Here is a review for Science of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140:
Americans like to imagine their cities as places doomed to disaster. For the webmag History News Network I recently traced “The Grim, Awful Vision of the City of the Future.” Drawing on my book Imagining Urban Futures, the article finds that the imagination of urban disaster over the 20th century has moved through rough stages of “fire,” “famine,” and “flood.” In early decades the fear was social upheaval and chaotic revolution (fire). In the decades after World War II, the fear was overpopulation and overcrowding and food scarcity (as depicted in this food riot from the movie Soylent Green). More recently, the fear has been cities as generators and victims of environmental disaster (flood).
Do science fiction writers have anything positive to say about future cities? That’s the question that I answer in the affirmative in an essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books. “Beyond Blade Runner: Imagining Community in Cities of the Future” looks to books by China Miéville, Samuel R. Delany, Nicola Griffith, Nalo Hopkinson, and Kim Stanley Robinson for ideas about the continual construction and reconstruction of community in imagined cities.
To incite some argument, I’ve crafted a short article hat refutes (I think) the popular myth that Washington, D.C. was established in a “swamp.” For my suggestions that Washington was no swampier than most other river cities, you can go to either The Conversation or AtlanticCityLab.
“Behind the Urbanism in Science Fiction,” in Atlantic CityLab, highlights three key figures whose influence looms large in science fiction film and fiction: the architectural illustrator Hugh Ferriss, and the Greek urban planner Constantinos Doxiadis, and the Italian visionary Paolo Soleri. In their different ways, they all envisioned urban development on a vast scale. Cities of supertowers, world-spanning cities, and cities as megastructures have all become standard parts of the science fiction imagination.
Los Angeles Review of Books
October 15, 2016
J. G. Ballard’s “High-Rise”: When We Feared Skyscraper Living
HIGH-RISE, the film version of J. G. Ballard’s 1975 novel, hit British screens in March and American theaters at the end of April. Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss, and Luke Evans star as the inhabitants of a new 40-story apartment tower in the London Docklands whose self-contained world turns catastrophically deadly. The residents’ problems start with rudeness and class friction. Small, seemingly logical steps lead to social disorder, gang violence, warfare between floors (folks on upper floors own dogs, lower floors have children), gang violence, and the death of hundreds of the tower’s inhabitants. The building, designed to be substantially self-contained with its own shopping floor and swimming pools, so disorients its residents that they forget their jobs in the outside world, cut contact with friends and relatives, and descend into a war of all against all. We see the mounting disaster through the detached eyes of physiologist Robert Laing (Hiddleston), who relishes the building’s impersonality, enjoys sex with unattached Charlotte Melville (Miller) and married Helen Wilder (Moss), and manages to survive at least three months of social implosion. We see him in the same scene at the start and end of the film, roasting and eating a rather handsome dog and reflecting on the future: “He’d now sit back to wait for failure to reach the second tower of the high rise development, ready to welcome its residents into the new world.”
In 2016, when skyscrapers are in and high-rise living is one of the components of “smart growth,” it takes a bit of imagination to recover the architectural fears of the 1970s that inspired Ballard’s novel. From the 1940s through the 1970s, Western Europeans and white Americans shared fears of two different catastrophes — nuclear bombs and what Paul Ehrlich in 1968 called The Population Bomb. Ehrlich was updating earlier work by Henry Fairfield Osborn Jr. in Our Plundered Planet (1948) and William Vogt in Road to Survival (1948). As Miles Powell has shown, both had sounded a common theme. World population was spiraling unsustainably out of control, and the problem lay in the prolific darker-skinned peoples of the Global South. Time magazine put “That Population Explosion” on its January 11, 1960, cover with a montage image of dark-skinned mothers, children, and infants.
In the hands of science fiction writers like J. G. Ballard, fears of overpopulation morphed into nightmares of overcrowded living. Probably the best known example is the film Soylent Green (1973), based on Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! Both the book and the movie depicted a New York in which an excess of residents crowd into tiny, claustrophobic rooms. Families hang out at the city morgue to learn when an apartment might become vacant; one such family evicts the main character from his one-room apartment after his flatmate dies because their numbers give them legal claim to the square footage.
