objects that reflected council identities of the past.  I was inspired by the commemorative plaque in Cheam library that records its 1962 opening by the then Borough of Sutton and Cheam – a last gasp progressive act by a borough that was seeing out its final days.  The goal was to try and capture this type of stuff and share it to see if anyone else was interested.  Except it slowly dawned on me that the chances of getting out to go exploring were pretty slim – “you look after the kids, I’m off to photograph municipal relics” doesn’t really wash.  So my focus has been on sharing images of all the various bits of London local authority ephemera that I have picked up over the years.  Rather pretentiously, I describe it under the catch-all of the “aesthetics of local government”.

 

What I have enjoyed about collecting and sharing all of this material is the many and varied tangents that the journey takes you on.  I found a load of old cigarette cards that documented the crests of the inner London boroughs.  The GLC campaign and protest badges from the 1980s connect me with my teenage years.  I have unearthed a few fascinating documents that record Charter day celebrations, for example when Urban District Councils attained full Borough status.

“Part of me probably hopes that there is someone out there who appreciates the material, can make sense of it all and turn it into a coherent narrative.”

As I said, I am an amateur and I am just sharing an interest.  Part of me probably hopes that there is someone out there who appreciates the material, can make sense of it all and turn it into a coherent narrative.

Do you have any thoughts on what role councils’ logos and symbols play in developing people’s sense of local identity?

The “lost logos of the London Boroughs” is a good example of one of those tangents.  It started as a bit of fun, but the completist in me seems to have turned it into a life’s mission.  I think everyone in my family breathed a sigh of relief when I found the London Borough of Barnet logo from the 1980s.

“It is always dangerous to assume that your perception or framing of things is the same as anyone else’s, so while these logos and symbols have always exerted a strong influence on me, I accept that I may be in a minority of one.”

I’m not convinced the logos, or indeed the wider visual identities of local authorities, play that much of a role in developing a sense of local identity, although I am happy for a branding expert to challenge my thinking.  It is always dangerous to assume that your perception or framing of things is the same as anyone else’s, so while these logos and symbols have always exerted a strong influence on me, I accept that I may be in a minority of one.  For example, opposite the house where I grew up there was, in the 1970s and 80s, a smart council noticeboard – navy blue with “London Borough of Sutton” written in white in a simple modern font.  Sutton Council rebranded itself around about 1990 and this noticeboard was painted a rather ugly shade of jade green together with all the new corporate branding.  For me, a powerful and ever-present point of reference had gone and it felt like something was missing, but I cannot imagine anyone else on my street noticed the change.

At the risk of labouring the point, I tweeted a bunch of pictures the other day of some recently removed Croydon lampposts. These silver lampposts with the comforting orange glow of their GEC and Revo lanterns have been an ever-present in my lifetime.  It was a Council decision to install them in the 1950s and 60s.  It was a Council decision to paint them silver.  They are a form of Council symbol aren’t they?  (Indeed, many carried the crest of the old County Borough of Croydon).  They existed in Croydon but not in neighbouring boroughs, so they were a point of differentiation.  When I think of Croydon, I think of them.  And now they are all gone.  But did they create a sense of local identity for anyone else?  Probably not.

“I can share an image of council literature that is, say, 30 or 40 years old and it will generate a strong emotional and nostalgic response with people…  Yet that literature would have been ignored at the time and probably discarded by most.”

I suspect that it is in retrospect that logos and symbols play a much stronger role and for a much wider group of people.  I can share an image of council literature that is, say, 30 or 40 years old and it will generate a strong emotional and nostalgic response with people.  The power of the image comes from the ability to trigger or anchor a memory, so increases as the years pass by.  Yet that literature would have been ignored at the time and probably discarded by most.  The objects that survive – the “relics” to use your apt term – gain a mythical power and exert a disproportionate influence on our grasp of the past.

Have you noticed any particular “types” of people interacting with the content that you share, or is it a very diverse array of people?

“In a world of Brexit, Trump, post-truth politics… I suspect a lot of my Twitter crowd probably feel that the “Future” has receded into the past.”

It’s a good mix of local historians, museum professionals, archivists, academics, local councillors and local government officials to name but a few. One comment I received really made me reflect on who (if anyone) all this was resonating with.  In response to a post about the demolition of Croydon’s 1960s municipal offices, someone responded “we want our Future back”.  I think the capital F was intentional – a big concept was being alluded to.  The demand resonated with me as it captured the slow death of that post WW2 sense of optimism and of progressive politics and policies that underpins so much of what interests me and many of those people I interact with on Twitter:  strong local government, New Towns, social infrastructure (especially housing), transport, motorways, concrete, brutalism, modernism (a term that I tend to use liberally and inaccurately).  Not everyone in this little universe shares all of those interests, but there are a lot of overlaps and intersections.  In a world of Brexit, Trump, post-truth politics and what many of my academic work colleagues badge as neoliberalism, I suspect a lot of my Twitter crowd probably feel that the “Future” has receded into the past.

