Catherine (Ceci) Flinn

“The approaches I was taught early on in examining the built environment did not take into account much of the mundane – and hidden – machinations that I saw in the ‘real’ world.”

For the latest in my series about urban historians at work today, I was lucky enough to be able to catch up with Catherine Flinn. Catherine’s work focuses on the post-war redevelopment of Britain’s cities with a particular interest in  the economics of the reconstruction period. She has just completed a spell as a lecturer at the University of Westminster.

What is your background?

Multi-disciplinary! I started as a history major at Berkeley but was swept off my feet by a course in the College of Environmental Design and I changed my major to Landscape Architecture. They had a “minor” in History of the Built Environment so I didn’t bail out on history entirely. After a year working for SOM (American architects in London) I started a diploma in garden history and conservation at the AA (Architectural Association). I then completed an MSc in History of Architecture at the Bartlett (UCL). But academia wasn’t right for me then, even though I originally aimed for a PhD. So I spent a long time in various roles in the design profession (landscape/architecture/planning) and learned a huge amount about how the built environment is shaped. But I couldn’t stay away from history, particularly political, and decided to have another go – this time combining all my expertise and interests. I did an MA at Oxford Brookes then went back for the PhD. My supervision was in history, with planning as the secondary.

“I spent a long time in various roles in the design profession… and learned a huge amount about how the built environment is shaped.”

What led you to choose your subject matter?

I read Maureen Waller’s London 1945: Life in the Debris of War and found it fascinating. She had included an epilogue about how research was needed around reconstruction and planning for the future city. That was my inspiration and it dovetailed perfectly with my previous research and work experience work too, happily!

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

I am so multi/inter-disciplinary that I rarely find historians I aim to emulate (but having said that there are of course many many many histories I’ve not yet read!). My supervisors are very inspirational (Glen O’Hara and Steve Ward), and probably Martin Daunton too, though my mind boggles at how he has accumulated all that knowledge and managed to write about it so clearly (Glen and Steve too in many respects!). I’m also inspired by any writing that approaches its topic from a huge variety of angles, because the real world is infinitely complex itself.

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

“I’m always telling students ‘nothing happens in a vacuum!’…”

I think exactly what I’ve just said is inspirational to me. I find the toughest part of writing is to tell a coherent story that adequately explains complexities in history. So in my work I try to show that politics and economics are tremendously important while within that bigger picture the individual actors on many levels can have enormous impact. I’m always telling students “nothing happens in a vacuum!”, there is almost never a simple, black and white answer to an important question.

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

I set out to trace a story about rebuilding after the war and was constantly surprised by what I found and by what hadn’t been written about – forcing me to dig around for answers myself! How did things happen and why, how were decisions taken, who impacted those decisions and in turn how did they impact the built environment? The more I learn the more I realise I still have to learn and discover. Research is a bottomless pit!

How has your past experience working in planning and conservation influenced your approach?

The approaches I was taught early on in examining the built environment did not take into account much of the mundane – and hidden – machinations that I saw in the “real” world. The complex relationships between local authorities and architects and engineers and transport planners and landowners and developers: so much of that felt like it was missing from histories I had read. And from a conservation standpoint I was taught early on that even buildings can’t be static, much less landscapes, so that “conservation” is a very contested term. Today people are much more aware of this as public history and heritage studies have grown enormously in recent years.

Was urban development in the UK post 1945 as radically different from urban development pre-1945 as is often popularly assumed?

“What’s different in the postwar period, for me, is the rise of new technologies and the increase in ‘experts’.”

I’m not sure it is “popularly assumed”! I suppose it depends who you read. Certainly in my work there is a great continuity from early 20th century garden cities and early planning that informed the growing profession through the 40s and 50s. What’s different in the postwar period, for me, is the rise of new technologies and the increase in “experts”. So, I’d probably say that while urban development may seem different, the war was both an interruption and a catalyst. Obviously a lot of the modernist plans that came out of the wartime period wouldn’t have been needed in the same way without the bomb damage, but the ideas weren’t necessarily brand new.

Did political and ideological decisions play any significant role in the reconstruction of post-war Britain?

From the work I have done – and there will be different answers from historians who’ve taken different approaches with different sources – I’d certainly say that political decisions were significant in reconstruction. The Attlee government struggled constantly to make decisions on how and what to prioritise, particularly economically. However – and this is where individual actions are so key – there were loads of civil servants and local authority officials all fighting for their own little corner. Ideologies seemed to get played down so appear less significant for me, because in the end it was economics that played a huge role. Just look at the rise of property development in the postwar as an example of this!

Are there any other areas of urban history that you feel could be enhanced through historians applying a more economics focused approach?

“…I can’t do history without some awareness around the economic issues of whatever I’m working on.”

I’m resisting the temptation to say that every area could be enhanced through a more economics focused approach! I know that for historians today it is not a “sexy” field. On the other hand, I can’t do history without some awareness around the economic issues of whatever I’m working on. When Richard Rogers talked about this in his keynote for the recent one-day Cities@SAS conference, I wanted to go up and hug him afterward. I often think about the fact that in my undergrad economics class at Berkeley I had a great teacher and ‘got’ the concepts, but I struggled to express myself – I was sure I had failed the final exam! It’s ironic how important a lot of what I learned as an undergraduate, and never thought I’d use again, has become a part of what I do every day. In the world we live in now, it’s hard to avoid touching on economics though I don’t think it necessarily needs to be the focus. (It occurs to me that this is a good spot to plug something I stumbled on recently and highly recommend: Ha-Joon Chang’s Economics: The User’s Guide It’s a very accessible and even fun read about how the world works.)

Catherine Flinn is on Twitter and more of her work can be read on her academia.edu profile page. In 2015 she recorded a podcast for History&Policy. If you would like to read more urban historian profiles a full list is available here.

Situating the city within post-war social science: the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies and the West Midlands

On the face of it the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies seems a strange point from which to explore the evolving relationship between post-war social science Britain and conceptions of place. The CCCS, after all, are noted for their groundbreaking work in the field of media studies, the study of gender and race.

Policing the Crisis, the Centre’s era defining study of the politics of law, order and reaction in 1970s Britain notably begins by stating that the author’s interest in the media created phenomena of “mugging” began with “a case known to us in Handsworth”. Handsworth is a district of central Birmingham about four miles north of the University’s campus. However, from these origins clearly grounded in a very specific location and set of local circumstances, Policing the Crisis accelerates. It moves from the specific to the general, with most of the rest of the book comprising a study of the nexus between media representation and political praxis.

