Friday, December 6, 2013
December 6, 2013: Harrisburg Histories: Whither American Cities?
[In October, I had the chance to visit Harrisburg (PA) for the first time, and to start to learn about the city’s rich and complex histories. This week, I’ll highlight five responses to some of what I encountered in Pennsylvania’s capitol city.]
On the question at the core of the week’s series, and two ways to start answering it.
A few years back, the New England American Studies Association conference (held at the amazing Boott Cotton Mills Museum in the Lowell National Historical Park) focused on the theme of the “Post-American City.” It’s a provocative and challenging idea, drawn from the title of Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World (2008), but it also has the potential (if misdirected, I’d argue) to elide the simple but crucial question of where America’s cities go from here. My grad school home of Philadelphia, with its neighborhoods of “blight” but also its downtown and Old City resurgences, often exemplifies these uncertain and evolving urban arcs, as I wrote in that linked post. But in its own ways, as I hope this week’s series has demonstrated, Harrisburg and its histories, stories, communities, and present realities, are just as much at the heart of this question.
I’m not going to pretend that I have the answer; but I would argue that one of the greatest cultural works of the last couple decades, the TV series The Wire, would be a really good place to start. On one level, that’s because the show confronts the realities of 21st century American cities far more directly and unflinchingly and thoroughly than any other text I know. But on another, The Wire offers one seemingly simple but generally overlooked way to consider those cities’ futures: by engaging with all of their communities and populations, including the African American communities that tend to be either left out of our narratives or included in incredibly simplistic and stereotypical ways. By focusing in large part (at least initially) on the drug trade in West Baltimore, The Wire might be superficially read as reinforcing such stereotypes—but it very quickly moved well beyond those narratives, and by the time we met the four middle school boys at the center of Season Four, I would argue the show was presenting a side of 21st century African American life we had never seen on American television before.
So that’d be one way for us to start answering my post’s titular question—to engage more fully with all those communities who comprise our 21st century cities. A second, and related, way would be to stop thinking about cities as so completely distinct from (and even opposed to) other American places and communities. Obviously our cities have their own identities and histories, individually and then collectively, that differentiate them from small towns or rural communities or any other social space. But just as obviously (to anyone who cares to think about it, at least) they’re full of Americans struggling with the same 21st century issues we all are: jobs and housing, education and health care, addictions and crime, communal conflicts and connections, hope and despair. And like all of us, they can do so better if they recognize a couple things: the continuing role and meaning of their histories, including the kinds I’ve highlighted in this series; and the way in which those histories, like so much else, are unifying links that all Americans share, a part of the legacies that make us who we are and that we carry with us into our collective future—whatever we make it.
Special weekend post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?