Transpatialization: A New Heuristic Model to Think about Modern Cities

By Cyrus Schayegh, The Graduate Institute Geneva

How has the modern world been formed spatially? Historians have pored over that question for the last two hundred years. From the mid-nineteenth century and deep into the twentieth, many concentrated on nation-states; in the last few decades, globalization has been the name of the game. How do cities fit into these historiographic models? This question is critical for urban historians interested in more than “simply” intramural affairs. In 1998, Charles Tilly exhorted urban historians to pay more attention to “how big social processes interact with small scale social life.” As if in response, Andrew Lees and Lynn Hollen Lees noted that cities became a “‘third force’ in modern European society:” a key space linking individuals with nation-states. More recently yet, Jürgen Osterhammel has pointed out that in the rapidly globalizing nineteenth century, cities became ever more intensely hubs for state bureaucratic action, economic pivots, hot houses of knowledge, and centers of sociability.

Beirut - air connections 1950s

Beirut air connections in the 1950s.


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Remodeling Tianjin: A New History of Globalization in a Chinese City

Pierre Singaravélou, Tianjin Cosmopolis: Une autre histoire de la mondialisation, Paris, Seuil, 2017. 384 pp., € 24.00.

Reviewed by Gabriel Doyle, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales

In the study of European imperialism in China, the Boxer rebellion that shook the Qing Empire at the turn of the twentieth century is an unavoidable cornerstone. Nonetheless, some phenomena tied to this rebellion still nourish new studies, such as Pierre Singaravélou’s book Tianjin Cosmopolis. His book is focused on a short period of time, between 1900 and 1902, when an international municipal government took over the city of Tianjin, located about 100 kilometres from the capital Beijing. Addressing a series of events that have been, according to the author, “curiously eluded by historiography” (81), the book offers a study of turn-of-the-century globalization, fitted into the streets of a Chinese city. Continue reading

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Words Matter, Silences too: Speaking About Urban Spaces

By Richard Harris, MacMaster University, and Charlotte Vorms, University of Paris 1, Panthéon-Sorbonne

As historical scholars, we know that the meaning of words often changes, and that those changes can matter. Sometimes they matter a lot, familiar examples being “race” and “gender.” But when the meaning of a word doesn’t change for a time everyone begins to take it for granted. For most North Americans, “suburb” is one such a word.


1958 American Lawn Food Ad

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The Making of Imperial Peripheries: The musseques in Late-Colonial Luanda

By Juliana Bosslet, SOAS, University of London

Angolan magazines in the 1960s and early ‘70s often insisted that Luanda was “the most Portuguese” of all African cities. The supposed exceptionalism of the Portuguese colonial case led not only academics but also contemporary social actors to analyze it as a development somehow apart from the British and French empires. Portuguese backwardness, the country’s inability to “civilize” its colonies, and even the high levels of miscegenation and settlers “going native,” amongst other widely held beliefs, had long been deployed to justify this exceptionalism. However, despite the uniqueness of each colonial experience, the Portuguese territories in Africa shared important developments with contemporary empires in the continent, including the rapid urbanization of a few centers, as was the case of Luanda. Continue reading

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Urban Encroachment is a Historical Trigger for Shiʿi Outrage in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Metropolis Qatif

By Claudia Ghrawi, Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin

Increased sectarian politics in the Arab Gulf countries have prompted researchers to take sectarianism more seriously as an analytical category “without reducing sectarian identity politics either to an already given essence or explaining it away by factors exterior to sectarianism itself.”[i] Current Shiʿi outrage over the wholesale destruction of neighborhoods in the Qatif metropolitan area, the largest center of Saudi Arabia’s Shiʿi population, which is situated along the Saudi littoral of the Persian Gulf, is usually interpreted within the framework of the regional conflict between Sunni Arab governments and Shiʿi Iran as well as the internal politics of the Saudi regime. However, it may be also understood as symptom of the worldwide phenomenon of unrestrained urban expansion and profit making in the age of neoliberalism, which ties in with questions of citizenship, human livelihood, and cultural identity. The Qatif area has for more than seventy years suffered from the havoc that oil industry and urban encroachment wreaked on local environment and society. Since the discovery of oil in 1938, land has become an object of large-scale price speculation by members of the royal family and local investors. In the process, the former oasis environment gave way to sprawling suburban growth. During the last seven decades, the area’s population grew from approximately 30,000 inhabitants prior to oil industrialization to over 500,000 in 2010.

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Qatif metropolitan area with the Rams in the upper left quarter.

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Making Cities Global

By A. K. Sandoval-Strausz

This post was jointly commissioned by the Urban History Association (UHA) and the Global Urban History Project (GUHP), and will run simultaneously on the UHA’s official blog, The Metropole.

Urban historians in the United States have increasingly been adopting the kinds of transnational frameworks already central to inquiry in other disciplines. We were slower to take the transnational turn than scholars in fields like sociology, anthropology, and geography. The reasons why have a lot to do with both nation and methodology.

15721Outside the United States, there were clear reasons for people to think in terms that transcended the nation-state. The contributors to the new volume that I’ve co-edited with Nancy Kwak, Making Cities Global: The Transnational Turn in Urban Historymany of whom work on South Asia, East Asia, and Latin America, readily pointed out why: in the parts of the world long controlled by colonial powers, people understood that empires could reach from beyond the horizon and exert authority over them. Scholars trained in Europe, meanwhile, had long understood overseas empires as a taken-for-granted historical formation.The sheer extent of imperial infrastructure—both colonial districts overseas and the looted monuments to their empires that dotted so many metropolitan capitals—made it more intuitive for scholars of urbanism and architecture like Anthony King, Peter Hall, Swati Chattopadhyay, and Zeynep Celik to place cities in an imperial context. Continue reading

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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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