The same is true of other classic CCCS texts, like Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: the Meaning of Style. Hebdige’s primary subject in Subculture is a loosely defined, universal conception of alienated urban youth. In his paper Reggie, Rastas and Rudies published in Resistance Through Ritual three years before Subculture, Hebdige briefly focuses his critical gaze upon “mod youths” living in generic suburbs in south east England, “accelerating along by-passes on their scooters”. But beyond this his work, whilst resplendent with markers of social division; does not impart any sense of the specificities of place.  

We perhaps shouldn’t be surprised by the CCCS’ apparent lack of interest in the specificities of location and the peculiarities of place. As Mike Savage shows in the Politics of Method mid-20th Century British social science, taking the lead from practitioners in the United States and keen to escape its crudely didactic origins, became fixated on the search for the mean. In the 1950s and ‘60s the work of British sociologists like Elizabeth Bott and Ray Phal actively worked to undermine the idea that place retained saliency. The recent-separate-studies conducted by Jon Lawrence and Selina Todd into the Goldthorpe’s Affluent Worker Study and the early work of Michael Young, reinforce this impression. Whether like Young they bemoaned it, or like Goldthorpe they saw it as potentially emancipatory, the general tenor of mid-20th Century pointed to ever greater homogeneity and place’s increasing redundancy.

As we’ve seen the work of Dick Hebdige on subcultures and Stuart Hall and his collaborators on Policing the Crisis, growing out of mid-20th Century sociology and heavily influenced by the structuralist theory of Althusser and Barthes, whilst brilliant and sadly still relevant, is fundamentally uninterested in place as a category in of itself.

I have however, identified a different strand of the CCCS’ work, an ethnographic strand, which did, from the late 1960s onwards, started to take a keen interest in place and its sociological significance.  

I will briefly outline where I think that this interest stemmed from and I will suggest some reasons why I consider it significant. However, as mentioned, I come here with questions as much as answers and would very much appreciate your thoughts either during the questions or later at the reception about what the wider historical significance of all this is.

There was another strand in mid-20th Century British thought a decidedly literary one. The scholars in mid-20th Century Britain for whom place mattered were people like Raymond Williams, Asa Briggs and E.P. Thompson, all of whom were heavily influenced by the “new criticism” that flowed out of the University of Cambridge during this period. A new approach that scholars like Williams, Thompson and Richard Hoggart, the founder of the CCCS, interpreted as meaning that criticism meant nothing if it was not socially engaged with the entire spectrum of culture and everyday life.

What better defence and illustration of the significance of place at a time when it was marginalised in discourse is there than Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy? It invokes and evokes strong ethnographic images of mid-20th Century working class Leeds to make its points about the effects of mass production and capitalism upon people.

I believe that, with a rather different accent and inflection, Hoggart’s interest in place and its significance in people’s lives continued after he left the Centre in 1968. Through four cases studies of CCCS ethnographers, all of whom studied English prior to starting their work at the Centre, I will show how an interest in place came to the fore in the work of a group of British social scientists.                   

Janet Mendelsohn, an American, arrived at the University of Birmingham in 1967 as a visiting student from Harvard. Her interest appears to have been in blending the techniques of photojournalism with the tools, method and agenda of a social scientist.

Mendelsohn spent two years in Birmingham. Over this time her project evolved from an interest in the markers and signifiers of poverty, sex work and race relations towards nuanced study of place and community. A shift that can be seen in the photographs she took of Birmingham’s Balsall Heath.

This photo (see Powerpoint) is in many ways a quintessential early CCCS image. It shows a traditional corner shop in a working class area, festooned with commercial and mass media signifiers that intrude and encroach upon the community.

Content wise this image is similar to the first one. In the form of the drinks poster we can see the commercial signifiers imposing once again. However, if we look just below, next to man wearing a turban, we can see a poster made a by a the local Afro-Caribbean Association, advertising a dance that they are putting on.

The image complicates the earlier narratives, present in both the humanities and social sciences, about the spread of homogeneity. Whilst the commercial signifier in the form of the soft drinks advert looms large over the rest of the picture, highlights the significance and corrosive power of image in capitalist society. The presence of the incomers, Sikhs and Afro-Caribbeans and their clear agency; renders this reading overly reductive.

Through the closeness and contradictions that characterised relations between different immigrant groups in the area, we get a sense of the districts changing topography as it underwent redevelopment. We also get a feel for the local characters, shops and entertainment venues. Whilst not necessarily uncritical, and potentially open to charges of voyeurism, taken together the photographs are a celebration of the specificities of place, drawing attention to Balsall Heath’s unique and particular qualities.  

By capturing the grain, and more voyeuristically, the peculiarities and spectacle of life in Balsall Heath the photos enable us to get sense of what the area was like in the late 1960s, providing a sense of place.

A similar shift can be observed in the work of Paul Willis. Willis’ doctoral thesis completed in 1972 and published as the book Profane Culture is heavily influenced by semiotics and literary theory. Willis’ debt to Barthes and Althusser is clearly displayed, but in terms of form and focus it reads like Richard Hoggart hitching a lift with a young Hunter S. Thompson.

Willis states his research, an ethnographic exploration of the worldview, referents and significance of the motorcycle and hippie subcultures, was conducted in “a large midlands industrial city. From this a reader might deduce that Willis is referring to Birmingham, however, there is little sense of place imparted beyond this. Willis’ subjects float in a realm of signifiers. Their reflections upon the importance of the music that they listen to, their experiences of work and home life, the substances that they do and don’t consume and the significance that they attach to these things, float freely.

Part of this idiosyncratic book’s charm is the wonderful literacy and fluency with which Willis uses his encounters with bikers and drug takers to build up a set of almost decontextualised reference points around which he weaves an argument about class, alienation and youth self-determination. In its soixante-huitard Marcusian grandeur and optimism, it was probably out date by the time he was examined on his thesis.

Willis’ project at the Centre after the completion of Profane Culture, Learning to Labour, the fieldwork for which was conducted between 1974 and 1975 stands on very different ground. Learning to Labour subtitled How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs, follows a group of working class “lads” through their final year at school before going out into the workplace.

Here, whilst not intimately concerned with aspects of place, Willis adopts a very different approach. Rather than floating free, constrained only by their relationship to the means of production, class position and ideological baggage, the “lads” that Willis studies are heavily interwoven with the community that they live in, their choices defined by their hometown’s economic structure.

