Words Matter, Silences too: Speaking About Urban Spaces

By Richard Harris, MacMaster University, and Charlotte Vorms, University of Paris 1, Panthéon-Sorbonne

As historical scholars, we know that the meaning of words often changes, and that those changes can matter. Sometimes they matter a lot, familiar examples being “race” and “gender.” But when the meaning of a word doesn’t change for a time everyone begins to take it for granted. For most North Americans, “suburb” is one such a word.

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1958 American Lawn Food Ad

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The Making of Imperial Peripheries: The musseques in Late-Colonial Luanda

By Juliana Bosslet, SOAS, University of London

Angolan magazines in the 1960s and early ‘70s often insisted that Luanda was “the most Portuguese” of all African cities. The supposed exceptionalism of the Portuguese colonial case led not only academics but also contemporary social actors to analyze it as a development somehow apart from the British and French empires. Portuguese backwardness, the country’s inability to “civilize” its colonies, and even the high levels of miscegenation and settlers “going native,” amongst other widely held beliefs, had long been deployed to justify this exceptionalism. However, despite the uniqueness of each colonial experience, the Portuguese territories in Africa shared important developments with contemporary empires in the continent, including the rapid urbanization of a few centers, as was the case of Luanda. Continue reading

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Urban Encroachment is a Historical Trigger for Shiʿi Outrage in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Metropolis Qatif

By Claudia Ghrawi, Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin

Increased sectarian politics in the Arab Gulf countries have prompted researchers to take sectarianism more seriously as an analytical category “without reducing sectarian identity politics either to an already given essence or explaining it away by factors exterior to sectarianism itself.”[i] Current Shiʿi outrage over the wholesale destruction of neighborhoods in the Qatif metropolitan area, the largest center of Saudi Arabia’s Shiʿi population, which is situated along the Saudi littoral of the Persian Gulf, is usually interpreted within the framework of the regional conflict between Sunni Arab governments and Shiʿi Iran as well as the internal politics of the Saudi regime. However, it may be also understood as symptom of the worldwide phenomenon of unrestrained urban expansion and profit making in the age of neoliberalism, which ties in with questions of citizenship, human livelihood, and cultural identity. The Qatif area has for more than seventy years suffered from the havoc that oil industry and urban encroachment wreaked on local environment and society. Since the discovery of oil in 1938, land has become an object of large-scale price speculation by members of the royal family and local investors. In the process, the former oasis environment gave way to sprawling suburban growth. During the last seven decades, the area’s population grew from approximately 30,000 inhabitants prior to oil industrialization to over 500,000 in 2010.

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Qatif metropolitan area with the Rams in the upper left quarter.

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Making Cities Global

By A. K. Sandoval-Strausz

This post was jointly commissioned by the Urban History Association (UHA) and the Global Urban History Project (GUHP), and will run simultaneously on the UHA’s official blog, The Metropole.

Urban historians in the United States have increasingly been adopting the kinds of transnational frameworks already central to inquiry in other disciplines. We were slower to take the transnational turn than scholars in fields like sociology, anthropology, and geography. The reasons why have a lot to do with both nation and methodology.

15721Outside the United States, there were clear reasons for people to think in terms that transcended the nation-state. The contributors to the new volume that I’ve co-edited with Nancy Kwak, Making Cities Global: The Transnational Turn in Urban Historymany of whom work on South Asia, East Asia, and Latin America, readily pointed out why: in the parts of the world long controlled by colonial powers, people understood that empires could reach from beyond the horizon and exert authority over them. Scholars trained in Europe, meanwhile, had long understood overseas empires as a taken-for-granted historical formation.The sheer extent of imperial infrastructure—both colonial districts overseas and the looted monuments to their empires that dotted so many metropolitan capitals—made it more intuitive for scholars of urbanism and architecture like Anthony King, Peter Hall, Swati Chattopadhyay, and Zeynep Celik to place cities in an imperial context. Continue reading

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Urban Renewal and Displacement in Soviet (and Post-Soviet) Moscow

By Katherine Zubovich, Ryerson University

On May 14, 2017, over ten thousand people joined together in Moscow, Russia, to protest the proposed demolition of entire blocks of Soviet-era apartment buildings. The buildings under threat are a distinct type: five-story prefabricated structures built during the Khrushchev era in leafy suburban districts outside the city center. Now, a new law—proposed by the Moscow mayor earlier this year and signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 1—aims to rid the Russian capital of its “Khrushchevki” by demolishing some 4,500 buildings and replacing them with modern high-rises. The 1.6 million Muscovites currently living in these buildings are to be relocated to new high-rise units of “equivalent” size elsewhere in the city.

