Stories about place are makeshift things. They are composed with the world’s debris. — Michel de Certeau`
In most undergraduate history classes, students take tests and write a paper or two. But University of Washington history professor Dr. Margaret O’Mara decided to tap into her students’ curiosity and their relationship with the web.
To bring urban history to life, Dr. O’Mara created an innovative project that focused on Seattle’s dynamic South Lake Union neighborhood. Each student was assigned a city block and used close observation, questioning, photography, and the study of public documents, including news articles, photographs and maps to create an online portfolio of its micro-history.
Many think of South Lake Union pre-Amazon and Vulcan as a place to drive-through to get somewhere else, but her students discovered a many-layered history that included Duwamish and other Native settlements, pioneer David Denny’s 1853 land claim and Bill Boeing’s first airplane shop.
Dr. O’Mara, a specialist in American urban and political history at the UW, has also taught at Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania. Her acclaimed book Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley (Princeton, 2005), probed the relationship between metropolitan development, higher education, and the Cold War state in shaping the geography of the high-tech economy. Dr. O’Mara’s current research pursues these themes on a transnational scale, considering economic globalization and urban change. She is currently writing a book that explores the high tech landscape from the 1970s to the present, including the evolution of South Lake Union.
Robin Lindley: How did the South Lake Union project fit into your course on urban history of the United States?
Dr. Margaret O’Mara: Whenever I teach urban history, I like to have a story element about the place my students are living. When I was in Philadelphia, I’d talk about Philadelphia. In the Bay Area at Stanford, it was funny because they didn’t think of Palo Alto as urban, but of course it’s the ultimate post-industrial city in Silicon Valley.
Integrating examples from places that are very familiar, very ordinary, where people are moving every single day, makes the history much more real and makes students look at their surroundings with more awareness. Urban history becomes this vehicle for history to come alive for students.
The South Lake Union project was inspired by that desire to get students to look critically at something familiar and ask questions about it. History is all about challenging assumptions about why things got the way they are.
What did the project involve?
South Lake Union is American history in microcosm. Almost everything I talked about in class [on the evolution of cities], you could see played out in South Lake Union. Urban history is intellectual history as well, with ideas about planning and what cities could and should be that are so reflective of society.
Future historians will look at the world of 2013 and the conversation on urban planning, sustainability, green building and all of the things that we’re hot on right now, and that’s a window into our soul. Instead of asking what we wanted to be and what was done wrong, they’ll also be [asking] were we successful in this or not and how did we measure success? Was our benchmark of success progress? Was this an advance? Was it innovative, and if it was innovative was it a good innovation or one we look at cockeyed?
The project must expose the hidden history of South Lake Union and forgotten people who resided and worked there before it became an expensive high-tech ghetto.
Really South Lake Union and all of the neighborhoods around it are vivid examples of how environmental history and social, cultural and political history intersect. Human-driven [decisions] graphically altered the landscape, turning marsh into landfill and altering the coastline, from the Denny Regrade to the smaller regrade to the building of I-5. These are both the causes and the reflections of broader economic, social and political history.
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