Month: February 2014

The Saturday Classroom

gardenWe were lucky to have beautiful, sunny day with temperatures near 60 degree for our first trip to the Baybrook community on Saturday, February 22. Eighteen American Studies and Art students came along for our first time “hitting the streets” as a group.

I made a Google map of the tour for students who were unable to attend.

We began at the Filbert Street Community Garden (1317 Filbert St.) at 10:30am for an excellent tour and history from director Jason Reed. Students got to see the complexity of running and sustaining a community garden firsthand and to ask Jason questions. Next we went and toured the Polish Home Hall (Fairhaven and Filbert Streets), which was built circa 1905 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Next we went to check out the historic St. Athanasius Catholic Church (4708 Prudence St), which was built in 1891. Then we walked up to the highest point of the Farring-Baybrook Park for a group picture before jumping into our vehicles to head to the industrial peninsula.

422_studentsWe all meet up at the edge of the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant (3501 Asiatic Ave.) and looked at the industrial wasteland where the Wagner’s Point neighborhood once stood. We then headed to the corner of Brady Ave. and Fairfield St. where Rev. John Widgeon opened the First Baptist Church of Fairfield in 1908. As I discussed the history of Fairfield, I pointed out that we had just passed one of the massive auto terminals, where cars enter the U.S. from production abroad, and that behind us was the Baltimore Scrap Corp. where those cars go to die in the massive crushers. You can see the birth and death of American cars all within a few blocks—the cycle of American car culture and consumerism.

Shifting from heavy industry to “green” space, we headed to 1000 Frankfurst Ave. where the Masonville Cove Environmental Education Center is located. We went inside to see the historical documents donated by Horton McCormick and the LEED certified building where children were just ending an educational session. We left the Cove and headed left on Hanover Street and made another left on Patapsco Ave. to cruise down Brooklyn’s main street, which was recently part of the Baltimore Main Streets program. However, the Main Street banners are now sadly gone.

We arrived at Fred and Margie’s for a nice lunch before all going our separate ways. I barely made it home before my Zipcar expired at 3pm, but I did it. No late fees! Exhausted I took a catnap in preparation for Saturday’s next event, a reading of Sparrows Point steelworker stories at the Windup Space on North Avenue.

The reading was the first in the New Mercury Readings series for 2014, a series organized by Deborah Rudacille (author of Roots of Steel) and John Barry. Two students (D’Arcy and Bonnie) made it to BOTH the tour of Baybrook and the reading… they both happen to be the only two students in both my AMST 422 course and Michelle Stefano’s AMST 403 course. Both of our courses focus on documenting the voices of workers/residents from industrial communities in the Baltimore region—mine on Baybrook and Michelle’s on the Sparrows Point (Dundalk and Turner Station) communities. See Mill Stories to learn more about the collaboration of Professors Stefano and Bill Shrewbridge. D’Arcy and Bonnie gain street cred for being hardcopy students of the city as classroom (double duty on a Saturday!). While I was tired from the morning/afternoon tour, the readings were wonderful windows into the steelworker experience at Sparrows Point. The stories expressed sadness, pride, and honesty about the effects of deindustrialization on people and their communities.

After the reading, Dr. Stefano and I caught the Charm City Circulator back towards my house in search of food. She let me borrow some of her 1920s attire to wear to the Bootleggers Bash, a fundraiser for the Young Defenders of the Maryland Historical Society. I headed there around 9pm for my final Saturday event. See history can also be fun and festive.

ball_cropOnce I returned from my third “history” event of the weekend, I was quite exhausted and took Sunday off to rest, relax, and read the newspaper. When I woke up Monday morning I started my research into the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant. All the AMST 422/680 students have their first cultural documentation project due on Thursday. Since no one signed up for the sewage treatment plant, which actually has a fascinating history, I took it on as my assignment. I have spent five-hours of my Monday workday reading all my sources, put them into Zotero, and started an outline for my write-up.

