Tradition Revisited: Seoul’s Makeover of Old Housing Forms

By Jieheerah Yun

Fast growing metropolises of East Asia, especially those like Shanghai and Shenzhen, are often characterized by forests of skyscrapers and residential towers. For Rem Koolhaas, this development is the future direction of urbanization, and it should be accepted as the condition of “a generic city.”[i] For others, rapid urbanization and the lack of distinct urban characteristics, including the expression of a localized architectural style, led to the discourse of identity crisis – the process moved so quickly it erased aspects of the traditional city particularly vernacular architecture which left residents and elected officials searching for an urban identity. Seoul, it seems, is not exempt from such discussions especially amid the homogenizing tendency of architectural reproduction around the world. In the economic context of being sandwiched between Chinese manufacturing industries and the innovative technologies of the U.S. and Japan, Seoul has emphasized informational technology and other forms of “soft industry.” In the context of economic and demographic growth, previously undervalued cultural resources within the capital have become evermore important. Urban planners and policy makers are eager to promote a new image of Seoul, either by resurrecting traditional forms or by redesigning modern buildings.


Figure 1a. Remodeled hanok in Bukchon, Seoul [Photos by author]
Resurrecting traditional forms in Seoul is most apparent in the remodeling of hanoks, or Korean traditional houses in the historical villages such as Bukchon (Fig 1a and 1b). Although most hanoks have disappeared from the urban setting due to the rapid pace of urban redevelopment, some have remained within the capital. With the exception of a few well-known hanoks registered as cultural artifacts, many urban hanoks were deteriorating. Yet in the new millennium, things changed, as the local government and the neighborhood associations adopted a more collaborative approach and introduced policy measures to promote the use of hanoks while enabling repairs within the interior space. The successful village regeneration project has garnered much media attention, with the Bukchon Regeneration Project winning an award from UNESCO. Soon thereafter, more urban projects following the example of Bukchon were enacted by other cities. Additionally, national and local governments began promoting research on the renovation and reinvention of the traditional housing based on contemporary demand, meaning the inclusion of air conditioning, garages, and other modern amenities.

Figure 1b. Remodeled hanok in Bukchon, Seoul [Photos by author]
This is not to say that the urban landscape of Seoul has suddenly transformed into a traditional village. Like other metropolises in East Asia, Seoul is dominated by skyscrapers and other forms of “modern” architecture. Remodeled hanoks are a rarity in in the city and can only be seen in historic neighborhoods in small numbers. Yet the “return of hanoks” is considered a very important change in the context of near-extinction of traditional homes in major South Korean cities. In June 2015, the Seoul city government issued the “Hanok Heritage Proclamation,” which detailed seven different projects to protect existing heritage sites and aid new construction of hanoks. In addition, by providing financial support for those who build new hanoks,the city established several new programs for their construction as long as the homes adhered to stylistic conventions established by the Hanok Committee, a group of experts appointed by the city. More recent experiments include Eunpyeong Hanok Village in the northern section of Seoul (fig. 2), where newly constructed hanoks in this village have larger interior spaces meant to accommodate the changing needs of occupants. The trend of remodeling hanoks has been picked up by cities in the provinces, with the consultation of National Hanok Center, a new national research institute, and the Korea Land and Housing Corporation, a state-owned enterprise. According to the report by the Architecture and Urban Research Institute (AURI), twenty-nine new hanok villages have been newly formed as of May 2016.[ii] These are newly developed villages, and are unlike the traditional villages that have long existed.

Eunpyeong Hanok Village has many remodeled hanoks, some with second floor interior spaces to accommodate contemporary lifestyles. [Photo by author]
Regarding it as an anomaly in a housing market otherwise dominated by high-rises, some may view this phenomenon as a mere fad that is unlikely to sustain itself. This is due to higher construction costs associated with building hanoks, and the relative difficulty of finding a suitable labor force. Mass production of structural elements of the hanok is much more difficult compared to detached houses made of concrete and steel, even though many R&D projects are commissioned by the state (the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport) to find ways of lowering costs and improving the comfort. In some cases, more intensive human labor is required in order to produce a more “authentic” traditional ambience. Most craft-workers of hanok specialize in cultural heritage preservation, rather than building new hanoks suitable for contemporary living. Thus, it is challenging to produce a remodeled hanok that has both an “authentic” aesthetic and good, functional performance at a reasonable cost. Admittedly, finding affordable housing in Seoul itself is challenging, but it becomes even harder if one is looking to build a remodeled hanok. So what is the reason behind the so-called “Hanok Renaissance”?[iii]