Robert Silverberg’s novel The World Inside (1971) posited a world in which 75 billion humans live in megabuilding “urban monads” that are cheerful dystopias a thousand stories high. “Urbmon” society encourages sex for procreation from the early teens, has no nudity taboo, and promotes open promiscuity, with any woman theoretically available to any man. The structures that house the busy billions are exaggerations of urban ideas common in the 1960s. They are grouped in clusters with names like Chipitts, Boshwash, Sansan, and Wienbud: terms coined following publication of Jean Gottmann’s Megalopolis: The Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States in 1961, which described the Boston–Washington corridor as an emerging urban super region. The millions who inhabit the vast structures survive by internalizing the social imperative to be happy. Misfits are put in their place, tossed down mile-high garbage chutes.
When Ballard followed with High-Rise, he had already written two stories that highlighted the sheer scale of future cities in an overpopulated world and the potentially appalling consequences for daily life. “The Concentration City,” an early work from 1957, described a future American city of nearly infinite size. This megacity of unspecified billions is subject to periodic structural collapses that can squash “half a million people like flies in a concertina” and undergoes constant redevelopment, carving miles-square gaps in the urban fabric. “Billennium” (1961) took the fear of density to the opposite extreme. Within it, the Malthusian pressure of population on food requires the British government to halt the outward growth of London in order to preserve every scrap of farmland, forcing the “internal colonization of the city.” Londoners literally live in closets, on stairway landings, and in partitioned cubicles where five square meters is enough floor space for a double. The streets are so thronged that pedestrians can compact into a “lock” that holds everyone immobile, in one case trapping the protagonist Ward with 70,000 others into a jam that did not clear for two days (Google Ngrams suggests that the word “gridlock” also dates to around 1962).
John B. Calhoun’s notorious experiments with overcrowded rats, which he popularized in Scientific American, also in 1962, under the title “Population Density and Social Pathology,” put too many rats into too small a box and watched them turn nasty. Social critics immediately projected the findings from rodents to people, forgetting that rats lack governments, laws, religious codes, and other cultural paraphernalia that reduce the pathologies of human societies.
The problems created by high-rise warehouses for the poor, such as the Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis, were common fodder for social theorists in the 1970s. Because these projects were heavily populated by African Americans, the critique of such projects often drew on Calhoun’s dubious science to reinforce the racism of “population bomb” rhetoric.
Ballard grabbed on to these indictments, transposed them to middle-class Britain, and narrated apocalypse in a high-rise test tube. Ballard’s takeaway for High-Rise was the inevitability of a downward spiral, a sort of “broken windows” theory of crime taken to extremes. Richard Wilder (Evans), a hotheaded documentary filmmaker from the lower floors who turns thuggish agitator and then bestial avenger, draws the connection directly, referencing “the psychological pressures of high-rise life” as a reason for social chaos and his own descent toward madness.
The film carefully sticks to the 1975 setting of the novel. The building reflects the period’s fascination with the raw concrete masses of brutalist architecture. The decade’s ubiquitous Che Guevara poster appears on an apartment wall, partygoers snort cocaine, and the soundtrack includes a cover by Portishead of ABBA’s 1975 hit “SOS.” It ends with the voice of Margaret Thatcher — just elected leader of the Conservatives in 1975 but still four years from 10 Downing Street — defining the difference between free-market capitalism and socialism.
The Iron Lady’s words evoke the deep divide between capital and labor, but the class divisions in High-Rise are less economic than social. Every apartment dweller belongs to the new class of information workers: barrister, physician, architect, television executive. In early scenes, they bustle out of the building swinging attaché cases in lockstep. The distinctions between floors revolve around subtle social markers and behaviors (Laing makes the mistake of bringing an inadequately pricey bottle of wine to an upper-floor party and is quickly shoved back into the elevator). As the tensions build to disaster, fops on the upper floors dream of replacing lower residents with a driving range and cricket nets, not about sweating more production from factory workers.
