Just Cities

The United States is an urban nation. More than 2/3 of Americans live “on the 3 percent of land that contains our cities” (Glaeser, 1).

Cities are sites of economic ingenuity, creativity, tourism, and growth. They are also places of wealth inequalities, persistent poverty, and oppression. Taken together these realities point to the importance of understanding the history, policies, and practices that have shaped U.S. cities as they are much more than “just” cities. And for many people living in urban areas over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, cities have been anything but “just.”

This course will examine American cities through an interdisciplinary exploration of the interwoven themes of community, commemoration, conscience, and place-making. We will examine questions about “just cities” with a range of tools taken from history, urban policy, urban planning, American studies, and cultural studies. Topics such as housing, transportation, education, economic development, and public memory will amplify the course themes. Students will learn to analyze and engage with a range of texts from monographs to film, to statues and city landscapes, to understand the role and importance of cities, the complexities of their development, and the challenges of creating just cities.

Inside the Classroom

Together, we will explore the impact of race, ethnicity, and socio-economic class in sharping urban policies and practices as well as cities’ attempts to create an identity and brand in response to these issues through commemoration and historical place-making. Richmond, Virginia and Montgomery, Alabama will serve as case studies to delve into these issues and to consider cities within local, regional, and national contexts. Along with gaining a deeper understanding of urban history, policy, and place-making, this class will also help students understand how individuals and groups can effect change in their role as civic actors and will equip students to understand the importance and develop skills for comparative analysis. Students will also practice critical problem solving, effective communication, team-work, self-reflection, and responsibility in the educational process as well as in the living community.

This course will be linked with Dr. Nicole Maurantonio’s “Commemorating Cities” SSIR. Students in both classes will have the opportunity to connect with and learn from both professors and one another, to engage the course themes through a range of disciplinary lens, to deepen their understanding of Richmond, and to forge connections to other cities across the United States. Both classes will meet periodically throughout the year, travel together, and collaborate on final projects.

Outside the Classroom

Students will connect and apply their in-class reading and discussions with experiential learning in Richmond and Montgomery. While the focus of “Just Cities?” will be on urban history and policy, Dr. Maurantonio’s class will focus on power and public memory. Collaboratively, we imagine the classes operating as powerful complements.

Throughout the fall semester, we will explore Monument Avenue, the Devil’s Half Acre, the Capitol, Jackson Ward, and East End cemetery, among other sites in Richmond to ground the core themes of community, commemoration, conscience, and place-making. During fall break, we will travel to Montgomery, Alabama to visit the new Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial to Peace and Justice, Rosa Parks Library and Museum, and the Alabama State Capitol to compare and connect the histories, commemorative efforts, and continuing challenges in the two former confederate cities.

Research and Capstone Project

Students will develop collaborative projects working with Dr. Maurantonio’s class that apply course materials to community-based needs. Envisioned as responsive rather than prescriptive, these projects will be designed to support community organizations’ efforts in Richmond.