Lkboehm's Blog

Urban History Blog

New Book: America’s Urban History June 16, 2015

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I hope readers interested in the history of the American city will check out America’s Urban History, co-authored with Steven H. Corey of Columbia College, Chicago.

AUH Cover

America’s Urban History, Routledge

The history of the American city is, in many ways, the history of the United States. Although rural traditions have also left their impact on the country, cities and urban living have been vital components of America for centuries, and an understanding of the urban experience is essential to comprehending America’s past. America’s Urban History is an engaging and accessible overview of the life of American cities, from Native American settlements before the arrival of Europeans to the present-day landscape of suburban sprawl, urban renewal, and a heavily urbanized population.

The book provides readers with a rich chronological and thematic narrative, covering themes including:

  • The role of cities in the European settlement of North America
  • Cities and westward expansion
  • Social reform in the industrialized cities
  • The impact of the New Deal
  • The growth of the suburbs
  • The relationships between urban forms and social issues of race, class, and gender

Covering the evolving story of the American city with depth and insight, America’s Urban History will be the first stop for all those seeking to explore the American urban experience.


Courthouse Squares September 6, 2014

Not every American city is the product of careful urban planning. Typically cities founded by English colonists evolved organically, without much prior planning as to physical design. But in the West, cities were often the product of intense real estate speculation, and began as designs executed on paper before roads were laid and timber was erected for homes, commercial, and municipal buildings.

In the West, many cities centered around a courthouse square, which showcased the municipality’s political importance within the state or county. The solid and architecturally detailed courthouses, located in the center of the city’s commercial and civic life, provided a physical reminder of the democratic ideals of the nation. Courthouse squares featured monuments celebrating regional history, as well as providing central spaces for public speeches and demonstrations. They could also be the sites of riots, or the location of lynchings.

Indiana, which features many courthouse squares, has launched an intriguing study of the phenomenon. See


The pictures here are of the fabulous courthouse square in Portland, Oregon.



The Age of Context August 15, 2014

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In 2013, David Scobel and Shel Israel published The Age of Context: Mobile, Sensors, Data,and the Future of Privacy a book that sold millions of copies. Having just written about the digital city for the latter part of the upcoming book, America’s Urban History, I was intrigued by the idea of this new book and eager to see what Scobel and Israel had to say.

The book will soon be outdated, because it showcases “new” technology that will promptly become commonplace in our lives. But the overview speaks volumes to us in the present moment, and we should take a the time to consider the way in which mobile devices impact our daily lives. Technology may already be so imbedded in our lives that we cannot assess it critically. Israel and Scobel’s book would be a good addition to courses on modern urban history and/or the digital city.

A few years back, this team of authors wrote a book on the impact of social media. In their second collaboration, the authors explain who sensors transform computers into contextual assistants; the sensors judge where we are, what we are doing, and impact with the world in which we are located. The authors, while speaking positively about technology for the most part, also caution that we relinquish quite a bit of privacy to contextual devices. Many cultural critics are even more skeptical of this imposition into privacy than these authors. Israel and Scobel also pay very little attention to the way in which contextual devices transform our lives so that we can never fully escape from the office or the pressing demands of home life. Now we can get texts while hiking and answer emails from bed. The book would be interesting paired with Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why we Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other. Turkle is critical of the speed with which we have allowed technologies to impede on our lives.

I do believe authors of this caliber ought not to introduce terms without considering whether they already hold meaning. The authors “invent” the term “new urbanists” to refer to the creative class in our modern cities. However, urban theorists have already employed this term to define those who follow the design principles put forth in the Charter of New Urbanism. A quick literature review could have spared the authors this mistake.

Age of Context


The Gautreaux Case May 29, 2014

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Public Housing: Hills v. Gautreaux


The future of public housing in the United States changed after the Supreme Court’s April 20, 1976 ruling, Hills v. Gautreaux. This case’s legacy included the decentralization of the housing of the urban poor and increased reliance on solutions that included the private sector. Between 1954 and 1967, the Chicago Housing Authority had built more than 10,300 units of public housing, yet only sixty-three of these units were located outside of poor and racially segregated areas. In 1969, the lower court case known as Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Authority found that Illinois must locate public housing in scattered site and low rise projects inside predominantly white neighborhoods. But this was not the end of the matter, and elements of the case moved on to the Supreme Court. The class action legal case included the complaint of community organizer Dorothy Gautreaux. Gautreax had filed a 1966 complaint of unlawful discrimination by the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), and by HUD, which supported the CHA. Assisted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Gautreaux became the public face of the suit that challenged the practices of public housing authorities, although Gautreaux died before the ruling in 1976. Separate complaints were filed by others in similar circumstances, and these complaints later joined the case under Gautreaux’s name. Carla Anderson Hills served as the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development at the time; it was Hills who appealed the case to the Supreme Court.

