Sunday, March 1, 2015

History is What Happens When You are Looking the Other Way: A Review of Andrew Needham's Power Lines

There are lots of ways to think about history and lots more ways to research and write it.  One way of thinking about it is the kind that Rick Perlstein's been doing of late.  In The Invisible Bridge, Perlstein took well-known and well-covered events that many (most?) of his readers experienced, or were at least alive for, and recontextualized them to help recover a lost narrative and re-introduce a sense of contingency into what has become a story about the inevitable rise of Ronald Reagan.  I liked Perlstein's book a lot, in part because it took the familiar and made it strange and new.  That's useful stuff in the history world.

There is another kind of history writing.  It's the kind that looks at things that nobody (or few people) anyway, thought of as important at the time and shines a light on them to get us all to see some deep important point that previously we all missed.  Bill Cronon writing about the rearrangement of nature in colonial New England, for example or Perry Miller discovering the American Jeremiad in Puritan sermons.  These are the types of books that make you reevaluate everything you think you know about the craft of history writing and the whole way you think about history.  Andrew Needham as written this kind of book.

That's a big claim.

But Needham has written a book that covers the Post-war period from the 1950s to roughly 1980 and here are the things you won't find in it:  an extensive discussion of the African American Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, Students for a Democratic Society, hippies, free love, drugs, rock and roll, the anti-War movement, the women's rights movement, the Cuban Missile Crisis, atomic weapons, and Levittown.    Almost every major marker of conventional post-war narratives is missing from Power Lines:  Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest.  And yet, the book explains a lot, and I mean a lot, about the country that we live in now and how we got here.  To explain why, you need to understand Needham's approach here:  history was largely happening when everybody's attention was elsewhere.  Even the parts that are at least seemingly, familiar, like the Glen Canyon Dam controversy, Needham reinterprets in ways that are unanticipated. 

*                                                  *                                                                *
Western U. S. history has roughly fallen into three modes of storytelling: stories that focus on place, the unique mostly arid, Western environment,  stories that focus on process, most particularly the frontier but also integration into the larger nation-state, and stories that focus on cultural encounters with Native Americans but also Spanish-speaking peoples: Chicanos, Hispanos, Tejanos, and others.  At first glance, Needham seems to fit neatly into the place tradition.  He's writing about Phoenix and it's phenomenal growth after all.  The first third of the book, a section called, Demand, chronicles the rise of Phoenix and they efforts by Phoenicians (ugh) to modify their environment to secure the cities growth.  Phoenix needed three things to grow: people, water, and electricity.  The first came, in part, through a clever advertising campaign.  Phoenix boosters emphasized modern living and how electricity could beat the heat and ease the burdens of homemakers and employers alike.  The second came through a major court victory, but the third, water, was problematic.  Electricity, in the Southwest, came from hydroelectric dams, and most of those were owned by the federal government.  Federal policy gave priority on electricity to their own customers, primarily Californians.  Without a reliable supply of electricity, Phoenix's growth would be limited.

Hence, part 2, Supply.  This section isn't so much a place-based history, it owes more to process oriented approaches.  Needham is describing how Phoenix became just another city in the nation.  And a key part of that story is coal.  It's hard now to remember that coal was out of fashion but at mid-century it was considered a relic of the past age.  Coal was a point of use fuel, burned on-site.  Hydroelectric, gas, nuclear, were the new clean powers.  At generating plants, they were turned into electricity and carried over power lines to customers.  Phoenix was boxed out of the electricity market because it had little claim on the electricity from big hydroelectric dams and little hope of generating any.  It had no access to natural gas and nuclear wasn't ready for peace-time use. Phoenix's major utility, APS, was private, and looked for ways to compete with the public power authorities.  The solution it hit on was ingenious.  Power would come from coal on the Colorado Plateau where it was cheap and abundant.  The owners of the coal were the Navajo Tribe , whose deals were negotiated by the BIA.  By the 1950s, when Eisenhower took office, the BIA and the Department of Interior were being run not by professional bureaucrats but by businessmen, Republicans having been out of office for over 20 years they had no bench to draw from.  The contracts were cheap and so was the power, generated on the reservation and carried to Phoenix by high voltage lines.  The plan was amenable to the tribal leadership as well. While federal policy encouraged Native Americans to leave the reservation and Americanize via the twin policies of relocation and termination,  tribal chairman and councils sought to develop the reservation and keep Navajos at home.  By the 1970s, the Navajo reservation was not only ringed by four sacred mountains but four power plant complexes as well.  Further, due to policy changes in the Johnson administration that Needham carefully chronicles, a massive power grid was created that tied federal and private infrastructure together into one massive interlocking network from Seattle to Los Angeles, to Albuquerque.  Competitors now worked together to manage peak loads and downtimes on a massive scale.  Problem solved.  

