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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Chile, France, and the Construction of the Santiago Metro

By Andra Chastain

The Metro in Santiago, Chile, has an unlikely history. It opened to the public in September 1975, two years after the violent overthrow of Salvador Allende’s socialist government, while the country was reeling from the human rights abuses and political persecution that followed in the wake of the coup. The military dictatorship, led by General Augusto Pinochet, celebrated the new transportation system as a marvel of technology and development, as proof of what could be accomplished under authoritarian rule. The Metro was a symbol of the regime’s “new style” of governing, one minister proudly proclaimed: “What is happening today in the Metro is happening in Chile.”


Metro construction on Line 1, circa 1972. See the Santiago Nostálgico Flickr account for this and other historical photos of the Metro.

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Henri Lefebvre, Mao Zedong, and the Global Urban Concept

By Stuart Schrader

Global urban history takes three primary forms. One is to direct the analytic gaze beyond Euro-America, to cities that were once “off the map” of urban studies. Another is to study the interconnections among far-flung cities. Extensive commercial, cultural, and intellectual networks that underpin “globalization” have long been grounded in cities. With the increasing popularity of global and world history, it makes sense to emphasize the centrality of cities and the unique role they play in globalization. A third form is to analyze the history of an uneven global urban fabric. Works like Carl Nightingale’s Segregation or Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums analyze how the form of the urban changes as it also “globalizes.” In this post, I delve into this third mode of global urban history. Continue reading

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