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UHA Kenneth Jackson Award for Best Book (North American), 2012

 Elihu Rubin, Insuring the City: The Prudential Center and the Postwar Urban Landscape (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).

 

In his fascinating case study of the Prudential Center in Boston, architectural historian Elihu Rubin offers a surprisingly broad reinterpretation of urban renewal in the automobile age.   Rubin moves beyond the politics of renewal and treats corporate decision makers seriously as shapers of the postwar city.  In his keen analysis of architectural designs and site plans, Rubin offers a convincing case that “the Pru” is a “culturally significant landscape that exemplifies the production of urban space in postwar America.”   Rubin uses extensive archival research to trace the history of this iconic skyscraper and the surrounding city-within-a-city development, which accommodated the Boston Extension of the Massachusetts Turnpike.  The centrality of “the Pike” to the redevelopment of what had been the Boston and Albany rail yard, allows Rubin to examine the accommodation of automobiles in the vision of a reinvented and revived city.  In the process, Rubin reflects on the larger trends in Americans’ thinking about urban life in the mid twentieth century – the real fear of decline and hopes for renewal through massive investment in auto-friendly infrastructure, especially freeways and garages.  Prudential’s decision to build a number of central city skyscrapers in the 1950s and 1960s was just part of the insurance industry’s investment in urban America, a reminder of the critical role these “mighty pumps” of capital played in the creation of the service city.  Some observers have decried the massive intrusion of powerful corporations – and their sterile modern skyscrapers – in urban renewal politics and city skylines.  While casting Prudential as neither savior nor villain, Rubin concludes, however, that “we should remember that at a time when American cities were struggling Prudential took a gamble and made a decisive investment in its new home.” 

 

 

 

UHA Best Book Award (Non-North American), 2011-2012

 Yair Mintzker, The Defortification of the German City, 1689-1866 (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

 

Yair Mintzker’s work is a beautifully-written account of the demolition of the Medieval walls surrounding German cities. While other scholars suggest the Medieval walls were taken down as urban populations grew, or as suburban areas merged with urban centers, or even under pressure of industrialization, Mintzker demonstrates that defortification carried a larger political and cultural purpose. Mintzker argues that the destruction of the walls, which took place in most German cities in the early nineteenth century, marked a profound symbolic and material transformation in urban life. Defortification represented a shift from Medieval to modern, from closed to open, and from homogenous to cosmopolitan cities. Taking events that might appear simple and obvious, Mintzker spins an account of the rise of modern urbanism in western Europe. 


 

UHA Arnold Hirsch Award for Best Essay, 2012

Martin Meeker, "The Queerly Disadvantaged and the Making of San Francisco's War on Poverty, 1964-1967," Pacific Historical Review, 81 (Feb. 2012), 21-59.

 

The federal programs that emerged from Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society agenda have figured prominently in urban histories of modern America. In “The Queerly Disadvantaged and the Making of San Francisco’s War on Poverty, 1964-1967,” Martin Meeker shows how the sudden infusion of federal dollars into cities transformed the nature of interest group politics, redefined the very meaning of “disadvantage,” and played a significant role in giving rise to one of the most important—and understudied—social movements of the past half-century.  Focusing on the impoverished, marginalized, and ostracized neighborhoods of the Tenderloin and South of Market in mid-1960s San Francisco, Meeker traces the formation of a geographically defined and socially united gay community out of the struggles for recognition by the local agencies that dispensed federal monies.  Thanks to Meeker's thorough research and deft analysis, we gain revealing insights into how gays and lesbians came to see themselves as a people and a political faction, how they worked to redefine group disadvantage in public discourse and policy, and how they developed strategies for organizing on the local level for inclusion in the protections and benefits of the welfare state.  We also find provocative clues into the changing dynamics and tensions that came to characterize what Van Gosse has described as a "movement of movements" in post-1960s America.  Meeker's essay will surely compel urban historians to look at the Great Society's effects on American cities and urban politics anew, and promises to significantly advance scholarship on the gay rights movement.  

 

 

UHA Best Dissertation Award, 2012

 

Catherine C. McNeur, “The ‘Swinish Multitude’ and Fashionable Promenades: Battles over Public Space in New York City, 1815-1865,” completed at Yale University, 2012

 

Catherine C. McNeur’s “The ‘Swinish Multitude’ and Fashionable Promenades: Battles over Public Space in New York City, 1815-1865” is an expertly composed, thoroughly researched work that explores the class component of nineteenth-century struggles over both urban space and the city’s rapidly changing environment.  The writing is strong and engaging, offering an accessible yet sophisticated narrative.  In building her argument, McNeur effectively engages the relevant historiography and ably builds off the existing literature. As one member of the awards committee noted, she offers “good analyses of the paradoxes of progress and the city’s increasingly privatized landscape.”  Overall, this polished work is a model dissertation.