Tag Archives: Culture

Identity and Difference in the City: working with The National-Coalition Building Institute

Helen Wilson, Geography, School of Environment, Education and Development writes about her current research …

This month saw the AGM of the National Coalition-Building Institute (NCBI London), at the House of Lords. As a non-profit organisation founded in 1984 by Cherie Brown to tackle inter-ethnic violence on college campuses in Washington DC, NCBI now has over 50 city chapters across North America, Latin America and Europe. Each of these chapters was founded by volunteers to train local community leaders in effective bridge-building skills focused on tackling discrimination, prejudice and conflict in different cultural and urban contexts.

Since its inception, the range of projects undertaken by NCBI International has been extensive. This includes (to name only a few), school violence prevention projects across Switzerland, work on racism and racial profiling with police forces in the US, community work following riots in the UK, anti-Islamophobia workshops, dialogue work with refugees and asylum seekers, inter-faith community projects and LGBT awareness days (for more information see NCBI International, NCBI UK and NCBI CH). These programs have won NCBI international acclaim for its work on prejudice, which includes the Nelson Mandela Award for ‘outstanding international work on fighting racism’, a Gabriel Award for excellence in youth programming and numerous British Diversity Awards for Best Diversity Practice.

I started working with NCBI as part of two linked projects funded by the Royal Geographical Society and the British Academy/Leverhulme in 2013. My research asks how difference is negotiated in the everyday city. More specifically, it concerns the spaces, people and organisations that facilitate learning and dialogue across difference in such a way as to challenge and disrupt normative accounts of belonging, both on a day-to-day basis and in response to particular moments of crisis. Both of these projects concern international networks of community-led intervention programmes that broadly seek to address discrimination, prejudice and violence in its many guises. As such, over the past year, I have been attending key NCBI events, workshops and projects, which to this point have taken me to London, Bristol, Birmingham and Annapolis, MD to take part in training events and to speak with participants, facilitators, trustees and collaborators.

Whilst the projects undertaken by NCBI are wide-ranging and are carried out across an international network, one thing that remains consistent across all of its chapters – and is at the core of its work – is a one-day identity and difference workshop that focuses on the circulation of prejudice. The workshop, which utilises incremental learning exercises, includes an in-depth examination of prejudice and stereotypes, a reflection on their roots and harmful effects, discussions on structural inequalities and an account of how community leaders might better interrupt, challenge and prevent prejudice and violence on a day-to-day basis.

In the media, it is often the more spectacular, or extreme accounts of prejudice that make the headlines – the arson attacks on mosques, the ‘go-home’ billboards driven around London, or the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida. The Boston bombings in April of last year and the killing of Lee Rigby in London in May, were followed by a substantial spike in reported incidents of Islamophobia. At the same time, pressures on resources have seen a resurgence of xenophobia, anti-immigration campaigns, more punitive responses to asylum seekers and a considerable shift in attitudes towards welfare recipients. Behind these events, are stories of the ways in which xenophobia and racism continue to inflect the everyday lives of people in ways that often go unnoticed, unchallenged and unreported. At a time of increased pressure on the capacity to live with difference in contemporary cities across both North America and Europe, the role of voluntary and non-profit organisations like NCBI should not be overlooked and a better understanding of their impacts, practices and mobility is critical to understanding the social challenges facing contemporary cities.

For research interested in how community intervention programmes are learnt and mobilised, organisations such as NCBI pose a significant methodological challenge. On the one hand, my research is focused on the idea of replication. It asks how a leadership training model that was originally developed to address inter-ethnic conflict on college campuses in the US, has been successfully mobilised to address a wide spectrum of diversity-related issues in many different cultural contexts and settings worldwide – in communities, workplaces and institutions. At the same time, whilst interested in the mobility of this work, the research is also focused on the local programmes that city chapters undertake. This includes the motivations that sustain them and the forms of learning that they encourage, encompassing a vast research site, 50 cities and thousands of participants and projects.

Despite harsh funding conditions and public cuts, NCBI London has experienced a notable revival of activities in the last year having worked with campaigners and local government for the last 14 years on a variety of community based projects. At the AGM, a new advisory committee and board of trustees was announced, along with its projects for the coming year. A new three year Young Ambassadors Program was launched, the first cohort of which was at the event to mark its beginning. Four community listening workshops were announced in Bristol, the first of which will take place next month and will provide a space for the exchange of stories and experiences of mental health in the community. This will be followed by a meet your neighbour event, to address the lack of communication across different community groups in Bristol, whilst a number of workshops in London will be working with women to explore what it means to be a woman today. These workshops will address pertinent questions about the persistence of sexism, a project that will see NCBI collaborate with the Peabody Trust – a London based housing provider and community generation programme that has a long history of community work in the capital. All of these individual projects will occur alongside NCBI’s regular community workshops on identity and difference adding to a varied portfolio of projects that highlights both the breadth of the charity’s focus and the variability of funding priority and availability.

Whilst funding might be hard to come by, this month’s AGM was positive, although as Baroness Young of Hornsey, pointed out – there is substantial work to be done. Standing in the House of Lords we were reminded that London is a city of extreme inequality. Indeed, we only need to look at the demographic of Parliament to recognise the size of the challenge. This was a point that was not lost on the people gathered in the Cholmondeley Room – representatives from local institutions, councils, charities, the NHS, community centres, businesses, parliament and the City – and indeed was the very thing that brought them together.

Beyond the AGM, NCBI London’s annual report and its outline of projects to come, offers up some important lines of inquiry for cities research. Perhaps the biggest is how we go about evaluating and attributing the impact of such work when so much of it is based on incremental forms of learning and stretches across multiple different sites and cities. More importantly however, is the question of how academic institutions might better support and collaborate with such organisations to secure funding, support local projects and exchange knowledge. By working with NCBI over the next couple of years these are just two of the questions that I hope to address.

Advertisements

On Manchester Chinatown

Elena Barabantseva, School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester, write about Manchester’s chinatown …

Yet again this year Manchester’s city centre was a stage for Chinese New Year Celebrations, making it a perfect occasion for a family day out to experience a different culture. Manchester Chinatown is one of the major tourist attractions in the city and is considered to be the most vibrant Chinese quarter in the country, but how did it become part of the city’s architectural and cultural fabrics?

With the seedcorn funding from cities@manchester I was able to conduct an archival study on the origins of Chinatown and a series of interviews with the members of Manchester’s Chinese community organisations. What emerged from this pilot research is that the origins of Manchester Chinatown are somewhat paradoxical. From the first wave of migration in the early twentieth century, the Chinese have been the most geographically dispersed migrant group in the UK due to the nature of their occupations, first in laundries and then in take-away restaurants. Yet, the dominant social perception of the Chinese as a closely-knit and inward-looking community has persisted until the present day.