The Seoul Hanok Portal promoting the remodeled hanoks of Seoul [Source:
To answer the question, one needs to more closely delve into the prospective residents. Who are the prospective residents in remodeled hanoks? And why would they want to move into one? It is one thing for the state and local government to promote the idea of resurrected traditional houses but quite another for residents to desire them. People living in remodeled hanok dislike living in apartment complexes, and desire to live in a house that better reflects personal preferences.[iv] Although the majority of South Korean urban residents live in multifamily homes such as apartment buildings, such choices do not necessarily confirm public desires for multifamily houses. Of course, satisfying personal preference does not require a hanok, as any detached house with careful design considerations would do. Yet having traditional ambience does not hurt, and incentives provided by the local government reduce the economic burden of maintenance. Some residents are retirees, and have found deteriorating and uninhabited hanoks in rural towns that they converted into their own homes. Older people, especially boomers, have childhood memories of living in hanoks, and having fewer involved household chores. They regard the lifestyle associated with hanok living as emotionally satisfying. In such cases, nostalgia functions as an important factor. Hanoks are not exclusive to older populations, and young people also live in them.

As the Hanok Renaissance has gained momentum, some experts have expressed concern over the quality of certain remodeled hanoks—criticizing them as too experimental and not in keeping with the traditional aesthetic. Others worry that burgeoning hanok villages around the country will reduce remodeled hanoks to another standardized residential prototype, much as International Style apartment towers have become. But there are positive signs that remodeled hanoks may thrive into the future as the share of detached houses in the overall housing market has increased significantly. With the diversification of housing demand, the market share of hanoks has steadily grown. Ongoing experimentation and research exploring innovations in construction methods is being carried out by industry and academic institutions. Vigorous discussions and debates regarding how to appropriately remodel hanoks and plan hanok villages are being published in journals such as Hanok Munhwa [Hanok Culture]. While some critics point out that contemporary hanok villages lack the traditional layout of the historic hanok villages, they represent an important break from the skyscraper-dominated urban residential landscape of Seoul. Perhaps, with historic hindsight and much caution, architects and planners of contemporary South Korea may not repeat the same mistakes made by earlier generations. Yun is an assistant professor of architecture at Hongik University in Seoul, South Korea. Her recent book, Globalizing Seoul: The City’s Cultural and Urban Change, was published in February 2017

[i] Koolhaas, Rem and Bruce Mau. S,M,L,XL The Monacelli Press; 3 edition, 1997.

[ii] AURI, Hanok Village Story, AURI: Sejong, 2016. pp.57

[iii] Lee, Gilho. “2010 Hanok Runesansu Wonnyon Uro” [“2010 Hanok Renaissance’s Beginning Year”] NewDaily.

[iv] Yun, Jieheerah. “Remodeling of the Vernacular in Bukchon Hanoks” Open House International, Vol 37, No. 1, 2012: 40-47



Member of the Week: Ellen Hartman

Hartman_profileEllen Hartman

Research Landscape Architect, US Army Corps of Engineers Construction Engineering Research Laboratory

Part-time PhD Student, Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Illinois

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

My current research at work covers a few areas, but it’s mostly focused on military aspects of cultural resources management and socio-cultural goespatial research, with some natural resources management aspects thrown in. When I started working I didn’t know what to expect, except that I was interested broadly in military landscapes (although, at the time I didn’t really know what that meant!). Academically, my research is more historical and theory-based and addresses the militarization of tangible and intangible spaces through nuclear armament.

Describe your current work for the Army Corps of Engineers. How does what you are working on relate to your scholarship?

My research for the Corps is very applied, which means I conduct historical research that informs the management guidelines I write that help the Department of Defense facilities maintain compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act, among other federal policies. The overlap between my work research and academic research is that I can view military landscapes from two different perspectives–operational and theoretical. 

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

It’s not that recent of a publication, but I just came across a book in the NATO Science for Peace and Security Series called “Warfare Ecology: A New Synthesis for Peace and Security” (2011). It explores the “complex, reciprocal relationships between warfare and the environment.” I haven’t read it in depth yet, but so far all the contributions seem really interesting. 

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?

I don’t have much advice, except that history is awesome and cities are awesome so they might as well be put together.

A few years you became interested in geomancy and began incorporating influences of geomancy into your design work. What is geomancy, and what’s your favorite example of how you’ve used it for design?