Learning to Labour opens with a detailed description of the situation of “Hammertown” the Black Country settlement where the “lads” have grown up. Willis describes the town’s history and prior economic and social development, its class structure, that it is overwhelmingly working class; and that unlike other neighbouring towns, with economies based around workshops its economic structure is based upon the large plants of “a few multinational engineering firms”. He also describes how the town relates to its neighbours in other ways, the prosperous outlying suburban areas from which the teachers at “Hammertown Boys” and the managers in industry commute and the “large city” [Birmingham] which “lies at the heart of the local conurbation. He even notes as an aside that the fact Hammertown shares a postcode with the large neighbouring city is a line used by the “lads” in his study when they are trying to impress girls from other less felicitous towns.

From this introduction sprinkled with local and incidental detail, Willis’ account continues to be streaked with a clear sense of place. Willis’ concerns and policy suggestions are national, even universal in scope, relating as they do to careers policy in schools and the choices that individuals are forced to make in class societies. However, the ballast that supports them is anchored both in the words of the “lads” themselves and a culture and situation which is many ways highly regional specific.

He tries to show how the distinctively rough culture of the foundry and machine shop shapes the “lads” sense of themselves and their place in the world. Willis teases out clear ethnic and gendered dimensions to this.

The ethnic dimension in particular gives a clear place specific flavour to the relations that Willis describes. The Black Country in the 1970s was a stronghold of the National Front. In 1976 the party polled 27.5% of the vote in elections to Sandwell Metropolitan Council, judging by Willis’ description, Hammertown is almost certainly one of the constituent towns of the Sandwell Council area.

Willis uses his “lads” words to show the role that this kind of overt racism played in cementing bonds between white working class males in the workplaces of the mid-1970s Black Country. Given that mass immigration was a highly localised phenomena at the time this state of affairs gives readers a clear sense of place. The wider point that Willis makes, that racial hatred distracted workers in “Hammertown’s” foundries and workshops from seeing that their true enemy was a system rigged against them dictated by capital, is; in this instance; dictated by highly particular and localised examples of grievances.

With regards the schooling system itself, again Willis’ arguments stretch far beyond Sandwell and indeed far beyond the UK. As do his policy prescriptions, one of which could be read as Marxist demand for free or academy schools, thirty or forty years before they became part of neo-liberal reality. However, the specific examples that Willis gives of the failure of comprehensive schooling in Hammertown rest, yet again, upon specific local factors, even whilst his ideological concerns remain universal. Willis singles out the town’s unusually socially un-mixed population as a factor in why some many young people end up going into routine manual jobs. This is quite unusual in the West Midlands, an area which; as in London-at least historically-and unlike Leeds or Sheffield for instance, generally sees working class and middle class areas sit side by side.

Willis suggests that the lack of spatial residential proximity between people in professional jobs and those in manual ones causes greater division. Throughout the book he illustrates this through testimony from both teachers and the “lads” how the geographical distance between the teachers and pupils at the primary secondary school he studies creates lower expectations on both sides.

Willis’ scholarship and the discussions held in the “Work” working group that he co-ordinated, inspired others. Dorothy Hobson, another CCCS member deeply interested in ethnography and the power of place, has spoken of how Willis’ interests and approach influenced her own work. Hobson and Angela McRobbie, my final two case studies, further developed the CCCS ethnographic approach by using it to investigate the experience of being female in Birmingham. As with Mendelsohn and Willis their work shows an interest in place and how it shapes people.   

Angela McRobbie’s PhD, parts of which were published as Working Class Girls and the Culture of Femininity in Women Take Issue covered similar ground to Willis’ study of the Hammertown lads. McRobbie interviewed, over the course of six months, female members of a youth group on a council estate in south west Birmingham. She asked them about their relationships with their families and peers, their self-perception and expectations for their future.

Many aspects of her research focus on the idea of an imprisoning “code of femininity” and the specific class related pressures faced by the girls that she studied. McRobbie is, well known for Jackie her study of the ideology of teenaged girl’s magazines, indicating an interest in the media and representation which continues to animate her research to this day. However, as with Willis, in The Culture of Femininity specific issues are clearly deeply embedded in the specific local context of south Birmingham.

McRobbie juxtaposes the contrasting experiences of life in a major city experienced by working and middle class adolescent girls. The working class girls that she interviewed lived lives that were highly bound the estate where they lived, lives which even in mid-adolescence mirrored those of their mothers and older sisters. The girls from the youth club that McRobbie interviewed were expected to do household chores for pocket money, mirroring the sort of char-women types jobs taken on by their mothers. For instance the girl who described her mother’s work as “cleaning out the labs and all that [at the University of Birmingham a mile or two up the road]”.

By contrast the middle class girls mentioned in McRobbie’s paper, she doesn’t quote them, are depicted as being far more able to make the most of living a life in a major city. Their social life is described as being far more centered on the city centre, attending art centres and discos and using public transport to attend schools outside of the immediate areas where they grew up.

Housewives: Isolation as Oppression, Dorothy Hobson’s contribution to Women Take Issue, covers similar ground to McRobbie’s work on adolescent girls. It is, however, in many ways even more striking, in that despite the fact that all of the women Hobson speaks to are stuck in their high-rise flats all day, how much of a sense of place is evoked.

In many ways the landscape that Hobson describes, isolated, exurban, socially atomised, is exactly the kind of homogenised environment that Michael Young railed against in Family and Kinship nearly thirty years earlier. However, the transcripts of Hobson’s ethnographic interviews with participants in their homes develops an altogether different picture, one which is at once richer and more mundane.

Hobson’s primary concern is to explore how the women feel about the transition from work to being stay at housewives. From this material Hobson paints a picture of how women in low waged, frequently insecure work navigated and experienced the urban environment of south Birmingham in the mid to late 20th Century. It’s a world criss-crossed by bus routes leading from system built council estates to industrial estates populated with corrugated iron sheds where the basic components of industrial civilisation are churned out. This routine pattern of existence is punctuated by bursts of dancing, again linked by the bus, in both local and city centre venues. Through snatches of interview like this Hobson constructs the mental geography and subjective experience of working class life in Birmingham.

The parts of the study that at first glance seem to focus more on the women’s psychic world, their experience of transitioning to being a housewife, of spending much of everyday by themselves doing housework and looking after infants, is also highly attuned to place. Hobson captures a lot of the women’s feelings about their homes in high-rise blocks on the edge of King’s Norton, which is itself on the outskirts of Birmingham.

