University News

Penn prof unites history and urban studies in talk

Thomas Sugrue connects 20th century events to issues the Obama administration faces

By
Staff Writer

Even in the days President Obama was in grade school, he was ingrained with modes of thinking about policy that would affect a nation. In a speech about modern-day urban planning and the rich history that shaped it, Thomas Sugrue, professor of history and sociology at Penn, illuminated the connection between past and present in Rhode Island Hall Friday.

“Change occurs within the parameters that are established by past regimes,” Sugrue said at the event. In his lecture, he traced how events of the ’60s and ’70s contributed to the work the Obama administration faces today. A broader context influences the challenges confronting the first “urban president” the nation has seen in a long time, Sugrue said in reference to Obama’s Chicago roots.

The constraints and opportunities of urban development and justice today are entrenched in the United States’ past, particularly in its history of race relations, Sugrue said. He told The Herald that living in a city “pretty much (his) entire life” sparked his interest in this area of study, because he was “keenly aware” of the importance of these issues in both American history and contemporary American politics and society.

Sugrue presented the perspectives of both sides of the urban policy debate as they evolved over time. After outlining the liberal and conservative positions on urban policy from the late ’50s and early ’60s, he focused on the two primary and contrasting strains of “crisis management techniques” that emerged in the early ’60s, the years during which Obama “came of age.”

Integrationist planning, the first of these techniques, emphasized open housing, anti-discrimination and civil rights, he said. Advocates of this approach focused on race in a metropolitan or regional context and used their clout to push for policy innovation. In contrast, proponents of community control rejected the idea of regionalism and instead supported grassroots organizations, demanding citizen participation and working more on “micro-level interventions,” Sugrue said.

Sugrue highlighted the groups’ divergent definitions of success as a critical difference between the two. The integrationists considered their approach a means to an end, giving minorities access to new power, while the community-based supporters saw the process of giving minorities tools of self-determination to be an end in itself. Ultimately, he said, “the community control activists prevailed.”

Concluding his presentation, Sugrue connected the history of urban policy back to the modern-day challenges and promises the Obama administration faces as it seeks to transcend the struggles of the past.

“We see the fundamental ways the choices of 40, 30 and 20 years ago are still shaping, creating and constraining the choices … of today,” he said.

The 50-minute presentation was followed by a lengthy question-and-answer session, in which Sugrue covered topics ranging from President Lyndon Johnson to zoning laws to the high concentration of disadvantaged populations in urban areas.

Domingo Morel GS, whose dissertation deals with some of the issues Sugrue explored, said he was interested in how Sugrue addressed the questions motivating urban policy in the ’60s and ’70s and how they influence the “limitations and opportunities” of today.

Kate Blessing ’13, an urban studies and history concentrator who coordinated the talk with Urban Studies Academic Program Coordinator Meredith Paine, knew Sugrue personally prior to the event. Sugrue’s book, “The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit,” “changed the way I look at history,” she told The Herald. She said she thought a presentation by Sugrue would be relevant for both faculty and students, many of whom are city residents. She opened the presentation by introducing both Sugrue and Professor of History Robert Self, who, in his subsequent remarks, described Sugrue as “one of the most influential American historians of the past two decades.”

The presentation attracted a large and diverse group of students, faculty and community members.