Oh boy, the geomancy question. Way back when I was working on my masters in landscape architecture I had an ongoing conversation with my advisor, David Hays, about the assumption that design is predicated on improving future conditions. One of the questions was, how do you design for something that is unpredictable? David suggested I look into geomancy because it’s an ancient “science” that uses Earth’s energies to predict the future as well as locate sacred, or important, sites. But really, I use it as a method to filter, or recognize, my bias and to question the modern notion of technological arrogance and that we are always progressing upward toward betterment.

Geomancy is a fun exercise that helps generate narratives and then design responses. As mentioned above, I used it for my masters thesis, which got published as the chapter “Savior City” in (Non-) Essential Knowledge for (New) Architecture: 306090, Volume 15. I also used geomancy to question how sacred sites get formed in a journal article “Sacred States of America” in Forty-Five ( This project is a favorite because I wanted it to be a prompt for action, to have people go to specific places to do specific things with the hope that over time the prompt would be forgotten, but the actions would continue, thereby creating new sacred sites. To my knowledge, no one has enacted any part of that plan.

Protest in the Streets: A Thumbnail History and Personal Account of Political Dissent in Seoul

By Russell Burge

Images of Seoul filter fitfully into American media, and when they do the city often serves as a backdrop for discussions of foreign policy or North-South Korean relations. More rarely do Americans glimpse another aspect of Seoul that South Koreans know all too well: its venerable history as a site of public protest.

This history was on vivid display in the autumn and winter of last year, as over a million people took to the streets of the city in a “candlelight vigil” to demand the resignation of President Park Geun-hye. To some, this period may already feel like a distant memory—especially following the missile crisis of 2017 and the political theater of the Pyeongchang Olympics—but in South Korea the Seoul-based demonstrations were part of a nationwide protest movement that helped accelerate the impeachment of the president and prompt a transfer of the presidency from the ruling Saenuri Party to the opposition Democratic Party of Korea.

By coincidence I was present for these protests in my first year of dissertation fieldwork, as marches overtook the city and protesters congregated in the central area of Gwanghwamun Plaza, a wide space that has come to increasingly function as a kind of town square for South Korea. In a gathering filled with music, political props, costumes, and families, protesters chanted haya, haya (“step down, step down”). Meanwhile, in a microcosm of civil society, rival protests nearby gathered under the South Korean flag and called to uphold the constitution and save the country from opposition leader Moon Jae-in, cast by some civic groups as a North Korean agent. In true South Korean fashion, both protests were lined by flanks of riot police and chabyeok, or rows of police vehicles that formed literal barriers across city streets.

Seoul Korea Kwanghwamun candle rally Dec 31 photos ops at the effigies – “Faces of Korea”, Photo by @moseka, Dec 31, 2017, courtesy of flickr

My one encounter with the riot police was both ironic and unexpected, coming as it did after I attended a student event held by Seoul National University. Having been released from the event after dark and on the wrong side of the barriers, we emerged into a neighborhood that consisted of a maze of alleyways, many of them restored to resemble a vision of Korea’s royal past. Under tiled roofs and with the guidance of police officers – many of them conscripted young men who were themselves university age – we were patiently led through the chabyeok cordon and emerged finally into the main theater of the protest, a coursing river of candlelight pulsing with music. The experience was filtered through multiple layers of protection and privilege – our affiliation with an elite South Korean university, my own identity as a white American – but still appeared quite different from the Orwellian spectacle police presented in the crackdown of the 2015 protests, when remotely manned CCTV units (part of the Seoul police force which operates under the umbrella of the National Police Agency, the KNPA) were equipped with water cannonsand pepper spray to disperse the protests in Gwanghwamun. One protester was killed; indeed, speculation over the perceived sympathy or acquiescence of the police was a major leitmotif of discourse around the candelight protests of late 2016 and early 2017.