Their husbands are well paid car workers at the nearby Langbridge plant, their wages as the reason why, unlike the mothers of the girls in McRobbie’s study; the women do not have to go out to work. Hobson captures the effect of this, one woman tells her that living eight stories up in air and only knowing a few people in the block to “say hello to” that the media has become her “only connection to the outside world”.

In many ways this seems like the culmination of the concerns expressed about the effects of modernisation and the mass media upon human relations. In fact it is a far more place specific phenomena than that. The women that Hobson interviews are from a relatively affluent strand of the working class and their life experiences are determined by the-at this time-relatively prestigious estate upon which they live, which just happens to be structured in such a way and located in such a place as to minimise their opportunities for human interaction. In this way Hobson’s work is deeply shaped by and concerned with place.
I believe that my exploration of how members of the CCCS began to turn to place from about 1968 onwards, whilst having clear antecedents, can be factored into wider changes in society. Changes which point to a shift away from the general towards towards the more specific. In the months ahead I intend to conduct further research and develop a clearer picture of the significance of the CCCS’ ethnography to the development of cultural studies and our understanding of people and places.

Adapted from a paper given at the Cities@SAS: New Researchers in Modern Urban History Conference, 4th July 2016.  

Tracy Neumann-Wayne State & Harvard

“…in the US and elsewhere, historically and today, a term like “Rust Belt” does a lot of ideological work to naturalise the idea of decline and reinforce a binary of declining and ascendant regions.”

For the latest in my series profiling urban historians at work today, I was lucky enough to be able to catch up with Tracy Neumann. Tracy, (who’s fascinating sounding book came out yesterday) is an Assistant Professor at Wayne State University and a Postdoctoral Researcher at Harvard University. Her work explores the political and cultural ramifications of economic change, in the late 20th Century, upon North America’s “rustbelt” cities.

What is your background?

I grew up in Traverse City, a small town in Northern Michigan—when I was a kid, it was a farm town, and now it’s a popular resort area. I was a history and Russian Studies major at the University of Michigan, which is where I realized that my dream of becoming a historian of late-imperial Russia was unlikely to come true, since I only passed third-year Russian due to an extraordinary kindness on my instructor’s part. Growing up, I had wanted to be an architect, and I ended up at Cornell, combining my interests in history and architecture by pursuing a Master’s degree in historic preservation planning. While I was there, I took several urban planning courses, which sparked my interest in studying cities and planning history. After a few years working as a consultant for a cultural resource management firm, I decided I was sick of doing historical research on topics that I didn’t get to choose, and I ended up at NYU for my doctorate in history.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

“…I spent a lot of time driving around upstate and central New York, rural New England, and central Pennsylvania surveying old mills, waterworks, and grain elevators.”

Broadly speaking, I’m interested in the politics of urban development, and how global and local processes interact to shape urban space, public policy, and daily life. My first book, which comes out this month, explores the postindustrial redevelopment of manufacturing centers between the 1960s and the 1990s, with a focus on U.S. and Canadian steel towns Pittsburgh, PA, and Hamilton, ON. I came to the topic via my experiences growing up in Michigan and my job as a preservation consultant. Michigan, of course, was the center of the American auto industry, which was in the throes of restructuring when I was a kid in the 1980s. As a student at Cornell and later as a consultant, I spent a lot of time driving around upstate and central New York, rural New England, and central Pennsylvania surveying old mills, waterworks, and grain elevators. Many of my projects were in deindustrialised cities like Manchester, NH, and Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse, NY. I wondered how and why they had been allowed to decline, why urban planners and public policymakers had not done something to save manufacturing jobs. Together, these things led me to want to explain what had happened to Rust Belt cities.

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

“If I had understood what geography actually was when I was looking at graduate programmes, I probably would have applied for a PhD in geography instead of in history!”

My work is transnational in scope (though the empirical research focuses on the two North American cases studies), and my desire to craft a project that looked beyond national borders was very much shaped by the work of my advisor, Tom Bender, and by reading Daniel Rodgers’ Atlantic Crossings. When I began the project, I was probably most influenced by Tom Sugrue and Robert Self, who had written big books on deindustrialisation that also offered models for how to write history that takes space seriously. Bob Beauregard’s work on urban decline and urban politics was also incredibly helpful to me. As I got further into my research, I found myself reading a lot of geographers: David Harvey, Jamie Peck, Neil Smith, and Jason Hackworth have had the greatest influence on how I think about space, scale, urbanisation, and neoliberalism. If I had understood what geography actually was when I was looking at graduate programmes, I probably would have applied for a PhD in geography instead of in history!

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

“…economic restructuring, urban decline, and postindustrial redevelopment were neither natural nor inevitable.”

In North America as well as western Europe, popular narratives tend to portray the decline of basic industry and the regions in which that decline took place as a historical inevitability—an unfortunate by-product of natural business cycles and neutral market forces. I hope that the book convinces readers that, to the contrary, economic restructuring, urban decline, and postindustrial redevelopment were neither natural nor inevitable. Instead, they were the products of decisions made over several decades by political and business elites, who worked through public-private partnerships to allocate resources in a way that exacerbated inequality and sacrificed the well-being of certain groups of residents in order to “save” cities. In doing so, they abandoned social democratic goals in favor of corporate welfare programs, fostering an increasing economic inequality among their residents in the process.

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

When I started the project, my questions were really about deindustrialisation: why had industries and the cities that housed them declined; why hadn’t government officials better protected these places and their blue-collar workers. I ended up doing a lot of research on what happened to the steel industry, and not much of that ended up in the book. Partway through writing the dissertation on which the book is based, it became pretty clear from my research that deindustrialisation served a particular set of business interests, and that local and national governments were also focused on serving those interests. And I realized, too, that planning for postindustrial cities actually began before large-scale deindustrialisation. So, I became much more interested in explaining how public officials at all levels and local civic leaders and business elites facilitated the postindustrial transformations of manufacturing centers and in figuring out to what degree that was or wasn’t bound up with neo-liberal urbanism.

On the broadest possible scale what ideological purpose has the “creation of the Rustbelt” served?

“…if decline is natural, well, then it’s nobody’s fault: not the corporations and banks who divested and certainly not the government, and these entities therefore don’t bear any particular responsibility to the communities and people affected.”

I think in the US and elsewhere, historically and today, a term like “Rust Belt” does a lot of ideological work to naturalise the idea of decline and reinforce a binary of declining and ascendant regions. Implicit in that is the idea that, again, decline is a product of neutral market forces—it is natural and inevitable, if perhaps unfortunate for people without the means to relocate to a place with a better economic climate. And if decline is natural, well, then it’s nobody’s fault: not the corporations and banks who divested and certainly not the government, and these entities therefore don’t bear any particular responsibility to the communities and people affected.