The homogeneity of residents makes it difficult to tell second-tier characters apart. One upper-middle-class twit (either male or female) seems much like the next. The action doesn’t help, alternating between parties where nearly everyone acts the same (smug cocktail swigging in the early going, naked orgies later on) and quick cutting scenes of mounting chaos with blackouts, accumulating piles of garbage, and fights over the last of the food in the 15th-floor market. Viewers know that the building is going to hell, but the sequential stages of ruin that Ballard clearly outlines in the novel are collapsed into a narrative muddle.
High-Rise was and is a barbed satire on urban planning. When the novel appeared in 1975, it skewered Britain on the verge of the Margaret Thatcher years when the gospel of free markets impoverished the public sphere, and when the Docklands district would go through cycles of real estate boom and bust. Ballard undercut the pretensions of star architects and top-down planners, anticipating Michel de Certeau’s commentary, in The Practice of Everyday Life, on the limitations of panoptic views of cities compared to the actual experience of walking the streets. The building’s architect Anthony Royal (Irons) lives on the top floor and views his creation as a “crucible for change,” but it is the middling folks lower down whose anger fuels spatialized class warfare and turns his social experiment to disaster.
The film gives women contradictory roles true to the ambiguous 1970s. For most of the way they are second-class citizens: trophy wife, washed-up actress, desperate housewife, rape victim. Rumor has it that men are bartering their wives for food on some floors. But as the men destroy each other in power games and open battles, the women gather and protect the building’s children and slowly band together. As the film nears its end, Wilder manages to make his way up blocked stairways to the penthouse and shoot Anthony Royal. Moments later he is stabbed to death by respectable British ladies transformed into maenads. The implication at the end is that a handful of men survive in scattered apartments while women and children now occupy the top floors.
In one context, High-Rise is an updated entry into the venerable genre in which journalists have explored and reported on the mysteries of downtrodden East London. Victorian reformers and sensationalists compared East London slums to the unknown interior of Africa, and Jack London wrote of his months among “The People of the Abyss.” The jam-packed tenements and rookeries of 1875 are now substituted in 1975 by vast empty fields of rubble, concrete, and weeds, interspersed with high-rise apartment towers and construction cranes on the horizon. The East London jungle has turned to desert, and the pathologies of the abjectly poor are reimagined as the pathologies of the middle class (women as maenads fit the venerable urban jungle metaphor). Producer Jeremy Thomas and actor Tom Hiddleston seem to have an affinity not only for science fiction and fantasy but also for urban dereliction — East London here, abandoned Detroit in their previous film Only Lovers Left Alive (2013).
The film is closer to surrealism than to science fiction, resonating with the psychologically trapped dinner guests in Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel. The spookiest feature in High-Rise may be the withdrawal of its residents into the miniature world of the building. Early on, its parking lot is filled with shiny late-model cars; by the end, it is virtually empty except for piles of garbage. One by one, residents start calling in sick, then take extended leaves from the jobs that financed their tony apartments. Even the strongest personalities find that they can’t leave, even when they claim that is what they want. The police and other public authorities, oddly enough, ignore the building even as its parking lot fills with smashed and abandoned cars. Ballard explains the reclusion of residents with the psychological justification that the building infantilizes residents by providing all their wants, allowing them to revert to uncontrolled two-year-olds. The movie recycles this dubious idea when Laing’s voice-over describes the chaos as “a huge children’s party gone bad.”
However, the film also suggests a stronger science fiction connection when Anthony Royal says that he wants to “colonize the sky.” Ballard made more of this, describing the tower as both “a small vertical city, its two thousand inhabitants boxed up into the sky” and as a spaceship. It is an earthbound analogue of a generation starship, a science fiction standby utilized by science fiction writers from Robert Heinlein (“Universe” in 1941) to Kim Stanley Robinson (Aurora in 2015). A generation ship is another miniature world, a self-contained spacecraft that takes hundreds of years to voyage between solar systems, with the middle generations knowing only the interior of the ship. In Heinlein’s seminal version and in Brian Aldiss’s Non-Stop (1958), the command deck ceased to function, life-support systems deteriorated, and colonists devolved to tribal warfare within confined spaces. Substitute the architect for the ship’s officers, building maintenance for life support, and the separate floors of the high-rise for the decks and compartments inside the generation ship, and the analogy is complete. Generation ship mysteries usually end with the hero rediscovering the lost purpose of the vessel. Ballard has no such hope, giving us, perhaps, Non-Stop meets Lord of the Flies.