Democratic Republican Party convention, 1967 February 2 at the Changch’ung gymnasium to select the presidential candidate : we have to select party Chairman Mr. Park Chung Hee. Photo by Minju Konghwadang, 1967, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

My own research focuses on the history of Seoul in the 1960s and 1970s, but the history of meaningful protest in the city dates back much further, and coincides with the history of Korean urbanization. Under the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) the major protest movements were agrarian. Indeed, it was a millenarian peasant-based movement that nearly toppled the monarchy and sparked the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894. Still, Seoul was at the center of many of the more raucous responses to modernity in the 1890s and played home to what writer Isabella Bird Bishop famously termed its “gusts of popular feeling.”[1]

As the extractive economies of Japanese colonialism (1910-1945) mandated the building up of ports and infrastructure, Seoul’s position at the center of an urban network only grew. It is partly for this reason that in 1919 the city became the starting point and nucleus of the most storied mass movement in Korean history: the March First Movement, a two-month-long series of protests against Japanese colonial rule that is still a major touchstone in both North and South Korean official history. The March First Movement did not end Japanese colonialism, but, after months of bloody crackdowns by colonial police, it did change its inflection and guiding policies. It even helped to inspire China’s May Fourth Movement. Thus was inaugurated a tradition of urban-based protest that continues to this day.

In 1960, urban protest toppled a sitting Korean government for the first time. The origins of these protests are complex, but the major spark came in the southeastern port city of Masan, following the death of a high school freshman at the hands of police during an anti-government protest. When the protests spread to Seoul they took on new life, as university students and faculty joined in the melee against the South Korean government. The April Revolution, as the 1960 protests came to be called, proved to have a mixed legacy. The following year military officers staged a coup by seizing the major branches of government in Seoul; the leaders also deemed their own movement a revolution, and claimed to represent the spirit of the students who had taken to the streets in 1960. Over the next two-and-a-half decades, as South Korea moved into a long period of industry-first authoritarianism, cities would become important staging grounds to express grievances and anti-government resistance. The darkest moment in this era of urban protest came in 1980, when protests in the southwestern city of Gwangju were put down with mass bloodshed at the hands of ROK armed forces.

The 1988 Olympic Games proved to be about more than just sport. Photo by Ryan Reft at the Korea Modern Design Museum in Seoul, one of the oddest museums you will ever visit, June 2016

As the Pyeongchang Olympics draw to a close, it seems timely to note that when South Korea last held the Olympics –the 1988 Seoul Summer Games – a very different kind of political theater unfolded. In the leadup to those Games millions of South Koreans took to the streets to protest the continuation of authoritarian rule by the clique led by then-president Chun Doo-hwan. With international media laser-focused on Seoul and South Korea, the Chun administration – which relied in no small part on American support for its continued existence – chose to capitulate to key demands of the democratization movement and held elections the following year. The fateful decision, still decried by hardliners on the left and the right, brought about the gradual end of authoritarian rule in South Korea and created the democratic mechanisms that govern the country today.

In 2018 the greater Seoul area is home to half of all South Koreans; by some measures, the city constitutes the second-largest metropolitan area in the world. Just as Americans have come to recognize the outsized role that rural districts and voters play in their own politics, South Koreans must contend with the outsized role of their capital city in their political discourse and protest culture. Far more than providing gusts of popular feeling, these urban spaces now help to set the national mood, and to shape the course of national and regional politics.

Featured image at top: Rally outside Seoul City Hall in commemoration of the life of Yi Hanyŏl, a Yonsei University student killed in anti-government protests. Photo from Tonga ilbo, July 9, 1987, page 10. Accessed through Seoul Photo Archive and reproduced according to the terms of the Korea Open Government License.


Kilauea PhotoRussell Burge is a PhD Candidate in the History Department at Stanford University, where he focuses on modern Korea. His dissertation examines the history of Seoul in the 1960s and 1970s.

[1] In the English-speaking expatriate community in South Korea, Bishop’s turn of phrase has been popularized by a blog of the same name by Canadian commentator Matt Van Volkenburg.

An Annotated Addendum to our Seoul Bibliography

While I’ve always hoped that I’m not the intellectual equivalent of the dullest spoon in your drawer of silverware, I’ve also always known I was not the sharpest blade in the kitchen. The former is aspirational and the latter factual, but the latter also demonstrates a valuable skill: knowing when you don’t know. Bibliographies for our Metropolis of the Month feature are always difficult; one always fears omitting some classic urban work, denying it’s author deserved public admiration and researchers a valuable source.  The reality we must all face as urbanists, however, is that no urban historian can know all cities, but collectively, with your help, we can know many of them better.

Sensing my desperation and performing the ultimate good deed, Stanford History Department PhD candidate and burgeoning Korean expert Russell Burge sent us a much appreciated addendum to our somewhat anemic bibliography. Burge provides a concise and valuable addition to our list and includes Korean language works that we regrettably ignored in our initial bibliography. Of course, Seoul being the entertainment capital of Asia, Burge included films in his list–adding to its interdisciplinary flavor.