You can follow “LCC Municipal” on Twitter. For more profiles like this see here.

“Municipal Dreams”

“Most councillors are barely household names in their own household so I’d really like to speak up for all the unsung councillors… Who have laboured long and hard doing the unglamorous but essential donkey work of local government.”

For the latest in my series about urban historians at work today, I’ve been lucky enough to grab a word with John, the stalwart social historian who writes and curates Municipal Dreams. Municipal Dreams is a blog that explores the multifaceted, but generally very positive, legacy of activist local government in Britain.

What is your background?

I was brought up in a small Norfolk seaside resort and enjoyed it but I was determined to experience something urban and grittier when the opportunity arose. So I did voluntary work on a Leeds council estate during my gap year and then headed to the University of Manchester where I studied History. I’d joined the Labour Party aged 16 in 1974 and I was lucky to be able to pursue my interest in labour history in some depth at Manchester. I followed this with a PhD in the Centre for the Study of Social History at the University of Warwick. After seven years straight HE – no fees, full grant (we were a lucky generation) – I was ready for something else so I worked in a couple of roles for Norwich City Council before taking a teaching qualification. I also served as a Labour councillor for four years.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

You probably already have the answer. Firstly, there are my politics. Secondly, there’s my education. My PhD was on working-class politics in interwar Birmingham and Sheffield (I spent a lot of time in the late, lamented Birmingham Central Library so it’s great to see that as the header image for this blog) and in both – Birmingham, Tory; Sheffield, Labour – you had councils determined to use the power of the local state to serve their communities.

Since then we’ve seen the work of local councillors so traduced and the role of local government so diminished that it seemed vital to defend their record; not blindly, of course, as not everything done was wise or wonderful, but with a proper historical understanding of what was achieved and why things sometimes went wrong.

The blog has a particular focus on housing and this has become incredibly timely. We could begin writing the epitaph of council housing from 1979 but recent and proposed legislation seems determined to kill it off once and for all or, at the least, so radically reduce it to housing of last resort that it seems to me really important to defend it and to present an alternative history – far removed from contemporary caricatures – which properly celebrates its positive and transformative role in the lives of so many of our fellow citizens.

“…we’ve seen the work of local councillors so traduced and the role of local government so diminished that it seemed vital to defend their record…”

I’m aware that all this makes my work far more obviously and directly ‘political’ than that of some of your other respondents. I’d only say that, while the blog does have a clear political perspective and (I hope) message, I’m not interested in writing propaganda or polemic. It is, to my mind, precisely the nuance and rootedness of an historical approach that allows a proper and more persuasive case to be made.

Are there any historians or other writers that particularly inspire your approach to your topic?

“…‘class’ now – in always mutating forms – seems as powerful a determinant of people’s life experiences and opportunities as ever.”

Karl Marx. That may sound like a provocation but, as I think back to my formative influences and reading, I realise just how much I’ve taken from a Marxist approach – not the great man’s revolutionary aspirations and predictions, nor ever the practice of ‘actually existing socialism’, but the basic and profound insight that society and its ruling ideas are shaped (I would say ‘determined’) by the economic system of the day. Maybe this is now so commonplace a notion that our debt to Marx doesn’t need to be stated but it is an approach, I believe, that should inform the work of any social historian. And ‘class’ now – in always mutating forms – seems as powerful a determinant of people’s life experiences and opportunities as ever.

As a teenager, I devoured EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class – a wonderfully rich and humane book which added a cultural dimension to class and ideology which Marx’s more schematic approach largely neglected.

I came of age in another era, a time when labour history was in vogue and ideas of class, rather than all the multifarious identities currently celebrated, were dominant. I’ve learnt a lot from the latter but I feel a sense of loss too. I worry that current preoccupations are too fragmentary and lead us to neglect the broader realities which still shape most lives.

What kind of sources do you use to inform your work?

Basically, as I range widely, I use whatever sources are to hand and the available sources tend to shape the approach taken to a particular case-study. Council records tend to be very dry, such is the nitty-gritty of local government work, but occasionally council publications will provide a more colourful and ‘political’ account of local reforms. The local press, particularly in its hey-day, often provided rich detail on local government controversies and achievements. The architectural press is often informative on particular schemes though overwhelmingly and narrowly design-focused. Sources recording the lived experience of ‘ordinary’ lives are still too rare but very valuable where they exist. In terms of secondary sources, I’m thankful for the work of the relatively few academics working in the field and very grateful to those doctoral students who have produced fine local studies.

