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.


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.


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.

Kwak photo

Nancy Kwak

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A Conference on Chinese Cities in World History

By Daniel Knorr, University of Chicago

The “global turn” in historical studies is a recent phenomenon, but global comparisons have long been foundational in the study of Chinese cities. Max Weber framed this comparison as decisively negative in The City, contrasting the European experience – characterized by economically vibrant and politically autonomous cities – with that of China, which, in the ostensible absence of these characteristics, he claimed lacked true cities. William Rowe’s repudiation of Weber in his 1984 and 1989 books on Hankou (Hankow) epitomized both growing empirical understanding of Chinese cities and an increasing orientation towards what Paul Cohen termed “China-centered” history, which rejected orientalist assumptions about China’s history as static and incompatible with modernity. This “China-centered” approach by no means entirely eschewed comparative perspectives, though. Rowe’s own contributions to the debate about public sphere/civil society in China as well as the “sprouts of capitalism” discourse among Chinese historians testified to the prevailing interest in placing Chinese cities in a global framework. Some thirty years later – now in the context of an interest in global connections that has swept through all fields of historical inquiry – historians of China still confront the challenge of simultaneously explaining the unique aspects of the country’s history and staking a claim for the global relevance and connectiveness of our research.


Nineteenth-Century View of Macau

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Cosmopolitanism on the Move: Port Said around 1900

By Valeska Huber, German Historical Institute London

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Baedeker map of Port Said, 1885, from the Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA).

Research on the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean has stressed the importance of the opening of the Suez Canal as a transformative factor that had extensive reverberations throughout the region. In the decades after 1869, the Suez Canal and the Red Sea developed into the lifeline not only of the British, but also of the French and Dutch Empires; the harbor town of Port Said at the Mediterranean entrance of the canal became a quasi-obligatory stopover during the journey between the colonies and Europe. However, while Egyptian or more generally Middle Eastern cities form a thriving field of research, Port Said has so far largely escaped the attention of urban historians of the Middle East. There are reasons for this neglect: Port Said never developed into a flourishing city comparable to its rival Alexandria and, despite expectations to the contrary, remained a rather small town of passage. Nonetheless, there are things to learn from this city as a case study of a harbor town with a particularly transient population. Here, the term “cosmopolitanism”, frequently used by travelers passing through the city to describe it, can provide us with one lens through which to revisit Port Said in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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Immigration and Metropolitan Revitalization in the United States

By Domenic Vitiello, University of Pennsylvania, and Thomas J. Sugrue, New York University

Recent refugee crises, xenophobic nationalism, and calls to deport unauthorized immigrants remind historians of earlier eras in which cities and nations have taken opposing stances on immigration. In the United States, the Trump administration spent much of its first 100 days attacking immigrants, refugees, and sanctuary cities, spreading fear but also losing key battles in the courts. All along, cities from New York and Philadelphia to Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles have vowed to sustain their sanctuary policies. As they did in the 1980s when city leaders opposed the Reagan administration’s refusal to grant asylum to Central Americans, these Sanctuary Cities refuse to cooperate in federal deportation efforts, even in the face of threats to cut federal and state funding. Part of their calculus is that city officials know well the centrality of immigration to urban vitality in recent history. Beyond the humanitarian and moral reasons for sanctuary, many local governments see the prospect of losing immigrants as a greater threat to their cities’ economic wellbeing than the risk of losing federal funding.

Our new edited volume, Immigration and Metropolitan Revitalization in the United States, shows what is at stake for cities in disputes over immigration policy. Its ten essays by urban social historians and allied social scientists explore the deep relationship between immigration and urban transformations in recent decades in the U.S. as well as in sending communities in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The chapters – by Robert Sampson, Jacob Vigdor, Gary Painter, Marilynn Johnson, Michael Katz and Kenneth Ginsburg, Jamie Winders, Gerardo Sandoval, Andrew Sandoval-Strausz, Rachel Van Tosh, and us – illuminate how crucial immigration has been for the fortunes of cities, suburbs, and small towns worldwide.

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Comparing Transnational and Global Urban History

Nicolas Kenny and Rebecca Madgin, ed., Cities Beyond Borders: Comparative and Transnational Approaches to Urban History, Farnham, Ashgate, 2015. 262 pp., £75.

Reviewed by Joseph Ben Prestel, Freie Universität Berlin

Global urban history is not the only approach that seeks to transcend national perspectives on the urban past. Comparative urban history and transnational urban history are two other labels that scholars use in order to mark their choice of moving beyond a single city or nation-state. The present book makes for a highly stimulating read, not least because it draws attention to the questions that lie ahead for scholars that seek to engage in such an effort. Readers might come away from this book asking:  What makes global urban history distinct from other approaches, such as transnational urban history?

Cities Beyond Borders

Cities Beyond Borders brings together a wide array of historians specialized in different cities and world regions. The book’s twelve chapters touch upon the history of urban settings in North America, Europe, and South Asia. It opens with an engaging introduction written by the editors Nicolas Kenny and Rebecca Madgin, who make a compelling case for going beyond the analysis of a single city in urban history. Kenny and Madgin highlight that much scholarship draws on comparative assumptions to begin with. The very notion of a coherent object of analysis called “the city” can only be based on a comparison. It is this inherently comparative aspect of urban history that they seek to address head on, noting that “the chapters gathered here are underpinned by a basic question: how is our understanding of what it has historically meant to live in a city enhanced by a widened lens that encompasses multiple urban settings?” (p. 6). The editors stress that a comparative and transnational perspective on the past of cities also needs to engender reflections about the practice of doing urban history. This relates in particular to the use of comparative categories such as “port cities,” which they see as being at risk of contributing to a “reductive typology of cities.” Kenny and Madgin rather call on scholars to compare also very different cities to each other, which would contribute to new questions and a fuller understanding of the “urban imaginary.”

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