Documenting the societal swing toward life in the metropolis

Julia Foulkes, author of To The City, answers the question: Why do people move to the city?

It’s no surprise that 9/11 caused me to wonder why I live in New York City. I don’t have a job that is easily movable, but still: why stay in a place where your chance of being caught in a terrorist attack are exponentially greater than in Bowling Green, Ohio, or Eugene, Oregon? While the attacks caused personal consternation, they also prompted intellectual ones: why do people move to the city?

As a cultural historian, I’m more interested in the ineffable qualities of life in the past rather than statistics and demographics. I knew that the 1920 census showed that more people lived in cities than a rural environment for the first time in the nation’s history. I also knew that it was a short-lived prominence: the sway to the suburbs was significant by the 1950 census. But the numbers couldn’t convey what I believed to be the aspirational pull of cities and urban life – not just the possibility of a job but the hope for a different kind of life. The pull that kept me and many others in New York City and Washington, DC, after 9/11.

I found those ineffable qualities in an unexpected source. One of the best-known efforts of the Works Progress Administration was the photographic project of the Farm Settlement Administration, more commonly known as the FSA/OWI collection (OWI was the acronym for the Office of War Information, which took over the photographic project in 1942). This collection boasts such famous photos as Arthur Rothstein’s capture of an Oklahoma dust storm and Dorothea Lange’s portrayal of despondency in “Migrant Mother,” each icons of the Great Depression. The project’s formation began as a way to document rural America in the face of massive migration and hardship in the farms and rural lands of the country. But alongside the photographs of that desperation are the places to which farmers and migrants were moving: cities. In spite of an avowed concern with rural life, photographers of the FSA/OWI also documented the pull of the city and the intrusion of urban life into country ways.

The photographs in To the City focus on new aspects of urban life such as the mechanized level of traffic that cars brought about; the cultural attractions from “high” to “low”; and the renewed possibilities of citizenship, particularly in the war years. One of my favorites is a photograph by John Vachon that he titled “Window Shopping,” which displays a sole shopper gazing at suits in a large empty lobby of a clothes store (p. 67). The photo captures not only the shopper’s determined intent but his reflection in the window creates a new vision, as his mirrored head sits atop a mannequin displaying a dapper new suit. In the midst of the Great Depression, the anonymity, commerce, and diversity of the city offered more dreams, more chances to see another vision of the world in which one was composed, attractive, and sure of where one was going.

If the role of cities in world affairs has come to be a tenser one since the 1930s and ‘40s, through the crisis of the 1960s and ‘70s to today’s terrorists’ schemes, it is useful to remember when and how cities have also been the focus of opportunity and aspiration. To the City gives grain, tone, and detail to the larger societal swing toward life in the metropolis, whether in residence or in the imagination.

Understanding how time “flies.” Or why it doesn’t.

In this blog entry, Michael Flaherty, author of The Textures of Time explains how and why we sense time thee way we do.

We sense time, and our experience of time varies. The events in our lives seem to happen quickly or slowly, more or less often, or in a particular sequence. Silk doesn’t feel the same as sandpaper. Likewise, from a subjective standpoint, time has different textures.

Why is there variation in the textures of time? This question concerns causality as well as temporal experience. When you examine temporal experience, what you see is alternation, the yin and yang of cause and effect: sometimes things happen to us; sometimes we make things happen.

In certain situations, it would appear that time happens to us; our temporal experience seems to result from our circumstances. In other situations, we make time happen; we design or construct our circumstances such that they act back on us to produce a desired form of temporal experience.

With murder, one is a victim of circumstances. In contrast, there is “suicide by cop” where individuals who want to die, but cannot bring themselves to do what is necessary, threaten police officers in an intentional effort to provoke the officers to do the killing for them. Is temporal experience more analogous to murder (where the outcome is imposed on the individual) or suicide by cop (where the individual arranges and desires the outcome)?

Those who study time have done so from the assumption that time happens to us. They think temporal experience is the result of forces in nature or society, forces beyond our ken or control. They view time as somehow “out there,” cosmic, coercive, and indifferent to our desires and inclinations. In so doing, they overlook the ubiquitous ways in which we create our own temporal experience.

For The Textures of Time, my research assistants and I interviewed 406 people from all walks of life. In these interviews, they describe how they attempt to control, manipulate, or customize their own experience of time, or that of others. Their fascinating stories make it clear that we construct much of our temporal experience by means of techniques that I call “time work”–our efforts to provoke or prevent various forms of temporal experience.

In their stories, our subjects describe multiple dimensions of time work. There are efforts to make an interval seem longer or shorter than its objective duration as measured by the clock or calendar. Other respondents decide how often something should happen, thereby exercising control over the frequency or rate at which they experience it. A number of respondents try to customize the sequence or succession (first, second, third, etc.) of their activities or experiences. Some seek the optimal timing of an event, while others make an effort to determine the right allocation of time. There are those who steal time from their employers for the sake of personal business while they are “on the clock.”

Temporal experience does not just happen to us. On the contrary, there is ample evidence of self-determination in the construction of situations to which one wants to respond, not because these situations are ends in themselves but because they are thought to bring about particular types of temporal experience. By virtue of these homespun practices, we are all “doing time.” There is enormous variety in this conduct, and it would appear that no situation is immune from such effort.

Why, then, has this behavior been overlooked? Our subjects acknowledge it readily when prompted by careful questioning, and they frequently take pride in their own ingenuity, but, from an observer’s perspective, there is little to see because so much of this effort is personal, even subjective, and it is often clandestine. Nonetheless, the study of time work reveals the humanly produced origins of our temporal experience.

Behind Lori Peek’s Behind the Backlash

In this blog entry, Lori Peek, author of Behind the Backlash: Muslim Americans after 9/11, explains what prompted her to write a book about the hate crimes, discrimination, and feelings of social isolation that have marked the Muslim experience since that fateful day in 2001.

Stories matter. They matter because they are how communities and even entire societies come to understand and pass down moments of collective history.

In the aftermath of 9/11, powerful voices joined together to tell the story of the terrorist attacks. Of course, the story came in many different forms—political speeches, newspaper articles, television coverage, and so forth—but the storyline was nearly always the same. The protagonists were average, ordinary Americans. The plot focused on their shock, their grief, their anger, their national pride, and their collective solidarity.

This particular narrative is not untrue—at least in the sense that it does indeed capture how many Americans experienced 9/11. However, as I argue in Behind the Backlash, the narrative is incomplete.

 I decided to write this book so that I could share the accounts of the Muslim Americans whom I interviewed in the years following the attacks. These men and women, without exception, wished to be a part of the so-called “nation united.” Instead, they found themselves on the outside, looking in. One young Muslim woman, a law student who was living in New York City on 9/11, captured the feeling perfectly: “I wanted to join those people who were volunteering downtown. … To me, that was the American community coming together and trying to do what they can. But I didn’t feel like I could, for my own safety. I wear a headscarf. I wanted to be part of that community, but I’m not really.”

Behind the Backlash documents both the visible injuries as well as the more invisible forms of suffering that Muslim Americans endured after 9/11. But that too is only part of their story. Muslim Americans also exhibited incredible strength and solidarity after 9/11, as members of the community came together to try to reassert and reclaim their faith.

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