The early Chinese residents in Manchester were far from an insular community. They actively integrated into the city. An article in the Manchester Guardian in February 1912 estimates the total number of Chinese immigrants in Manchester to be around one hundred and comments on their life in the following way:  ‘They are mainly Cantonese, and when they land at Liverpool they can speak little or no English. The Manchester Wesleyan Mission (8 Cable street), under the direction of the Rev. S. F. Collier, has carried on work amongst them. A New Year’s party was held last evening at the Albert Hall’ (Manchester Guardian, ‘Chinese in Manchester’, 20 Feb 1912). In the pre-Second World War period, the local community efforts to interact with the newly arrived immigrants were paralleled by the furnishing links between Manchester and China at the national level. The pre-war textile boom in Manchester prompted strengthening links with China, and for the first time in 1933 the Chinese Kuomintang government appointed a consular representative to Manchester to oversee the day-to-day trade links with China with an office in Spring Gardens in Central Manchester (Manchester Guardian, ‘China comes North’, 11 February 1933). In 1942 The Universities China Committee in London, with the funds from the Boxer rebellion (1898-1901) indemnity, established Manchester China Institute on George street to ‘provide a place where British people could meet Chinese people and learn from them in various ways’ (Manchester Guardian, ‘China Institutes: A new one for Manchester, 11 May 1942). These facts testify to the vibrant official and community-based links which existed between China and Manchester in the early twentieth century.

In the post-World War Two period Chinese migrants keenly settled in the city and its suburban areas to satisfy British tastes for Chinese culinary.  In a parallel development, an increasing number of Chinese businesses started opening in Central Manchester, with the first Chinese restaurant Ping Hong opening its doors on Mosley Street in 1948. Recalling the origins of Manchester Chinatown, senior Chinese residents unequivocally assert that ‘there was no Chinatown in Manchester in the 1970s’. Yet, 8y the mid-1970s the local newspapers were announcing that a Chinatown was emerging in central Manchester bounded by George, Nicholas, Faulkner, and Princess Streets. By the early 1980s, the geographical and socio-cultural place of Chinatown in Manchester was secured when in 1983 Manchester City Library added the entry “Chinatown” to its catalogue of newspaper clippings.

In the 1980s Manchester Chinatown boomed, when in the span of less than ten years key community organisations and societies were set up in the quarter: Chinese Cultural and Education Centre in 1979, the Chinese Arts Centre in 1986, Tong Sing Chinese Housing Association in 1984, Wai Yin Chinese Women’s Society in 1988, and Chinese Health Information Centre in 1987. The symbolic birth of Chinatown culminated in 1987, when the Chinese Imperial Arch, physically marking the area’s association with the Chinese community, was erected on Faulkner street.

The early 1980s also witnessed an active lobbying by Chinese community leaders of the City authorities to clearly mark the boundaries of the Chinatown by translating the names of the streets into Chinese and displaying street signs in Chinese characters: ‘It may not be long now before you can walk up the Street of Capturing Blessings, turn left into the Street of Fairy Happiness and end up in the heart of Manchester’s Chinatown…. Faulkner Street would become Fuk-Ngar Gai (street of capturing Blessing) and Charlotte street Sar-Lok Gai (Street of Fairy Happiness)’ (Manchester Evening News, Comment ‘Turning into the Street of Happiness’, 21 February 1983). The attempts to translate the names of the streets into Chinese were stalled in June 1985, when the City Council designated this area as a ‘George street conservation area’ where ‘signs should be designed and located so as not to compete with the architectural details of buildings’ (Manchester City Council, no date). The value attached to the history of the area took an upper hand over contemporary social trends.

A quick browse through the historical maps of Manchester city centre from the collection of Manchester Museum of Science and Industry confirms that the area of Manchester’s Chinatown developed in the Georgian times, and the layout and names of the streets haven’t changed since the 18th century. Until the early 19th century, this district was a well-to-do residential area, centred on St James’ church built at 7 Charlotte street in 1786 and demolished in 1928. The pattern of streets and street names are the only surviving witnesses to the layers of time which shaped and transformed this area of the city. A cluster of important societies and institutions also operated in the area, including Literary and Philosophical Society at 36 George street. Portico Library was opened in the area at 57 Moseley street in 1806 and still occupies its original site. Royal Manchester Institute was built on Moseley Street between 1824 and 1835 in the Greek neo-classical style and now hosts the City Art Gallery, and the Athenaeum, a club for a society for ‘advancement and diffusions of knowledge’ was founded on Princess street in 1835 and is now linked to the Art Gallery.

By the end of the 1990s, Chinese organisations and initiatives which were founded and started their activities in Manchester Chinatown in the 1980s started relocating to other parts of the city.  Most notably, The Chinese Arts Centre moved to the Northern Quarter and was recently renamed into the The Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art, Fo Guang Shan Temple moved to Trafford, Manchester Chinese Centre re-established in Ardwick, and the Wai Yin Chinese Women’s Society moved to Ancoats. Chinese supermarkets are not limited to the Chinatown anymore and can be found in many different locations around Manchester. These processes point to the moving and changing character of Chinatown, what Doreen Massey coins as a continuous process of ‘multiple becoming’. The dominant perspective on Chinatowns around the world refers to them as ‘ethnic enclaves’, yet the dynamic history and ongoing transformations of Manchester’s Chinatown show that it embraces multiple histories, contested present, and an open future.  The physical demarcations of Chinatown are less important than social processes and experiences which both define and escape the attempts to pin down Chinatown’s spatial and cultural demarcations.

Cosmopolitanism: Is It Good for the Jews?

Dr Cathy Gelbin, Senior Lecturer in German Studies at the University of Manchester and currently on AHRC Fellowship, writes about cosmopolitanism and the Jews in a piece that will be published on Friday 7 February in The Jewish Chronicle 

When I was growing up behind the Wall in East Germany, cosmopolitanism was not a good word for the Jews. Hitler had persecuted us as ‘rootless parasites’. And hushed up as they were, rumours of Stalin’s purges of Jews as ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ had not escaped me either. My American-Jewish family, fleeing McCarthyism, had paradoxically averted this violent fate by settling in East Germany just as the Stalinist persecutions heightened in Moscow, Prague and Budapest. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, their shadows lingered as my step-grandfather Stefan Heym, the writer and later the German parliament’s president by seniority, became East Germany’s most prominent dissident.

