Paris Everywhere? The Challenge of Eurocentrism in Global Urban History

Joseph Ben Prestel, Freie Universität Berlin

Urban history is becoming increasingly global. Recent trends in historiography, such as transnational and global history, have inspired scholars of urban history who show a renewed interest in questions of comparison and connections. This year’s conference held by the European Association for Urban History in Helsinki offers seven sessions that carry the adjectives “transnational” and “global” in their titles. Another example of the global character of urban history can be found in current media portrayals of the urban past that strive to include cities all around the world. The Guardian‘s The Story of Cities series reflects this tendency. So far the series offers, among other articles, contributions on such diverse places as Barcelona, Beijing, Benin, St. Petersburg, and Potosí. The encyclopedic method of adding histories of different cities is also used in academic literature and can be considered one of the ways in which historians seek to offer a more global portrayal of the urban past. Cumulatively, the contributions to our blog have a similar tendency. What this approach leaves out is the issue of how these different stories relate to each other. When scholars ask, however, how the history of a city like Paris connects to the history of, say, Cairo, they have to face a major challenge of global urban history: Eurocentrism.

Cairo Stereograph 1908

Stereograph from 1908  with the title “Mingling of Orient and Occident — the Muski, Liveliest of the Real Streets of Cairo, Egypt”, from the Travelers in the Middle East Archive:

The discussion of Eurocentrism raises a set of fundamental issues about the theoretical toolbox that historians bring to their sources. Dipesh Chakrabarty and Arif Dirlik, for instance, have illustrated the effects of using analytical categories that were originally developed in works on European history to depict change in other world regions. They show that this often leads to portrayals of non-European history as a kind of repetition of what happened in Europe at an earlier point. In this way, Europe becomes the yardstick against which the histories of other world regions are measured. Modernization theory is probably the most prominent form of such Eurocentric accounts of the past, since it was built on the idea that societies in African, Asian, or South American countries are ‘on their way’ to becoming like their European and North American counterparts. A look at the field of urban history shows that it is not immune from such Eurocentric tendencies. In literature on nineteenth‑century cities, for example, scholars frequently take places like Paris and London as the avant-garde of “urban modernity” that was subsequently repeated in other places.

Eugène Haussmann’s urban planning initiative in Paris is a case in point. With its long and straight boulevards, squares, and new parks, historians frequently present Haussmann’s Paris as a standard of “urban modernity” that inspired changes in other places, such as Buenos Aires and Cairo. In the case of the Egyptian capital, this story is tied to the ruler of Egypt, Khedive Ismail, and his minister of public works Ali Mubarak, who visited Paris during the Exposition Universelle in 1867 and witnessed Haussmann’s projects. Scholars have highlighted that the Parisian renovation scheme inspired the Egyptian government’s remodeling of large parts of Cairo during the 1860s, when it introduced, among other things, new long and straight boulevards to the city. Even some people who were part of Haussmann’s efforts in Paris, such as the landscape architect Jean-Pierre Barillet‑Deschamps, were employed for these efforts in Cairo.

Map of Cairo_1904

Map of Cairo from 1904, highlighting different street patterns, from the New York Public Library:

Few historians today would claim that Paris didn’t play a role in the remodeling of the Egyptian capital during this period. Yet, several books and articles on the history of Cairo highlight the problematic effects of Eurocentrism in this context. Historians have repeatedly argued that the building initiative’s main goal was to turn Cairo into a “Paris on the Nile.” Mohamed Elshahed, Adam Mestyan, and others have pointed to important flaws in this narrative. Mestyan has highlighted the often-overlooked role of Istanbul for changes in the Egyptian capital during this period. As Elshahed has shown, there were also pronounced differences between the initiatives in Cairo and Paris. From this perspective, the use of features such as long and straight boulevards does not automatically entail an entire program of urban renovation, but rather reflects pragmatic concerns that governments in various places around the world shared during the 1860s. Parts of the literature on Cairo, however, describe these differences to Paris as “shortcomings” of the building initiative in the Egyptian capital. In this way, the Egyptian copy appears to never have quite met the French original as the city’s redesign did not follow fundamental components of Haussmann’s example. The history of Cairo thus becomes a story marked by deficit and a proviso of “not quite” – precisely the effect of Eurocentrism that Dipesh Chakrabarty has criticized. Historians have voiced similar reservations concerning Paris-centric narratives for other cities. Writing about Shanghai, Jeffrey Wasserstrom notes “the city may have been a ‘Paris of the Orient’ (…), but it was not only a place to which Europeans and American products, ideas, and people came and made their marks in a Chinese setting. There were always non-Western and non-Chinese actors playing key roles in Shanghai’s globalization.”[1]

The case of Paris and Cairo challenges historians to have a closer look at their analysis. Whereas the connection between the two cities should not be discarded, scholars should avoid placing them quickly in a narrative in which Europe is the source and exporter of “urban modernity” to the rest of the world. One way in which historians can avoid this pitfall is to follow Frederick Cooper’s suggestions on the concept of modernity and consider the language of “urban modernity” not as an analytical category, but as a claim‑making concept at a specific moment in history. Arguments about a “Paris of the Orient”, a “Paris of South America”, or a “Paris on the Nile” spread since the nineteenth century. Who made these claims? To what ends? What kinds of power relations did they entail? These questions might lead to answers that highlight the central role of particular cities. However, this finding would then provide insight about global and local power relations rather than a teleological history of urban modernity. Put differently, the story of Paris as a reference point for changes in other cities can show how particular groups in particular places made claims about the aims and objectives of urban change. The reference point of Paris does not, however, implicate the French capital as the forerunner of a development that simply repeated itself in other cities. The role of Paris in narratives of urban modernity in the nineteenth century is just one example that reflects the risk posed by the field of global urban history to produce potentially Eurocentric results. Proponents of global history have argued that the field’s wariness of Eurocentrism sets global history apart from older types of world history. If this is the case, scholars of global urban history need to question the Eurocentricity of their analytical vocabulary.

Joseph Ben Prestel is assistant professor (wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter) of history at Freie Universität Berlin. He is currently working on a book, in which he compares debates on urban change in Berlin and Cairo during the second half of the nineteenth century.

[1] Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Global Shanghai, 1850-2010: A History in Fragments (London: Routledge, 2009), 129.

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1 Response to Paris Everywhere? The Challenge of Eurocentrism in Global Urban History

  1. Pingback: Liberal Cities: What Recent Elections Mean for Global Urban History | Global Urban History

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