The spool is what Sugrue calls a “typical 1920s/’40s northwest Detroit neighborhood,” where he grew up on an elm-lined street called Asbury Park, with small houses on one-eighth acre lots, an easy walk to St. Mary of Redford Catholic Church and school, shops, and a movie theater. His father helped to bring the first African-American family into the parish. Then, in 1973, when Sugrue was 10, amid a vast white exodus from Detroit, his parents decided to leave the city, moving the family to suburban Farmington. The two events together are the kind of thing a sensitive child absorbs, and indeed, the experience fundamentally informs his two major works, the 1998 Bancroft Prize-winning Origins of the Urban Crisis and Sweet Land of Liberty. From Origins:

Between 1943 and 1965, Detroit whites founded at least 192 neighborhood organizations throughout the city, variously called “civic associations,” “protective associations,” “improvement associations,” and “homeowners’ associations.” Few scholars have fully appreciated the enormous contribution of this kind of grassroots organization to the racial and political climate of twentieth-century American cities. Their titles revealed their place in the ideology of white Detroiters. As civic associations, they saw their purpose as upholding the values of self-government and participatory democracy. They offered members a unified voice in city politics. As protective associations, they fiercely guarded the investments their members had made in their homes. They also paternalistically defended neighborhood, home, family, women, and children against the forces of social disorder that they saw arrayed against them in the city.

Sugrue’s analysis of that dynamic, according to Bill McGraw, a long time Detroit Free Press reporter and the co-editor of the popular Detroit Almanac, has produced groundbreaking history. “I was pretty familiar with a lot of the books and other writing about Detroit, and what has happened to it since World War II. So when I read Tom’s book in 1996 I was really blown away by a number of aspects, among them his tracing of the urban crisis back to the 1950s; his vivid documentation of how white residents had ‘defended’ their neighborhoods by fighting, literally, black families when they moved in; his explanation of how Detroit’s economic crisis also began in the years after World War II, and, of course, his telling the story of how African Americans got the short end of the stick. That part of the story is certainly understood in general terms by most Americans, but Tom’s research of how it played out specifically in Detroit was eye-opening and amazing.”

At the heart of that research is what Harvard’s Kayden calls a “voracious appetite for knowledge.” Sugrue, he tells me, “is one of the most un-siloed historians, wonderfully broad and inclusive.” This means he’s adept at illuminating political movements with vital strands of social and cultural history, and vice versa, a skill that was attractive to Michael Katz and Nichols Professor of American History Bruce Kuklick C’63 G’65 Gr’68, who led the committee that hired him. “Michael would have hired a social historian. I wanted him to be a true political historian,” admits Kuklick. “We were both wrong.”

Kuklick and Katz were eager to find an energetic addition to the history faculty, someone to effectively teach large classes in a department with a huge enrollment. Kuklick says Sugrue did so immediately by taking over Michael Zuckerman’s iconic class on the 1960s. But perhaps his greatest impact has been in recruiting and working with graduate students. Katz says of all Penn history faculty, Sugrue, who is the department’s graduate director, attracts the most applicants. What’s more, “the graduate students revere him.”

Karen Tani is a student in the joint JD/History PhD program Sugrue helped design. “He has had a huge influence on my work, mainly in terms of topic selection,” she tells me. “Tom ‘thinks big’—he’s not afraid to go after big ideas and complicated questions. The project I’m now working on is ambitious—maybe too ambitious—but I’m excited about it.  When I go to work, I don’t feel like I’m digging through dusty archives (even though that is what I’m doing); I feel like I’m on the trail of a big idea.”

Another graduate student, Clem Harris, is a current member of New York Governor David Patterson’s staff and a former New York state trooper. Harris says that in his work on race and politics in late 20th-century Philadelphia, Sugrue “has pushed me to think more critically about the role of electoral politics, to look beneath the veneer” of racial identity, corruption, and machine control. The effect, he says, is profound. “You start to recognize it’s not solely a machine.”

Tani says Sugrue is “the best person I know for a brainstorming session.  He loves to talk about ideas, he has a great memory, and he’s very creative, which means that you can go into his office feeling despondent about your work—totally muddled and lost—and leave with a list of books to read, three or four great research topics, and renewed sense of purpose.”


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The Vital Thread of Tom Sugrue By Nathaniel Popkin

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