Zotero is a great way to organize your research. It can be downloaded for free here.

I want to write the blogs and complete the assignments I give students this semester because I am better able to teach something if I am actually doing it. Though I an not saying students must spend five hours reading about their topic (though it would be wonderful if they did!). I only have one-page to write it all up and list my main sources… not all 47 sources I put into Zotero this morning. It’s all about analysis, interpretation, and editing once you find your sources. I will tell a good sewage story. Even sewage can have a fascinating story. Sewage can be interesting… are you convinced?

Alas, Saturday I “hit the streets” and Monday I “hit the books” to get ready for Tuesday’s class where we will discuss the t-shirts, committees for our fundraiser, and RESEARCH, of course. It was a nice break to write my blog… but now I must get back to the sewage. THE SEWAGE NEEDS ME TO TELL ITS STORY!

Getting Started: Hit the Books, Hit the Streets

pratt studentsNow that we have gone over the basics of the AMST PI (read, write, take risks), some of you may think we are going on a stakeout or lurking around some smoky bar or even following some femme fatale. If so, you watch too much TV. We are hitting the books… and journal articles, and newspapers, and maps, and archives. While you will be “hitting the books” over the next week with your first cultural documentation assignment (see Blackboard under assignments for the specifics) we will also be taking our first trip to “hit the streets” of the community we are researching.

On Saturday we will meet at the Filbert Street Garden (1317 Filbert St.) in Curtis Bay at 10:30am to speak with garden director Jason Reed. Then we will head out to the industrial peninsula where Wagner’s Point and Fairfield were once located, by the Masonville Cove Environmental Education Center, up the main street of Brooklyn (Patapsco Ave.), and end up for lunch at Fred and Margie’s (3605 Fairhaven Ave.). There is also a reading by Sparrows Point steel workers at the Windup Space at 5pm on Saturday.

For the AMST PI, scholarship is grounded in place–research, people, and place are all connected. In the conclusion to “Axioms for Reading the Landscape,” Pierce Lewis writes, “landscape-reading [learning to see the cultural landscape that surrounds us… to see place] is not going to put libraries out of business.” Lewis continues:

One can, however, quite literally teach oneself how to see, and that is something that most Americans have not done and should do. To be sure, neither looking by itself, nor reading by itself is likely to give us very satisfactory answers to the basic cultural questions that landscape poses. But the alternation of looking, and reading, and thinking, and then looking and reading again, can yield remarkable results, if only to raise questions we had not asked before. Indeed, that alternation may also teach us more than we had ever dreamed: that there is order in the landscape where we had seen only bedlam before. That may not be the road to salvation, but it may be the road to sanity.

Lewis gives good advice for the AMST PI. Now here are some places to begin your first case.

Research Pointers

To begin this process we want to start with secondary sources because we are entering an ongoing intellectual conversation and we need to know the landscape. Most of the readings we have done in the first four weeks of classes are secondary sources (interpretation and analysis) but some are primary (original docs). There are few secondary sources on Baybrook specifically… but do not despair, private eyes.

As Betsy Nix writes in her article we read on the Baltimore ’68 project, “The discovery of uncharted territory is every historian’s goal, but it proved unnerving for students who came to their history courses with stereotypical expectations: they thought they would read a processed account, memorize the salient facts, and regurgitate them on an exam.” No way. That’s no what AMST PIs do. Like Nix’s students at UB, we ask the big questions and do whatever it takes to answer them with the resources and tools available.

All students have (or should have) read my forthcoming article Preserving Places, Making Spaces in Baltimore” (Journal of Urban History, May 2014), which focuses on Baybrook’s history, for the first week of class. There is also community history produced by residents from 1976 (it’s referenced in the “History of the Curtis Bay Improvement Association: 1962-1977” document I handed out in our last class). You can and should download this community-produced history here. Now that we have some texts as starting points, we need to move the project—the case—further. Everyone has signed up for a topic (or if you missed class I just gave you one). Now we need to find out EVERYTHING we can about our topics.

