Mexico City Recommendations

My parents and I spent Memorial Day weekend exploring Mexico City (#CDMX) for the first time. With only two full days to sightsee, we managed to walk through quite a bit of the Historic District, Colonia Roma (where we stayed), and the charming neighborhood of Coyoacán. Here were our highlights and recommendations:

Museo del Templo Mayor

After walking through the Zócalo--the expansive central square bordered by the National Palace, Metropolitan Cathedral, and Federal Buildings--we decided to tour the ruins of the Aztec Templo Mayor. My father decided to hire a guide registered with the Secretaria de Turismo to take us through the site. Our guide--J. Jaime Baez Jasso (, who we would definitely recommend--walked us through the entire archeological excavation and explained the cosmology and social hierarchy of Aztec society, described the Aztec gods and the rituals that honored them, and pointed out elements from the seven stages of the temple's construction. After two hours, we left with a much deeper understanding of pre-colonial Mexico.

Jaime Baez Jasso

Jaime Baez Jasso

Zinco Jazz Club

Before leaving on the trip, I made a reservation for us to spend Saturday evening at the Zinco Jazz Club. Over drinks, tapas, and tacos, we heard the spectacularly talented house band play big-band classics by Buddy Rich. The talent was A+, the service and food were solid, but the space is tight and it was very warm despite the air conditioner running constantly. We would highly recommend it as a destination for a winter/spring visit to CDMX. 


Museo Casa de Leon Trostky

My father, the political scientist, really wanted to see where Trotsky lived out his life in exile in Mexico. My mother and I, while not reluctant, had less investment in the visit--nevertheless, we found it surprisingly enjoyable! As a museum, it's very basic. The house, however, has been preserved and looks as it did in 1940 when Trotsky was assassinated. It's remarkable to walk through and see how sparely he and his wife lived in order to live rich intellectual lives. Trotsky's study and the room where his secretaries worked were filled with books in Russian, Spanish, and English. The walls were also filled with bullet holes from an unsuccessful assassination attempt made in 1939. Although the home is surrounded by a beautiful garden in a charming neighborhood, the presence of the bullet holes, the steel doors and bricked in windows, and the rooms for Trotsky's bodyguards make it easy to imagine how limited Trotsky's life must have been and how little he was able to take advantage of his surroundings. 

Leon Trotsky's Study, Museo Casa de Leon Trotsky

Leon Trotsky's Study, Museo Casa de Leon Trotsky

Going to the Movie Theater

One of my favorite things to do when traveling abroad is to go to the movies. It provides insight into how the middle class in that country lives and what their film culture is like, but more practically it's an air-conditioned, comfortable place with clean bathrooms where you can spend two hours recovering from a day of walking and sightseeing. In the chic neighborhood where were staying in CDMX, Colonia Roma, the movie theater was resplendent. Like in Argentina, my only Latin American comparison, you purchase specific seats in the theater. Although they did not recline, the seats were as big as armchairs. Someone came around with an iPad to take our orders for concessions--if only we had known it was an option, we would not have waited in line for a Pepsi. The downside, however, was that the previews included many more commercials than are typically shown before a movie in the United States. In case you were wondering, we saw ¡Huye!

Parque México

On our last morning, we took a long walk before heading to the airport. From our AirBnb in Colonia Roma, we headed towards Colonia Condesa and the Parque Mexico. Entering the park on a the verdant path, we saw these extraordinary covered wooden benches every few feet. Numerous dog walkers led the most organized and obedient packs of dogs up and down the paths. And then, just ahead of us, we found the densest, most well-equipped outdoor gym that we have ever seen. I have seen exercise equipment in parks around the world, but this one had the widest variety of equipment packed into one area--it truly looked like a floor of a Crunch or Planet Fitness had been dropped into the middle of an urban jungle. We couldn't resist trying out a few. If we'd only known, we would have packed workout clothes and come every morning!

Drawing the Road Map

In a marathon work session last Thursday, I hammered out the outline for my third dissertation chapter. After I reviewed a large sampling of sources that described the JCC movement's response to Civil Rights activism and the urban crisis, I pulled out my colored pens and began to outline the temporal and political themes that I observed.  

I began by identifying three distinct phases or "moments": a period I call the "open membership debates"; the "classical" period of the civil rights movement; and the urban crisis. The phases I pinpointed map neatly onto periodization that historians already use to distinguish between phases of the Black Freedom Movement: first, the early legal fights for equal rights in housing and education during the 1940s-50s (Shelley v. Kraemer; Brown v. Board of Education); then the national, legislative push for voting rights and equal hiring opportunities of the mid-1960s (Civil Rights Act, Economic Opportunity Act); and finally the rise of black nationalism and the urban rioting of the late 1960s. More critically, however, I observed in the documents that JWB staff and Jewish Center workers exhibited distinct attitudes and decision-making in each of these three periods. At the outset of the 1960s, the vast majority of JCCs accepted non-Jews (including non-white Jews) as full members of the JCC. Despite this "equal" policy, however, most Centers did not have African American members and did not serve non-white members of their community with any regularity. Centers used their progressive policy to avoid changing their practices,  and black community members recognized that although they could apply to join the JCC they were not necessarily welcome. By the mid-1960s, however, growing support for equal rights, equal facilities, and equal services pressured JCCs to explore how they could serve non-Jewish and non-white members of their communities as effectively as they served their Jewish membership. 

