© 2016 Joseph Heathcott

In the Fall of 2015 I had the privilege to deliver the presidential address to the Society for American City and Regional Planning History.

Rather than discuss my research or dwell on the 'state of the field,' I decided to use the occasion to do something different.  

I took those present on a bicycle ride with me through the deindustrialized landscape of my childhood.  Back to Evansville, Indiana in the 1970s.  My goal was to reflect on what we do as scholars, and why we do it.  What motivates us, fuels us, calls us to be the scholars we are?

 

Growing up in the Industrial Midwest, I witnessed the unravelling of the world my family had worked hard to create--strong unions, stable neighborhoods, and a modicum of prosperity.    

 

Amid the strikes and layoffs, the plant closings and unemployment lines, the instability and family grief, I sought solace in the public libraries.  The libraries protected us, gave us a cool place to repose, helped us build new and better memories.  The librarians brought an ethic of care and a commitment to public good.  They were the Angels of Memory standing firm in the swirl of change.  My bicycle rides from one library to another mapped a criss-cross geometry, partly physical, partly spiritual, a geometry of memory and place, a geometry of hunger for something not-quite-understood.

Today we know why this world fell apart: capital flight, disinvestment, sprawl, and racism.  We know that it was never prosperous for all, and that the gains of working class whites were made at the expense of working class blacks.  We've even come to realize that it never really was a stable state, but rather a fragile world in the making--a kind of mirage, where "All that is Solid Melts into Air."  

 

And yet for all we do know, we still have very little understanding about how these transformations shaped the everday lives of families coping on the margins.  We have paid little attention to the traumas of these changes, to what MIndy Fullilove has called "root shock."  We are only beginning to come to terms with the impact of these changes on cities and urban life.

As I said in the conclusion of my talk, "the urban worlds we study are not great balancing acts where everything works out in the end, where we suffice to pronounce death in order to make room for life.  Racial segregation was not somehow compensated for by the communities of faith, creativity, and struggle created by African-American people, however rich and beautiful.  The pain and instability of working-class life under the sign of global capitalism cannot be redeemed by phrases like "post-industrial" and "creative destruction."  Otherwise, what we suppress returns to haunt us from the margins and in our dreams."