No Escape

By Guy Ortolano, New York University

I went urban to escape the global.

Supranational histories – imperial, international, transnational, global, world – have become the default frames within which scholarship proceeds. At their best, these approaches shatter the complacencies of national histories, revealing the wider causes and connections behind subjects that only recently seemed exhausted. England’s Industrial Revolution, for example, is now explained by a hemispheric shift in the delivery of raw cotton, while Indian nationalism developed out of cosmopolitan exchanges as well as domestic social movements.

But all movements come with costs. In the case of supranational histories, these costs can include the fine-grained, contextual analysis that has long constituted the historian’s stock-in-trade.  Though aware that urban historiography, too, was embarking on a global voyage of its own, a decade ago I dug into urban studies in hopes of grounding abstract accounts of ideological change – namely, the late-twentieth century shift from social democracy to neoliberalism – in time and place.

Ortolano Image 1The resulting book, Thatcher’s Progress: From Social Democracy to Market Liberalism through an English New Town (Cambridge, 2019), seeks to explain ideological change through the lens of Britain’s new towns program. “New towns” are state efforts to create wholly new environments, including not only housing but also landscaping, shopping centers, recreation facilities, and civic amenities. In the generation after 1945, the British state designated thirty-two new towns across England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland – the largest new town program outside the Soviet Union. During the 1980s, however, this program of urban development withered under Margaret Thatcher’s governments, shutting down entirely by 1996 – a half-century after its foundation.

Britain’s new towns program was part of a wider global story. Following the Second World War, planners and architects joined forces with post-war and post-colonial states to erect hundreds – even thousands – of new villages, towns, and cities from Malaysia to Israel, Sweden to Iraq, India to Ghana. Of course, planned settlements boast an ancient history, but – as Rosemary Wakeman’s brilliant Practicing Utopia (Chicago, 2016) shows – during the twentieth century the ambition, scale, and coordination of this approach to city planning amounted to a distinctive project that refashioned urban space around the  world.

Ortolano Map 1

Where Wakeman went up and out, I went down and in. “Are you writing about just one city?” a colleague asked. An entire city! How could I, possibly? No: Thatcher’s Progress focuses on a single town over just one morning. On September 25, 1979, Britain’s new Prime Minister visited the last, largest, and most ambitious of Britain’s new towns, Milton Keynes. From half-past-nine to lunch, the public agency charged with building the new city sent their visitor on a tour to showcase their achievement – akin, I argue, to the “progresses and pageants” that medieval and early modern towns once arranged for visiting sovereigns.  Each chapter alights at a particular stop on “Thatcher’s progress,” lingering to consider the broader histories of transport, planning, architecture, community, consulting, and housing on either side of her 1979 election victory.

Ortolano Map 2Whatever my initial expectations, the world around me conspired with the archives to insert a global dimension throughout the book. More importantly, however, the precise nature of this “global” dimension figures differently in each chapter. In some cases, the mere recovery of the wider world was itself the prize. I learned to my surprise that, from the mid-1970s, modest Milton Keynes – nestled in a conservative rural county, and today the punchline of countless British jokes – functioned as a key node in urban planning networks stretching from Thailand to Trinidad to Venezuela, and from Nigeria to Algeria to Oman.

In other cases, the wider world informed the history. The chairman of Milton Keynes Development Corporation, Jock Campbell, arrived to his new position in 1967.  He had recently resigned from running the largest sugar company in British Guiana, Booker Brothers. In that capacity, mindful of the threats that nationalists and Marxists posed to a foreign, private firm, Campbell championed a massive housing program for the company’s workers. He viewed housing – and infrastructure generally – as a scaled-down welfare state, one that he hoped would function as a prophylactic against more revolutionary futures. In 1966, colonial British Guiana became post-colonial Guyana; the following year, Campbell took these experiences with him to Milton Keynes.

In still other cases, the wider world obscured the history. Housing styles in Milton Keynes changed dramatically during the 1970s, from a bracing modernism to more traditional forms. To explain this shift, I could cite the usual transnational markers: for example, the discrediting of high modernism, and inauguration of “post-modernism,” as symbolized by the demolition of St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in 1972.  The sources I was reading, however, didn’t pay much heed to the pronouncements of architectural critics. More important, I found, were the intricate collaborations between planners, social scientists, and – most importantly – lending institutions who, each for reasons of their own, collaborated to turn the city’s flat roofs into pitched ones.

Indeed, there is no subject in this urban history – from the city’s conception, to its planning and development, to its construction and peopling, to its uneasy navigation of an ascendant neoliberalism – that can be separated from supranational frames and forces. Ultimately, though, it is less the fact of these supranational dimensions than their variability that the historian must get right. Rather than offering a “global urban history,” Thatcher’s Progress attends to the scales of urban history, distinguishing between supranational contexts (easily found) and supranational causes (more elusive). In some cases, to be sure, causation emanated from broader global dynamics, but more often the most suitable frame of reference consisted of the post-imperial, the trans-Atlantic, the European, the British, the English, the regional, and, yes, the resolutely local.

In a way, then, I did find that writing urban history meant escaping global history: not by avoiding its presence or denying its insights, but by identifying more precisely the relevant scale and context at work in the building of a city.

Guy Ortolano is an Associate Professor of History at New York University.  He is the author of Thatcher’s Progress: From Social Democracy to Market Liberalism through an English New Town (Cambridge, 2019).  He is now working on the function of “England” in supranational accounts of history since the Enlightenment.

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