Not really, of course.  In Part 3, Needham describes how the reaction against this neat arrangement takes off and moves into a cultural form of storytelling.    Environmentalists like the Sierra Club who initially favored coal power in order to preserve wilderness began to have second thoughts.   They had traded Glen Canyon for Dinosaur National Monument and then traded the coal on the Colorado Plateau to save the Grand Canyon.  They were beginning to have second thoughts.  But the real case of buyer's remorse were the Navajos.  Many were displaced to make way for strip mines, other had traditional watering holes polluted.  Jobs did not materialize at the rate tribal leaders had promised, and good jobs were fewer still.  The leases were on a fixed per-ton royalty and the great inflation of the sixties made them even less generous than the cheap terms they already were.  And worse yet, huge chunks of the reservation remained unelectrified, even as power transmission lines criss-crossed  Dine Bikeyah, the Navajo Nation.   Young activists, inspired by the Civil Rights and Chicano movements protested and occupied mine sites, tribal governments changed, yet still few benefits trickled down to most Navajos.  The activists helped defeat new energy projects and helped the tribe negotiate fairer leases.  Still, the costs were huge and the benefits fewer than expected.

*                                                   *                                              *

If you've been paying attention here, you'll see that Needham has engaged all three major modes of Western History storytelling.  He's moved beyond the New Western History to engage in what we might call the Next Western History.  Next Western History has been taking shape for a while, and Needham is hardly the only practitioner.  It's always dangerous to name movements while they are still in process but the outlines of the Next Western History are becoming evident.  First, Next Western History owes a huge debt to the field of geography.  From David Harvey to Yi-fu Tuan, to Keith Basso, geographers have changed the way Western historians think about their key issues.  Second, Next Western History distrusts single narrative viewpoints.  Just as Needham shifts his lens through the three sections, other Next Western historians (among them Ari Kelman, Erika Bsumek, and yes, Richard White in his magisterial Railroaded) move beyond positionality of historical actors to rethink how narrative works altogether.  Finally, Next Western History is rethinking what makes a region.  It takes neither environment nor culture nor economic interest as self-evident.  Needham describes how power lines became lines that demarcated power that made a modern region.  Once I thought roads mapped power, but in the twenty-first century, it's literally power lines that map the power in our nation.  And as we stand on the threshold of choice to create a new power economy, Needham 's work urges all of us to think carefully and make those decisions while all of us are paying attention, lest in fifty years we find ourselves having to write yet another history of what happened while our attention was focused elsewhere. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

My former students do things. 

In this case, one of my former History of Film students was the filmmaker here.  Cool stuff. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

I don't think you know what that word means

Apparently, winning every major award in the profession, holding a job at the most prestigious institution, and heading it's major organization is being marginalized.  Or something.  Gordon Wood has a bad case of the white boy blues.

My own favorite piece of "Please help me, I've lost my mind! Stop me before I write again!" was when he lauded Bailyn for inventing Atlantic history and then later criticized William and Mary Quarterly for having articles about Atlantic History.  Good grief.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

On paying people and the hstry twitter mess

So this group hstry thought it would be a good idea to do a twitter timeline on the murder of Emmett Till.  In general, it's a case of the heart is in the being in the right place but the actual actions being deeply hurtful.  While understanding Emmet Till's death, the trial of his murderers, and their going free is important, simulating a live tweet of the events of that night, based on the court testimony of his uncle, was a really bad idea.  Having done successful (I guess) simulated livetweets of Paul Revere's ride and The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, they thought this would be a good idea for black history month.  Instead, they wound up with an, at best, insensitive replay of events that are still active memories for many people.  This is still fresh wounds territory.   How does something like this happen?

Based on their Linked in page, hstry is a small company here in the states.  They have seven employees, only one of whom is responsible for developing history content.  That employee has a BA in Teaching and History and an MA in teaching ESL.  She's taught middle school social studies for less than five years.  So that's a problem  It's worse though.  That employee got her degree from University of New England.  The History Department there consists of four people: two Americanists, one Europeanist, and a Latin Americanist.  They have one retired faculty person who seems to still teach a course on WW1.  They also have a group of courses in American Environmental History taught by an affiliated faculty member (and a classmate of mine at Swarthmore, Michelle Steen-Adams whose work I quite admire).  Even with Michelle on board, it's hard to imagine someone graduating from this school and being a high quality teacher who is qualified to develop a lot of web-based content for students.  My guess is the primariy quailifaction she had was that she was cheap.  If you wanted me to do that job, it would cost you around $100, 000 a year plus health insurance (or a lower salary and a one-time relocation bonus).  That would keep me about even with what I make now (including tuition breaks, computer usage, etc.) and, of course, I would make more working in a public school in the suburbs where I would be at the top of the payscale.  To hire one of my colleagues who left the classroom for more flexibility?  She makes close to $100 an hour tutoring part time.  Will you match that?