Fast-forward to the new millennium and cosmopolitanism has become a buzzword across academic fields. Now a literary and film scholar at Manchester University, I have followed this new trend with puzzlement. How could a concept so severely discredited by a history of persecutions suddenly accompany the celebrated vision of ethnic, cultural and national harmony in the New Europe? And moreover, where were the Jews in this new discourse, which barely mentioned, and often completely ignored, the past troubled history of the cosmopolitanist label?

Academia has seen a few such conceptual somersaults since the 1980s. First, we had the ‘hybrid’ turning from a biological concept used in the Nazi definition of ‘mixed-race’ persons of Jewish descent into a productive term for the post-colonial mix of ethnicities and cultures. Then, ‘queer’ was lifted from its homophobic origins to connote the new academic study of human sexual diversity. Much as I have pursued these lines of interest in my own work, the niggling doubt remains: can we do this? Can we simply imbue a concept with new meanings and forget about its past histories of violence?

Granted, the history of cosmopolitanist discourse – and the place of Jews within it – has always been a chequered one. Together with my co-author Sander L. Gilman, the eminent cultural and literary historian at Emory University, I set out to unearth the ambivalent story of modern cosmopolitanism and the Jews. Our forthcoming study, which includes German archival material from the late nineteenth century to the early 1930s, reveals a remarkable culture of Jewish cosmopolitanism, which, despite the onslaught of Nazism, has survived into modern times. Indeed, German-speaking Jews have contributed disproportionately to the modern cosmopolitan idea and its vision of universal human rights in particular.

In the late eighteenth century, German Enlightenment writers revived the notion of the cosmopolitan from the ancient Greek, where ‘kosmopolitês’ meant one’s sense of simultaneous allegiance to a city-state and a wider, universal context. The non-Jewish philosopher Immanuel Kant became a key figure in this new debate when he demanded a Weltbürgerrecht, a universal law of citizenship, to which all humans were entitled. Of course, these Christian thinkers had little time for the Jews, who in their eyes were backwardly obsessed with their own culture.

Nonetheless, German-Jewish intellectuals who sought to gain full recognition in German-speaking society enthusiastically embraced Kant’s ideas and Goethe’s cultural equivalent of a world literature. Soon, German-speaking Jews became seen as either too particularist on the one hand or too international on the other. This antisemitism, in all but name, had a profound effect on German-speaking Jews, rejecting the accepted definition of their own German and Austrian identities. Zionists called for a separate homeland, whereas others insisted their identity was not merely Jewish or German or Austrian, but one beyond ethnicity and national borders.

And yet, this little-remembered Jewish engagement with cosmopolitanism in Germany and Austria between the 1870s and 1930s was a hotbed of ideas that drove the formation of the European Union. German-speaking Jewish intellectuals were among the first to see their identity as European. Just as Paris’s intellectuals gathered in the cafés of the Left Bank at the fin-de-siècle, German-speaking secular Jews would spend their time at coffee houses in Berlin, Vienna and Prague. Among them was Franz Kafka, as well as the already world-famous writers Stefan Zweig and Lion Feuchtwanger. World War One, with its senseless bloodshed among the European nations, galvanized their quest for a Europe beyond borders, as would the Nazis’ rise to power.

The works of certain writers also reveal the close connections between early Zionism and the cosmopolitan idea of Europe. These were by no means separate camps. Theodor Herzl imagined a Jewish state founded on the cultural and scientific achievements of a modern Europe cleansed of nationalist conflicts. And conversely, Kafka, Zweig and Feuchtwanger, in asserting the powerful idea of Jewish particularity in the diaspora, transplanted the ideas of cultural Zionism back onto their native European soil.

Likewise, political theorist Eduard Bernstein exerted an important influence on European identity. Though partially critical of Marxism, Bernstein followed in the footsteps of the German Jew Karl Marx who, while writing here at Manchester’s Cheetham’s Library, dreamed of the international working class struggle against social injustice. But of course, Jews who represented the cosmopolitan were not always on the left: one of them was the German industrialist Walther Rathenau, who served as foreign minister in the Weimar Republic. He was assassinated in an antisemitic plot on June 24, 1922. Our research shows that these German-speaking Jews had a powerful impact on the thinking that spawned post-1945 European unity, especially the EU.

Although Nazism and Stalinism had largely destroyed cosmopolitan thinking and its bearers, its traces lived on among German Jews who were critical of these totalitarian legacies. It was the political theorist Hannah Arendt who, in 1951, coined the term totalitarianism itself. A decade later, in her famous report on the Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust, Arendt would envision a future international court that would adjudicate on disputes among the nations. The creation of an international legal body had already been debated after World War One, but the Holocaust undoubtedly catalysed this process. With the establishment of the International Criminal Court in 2002 and the recent International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, Arendt’s modern vision of Kant’s global norms of justice has now become a political reality.

On both sides of the Iron Curtain, the cosmopolitan idea also served Jewish intellectuals to oppose the Cold War division of Europe. To name but two, Arendt’s former husband, the philosopher Günter Anders, wrote in the West against the impending nuclear war, while in the East Stefan Heym mocked the hard-line politics manifested in the Berlin Wall. So has cosmopolitan thought become obsolete now that many of its ideas are enshrined in the political reality of the EU and United Nations sanctions?

A quick look at the post-1990s world shows us that this is not the case so long as antisemitism and racism, those close relations of modernity, are still alive and kicking. In France, Hungary and the countries of the former Soviet Union, antisemitism has reached a worrying new high. In Germany, racist police bias enabled the systematic killings, execution style, of at least ten Turkish Germans by a Nazi underground group that is only now on trial. Many European countries, including Britain, remain dogged by a racist debate on immigration, which blames their own economic shortcomings on migrants, who, by providing cheap labour, create much of the wealth we enjoy. Elsewhere, the idea of universal human rights is fuelling the causes of disenfranchised ethnic and sexual groups, such as Israel’s Palestinian and migrant populations on the one hand, and its soaring gay activism on the other.

What is remarkable is that there are still Jewish thinkers living in German-speaking Europe, who are standard bearers for intellectual life. For example, during my last visit to Vienna’s Café Central – a historic gathering place for Austrian Jews – I spotted Elfriede Jelinek, winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize for Literature, who often speaks of her own paternal Jewish roots. And aside from blatant social injustices, what about the image of Jews in the multicultural fabric of our societies?

Take London’s East End, whose Jewish roots reflect its cosmopolitan history, though on a smaller scale. And yet, as in contemporary Germany, today’s East Enders are largely unaware of the area’s rich Jewish cultural past. During our recent event at the East End’s RichMix cultural centre, which was recorded as a podcast, members of the community had the opportunity to take part in a ‘town meeting’ to explore the complex stories of migration to London’s East End from the 1800s to the present day. Bringing together local people with practitioners in migration politics, education and the arts, our event looked at the rich stories of groups such as the Huguenots, Jews, and the more recent Asian, Caribbean and Eastern European communities.