Robert Laing is unlikely to have read William Vogt or Henry Fairfield Osborn Jr., with their fears of overpopulation and their implicit call for a reduced planetary population of (mostly) white Americans and Northern Europeans. At the film’s end, however, he is enjoying the elbow room of a thoroughly depopulated high-rise and blithely contemplating the similar culling of the unfit from tower number two.
The Atlantic Citylab, Oct. 21, 2016
Behind the Urbanism in Science Fiction
When science fiction writers envision the future, few of their ideas spring fully formed from individual imaginations. They look to the latest reports in the columns of Science and Nature, to cultural trends, and to the ideas of social prophets and creative designers. As I’ve explored science fiction cities, a handful of architectural visionaries of the mid-20th century stand out for the breadth of their impact in shaping our vision of the urban future: Hugh Ferriss, Constantinos Doxiadis, and Paolo Soleri.
The iconic science fiction film Blade Runner (1982) opens with a nightmare scene of future Los Angeles. Aircars maneuver through darkness lit by fire and explosion among monolithic office towers. These commercial ziggurats house and embody the corporate powers that dominate the city. They rise like vast pyramids over the shadowed streets, with the bulking pyramid of the Tyrell Corporation looming like an immense jukebox.
Blade Runner’s visual imagery has inarguable power, but its vision of the urban future was already a half-century old. The grandfather of the film’s design choices is architectural illustrator Hugh Ferriss. His Metropolis of Tomorrow (1929) collected depictions of an extraordinarily exaggerated New York. His unrestrained imagination created a city of the future in which step-pyramid towers rise from vaguely glimpsed streets, shimmering in artificial light against or evening skies. To illustrate “projected trends” and “an imaginary metropolis,” he drew dozens of fantastic views, filling them with hypertrophied Chrysler Buildings and superscaled Rockefeller Centers.
Ferriss followed a host of other observers who had tried to come to terms with New York’s new architecture—including a highly impressed Leon Trotsky who called the city “a triumph of cubism”—but his drawings have had a staying power far greater than verbal descriptions. The closest contemporary vision was the science fiction classic Metropolis, made after director Fritz Lang had visited New York City. Metropolis of Tomorrow has continued to shape the look of future cities—Batman’s Gotham City, 23rd century New York in The Fifth Element, and Neo-Tokyo in the Japanese anime thriller Akira.
It’s an easy move from picturing vertical cities of towering skyscrapers to envisioning horizontal cities that cover entire continents, or even entire planets. The architectural visionary here is the Greek planner Constantinos Doxiadis, who combined practical work in developing regional plans for places like Detroit and a visionary career as the proponent of Ekistics, the comprehensive study of human settlements from the dwelling through neighborhood and city to the ultimate world city. As global population would grow to the tens of billions, he saw world urbanization linking megalopolis to megalopolis in a single globe-spanning city. Urban tentacles would interlock across every continent like a rhizomatic root system to create Ecumenopolis, a term that he coined in the 1940s and popularized in the 1960s. Describing “Ecumenopolis: Tomorrow’s City” in 1968, he wrote:
“All cities will be interconnected in major urban complexes where no distinction between large and small will be possible; they will all have become one… Such cities, growing dynamically over the next two or three generations, will finally be interconnected, in one continuous network, into one universal city which we can call the ecumenic city, the city of the whole inhabited earth, or Ecumenopolis.”
Coruscant is an ultimate ecumenpolis. Appearing in glimpses in Star Wars I, II, and III, it has a population somewhere around one trillion. The Phantom Menace gives us endless towers marching to the horizon. Revenge of the Sith shows an entire planet-city as backdrop to a space battle. Fans and spinoff novels have filled in the details of the endless city at the heart of the Galactic Republic and Galactic Empire.
