Cultural Landscapes Blog

Preserved in the songs, plays, pictures, and movies about shantytowns is a working-poor discourse that resonates with values of hospitality, autonomy, adaptation, and reinvention, but which also reflects bitter inter-ethnic and intra-class conflicts among poor urban laborers. Shantytown residents of all races and ethnicities were keenly aware of economic opportunities, and of their civil and property rights, and they acted in ways designed to protect and enhance them—routinely going to court, for example, and often prevailing in their efforts to resist eviction and preserve their occupation of property. This was true of shantytowns built by free blacks, Irish and German immigrants, and their hyphenated-American descendants. But while they claimed the rights and benefits associated with middle-class status—property, privacy, access to the legal system—they rejected the cultural trappings of bourgeois refinement. In the end, they lost the battle over their rights to the city. The history of shantytowns illuminates a direct relationship between the expulsion of the working poor from center cities and developing ideas about public space. Public policy and public works were used to validate and camouflage middle-class fears about the working poor while engraving those fears on the urban landscape. The urban public and urban public space has long been “classed,” in other words, by the exclusion of certain types of people. Shantytowns unite the material and cultural history of working people. An unstudied cultural landscape, they open a new site for scholarly conversations about labor, race, urban history, and class formation.


Do you need an elective for the Spring of 2016? Be sure to check out LAR5230: Cultural Landscapes Seminar, from 11:00am-1:30pm on Tuesdays and taught by Rob McGinnis. 

Course Description & Method:

Cultural landscapes, landscapes created by human culture and technology, have distinct spatial patterns and settlement practices that are shaped by social routines as well as geographical conditions. Cultural landscape is also a way of seeing, thinking and interpreting urban, suburban, rural and industrial places. It applies rich and productive cross- disciplinary approaches that entangle history, cultural practices, and biophysical systems in the pursuit of uncovering the form, meaning, and processes that differentiate one place from another. Over the past quarter century, cultural landscape has become an increasingly important lens through which geographers, architectural historians, landscape architects, planners, preservationists, and anthropologists interpret and manage the built and shaped environment.