History of Urban Studies at Vassar College

by Harvey K. Flad, Professor Emeritus of Geography
January 2011
Program Website

Courses on cities and urban issues have long been important parts of the Vassar curriculum. In fact, study of the urban scene was instrumental to developing the College’s educational philosophy. When Lucy Maynard Salmon exhorted her students to “go to the source” in her history courses a century ago, very often it was to the sidewalks and streets of Poughkeepsie to read the vernacular landscape. Salmon’s classic work, Main Street (1915), which investigates the cultural artifacts and patterns of life along the city’s main thoroughfare, reflected this teaching method1. As Vassar’s first professor of History (1887-1927), she incorporated the other social sciences in her studies of the cityscape and introduced fieldtrips and the seminar method. In her courses on “Municipal Government and Historical Method” (1912-27), Salmon asked her students such questions as “Show how the City of Poughkeepsie could be used as historical materials if all literary records of the place had perished.”2

With the advent of Henry Noble MacCracken’s presidency (1915 – 1946), Vassar’s relationship to the Poughkeepsie community became central to the college’s educational mission. Many faculty followed “Prexy’s” example. Helen Lockwood of the Class of 1912, for instance, taught English from 1926 to the late 1950s. According to College Historian Elizabeth Daniels, “She was an iconoclast who had herself studied under Lucy Salmon, and who upheld and reinterpreted her mentor’s views of education.”3 Lockwood summed up the essence of the Vassar experience under MacCracken: “Students at Vassar shared in the development of participation in the community. The vision of social responsibility and public service whether volunteer or paid has pervaded the climate of the college.”4 Social sciences emphasized “laboratory work in the field,” and in 1937 the Social Museum opened to display social research through the visual arts and language. Lockwood sent her students into Poughkeepsie to study, as did Hallie Flanagan of Vassar’s theater program in her “Living Newspaper” plays, which chronicled the Depression. Caroline Ware, whose course “Development of American Culture” examined “immigrant groups and development of cosmopolitan, urban features of American life,” sent a thesis student to the City of Beacon to dig into its history. Economist Mabel Newcomer’s students conducted surveys to promote informed local civic and governmental decision-making.

From the 1920s through the 1940s, other faculty also used cities as objects of study. Rome and Athens became the subjects of courses in Art, Architectural History, and Classics, while French and German courses examined Paris and Berlin in preparation for travels abroad. The city as scenic background was not the only use of the urban fabric, as courses in Economics, Sociology, History and Political Science examined industrialization, urban infrastructure, finance and governance, public health, immigration, poverty, and planning. In 1941-42 a course on “the local community” was co-taught by faculty in Economics and Sociology; six years later Leslie Koempel’s Sociology course dealt with “community problems” such as “housing and related problems in social planning.”

Edna C. Macmahon taught Economics at Vassar from 1942-1966. Following President MacCracken’s commitment to engage the local community, Macmahon became involved in economic development, higher education, and urban and environmental planning in Poughkeepsie and Dutchess County. Along with a number of social science faculty, Macmahon reacted to the national concern about urban disintegration in the 1960s by offering lectures in a co-taught course on the “crisis of the city,” advised many students on their urban-centered research, and wrote and edited a number of reports on Poughkeepsie’s anti-poverty Model Cities and urban renewal programs.

One of Macmahon’s students was Sarah Donoho, who traced the social mobility of craftsmen in Poughkeepsie during the nineteenth century. She married historian Clyde Griffen, who continued the project with his students in the late 1960s; as Sally and Clyde Griffen, they co-authored and published their results in 1978.5 Beginning in 1967 Griffen’s course in urban history became “Cities, Towns and Countryside,” with high student demand throughout the next two decades. Other urban history courses examined time and space outside of the local context, such as Miriam Cohen’s seminar on “Social Reform and the Evolution of the Welfare State,” Anthony Wohl’s course “Victorian London,” and Donald Olsen’s “The City as a Work of Art.” In the Art Department, Richard Pommer taught courses in architectural history and Jeh Johnson, an African-American architect of Poughkeepsie (who was appointed by President Johnson in 1967 as one of sixteen members of the National Commission on Urban Problems), taught architectural drawing and design. In Anthropology and Archaeology Walter Fairservis offered insights on the origins of urbanization, while in Political Science a course on Issues of Urban America was introduced as a “multidisciplinary examination” in 1968.

Elaine Bjorklund introduced a course in “Urban Geography” in 1960. Eight years later, her successor John Humphreys taught courses in urban geography and non-western urbanization, as well as lecturing in Contemporary Urban Studies, a co-taught college course during 1969-70, whose advisory committee members included: Koempel (Sociology), Humphrey (Geography), Anne Constantinople (Psychology), Robert McArthur (Political Science), Howard Marshall (Economics), and Anita Zorzoli (Biology). In 1970, Geography began to offer a course on urban and regional planning taught by a local planner, and this offering would continue after the 1980s under the aegis of the Urban Studies Program. A course in urban geography remained a mainstay of the Geography program with Harvey Flad in 1972 and with additional instructors Kenneth Johnson throughout the 1970s, Jo Margaret Mano in the early 1980s, and Brian Godfrey from 1985. Godfrey’s expertise in global urbanization, especially in Brazil, Amazonia, and other parts of the Americas, became useful for the Latin American and International Studies programs as well as Urban Studies.

