Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Sun Mar 8th 2009 at 10:26am UTC

Rethinking History

This post by Ellen Noonan on the American Social History Blog made me reflect on my own intellectual history. For much of my early university career I wanted to be an historian. I devoured social, economic, urban, labor, business, and technology history. But I realized there were virtually no jobs in history at the time. So I shifted to urban planning in large part because I thought if an academic career didn’t materialize, I’d have something to fall back on.

An article by the urbanist Richard Florida in the current Atlantic provided me with a welcome “aha” moment on the subway this morning, piercing the intellectually deadening fog of federal grant writing that has descended on me this week. Florida evaluates the current financial crisis in the context of previous convulsive shifts in the development of capitalism in the U.S., starting with the late 19th century–the original Great Depression…

Florida’s insights rest on a concept that seems useful for thinking about the next edition of the Who Built America? textbook. He argues that different phases in capitalist development engender and are enabled by specific geographies: the late 19th century shift from agriculture to manufacturing multiplied the rise of dense urban areas; the shift to a consumer economy that began during the 1930s led to (and was powered by) suburbanization. This connection of capitalism and space is not new, of course (think William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, for example), but Florida’s concise presentation of it in the service of understanding financial crisis helped me to connect the dots back to WBA.

Most of WBA’s narrative about U.S. history is driven by economic (mostly capitalist) transformation and how it both shapes and is shaped by working people. But midway through the second volume, around the early 1950s, economic transformation cedes the wheel to politics and social movements, which drive the remaining chapters of the textbook (with a few interjections from economic transformation, now ensconced in the back seat). WBA starts to sound more like other textbooks at that point, and we’ve so far made that trade-off in order to maintain coverage of many key events. But Florida might offer a conceptual solution. Can drawing those connections between space and capitalist development help us restore economic transformation to a more central place in the second volume’s later chapters? And can it help us to integrate environmental history–currently quite scarce in both volumes–in a way that is organic rather than tacked on? Have we missed the forest of postwar suburbs’ capitalist function and implications for the trees of their racial and class formation?

WBA does a great job of presenting the lived political, social, and cultural responses of Americans undergoing the financial crises and transformations of the 19th and 20th centuries. Now we need to start collecting evidence for this latest catastrophe.

7 Responses to “Rethinking History”

  1. Swordsman Says:

    That’s awesome. I majored in history as well as adult education and it’s nice to see this.

  2. Frank Spencer Says:

    Fantastic! As a strategic foresight specialist, I have a link to historical studies (both past and future), and I love to see the connection to more integrated and holistic views of events, cycles, and transformations.

  3. Swordsman Says:

    Oh, that’s intriguing. What does a “strategic foresight specialist” do?

  4. Peter Jones Says:

    Indeed, the foresight behind the social transformation of the global Peak Oil movement, transition towns, and new intentional communities considers the massive shift away from suburban lifestyles. Toronto’s own Greg Greene has produced two docs on the subject, End of Suburbia and Escape from Suburbia. We visualize that a next and new shift will require the young and disenfranchised to retake the urban centers and make them into their own new urban core sustainable communities. Driven by both economic survival and the need to create denser communities to barter and share resources (housing, travel, local markets), creative and fringe people will remake the cities to suit the new world. Whether corporations will follow, we will see. Another scenario we envision is that of Atwood-esque suburban enclaves built or occupied around major corporate centers. (Toronto’s own) Margaret has been dead-on before, with her current tome: Payback.

  5. Fred Zimmerman Says:

    Unfortunately, there’s a lot of research that suggests that the disenfranchised usually wind up in the undesirable areas. That’s why natural disasters usually affect the poor worst — it’s not just coincidence that the most vulnerable economically also wind up in the most vulnerable physically. By this logic, we’ll see the disenfranchised winding up in suburban subprime flop houses — apparently (can’t recall cite) this is already happening in California.

  6. Wendy Says:

    Hmmm… this article seems to suggest that you are a post-modern geographer, Richard, perhaps more than an historian (although the two are often quite interconnected these days). ;-)

  7. Robert Says:

    It’s nice to see that West Bromwich Albion, the world’s greatest football team, have their own textbook used in American schools.