Provided; Elizabeth Nelson
Provided; Elizabeth Nelson

Every Street Has Stories To Tell

by Jackie Swift

Thomas J. Campanella, City and Regional Planning, has followed an unorthodox and circuitous route to where he is today. His academic life began as a forestry major, not the most obvious career for someone from Brooklyn. After several summers working as a wildland firefighter in the West, his interest in the larger natural world led to a master’s in Landscape Architecture from Cornell University.

“Cornell changed me,” he says. “The world opened up. I was immersed in an exciting intellectual realm that covered the spectrum of human experience. I could take a course in the grittiest agricultural subject and then take one in art history or philosophy. I just loved that about Cornell, and I still do.”

Elm Street

When Campanella later studied for his PhD in urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he brought all his varied interests together in his dissertation, which became his first book—Republic of Shade (Yale University Press, 2003). A fusion of forestry, urban history, and landscape architecture, it traces the cultural history of the elm tree in America. “I was fascinated by where the idea of Elm Street came from, this iconic symbol of middle America,” Campanella says.

Along with his interest in the history behind the planting of the once-ubiquitous elm in American towns, Campanella carried a deep appreciation for the species itself, which had succumbed to Dutch elm disease and all but died out by the end of the twentieth century. He had childhood memories of his father pointing out dying elms during summer road trips and of visits to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where a painting of elm trees on a New England farm drew him irresistibly. “This tree just entered my soul—the form of it, the beauty, the fact that it is gone now, by and large,” he says.

In his research, Campanella looked at nineteenth-century articles in newspapers, agricultural journals, and other long-vanished publications. He consulted old almanacs and diaries of individuals, as well as transcripts of city council meetings and public works department records. He also placed a query in the New York Times Book Review, soliciting stories from people who remembered the streets lined with the lofty, cathedral-like spread of the towering elms. “I think I received 300 letters,” he says. “They were wonderful, the recollections of these people, so they made it into the book, too.”

To tie all the disparate aspects of his research together, Campanella established a signature writing style that eschews jargon-laden, academic lingo in favor of vivid storytelling. “I’ve never been the kind of scholar whose work is driven by a hypothesis that needs proving or disproving—or even a research question or argument,” he says. “I am driven by storytelling—not fabrication or fiction, but stories that allow readers to understand and to share my enthusiasm for the things I find interesting and laden with meaning. These are often things we don’t immediately expect to carry meaning: streets, trees, parks, roads.”

“When people start to see and appreciate their everyday environment, when they begin to understand what it means, it adds depth to their lives.”

South Brooklyn: A Storied Place

Campanella’s most recent book, Brooklyn: The Once and Future City (Princeton University Press, 2019) relies on the storytelling style he established in his early career. It is also a labor of love, he says, sparked by visits to his old family home in south Brooklyn after being away for many years. “It’s not a comprehensive history,” he explains. “It’s a selection of stories of the historical evolution of Brooklyn, excavations of its physical development through the centuries.”

Much of the book concentrates on Brooklyn’s southern end, the part of the vast borough below the terminal moraine, a geological formation of rubble left by the last glacier that cuts east-west across the borough. “The southern half of Brooklyn is an incredibly storied place whose history hasn’t been told much,” Campanella says.

In one chapter, Campanella looks at the great 1920s building boom in New York City that created much of what is currently Brooklyn. In particular, he explores the popularity of Tudor Revival residential architecture. “Around that time, enormous numbers of immigrants were coming to the United States: Jews, Italians, Eastern Europeans,” he says. “There was a perceived need among the dominant class—white Anglo-Saxon Protestants—to recharge and project their cultural roots. They wanted to reinforce this idea that American culture was Anglo, European, Protestant, and all that. So you see this quintessential English style being used for beautiful upscale housing in the largely white suburbs of New York City, like Scarsdale and Bronxville.”

But if that were the case, then why were there so many Tudor Revival row houses? he wondered. “I grew up in a Tudor Revival row house,” he says. “As a kid I used to think, ‘Wow, before my Italian-American family moved here, and before my Jewish and Italian and Irish neighbors lived here, this must have been a very white Anglo-Saxon Protestant area.’ But it turns out the developer was Jewish, the architect was Jewish, and the first families to live on the block were all sons and daughters of Jewish immigrants.”

The newcomers who built the Tudor row houses weren’t looking to tap into Shakespeare and chivalry, Campanella explains. “They were aspiring to Scarsdale prestige, status, and wealth,” he says. “They were buying what I call the teller’s Tudor house, inspired by the banker’s Tudor mansion.”

Turning on the Light

Campanella has written for the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times and is currently working on several new books. His goal for his teaching, research, and writing is to inspire people, to help them understand the origins and significance of the everyday built environment around them. “When people start to see and appreciate their everyday environment, when they begin to understand what it means, it adds depth to their lives,” he says. “A light goes on.”

“I love facilitating that,” he continues. “If I can get one person in a lecture or a class to look with fresh eyes at a subdivision or a highway or a certain style of architecture and to understand and appreciate it in a deeper way, that means I’ve succeeded.”