It’s hard to be more spectacular than a world-girdling city, but Paolo Soleri tried to meet the challenge. An Italian-born architect who settled in Arizona in the 1950s, Soleri coined the term arcology to emphasize the potential marriage of architectural design with ecological goals. He took this seemingly reasonable idea and drew pictures of vast, self-contained cities. Arcology: The City in the Image of Man (1969) is a compendium of drawings of Babeldiga, Novanoah, Babelnoah, and a couple dozen other fanciful cities accompanied by realistic-looking invented data on surface area, density, and total population (6 million for Babelnoah).
The extra large, self-contained city has been immensely appealing to sci-fi writers already accustomed to thinking about the challenges of balancing the ecology of spaceships and space stations. “Arcology” is now fully at home in science fiction, as much an sci-fi term as an architectural term. Rising 1,000 stories and housing 800,000 contented residents, the self-contained Urban Monads in Robert Silverberg’s The World Inside (1971) are arcologies. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle set Oath of Fealty (1981) an arcology covering two square miles of Southern California. In the story, its population stands at 247,453, close to the design goal of 275,000. The arcology functions under the jurisdiction of Los Angeles, but just barely, using its huge economic clout to fend off the city’s rules and regulations.
In the current era of New Urbanism, arcologies may have lost some appeal as practical options, but they remain front and center in science fiction. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (2015) imagines a drought-devastated Southwest where the elite have taken refuge in arcologies that rise above the tattered, desperate suburbs of Phoenix and Las Vegas. The “water winners” in the arcologies enjoy abundant, recycled water while drought refugees scramble for survival on the parched streets outside. In a recent interview, Bacigalupi commented: “[T]hese are highly engineered systems and they’re built for the people who can afford to buy-in. So if you can buy your condo inside one of the arcologies up in Las Vegas or whatever, or in the Taiyang arcology down in Phoenix, you’re kind of sitting pretty… You’ve got good air filters, so of course forest fires, smoke and the dust storms outside don’t bother you. You’ve got wonderful organic food grown in your aquaponic vertical farms. You’ve got all of these things and then right outside there’s people like the Texans [displaced refugees] or other less fortunate people from Phoenix who can’t afford to get in.”
Bacigalupi’s take highlights science fiction’s addition to the urban imagination. Narratives add action to static images. Writers and filmmakers create thought experiments that test and enliven architectural ideas by putting them into dramatic motion and turning scenarios into compelling stories. If they are skilled at their craft, they populate the stories with believable characters who navigate the possibilities of new worlds, surfacing contradictions and problems that don’t show in a drawing.
Niven and Pournelle don’t share many political values with Bacigalupi, but they are equally aware that building an arcological world will take time. Soleri’s images have no history; they’re simply there on the page. The settings of novels require backstories and attention to economic and political process. When and if we start to build arcologies, privileged people will move in first, giving physical shape to class distinctions. In Niven and Pournelle’s Oath of Fealty, the arcologists are libertarians who turn their back on the less fortunate. In Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, they are the exploiters at the top of the political and economic hierarchies.
Let’s return to Hugh Ferriss and Blade Runner. Ferriss drew cities as viewed from high above or as seen by someone looking upward to a dizzying height. There are no streets—at least no streets filled with people. Blade Runner gave life to the same sort of city, sending Rick Deckard through vibrant, teeming, multi-ethnic streets in his search for rogue replicants. The towers set the stage, but the film reminds us of the inequalities that we’re likely to find in even the most antiseptically abstracted city. In director Ridley Scott’s backstory, Tyrell is one of four super-corporations that bestride the future worlds “where the poor get poorer and the wealthy get wealthier.” Even so, the streets teem with vitality, the mostly Asian faces and food stalls suggesting the city’s attractions for entrepreneurial immigrants. Given the choice, I’d rather live in Ridley Scott’s Los Angeles than Hugh Ferriss’s abstract metropolis.
Portland was a promising and livable city when I arrived in 1978. In 2016 it’s an exciting and livable city.
It helps that it’s bigger. When we got here, I offended people by telling them that I liked Portland because it was a large city. “No!” they said, “No! We’re not a big city. We’re just a large town.” I was surprised. What I thought was a compliment was taken as an insult—as if I were saying that Portland was Los Angeles.
I meant what I said, and I said what I meant, and I’m sticking to it.