Or take Manchester itself with its vibrant community of some 30,000 Jews, who rarely figure in debates on the city’s multiculturalism. One cannot convincingly argue that Jews are structurally disadvantaged nowadays, but many do feel left out of discussions about cultural diversity. Is this because Manchester has its very own North-South divide? In casual conversation, one sometimes hears slurs against the Haredi Jews ‘up North’, the supposedly authentic Jews of stereotype. By implication, the good – but also assumed to be less real – Jews are the unobtrusive lot south of Piccadilly. But is this good enough? The answer must be no, for we want so much more: to be acknowledged and celebrated in our loud Jewishness and fierce commitment to civil society; to be cherished in our rainbow diversity as Jews, and as part of the won

 

 

Where is Amsterdam?

Professor Erik Swyngedouw at the University of Manchester reflects on how the current city of Amsterdam is different from the one he used to visit in the late 1970s and early 1980s and what that might say about the new geographical co-ordinates of political possibilities.

Amsterdam takes a very special and privileged position in my intellectual trajectory. As a young and radical planning student in Belgium in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the stale, dogmatic, antiquated and plainly stifling intellectual and cultural environment that characterized much of academic and urban life in my native Belgium at the time contrasted sharply with the exuberantly liberating, exhilarating and radical thought and associated urban practices that came in as a whirlwind from the Netherlands and, in particular, from Amsterdam.

street-jordaan

Je kan er boeken kopen You can buy books there
Die je hier heel zelden vindt that you rarely find here
Je kan er langs de grachten lopen You can stroll along the canals
Je haar los in de wind Hair loose in the wind
…. ….
Je bent er vogelvrij You are free as a bird there
Omdat er alles kan Because everything is possible there
Zo dichtbij en toch zo ver is Amsterdam So near and yet so far is Amsterdam

(Amsterdam by Kris De Bruyne – 1975)

As Kris De Bruyne sung in his ode to Amsterdam, it is a place where you can buy books you rarely find here (in Belgium at the time), where one could set thought free. And he was absolutely right. Amsterdam in those exiting times was for me a place worthy of an odyssey. Many a times, I ventured onto the Brussels-Amsterdam train to scout out the new ideas, to browse the censored thoughts freely available on Amsterdam’s bookshelves, to feel the winds of change, to touch the freewheeling and radical air in which Amsterdam bathed. Provo had staged its early situationist urban performances in Amsterdam, later the ‘Kabouters’ marched into the city-government, white bikes roamed the street, new lifestyles were experimented with, squatters questioned capitalist housing politics and budding neoliberal forms of urban renovation. A truly emancipatory and progressive political movement was engulfing the urban world, and Amsterdam was its cradle. Many of the thoughts and perspectives that would mature in my later academic work found their early hesitant and embryonic formulations in the cafes, bookstores and intellectual engagement with Amsterdam’s young left intellectuals and activists.

Thirty odd years later, and after many returns to my beloved Amsterdam, I feel increasingly alienated by the city, a whiff of nostalgia to a lost dream and a melancholic dread permeates my body and mind when drifting along Amsterdam’s streets and canals. Sure, it still is a great city, a global cosmopolitan urbanity that feels like a village. The quirky sites and unexpected corners are still there, but the city’s soul, its mojo seems to have decamped. Amsterdam today is boring, uninspiring. Creative and progressive intellectual thought – although still brewing in some of the remaining interstices –  stifled, xenophobia rising, neoliberal austerity visibly present, new forms of uninspiring urbanity – like Amsterdam Zuidas –  became stale ruins even before their completion. Urban life seems cosy (at least for most), insular, self-referential, inward-looking. The sense of exuberance, of endless possibilities, of nurturing egalitarian freedom sustained by a solidarity-enhancing mode of being-in-common seems to have been replaced by technocratic management, the bio-political dominance of accountancy spreadsheets, the tyranny of the commodity-form, and a sense of collective impotence. Nothing seems possible anymore other than, at best, the humanitarian management of the excesses of the neoliberal nightmare. It does not take great foresight to see that the tensions, conflicts and spiralling inequalities that brew beneath the cobbled surface will soon and possibly violently explode again. Rarely do I hear Amsterdam’s urban intellectuals prefigure such dystopian futures. The few who do signal the unsustainability of today’s neoliberal political-economic hegemony, like Ewald Engelen’s relentless and incisive insistence on the perverse politics of neoliberalism, are shouts in the wind as much as Paul Krugman’s continuous lament of the American variant of the elite’s pursuit of neoliberal recipes. Unfortunately, on both sides of the Atlantic, the elite’s ears remain deaf for the warnings of such eminent scholars whose alarm signals they do not wish to register.

gebouwengrachtenamsterdam2-hboogertfeb2008

I wonder where my Amsterdam is. I wonder whether the civic democratizing urbanity that has characterized Amsterdam’s urbanity throughout the centuries still slumbers underneath the elegant cobbled streets, in the after-rooms of the grand bourgeois houses and their neatly gentrified facades, in the immigrant neighbourhoods, or whether the spirit of Amsterdam has now forever decamped to the more exciting urbanities of Berlin, Barcelona, Istanbul, Madrid, Cairo, Sao Paulo, Sofia, Athens, or Thessaloniki, names that stand for me today for the cities that animate emancipatory desires, that ooze a spirit of possibility, where creative progressive thought and practice is actively experimented in. These are the names today of the places where citizens, city-dwellers, have become insurgent architects, where new forms of urban being-in-common are experimented with, where the powers-that-be shiver as the multitude takes to the streets and squares and stages performing new egalitarian modes of being-in-common. The city as a political polis, where insurgent citizens demand and stage the right to urbanity, the right to co-produce the city, seems to be alive and kicking in those places, but sadly moribund in Amsterdam.

Isn’t the most eloquent manifestation of this death of the urban the fact that the most radical recent guerrilla intervention in Amsterdam was the unauthorized placement of a copy of the Wall Street Bull by artist Arturo DiModica on Amsterdam’s Beursplein (Exchange Square), just a little while after the site was cleared off a small coterie of Occupy! activists, too small in numbers to even itch the powers that be or attract international attention. Is the Charging Bull’s presence – the triumphant symbol a victorious capital-financial order – not one of the most tell-tale signs of the symbolic re-appropriation of urban space by the 1%. While the square was cleared of its protesters, the unauthorized intrusion of the Bull was quickly legitimized and approved by the city administrators. Amsterdam’s elite made quite clear to all what the Beursplein and city politics stand for. Poor Amsterdam. I do long for the Amsterdam that helped me think and act as young and budding progressive intellectual, and which is undoubtedly still lurking somewhere. In the meantime, I think I shall keep going to Madrid, Istanbul, or Athens. See you there.

