A Tale of Two Cities

“The City as Subject” examines the urban experience across disciplines
Robert Sampson, Nancy Hill, Lizabeth Cohen, and Lydia Diamond. Photo by Sean CostinRobert Sampson, Nancy Hill, Lizabeth Cohen, and Lydia Diamond. Photo by Sean Costin
@ The Radcliffe Institute
January 24, 2013
By Ivelisse Estrada

The complex ecosystem of the American city provides a rich source of both study and inspiration. That fact could not have been clearer than at "The City as Subject," a Radcliffe on the Road event held on January 10 at the Peninsula Hotel in Chicago. The lunchtime event brought together two social scientists and an artist to talk about how the city has affected their work.

In her introductory remarks, Radcliffe Institute Dean Lizabeth Cohen pointed out that the day's program could be considered a tale of two cities, Boston and Chicago, given that two of the presenters had spent significant time in both. Her own work, Cohen noted, had strong ties to Chicago: the dissertation that eventually became her first book, the award-winning Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (Cambridge University Press, 1990), was based on historic studies of the working class of Chicago in the 1920s and '30s.

Robert Sampson. Photo by Sean CostinRobert Sampson. Photo by Sean CostinAn urban sociologist, Robert J. Sampson has himself contributed quite a bit of scholarship about Chicago's experience to the urban studies oeuvre. His recent book, Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect (University of Chicago Press, 2012), is based on an ambitious study designed to assess the impact of place on urban lives. Sampson, who is the director of the Academic Ventures social sciences program at the Radcliffe Institute and the Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, related how he reacted to the dearth of local data upon his arrival in Cambridge: "I was frankly shocked at how little there was in terms of contemporary research on Boston." One way he responded was by organizing Radcliffe's daylong symposium "Reimagining the City-University Connection: Integrating Research, Policy, and Practice" in October 2011. The event's success has led to the founding of the (BARI), the interuniversity research effort he now directs at Radcliffe, with support from the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston and the City of Boston.

Nancy Hill. Photo by Sean CostinNancy Hill. Photo by Sean CostinNancy E. Hill may not have had a direct link to Chicago, but as a developmental psychologist who studies how parents of different ethnicities think about supporting their children academically, she shares concerns with Chicago's minority parents. She pointed out that although she studies families rather than neighborhoods, her work builds on that of sociologists like Sampson. "I'm really digging in and studying the families that live in those neighborhoods . . . how their parenting practices are shaped by the very communities in which they live." She delivered an impassioned examination of the minority achievement gap along with suggested avenues for improvement. Hill is the Suzanne Young Murray Professor at the Radcliffe Institute and professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Lydia R. Diamond, a 2012–2013 Radcliffe Institute fellow and an award-winning playwright, began her own presentation with a monologue, from her play Voyeurs de Venus, in which a character marvels at the beauty of Chicago as she drives south on Lake Shore Drive. Diamond—who said she owes a great debt to Chicago, where all of her work was born—pointed out the uniqueness of the Chicago theater scene, with its "ecology that lets artists grow and develop without the harsh glare of the New York Times, coupled with a nonhierarchical way of making art." Diamond—whose play Stick Fly, written in Chicago and recently produced on Broadway, will be adapted for HBO—also had a joyful announcement for the Chicagoans in the room: after her Institute fellowship, she will move back to Chicago, enriching once again that city's theatrical landscape. "Our loss, your gain," said Cohen.

Lydia Diamond connects with alumna. Photo by Sean CostinLydia Diamond connects with alumna. Photo by Sean Costin

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