Making Sense of How We Lived, When We Lived

Truly knotty complicated questions rarely fall into tidy categories. This fundamental truth challenges deans, departments, faculty and students, for disciplines only go so far and then it is necessary to find different perspectives. Marjorie Garber is a literary scholar who has consistently and successfully strayed beyond English. She has served as Director of the Humanities Center at Harvard University, Chair of the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, and Director of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. Robert M. Fogelson is an historian who has been at MIT for more than forty years. He holds a joint appointment in History and in Urban Studies. Both scholars produce interdisciplinary scholarship that does much more than demonstrate their erudition.
A book written at the start of the new millenium, Robert M. Fogelson’s Downtown, Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950, presents itself initially as a strong work of urban history. Fogelson was the first historian to recognize the unifying concept of a “downtown” in our understanding of urban development. The book walks us through the development of downtowns in American cities. Initially often where the germ of a city sprouted, downtowns were often where goods were made and bartered, and then, later, where goods were sold to a middle class public. Through the early half of the twentieth century, downtown became a site of office work, leisure and consumption. And by World War II, increasingly a less popular place for Americans to live. Downtowns steadily emptied and the story of American cities in the 1960s and later, Fogelson leaves to others.
Underlying Fogelson’s work is a thoughtful appreciation of how American’s conceived their bourgeois utopias, or how middle class Americans thought of the good life. It often demanded a public place of consumption and activity, separated, if possible, from home life. But is the past a useful predictor for the future? Fogelson hedges his predictions for urban environments in the twenty-first century. “I have a hunch that the future of downtown will be shaped less by how Americans respond to technological changes than by how they define the good community.”

Sex and Real EstateIt is a super question. Marjorie Garber never explicitly asks it, but in her  Sex and Real Estate she supplies a possible answer. It is a book that captures a particular moment in American history and culture. Read today it can inspire nostalgia for real estate lust. Remember the days of ever-rising property values and easy mortgages? It colored our thinking and defined much of what was considered essential to a good life. Disingenuously subtitled “Why We Love Houses,” Garber’s book is less about why and more about about the ways that we love houses. Organized around a series of metaphors “House as Beloved, House as Mother, House as Body, Dream House, Trophy House, House as History and Summer House,” she writes about the many ways in which house and home dominate language and thinking. A house may not necessarily be a home, but a house clearly is so much more than a building in which people live, sleep and eat.

Garber published the book in 2000. She anticipated many of the key trends of the coming decade, especially with regard to how American consumers “invest” in their homes.  She understands the power of Renovators Supply to provide a consumer with a taste of the “authentic,” even though it may have been mass-produced in China. Garber placed the desire of Americans to flip public and private within a broader context. Erudite, witty and an ever so gently tongue in cheek, Gerber was and remains a welcome guide. What is most fascinating about Garber’s book now, in a post-boom economy, is the power of the underlying assumption that single family home ownership defines a home. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are somehow tied up in it – but not necessarily a community in which to give that home a proper context.

Academic disciplines are very good at asking and answering certain kinds of questions. Profoundly simple questions, however, are often beyond their reach. Strong interdisciplinary scholars, such as Folgelson and Garber, understand the power and limitations of disciplines.

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