By Valeska Huber, German Historical Institute London
Baedeker map of Port Said, 1885, from the Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA).
Research on the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean has stressed the importance of the opening of the Suez Canal as a transformative factor that had extensive reverberations throughout the region. In the decades after 1869, the Suez Canal and the Red Sea developed into the lifeline not only of the British, but also of the French and Dutch Empires; the harbor town of Port Said at the Mediterranean entrance of the canal became a quasi-obligatory stopover during the journey between the colonies and Europe. However, while Egyptian or more generally Middle Eastern cities form a thriving field of research, Port Said has so far largely escaped the attention of urban historians of the Middle East. There are reasons for this neglect: Port Said never developed into a flourishing city comparable to its rival Alexandria and, despite expectations to the contrary, remained a rather small town of passage. Nonetheless, there are things to learn from this city as a case study of a harbor town with a particularly transient population. Here, the term “cosmopolitanism”, frequently used by travelers passing through the city to describe it, can provide us with one lens through which to revisit Port Said in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
By Domenic Vitiello, University of Pennsylvania, and Thomas J. Sugrue, New York University
Recent refugee crises, xenophobic nationalism, and calls to deport unauthorized immigrants remind historians of earlier eras in which cities and nations have taken opposing stances on immigration. In the United States, the Trump administration spent much of its first 100 days attacking immigrants, refugees, and sanctuary cities, spreading fear but also losing key battles in the courts. All along, cities from New York and Philadelphia to Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles have vowed to sustain their sanctuary policies. As they did in the 1980s when city leaders opposed the Reagan administration’s refusal to grant asylum to Central Americans, these Sanctuary Cities refuse to cooperate in federal deportation efforts, even in the face of threats to cut federal and state funding. Part of their calculus is that city officials know well the centrality of immigration to urban vitality in recent history. Beyond the humanitarian and moral reasons for sanctuary, many local governments see the prospect of losing immigrants as a greater threat to their cities’ economic wellbeing than the risk of losing federal funding.
Our new edited volume, Immigration and Metropolitan Revitalization in the United States, shows what is at stake for cities in disputes over immigration policy. Its ten essays by urban social historians and allied social scientists explore the deep relationship between immigration and urban transformations in recent decades in the U.S. as well as in sending communities in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The chapters – by Robert Sampson, Jacob Vigdor, Gary Painter, Marilynn Johnson, Michael Katz and Kenneth Ginsburg, Jamie Winders, Gerardo Sandoval, Andrew Sandoval-Strausz, Rachel Van Tosh, and us – illuminate how crucial immigration has been for the fortunes of cities, suburbs, and small towns worldwide.
Nicolas Kenny and Rebecca Madgin, ed., Cities Beyond Borders: Comparative and Transnational Approaches to Urban History, Farnham, Ashgate, 2015. 262 pp., £75.
Reviewed by Joseph Ben Prestel, Freie Universität Berlin
Global urban history is not the only approach that seeks to transcend national perspectives on the urban past. Comparative urban history and transnational urban history are two other labels that scholars use in order to mark their choice of moving beyond a single city or nation-state. The present book makes for a highly stimulating read, not least because it draws attention to the questions that lie ahead for scholars that seek to engage in such an effort. Readers might come away from this book asking: What makes global urban history distinct from other approaches, such as transnational urban history?
Cities Beyond Borders brings together a wide array of historians specialized in different cities and world regions. The book’s twelve chapters touch upon the history of urban settings in North America, Europe, and South Asia. It opens with an engaging introduction written by the editors Nicolas Kenny and Rebecca Madgin, who make a compelling case for going beyond the analysis of a single city in urban history. Kenny and Madgin highlight that much scholarship draws on comparative assumptions to begin with. The very notion of a coherent object of analysis called “the city” can only be based on a comparison. It is this inherently comparative aspect of urban history that they seek to address head on, noting that “the chapters gathered here are underpinned by a basic question: how is our understanding of what it has historically meant to live in a city enhanced by a widened lens that encompasses multiple urban settings?” (p. 6). The editors stress that a comparative and transnational perspective on the past of cities also needs to engender reflections about the practice of doing urban history. This relates in particular to the use of comparative categories such as “port cities,” which they see as being at risk of contributing to a “reductive typology of cities.” Kenny and Madgin rather call on scholars to compare also very different cities to each other, which would contribute to new questions and a fuller understanding of the “urban imaginary.”
By Mariana Dantas, Ohio University, Michael Goebel, Freie Universität Berlin, Emma Hart, University of St. Andrews, Nancy Kwak, University of California, San Diego, Tracy Neumann, Wayne State University, Carl Nightingale, University at Buffalo, SUNY, and Joseph Ben Prestel, Freie Universität Berlin
Over the past months, several scholars involved in different networks with a focus on urban and global history met to launch a new initiative: The Global Urban History Project (GUHP). All scholars interested in this rapidly growing hybrid field are invited to join the GUHP as members. The goal of the Project is to enhance the work of already existing networks such as the Global Urban History blog and the AHRC International Research Network Global Cities: Past and Present by merging, expanding, and formalizing connections between scholars who share an interest in the field but whose professional lives revolve around otherwise separate academic associations.