Size brings critical mass for businesses and activities. Portland has a vibrant—if constantly shifting—restaurant scene because the pool of diner-outers is large enough to support them. The same goes for music, theater, film festivals, book stores, and other cultural institutions. It goes for themed charter schools, model railroad buffs, fans of 1950s architecture, and every other activity that requires customers or participants. Sports entrepreneurs know what they’re talking about when they rank metropolitan areas as markets to measure their suitability for an NBA or MLS franchise.
Size also lets business sectors develop an abundance of skilled and knowledgeable workers. If the city is large enough to support a wide array of good brewpubs, it automatically has a skilled pool of brewmasters to further advance the art and craft. A flourishing electronics industry depends on the availability of computer engineers who can move from one company to another. Metal fabricators, animators, sound technicians—a large city has pools of talented people who can staff and support new ventures.
How big is big enough? As far as I’m concerned, a metropolitan area of a million people just barely makes the cut (that’s Portland in the 1970s). Two million is a whole lot better (that’s Portland today).
Here are some off the cuff comparisons: Spokane, Boise, and Fresno aren’t big enough. They’re more likely to have one or two of something than a wide variety. Salt Lake City has just edged into OK-ness in the current century, but Seattle passed the two-million mark back in the 1970s and Denver did it around 1990.
More than anything else, size brings variety of people. Cities are huge machines for making connections. You can call a city a market, a switchboard, or a search engine. Whatever the metaphor, we have cities because they make it easy for us to exchange things and ideas, and the build new things and ideas as a result. Big is good because of simple mathematics—more people with ideas mean more possible combinations and permutations of those ideas.
More than a century and a half ago, the British philosopher John Stuart Mill had it down. In The Principles of Political Economy (1848) he wrote: “It is hardly possible to overstate the value, in the present state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with other persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar. Such communication has always been… one of the primary sources of progress.”
J. S. Mill was a very smart guy, and as far as I’m concerned, he nailed it. We go to the country to relax. We come to the city to get ideas.
How Scanners Democratize History
Upstairs at the Rialto Poolroom Bar and Café in downtown Portland, Oregon hip young adults are eating, drinking, and occasionally shooting pool. Downstairs another fifty people are eating, drinking, and listening to me lecture about the Lewis and Clark Exposition, the world’s fair staged in Portland in 1905. The audience includes a few students, some history buffs, and a meet-up group of 40ish and 50ish singles. I click away with my PowerPoint, they eat nachos and sip wine, and we all have a good time.
It’s June 21, 2011, and the first in a monthly series of Stumptown Stories sponsored by the Oregon Encyclopedia, an online project to create a reliable peer-reviewed reference on Oregon history. The encyclopedia’s editors are advocates of public history who see this sort of event as a way to generate ideas for entries, interest potential contributors, and inform the community. Speakers in the series have discussed topics like the Portland Longshore Strike of 1934 and lesbian communes in 1970s Oregon. The presenters have been academics, journalists, students, and history aficionados.
And that’s not all. The Oregon Historical Society sponsors a monthly History Pub lecture at McMenamins-Kennedy School, a trendy bar-restaurant-hotel-theater located in a 1920s elementary school building. McMenamins is a chain of brewpubs that likes to recycle old buildings and has its own skilled historian on staff. The Oregon Encyclopedia has its own arrangements for lectures in two other McMenamins locations in Portland and another series in the central Oregon city of Bend. Portland Monthly, a slick lifestyle magazine, sponsors a monthly discussion in another downtown club on urban design and planning with periodic invitations for local historians to provide historical context for such issues as downtown redevelopment.
Give much of the credit to the folks who developed optical scanners and yes, I hate to say so, PowerPoint for this explosion of historical activity. There has always been an appetite for local history. We might even call it a gateway drug for an interest in wider historical topics (along with the Civil War, of course). What’s new is the ease with which anyone with a computer and internet connection can access scanned documents and images—or perhaps scan their own—and join the public conversation as a blogger, lecturer, web site maven, or gadfly.
Scanners—the machines and the people who like to use them—are democratizing history, opening new opportunities for academic historians like me to reach new audiences and to interact with people producing and consuming history.