“…the available sources tend to shape the approach taken to a particular case-study…”

I’m grateful to various people who have written guest posts for the blog and I’d love to extend this so that it becomes a resource centre for everyone – academics and non-academics, local historians, people researching their own stories – interested in the field or with a history to share.

What do you hope that readers take away from your work?

At its most basic, a renewed belief in the positive and necessary role of the state in securing a fairer and more equal society and an appreciation of the enormously constructive role played by local government over many years. This, as the consistent failure of the free market to provide decent homes for all, makes clear is most apparent in the field of housing.

“…the blog is an extended argument in favour of practical reformist politics and the slow grind of persuading people, winning elections and getting things done…”

At the very least, because I try to write to people across the political spectrum, I hope that readers come away with a more rounded and contextualised understanding of council housing – to see the ideals and ambitions which shaped it and the social and economic forces (rather than, in most cases, any inherent flaws in conception and execution) which have sometimes undercut those founding aspirations.

More generally, the blog is an extended argument in favour of practical reformist politics and the slow grind of persuading people, winning elections and getting things done – ‘instrumental’ politics rather than the ‘expressive, virtue-signalling and identity politics that is consuming many on the left at present.

Over the course of your research have you come across any recurring difficulties or challenges that municipal reformers faced?

Two connected difficulties confront municipal reformers and do so even more powerfully in the present: parliamentary sovereignty – that local government can only ever do what has been specifically authorised by Westminster, and finance – that councils have very rarely enjoyed the resources needed to execute their plans optimally. As a state and society, we have been consistently unwilling to provide the social investment needed to enable all our people to thrive. Local councillors can only ever work within this reality.

Which of the municipal pioneers you’ve written about do you think we can learn most from today?

Most councillors are barely household names in their own household so I’d really like to speak up for all the unsung councillors – of all parties – who have laboured long and hard doing the unglamorous but essential donkey work of local government.

“Labour’s election-winning manifesto in Bermondsey in 1922 proclaimed that it would ‘strive to make it a worthy home for all of us.  This is our conception of the object and purpose of local government’.”

Of course I do have my heroes – Alfred and Ada Salter in Bermondsey, George Lansbury in Poplar and the rebel councillors of Clay Cross but each were representative of a time and place and it’s hard to see their actions replicated in the present. However, I’d give a special place to Ada. Bermondsey pioneered health and housing reform – vital functions of local government – but for the Salters politics had a profoundly spiritual dimension expressed in their practical Christian socialism. Those who had created Bermondsey, in Alfred’s words, ‘did not realise that they had cut off the people from the chiefest means of natural grace. They did not appreciate the curse and cruelty of ugliness’. As a councillor and mayor, Ada established a Beautification Committee. It planted 10,000 trees and created pocket parks across the borough. In Fenner Brockway’s words, ‘Bermondsey became a place of unexpected beauty spots’.

Labour’s election-winning manifesto in Bermondsey in 1922 proclaimed that it would ‘strive to make it a worthy home for all of us.  This is our conception of the object and purpose of local government’. That – and the civic pride it speaks to – seems something to aspire to and emulate.

Conversely which do you consider the most egregiously wrong-headed or damaging?

That’s an interesting question and the easy response is to point to those councillors who oversaw the system-built high-rise debacle of the 1960s. Sometimes personal aggrandisement further tainted their judgement. T Dan Smith in Newcastle is the obvious example. And yet even here one sees an ambition to house the people and get them out of the slums and the pressures to do that from central government using ‘modern’ methods were enormous. It’s easy to criticise some of the housing schemes of the sixties and lament the loss of the old working-class terraces (though we too readily forget just how bad the slum housing of the era was). In fact, the rehabilitation drive began in the mid-sixties and some of the best council housing ever was built in the seventies so, even here, lessons were learnt.

“I’m horrified by some forms of current ‘estate regeneration’. The demolition of good homes and strong communities…”

For all that I defend local government, I’m horrified by some forms of current ‘estate regeneration’. The demolition of good homes and strong communities, as we see, for example, in Lambeth in the present (the Cressingham Gardens estate being a case in point), seems entirely wrong whatever the pressures to ‘densify’ and however justified by proponents as a means to build and finance new social housing. There’s a fine line between working a loaded system for progressive ends and complicity in that system and this, to me, oversteps the mark.

Do you see any scope for comparable local action today?

The opportunities for councils to engage in bold reform are very limited now given central government cuts and restrictions. Some councils are working imaginatively to build new social housing within the current hostile framework but it’s all necessarily legalistic and unheroic. Too often, councils are forced into unholy alliance with commercial interests and lack the acumen and clout needed to secure even the limited gains such deals are supposed to generate. We need to change central government policy and liberate local government to serve its people. And local councils must work with, be seen to genuinely represent, and mobilise their communities.

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In addition to his main blog, John also posts shorter pieces and pictures on tumblr. He can be reached via Twitter here.