This blog was initially posed at the Centre for Urban Studies, University of Amsterdam (http://urbanstudies.uva.nl/blog/urban-studies-blog-series/urban-studies-blog-series/content/folder/where-is-amsterdam.html)

 

 

 

“What do you mean by ‘urbanising the informal settlement’?” Migration, informal settlements and everyday politics in Buenos Aires

By Tanja Bastia, IDPM

Food for all without clientism, image; Tanja Bastia

Food for all without clientism, image; Tanja Bastia

A couple of weeks ago we had a one day workshop (link to http://informalpoliticsinthecity.wordpress.com/) on ‘informal politics in the city’, funded by cities@manchester.  The papers included circular migration and migrants’ identities in Southern Africa; step-migration through Western African countries; street peddling in Barcelona; and two papers on Buenos Aires.  The aim was to bring together discussions about informality and migration.  While there is a large literature on informality and internal migration, there is far less work on cross-border (international) migration and informality.  Towards the end of the workshop one of the participants who works on migration and informality in Africa asked another, who works on informal housing in Buenos Aires, “what do you mean by ‘urbanising the informal settlement’”?  I remember asking the same question when I first started researching migration and informal settlements in Buenos Aires.

There is the issue of the extent to which concepts translate across different regions.  The straightforward answer is that ‘urbanising’ in the Latin American context is usually referred to as ‘upgrading’ in Africa.  It refers to the process of ‘opening up’ informal settlements through widening and paving of main roads.  This makes the informal settlement look more like a ‘normal’ – read formal – neighbourhood (though in some countries informal parts of the city are built on square grids).  Widening and paving of main roads means that services which are usually available in other parts of the city also become available in the informal settlement.  For example, police can patrol the streets, ambulances can get to those who need it, bricks and building material can be brought by motorised vehicles instead of having to be pushed in wheelbarrows.  

‘Urbanising an informal settlement’ also involves the state arranging for the provision of water services, electricity and sewers, to the same standard as in other parts of the city.  The 2003 Plan to Urbanise Villas and Precarious Neighbourhoods of the City of Buenos Aires includes three main objectives:

  1. The physical and social integration of precarious settlements so that they become similar to existing urban neighbourhoods
  2. Improved quality of life for those living in informal settlements with the provision of services to a similar standard to those available in the rest of the city
  3. The integration of the community in the process of decision-making through the active encouragement of the participation of the population living in precarious settlements in the configuration of their habitat (Plan summary available http://www.cnvivienda.org.ar/revistas/revista9/CiudadBA_9.pdf)

However, the question points to an issue that is more complex than the translation of concepts across different regions.  When I first came across the term ‘urbanising the villas’ – as the informal settlements in Buenos Aires are known – I was perplexed by the etymology of the term.   To ‘urbanise’ means to make something more urban, usually referred to the process of urbanisation – the growth of the urban population or the turning of village or town into a city.  However, in this particular case, the term ‘urbanise’ is being referred to informal neighbourhoods.  How can you ‘make more urban’ something that is rapidly becoming the very image of urban life for the majority of the urban population across the globe?  Is there any aspect of the ‘slum’, as informal settlements are despectively called, that is not ‘urban’?  The use of the term ‘urbanise’ to refer to the villas, favelas or any other precarious part of the city implies that informal settlements are not really part of the city, a reference to the early process of urbanisation, when informal settlements were seen as vestiges of village life in the city and their inhabitants as ‘peasants in the city’ (see e.g. Bryan Roberts Cities of Peasants, published in 1978). 

Internal migration was indeed important for the growth of informal settlements.  In Buenos Aires, villas emerged during the 1930s and the process of industrialisation, to house the large number of workers that were unable to find housing in other neighbourhoods.  As in other Latin American countries, villas were built on public land and were an integral part of the growth of the city, with the main difference being that the state played a small role or no role at all in the provision of basic services, such as water, electricity or sewage.  The auto-construction of the houses was often complemented by collective efforts to bring basic services to the informal settlements. 

Buenos Aires, Image; Tanja Bastia

Buenos Aires, Image; Tanja Bastia

The military regimes during the 1970s attempted to eradicate informal settlements from the city of Buenos Aires, as these were seen as key bastions of opposition.  The city was associated with order, cleanliness and obedience and villas were seen as lacking in these characteristics.  They were associated with dirt, chaos, subversiveness.  The military regimes therefore aimed to move all informal settlements on the other side of the boundary of the city of Buenos Aires.  Racist stereotyping preceded the forced evictions and over 200,000 are thought to have been forcefully evicted from the city of Buenos Aires (see Blaustein, Eduardo, Prohibido vivir aquí: la erradicación de las villas durante la dictadura, published in 2006).

With the return of democracy in 1983 many of these residents returned to the places from which they had been evicted and they were increasingly joined by migrants from neighbouring countries, such as Paraguay and Bolivia, and during the 1990s, Peru.  Some informal settlements today are associated with specific nationalities.  For example, the villa 21-24 is predominantly Paraguayan and the parish church bears the name of a Paraguayan Virgin, the Virgin of Caacupé.  However, while there might be a cultural association with Paraguayan ancestry, and while anecdotal accounts give estimates of ‘90% of those in 21-24 are from Paraguay’, a recent census conducted by the Instituto de la Vivienda de la Ciudad, (IVC – City Housing Institute) indicates that in fact only just over a third of its residents were born in Paraguay (34.7%), while 48% are Argentinean (they might have Paraguayan parents but given that they were born in Argentina, they are Argentinean).  This is significant, given the fact that many public authorities attempt to ‘export’ the issue of informality by attributing it to a problem generated by the migration from neighbouring countries.

Migrants from neighbouring countries and Peru have suffered decades of discrimination.  Xenophobic attitudes in public discourse intensified during the 1990s, during the Menem government, when migrants from neighbouring countries, particularly Bolivia, were accused of stealing jobs from Argentineans, and therefore increasing unemployment, increasing crime rates and insecurity, and blamed for health scares, such as a cholera outbreak.  These xenophobic attitudes were also present in everyday actions, such as a brutal murder of Marcelina Meneses, a young Bolivian woman, who was pushed off a train in Buenos Aires in January 2001 while carrying her ten month old son, who also died in the accident.  The event, painfully illustrates the everyday acceptance of xenophobic and racist attitudes towards migrants from neighbouring countries.