It's pretty clear that hstry is hoping that teachers will develop high quality content for free.  My response to that is:  you've already gotten what you pay for.  How is that working out? 

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Primary Document Party (or This is How We Do It)

As my two loyal blog readers know, I'm rather fond of keeping an eye on SHEG.  Although I think their hearts are in the right place, they've had scaling issues.  Because they emphasize particular types of sources, and emphasize assessing the reliability of the source authors, they tend to privilege the points of view of elites who tend to understand their own circumstances better and produce copious amount of eyewitness accounts as events happen.  And quite frankly, while I haven't looked at all their lesson plans, it seems like they don't pay much attention to silences in documents or reading against a document's intent.  The result are exercises that privilege some very narrow viewpoints.

So rather than hit up another post about how SHEG was missing the mark (trust me: the explanation for the Sepoy Mutiny exercise is crummy), I thought I'd post one of my own primary document exercises*.

In this case the assignment is a prompt for thinking about how the Industrial Revolution changed cities.  Here is the assignment in full.  Then I'll walk you through the steps:

Using these resources look at the census data and maps for the following two blocks in the 1880s era and the 1920s era.  Then choose one of the blocks and write a brief (3 paragraph) description of one of the blocks, how it changed, and hypothesize how it changed. 
200 block of S. Sixth
200 block of Arch

1880 Census  
Blocks 200 Blocks S. Sixth 759/831
           200 Arch 789/831

1920 Census
S. Arch 416/1162

S. Sixth 198/1162

1880 era map  

1920 era map

Write a one to two page description of how your block has changed over time.  You should be able to describe your block in one paragraph for 1880 and one paragraph for 1920.  Finally, in a third short paragraph, hypothesize what caused the changes between 1880 and 1920 that you see. 

 Please read the following instructions carefully before beginning to write.  You do not need to answer every single question listed below.

Start by carefully describing each time period.  Look at the information that you have gathered about your block in 1880 and1920.  The following questions may help you describe the function and appearance of your block:
·           Describe the variety of buildings.
·           Do all the buildings appear to be from the same time period?  Different time periods?  How can you tell?  What materials are used in the exterior construction that may give you clues to a time period?
·           Is there open or unused space pictured?  Is it green space or vacant lot?  Do you think that the space has always been open or was it a change?  What evidence do you have to support your answer?
·           What were the functions of the buildings in the area?  Do you see evidence of any recent changes in function?  What would you have to know in order to answer these questions?  Where might you look for those answers?
·           Does the block have a function as a whole?  What might that function be?
The following questions may help you describe the residents of, visitors to, workers on your block:
·           Who would have lived or worked here? 
·           Did the residents work here or elsewhere?  Did the workers live here or elsewhere?
·           Why would people have come to your block? 
·           What was the socio-economic class of your block? 
·           What was the ethnic, racial, and gender makeup of the block? 

When you have finished these descriptions begin to compare them.  Consider how you block changed from one time period to the next.  Begin to consider what might have caused these changes.  Use the following questions to help you think about this:
·           What was happening in Philadelphia during these time periods that may have influenced your block?
·           Political movements, economic depression/recessions, economic booms, shifts in technology or industry?
·           What were living conditions like for people in each time period, how did they change and why?
·           What transportation may they have used? 
·           How might they have dressed? 
·           What appliances might they have had - for communication, lighting, heat, cooking, cleaning?  
·           What jobs might they have had?
·           What kind of working conditions might there have been?
·           What hours might they have worked?  Wages?  Health benefits?  Unions?
·           Why might people have come to your block or the neighborhood around it?  How did that change over time and why?
·           Are there any entertainment venues on your block? Theaters? Movie houses?  Are there government buildings?  Religious institutions? Educational institutions?  Public spaces - gardens, parks?
·           If the mix of residential and business on your block changed, why might that have happened?
·           If the mix of people changed on your block, why might that have happened?
·           Do you think your block was on its way up or down the socio-economic ladder at each time period?  Was the change continuous?  What might effect its socio-economic status?

 *                                                            *                                                     *

For the sake of brevity, I'll focus on the Arch Street block.  Following the link to the map takes you to the index map.  If you locate the 200 block of Arch St., you'll recognize that it's between plates 8 1/2 and 9.  Also note the key is on this page.   