An excellent guide to research on history (specifically environmental history) can be found on William Cronon’s Learning To Do Historical Research website. Baltimore Heritage has a guide to local history research and UMBC has a guide to Maryland history research (put together by archivist Lindsey Loeper and reference librarian Drew Alfgen). In addition, Mary Rizzo (Public historian for MARCH) has great blog posts on the methodology and epistemology for public humanities.

Now get to work…

Mining the Databases: (you must be on campus or sign in to access the links for the databases below)

Here is the History Subject Guide from the library.

Here are the basic databases with have at UMBC:

WoldCat (UMBC): everything… books, dissertations, images, gov docs, etc.

After WorldCat you will want to search academic journals:

Project MUSE Complete (new) Searchable full-text database of select journals in the humanities and social sciences.

JSTOR: electronic archive of core journals in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences.

Academic Search Complete (new) Multidisciplinary database providing access to peer-reviewed and general interest journals and magazines; book and film reviews; newspapers; and much more. Includes more full text than our previous version of Academic Search.

Then you want to look for information in the historical collections of newspapers:

Lexis-Nexis (academic) – newspapers, magazines, legal cases, company info, etc.

ProQuest – historical newspapers – At UMBC, we have the Baltimore Sun from 1990-present and New York Times 1851-2008 (the hyperlink takes you to the Sun 1990-present but also check the Times – we have the full NY Times but NOT the Sun at UMBC… unfortunately)

UMBC – Special Collections (we will be visiting later in the semester) There are two instructional videos from Special Collections, both are on the homepage: (thanks to archivist Lindsey Loeper for sending this link)

The first (at the top) gives an overview of the holdings. The second one is linked at the bottom of the page and shows what will happen when we visit Special Collections.

PRIMARY SOURCES: Get a Public Library Card!!! ASAP

Because your UMBC library card does not offer a comprehensive database for local history resources, I advise visiting the Enoch Pratt Library or the Baltimore County Public Library to get a local library card. You must bring your local id. If you are from out of state, you will also need your UMBC id and local address as well. I would recommend visiting the main branch of the Pratt at 400 Cathedral St. in downtown Baltimore. The Maryland Department offers a great selection of local books, articles, great vertical files (clippings), city directories/criss cross directories, Sanborn maps, and other local history resources. It’s an amazing historic building as well.

Once you get your library card you can access the databases listed below. At the Pratt library you can also access… but you cannot do this off site with your library card, only at the library computers.


Baltimore Sun Historical

Baltimore Afro-American

The Internet

 The public history PI knows that the web is a great place to find information. You should do the “go-deep” Google search. This is public history PI lingo for an in-depth Google search for your topic. Search the basic terms and by “go deep” I mean read for pages and pages… really delve into what the Internet may hold. You must, of course, use the skepticism of the private/public eye when looking around on the web. Think about the source of the information. But, for the public history PI, everything is relevant… until it isn’t. Also, to “go deep” try a plethora of different search terms—different combos, terms, ideas, etc. You never know where that important tidbit may be lurching or hiding on the massive digital landscape of the web.

 Here’s some other websites the private/public history AMST PI may find useful:

 Historic Maryland Newspaper Project

Chronicling America: America’s Historic Newspapers


Library of Congress – American Memory Project 

Maryland Digital Cultural Heritage – MHS – Go to the Pratt library and use it for free

Baltimore Museum of Industry (BMI)

The next method we will add to our growing toolkit is oral history research methods.  Experienced oral historian Linda Shopes will be visiting us for our next class on Thursday, February 20. To expand up the advice of Peirce Lewis, the “alternation of looking, and reading, and thinking” should also include talking to people.

How to be an American Studies Public History Private Investigator (PI)

Because what we do is public we are Public (not private) investigators.

Because what we do is interdisciplinary we are not just public historians… we are Investigators.