What does your research lead you to believe caused American cities to become politically divided in ways that led them to become test cases for pro-market and pro-developer policies?

“…U.S. urban history is in many ways history of raced, classed, and gendered conflicts over public space and public resources.”

Cities have always been politically divided in a host of ways, and privatist, pro-market/pro-developer policies aren’t particularly new. Sam Bass Warner, writing in 1968, dated privatism to America’s colonial period. Warner argued that cities were historically dependent on individual enterprise rather than community action; that US urban development was the outcome of profit-seeking developers, speculators, and investors; and that local politics were shaped foremost by private economic activities. But what happened in U.S. cities after 1945 was certainly an intensification or new iteration of Warner’s “private city.” At the risk of a historiographical oversimplification, U.S. urban history is in many ways history of raced, classed, and gendered conflicts over public space and public resources. So while I don’t think political divisions or the focus on the market were particularly new, I do think that in the late 20th century race and class divisions sharpened and, as federal urban renewal programs failed and the New Deal liberal project faltered, there was a growing dissatisfaction with “big government” and “big business” across the political spectrum. This created strange bedfellows, as historian Suleiman Osman has shown so well: liberals and libertarians and Black Power activists and blue-collar workers all advocated for community control in ways that laid the groundwork for federal retrenchment from urban development and opened the way for more market-driven solutions to urban problems.

Was there much resistance in the upper echelons of the political parties in US cities to the embrace of “pro-market”, pro-austerity” policies, or was the new direction broadly accepted?

“…like other recent political histories, the book points to a more complicated story about how political actors and social movements on the left and right… came to share the same sense of political possibilities.”

Well, that probably depends on the city. In Pittsburgh, they didn’t merely accept it, Democratic mayors actively pursued market-based policies and implemented austerity programs. One thing we see in the 1970s and 1980s is that Democratic mayors stopped thinking of the white working class as their base, and started thinking of entrepreneurs and corporate leaders as their most important citizens. But I want to be clear, too, that my research does not feed into a declension narrative of American political history, where liberalism collapses and conservatism becomes ascendant in the 1970s. Instead, like other recent political histories, the book points to a more complicated story about how political actors and social movements on the left and right—at both the local and national level, and across national borders—came to share the same sense of political possibilities.

Why did grassroots opposition to the increased finance and marketisation of American cities fail? Or alternatively why has its effects been “harsher” in some places rather than others?

“…residents did not organize against postindustrialism as a redevelopment strategy as they did against urban renewal, because postindustrialism was much harder to pin down.”

In the case of Pittsburgh, the kinds of groups that were likely to launch grassroots opposition to postindustrial redevelopment plans—historic preservation groups, civil rights organizations, neighborhood associations—had been co-opted by the city’s public-private partnership by the 1970s. Still, the lack of resistance to postindustrialism was surprising, because there had been so much resistance to urban renewal in Pittsburgh in the 1950s and 1960s; in fact, African American organizing against a renewal project in the city’s Hill District is one of the best-known examples of a successful protest against urban renewal. But even though federally sponsored urban renewal programs produced highly illiberal results, urban renewal was essentially a package of liberal social programs introduced to manage growth in an economic boom. Postindustrialism was instead a more varied and flexible set of tactics employed to manage decline during an economic crisis. This, I think, highlights an important difference between why we see more successful organizing against urban renewal than we do against postindustrial redevelopment models: because urban renewal was a clearly delineated set of government-funded programs that built housing and highways, opposition that initially formed around individual projects pretty quickly coalesced into a broader social movement against urban renewal as a redevelopment model. Postindustrialism, on the other hand, was more diffuse. It involved a broader range activities paid for by a more complex set of public and private funding sources. So, while there was certainly resistance to individual projects—say, a particular loft conversion, or a university hospital expansion—residents did not organize against postindustrialism as a redevelopment strategy as they did against urban renewal, because postindustrialism was much harder to pin down.

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MusikAnimal, “Abandoned railroad tracks in Gantry Plaza State Park New York City”, accessed via WikiCommons http://bit.ly/1UdHBbV

In addition to being contactable via the institutions with which she is affiliated, Tracy is on Twitter. For more urban historian profiles please see here. 

Sam Wetherell-University of California, Berkeley

“…the houses we live in, the routes we take to work, the buildings in which we buy our coffee and our shoes, were often built by planners and architects whose political assumptions and anthropological claims have long since been deemed to be defunct.”

For the latest in my series exploring urban historians at work today, I was lucky to be able to catch up Sam Wetherell (currently at UC Berkeley, soon to be at Columbia University). He explained how politics informs his approach to exploring and attempting to re-plot our understanding of urban Britain’s recent past and boldly grappled with one of most amorphous terms in contemporary social discourse: “neo-liberal”.

What is your background?

I spent my formative teenage years living in Milton Keynes. During this time I did most of my socialising in the town’s shopping mall (now branded “thecentre:mk”), attending a comprehensive school that was formally sponsored by Yahama keyboards and living in a high density apartment complex called (wait for it) “Enterprise Lane.” In other words I have lived every word of my dissertation on neo-liberal British cities!

I half-heartedly studied History at Oxford as an undergraduate, never really latching onto a topic that I loved. Afterwards I briefly worked for the Labour Party, before spending a year on a fellowship at Harvard. After another year spent in the wilderness, working at a second hand bookstore in Boston and then, later, for an unpleasant lobbying firm in the UK, I began my PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. I completed my dissertation this year and from next semester I’ll be working as a visiting lecturer in British history at Columbia University.

“…I have lived every word of my dissertation on neo-liberal British cities!”

What led you to choose your subject matter?

I decided that I wanted to be an academic long before I decided that I wanted to be an urban historian. I’d always loved ideas and loved writing but for a long time I couldn’t work out what I wanted to study. For me there were two stages to discovering what I wanted to write about. First, I took an American urban history graduate class at Harvard with Lizabeth Cohen, which exposed me, for the first time, to people such as Jane Jacobs, Margaret Crawford, Michel De Certeau, and Mike Davis – as well the fantastic historical literature on American postwar cities (including Thomas Sugrue’s work on Detroit and Robert Self’s works on Oakland). Living in London and in Boston I was exposed to large cities for the first time and (probably naively) associated them with freedom and adulthood.