Epitome of Global Urban History: Hong Kong Harbor ca. 1910-1915, from the Library of Congress.
By Irene Vlad, Freie Universität Berlin
Hebron (al-Khalīl in Arabic) is the oldest, largest, and most populated city in the West Bank. It is widely known as one of the main hotspots of Israel’s ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. Often mentioned in the newspapers, the city’s troubled history encapsulates both the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the divisions that it has caused. In Hebron, more than anywhere else in the West Bank, the divide between a Jewish colonizing minority and a Palestinian majority has been carved into urban space – consistent political and military intervention having transformed the city’s architectural structure. Urban segregation, strictly marshaled by the Israeli army, has ensured the manipulation of the city’s landscape, successfully conforming it to the needs of surveillance and control.
Hebron in the 1890s
David M. Carballo, Urbanization and Religion in Ancient Central Mexico, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. 309 pp., $ 58.99 / £ 41.99 / € 64.99.
Reviewed by Caterina Pizzigoni, Columbia University
In a study that is as concise as it is illuminating, David Carballo takes us through a tour of Central Mexico urbanism in the late Formative Period (roughly from ca. 600 BCE to 100 CE), building on extensive scholarship as well as his own archaeological research. The analysis hinges on the connections between ancient urbanization and religion, brought to life through the methodological choice of combining archaeology with religious studies.
Teotihuacán in Central Mexico
Su Lin Lewis, Cities in Motion: Urban Life and Cosmopolitanism in Southeast Asia, 1920–1940, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2016. 309 pp., $ 99.99 / £ 64.99 / € 94.99.
Reviewed by Michael Goebel, Freie Universität Berlin
There are few recent books as deeply anchored in both global and urban history as Su Lin Lewis’s exploration of urban life in early-twentieth-century Southeast Asian port cities. Combining a keen interest in the consequences of the world’s growing connectedness during the tail end of the age of steam, a thorough familiarity with the places it studies, and painstaking archival research, the book showcases how two subfields of history can be merged to great benefit. While Lewis speaks to recent debates in global history, she successfully eschews the now familiar charge that the field’s practitioners have veered too far from concrete, empirical studies of the local. The elegantly presented results of her research therefore should be read by a wide range of historians.
Postcard of Rangoon’s Port in the Early Twentieth Century.
By Ademide Adelusi-Adeluyi, University of California, Riverside
Africa’s cities are now among the fastest growing in the world. But how well are their pre-colonial origins understood? Recent research on Lagos’s past reveals a thriving, indigenous yet cosmopolitan urban community, one which lasted through cycles of civil strife and peace, being bombarded and rebuilt, all prior to British annexation in 1861. Clear patterns emerge when we reimagine Lagos as it existed between 1845 and 1851, that is, the six years between the Ogun Olomiro (the Salt-Water War) and the British bombardment of Lagos Island.
Three themes frame the debates around pre-colonial urbanism in nineteenth-century West Africa: the use and interpretation of sources, the conceptual (and historical) boundaries of ethnicity as an explanatory factor, and the impact of the transatlantic slave trade and European colonialism on the growth and decline of port cities on the Atlantic coast. In plotting nineteenth-century Lagos, responses to these questions require an interdisciplinary framework, preferably one that relies on both narrative and visual cues.
Representation of colonial Lagos, ca. 1885. “Lagos looking West from Church Tower,” from the National Archives UK, CO, 1069/78.
Vivian Bickford-Smith, The Emergence of the South African Metropolis: Cities and Identities in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2016. 340 pp., $ 99.99 / £ 64.99 / € 94.99. ISBN 978-1-107-00293-7.
Reviewed by Jonathan Hyslop, Colgate University and University of Pretoria
Can Themba was one of the great generation of black South African writers grouped around the renowned 1950s Johannesburg magazine Drum. He had his home in the brutally tough but immensely culturally and politically creative slumland of Sophiatown. Themba once commented that: “Sometimes I think … only Charles Dickens – or perhaps Victor Hugo – could have understood Sophiatown.” South Africa’s cities have been much discussed in recent scholarship but, usually, simply as theatres in which racial conflict took place, and in nationally specific terms. This point of departure has led to an attenuation of thought about these cities as cities. Contestations over South African urban spaces were central to the production of social cleavages and identities. While these battles always crucially interacted with the politics of race, they were not reducible to it. And what contemporary scholarship frequently misses is that historical actors often understood the places in which they lived in a transnational framework of discourses about urbanization and urban life. Themba imagined the city in terms that ranged as far as the worlds of Oliver Twist and Les Misérables.
Sophiatown in the 1950s
By Viola Benz and Birgit Wienand, Freie Universität Berlin
Recent years have seen an enormous growth of possibilities for historians to engage with a wider public beyond the academy. Urban history has benefited from these changes, particularly as cheaper airfare has encouraged short-term city tourism. In Berlin, one of the most popular places for tourists to explore twentieth-century German history because of its central role in World War II and the Cold War, websites, interactive elements in museums, historical images, audio walks and, more recently, smartphone apps provide a wide audience with an interpretation of the city’s history.
Kurfürstendamm, Berlin, in 1931