Harrison Middleton University

A Study in Urban History

A Study in Urban History

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Thanks to Dylan O’Hara, a 2020 HMU Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.

May 22, 2020

Some of the research that has inspired me the most over the last two years or so has been Urban History. The academic crossover between History, Anthropology, Political Science, Cartography, Geography, and Environmental Studies suddenly opened up a whole new world of exploration for me. I was excited to find it was creative, expressive, expansive, and somehow, endlessly everywhere. When I produced my first urban study, in the fall of 2019, I had no idea how far the project would follow me or influence me.

While earning my M.A. in History at the University of Texas, San Antonio, I volunteered as a docent at the Institute of Texan Cultures (ITC). While commuting between my apartment, the ITC, and the university, I learned the intimate shape of my San Antonio. As we all do, I memorized the potholes on my way to work, the posted speed limits, and the neighborhood shortcuts to avoid taking the highway after 4pm. But alongside my studies, the familiar driving routes, plazas, apartment complexes, overpasses, and even the museum started to look contrived. Why was that pothole there? Why did that spot on North Frio Street always flood?

I became especially interested in the site the ITC was built on. It had once been the site of the 1968 World’s Fair, the event that inspired the theme of the ITC. The fair, like the museum dedicated after it, featured the “confluence of cultures” that Texas represented, complete with stations dedicated to the multitude of ethnic groups that have made Texas their home. But I knew the site of the fair, and later the museum, did not have such a neat site history. On a riverboat tour of downtown San Antonio in the fall of 2018, I remember the guide telling us tourists that the riverbanks, in preparation for the now-famous River Walk and levee system, had to be cleaned up. I also remembered classmates of mine bemoaning the fact that San Antonio’s Centro Plaza’s renewal project (2 miles from the ITC) had displaced low incoming housing in the area. I wondered if this meant the history of the ITC’s site would reflect similar processes of urban renewal and gentrification.

The study I produced from that research, “Legacies of HemisFair: Urban Renewal and Mexican Americans in San Antonio, 1945-68,” unearthed the problems of city land management, the racial segregation produced by that urban renewal project, and profound community resistance against gentrification. From what other angle could I think about the history of cities? Deeply connected to this research and my historical subjects, I tried as best I could to do justice to the history and to the community members who came through so strongly in my research.

While researching this history, somewhat compartmentalized in my mind, I confronted my own climate grief. After moving back to the East Coast to begin my Ph.D. studies in the fall of 2019, I was, rather comically, reminded of the strength of Nor’easters. I laughed to myself about how differently San Antonio’s landscape had responded to extreme weather events, flooding bottom-up instead of freezing outside-in. I’d even forgotten that the very week I moved to Texas, in September 2018, Hurricane Harvey battered the state, leaving Houston underwater and San Antonio significantly flooded.

By then a full year after I thought I had completed “Legacies of HemisFair,” it seemed like I kept finding other legacies. There were spots on my drives down San Pedro Avenue and North Frio Street that always flooded after heavy rain. River Boat guides routinely gave guests a lengthy history of the San Antonio levee system, which I’d seen over the side of a Fiesta barge. I’d once even heard a rumor that the ITC had an expensive flood pump system in its basement that kept the flat parking lots from flooding the museum.

Flooding and ecological impact was not part of my original study. I hadn’t even considered it. Nor would I have known at the time how to interpret flood maps from the 1940s-60s. But having lived in San Antonio, my personal experience has changed the way I remember the city in hindsight. I may not have expected the sporadic flooding as one of the things I remember vividly about its landscape. But now living in a town that doesn’t flood, I notice the absence.

After realizing this, I’ve spent the last couple of months re-thinking the kinds of maps I use to construct historical urban studies. Of course, still relevant and essential are the old neighborhood maps, city lot maps, census data, and sewer and power grids. But flood maps, I’ve found, can be a contemporary guide to recurring structural problems in urban areas. They can reveal which neighborhoods have been successful in lobbying for state or federal flood protection. They can reveal which newly constructed neighborhoods or city renewal projects either still suffer from flooding, or have alleviated it. Flood maps can also help pinpoint the ways that ecological landscapes have changed over time, altering the outcomes of neighborhoods, event centers, and business districts across ecological time.

Many urban historians have noted that urbanity and urban spaces, though part of the constructed anthropocene, are themselves environments. As environments, changing and changed, they not only respond to constructed human activity, but floodplains, seasons, drought cycles, heatwaves, cold snaps, and surprise April snowstorms. A legacy of HemisFair could be sprawling floodplains across paved-over parking lots. A legacy of HemisFair could be shifting and altered flood zones following levee introduction. Exacerbated historical tensions could have had something to do with accelerated construction in anticipation of a storm, or with long construction hours in boiling heat. Inserting more detailed considerations of the environment can only help round out how urban historians think about their historical subjects, and how their subjects experienced the world around them.

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