“I’ve tried to maintain a political perspective in everything that I do…”

The second important stage for me was discovering left wing politics and activism in my early twenties. In 2011 I returned to the UK after a year and a half in America to find a Conservative government in power and a sense of generalized post-2008 crisis. I became involved in groups like UK Uncut and tried to teach myself as much about economics as possible. I’ve tried to maintain a political perspective in everything that I do and it was the wedding of this new interest in cities with a new investment in politics at this crucial juncture when I was applying for graduate schools that really determined my topic and informed my last five years of scholarship.

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

Like most graduate students/early career folks I’m left trying to carve out a theoretical niche on the back of a cannon of wonderful yet radically contradictory texts. In terms of urban history my go-to texts would be Carl Schorske’s essay on Vienna, William Cronin’s Nature’s Metropolis, Lizabeth Cohen’s work on New Deal Chicago, Doreen Massey’s For Space, Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s Disenchanted Night (the greatest history book ever written?), David Harvey’s work on Paris and of course the wonderful first few chapters of Engel’s Conditions of the Working Class in England. All of these say different things at different political and theoretical registers but all would be central to any class I would teach on urban history!

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

“I’m endlessly struck by the capacity of the built environment to freeze political moments in space and project them forward.”

There’s that lovely line by John Maynard Keynes that we are all the slaves to some defunct economist. What I’d like to show in my work is how our daily lives unfold in cities and among buildings that were designed and built during times that are radically different to our own. That the houses we live in, the routes we take to work, the buildings in which we buy our coffee and our shoes, were often built by planners and architects whose political assumptions and anthropological claims have long since been deemed to be defunct. This seems obvious but I’m endlessly struck by the capacity of the built environment to freeze political moments in space and project them forward. What I love about the built environment is that it works at this meso level – between structure and agency and between high politics and spontaneous grass roots movements or individual instances of self-fashioning. Academically I hope my work allows people to periodise British history differently (escaping the endlessly rehearsed stories of 1945-51 and 1979-90). Politically I hope it offers an alternative (or at least supplementary) road map for political change – one that is isn’t trapped by the endless question of whether the left should throw its lot into the doomed process of winning un-winnable elections in a given nation state or the equally impossible challenge of forging a new hegemony or governmentality!

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

“What I found while writing my dissertation… is that each of these case studies has a prehistory that stretches back well into the twentieth century, and sometimes beyond”

My dissertation is ostensibly about the transformation of the British built environment in the last third of the twentieth century, looking at five case studies (or “pilot zones” as I call them): the enterprise zone, the national garden festival, the housing estate, the shopping centre and the business park. What I found while writing my dissertation, however, is that each of these case studies has a prehistory that stretches back well into the twentieth century, and sometimes beyond, and in each chapter I found myself writing as much about the pre-history of these spaces as about their actual emergence.

I’m loathe to say exactly how I’m going to transform the dissertation into a book, just because I know it will change along the way, but at the moment I’m hoping to incorporate this prehistory and extend the thesis into a book about British cities from the late nineteenth century to the present. In the book I want to ask how we get from the individual home/house to the vast modernist housing estate to the private gated community. Next I want to ask how you get from the individual factory enterprise to the government managed trading estate to the private, suburban business park. Finally I want to trace the development of the unplanned sprawling high street to the state-planned shopping precinct to the private, out of town megamall.

On a very general note: how have you found the experience of studying British history through a university in the USA?

I have absolutely loved my time at Berkeley, to the point where people no longer let me talk to new admits who are considering coming (because I seem too optimistic and happy – and in America that’s saying something!). While the idea of flying across the world to study the place that you set out from seemed mad (and still seems a little mad) I think there is a lot to be said for studying Britain at a distance. Almost all of my friends or colleagues know almost nothing about Britain, so you have to think on a large, global scale to make your work relevant. Furthermore you are forced to study, teach and read hundreds of books, not just  just about all of British history since 1688, but also a second field (in my case US history since European contact) too.

“…there is a lot to be said for studying Britain at a distance…you have to think on a large, global scale…”

There are definitely downsides too of course. Being forced to think big means you lose a lot of detail and sometimes end up getting excited about claims that are frustratingly self-evident to those working in Britain. I always love going to conferences and meeting other British historians working on cities and being amazed by the detail of their knowledge and how their work is made immediate and relevant by being immersed in the world that they are historicizing. Also, while the three-year programs in Britain (compared with the six-year programs in the US) feel rushed, you come out of it younger and fresher and with the job market being what it is, doing a 3 year UK PhD is less of a risk!

What alternatives were there to the “neo-liberal” city in the 1970s and 1980s and why did these alternatives fail?

This question cuts to the heart of the ceaselessly awful issue of how one defines neoliberalism. Is neoliberalism a set of policies implemented by governments in the 1970s and 80s? Or is it a hegemony or a rationality or even an epoch (like the Late Medieval period)? I think the term can be used productively to mean all of these things as long as we are clear what we mean each time we use it. I think a lot of the best theorists of neoliberalism (Michel Foucault, Stuart Hall, Wendy Brown, Pierre Dardot) would take the latter of those two definitions, and would answer your question by arguing that neoliberalism left almost no ideological room for constructing alternatives. If neoliberalism is a rationality, or a set of claims about the world that have become commonsensical, then it’s a difficult thing to oppose, act outside of and construct alternatives to.

“I think many people who are (rightly) critical of British cities today look back on this moment as a time of decent, affordable public housing, subsidized municipal transport networks, unregulated public space etc… etc… and see it as a workable alternative to the present. I’m less sure.”

For this reason I might rephrase your question to ask what the alternatives were to the privatization and securitization of space and infrastructure, and the re-orientation of cities as engines for attracting global capital and rather than providing services. The clearest alternative to this was the built environment that emerged out of late nineteenth century liberal reform and twentieth century social democracy, in other words the built forms that were transformed and re-negotiated in the late twentieth century. I think many people who are (rightly) critical of British cities today look back on this moment as a time of decent, affordable public housing, subsidized municipal transport networks, unregulated public space etc… etc… and see it as a workable alternative to the present. I’m less sure. While our present cities are a disaster, we also know that the British social democratic experiment was deeply flawed. Economically it was predicated on US Cold War spending and the residues of an increasingly repressive imperial world system. It was paternalistic and at times inhumane, a terrible place to be a woman or a person of colour. Its survival depended on an international monetary system that no longer exists. While, in the 1980s, the alternative to the neo-liberal city may have been tower blocks, trading estates, and a nationalized train network, the left now needs a bolder, more globally orientated vision. This is something Stuart Hall was arguing 30 years ago in the Hard Road to Renewal.