Seoul Bibliography

Isabella Bird Bishop, Korea and Her Neighbors (1898)

14667Part of a vanished genre of English-language travelogue literature, Bishop’s book is a sprawling tour through Korea, one that moves almost seamlessly between late-Victorian chauvinism and real perceptiveness and affection for Korean geography and history. Korea and Her Neighbors is as valuable today for its colorful descriptions of Seoul as it is for capturing a way of seeing that defined early encounters between Westerners and Koreans.




Keith Pratt, Old Seoul (2002)

51DBFV6KSML._SX307_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgA loving reconstruction of Seoul as it existed on the eve of the twentieth century, this book also uses the city as a microcosm to explore the remnants and broader history of the Chosŏn Dynasty (1392-1910), the last ruling dynasty of Korea. A thoroughly engaging read for anyone who has been to Seoul and attempted to scry its past through the glass and steel palimpsests the city presents today.



Todd Henry, Assimilating Seoul (2014)

9780520293151.jpgThis book is the first of its kind: an English-language monograph of deep original research that takes up the history of Seoul as its object of study. Henry focuses on the colonial history of the city (1910-1945), and sites of encounter between Seoul’s Korean residents and the Japanese colonial state. Paradoxically, this world – with its Shinto shrines and colonial exhibition halls – appears in many ways even more distant to modern eyes than the precolonial past.

Kim Paekyŏng, Chibae wa Konggan (2009)

While English-language works on Seoul are few and far between, the opposite is true in Korean; in South Korea, Seoul has a dominating presence as both an object of study and the setting for art, media, and literature. Still, Kim Paekyŏng’s Chibae wa Konggan (Domination and Space) stands out as a work of scholarship, charting many of the key transformations the city underwent in the colonial period, and its sometimes paradoxical geographies of power.

Mark Gayn, Japan Diary (1948)

contentThis book is better known as an account of Japan following the empire’s defeat in 1945, but a significant portion of Gayn’s work is also dedicated to Korea and the goings-on in and around the political nucleus of Seoul. In many ways Gayn’s account is the inverse of Bishop’s, as the author – a Manchurian émigré and veteran newspaper correspondent – describes with candor and horror the United States’ impact on south Korea following its liberation from Japan.

Chang Yŏngch’ang, Sŏul-ŭn pul t’anda (1978)

The title of Chang’s book – “Seoul is Burning” – sets the tone for this wartime account of Seoul’s occupation by North Korean forces, as well as the protracted UN siege that ultimately broke the North’s grip on the city. By turns lyrical, liturgical, and deeply personal, this obscure and quixotic memoir offers one of the most powerful sketches of what it meant to live in wartime Seoul, a city simultaneously besieged from both within and without.

Cho Sehŭi, The Dwarf (1978)

Available in a 2006 translation from Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, The Dwarf is a classic of modern South Korean fiction, and chronicles Seoul’s rise as a sprawling jungle of exploitation and inequality during the period of rapid development in the 1970s. Many of the issues raised by Cho still haunt South Korean politics and thinking today, and the book remains relevant not only as a work of literature, but also as an introduction to an episteme.

Ch’oe Inho, “Another Man’s Room” (1972)

Perhaps no better paean exists to urban alienation in South Korea. Writing at a time when apartments were still an alien fixture in Seoul’s landscape, Ch’oe follows his protagonist – a married man with a strained and distant relationship to his wife, his neighbors, and his apartment – through increasingly surreal states of hallucination and de-personification that call to mind later work by David Lynch. A translation of this short story by Kevin O’Rourke is available.

Valérie Gelézeau, Ap’at’ŭ Konghwaguk (2007)

Literally meaning “Republic of Apartments,” Ap’at’ŭ Konghwaguk is the Korean-language adaptation (trans. Kil Hyeyŏn) of geographer Gelézeau’s pioneering French-language work Séoul, ville géante, cités radieuses (2003). By turns sociological, ethnographic, and historical, Gelézeau tells the story of a single architectural form – the gray apartment tower – and how it came to stand as an urban vernacular and symbol of prosperity in South Korea.



Dir. Bong Joon-ho, The Host (2006)

Director Bong Joon-ho’s The Host is the story of one family’s struggle against a river monster hell-bent on abducting and devouring as many Seoul citizens as possible. Simultaneously absurdist and terrifying, the real star of this film is Seoul, or rather the Han River that cuts through it and the labyrinthine network of bridges and tunnels that form its literal underbelly.