 Click in the box in the Upper Right Corner and a dropdown menu appears.  Click on Plate 8 1/2 and zoom in on Arch Street and you'll see something that looks like this:

  Checking against the key, we see that this is a commercial block (that green color means warehouses) and that some of those buildings are also stores and that some also function as dwellings.  This is a fire insurance map, so there's also a lot of information we don't particularly care about having to do with how quickly those building could burn down.

Now let's look at that piece of the block  around 1920:

There's been some changes on the block, even this tiny portion of it.  In the comments let me know what you come up with.  (Since the assignment is due Monday, I don't want to give too much away).

Now let's check the census data.  Go ahead and click over there using the link above and scroll over to frame 789.  The little finger on the bottom of the screen will help you out if you shift to page view and I recommend only viewing one page at a time unless you have practice using microfilm on a computer. 

Here's a typical entry:

(Pro-tip:  When using the reader at don't zoom with your computer, use the plus button on the reader.  The scans get increasingly high resolution as you zoom in this way and it's easier to read.)   And hey, the've got a 14 year old living with them in their hotel and he's a student boarder not related to the family.

Why is he living with them?  Well, if we scroll over....

How about that,  everybody in this unit is German or the child of someone German.  (NB: those are various places in Germany since there wasn't a Germany when most of these folks were born).  Scroll around the census data on your own some more.  I'll wait. 

Now in 1920 you click and.....  there's far fewer people.  Why?

And what's this piece:

From being primarily German, it's gone to being Russian and Polish.  And at least some of those people speak Yiddish.  The Jews have moved in!

How and why did this block change?  The students don't know.  Those questions are what they are trying to answer over the next several weeks as we work on Industrialization and the Gilded Age.

So you know, that's how we do it.  Cue the music.  

* My own here means that I use it.  This assignment was originally developed by Helen Grady, and later modified by Janelle Collett, Margot Pollans, and is in it's current incarnation with the help of James Spagnoletti and Tereneh Kerley. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

Walter Isaacson - Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

I won this book as a runner-up prize from a college that polls its seniors on what teachers embodied the liberal arts ideal.  I finally got around to reading it over Christmas break.  Historiann calls it Founders Porn and now I know why. 

Isaacson thinks this is a well-researched book.  He read a bunch of biographies of Franklin so that's historiography right?  He looked at Franklin's paper in a variety of archives so that's research right?  Um, no.  History starts with a question and Isaacson started with an answer:  His Franklin is a pragmatic innovator who would be a great silicon valley based politician.   He'd make a fortune in tech and then he'd lead that magical "third way" party that's always looking to step outside politics and draft the best Presidential candidate who'd magically use the bully pulpit to solve all our problems.  It makes for OK reading if you don't know anything about Franklin or Colonial America.  I assume most of his readers don't since the book has been pretty well received (especially on Amazon).

So what's wrong with the book?  I have one test I use for books on the Revolution, if the book doesn't at least try to explain why the British are fighting the war (other than because they are evil), the book isn't worth reading.  Here the British side is never really presented.  The American problem presented a major constitutional crisis for the British.  Adding American representatives to Parliament would potentially undo the Glorious Revolution and notions of Parliamentary supremacy as would any sort of dominion plan.  It would take the Brits almost 100 years to work out alternatives, but Isaacson presents the British as at best bumbling and at worst monomaniacal oppressors.  And despite a nod towards Thomas Hutchinson, there's no discussion of Loyalists at all. 

Second, on the hard issues Isaacson ducks.  His discussion of race is naive at best.  Franklin's father apparently had pro-Indian sentiments during King Phillip's War,  (it's the one new fact I learned reading the book) which was pretty much tantamount to treason.  Franklin badly miscalculated during the Paxton boys crisis and Isaacson doesn't explain how land hunger and anti-Indian feelings served to help undo Quaker dominance in Pennsylvania politics.  Or how Franklin was quick to abandon his beloved Democracy during the crisis.  Despite Isaacson's best efforts to argue that Franklin was the most democratic of the founders, he comes off more as a Philosopher King and despite his presence at the Declaration and the Constitution, Franklin seems like a bystander at both events.  Worse still, Isaacson never mentions the main sticking point in the peace treaty that Franklin was charged with negotiating with Britain: what would happen to the escaped slaves that joined the Loyalist cause.  The British absolutely refused to turn them over or compensate their owners.  Although we are told of Franklin's growing anti-slavery views, we aren't told what Franklin did or thought in this time period. 

At least there haven't been allegations of plagiarism yet. 


I'm reading Andrew Needham's Power Lines:  Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest next.  I suspect I'll like it better.