“One of the things I learned writing this dissertation was the extent to which the urban forms developed in the heyday of state planning went on to structure or thwart the late twentieth century city.”

I would also challenge the idea that the mid century British city “failed” as an alternative model. One of the things I learned writing this dissertation was the extent to which the urban forms developed in the heyday of state planning went on to structure or thwart the late twentieth century city. Local authorities struggled (and often failed) to price and sell individual council flats on estates, for example, because they were plugged into comprehensive, holistically planned worlds. Meanwhile the first shopping centres in Britain were state-run affairs in towns like Coventry, built to try and re-centre British cities around ideals of public space and assembly. In this sense, rather than “failing”, the social democratic city was sublimated, reconstituted and repressed.

For more about Sam and his work check out his UC Berkeley Department of History profile page and his Academia.edu profile, he can also be contacted through Twitter. For more urban historian profiles see here.

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Coventry Cathedral Tower panormamic views, taken on 3rd August by Si (User:mintchociecream). This version released into the public domina via Wikicommons on 25 Aug 2011. West view-towards Broadgate

Nicola Blacklaws-University of Leicester

“…many boards were mindful of local public opinion, even if they didn’t always adhere to it!”

For the latest in my series about urban historians at work today, I speak to the University of Leicester’s Nicola Blacklaws. Nicola is completing a PhD exploring the operation of the poor law in early 20th Century England and is heavily involved with the University of Leicester’s “New History Lab”, a support network for postgraduate researchers.

What is your background?

I’m originally from North Shropshire, although I lived in Germany and Cyprus as a kid (my mum taught in British Forces primary schools). After a gap year where I answered phones at my former secondary school, waitressed and flirted with the idea of joining the Royal Marines Band Service, I came to the University of Leicester to do my BA in History, and have been here ever since. I did an MA at Leicester’s Centre for English Local History, and started my PhD here in 2014, funded by a Midlands3Cities DTP studentship.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

Initially, quite a lot of luck. I happened to be allocated Keith Snell as my undergraduate dissertation supervisor, and in our first meeting he showed me an eighteenth-century settlement examination. This is a document that could be created when a person applied for poor relief, and often recorded the key features of a person’s life, including various places they had lived and worked and for how long. I was gripped by the idea that for many people, these kinds of documents would be the only surviving evidence of the course their lives had taken, and that poor law sources could act as a window into the lives of individuals and families who otherwise don’t loom very large in the historical record.  I’ve since moved into the New Poor Law, focusing in particular the last 30 years of its life, from 1900 to 1930, which grabbed my interest largely because people are often so surprised that the poor law was still operating beyond the First World War!

“I was gripped by the idea that for many people, these kinds of documents would be the only surviving evidence of the course their lives had taken…”

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

I aspire to Keith Snell’s rigorous use of both quantitative and qualitative material, and his clear, engaging writing. I return to the chapter in his book Parish and Belonging on outdoor relief over and over again. I also think of John Hatcher’s book The Black Death: An Intimate History often. It was the first micro-history I ever read, and I dream of bringing the places I study to life as vividly.

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

“The poor law continued to function and relieve people through the First World War and beyond…”

That the poor law isn’t quite as ancient history as we’re often led to believe, and there is no clear line separating it and the beginning of our modern welfare state. The poor law continued to function and relieve people through the First World War and beyond, overlapping with reforms we often see today as the beginnings of state-provided welfare. I’d also like it to fly the flag for the importance of local context. Finally (and perhaps most ambitiously), I’d hope that it invites readers to consider current debates about poverty and welfare in their historical contexts. To paraphrase something I heard Simon Szreter say in an interview, welfare systems are not historically a luxury that we give ourselves when we’re doing particularly well, something that we can cut back when the going gets tougher – they’re an integral ingredient of successful advanced societies.

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

I’ve definitely become more flexible in terms of the sources I feel like I need to do a decent case study. When I first started my PhD I had very high standards regarding the kinds of sources that had to survive before I would consider a union for case study status – my supervisors eventually had to talk me down from that! I think I’ve also become more interested in the actual ending of the poor law – what did its ending, and the transfer of authority to Public Assistance Committees, actually look like on the ground? Did guardians and paupers feel like they were coming to the ‘end of an era’? How did the approaching termination of the system impact on day-to-day operations? I haven’t fully answered these questions yet, but I’m going to get there eventually!

What factors do you think principally influenced the differing ways in which the 20th Century poor law was administered in various locales?

“The personalities and attitudes of the guardians shouldn’t be overlooked…”

Oh, there are so many potential factors! Perhaps most obviously, the economic conditions in a region could be hugely influential. Downturns in key regional industries could put enormous strain on local poor law resources, as in places like Staffordshire in the 1920s. Density of population could also play a role – how well did the poor law officers know the poor they were dealing with? It’s been argued, and I think I agree, that if a relieving officer had more of an established relationship with a pauper, they might be less likely to offer them ‘harsher’ relief options like entry into the workhouse. Local politics could be impactful as well, as could individual unions’ relationship with the central authorities – the Local Government Board at the beginning of the period, and the Ministry of Health from 1919. The personalities and attitudes of the guardians shouldn’t be overlooked either.

Was there much local campaigning to influence the decisions made by poor law guardians during your period?

The local press were often very interested in poor law goings-on – there were often reporters at guardians’ board meetings, and guardians were usually keen to avoid public controversy. For instance, one Leicestershire board of guardians had a very fractious relationship with one of their vaccination officers in the early 1900s – he actually took the board to court multiple times over non-payment of expenses – and both the guardians and the LGB were conscious that the conflict reflected poorly on the union. Another example that comes to mind is from a Staffordshire board who were obliged during the First World War to investigate claims that the bodies of paupers who had died in the workhouse were not being properly shrouded. There are explicit references in the minutes to the coverage the issue had attracted in the press. So many boards were mindful of local public opinion, even if they didn’t always adhere to it!

Postgraduate study (especially in the humanities) can be lonely. How do you think that having a forum like New History Lab benefits researchers?

“Building a support network of other postgrads is… crucial to maintaining your mental wellbeing.”