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Demolition of five-story Khrushchev-era building in Moscow in 2008.

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Cairo, Berlin, and the Compartments of Urban History

By Joseph Ben Prestel, Freie Universität Berlin

Around 1900, contemporaries in Cairo and Berlin made remarkably similar arguments about the effects of urban change on city dwellers. A variety of actors from journalists and psychologists to police officers and city clerks portrayed entertainment districts in the two cities as having a problematic effect on emotions. They depicted the neighborhood of Azbakiyya in Cairo and the area around Friedrichstraße in Berlin as reducing people’s ability to control their feelings. My recently published book Emotional Cities: Debates on Urban Change in Berlin and Cairo, 1860-1910 examines these arguments. In it, I ask what historians can deduce from the similarity of arguments about urban change in these two geographically distant cities.

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Berlin’s Friedrichstraße around 1900.

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The Urban and the Powerful: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Global Urban History

Göran Therborn, Cities of Power: The Urban, The National, The Popular, The Global, London, Verso, 2017, 408 pp. $35/£20/$47 CAN.

Reviewed by Gemma Masson, University of Birmingham

The recent growth in popularity of global history has caused many scholars to investigate how we can encourage students and colleagues, previously so rigidly locked into their own very niche specialisms, to work on the bigger picture. The latest publication from sociologist Göran Therborn can be described in a single word: interdisciplinary. Historians seeking a theoretical framework for their research may be apprehensive about what, at first glance seems to be a complex and technical sociological text, but through the skillful interweaving of history, politics, sociology, and architecture,this work is accessible and relatable to urban scholars in all fields. The book sets out to assess the impact that the urban, the national, the popular, and the global have had on each other. It also weaves both material and ideological factors into the study of cities. There is throughout the text an overarching teleological tendency to emphasize “modernity” and the “journey to modernity,” which can be contentious for some historians. However, Therborn seems to predict any potential criticisms of his handling of “modernity” and from the very start of the book he sets out to address this issue. Continue reading

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Brahmin Boston and the Politics of Interconnectedness

By Noam Maggor, Cornell University

The first age of globalization between around 1870 and World War I created a strategic new role for cities, making them into pivotal sites for the worldwide movement of capital, goods, and labor. And yet, urbanization was never merely derivative of this larger process. Cities were more than nodes in wide-ranging networks or points where faraway connections became localized. They emerged, rather, as places where global integration was itself produced and forged, always via social and political conflict.

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The posh Back Bay neighborhood of Boston, circa 1870. Orderly and homogeneous, it looked visually and architecturally similar to the capitals of Europe, signaling a retreat from the surrounding industrial landscape and embodying the cosmopolitan sensibilities of a unified upper class.

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Princely Architectural Cosmopolitanism and Urbanity in Rampur

By Razak Khan, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen

The colonial state in India often justified the continuation of princely states as a policy for the preservation of “traditional patterns” in the cultural sphere. While the “traditional” was seemingly preserved, it was also increasingly transformed in princely states under colonial paramountcy. Princely states were not isolated entities with unchanging structures but need to be re-located within the British Empire’s changing discourses and practices to understand the nexus between princely sovereignty and modernity. This post studies the illustrative example of urban development and architecture in the Rampur princely state. Rampur survived as the only Muslim-ruled princely state in the colonial United Provinces in the post-1857-revolt context. While the city of Rampur and its culture display many characteristics of what may be termed as that of an “Islamic city,” it nonetheless developed as a cosmopolitan city with Indo-Islamic, colonial modern, and diverse other cultural influences. This entangled history gave Rampur a distinctly local and yet global cosmopolitan culture, which is most evident in its architecture and urbanism among other cultural artefacts.

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(c) British Library Board. The Durbar Hall, Hamid Manzil – Fort [Rampur] Date: c. 1911; Shelfmark: Photo 36/(5).

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“Historians of Cities and Global Historians Have Much to Learn From Each Other”: A Conversation with Nancy Kwak

The Conversations section of our blog seeks to foster critical exchange about the theoretical and methodological implications of bringing together global and urban history. The blog’s editors will occasionally interview scholars to discuss questions of global urban history, spanning across different regional and thematic concerns.

For this post, we are delighted to have spoken with Nancy Kwak, Associate Professor of History at UC San Diego. She is the author of A World of Homeowners: American Power and the Politics of Housing Aid (University of Chicago Press, 2015), which won the Stuart L. Bernath Book Prize from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (2016) and the Kenneth T. Jackson Best Book Award from the Urban History Association (2016). With Andrew Sandoval-Strausz, she is the co-editor of Making Cities Global: The Transnational Turn in Urban History, out this fall from University of Pennsylvania Press.

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Nancy Kwak


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