By 1980 urban-related courses existed throughout the curriculum, including “Black Urban America, 1870-1970″ and “The Anthropology of the City,” but there was little coordination among them. The Science, Technology and Society (STS) program provided a sub-concentration on “Selected Problems in Urban Life” in 1977 with a focus on theoretical issues. Students interested in more applied urban issues often found that they needed to create an independent course of study with advisors from several departments. These issues came to a head in 1980, when a student who wanted to study the development of Poughkeepsie’s Main Mall had difficulty finding an appropriate major among existing departments and programs. At this point students interested in studying cities and urban problems had three choices: they could major in one of the existing departments, such as History, Art/Architecture, Sociology, Political Science or Geography; or in one of the multidisciplinary concentrations, such as American Culture, Africana Studies, and STS. In addition, students could create an Independent major, which many did.

In an attempt to create a more coherent set of courses for such students, the Urban Studies program evolved out of a discussion among four faculty members in the late 1970s: Griffen (History), Richard Pommer (Art and Architectural History), E. Jean Pin (Sociology), and Flad (Geography). They presented a proposal to the Committee on Curricular Policy and a program emerged in several steps. In 1981-82 the first co-taught Interdepartmental Course on “Introduction to Urban Studies” was offered. The following year an Independent Program Advisory Committee was formed of four faculty: Pommer, Pin, Flad, and Joyce Bickerstaff Riley from Africana Studies. At this point, students could focus on one of four areas: The City in the History of Civilization; Architecture and Urban Design; Community Development and Planning; Urban Policy and Administration.

In 1983-84 a full-fledged multidisciplinary concentration began with Pin as director, along with an Advising Committee that included Flad, Griffen, Lawrence Mamiya (Africana Studies and Religion), Pommer, and Fred Rosen (Economics), while Fairservis taught the Introduction to Urban Studies. The next year Rosen became director, and in 1986-87 the program continued to expand with courses distributed in two “tracks”: (1) Architecture and Urban Design, and (2) Urban Policy and Community Planning. Pommer became director and Brian Godfrey (Geography) joined the advising committee and co-taught the introductory course with Sidney Plotkin (Political Science) three times. Other participating faculty members included Fairservis, Peter Huenink (Art), M. Rachel Kitzinger (classics), and Anthony Wohl (History). In the 1990s other faculty became involved and directors changed to involve other disciplines. By the early twenty-first century, James Challey (Physics and STS), Robin Trainor (Education), Pinar Batur (Sociology), and Leonard Nevarez (Sociology) had all directed the program, and the steering committee also included Nicholas Adams and Tobias Amborst (Architecture), Lisa Brawley (American Culture and Urban Studies), Timothy Koechlin (International and Urban Studies), Erin McCloskey (Education), Lydia Murdoch (History), and Tyrone Simpson (English).

The Urban Studies program continued to evolve as multidisciplinary pedagogies became more complex and creative. New courses included the literary-based “The American City: Understanding Life in the Urban Maze,” “Shades of the Urban,” and “The City as Fragments” (cross-listed with Media Studies), along with the Poughkeepsie Institute, a field-and-project based class co-taught by Peter Leonard and cooperatively organized with four other regional institutions of higher learning. The two sub-concentrations noted above had been eliminated in 1996, but field study remained an integral part of the program. Field courses further afield began in 1997 with Urban Studies 350, “New York City as a Social Laboratory.” To encourage the use of local resources, as Lucy Salmon had required of her students, in 2006 the program produced “A Digital Tour of Poughkeepsie” with a focus on the city’s neighborhoods. The subsequent publication of Flad and Griffen’s Main Street to Mainframes: Landscape and Social Change in Poughkeepsie similarly resulted from a long-term multidisciplinary collaboration. During the first twenty-five years of the Urban Studies program, 131 students completed senior theses on topics ranging from John Clarke’s Once Around the Park: Planning Takes Shape in Central Manhattan in 1984 to Claire Mocha’s Architecture of Legitimacy: A Critical Look at the Use of Architecture in the Construction of National Modernities in 2009. Increasing student interest in such urban topics bodes well for the future.


I thank Elysia Glover, the 2010-11 academic intern in Urban Studies and Brian J. Godfrey, current program director, for help in editing and uncovering research materials.

1. Lucy Maynard Salmon, Main Street, Poughkeepsie, NY, 1915, reprinted in Nicholas Adams and Bonnie G. Smith (eds.), History and Texture of Modern Life: Selected Essays/Lucy Maynard Salmon, Philadelphia, 2001; see also Clyde Griffen, “Pursuing Municipal Reform in Poughkeepsie: From Lucy Maynard Salmon to the Women’s City and County Club,” The Hudson River Valley Review, 23, 2 (Spring 2007); Harvey K. Flad and Clyde Griffen, Main Street to Mainframes: Landscape and Social Change in Poughkeepsie, Albany, 2009.

2. Chara Haeussler Bohar, Go to the Sources: Lucy Maynard Salmon and the Teaching of History, 2004.

3. Elizabeth A. Daniels, Bridges to the World: Henry Noble MacCracken and Vassar College, Clinton Corners, 1994, p. 175.

4. Lockwood quoted in Daniels, Bridges to the World, ibid.

5. Clyde and Sally Griffen, Natives and Newcomers: The Ordering of Opportunity in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Poughkeepsie, Cambridge, MA, 1978.

** “The Social Museum in Blodgett Hall was first opened with an exhibition entitled ‘the Development of Housing in New York City.’ At the exhibition, Eleanor Roosevelt spoke on women and housing in connection with a Conference on Housing held on November 5 and 6, 1937. Seated on the far right is Helen D. Lockwood, professor of English. The students in Lockwood’s Public Discussion class helped mount many of the museum’s exhibits. To Lockwood’s left is her collaborator, Genevieve [sic] Lamson, professor of geography.”