It is clear, however, that much has changed in Argentina, which today boasts one of the most progressive migration legislations in the world, the law 25,871, which was approved in 2003 after years of lobbying by civil society organisations, and implemented the year after.  However, migration as a subject, as in many other parts of the world, continues to be studied from the point of view of the nation, that is, it suffers from methodological nationalism.  Beyond public figures that attribute the growth of informal settlements to a problem of neighbouring countries, there is very little research that takes a deeper look at the association between informality and migration (some notable exceptions include work by Alejandro Grimson, Lucia Groisman and Carla Gallinati).

In a pilot research project we are currently exploring the relationship between informality and migration, specifically through the everyday politics of informal settlements.  We are particularly interested in understanding how migrants organise as ‘neighbours’ (vecinos), often in conjunction with non-migrants, around issues that affect them.  These sometimes relate to their condition as migrants, but most of the time, they organise on the basis of their experience as residents of informal settlements.

Organisational strategies and aims vary greatly.  However, we find that the scale at which we address migrants’ everyday politics matter.  When we look at the city as a whole, migrants tend to organise around their particular country of origin, and on the basis of their national identity.  We find many organisations that (claim to) represent Bolivians, Paraguayans or Peruvians.  However, when we shift the focus to the informal settlement, there are many more cross-national organisations, those made up of migrants from different countries, as well as migrants and Argentineans.  While it is not surprising that the everyday politics in informal settlements aim to address the most immediate needs – adequate access to electricity, connection to sewage system, better security and access to health services – what is surprising is the absence of claims in relation to their condition as migrants.

Does this mean that migration is irrelevant at the more micro level of analysis, at the level of informal settlement?  Some interviewees vividly remember the nights following the 2001 economic collapse when they had to gather around fires to fend off attacks from other groups of migrants.  However, most grass-roots organisations are able to transcend differences on the basis of nationality and unite their activists around issues that affect them all.  This is encouraging, particularly if taken together with the progress at the national level on migration legislation, as it could point to a top down and almost simultaneous bottom up recognition of difference but a willingness to work across these differences, to form what Amin terms a ‘society of strangers’ (see Ash Amin, Land of Strangers, published 2012).  There remains, however, the level of the city, where public authorities as well as those claiming to represent different groups of migrants, reproduce and often strengthen divisions among groups of strangers.  

In the same way that informal settlements are an integral part of the city and, many would argue, are here to stay as long as the current system remains in place, so too is migration.  To wish to ‘urbanise’ informal settlements, lends little recognition to the structural elements that have generated existing inequalities, the same inequalities that encourage people to move from one country to another, despite having to live in an informal settlement.  What is clearly missing is the recognition of the fact that informal settlements are already urban, they are an integral part of the city life, and its residents are already proposing creative solutions to their problems.  Listening and paying attention to these proposals is a vital ingredient of constructing a more just, and less unequal, city in the future. 

The project to which this blog refers to “Seeking justice: migration, informality and political participation in Buenos Aires” is being carried out by Tanja Bastia and Jerónimo Montero Bressán, in collaboration with Diana Mitlin and Melanie Lombard (Global Urban Research Centre, University of Manchester). We gratefully acknowledge the funding from cities@manchester.

 

From contribution to collaboration: Refugee Week and the value of seeing like a city

by Jonathan Darling, Geography, University of Manchester

Image from Refugee Week 2013

Image from Refugee Week 2013

Today sees the start of Refugee Week 2013, an annual celebration of the contribution of refugees to the UK that seeks to promote better understanding of why people seek sanctuary. Refugee Week has been held annually since 1998 as a response to negative perceptions of refugees and asylum seekers and hostile media coverage of asylum in particular (Refugee Week 2013). Refugee Week promotes a series of events across the UK, from football tournaments and theatre productions to exhibitions and film screenings, all designed to promote understanding between different communities.

Whilst Refugee Week is a national event it finds expression in local activities organised in a range of cities. In part, this is in response to the dispersal of asylum seekers across the UK, meaning that refugees and asylum seekers have been increasing visible in a range of towns and cities over the last decade. Asylum decision-making and policy take place at a national level, but the implications of such policy and the demands of integration and service provision are experienced at the level of urban authorities and communities. But what is the relationship between asylum seekers and cities, and how might we understand this relationship through the lens of Refugee Week? In this commentary, I want to suggest that by focusing on cities we might destabilise some of the problematic assumptions of national discussions of asylum and refugee politics, through drawing on the resources of cities as sites of social and political creativity, contestation and collaboration. Doing so shifts our view of asylum and refugees from a state-centred account of national hospitality, to a more complex account of the lived realities of urban refuge. 

National celebrations such as Refugee Week are in many ways positive interventions into public discussions over asylum. They have played a central role in challenging stereotypes, contesting myths over benefit claims and bringing to the fore the heritage of sanctuary that has shaped contemporary Britain. Refugee Week has also offered a platform for politically contentious campaigns for rights to work, access to education and anti-deportation campaigns, all of which have benefited from the shifts in public opinion and political will that Refugee Week has produced.  

However, as many of those working with refugees and asylum seekers in the UK note, Refugee Week alone is not enough. Rather, there are risks attached to ‘celebrating the contributions of refugees to our history and heritage’. These words, the slogan for Refugee Week 2013, suggest three of the central challenges of refugee politics in contemporary Britain. Firstly, the emphasis placed on ‘our’ history establishes a fixed group defined by distinction from refugees, a ‘we’ whose history refugees may contribute to but always a ‘we’ at a distance from refugees themselves. Secondly, a concern with ‘history and heritage’ positions the contributions of refugees in the past. Refugee issues thus become concerns to look back on through visions of a hospitable past, without necessarily providing a means to address issues of contemporary asylum. Most strikingly though, Refugee Week foregrounds a logic of contribution in celebrating refugees. While a claim about contributions can appear to be a strong argument in the face of those who assert that refugees and asylum seekers ‘abuse’ welfare entitlements, it risks reinforcing perceptions of worth and worthiness that make refugee status into an economic commodity. Whilst we should recognise the skills, knowledge and dynamism that those seeking sanctuary bring, a logic of contribution places asylum into an economic frame of reference similar to the points-based system that determines immigration status.

