Humans in Digital Humanities

Suzanne Moomaw

A series of interviews with faculty, staff, and students working in the digital humanities at the University of Virginia. The series spends time with the fascinating and talented people who are fortunate enough to work at the exasperating, unpredictable, and deeply interesting juxtaposition of humanities and digital technology. The interviews are edited for clarity.

Suzanne Moomaq is an Associate Professor in Urban + Environmental Planning in the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia. Her IATH project, Cities Without Work, looks at the 17 American cities that had the highest rates of unemployment back in 1960. She is examining the factors that led to decline of labor-intensive sectors of these cities and the factors that supported or derailed recovery and revitalization efforts. She has spent the last three decades observing communities through social, design, and political lens at local, regional, national, and international scales. Her teaching in community economic development challenges students to consider possibilities and create transdisciplinary solutions to the “wicked” problems facing civilization. She involves students—both in and out of the classroom—in wrestling with the systemic causes of issues such as poverty, racial inequities, economic restructuring, human settlements, and lack of affordable housing through historical and cultural frames.

Suzanne Moomaw
IATH Fellow

What made you interested in studying cities?

From my teens, it was all about cities for me. Long before I knew about urban planning as a field of study, I always wanted to go to cities and study cities. At 16, I paid my own way to Europe so that I could see the big cities there. This love and interest has been refined and honed, but it has never changed: every job of my career has had some aspect of urban work included. I started out in higher education administration, and spent ten years at different universities and colleges where my assignments included community outreach and engagement. I spent the next twenty-five years working in research and philanthropy, investing in cities and searching for the solutions that are so needed. This project and my teaching at the Architecture School allows me to bring my scholarship, research interests, and experience together.

Your work focuses on urban development. What does that cover?

Studies of urban development look at all the factors that contribute to the well-being, resilience, and equity of a city and its members. Planning sits at the intersection between economic development, community development, environmental sustainability, and civic development. The larger frame includes the capacities to take advantage of opportunities, to seek for the welfare of all citizens, and to design and build a sustainable, inclusive buildings and places.

From the early days of city planning, primary considerations were how cities looked and how efficiently they were designed, with less concern for their social and civic fabric. What was missing then (and to some extent still is) was the understanding of how the social, economic, and environmental aspects of cities interrelate to make them fair and just. As cities began to change economically from manufacturing to technology, we know less about how city planners responded—what they did as well as what they thought about repositioning for the new waves of the economy.

Cities Without Work addresses these changes for 17 cities, and tries to gauge different responses. You've got to consider multi-disciplinary perspectives, internal and external forces, and ultimately what works going forward. The transdisciplinary boundaries are very wide, and include urban planners and designers, architects, architectural historians and preservationists, community developers, sociologists, economists, landscape architects, and engineers. These thorny issues are what makes urban development exciting.

What led you to the Cities Without Work project?

In the 1980s, I lived in Dayton, OH, a post-industrial city that thrived during most of the twentieth century but took a dramatic decline when major employers closed or left the area. I then ran the Pew Partnership for Civic Change, which put me in touch with literally hundreds of cities throughout the U.S. Some were challenged by declining industries, but others suffered from generational disinvestment. I had thought that success or failure was just about civics, but the resiliency of cities builds on the interrelationship of social, economic, political, and civic elements, as well as an individual city's ability to provide opportunities for all.

This led me to the 1961 Area Redevelopment Act, John F. Kennedy's first legislative act when he became president. Kennedy had visited the coal fields of West Virginia during his 1960 Democratic primary campaign, as well as the depressed textile cities such as Lowell and Lawrence in his home state of Massachusetts. He knew the devastating effects from the loss of jobs, services, and hope in these cities. The ARA was directly aimed at addressing these problems, and that sparked the interest that led to Cities Without Work. While “urban biographies” of places such as Camden, Pittsburgh, and Detroit were available, no in-depth cross-site analyses had been done, and that's what interested me. What was going on in America in general and across multiple cities at a particular period in time, and how could that provide a lens for what we can learn for the future?

Whom are you thinking of when you say “we”?

There are misunderstandings of what has actually happened to American cities and why, so “we” needs to include scholars, local and national policy professionals, and the general public. While urban renewal played a catastrophic role in pushing cities further into dysfunction and separation, my hypothesis is that it got momentum from generational policies already in place. This is particularly important, because part of my larger hypothesis for the project is that if these issues are not addressed, cities will not be prepared for the next round of change.

Do you think that this is something that is particular to the U.S. in recent decades?

For generations now cities across the world have had similar challenges. Probably the place that people look at the most is the Ruhr Valley in Germany. It was not unlike what we would call a rust belt region that had relied on highly industrialized manufacturing and extraction. The Germans preceded us in addressing conditions holistically, and they have been quite successful in repositioning that region of Germany. We talk a lot about extraction industries now—deep-mining coal, anthracite coal—and their future, but one example of how what we can learn from the past lies in the early 1940s, when the state of West Virginia mined more coal than all of Germany. By the late '40s, they had lost 75% of their coal jobs. Why? Because of automation: we didn't need as many people in the mines. By 1960, the heavily mined areas of West Virginia and Pennsylvania were already feeling incredible effects. Kennedy's eyes were opened when he visited West Virginia in 1960. He had never seen poverty like that. Sadly, several of the 2016 presidential candidates from both major parties actually visited the same small towns that Kennedy visited when he was campaigning in 1960, to see the effects from decades of economic struggle.

Are we still fighting the same battle?

