Cartographies of Global Connectivity in Interwar Japan

By Jeffrey C. Guarneri, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Japan’s interwar period (1918-1941) was a time of profound changes in Japan’s ports of international trade, cities which simultaneously helped to drive Japan’s rise to world economic power status during World War I and became highly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the global economy thereafter. The historiography on Japan’s interwar period posits this vulnerability, and the many economic crises that laid it bare, as among several catalysts for Japan’s descent into a “dark valley” of nationalism, international isolation, economic autarky, and war in the 1930s. However, when viewed from the perspective of Japan’s commercial ports, whose fortunes depended on their country’s continued membership in the liberal international order even amidst strained circumstances, we see that local boosters (government officials, businessmen, local media, and educators) in these cities doubled down on official narratives for their cities which drew on their respective international maritime networks to define their communities in global terms, rather than bending inexorably toward militarism and a departure from the international community.

01 Kanagawa Prefecture (1934)

Bird’s-eye-view map Kanagawa Prefecture (1934)

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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.

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The Next Step in Global Urban History

By Joseph Ben Prestel (Freie Universität Berlin), Michael Goebel (Graduate Institute Geneva), and Tracy Neumann, (Wayne State University).

We launched the Global Urban History Blog in November 2015. Three and a half years later, we are pleased to announce a new project that has grown out of our work on this site: The Cambridge Elements in Global Urban History.

Grosz Lower Manhattan 1934

George Grosz, Lower Manhattan, 1934

Cambridge University Press describes Elements as “a new concept in academic publishing and scholarly communication, combining the best features of books and journals.” The format of the series offers distinct advantages that will allow for a new kind of discussion of global urban history. With their length of 20,000–30,000 words, Cambridge Elements are situated between a monograph and a long article. In this way, each volume will offer space for thorough reflections about different aspects of global urban history, ranging from topics and approaches to the variety of geographic lenses that historians use to think about the urban past. Continue reading

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Multireligiosity as a Rallying Call: The Petticoat Lane Street Market in the 1850s

By Ole Münch

Today, urban street markets are often places where migrants from different origins meet and mingle. This was the case in the past as well. By the middle of the nineteenth century the East End of London already hosted such a hotspot of multicultural interaction called Rag Fair. It was a world-famous market for old clothes situated in the heart of the city’s Jewish quarter. Among well-off Londoners the locality had a dubious reputation. It was known above all for its Jewish traders as well as pickpockets and fences – three terms regarded as synonymous. Contemporary journalists and hack writers branded this part of the metropolis an exotic and dangerous place with an almost other-worldly feel to it, full of foreign traders and clochards who were exciting to look at.


Dealers in the Rag Fair drawn by A. Van Assen, 1793

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Exploring Intersections of Urban History and Global History: A Roundtable Discussion at EAUH 2018

By Bronwen Everill, University of Cambridge, Anindita Ghosh, University of Manchester, Ayala Levin, Northwestern University, Cyrus Schayegh, The Graduate Institute Geneva, Rosemary Wakeman, Fordham University, Carl Nightingale, University at Buffalo, and Joseph Ben Prestel, Freie Universität Berlin

Carl Nightingale and Joseph Ben Prestel

Every two years, scholars gather in a different city for the European Association for Urban History conference. The EAUH’s biannual conference is among the most prominent stages for historians working on cities. At this year’s conference in Rome, the Global Urban History Project (GUHP) invited a group of scholars to participate in a roundtable discussion on global urban history. The research of the five scholars who joined the roundtable speaks to the combination of urban and global history in different ways and in a variety of geographical settings: The roundtable brought together historians working on cities in South Asia, Africa, the Middle East, North America, and Europe from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. Not least, the event benefited from the lively interest of conference participants, as a number of fellow urban historians entered the discussion during the three-hour event.

EAUH pic

The roundtable participants at EAUH 2018 in Rome. Photo: Tracy Neumann

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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.

Toul France Gothic Cathedral Hagen 2012

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.


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).


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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