You’re absolutely right that MAs and PhDs in the humanities have the potential to be SO isolating, especially if you don’t have an office or workspace to go to every day. Building a support network of other postgrads is, I think, crucial to maintaining your mental wellbeing. New History Lab gives our researchers a guaranteed space every fortnight where you can turn up, eat some cake (in itself therapeutic) and meet other people going through the same processes as you. I started going along to Lab events when I was doing my MA, and some of the people I met there became really good friends, who are often the first people to hear about my PhD-related triumphs and tribulations. I see the connections you can make in forums like the Lab as, in a lot of ways, more valuable than the ‘networking’ we’re often encouraged to attempt in more formal settings with more senior academics, which can feel cold, manipulative and stressful. As the Lab is run almost entirely by postgraduate students (we do have a staff representative on our committee as well), we can also design programmes of events that cater explicitly to postgraduates. We can both expose people to interesting corners of history other than their own field of study (it can be easy to forget there are other people working on other things out there!), and organise events that speak to specific concerns of postgraduate life. The last two terms, for instance, have included Clare Anderson on getting your first article published and Matt Houlbrook on blogging as a historian, as well as talks about Star Wars and medieval culture, the Rolling Stones Redlands scandal, palaeontology and the Easter Rising. All postgraduates should have a New History Lab in their lives.

How do you think that postgraduates can become better at working collaboratively with each other?

I think practice is key, as with anything – taking opportunities to be part of an organising committee of some kind can be really helpful in getting experience of planning and problem-solving as a team. Having the infrastructure in place to support collaborative projects is also important, such as funding, so that if researchers have an idea that they want to try out (like the New History Lab!) then the provision is there to enable them to have a go. Having said that, in my experience, postgrads are mostly pretty good at working collaboratively; I think sometimes humanities researchers can be stereotyped as being solitary beasts who aren’t able to work in teams, but I haven’t so far found that to be the case!

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If you would like to contact Nicola about her research she is on Twitter and can be reached via the University of Leicester’s School of History. Her academia.edu profile can be read here.  For more urban historian profiles follow this link.

“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.

 

Lauren Piko-University of Melbourne

“…there was little about Milton Keynes that seemed unusual…”

For the latest in my series about urban historians at work today, I speak to the University of Melbourne’s Lauren Piko about her interest in Milton Keynes; and what the much maligned the new town can teach us today.

What is your background?

I studied British history at the University of Melbourne as an undergraduate, yet despite the History department’s fine urban history tradition, I was very much a subcultural studies enthusiast at that time. After finishing my honours thesis in 2008 I spent a few years working in education administration in London, Bath and Melbourne, before returning to the University of Melbourne to undertake my PhD with Professor Andrew May and Dr David Nichols.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

My thesis examines the depiction of Milton Keynes in national British media and popular culture from 1967 to 1992, particularly with reference to ideas of national decline. This was specifically motivated by my experience of negotiating English urban spaces as an Australian. I moved to Milton Keynes in 2009 directly from Melbourne, knowing nothing of it other than that it was a cheap place to live while working in London. To someone who had grown up in Melbourne’s north-eastern suburbs, there was little about Milton Keynes that seemed unusual, and so I was taken aback by the scorn and derision directed at Milton Keynes whenever I happened to mention where I lived. I was intrigued by these tacit value judgements of “good” urban landscapes, which were somehow lost in translation to my Melbournian ears. To someone with a background in subcultural studies this set off all the requisite alarm bells about Gramscian “common sense”, and so the stage was set for me to explore this in my PhD.

“To someone with a background in subcultural studies this set off all the requisite alarm bells about Gramscian “common sense”…”

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

E.P Thompson’s “Time and Work-discipline in Industrial Capitalism” is a perfect model of the “world in a grain of sand” approach to history I find the most exciting and politically powerful. The work of Sara Ahmed, along with Stuart Hall, are also constant touchstones, for their ability to use the tiniest iterations of culture as entry points.

My supervisor Professor Andrew May has suggested in the past that there may be a specifically “Melbourne way” of doing history; a sort of Greg-Dening-esque focus on language and meaning. I think it’s very likely that my ethnographic instincts and curiosity about hidden cultural boundaries have been shaped by being based at Melbourne’s history department.

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

I hope it makes them think twice about the political implications of beliefs and ideas that they consider to be “normal”, innate, or automatic.

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

I have been constantly delighted by the range of subject material I get to cover; the realisation that I needed to go back to Lockean ideas of nationhood was a shock, but so too was needing to spend so much time listening to Cliff Richard records. I really relish following the strange journeys of source material in cultural history.

What specific challenges do you face as a historian studying a subject that is located on the other side of the world from you?

“…negotiating distance has forced me to work very efficiently and more creatively than I would have otherwise.”

My work is borne out of being an Australian in Milton Keynes, so I think it’s very appropriate to be writing this thesis from Melbourne, back to exploring the tacit language of Englishness from the outside. A substantial amount of my research was undertaken from Australia, though I was lucky to obtain funding for two on-site research trips. This meant an exhausting and frenzied workload during those two-and-a-half months! Though I would have loved to have had the luxury of losing myself for months in the archives, negotiating distance has forced me to work very efficiently and more creatively than I would have otherwise.

Do you think there are connections between the denigration of Milton Keynes and other new towns in British popular culture and wider shifts in society since the 1960s?

Absolutely. It is very much part of a wider ideological rejection that has led tower blocks, council estates, and other new towns to be condemned and ridiculed. Much like how “the 1970s” are regularly invoked as the “bad old days” of British politics, condemning postwar urban planned spaces helps reinforce the idea that “there is no alternative” to the neo-liberal state. It’s an ongoing rejection that legitimates the status quo.

Does your research lead you to see the plans for Milton Keynes as fundamentally a radical or a conservative project?

To give a stereotypical historian’s response, it depends on the context. In terms of urban planning, The Plan for Milton Keynes was a radical re-imagining of the very idea of the discipline and what it should do. Politically, however, the very “flexibility” at the heart of Milton Keynes’ planning goals has allowed it to move with the times very easily, and through doing so it has become more conservative than the Plan itself ever envisioned.

“the… ‘flexibility’ at the heart of Milton Keynes’ planning goals has allowed it to move with the times very easily…”

Given contemporary ecological concerns, are car-centric development like Milton Keynes worrying anachronisms or can they be salvaged?

This is a great question. In reality I don’t think Milton Keynes is inherently as car-centric as its reputation suggests. It’s also incredibly pedestrian and cycle-friendly, and while it’s been let down by public transport provision in the past, this is getting better overall. Milton Keynes is also a beautifully verdant town with a fantastically diverse urban ecology. Provided that public transport provision continues to improve, it will be exciting to watch how Milton Keynes continues to challenge preconceptions about density and urban functioning into the future.

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You can read more about Lauren’s research into the genesis and cultural impact of Milton Keynes on her academia.edu page. She can be contacted through the University of Melbourne’s graduate school.