Andrew Ross has famously framed the work of American studies (or at least his work) as “scholarly reportage,” by which he means the “blending of ethnography and investigative journalism.” In a sense we are asking the critical questions of our times and using whatever methods and tools we can get our hands on the answers to them.

I would push this “scholarly reportage” idea a bit further and argue what we can do really well in American studies is to be PIs… the public private investigators. So, what does that mean? A lot. To start, there are three general rules I want to begin with for the AMST PI. Before jumping into what we will be doing specifically in AMST 422/680 during the spring 2014 semester, we need to brush up on the basics.

American studies PIs must be willing to…

  1. READ… all the time and the right things. To develop a critical eye for contemporary issues that matter, you must read actively, critically, and often. You must read from various perspectives and always with a skeptical eye… the public/private eye.
  2. WRITE… well. Number 2 is directly connected to number 1. To write well you must first be a good critical reader. And you must realize that 80% of writing is editing. Write, read, and rewrite/edit… until the deadline.
  3. TAKE RISKS… what trails will we follow to get the story? We may end up with dirty hands in some community garden or stepping on a rat in some Baltimore alley… we may end up in a nice lady’s living room with some cookies and milk or lost for hours in an awesome archive. You never know where a case will take you. To be an AMST PI you must be willing to take risks but not stupid risks (of course, don’t put yourself in actual danger…ever). You must be willing to take intellectual risks and to “meet people where they are” [Andrew Ross, again]. Get out of the classroom, okay?

I frame our job in AMST 422/680 as AMST PIs not because I love long acronyms but because I truly believe the research process is a fun and exciting adventure of discovery. The private investigator seeks out the clues, stories, and missing links that solve the case and so do we. Yet with cultural history the case is never  solved; it’s always ongoing. We seek the riveting tales of environmental history in Baybrook… not just the existing neighborhood of Brooklyn and Curtis Bay, but also the mysterious and illusive “lost neighborhoods” of Fairfield, Wagner’s Point, and, in the most southern tip of Baltimore City, Hawkin’s Point. We strive to understand the past, act in the present, and envision the futures (yes, plural).

The general public may not necessarily think of an industrial community as having an important environmental history. That’s why us AMST PIs are needed—to help the public see what’s missing, overlooked, and lurking just below the surface. Baybrook has a long and complicated relationship with green space—the parks, waters, natural environments, and community gardens. The stories we find may also have a darker side—tales of unhinged industrial development, pollution, and even environmental disasters. The environmental history of Baybrook is as complicated as it is rich. We must always remember that we work for the community we are researching. It is their story—we are just on the case for a semester—and we must follow their lead. While private investigators usually have a single client, our client is plural. Our client is the comprehensive community—past, present, and future.

The stories of industrial workers and residents are often overlooked for sweeping tales of big business and big bucks. I find that story—the boom and bust of U.S. industry—a bit tired (it’s been told) and boring. I want to know what the people are saying in the bars, the living rooms, the backyards, and on the streets. This desire to know what people are really thinking begins to blur the distinction between the public and the private, which is a good place for the AMST public/private investigator—the liminal space between what’s public and what’s private.

We are working in the tradition of Sam Spade, Charlie’s Angels, Tess Monaghan, and other popular culture icons. Remember that research is fun and exciting business and you should find the things that interest you… the things you are curious, even obsessed, about. Most importantly, remember you are working to do justice to the actual stories of a real community on the southern tip of Baltimore City. Now get to work AMST PIs. What are the questions? What are the stories?

Week 1: Beginning our story… Preserving Places 2014

OCpic2The Preserving Places Project has researched the cultural history of the Brooklyn-Curtis Bay area of Baltimore and partnered with various local groups and non-profits since 2009. The spring 2014 cohort for the Preserving Place Project (AMST 422/680) is a very impressive group with diverse skills and interests (see more about them under the “Students” tab). This is the first semester the course has included grad students (we have three) and an intern (a past AMST 422 student) who will focus on the social entrepreneurship aspects of the course. This iteration of the course is designed with a focus on the important issue of environmental justice and environmental history, which are rich topics in the past and present Greater Baybrook neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Curtis Bay, Fairfield, Hawkin’s Point, and Wagner’s Point.