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (2004)

220px-Cloud_atlas.jpgA work of historical and speculative fiction, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas covers an impossibly vast geography of places and times. Still, the setting of futuristic Seoul stands out for its attention to both historical and geographic detail, down to its neighborhood-by-neighborhood commentary on the city. If Tokyo once defined the mood at the heart of cyberpunk, Mitchell makes a similar bid for Seoul in this futuristic epic, though it remains to be seen if other authors will take up the call.




Dir. Kim Kyung-mook, Stateless Things (2011)

Stateless Things is a film about abjection, and the intimate relationships that obtain between the powerful and the powerless. With Seoul as its low-thrumming backdrop, Director Kim Kyung-mook explores rarely-touched topics in mainstream Korean cinema that are a constitutive part of life in the city, such as economic abjection, discrimination against ethnic Korean immigrants from China and North Korea, and queer sexuality.



Dirs. Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-kyong, Bitter, Sweet, Seoul (2014)

One of the more creative initiatives of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon’s administration, Bitter, Sweet, Seoul is far from the typical tourist campaign fare. Edited from 141 selected video clips out of thousands of crowdsourced submissions, the film – directed by Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-kyong – brings together various experiences of life in Seoul in a vision that is altogether more diverse, more melancholy, and more vibrant than any other.

Kilauea PhotoRussell Burge is a PhD Candidate in the History Department at Stanford University, where he focuses on modern Korea. His dissertation examines the history of Seoul in the 1960s and 1970s.

An Ancient City and Modern Exemplar of East Asian Urbanity: A Bibliography of the South Korean Cultural, Political, and Economic Capital, Seoul

Considering the explosion of interest in Korean cuisine, the ubiquity of K-Pop, and media attention devoted to the recently concluded Winter Olympics, it seems outlandish to think of South Korea, and by extension the megacity of Seoul, as a nation isolated from the developed West. Yet as recently as the mid-1990s, Seoul remained a mystery for international observers. A 1994 article in the Financial Times featured the headline “Seoul tries to throw open the door,” noting that the nation sought to “overcome its legacy of isolationism and to push for economic liberalization.”[1] Other observers commented on Seoul’s persistent if undeserved relative obscurity. “Stereotypes about the Far East, dominated by images of China and Japan, leave Korea in a vague limbo, of acronyms or bestiaries: NICs or Little Tigers,” Perry Anderson wrote in the London Review of Books.[2] A great deal can happen over the course of two decades, and indeed today Seoul feels almost like the standard bearer for East Asian urbanity.



International Trade and Japanese Occupation

Seoul’s trajectory from isolated metropole to international megalopolis spans three centuries, including Japanese occupation, post-Korean War destruction and authoritarian rule, and democratic emergence in the 1990s. From Korea’s earliest days, Seoul served as “a symbolic place of national feeling and political power, and it was the distinctive premier city” on the peninsula historian Wonsik Jeong noted in 2001.[3]

Even before the Japanese occupation in 1910, external forces shaped the Korean city. Trade arrangements functioned to pry open the once isolated capital of the “Hermit Kingdom.” The Korea-China Land and Sea Commercial Activity Treaty of 1882 resulted in imperial competition in the city, particularly between the U.S., Great Britain, Germany, Japan and China. Therefore, when the Financial Times claimed that 1994 represented the first time that Korea had attempted to open itself to “full international competition,” one might note a caveat or two.

First arrival pack horses, Seoul, bound north, Robert Lee Dunn photographer, 1905, Prints and Photographs Division

International mercantile trade birthed modern Seoul; it not only brought increased contact with other Asian and Western nations but physically remade the city. “With the opening of Seoul, the city wall was torn down, and the boundaries expanded to include the old market towns and lower class areas outside the city,” Jeong points out. The construction of the Seoul Pusan Railroad in the early 1900s further consolidated the city’s position and inaugurated “modern urban growth in Korea.”[4] Improved transportation networks furthered the nation’s place in the growing capitalist international economy.