Taken together, these three concerns suggest that Refugee Week might be taken as a governmental tool for the production of benevolent responses to those deemed to have ‘contributed’ enough to be worthy of refugee status and humanitarian compassion. Akin to forms of celebratory cosmopolitanism that market cities as sites of diversity, whilst tightly regulating the limits of tolerance, the rhetoric of ‘contribution’ recalls a conditional hospitality that may be open to a select few. Often such hospitality is open only to those past groups who have contributed to ‘our’ history, rather than reflecting an ongoing process in which this history is continuing to be made. A concern with contribution thus makes asylum and refugee discussions part of government efforts to ‘manage migration’ for the ‘good of the nation’, rather than in the interests of those seeking sanctuary and fleeing persecution.

How then might we envisage a different view of refugees and asylum seekers, one detached from a concern with their potential contributions to the nation and with representing a benevolent history? It is here that cities come to the fore. If we take seriously Magnusson’s (2012) demand to ‘see like a city’ rather than ‘seeing like a state’, we might find a different view of asylum seekers and refugees, one less concerned with contributions to an already existing entity and its history, be that the nation or the city, and rather more concerned with the collaborations and collective engagements that shape urbanism as a way of life. For Magnusson, cities are complex constellations of ideas, relations, encounters and institutions, never exhausted by their present form and never subject to a single mode of authority. Rather than a common ‘history and heritage’ to which refugees may contribute, seeing like a city implies multiple histories vying for attention, histories which are being made and remade as the city is itself becoming something new through the actions of those who inhabit it and the material relations that form it. What we might take from this view of the city as a site of incomplete political authority and multiple histories, is a vision of how cities are formed through collaborations, through the coming together of diverse interests and opinions to make urban space.

We might see examples of this form of thought in some of the practices and events of Refugee Week, most notably those that seek to undermine assumptions of asylum as an issue of compassion and humanitarianism. For example, as part of Manchester’s Refugee Week celebrations, artists Anna White and Emily Hayes have been working with the Rainbow Haven centre for displaced people in Manchester and Salford, to discuss the journeys individuals took to the UK and their experiences of life in Manchester and Salford.[i] The project involves asylum seekers and refugees embroidering their journeys to the UK onto a map, using disposable cameras to take images of their everyday lives and of things that are important to them, and collectively making banners to express different aspects of their lives in the UK and to display some of the relationships that emerge through the Rainbow Haven group. These resources are to be displayed at a series of events across Manchester during and after Refugee Week, including a celebration of the city’s ‘Shared Future’ with refugees. [ii] 

Image courtesy of Anna White and Emily Hayes

Image courtesy of Anna White and Emily Hayes

The significance of this work is not simply that it offers a creative means of exploring and expressing the social relations of refugees and asylum seekers. It does this and draws in part on the diversity of people, histories and stories that are brought together in the city. But it is also a project of collaboration. This is not a case of narratives being extracted and displayed by experts or analysts, but a process in which stories are made through working with others, in making banners, sewing journeys onto maps and discussing photographs. The product of such interactions are snapshots of a creative process, owned by all those who played a role in such a process. It is this sense of being part of a creative endeavour and employing this as a means to communicate stories of asylum, that is so valuable as it works to negotiate two sets of barriers. Firstly, those between asylum seekers and other residents of Manchester and Salford – through communicating common concerns, shared spaces and the realities of the asylum process. Secondly, those often unspoken barriers between asylum seekers and those who seek to offer support to them – through a creative engagement that is productive rather than dependent, collaborative rather than charitable. Projects such as this gesture towards the potential that creative approaches have in both communicating multiple understandings of the city and in destabilising assumed notions of how asylum seekers should engage with cities.

More than this however, projects such as this reflect an appreciation of urbanism as a way of life tied to the multiplicity of the city. The banners and maps created in this process are not contributions made by asylum seekers and refugees; rather they reflect collaborations that express the coming together of different journeys, narratives and experiences. They are not individual expressions or timeless versions of events to be placed into an archive of ‘our history and heritage’, but are the products of encounters, relationships and shared collaborations that communicate understandings of the here and now. In this process, the banners and maps of this project become collaborations in shaping, rather than contributions towards, a ‘shared future’. Seeing like a city is to view the politics of asylum in a similar vein, to think of the city as a compositional arrangement of multiple stories and journeys, all in the process of being made, diverted and retraced. As a compositional arrangement, the city is made through such journeys, and whilst such a reading implies a ‘history and heritage’ that is reworked through the presence of diverse stories, this is never a static or fixed narrative, nor is it ever ‘our’ history, the property of any singular group. Rather, the city becomes a banner in the making – a collaboration of those present, always being made yet never finally displayed.

A further resonance for this mode of thought might be found in the ways in which a number of UK cities have made tentative steps to challenge the state over asylum. We might trace a number of examples. Firstly, the manner in which urban authorities can act to support and publicise anti-deportation campaigns for local inhabitants threatened with deportation, such as recent cases in Leicester and Glasgow. Such situations position the authority of the city against the will of the state and seek to oppose deportation on the basis that individuals and families are part of the city, actively engaged in the fabric of local communities. Secondly, city councils in Bristol, Glasgow, Oxford and Sheffield have all recently passed motions that express concern over the destitution of asylum seekers and have begun lobbying national government to allow local authorities to assist destitute and refused asylum seekers. Again such voices stand at a critical distance from the decisions of the Home Office and challenge national policy from the perspective of those living with the consequences of such policies. In Manchester a ‘day of action’ is proposed at the end of June to highlight the situation of destitute asylum seekers in the city and to call upon the city council to both oppose the government’s stance on destitution and to intervene by offering support to destitute asylum seekers. Doing so would challenge a concern with refugees that extended only to those able to ‘contribute’ to the city or the nation, and would instead mark a concern with the needs of all those present in the city, regardless of status, contribution or ‘worthiness’.

These gestures, whilst limited and fractured at present, highlight the importance of viewing asylum from a different lens to that of a state-centred concern with contribution and historical hospitality. The potential of the city, as Derrida (2001) argues, is to take a critical stance relative to the forms of conditional hospitality and welcome offered by the state – to demand more on behalf of all of those who inhabit the city. Seeing like a city implies an awareness of the complex and unfinished nature of urban life, of how cities evolve, change and adapt as newcomers arrive and others leave. This framing of the city is therefore centred on valuing those who inhabit the city, those who make urban space at any given moment and through it perform a claim to a ‘right to the city’ that arises precisely from taking part in the negotiations, tensions and contradictions of urban life (Darling and Squire 2012; Lefebvre 1996). Whilst such a lens is unlikely to ever fully usurp a state-centred account of asylum, its importance may be in proposing a critical alternative, an urban critique of asylum and refugee policy centred on the possibilities that collaboration may bring.