The CHA was accused of placing African American applicants in housing within segregated neighborhoods in violation of the Fifth Amendment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The 1976 legal decision in the case, finding fault with both the CHA and HUD, allowed for the placement of urban residents outside of the city limits but inside the metropolitan region. The intricacies of the plan were developed through a 1981 ruling by Judge John P. Crowley of the area district court. The CHA had to build seventy five percent of its new housing within majority white areas. Due to earlier aspects of the case, the CHA was also barred from building any more high-rise public housing facilities and was prohibited from building high concentrations of public housing in any single neighborhood—the newly required style of housing was referred to as “scattered site” public housing.
Gautreaux led to greater reliance on Section 8 vouchers for housing the
urban poor.

Section 8, established by the 1974 Housing and Community Development Act, gave HUD the right to contract with private developers for the housing of the neediest Americans. Vouchers were extended to those determined eligible, who usually paid just thirty percent of their income towards the rent, and the rest of the rent was paid for by the federal government. Due to great demand for housing, many cities maintained waiting lists for Section 8 vouchers; applicants had to wait for years for a chance to take part. Many cities have had to close their waiting lists, given the high numbers of applicants.

Soon after the Gautreaux ruling, the Gautreaux Assisted Housing Program extended Section 8 vouchers to African American families in Chicago who would be relocated to subsidized housing in the suburbs. The new suburban neighborhoods were to be categorized as thirty percent or less African American in population. Between 1976 and 1998, more than 25,000 individuals (in 7,500 families) utilized the program. Recipients were given little choice of where to move, and given the dearth of Section 8 properties, had to move to the next available unit offered to them. The success of this effort proved mixed. Given the low visibility of the program, few social services were extended to these new suburbanites. Workers often found themselves unable to find work in these areas, as the suburbs featured few jobs that were suitable for their skills. Yet longitudinal studies revealed that children did better in terms of college placement than they would have had they stayed in their former neighborhoods.

By the mid-1970s, single, unemployed parents headed the majority of families in public housing. This trend was due to changes in the public housing screening process, an evolving economy, the high rates of divorce, and the growing numbers of children born to single mothers. The way forward for the poor did not seem to lay in public housing, which had become a warehouse for the poorest Americans rather than a stepping stone to a better life. The federal program, known as Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere (HOPE) launched in 1989 under President George H.W. Bush, attempted to provide a broader array of solutions to the under-housed and long-term homeless. It also provided tax incentives for businesses to locate within struggling urban and rural communities. HOPE I assisted low-income people with the purchase of a public housing unit, thus both ending the failed public housing system and strengthening the numbers of homeowners in an area. HOPE I ceased funding applicants in 1994. HOPE II provided support for multi-family housing projects. HOPE III assisted low-income, first time home buyers. HOPE VI provided Section 8 vouchers to people sixty-two years of age or older with incomes of less than fifty percent of the median for the area. Community Development Corporations, started in the 1960s under Community Action Programs and the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, furthered the support for getting the urban poor into better housing.


Research Topics in 2012 November 28, 2012

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It has been a very productive semester in my Research Seminar in Urban Studies course.  Teaching this course is always a nail-biter, for one never knows if the students will be able to get where they wish to be (and I need them to be) by the end of the semester.  In a perfect world, we would have a two semester research seminar sequence, but given the scheduling limitations and a heavy set of general education and major requirements, a two semester sequence would probably prove too onerous to schedule.    How do you teach research in your urban studies or urban history courses?

I start with several assignments in research techniques.  We cover field research, oral history, and the use of quantitative and qualitative primary sources.  We go over how to write a bibliography in the Chicago or Turabian style. We go over proper use of citations.  (I cover all of this in other courses, but it is never imprinted in the students’ minds the way it is in the research seminar, where real research is unfolding.) We write book reviews.  We have paper writing workshops in which the entire class critiques everyone else’s first draft. We have one-on-one discussions on the topic and look at the rough draft together in a private meeting.

I am so pleased with this year’s topics.  They include:  urban transportation, after-school programs, Chinese restaurants, women owned restaurants, memorial squares, urban universities and crime, inner-city schools, Filene’s Basement, co-housing, communes, urban media and women’s self-image.


Bystander to Prejudice December 6, 2011

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What to do when one overhears a prejudiced comment, here or there?