Though never colonized or occupied by a Western power, Korea did endure decades of Japanese rule over the peninsula beginning in 1910. For better or for worse—and it was a great deal of worse and a far smaller measure of better—Japan enacted numerous economic, political, and infrastructural reforms that reshaped the city. Japanese reforms resulted in demographic expansion of the city, largely the result of three trends: natural increase, rural decline (and migration to Seoul), and Japanese immigration to the peninsula. Notably, public health measures – “prevention of infectious diseases, sanitation improvements, vaccinations, regulation of public space, and enforcement of sanitary regulations” – did ultimately result in a growing population. During the 1920s, death rates also declined by significant margins. However, as historian Todd Henry argues, the new public health regime put into place discriminatory policies toward most Koreans such that Japanese residents in Seoul were better equipped to fight off infectious disease than their Korean counterparts. Moreover, Koreans resisted police enforcement of public health policies, which stunted the system’s effectiveness and delayed the emergence of a viable and effective infrastructure until the 1920s.[5]

Japanese immigration accounted for over 350,000 new arrivals to the peninsula between 1910 and 1921, but in the years after, improved sanitation and public health also helped boost the city’s population from 250,000 in 1910 to 677,241 in 1936.[6]

Street scene showing government buildings, Seoul, Korea, between 1890 and 1923, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Unsurprisingly, Japan viewed Seoul as little more than a market for its manufactured goods and as a source of raw materials. As industrialization took hold, Japanese zaibatsus (Japanese industrial and financial conglomerates) dominated business at the expense of local entrepreneurs. As war often does, Japan’s 1937 military efforts in Asia and later in WWII boosted economic opportunity even for local Koreans, as the number of factories and Korean owners increased. “In 1939, 42 percent of the gross value of factory production was attributed to Korean-owned establishments, compared to 14 percent in 1924,” writes Jeong.[7]

The legacy of Japanese occupation manifested itself in the built environment. “[M]any spatial features of urban development during Korea’s industrialization, such as radiating and gridded street patterns, reflect those implemented during the Meiji Restoration and Taisho periods,” writes Sanghoon Jung, and “land readjustment adopted by the Japanese remained as the main means of urban development in Korea.”[8] Though Japanese land policy implemented a “modern private landowning system,” it subordinated all residents to the colonial state bureaucracy and established a trend of state control over development that would expand well past occupation as a political culture of centralization and authoritarianism became ensconced in national politics.[9]

Temple of Heaven, Seoul, Korea, 1925, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

During its occupation of the peninsula, Japan attempted to regulate public space, utilizing it as a means to “assimilate” Korean subjects into the Japanese empire. City infrastructure, public health initiatives, the construction of Shinto shrines, and other efforts served as Japan’s means of transforming Korean nationals into “reliable subjects of self government.” However, this did not always go as planned. Public spaces might carry the strong whiff of Japanese imperialism, but Koreans used them for their own ends and purposes “many of which did not converge with the state,” writes Henry.[10]


Japan’s defeat in World War II removed it from the peninsula, but did not spare Korea from military conflict. The Korean War erupted in the early 1950s and devastated Seoul. Still, as Anderson reflected decades later, the legacy of imperial rule complicated Korean existence; it undoubtedly subjugated Koreans under a totalitarian, racist regional power but one that at least built transportation networks and raised literacy above the regional average while reparations required of Japan for the occupation enabled the expansion of national and municipal finances. “The toll of empire was huge,” Anderson noted, “but privileges perversely went with it.” To be fair, Anderson included U.S. influence in this metric—noting that after the Korean War, America imposed needed land reforms and “bank rolled reconstruction.” The Vietnam War did not hurt the Korean economy either, as U.S. allies helped Korean firms establish industrial contracts in Southeast Asia; firms later harnessed this experience to strike similar deals in the oil-rich Middle East during the 1970s.[11]

Street in Seoul totally destroyed by North Korean communist forces, 1950s, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Post-Korean War Politics

After the Korean War “[m]ost of Seoul lay in ruins,” Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent Malcolm W. Browne wrote in his memoir. “The poverty was ubiquitous and obtrusive, and there was a constant danger of losing a wallet or camera to thieves.”[12] Under the rule of Syngman Rhee, who Browne described as an “autocratic old Methodist who brooked no dissent from any quarter,” Koreans enjoyed few freedoms. “During my year in Korea I could see the seeds of rebellion sprouting, as my student friends grew ever more angry at the repressions they suffered at the hands of the police, university administrators, and military authorities,” Browne remembered years later. Add to this “the demeaning aspects of American military occupation” and the student uprisings that came in 1960, sometimes referred to as the April Revolution, hardly seem unexpected. Student protests ousted Rhee in 1960, but the government quickly lapsed once again into authoritarianism under Park Chung Hi in 1961.[13]

