Historians in Harlem: Missives from the 2012 UHA Conference

Despite the specter of Hurricane Sandy, the Urban History Association successfully held its conference in Harlem, NY, on the campus of Columbia University this past weekend.  While drug and alcohol-related histories were not at center stage, an encouraging and notable increase in mass incarceration histories must be acknowledged.  More frequently, urban historians are being forced to deal with the exigencies of mass incarceration in the postwar period.  As such, we must also deal with the ways in which the War on Drugs provides a vehicle for the punitive turn.  While discussion of “carceral studies” may be premature, we are well on our way.  In order to understand the postwar period, one must grapple with the broader ramifications of the carceral state.  Drug historians know this.  Increasingly, urban historians do too.

Participating in a panel dealing explicitly with the rise of mass incarceration, Donna Murch presented her work, entitled: “A Time Before Crack: The Destruction of the SCBPP and the Transformation of Black Youth Culture in Los Angeles.” In tribute to the photoessay “A Time Before Crack” by Jamel Shabazz, Murch’s title provides a window into her argument—that is, that both crack and the destruction of the Black Panther Party significantly effected the shape and tenor of youth culture in the Crack Era.  Murch looks at the long durée of the Los Angeles crack economy, as well as the youth culture which emerges out of said historical context.  Driving her research are two fundamental questions: First, how did the crack economy and the broader War on Drugs effect communities of color in Los Angeles?  Second, how did youth culture shift with broader national and political shifts? Image

In attempting to answer these complex, far-reaching queries, Murch examines how the political and economic abandonment of poor urban districts throughout much of the Crack Era effected youth culture and the broader LA community.  Manifested by policies of benign neglect, and later followed by policies endorsing increased law and order efforts to police and punish poor nonwhites, federal intervention of the Crack Era further crippled an already ailing community.  Moreover, covert CIA wars yielded increased quantities of cocaine and crack-cocaine on city streets; much as conflict in Vietnam brought more heroin home, and the Civil War saw a spike in laudanum.

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