The City as a Palimpsest and Crucible of National Identity

By Alexander C. Diener, University of Kansas, and Joshua Hagen, Northern State University

The tendency of successive regimes to rework commemorative landscapes speaks to the intrinsic and intricate linkages between place, memory, and identity. We affix memories and identities to urban space and place as a means of giving tangible and lasting form to intangible and transient moments. Yet even massive landmarks of granite and bronze are subject to shifting public sentiment as groups compete for power through the design of urban iconography. Although unfolding in quite different contexts, the impulse to rework public space to suit new political narratives finds historical precedents ranging from revolutionaries tearing religious statues from Catholic cathedrals during the French Revolution to ongoing efforts to purge communist-era landmarks from post-socialist cities.

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Gothic cathedral with missing statuary, Toul, France. Photo by Joshua Hagen, 2012.

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An Unlikely Environmentalism: Mexico City’s Urban Ecological Thought in the Age of Development

By Matthew Vitz, University of California San Diego

Considering Mexico City epitomized environmental catastrophe for much of the 1980s and 1990s, one would not expect it to have been a bastion of innovative urban ecological thinking during the middle of the century. The typical depiction of the postcolonial Third World City is of environmental deterioration due to a deep-seated developmentalist ethos promoting industrialization at all costs. Mexico City certainly fit the bill, arising from the Revolution of 1910–1940 as the engine of capitalist development, with a rising population of migrants from an impoverished countryside. Photos of smog-choked, poisonous air and endless sprawl that circulated during the 1980s reinforced the notion that neither the state nor the city’s inhabitants possessed an environmental ethic. Meanwhile, environmental NGOs raced to Mexico to deal with an urban-ecological crisis that Mexicans themselves were ostensibly only beginning to perceive. The late-century environmentalist impulse in an overgrown and polluted Mexico City seemed to confirm the notion that Third World environmentalism was derivative of North Atlantic organizations and international institutions such as the United Nations.

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Rodrigo Moya, Dust Storm, Mexico City 1958. Courtesy of Archivo Fotográfico Rodrigo Moya

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Dakar, Senegal: Cosmopolitan Interwar City

By Kathleen Keller, Gustavus Adolphus College

One of largest cities in West Africa, Dakar, Senegal sits at the western-most tip of the continent. Now home to a population of over two million people, Dakar of today is the capital of Senegal and a major city with an important art scene, a huge new international airport, and a growing business and technology sector. The city’s origins lie in the colonial era when, in the late nineteenth century, the small fishing village was selected by French authorities to become the capital of a large federation of colonies known as French West Africa (Afrique Occidentale Française –AOF). The federation was a political entity that encompassed a wide swath of territory from Mauritania to Dahomey and from Senegal to Mali and lasted until independence in 1960. The federation of colonies took its seat in Dakar in 1902, where a governor-general ruled the federation from a neoclassical palace.

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Palace of the Government-General, Dakar, early 1920s

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Reading the City from the Streets

Kenda Mutongi. Matatu: A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi. Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press, 2017. 350 pp., US$ 30.00 (paper).

Reviewed by Norman Aselmeyer, European University Institute

In Nairobi, it is a hopeless task to guard oneself against the presence of matatus. These omnipresent minibuses roam the city day and night, catching everyone’s eye and ear when they show up. Susan Leigh Star’s often-cited assertion, that infrastructure is by definition invisible, does not apply to matatus.[1] In fact, the opposite is true. Matatus are loud, gleaming, brash, ruthless, impossible to avoid. But perspective matters. To the urban youth, they are the epitome of popular culture. Matatus blast out the latest hits, attract the cool crowds of Nairobi with their flamboyant paintings, the wit of their conductors, flat screens, and elaborate decorations in the interior. Some of the hip town folk frequent them just for entertainment. Yet not everyone rides in them because they want to, most people actually depend on them. Matatus are the arteries of Nairobi. They are so ubiquitous in the city that they have come to resemble the city itself.

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Development Encounters in Buenos Aires’ Affordable Housing, 1964-1973

By Leandro Benmergui, Purchase College-SUNY

“To Enter into the Present” was the suggestive title of a 1971 booklet the Buenos Aires city government prepared for new residents of the Ciudad General Belgrano (CGB)—a housing complex of 3024 low-rise single-family homes intended for former shantytown dwellers located in La Matanza, Greater Buenos Aires. In its pages, pictures of the colonial village of Buenos Aires were mixed with those of the modern CGB, visually reproducing the modernizing imaginaries of urban experts like those in the Municipal Housing Commission (CMV), making explicit the coexistence of past and present in the same urban space. For urban experts, shantytowns evoked the precarious ranchos—the reproduction of the rustic rural house—that recent migrants built in the city with scrap materials. In the minds of social scientists and urban experts, shantytowns and their residents spoke to the incomplete transition from country and folk habits to modern and urban ones. They located this incomplete modernization primarily in poor urban areas which, according to tropes of modernization theory, resulted from both weak democracies and populations inclined to support populist, charismatic leaders and radical political ideas. Globally, policymakers, experts, and technical cadres, hoping to reshape society and citizenship in the 1960s, tried to jumpstart modernity through planned housing, “efficient” and “rational” policymaking, homeownership, and middle-class domesticity. In Argentina, this involved freeing urban development and housing construction from the political passions of the past, especially the ones associated with the pro-labor government of Juan Perón (1946-1955).