I would say so. My project is focused on the American cities that were the most distressed when John Kennedy was elected president (“distressed” was determined by unemployment statistics collected by the U.S. Labor Department, through the Bureau of Stability). But after 1960, and every year since, although the Department of Labor has changed in how distressed cities are determined, the number of these cities has grown. By just taking this little slice and asking what happened to those 17 cities, why we considered them distressed, and what has happened to them over time, we are looking for a clear historical narrative that can help scholars, practitioners, and community members think about what might be the systemic economic and social problems long-term and, most important, how to address them now.

Do you have a sense as to what common elements might address these problems?

It's not as if cities have turned a blind eye, although in some cases they missed the warning signs. The powers-that-be within the cities knew that things were changing, particularly after World War II, but their general reaction was to build their way out of the decline with infrastructure projects. That's why you see so many convention centers, stadiums, and bridges. Urban renewal played into that as well, but without addressing the real underbelly of the problem—the changing demands on the work force, lack of educational attainment, racial divisions, a whole range of things—the outcome was predictable, particularly in hindsight.

The other factors, which we are just beginning to examine, are the influential and sometimes destructive roles played by the corporations, power elites, and the federal government. A mill or a particular sector may have moved south because of labor differentials supported by sleight-of-hand policies around hiring practices and work conditions, in full sight of the local or federal policymakers. While labor costs and incentives were certainly factors, the lack of transparency with local governments and the workforce by corporations was clear. While workers and local leaders were trying to save a plant, the decision was already made and visible through a lack of investment in equipment, training, and the like. The relationship between corporations and labor involves social factors, not just economic factors. Obviously, changes in technology have made a big difference, but there are things that don't quite add up to equal the dramatic migration of industries to right-to-work states in the south or further afield from the United States

Is there a fundamental question that is driving this project?

The query is about the competitive advantage of how cities are designed, physically and socially: what gives certain cities an edge for the future? The hypothesis, and guiding research query, is that there are certain kinds of interventions in cities that can offer high leverage as they consider their future. Of course, the issue is, what are those and how are they related to resiliency?

Your goal, then is to find the commonalities that, regardless of the city, reveal factors that all cities need to address.

Yes, and what I've learned over the years is that it is a hard task that requires choices and priorities. Part of this research is to show the full spectrum and to look at the actions, investments, and policies in cities that are absolutely non-negotiable.

Some places have luck of the draw geographically: cities on the coast might have options for tourism and shipping that might not be available in the mountains or desert.

That is exactly right. Companies and whole sectors moved not only outside the city limits but to places where labor and land were more plentiful and had a certain skill set. For example, while the Ford Motor Company had essentially moved out of Detroit completely by the early 1920s, at about the same time General Motors moved its headquarters from Flint to Detroit. Back in Flint, meanwhile, GM plants were still being built outside the city limits. This might seem beneficial, and some had hope that a regional tax structure could be implemented to replace tax revenues lost with the GM headquarters. But the regional plan never materialized, so even though the car industry was still in the area Flint lost an important source of revenue. One can argue that the reason for that is a land use pattern—the use of horizontal plants outside the city rather than vertical plants inside the city—but there is also a racial pattern in Flint. We're beginning to actually peel back the layers and find out what happened.

A lot of your work involves collaboration between scholars and community members. This project in particular could be seen as academics coming into a community and telling everyone, here's what you need to do. Can academics do a good job of collaborating, rather than just imposing information?

The answer to that is yes, and there are many examples of it. Oftentimes, we make assumptions about what is “best” for people, as we did with urban renewal, without an understanding of how systems actually work. But it has more to do with listening than talking, and really beginning to understand rather than proclaim a one-sized all answer. There's a second part of the answer: we have a responsibility as scholars, academics, intellectuals, to actually put forth what we find, and to really seek an understanding of how situations unfolded. We must be open, deliberate, and diligent in mapping the decline and the improvement in cities. While some of this might be luck, most of the time it is about how a community came together and the kinds of investments it made in each other. This is not easy because there are different types of relationships that you have to build, which takes time. I hope that once the project is completed the 17 study communities and others think what I have to say is relevant and insightful, but mainly helpful.

When you work on projects involving collaboration between community members, faculty, and students, do you find that it is an intuitive process or do you need to make sure that everyone is speaking the same language?

This is always on our mind. Our students could not be brighter or more insightful or more well-meaning, but the biggest issue is coming in and really understanding the particularities of a situation. The little town where we work, the town of Appalachia in Wise County, VA, was one among many coal towns surrounding it. At one time, Appalachia was a business hub at the height of coal production in southwest Virginia but it has taken a big economic downturn. To understand how that happened, why it happened, and leave your personal prejudices or hypotheses out of it until you learn, is critical for all of us.

You are now collaborating with IATH on this project. What is it about the digital humanities that you wanted to utilize for Cities Without Work?

I think that this topic and the digital humanities are a perfect match. The digital humanities approach and framework has been invaluable in allowing our research to access original documents and digitize them for new analysis, use archives in the 17 cities to create a more authentic narrative, and has given us an opportunity to define and think about American cities from a multi-generational set of data and circumstances. The accessibility of the digital reach is incredible for a scholar. Access to original source materials—archives, photographs, maps, and plans—provides current and future scholars a fertile field for further work.

But at the end of the day for me, the important role that the digital humanities play in this project is to inform and mobilize the next generation. We keep making the same mistakes in our cities. We must make different decisions going forward. Our future depends on it.