Annual Meeting Preview: Examining “The Neighborhood”: The Power of the Local in Postwar National Narratives

This session takes place on Saturday, April 6, at the 2019 OAH Annual Meeting in Philadelphia and is endorsed by the Western History Association
Twitter: #AM2920

Chair: Lila Berman, Temple University
Commentator: Clayton Howard, Ohio State University

Corona’s Fighting 69: The Politicization of Everyday Life in the Struggle to “Save the Neighborhood”
Daniela Sheinin, University of Michigan

Race, Liberalism, and Neighborhood Exceptionalism in the Great Society City: The Case of St. Louis’s LaClede Town Community
Benjamin Looker, American Studies Dept., St. Louis University

“We Try To Be Good Neighbors” : Mexican Americans and The Antinarcotics Crusade in San Antonio, Texas’ Model Cities Neighborhood, 1967–1973
ToniAnn Treviño, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

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Examining “The Neighborhood”: The Power of the Local in Postwar National Narratives

We often speak of the role of the nation-state and federal agencies in providing and maintaining our freedoms. We imagine the creation, protection, and maintenance of our freedoms to happen in state capitols and courtrooms. Freedom, though, is often the labor of men, women, and children in local neighborhoods. Similarly, American freedoms are often understood as a product of federal policy. They are just as often forged in rituals of community participation and belonging; celebration of culture and free expression; or local political action including resistance to external imposition. Local actors work to ensure their freedoms, however small-scale they might be, but often with larger implications for city, state, and nation.

This panel introduces neighborhoods as both topic and mode of analysis. When left unexplored, “neighborhood” as a static geographic or demographic divider sometimes sidesteps local perspectives, the nature of community conflict and diplomacy with powerful bureaucratic actors, and key social, cultural and political changes. By reconfiguring the “neighborhood” as an analytical concept, this panel aims to identify a critical mode of complicating conceptions of the state.

The neighborhood might be thought of as a filter for national identities, as a material manifestation of “American” values in various forms, and ultimately, as the circuit through which state power flows. At the same time, the state is subject to neighborhood actors. Studying neighborhoods lends itself to a closer examination of how communities, often discussed in terms of cohesive identities and resistance in myriad forms, expressed contesting ideas about how to engage with state power. In this panel we see moments in which neighborhood-based identities shaped disparate imaginations of how national trends in policing, urban renewal, and housing development might unfold. Neighborhood, in this context, becomes a negotiation tactic. It becomes a platform on which local actors work toward forms of freedom.

Considering the historical role of neighborhoods and local communities allows us to better understand how people conceive of themselves as Americans/citizens through determining access to resources, and in how they utilize the neighborhood itself as a resource. “Average” Americans become political intermediaries and power brokers as they live their daily lives. Battles over public and private space, zoning, and solutions for social ills illuminate how neighborhood residents understood their communities’ best interests and engaged with social institutions to perform what they considered to be the work of freedom.

At the intersection of metropolitan history, cultural history, social history and political history, these papers consider the varying circumstances of neighborhood formation and the material and ideological advantages of assuming a local, collective identity. By assuming the “local” as a critical framework through which historical actors operate, this panel does the imperative work of centering neighborhoods to emphasize the overlooked role of micro-level interactions in shaping national histories.

Recommended Reading:

  • Benjamin Looker, Nation of Neighborhoods: Imagining Cities, Communities, and Democracy in Postwar America, 2015
  • Suleiman Osman, Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York, 2011
  • LaKisha Michelle Simmons, Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans, 2015
  • Bryant Simon, Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America, 2004
  • Lilia Fernández, Brown in the Windy City: Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Postwar Chicago, 2014

Daniela Sheinin is a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan. She received her M.A. from the University of Toronto, and specializes in United States cultural and urban history. Her dissertation, "Staging Neighborhood: Making Queens in the Construction of New York’s Last Great Park 1935–1990" examines the many phases of Flushing Meadow Park as the catalyst for neighborhood formation and major urban and cultural change in New York City. Her article "Kookie Thoughts: Imagining the United States Pavilion at Expo 67 (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bubble)" appeared in the Journal of Transnational American Studies in 2013.

Posted: February 5, 2019
Tagged: Conference, Previews, OAH Works