Refugee Week brings with it opportunities, opportunities for dialogue and discussion around asylum seekers and refugees, around current policies and around the histories of sanctuary that have helped to shape many British cities. But such discussions should not be limited to a concern with the contributions that refugees have made or may make to the nation or to the city. This simply expresses a paucity of imagination and a failure to recognise the realities of asylum in contemporary Britain. Refugee Week should be about offering space for the expression of collaborative projects, collaborative politics and collaborative realities. It is in collaboration that contemporary cities are made and remade, as much through the investments, experiences and journeys of those seeking asylum as through any other inhabitants. Taking seriously such collaborations implies a politics of critique towards narratives of refugee contribution, fixed histories of national hospitality and policies that produce the destitution of many asylum seekers. Such a politics starts with the critical potential of seeing like a city.

References

Darling, J. and Squire, V. (2012) Everyday enactments of sanctuary: the UK City of Sanctuary movement in Lippert, R.K. and Rehaag, S. (eds) Sanctuary practices in international perspectives: migration, citizenship and social movements London, Routledge, 191-204

Derrida, J. (2001) On cosmopolitanism and forgiveness translated by Dooley, M. and Hughes, M. London, Routledge

Lefebvre, H. (1996) Writing on cities translated by Kofman, E. and Lebas, E. Oxford, Blackwell

Magnusson, W. (2012) The politics of urbanism: seeing like a city London, Routledge

Refugee Week (2013) Refugee week: different pasts, shared future available at:  www.refugeeweek.org.uk (last accessed 10/06/2013)


[i] Rainbow Haven offers a communal space and drop-in centre for new arrivals in Manchester and Salford and seeks to meet the immediate and longer terms needs of asylum seekers, refugees and migrant workers. Anna and Emily have been working on a series of creative embroidery, painting, drawing and photography exercises at the centre for Manchester Refugee Week as part of a project funded by the Arts Council. Further details of their work can be found here: www.podcollective.co.uk
[ii] The banners produced through the project will be on display throughout Refugee Week (17-21 June) at the Peoples History Museum, Manchester and the Lowry Gallery, Salford, alongside forming part of the Shared Future Refugee Celebration on 22nd June at Cross Street Chapel, Manchester. This day of celebrations is organised by The British Red Cross to encourage understanding between and within communities and forms one strand of their work to support vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers in the UK.

Teaching the City, Teaching in the City

San Francisco from  The U.S. National Archives via Flickr

San Francisco from The U.S. National Archives via Flickr

 

Nearly a decade ago, a colleague and I decided to develop a new team-taught Level 3 module on the urban experience in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Americas. Drawing upon her expertise in Latin America and mine in the United States, we hoped to complement other staff members’ modules on British and European urban history, and to emphasise the many ways in which, we felt, that the cities of the “New World” differed, in social, cultural, political, economic, geographical, and architectural terms, from those of the “Old.”

Although the course was a success in terms of enrolments and evaluations, and we really enjoyed teaching it, in its initial form it turned out to be a one-off. Her teaching commitments changed and made her unable to continue our collaboration, and I opted to carry on with the module on my own, removing the elements of teaching and learning on Latin America and focussing exclusively on the experience of the U.S. Although my examples ranged from turn-of-the-century St. Louis to contemporary Los Angeles, from the murder of a prostitute in 1830s New York to the challenges faced by Mexican migrants in Depression-era Chicago, I continued to emphasise the seemingly unique nature of the American city, which I attributed variously to the U.S.’s vast physical size, the relative newness of even its longest-established cities, and the immense role played by immigration in the nation’s history in general and that of its urban spaces in particular.

More recently, though, after a decade of teaching this module, I’ve become steadily more interested in bringing the American and the British urban experience into comparison and, ideally, dialogue. This change has stemmed from two sources: firstly, having now lived and worked in Britain, and specifically in the city of Manchester, for over a dozen years, I’m now much more aware of the UK’s urban history, and realise, for example, that the processes of urban regeneration popularly known as “urban renewal” in the US, which played out in many American cities in the 1960s and 1970s, were similarly influential, and were both welcomed and resisted, in locales such as Hulme, a few hundred yards from my University teaching room. Secondly, recent events, such as the anti-G8 protests of 2009 and riots of summer 2011, with which my students are intensely familiar, have turned out to be a great “hook” with which to draw my students into enthusiastic discussion of topics such as the right to protest, the freedom of the streets, the responsibilities of law enforcement personnel, and the sources and meanings of class conflict.

As an historian, I hope to convince students that, in William Faulkner’s often quoted words, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” As a scholar of American Studies, although I hope to avoid the “American exceptionalism” which has been so blinkering for politicians and academics alike, part of my task is to encourage students to believe that American history and culture and not just potentially exciting, but that they offer a sharp contrast with the historical and contemporary experiences of Britain, Europe, and other nations and regions of the world. Negotiating these sometimes contradictory values can be and often has been intensely challenging, but the reason that I have continued to offer this course (now called AMER30772: Cities of Dreadful Delight) year in and year out, while rotating, adding, dropping, or significantly reformulating my other undergraduate and postgraduate courses, is that each year I have moved farther from my original belief in the uniqueness of the American urban experience. To give one example, this spring I gave my usual lecture on the phenomenon of “slumming” in the turn-of-the-century U.S., by which middle- and upper-class American urbanites and suburbanites, bored with their usual leisure activities, organised expeditions to slum neighbourhoods in New York, San Francisco, and other cities in order to see “how the other half lived”—tantalised by the perceived exoticism and danger of the urban poor, particularly those who were non-white and/or recent immigrants, they visited working-class saloons, overcrowded tenement houses, and even opium dens, and returned to regale their less adventurous friends with tales of their daring adventures. I contrasted this bygone fad with the more recent one of the undergraduate “chav party,” using comments from student-oriented websites debating why, and how, one might best imitate the appearance, tastes, and behaviour of the perceived “dangerous class.” My students seemed to gain a much more nuanced understanding of the practice of “slumming,” and to see it not simply as a perplexing or amusing but now irrelevant leisure pursuit, but as something which continues, in both theory and practice, to symbolise some widely accepted attitudes about social hierarchy.

The more I alter my lectures, seminars, readings, and assessments by trying to bring the American historical experience of urban life into dialogue with issues that are “closer” to my students, whether in geographic or temporal terms, the more I feel that I need to do. I’m currently thinking of taking next year’s group of students on an “away day” through the streets of Manchester: by doing so, I hope not only to give them first-hand examples of many of the themes of the course, but to encourage them to make additional connections of their own, and to share them with each other and, through me, with future groups of students. As a scholar of the humanities, the focus of my work has always been on the library and the archive, but I’m starting to feel that I’ve acquired a laboratory of my own, in the city where I live and teach.