Scanners Democratize Access
Like many historians, I have somewhat fond memories of sitting in real archives on very hard wooden chairs paging through old books and opening folders stuffed with potentially fascinating letters and memos. The Newberry; the Huntington; the Library of Congress; local history rooms in public libraries in Washington, Norfolk, Denver, and other cities—they’ve all contributed to my historian persona.
But isn’t it nice to call up documents on screen? From the National Archives to university special collections departments, from state historical societies to custodians of archeological sites, keepers of historical information are scanning vast quantities of documents and images for their web sites. What historian of the United States hasn’t clicked into the American Memory site of the Library of Congress or other similar web sites to grab a map or picture for a lecture, identify documents for class assignments, or find an illustration for a book? And more to the point, what “amateur” history blogger hasn’t done the same, with exactly the same access and ability to dig up gems as someone who used to be privileged with access to academic archives?
I’ve written two studies of the development of cities in western North America, each peppered (or spiced?) with visual images.1 For the book that I wrote in the early 1990s, I was lucky enough to receive a small university research grant that let me visit photo archives around the West—the University of Washington Special Collections, the Montana Historical Society, the Denver Public Library, the Los Alamos Historical Society. Fifteen years later, I sat at my computer and clicked through menus of scanned images helpfully posted by the same historical organizations and many others. It was a great road trip the first time around, but the new technology would now allow anyone to replicate my search without putting expensive miles on their car.
Private collections of images and letters as well as the contents of public archives can now be made readily available. I recently wrote an overview history of Portland for general readers.2 Half the pictures came from private collectors who have assembled thousands of images: One buys up the files of defunct photographic studios and newspapers. Another scours garage sales and used book stores. These collectors have digitized their photographs for quick sharing with students, bloggers, and other people with the history bug. One of them commented that he simply wouldn’t be able to inventory and share his materials so generously if they weren’t in electronic form.
One of my students, Tanya March, recently drew on these same private collectors in researching her doctoral dissertation about the construction and social life of a World War II housing project for shipyard workers in Portland. She also monitors eBay for relevant images and creatively tapped new sources by sponsoring reunions of residents—who of course were children in the early 1940s. Many of them brought out photo albums from their attics. Tanya borrowed and scanned photos, posted some on a web site that attracted more people for interviews, and thus uncovered more images to scan and post. Her scanner was an important tool of research that helped to make the former residents co-producers of the community history.
Scanners Improve Lectures
Does PowerPoint make for more engaging lectures than a carousel of 35-millimeter slides? A few years ago I was skeptical, particularly after reading Edward Tufte’s denunciation of PowerPoint as a cognitive straitjacket.3 Now I’m converted for the simple reason of ease and richness of imagery. One of my special interests is the history of the Columbia River Gorge, its development for tourism, and its regulation as a National Scenic Area. Last year when I did one of those McMenamins lectures, I put the presentation together by scanning some black and white glossy prints that have been in my files for 20 years and pulling other images from half a dozen different web sites (special appreciation to the staff historians at the Oregon Department of Transportation). The message was my own interpretation of the role of “imperial” urban centers in the development of tourism, but the medium was a PowerPoint drawn from open access websites.
We can generalize. Our local proliferation of lectures and history nights wouldn’t be possible without the wealth of images on the web. Some of the presenters have their own collections. Others pick and choose from the millions of images online. Audiences come to learn from words, but they also expect pictures—and lots of them. When I talk about Portland’s changing neighborhoods, do listeners come for the carefully gathered statistics on ethnicity from the 1900 census that I find so interesting? Or do they come for the pictures of vanished houses and turn-of-the-century trolley cars? The whole, I hope, is more than the sum of its parts, but it is the abundance of scanned images that grabs the attention.
The availability of images is a great equalizer that smooths the disconnect between academic and popular approaches. It’s one thing for me to talk about Henri Lefebvre in a graduate seminar, another to use “before and after” images of a vanished African American neighborhood to help an audience think about Lefebvre’s “right to the city” without necessarily using those words. Moreover, audiences at the various presentations find it hard to tell the difference between university historians, public historians, and community historians if we all have decent PowerPoints.
