HIST 338: U.S. Urban History
Fall 2016: TuTh 11:00-12:15 
Jackson 104

Professor Evan Friss
Office Location|Hours: Jackson 220|TBA

Course Description and Objectives

In this course we will explore the history of urban spaces in the United States. To do so, we will investigate American cities using a broad framework, chronologically, geographically, and thematically. In addition to becoming familiar with the central themes and theories of urban history, learning how to read urban spaces, evaluating the effectiveness of urban histories, identifying historical arguments, and improving your analytical skills by thinking, talking, and writing about books, articles, plays, films, paintings, and music, the ultimate goal of this course is to afford you the opportunity to produce your own narratives and become, at least for this one semester (but perhaps even longer), urban historians. 

Required Texts:

The only “book” you need to purchase is the play Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris.  All of the other readings will be available on Canvas and/or at the library.

Grading and Assignments:

Participation (15%) and Quizzes (15%)

  • Our course meetings will include a mix of lectures, discussions, and primary source activities. Your preparation for, and participation during, class is imperative. In order to encourage intelligent participation, we will regularly have quizzes based on the readings and recent lectures.

Gangs of New York Paper (15%)

  • After reading excerpts from three different authors (Anbinder, Asbury, and Gilfoyle) and watching (on your own time) Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York write a 1,000 word essay in which you explore the different ways in which the authors/filmmaker depict the history of New York’s underworld.  You will want to think about the ways in which the sources differed, in terms of both style and content, and which offered the most/least effective approach in terms of understanding urban history.  The paper is due by Sept. 29 and should be submitted via Canvas.

Harrisonburg Walking Tour Project (25%)

  • Harrisonburg Walking Tour Podcast (20%): Each student will narrate an audio podcast of a historical landmark here in Harrisonburg.  To do so, you will need to research the history of the site, record a four to five minute narration, and post the podcast and related images, maps, etc. and source citations to our project website.  The first draft of your post is due on Oct. 13.  After receiving three critiques from your peers, you are expected to significantly revise your post and podcast to reflect the suggestions.  The final project is due on Nov. 10.
  • Walking Tour Critique (5%): Each student will be assigned three other posts and podcasts to review.  To write your critique, you’ll need to visit the landmark, listen to the podcast, and compose a 200 word review in which you provide meaningful suggestions on how to improve.  Due: Oct. 27

Research Paper/Presentation (30%)

  • Research Paper (22.5%): Write a 2,000-2,500 word essay on a topic of your choice.  You should choose a narrow topic limited to one city, one time period, and one theme.  For example, you would not want to write a paper about women and cities, but you might instead choose to research how people reacted to women riding bicycles in Minneapolis in the 1890s.  You will need to make an argument and will want to draw from both primary and secondary sources, connecting your research to important themes, readings, etc. that we have discussed in class.  Your topic must be approved by Sept. 27 and the final paper, to be submitted via Canvas, is due on Dec. 8.
  • Research Presentation (7.5%): In addition to writing the research paper, you will also present your findings to the class.  Your presentation should include digital sources (e.g., photographs, moving images, maps, etc.) that will enhance our understanding of your argument.  The presentations should last ten minutes and be interesting, informative, and relevant to the themes explored in the course.


For information on these polices, visit: http://www.jmu.edu/history/syllabus.shtml

  • The JMU Honor Code and Academic Honesty (Plagiarism will result in an automatic “F” grade for this course.)
  • Registration Dates and Deadlines
  • College of Arts and Letters First-week Attendance Policy
  • Inclement Weather
  • Intellectual Property
  • Disability Accommodations
  • Religious Accommodations


Aug. 30 & Sept. 1|Foundations
8/30: Introductions
9/1: Lewis Mumford, The City in History, Chap. 1

Sept. 6 & 8|Food & Animals
9/6: Catherine McNeur, Taming Manhattan, Chap. 1; Etienne Benson, “The Urbanization of the Eastern Gray Squirrel in the United States”
9/8: Cindy Lobel, Urban Appetites, Chap. 1

Sept. 13 & 15|Nature 
9/13: Michael Rawson, Eden on the Charles, Chap. 2
9/15: William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis, Chap. 3

Sept. 20 & 22|The Underworld
9/20: Herbert Asbury, The Gangs of New York, Chaps. III, V, and IX
9/22: Tyler Anbinder, Five Points, 201-234; Timothy Gilfoyle, A Pickpocket’s Tale, Chap. 7

Sept. 27 & 29|Planning
9/27: Gerard Koeppel, City on a Grid, 1-28; Commissioners Plan for New York (1811); The Plan of Chicago (1909), Chap. 6 (Research Topic Due)
9/29: Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 143-199 (Gangs of New York Paper Due)

Oct. 4 & 6|Mobility
10/4: Clay McShane and Joel Tarr, The Horse in the City, Chap. 3; Evan Friss, The Cycling City, Chap. 1; Sam Bass Warner, Jr., Streetcar Suburbs, Chap. 2
10/6: Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Chap. 4; Zachary M. Schrag, The Great Society Subway, Chap. 3

Oct. 11|Sexuality & Gender
10/11: George Chauncey, Gay New York, 179-225; Emily A. Remus, “Tippling Ladies and the Making of Consumer Culture”
10/13: No class today (Walking Tour Podcast First Draft Due)

Oct. 18 & 20|Suburbs
10/18: Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier, Chap. 3; Dolores Hayden, Building Suburbia, Chap. 4
10/20: Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors, Chap. 1; Andrew Wiese, Places of Their Own, Chap. 3

Oct. 25 & 27| Race
10/25: Thomas Sugrue, Origins of the Urban Crisis, Introduction & Chap. 2;  N.D.B. Connolly, A World More Concrete, Chap. 3
10/27: Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing (Walking Tour Peer Review Due)

Nov. 1 & 3|Gentrification
11/1: Suleiman Osman, Inventing Brownstone Brooklyn, Introduction; Bruce Norris, Clybourne Park, Act I
11/3: Bruce Norris, Clybourne Park, Act II

Nov. 8 & 10|Art & Architecture
11/8:  Daniel Bluestone, Constructing Chicago, Chap. 4
11/10: Research Presentations  (Walking Tour Podcast Due)

Nov. 15 & 17|Power
11/15: Mike Davis, City of Quartz, Chap. 4; Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, Chap. 3
11/17: Research Presentations

Thanksgiving Week|No Class 

Nov. 29 & Dec. 1|Sound
11/29: Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (Excerpt); “Why Don’t We Call it Punk” in Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk
12/1: Research Presentations

Dec. 6 & 8|The Future of Urban Spaces and Urban History
12/6: Research Presentations
12/8: Bring to class a recent article that speaks to the future of American cities (Research Paper Due)