v28 #6 Making Connections, Building Community

by Kathryn Conrad  (Director, University of Arizona Press)

In 2010, the University of Arizona Press published La Calle: Spatial Conflicts and Urban Renewal in a Southwestern City by Lydia Otero.  The book, which was widely and well-reviewed, is an important contribution to the history of urban renewal in the United States and to our understanding of structures of power, racism, resistance, and historical memory.  In particular, this book speaks to the history of the place where we live.  It details the history of the urban renewal projects that razed eighty acres of land in downtown Tucson, land that was deemed blighted by the growth lobby but which was a vibrant community to Mexican American families who lived there, in the most densely populated space in the state of Arizona.  This history was one of the first things I learned about my new community upon moving to Tucson in the mid-1990s.  Though three decades in the past, the destruction of the space that represented the beating heart of Tucson’s Mexican American community remained an open wound for many in our diverse community.

La Calle is a scholarly monograph — a book written by a scholar to expand the scholarly record — but Otero’s research has special meaning for our own community.  As is our custom for books with special significance to a particular community, especially our own, our marketing department planned a book launch.  Such public events create opportunities for media attention as well as unique sales opportunities.  They may be held at bookstores, libraries, museums, or other venues.  They build awareness of a new book, generate sales, and honor the culmination of the author’s work.

And so, on a warm fall day in 2010, we celebrated the publication of La Calle at a Mexican restaurant in Barrio Hollywood, not far from the Tucson Convention Center and the already-failing office complex called La Placita Village that was built where La Calle once was home to 1,000 residents.  More than 100 people gathered at the celebration, many from families who had been displaced by Tucson’s efforts at urban renewal.  Attendees scanned the book’s index for names of their friends and family members who had been interviewed as part of Otero’s research.  Speakers highlighted the significance of the book.  Food and memories were shared.  In this festive atmosphere, the community gave a collective “thank you” to the author for documenting their story.

Occasions such as these are some of our proudest moments as university press publishers.  While book sales and awards are signs of success for a publisher and citations and reviews are signs of success for an author, those metrics don’t measure the full impact of a book.  Making scholarship available and discoverable is not the same as making it known and putting it into people’s hands.  Most of the attendees at our book launch for La Calle were not scholars, but they are people for whom scholarship matters.

La Calle took root in our community.  Beginning with that book launch, it became a book that was talked about and referred to not just in academic circles, but among Tucson locals and newcomers alike.  It became a touchpoint in dialogue around new urban renewal efforts to succeed those of decades past that were widely deemed as failures.  Six years after publication, it inspired a community collaboration called the Barrio Stories Project.  Working with ethnographers from the University of Arizona’s Bureau for Applied Research, nine youth-scholars conducted interviews with former residents of the demolished neighborhood, which became a script at the hands of three award-winning playwrights working with Dr. Otero as historical consultant.  In March of 2016, the Borderlands Theater produced a theatrical event in which audience members gathered on the outdoor plaza of the Tucson Convention Center, the site of La Calle, to be led through the actual spaces where this history occurred as actors brought communal memories to life.  This unique form of public history and civic dialogue will be long remembered and the students’ oral histories are preserved online at BarrioStories.org.

Marketing books is part of our mission.  Beyond promoting sales, our brand of marketing, especially visible in stories such as the launch of La Calle, extends scholarship in ways that are both subtle and profound.  When we help scholars share their work with indigenous communities with which they collaborate, we are aiding the work of decolonization.  When we secure interviews for academic authors, feature stories for their books, and spots on panels at major book festivals, we are expanding the reach and impact of their work.  We are connecting the academy to the community.  As our mission statement says, “We advance the University of Arizona’s mission by connecting scholarship and creative expression to readers worldwide.”  University presses serve a unique role in translating the work of the academy to the world at large.  Scholarship is for everyone and universities, especially land grant universities like the University of Arizona, are for the people.

As scholarship moves to a digital environment, this very human kind of marketing remains essential.  Connecting scholarship to readers, opening the academy, and fostering the impact of scholarship in communities will remain part of our mission, as it is for our larger institutions.

Lydia Otero documented the history of a place.  The University of Arizona Press helped take that history to the community.  While the story of La Calle is an extraordinary example, it exemplifies our values as a publisher and the value of university presses more broadly.  Books can take root in communities, and university presses help scholarship flourish.

 

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