A Website of One’s Own
Web sites and blogs are easier than old-fashioned self-publishing. If you have amassed interesting information that you couldn’t fit in your MA thesis, post it on a website. If you want more than a dozen people to read your actual thesis, post it as well—a good alternative to going through the scholarly publishing routine if you are not aiming at an academic career. This sort of posting, of course, is far more attractive if it includes lots of scanned images and documents. Graduates of Portland State’s MA program in public history sometimes supplement their thesis with a web site.4 While she works on shaping her dissertation research into publications about the history of childhood, Tanya March maintains a web site on her housing project.5
People who have never been interested in a graduate history degree can also take their collection of postcards, scan them, and put them up. If you are fascinated with old buildings or old neighborhoods, put up pictures and scan in old documents… blog about what you know… invite comments to fill in details and start a discussion. Portland has half a dozen interesting history blogs, all relying on scanned images for much of their impact. They’re not always interested in how the details fit into larger narratives, but they repeatedly teach me new things about a city I’ve been studying for three decades.6 They’re also a reminder that I need more pictures for my own web site where I’ve largely been posting op-ed columns and shorter magazine writing.
here is even more community history going on, of course. As I write, historic preservation activists have just completed a neighborhood National Register Nomination to which I’ve contributed. Community historians have recently published several solidly documented architectural and neighborhood histories. Graduates of Portland State University’s public history program are preserving documentaries made in the 1970s and presenting them with framing commentary by architects and historians—sometimes with their own sets of scanned images. Historical walking tours are available in flavors from traditional to twenty-something hip. Residents and tourists can visit not only the Oregon Historical Society but also the Architectural Heritage Center (which has its own public programs), Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center, and Oregon Jewish Museum (which recently cooperated on very cool programming about Mel Blanc, the Portland native who voiced Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig).
Carl Becker delivered my favorite American Historical Association presidential address eight decades ago, reminding his audience that we are all historians in the most basic sense of constructing temporal stories from the chaos of events:
Berate him as we will for not reading our books, Mr. Everyman is stronger than we are, and sooner or later we must adapt our knowledge to his necessities. Otherwise he will leave us to our own devices, leave us it may be to cultivate a species of dry professional arrogance growing out of the thin soil of antiquarian research. Such research, valuable not in itself but for some ulterior purpose, will be of little import except in so far as it is transmuted into common knowledge. The history that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world. The history that does work in the world, the history that influences the course of history, is living history.7
Becker was thinking in theoretical and political terms about the production and validation of knowledge, but the ubiquitous scanner is now helping to give concrete form to his point about the democratic basis of historical understanding. Scanners are an active technology for research and dissemination of historical information. They are also a metaphor for a changing world in which the historical enterprise is increasingly available for everyone. The result, at least in my city, has been burgeoning popular consumption and production of history. I find it exciting. Without abandoning specialized academic and monographic history, we have great opportunities to encourage, cooperate, and partner with the non-academic and community historians to help history do its work in the world.
1. The Metropolitan Frontier: Cities in the Modern American West (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1993); How Cities Won the West: Four Centuries of Urban Change in Western North America (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008).
2. Portland in Three Centuries: The Place and the People (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2011).
3. Edward Tufte, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint (Cheshire, Conn.: Graphics Press, 2003).
4. Sarah Paulsen. ” The Oaks in the Progressive Era.”
5. Tanya Lyn March. “Guild’s Lake Courts.”
6. Examples from Portland include the very interesting blog Cafe Unknown, the extensive Historic Photo Archive, and the historic photo blog Vintage Portland.
7. Carl Becker, “Everyman His Own Historian,” American Historical Review, 37, no.2 (January 1932): 234.
Copyright © American Historical Association
I’ve recently finished a book about science fiction cities–the urban types that appear and reappear in science fiction novels, films and television. It’s in the hands of Wesleyan University Press for publication in a year or so (academic publishing is not quick). In the meanwhile, you can find a preview of my ideas in an article on “Science Fiction Cities” in Deletion: The Open Access Online Forum in Science Fiction, Episode 2. Deletion is a fascinating online journal out of Australia. My piece is here: http://www.deletionscifi.org/episodes/episode-2/science-fiction-cities/