cities -- urbanity -- design
In 2009, the editor of the H-Urban Listserve asked members to introduce themselves by posting short autobiographical sketches as a way to understand the wide range of backgrounds and experiences of participants. This is what I wrote, with a few updates.
My name is Joseph Heathcott. Since I was 14 years old, I have held jobs as a roofer, dishwasher, carpenter, fry cook, "yard dog" (lumber yard worker), community organizer, teaching assistant, and professor. I am also a compulsive peripatetic, amateur archivist, and collector of LPs, post cards, old radios, books, and found objects. I drink coffee like water.
My day job and principal craft is teaching, which I do as an Associate Professor of Urban Studies at The New School in New York. I am married to Ashley Cruce, a community development specialist and environmental educator. We live in cooperative apartment located in the planned "garden city" neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens.
I was raised in a working class Catholic family in Evansville, Indiana, a humid river city in the Industrial Midwest named by Business Insider as one of the 10 most miserable places to live. We were only a generation or so removed from rural tenancy--sharecropping in Tennessee and coal mining in Kentucky.
The neighborhood where I grew up was wedged in between gas stations, liquor stores, train tracks, machine shops, trucking terminals, and a housing project. From an early age I explored rail yards and abandoned factories on my bicycle with friends. You can see old photographs of Evansville here.
But growing up in the 1970s, the world that my family had helped to create--strong unions, high wages, and full employment--was dissolving before our eyes. One by one, the factories closed; my father was often laid off or on strike, and my mother held a string of low-paying temp jobs. Then in the 1980s, my neighborhood was torn up by a six-lane Expressway. These experiences left a deep impression on me, and led to an abiding interest in how cities are put together, and how they come apart.
When I was 12, I began taking photographs with my father's camera. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s I spent countless hours roaming the city, often with my cousin, shooting in junkyards and alleyways. In many ways, I learned to be an urbanist first and foremost through making photographs. I went on to pursue photography and printmaking in college at Washington University. While in St. Louis I connected with the Catholic Worker, volunteered with formerly incarcerated men, and spent my free time cycling around St. Louis's varied and shattered landscapes--including the vast Pruitt-Igoe site.
By long habit, then, I am an urbanist, which simply means that I think about cities. In fact, I think about them almost every minute of every day. Along with a native deficit of attention, my interdisciplinary Ph.D. training in American Studies has led me to range further across topics than perhaps I should. But for me, the city is a phenomenon whose manifold dynamism vastly outstrips any one discipline’s ability to capture its complexity. To study cities is a thrilling, if humbling prospect.
I work in the academic penumbra of the scholar-practitioner, never fully at home in one place or the other. (You can read more about what I do here.) As a result, my efforts have appeared in a wide range of venues, from books and magazines, to literary reviews, exhibits, blogs, DIY 'zines, radio broadcasts, and journals of opinion. My practice tends to fall into three overarching formats: visual and curatorial endeavors; community-based work; and writing (academic and otherwise). I have also devoted a lot of time to neighborhood groups, non-profits, and community organizations around issues of labor, affordable housing, tenants rights, and historic preservation. I've served on boards for Jobs with Justice, Landmarks Association of St. Louis, the Coalition of Low-Income and Homeless Citizens, the Red Brick Community Land Trust, and the Center for Urban Pedagogy.
If there is a connecting thread to my work, it is the search for the causes, consequences, and multiple meanings of urban transformation over the past two centuries. And if I have settled on one realization in my work, it is that this thing that we call 'the city' resists not only our desire to plan, control, and govern it, but also our efforts to know it in the first place. All that is solid does, indeed…well, you know.