In addition to our public history work on environmental issues, we are working with the Filbert Street Garden in Curtis Bay to plan a fundraiser for the garden to help fund the new garden manager position, which will help sustain the work on education and creating healthy food options that are already underway in the community garden. Save the date–the fundraiser will be at the 2640 space (run by Red Emma’s) in Charles Village on the evening of Sunday, May 11.

In the course students develop the skills of social entrepreneurship—working with local stakeholders to use entrepreneurial principles to organize, create, and manage a venture to assist with social change in local communities—as well as using place-based history and cultural documentation methods to tell the diverse stories of environmental issues in Baybrook. Those issues range from the history of industrial development and pollution to local green spaces and community gardens.

We also explore the past in the context of current development projects in the area—such as the Masonville Cove Environmental Education Center and the Energy Answers incinerator planned for the community. We also hope to work with the Free Your Voice human rights organization based at Benjamin Franklin High School in Curtis Bay. Free Your Voice has made this video addressing both their community garden and their thoughts on the incinerator:

We will be looking at various perspectives on the past, present, and future of the Baybook community through the lens of storytelling. Narrative and storytelling are at the heart of public humanities projects. Students will respect the voices of current residents as we work to unearth the memories of the past in the hopes of creating a dialogue about the futures (plural) of Baybrook. Student work will be archived on the Mapping Baybrook website.

In the groundbreaking book The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (MIT Press, 1997) Dolores Hayden writes that, “social memory relies on storytelling” and that “historians have seen how communities gained from defining their own economic and social histories.” Our work in cultural history and event programming strives to create social space for people to come together and share perspectives on the environmental issues that matter to them. In the words of historian Jack Chen, we hope to create “dialogic space,” which opens dialogue and gives  communities the power to define their own collective pasts. Students will take part in both participating in community efforts underway in Brooklyn and Curtis Bay as well as contributing to the Baybrook Oral History Project by collecting the stories and perspectives of residents, past and present. In working with and for the community we hope to do justice to the diverse stories and perspectives in this historic industrial community in the southernmost tip of Baltimore city.

SoBoNet Meeting:

During the first week of classes on the evening of Wednesday, January 29 I went to the recently opened Family Health Center of Baltimore in Brooklyn for a SoBoNet meeting. South Baltimore Network began in early 2013, with the goal to improve South Baltimore, Maryland. South Baltimore consists of many different neighborhoods, ranging widely in population, socio-economic status, race, and age. South Baltimore Network strives to bring many of the non-profits who target South Baltimore together. Through fundraising assistance, financial assistance, and training, South Baltimore Network brings together local non-profits to help them better serve the local communities. During the meeting (the second one for the new organization) the group came up with a vision statement and discussed forming committees on issues of economic development/jobs, education, health, recreation, transportation, and childcare.

One of the main things discussed by Mike from the Chesapeake Center for Youth Development (CCYD) during the meeting are the upcoming Docs in the Park events that connect health care practitioners with local residents in parks to show the importance of outside exercise. After the meeting we got a tour of the brand new facilities Family Health Centers of Baltimore in Brooklyn (3540 S. Hanover St.), which provides needed health care options for local residents in a wonderfully rehabbed building that was once an industrial space.

There is a lot going on in South Baltimore and with the Preserving Places student cohort of 2014. Check here for updates throughout the semester.

If you are interested in participating in the Baybrook Oral History Project or finding out more about the Preserving Places Project, please contact me:

Nicole King, Ph.D. Assistant Professor

Department of American Studies, UMBC – 1000 Hilltop Circle, Baltimore, MD 21250

(410) 455-1457 or nking [at] umbc [.] edu