At our university, we are imploring students to speak up and say someting when they encounter physical or sexual violence.  I think we need to expand our discussion of the importance of being a proactive bystander to racial and ethnic prejudice, as well as violence.  I teach a course on public policy and cultural diversity, where I try to demonstrate that a community which says nothing in the face of prejudiced attitudes often sets itself up for prejudiced acts which go beyond words.

The problem with speaking up when one is a bystander to racial or ethnic prejudices is that we are often a witness to our family members’ or friends’ bad attitudes, and if we speak up we feel we are risking important friendships.  It can be hard to tell off a beloved old grandfather when he makes a comment that is anti-gay, for instance.  But it is with our loved ones that we have the most sway. By speaking up we might actually be able to see the error in their comment or thinking.  At the very least, they will see that their comments are at odds with the way that trusted loved ones or friends think, and they might start to examine the origins of their utterance.

This morning, I pulled out the ipad to read as I slowly came to.  It was a Tuesday, and I really wanted to curl up and go back to bed, rather than head to the office and grade 20 page senior capstone papers.  So one of my favorite graduates, a sweet woman I will call “Jill,” had posted that she was waiting for the latest installment of her favorite show from Netflix, but she was getting impatient.  Another of her friends, and not a friend of mine, replied that she should not “be a Jew,” and that she should just buy the series DVDs.  So I responded, in my morning haze, “Not cool, “Tom”.  This is a fairly public place, you know.  I am one of Jill’s Jewish friends, and this was the first thing I saw this morning.”

While I don’t want to be the Facebook police, I think that free speech, or so called free speech conducted via the filter of an on-line social networking site like Facebook, should also allow for response to prejudice.  Too often we think that free speech means that people get to say whatever they want, and it stops there.  But free speech also means that we get to fully respond to things we do not agree with.  In fact, it should be our responsibility to do so, even when it is uncomfortable.  I am sorry Tom, for calling you out so early in the morning, but that seems to be what a responsible person should do.  I have seen three references to “Jew” written by non-Jews in the past few days on Facebook.  When times are difficult economically, we often turn to prejudice and blaming the Jews for economic issues.  There is even an element of anti-Semitic rhetoric, subtle and not so subtle, to our recent “Occupy” movements.  I think it is important to discuss what might be a growing turn towards prejudicial language, used perhaps as a palliative to ease troubled souls.

My other way of c0mbatting deep seated anti-Semitism is to go out and over tip and spend too much on my credit cards, just in case I can dislodge the connection between Jews and thrift in anyone’s mind. . .


Undergraduate Research Papers October 27, 2011

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In my previous post, I included an entire research paper by Worcester State University alum, Marco Estrella.  Marco was an exceptional student who saw a real need for more research in the recreation resources offered by our cities.  He looked into the lack of access to pools within the city of Worcester, Massachusetts.

I teach our capstone course, Seminar in Urban Studies, at least once every other year.  I will supervise up to twenty five senior thesis papers in this course, spending hours with every student on research aspects as wideranging as thesis production to comma placement.  I still feel like an educated individual ought to be able to make a coherent written argument that is all their own, and know where to find the sources to prove their points.  My students have no shortage of research ideas, which I find amazing.  Some of the papers, like this written by Marco Estrella, can really be an asset to those in our city planning offices. 

Here is my initial written assignment for the capstone paper:


Research Paper Assignment

Research Seminar in Urban Studies

Professor Lisa Krissoff Boehm

Fall 2011



Write a fifteen to twenty page paper which explores in-depth the approved urban studies topic of your choice, being careful to link the topic solidly with the concerns of a specific urban place, or places, as is the hallmark of urban studies research.  All topics must be approved in a Formal Research Proposal by Professor Boehm.


Papers must meet all criteria for research set by the Urban Studies Department and be presented in an oral presentation to the department and invited guests.


Your paper must:

1)     Utilize at least three book sources in the text.

2)     Utilize at least two scholarly journal articles in the text.

3)     Utilize a substantial number of primary sources in the text.

Primary sources vary according to the subject that you choose.  They may include:  oral histories, government data, visual objects like photographs, field research, archival materials, and contemporary newspaper and magazine articles.

4)     Use provided guidelines for preparing endnotes and a bibliography for the paper.

      5)   Have a creative title and cover sheet.



Due Dates:

September 26:  List of sources to class

                        Formal Research Proposal First Draft

October 12: Formal Research Proposal Final Draft


October 24-November 9th:  Paper rough drafts due during writing workshops

            TBA:  Almost Final Draft of Research Paper Due in individual meeting with


Final Paper due:  December 5, 2011