Humanitas: Why the Bronx burned, a Tony win, and a ‘romance action mystery’

In the latest edition of Humanitas, we explore the “arson-for-profit” that ravaged the Bronx in the 1970s and a photography exhibition on love and artistry.
Firefighters hosing down a burning building in the Bronx

(AP Photo, July 14, 1977)

In the latest edition of Humanitas, a column focused on the arts and humanities at Yale, we catch up with a recent Ph.D. recipient whose dissertation on how “arson-for-profit” ravaged the Bronx and other urban areas in the 1970s earned a prestigious history prize, visit a student photography exhibition that explored themes of love and artistry, and meet a few Yale scholars who will soon take their research interests to Rome.

For more, please visit an archive of all arts and humanties coverage at Yale News.

The ‘racial capitalism’ that led to arson in the Bronx

In the 1970s, fires ravaged low-income neighborhoods in the Bronx and in other American cities. Conventional wisdom held that these fires were the result of neighborhood uprisings in the aftermath of the civil rights movement. But in a dissertation, “Born in Flames: Arson, Racial Capitalism, and the Reinsuring of the Bronx in the Late Twentieth Century,” Bench Ansfield ’21 Ph.D. makes the case that the urban fires were intentionally set by slum landlords intent on collecting fire insurance payouts.

Ansfield’s work recently won the 62nd annual Allan Nevins Prize from the Society of American Historians for the best-written doctoral dissertation on a significant subject in American history.

For their dissertation, Ansfield examined the rush of arson-for-profit that took place in the Bronx and elsewhere during that period. Complementing explanations of how redlining in the property insurance market exacerbated racial inequality before 1968, Ansfield gives the name “brownlining” to the practice of flooding the rental insurance market with subprime insurance policies in low-income communities. Their dissertation demonstrated how the public-private partnerships that promoted redlining in the past ultimately reinscribed racial segregation into the urban landscape and incentivized widespread property destruction.

Ansfield, who is currently an American Democracy Fellow in the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University, was advised on their dissertation by Joanne Meyerowitz and Michael Denning. The work will be published by one of the publisher members of Society of American Historians. The jurors for this year’s award were historians Elizabeth Hinton of Yale and Jared Farmer of the University of Pennsylvania.

And the Tony goes to…

Montana Levi Blanco, a graduate of the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale in 2015, won a Tony Award on June 12 for Best Costume Design for a Play for “The Skin of Our Teeth.” The play is Blanco’s Broadway debut.

In this revival of the play about family resilience by Yale alumnus Thornton Wilder 1920 B.A., which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1943, the family is Black rather than white. The play was directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz M.F.A. ’12, a lecturer in directing at the David Geffen School of Drama, also making her Broadway debut, who was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play.

The award was presented at the 75th annual Tony Awards, which celebrates the best in theater. The award ceremony caps the first full Broadway season since theaters were forced to shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic in the winter of 2020.

At Yale School of Art, a ‘Romance Action Mystery’

This spring, “Romance Action Mystery,” the Yale School of Art’s (YSA) 2022 photography M.F.A. thesis exhibition, showcased work examining themes of love and artistry.

Imagine encountering the thesis work of the Yale MFA Photography class of 2022, fifty years later, and one will likely struggle to find any concrete markers of the pandemic era and its other atrocities, yet riveting evidence of the times abound,” Xin Wang write on the exhibition website.

The 10 student artists, she writes, spent the first year of the pandemic in isolation, often together.

They collaborate intimately and conceptually, appearing in each other’s images, travels, discourses,” Wang writes. “They often begin working with what appears convenient and (beguilingly) accessible: family, close relations, familiar environments or (sub)cultural milieus, which, when approached without the didactics, can be the most challenging and Romantic subjects yet.”

Originally on view in Green Hall, the photo exhibition is now available to browse online in an interactive 3D walk-through. More student work can be viewed in the YSA’s exhibition archive.

When in Rome…

For scholars and artists, the gift of “time and space to think and work” is a treasure. Two Yale doctoral students are among 37 Americans and four Italian artists and scholars who have received that gift as winners of the 2022-2023 Rome Prize or other fellowships to study and work at the American Academy in Rome (AAR) beginning in September. Five Yale alumni also received the prize.

The highly competitive fellowships support advanced independent work and research in the arts and humanities on the academy’s 11-acre campus on the Janiculum Hill in Rome.

Emily L. Hurt, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History, received the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Rome Prize for her project “Palimpsest Cities of the Roman Empire.”  Lillian Clare Sellati, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of the History of Art, won the Samuel H. Kress Foundation/Emeline Hill Richardson Rome Prize for her project “When Is Herakles Not Himself? Intentional Iconographic Slippage in Greater Central Asia, 330 BCE to 230 CE.”

The alumni winners are Jennifer Newsom and Tom Carruthers, founding principals of Dream the Combine in Minneapolis, Minnesota, who will share one Rome Prize in Architecture for their project “Wandering Stars, Vanishing Points: Overwriting Spatial Imaginaries of Rome”; Katherine Jenkins ’08, who earned a B.A. in painting and printmaking from Yale, who will share the Gilmore D. Clark and Michael I. Rapuano/Kate Lancaster Brewster Rome Prize for their project “Rome Aesthetics of Care”; Elle Perez ’15 M.F.A., a graduate of Yale School of Art and now a critic there, who won the Abigail Cohen Rome Prize for their project “Surrender”;  and Anna E. Arabindan-Kesson ’10 m.Phil, ’14 Ph.D.,  who was named a Terra Foundation Fellow for her project “A Dream of Italy: Black Geographies and the Grand Tour.”

The Rome Prize winners, who will receive a stipend, workspace, and room and board on the academy’s campus, were selected by an independent jury of distinguished artists and scholars in a national competition.

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