Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions with Ruth Glasser

What is your academic background and what is your current position in UCHI/at UConn/Your Home Institution?

I have a B.A. in Comparative Literature from the University of Wisconsin and a Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale.  I probably gravitate towards interdisciplinary programs because I’ve never been sure what I wanted to be when I grew up.  Still don’t.

In non-Humanities Institute civilian life I am an Assistant Professor in Residence in the Urban and Community Studies Program and am based at UConn’s Waterbury campus, where I’ve been since 2002.  Between Yale and UConn I worked as a freelance public historian on a variety of books, curriculum projects, exhibits, documentaries, and other more community-based history projects mostly focusing on Puerto Rican and Latino history.   At UConn, the community engagement has continued with service learning projects for students in the history and urban studies courses I teach.

-What is the project you’re currently working on?

The working title for my book project is “Brass City/Grass Roots: The Persistence of Agriculture in Industrial Waterbury, 1870-1980.”  I’ve been working in a variety of archives around the state and conducting oral history interviews as well as reading massive piles of secondary literature on topics ranging from gardening to garbage, thanks to the Humanities Institute.

-How did you arrive at this topic?

It’s an odd story since it has nothing to do with my usual Puerto Rican/Latino research.  Really the project emerged organically [pardon the pun] from my students’ and my involvement with a Waterbury organization called Brass City Harvest, that has been working since 2007 to create new sources of fresh food and jobs for the city through community gardens, greenhouses, a mobile produce van and more recently, a soon-to-be-completed food hub where area farmers can process their produce for sale.  I was teaching an intro course in which we considered food deserts and food justice as contemporary urban issues.  My students began to do service learning projects with Brass City Harvest and I joined the board for a while.  The executive director asked me to do some research for a little exhibit on farming in Waterbury’s relatively recent past.  I had had no idea about the local farming sector, and when I started talking to people and uncovering sources the project seemed worthy of something more lasting than the original exhibit, so that’s how the book came about.

-What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?

As Sue Pronovost, the executive director of Brass City Harvest said when she asked me to do the exhibit, it’s hard to convince people that it’s possible to grow things in a city like Waterbury when they don’t realize that it’s happened before.  This project will hopefully reknit together past and present and future by showing that people did raise, process, and market food in Waterbury not too long ago so it is entirely possible for it to happen again.  The food sector could be an important part of Waterbury’s revitalization as well as a way to improve its public health and sense of community,

In a more general way, I hope to historicize the topic of urban agriculture, which is mostly talked about in academic and popular literature as an entirely contemporary phenomenon.  But the story of Waterbury’s agricultural past is not unique, and there are many more such stories to be told about cities and towns which supposedly were 100 percent industrial until industry left.  I hope to be part of an ongoing academic and popular conversation about how and why cities used to support their food sector, when, how and why they withdrew that support, and how they can support it again.  In our era of deindustrialization, we need to look at ways to economically and socially revitalize our cities and there are many lessons to be learned from the past.