My walk with Sugrue had begun at the top of the Mount Airy shopping district on Germantown Avenue. Extending some 12 miles from the Delaware River through the heart of North Philadelphia at Broad and Erie, to Nicetown, Germantown, Mount Airy, and then Chestnut Hill at Philadelphia’s northwest border (and beyond, into Montgomery County), Germantown Avenue is one of the longest and oldest urban streets in the nation, Lenape trail cum German Quaker trade route to the mother city.
“When I walk around I see the taken-for-granted,” Sugrue explains. “I don’t see the street just as buildings and people but the embodiment of political and economic forces. But I also have different ways of encountering space. When I get to the Northeast [the once homogenous part of Philadelphia largely developed in the 1950s and ’60s], I marvel at heterogeneity: the old Jewish delis, the Brazilian places on Castor Avenue, the Vietnamese cafes. It’s a relatively banal urban landscape. It’s ugly. But the diversity makes it interesting.”
Sugrue has honed his observational skill in part by spending days with the photographer Camilo Vergara, whose best known work on Detroit, Harlem, and Camden, New Jersey documents the continuous transformation of the urban street. In the 1990s, Vergara was the first to call Detroit a living American ruins. “With Tom, you can see how he’s physically moved by the city,” says Vergara. “Maybe I’m the same way. It’s almost like a piece of music is being played for him.”
Jerold Kayden, co-chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design at the Harvard University School of Design, where Sugrue was visiting professor last fall, says the enthusiasm is intrinsic to his work. “He has an infectious love of cities, an excitement that can’t be manufactured, that animates the best scholarship. You can read it in his teaching, scholarship, and lectures.”
Now, as we descend into the oldest part of Germantown, the winter day has turned colder still. The diffuse light has sharpened. Sugrue suggests we take a moment’s refuge at the Friends Free Library, a vaulted space that serves the students and staff of the Germantown Friends School. As a quasi-public library, it’s also open to the community.
Here, the Avenue reverberates with voices of urban invention and urban struggle. The very first American anti-slavery protest took place just three blocks down, at Manheim Street, in 1688. In a campaign swing through Philadelphia in October 2008, then presidential candidate Barack Obama delivered a particularly resonant paean to black America three blocks up, in Vernon Park. The Yellow Fever escape house of the nation’s first president is a block away. Across the street: the birthplace of Little Women author Louisa Mae Alcott, now the Cunningham Piano factory, the last of its kind in Philadelphia. “You know they still employ a blind piano tuner. He has really acute hearing,” says Sugrue as we pass through the library’s gate.
“My kids might be a little surprised to see me here,” he continues without pause, or reticence (he enthusiastically asks a librarian if any lower-school students are there). As we warm our feet, Sugrue receives an email on his BlackBerry from a reader, a former journalist who had witnessed and reported on an event described in Sweet Land of Liberty. He wants to comment on Sugrue’s account and share his own observations. He’s found a willing audience. “Tom’s work is as granular as the sources allow,” notes Robert Self, an associate professor of history at Brown University and author of American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland. But while a great many historians are careful archival researchers, “not many are producing synthesis,” says Michael Katz, the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History. Sugrue, “a terrific synthesizer,” does both, a practice of thorough and careful engagement and integration that also noticeably reaches into, incorporates, and infects every aspect of his life.
“With someone like Tom there is the totality of the person,” explains social entrepreneur Greg Goldman, CEO of Wireless Philadelphia, the heavily promoted municipal broadband project that at present—under Goldman’s direction—is primarily concerned with bridging the digital divide. “All the aspects of his life experiences—family life, friendship, scholarship, community engagement—are fundamentally integrated,” Goldman tells me when we meet in his Center City office. Goldman and Sugrue are close friends and neighbors; their kids have grown up together. “I don’t know him as an academic. But he doesn’t have a narrow mode of operating. Really, it’s his broad engagement in the urban environment. That’s the thread that connects.”
May|June 09 contents