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Comisión Municipal de la Vivienda, Para entrar en el presente (Buenos Aires: Municipalidad de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, n.d. estimated 1973).

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Chile, France, and the Construction of the Santiago Metro

By Andra Chastain

The Metro in Santiago, Chile, has an unlikely history. It opened to the public in September 1975, two years after the violent overthrow of Salvador Allende’s socialist government, while the country was reeling from the human rights abuses and political persecution that followed in the wake of the coup. The military dictatorship, led by General Augusto Pinochet, celebrated the new transportation system as a marvel of technology and development, as proof of what could be accomplished under authoritarian rule. The Metro was a symbol of the regime’s “new style” of governing, one minister proudly proclaimed: “What is happening today in the Metro is happening in Chile.”

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Metro construction on Line 1, circa 1972. See the Santiago Nostálgico Flickr account for this and other historical photos of the Metro.

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Henri Lefebvre, Mao Zedong, and the Global Urban Concept

By Stuart Schrader

Global urban history takes three primary forms. One is to direct the analytic gaze beyond Euro-America, to cities that were once “off the map” of urban studies. Another is to study the interconnections among far-flung cities. Extensive commercial, cultural, and intellectual networks that underpin “globalization” have long been grounded in cities. With the increasing popularity of global and world history, it makes sense to emphasize the centrality of cities and the unique role they play in globalization. A third form is to analyze the history of an uneven global urban fabric. Works like Carl Nightingale’s Segregation or Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums analyze how the form of the urban changes as it also “globalizes.” In this post, I delve into this third mode of global urban history. Continue reading

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No Need to Go to Paris Anymore: Brazilians’ visits to Buenos Aires around 1900

By Ori Preuss, Tel Aviv University

“The enthusiasm with which he described what he calls the ‘the major phenomenon of the Latin race in the nineteenth century,’ his endless admiration for a growth unmatched by any other people of our origin, made me embarrassed for having been so many times in Europe and for not having visited yet the River Plate,” thus wrote Joaquim Nabuco in an article that appeared in a popular Rio de Janeiro newspaper in 1887. The piece narrated travel impressions recounted to Brazil’s foremost abolitionist leader by Portuguese author Ramalho Ortigão, who had gone from Rio to Buenos Aires and back that year. I first came across it in one of the scrapbooks of Argentine statesman-writer Estanislao Zeballos. It was a Spanish version, published in the Buenos Aires press under the title “Ramalho Ortigão in the River Plate / Enthusiastic Concepts / The United States of South America / An Article by Nabuco / From O País of Rio de Janeiro,” attesting to the circulation of both people and information between the two capitals. Continue reading

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Searching for Meiji-Tokyo: Heterogeneous Visual Media and the Turn to Global Urban History, Digitalization, and Deep Learning

By Beate Löffler, University of Duisburg-Essen, Carola Hein, Delft University of Technology, and Tino Mager, Delft University of Technology

For a long time, urban history, as a field of study, focused on textual sources and elite subjects, and the scholars were mostly historians. In the twentieth century, historians studying large western cities started to experiment with a more holistic approach, engaging with other disciplines and sources to gain deeper insight into bigger questions; in particular, they integrated approaches from social sciences and started to shift questions away from material culture to social interaction in a broader sense. Then, in the late 1980s, the spatial turn in the social sciences influenced urban studies, bringing forward the intermingled complexity of social and physical space that is only hinted at in textual sources and thus elusive in research. Some years later, the pictorial turn further widened the field to include more disciplines: as more visual sources became available, they attracted the attention of scholars other than the archaeologists, historians of art, architecture, and urban form who had traditionally worked with visuals. This holistic character of urban history also makes it particularly fitting for studies on the global scale, as the case of Tokyo shows.

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The Urban Environmental History of West Ham and the River Lea

By Jim Clifford, University of Saskatchewan

Greater London’s population increased by five million during the nineteenth century and the city developed into a major center of industry, transforming the marshlands of the Thames Estuary into polluted and crowded urban landscapes. The rich collection of nineteenth-century London maps make digital mapping a powerful tool for exploring the environmental history of West Ham, the River Lea, and Greater London. The interactive map of factories digitized from the five feet to the mile Ordinance Survey, displays the historical Geographic Information Systems database at the core of my book West Ham and the River Lea: A Social and Environmental History of London’s Industrialized Marshland, 1839–1914.

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Image of the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) flour mill in Silvertown, 1915 (Wikipedia)

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