After I sketched out these transitions, I drafted my overall argument for the chapter and wrote some tentative claims that I would like to make in each section. In my first-year research seminar, my professor advocated for this process of "point-based outlining." Whereas a regular outline identifies the topics you plan to include in your paper (or chapter), a point-based outline models how your overall argument will build from a series of claims. In my experience, drafting a point-based outline helps you avoid summarizing when you begin to write--it forces you to select only the evidence and context necessary to support your claims. 

Armed with this point-based outline, I'm now ready to begin drafting sections of the chapter. I know that as I re-read, analyze, and argue my claims, the overall argument will subtly shift. In that way, the point-based outline is more like a hand-drawn road map than it is a legal contract. It's a tentative and flexible document, intended to be improved as I become more familiar with the landscape. As I proceed I will edit it to reflect new insights or counterarguments, making it more accurate, precise, and easier to follow. 

History in the News

I began writing this post in June, but lost steam as soon as I began my internship. While it's no longer timely, I still feel that this article is worth highlighting and hope my comments on it inspire those of you who missed it the first go-round to give it a read. I've chosen not to provide a summary of Coates' story and argument, and recommend that you look at my post after reading the article. 

In June, The Atlantic published a cover story by Ta-Nehisi Coates that garnered a lot of buzz. I want to recommend that you read it not only because it's a fabulous article--richly descriptive, informative, packed with history, and with a solid argument--but also because I think it does a pretty decent job of contextualizing my own research. In particular, the sixth section entitled "Making the Second Ghetto" introduces the very historiography into which my own project seeks to intervene.

The strength of Coates' article is how effectively it describes how racial discrimination has, since World War II, been incorporated into the structure of our society--our laws, policies, and practices concerning housing, employment, and mobility. This structural discrimination has perpetuated a wealth gap between black and white Americans. "The Case for Reparations" traces how American racial discrimination outlived the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights movement and continues to exist today in the form of discriminatory lending programs (especially around mortgages and housing), in unequal distribution of job training and placement programs, and in the insiduous claims of pathologically unfit black parents (particularly absent fathers and single mothers).  Coates argues that until we recognize that racism continues to shape the opportunities and decisions made by black Americans, we cannot begin to close the wealth gap and mitigate persistent economic inequality.

In "Making the Second Ghetto," Coates supports his claims by referring to a historical work of the same name, which was published by Arnold Hirsch in 1983. This book is a foundational text in the scholarship on twentieth-century U.S. urban history and African American history. In brief, Hirsch argues that racist housing and redevelopment policies in postwar cities transformed segregated neighborhoods (the "first ghetto") into overcrowded, decrepit, and still segregated black "second ghettos."  Although it is already 30 years old, historians are still debating its various merits--myself included! Why? Well, primarily because many of our contemporary social problems stem from the deindustrialization and disinvestment in American cities that occurred between the 1940s and 1970s, and if we want to understand the present it helps to examine these same issues in the past. 

The Making of the Second Ghetto offered a new, snappy thesis to explain why these events unfolded--prompting a wave of studies that agreed or disagreed with Hirsch's "second ghetto" model. Hirsch changed the way historians thought about the relationship between black and white Americans in the twentieth century by reminding scholars that state policymakers made outsized contributions to the problem of segregated urban neighborhoods. Previously, historians believed that American ghettos were the inevitable result of racism and discrimination. Hirsch challenged the assumption that the "inner city" ghetto was an inevitability, and repeatedly emphasized that the consolidation of the "first ghetto" into the "second ghetto" could have been avoided, had white business interests and white homeowners not parlayed their power into legislative action and housing policies that transformed extant ghettos into even more isolated (and isolating) neighborhoods. Hirsch wrote the following in the introduction to the book:

"Indeed, the real tragedy surrounding the emergence of the modern ghetto is not that it has been inherited but that it has been periodically renewed and strengthened. Fresh decisions, not the mere acquiescence to old ones, reinforced and shaped the contemporary black metropolis”{C}

What historians later knocked Hirsch for, however, was that all of the "fresh decisions" that he focused on in Making the Second Ghetto were made by white elites and not by black residents of the "second ghetto". Much of the research since 1985, and particularly in the twenty-first century, has focused on the black grassroots activism in formal politics during this "urban crisis" of the 1960s and 1970s. The strength of "The Case for Reparations," in fact, is its focus on the activist response of the Contract Buyers League to abusive practices by white real estate speculators. Coates highlights how these aspiring homeowners organized themselves--eventually forming a group as large as 500--to shame contract sellers for their exploitation and to file lawsuits seeking repayment of funds that contract sellers extorted from these vulnerable buyers. Rather than passively acquiescing to structural racism, black urbanites reacted in a variety of ways to challenge exploitation. 

This is where my research picks up. My dissertation does not look at arguments for reparation, nor am I particularly concerned with debating against Hirsch--plenty of more advanced scholars have done a superb job of clarifying and elaborating on his theory. Rather, I am interested in grassroots activism as a response to these transformations of the postwar city (the Urban Crisis and consolidation of the "second ghetto"). Specifically, I'm curious about how urban citizens used Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) during the 1960s and '70s as sites of activism. Consequently, how did this activism reshape the JCC? My research examines how non-white (black and Latino) residents of formerly Jewish neighborhoods like Washington Heights or the Lower East Side or the Central Bronx regarded Jewish Community Centers--a space that offered them social services and recreational space but did not claim to be for them. Likewise, the dissertation studies how the Jewish residents remaining in these communities used the JCC as a place to organize to "improve" the neighborhood--whether "improvement" was a euphemism for segregation or meant accepting diversity and advocating for the inclusion of non-Jewish membership.