From urban renewal to today, tracking the struggles of America’s cities

Equipped with SEPTA Key cards, Brent Cebul’s students are taking a deep dive into Philadelphia’s history, looking into the past and present challenges facing cities.

Students working on a map on a wall.
After going on a walking tour of West Philadelphia, students marked what they observed on huge maps of the neighborhood. 

It’s standing room only in an electronic classroom in the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, and clusters of students are gathered around large maps of West Philadelphia. Each group is adding landmarks they saw while on a recent assignment to walk around the neighborhood and collect observations. 

The obvious entries—the Market-Frankford Line, schools, churches, Clark and Malcolm X parks—go up first. Pacing around the room, Brent Cebul, an assistant professor of history, challenges the students to dig a little deeper. Create a key, he advises them. Mark the interesting, unusual things you noticed, not just what you think should be on a map.

Penn students mapping what they saw in West Philadelphia
Cebul encouraged students to list what they saw on their walk, not just the typical landmarks, on their maps. 

Within a few minutes, the grids are bristling with non-traditional details. On one, there’s a vacant lot full of trash. Another notes a cluster of halal restaurants around a large mosque. A third marks a spot that seemed to be a social hub. 

Next, each group makes a presentation about its map, while Cebul and teaching assistant Chelsea Chamberlain project layers of other data on top of the initial grid, including area housing prices in 1970 and today. 

Suddenly, what the students have noticed takes on greater meaning. This thatch of homes near the Penn Alexander School is rising in value; homes in some areas beyond the catchment have stagnated. 

The “hipster vibe” one student noticed along the Baltimore Avenue corridor and the vegan doughnut shop marked by another make more sense in the context of gentrification. The proliferation of gas stations along Market Street symbolize the accommodations the city has made to cars over the decades. 

In this course, called The Transformations of Urban America, Philadelphia is an extension of the classroom. The city is the touchstone for these students, but the trends Cebul is talking about apply to cities all over the country.

The course traces the fall and rise of American cities, from just after World War II to the present. From the dawn of the interstate highway era through the urban-renewal projects of the 1960s and ‘70s to the resurgence of city living during the past 20 years, Cebul is outlining where urban-planning policies have succeeded and failed, and the challenges that still lie ahead. 

The mapping exercise is part of helping students see cities through the lens of sociology and ethnography, with ground-level observations of Philadelphia’s historic blocks and the more modern projects that replaced some of them. 

On top of that, Cebul is layering the basics of how cities work, from budget policy to the political power of citizens, and asking why so many of these well-meaning efforts haven’t solved the problems cities still face, such as income inequality and crumbling infrastructure. 

“There’s a question I want them to be thinking about,” Cebul says. “For a lot of students, who think about cities as the most progressive places that they’ve ever been, I want them to ask, How is it that those processes that have produced these very progressive and prosperous spaces have simultaneously produced and accepted such stark inequality along lines of race, class, and identity?”

For all the ideas percolating in cities, he says, the governments themselves are hemmed in by their reliance on property taxes and property values. That made it hard to stay afloat when the post-World War II suburban boom drew affluent residents out of the urban core. And it hamstrings the ability to make big changes, such as large-scale improvements in urban schools, he says, or boosting wide swaths of residents out of poverty. 

“Some cities are beginning to flex their regulatory muscles, but, if it’s going to cost money, cities are in a uniquely weak position vis a vis the other levels of government,” Cebul says. 

His course, which is cross-listed in the History and Urban Studies departments and offers credit toward the new digital humanities minor administered by the Price Lab, taps into what Cebul calls the rich legacy of urban studies at Penn. From W.E.B. Du Bois’ groundbreaking study of what was then known as the Seventh Ward to researchers who traced Philadelphia’s efforts to cope with the loss of factory jobs and white flight, he says, there is a wealth of case studies done by professors and students, resources that make Penn unique among its peer institutions. 

Beginning in the 1970s, the late Michael Katz, a longtime professor in the History Department at Penn who was influential in the urban-studies program, taught the first versions of the class, which Katz titled The Urban Crisis. 

Katz later renamed the course to reflect the move back toward cities, but there’s still ambivalence, Cebul says, about whether the persistent problems of urban cores can be solved.   

All of that gave him a lot to draw on for the course. Since this is his first year in Philadelphia, he’s also relied on Chamberlain, a fourth-year graduate student who lives in West Philadelphia and knows the neighborhood and the city well. 

“Fortunately,” says Cebul, “Philadelphia has been the site of so many rich historical or sociological studies.”

Brent Cebul pointing at a map on the wall
Cebul drew on the resources of the Penn Libraries, including this digital classroom, to help his students understand how to map data. 

The course materials include books and articles that cover crime, racial segregation and inequality, education, public housing, and gentrification. Students also need SEPTA Key cards to travel the city for first-hand observations of the Society Hill, East Poplar, Yorktown, Nicetown, and Washington Square neighborhoods, where students will conduct a final digital humanities-based research project. 

While they can pick their angle, whether it’s a civil rights history or an examination of the aftermath of an urban-renewal project, they’ll need to put their neighborhood’s story in the larger context of the national historical record. 

Students will build their projects online to create visual representations of the data they use, drawing upon statistical and spatial platforms which map historical census data. Cebul drew on the expertise of the Penn Libraries’ Girmaye Misgna and Laurie Allen, who organized sessions in the mapping classroom at Van Pelt, where students could explore these digital tools. 

For freshman Makhari Dysart, from Seattle, the course has been eye-opening. Her interest in policy attracted her to the course, and Cebul’s straightforward presentation of the material—pulling no punches about the consequences of even the most well-intentioned decisions—has made an interesting subject even better, she says. 

“He brings new perspectives on things you’re familiar with and that you’re not familiar with,” she says. 

Dysart is watching her home city, and even her own neighborhood, grapple with the difficulties of gentrification and growing income inequality, so understanding Philadelphia’s history is really important to her. 

“Seattle is a new city, so a lot of what is happening there happened here 50 years ago,” she says. 

Brent Cebul and students working on mapping exercise

As students go through the history, Cebul says, he hopes they’ll grasp the echoes of past decades in the policy and political debates of today. For example, he says, the recent implosion of the deal to build Amazon’s HQ2 in New York City has sparked a discussion about the merits of tax deals for corporations that has been largely missing from the frenzied competition that pit cities and regions against one another to snare new jobs. 

“A student is likely to ask a question like that: Why is it that cities bid each other down in what often amounts to a race to the bottom?” he says. “My hope is that they will come out of this class and begin thinking about more inclusive and sustainable approaches to urban policy.”