Under Park, the state undertook massive economic development, an approach that persisted until the early 1990s. This sort of state centered development required draconian levels of repression; security forces known as the KCIA numbered over 350,000. Yet, as has proven consistent throughout Korea’s history, students refused to fully relent. They overthrew Rhee in 1960 and revolted again in 1979-1980, leading to Park’s assassination by his intelligence chief. Chun Doo Hwan took over for Park but encountered student resistance less than a decade later, in 1987, after a student activist at the University of Seoul was tortured and killed under police custody. After three weeks of unrest and some 350,000 canisters of tear gas, Chun had to concede free elections.[14]

Seoul at night, June 2016

Planning for Postwar Seoul

From the end of World War II through the 1980s, urban planning in Seoul drew from two primary influences: Japanese policies established under occupation, in terms of “planning culture, system and legislation,” remained influential. Moreover, numerous bureaucrats from occupation held over through independence. A second influence arose from Western planners like American Oswald Nagler.

After the war, the dearth of planning experts and the persistence of the Japanese model throttled attempts at redevelopment. However, foreign technical aid brought planners like Nagler to the fore. Working for the Asia foundation, later renamed as the Housing, Urban and Regional Planning Institute (HURPI), Nagler “introduced, applied and localized Western planning principles to Korea in an earnest manner,” argues Jung. Nagler also recruited numerous individuals such as Kyu Sung Woo, Hongbin Kang, Jinkyun Kim, Wan Yu and others; all would spread HURPI’s influence further in Seoul planning circles. Several HURPI members were chosen from the architecture department at Seoul National University.[15]

From Japanese occupation forward, housing in Seoul remained a problematic issue. Seeing the city and peninsula as a market for its goods and a source of raw materials, little attention was paid to building housing for residents. However, mobilization for war forced Japan to build homes for its soldiers and workers. Yet, even with this burst of construction, by 1944 housing shortage rates rested at 44 percent.

A South Korean youngster carries a sack of rice on her head after receiving it from the newly established government in Seoul during the week of May 2, 1961, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

By the mid-1950s, Seoul’s population had expanded to over 1.5 million and would continue to increase—surpassing 10 million by 2000—thereby furthering housing’s importance. Recognizing housing’s centrality to the city’s fortunes, Nagler believed in approaching urban planning from the household level and even inserted “Housing” into HURPI’s official title, which had previously excluded the term.[16] Nagler utilized an interdisciplinary approach to design and planning that emphasized architecture and civil engineering. This more comprehensive method broke from trends at that the time that focused exclusively on infrastructure development and eschewed architectural considerations.[17]


Due to the centralized business friendly approach to development, a growing population needing housing, and rapid urbanization, developers increasingly turned to higher density apartment complexes. High rise apartments, anything more than five stories, accounted for over 20 percent of construction permits issued by the central government in 1975. Fifteen years later, the percentage had more than tripled to 66 percent. A significant portion of the new housing created from the early 1970s and after arose from large-scale redevelopment projects, particularly urban renewal efforts directed at the ad-hoc communities and housing that cropped up in the 1960s. From 1973 to 1995, notes Hyun Bang Shin, about 17 percent “of all dwellings … were the result of the redevelopment of urban slums and dilapidated neighborhoods.” Unsurprisingly, these new units were subject to rampant speculation, which further victimized poor and working class residents and persisted for nearly three decades. [18]

Street Market at night, Seoul, June 2016

With democratic government emerging in the late 1980s and early 1990s, so too did organized opposition to unfettered real estate construction. This led to vocal civil society. For example, in 1990 the National Coalition for Housing Rights (NCHR), an umbrella organization consisting of various social organizations, progressive religious groups, housing activists, and evictees, formed to organize growing dissent. “Rapidly disappearing affordable housing stocks and the sharp increase in housing rents due to megadisplacement of poor tenants led to a growing awareness of housing as a basic right,” writes Shin.[19]

The efforts of civil society, and its increasing use of the “right to the city” concept, coincided with the expansion of democratization in Seoul and across South Korea; reforms included the establishment of local assemblies (1991), the election of Korea’s first civilian president (1993) and the direct election of mayors and provincial governors (1995). This opened up more space for public protest and organization, but democratization also fueled speculation and gentrification as localized government fell victim to “growth politics.” The few concessions accorded by the municipal government to displaced citizens functioned to legitimize the city’s redevelopment plans.[20] Korea’s growing civil society remains committed to enacting reforms, but change comes slowly.

Seoul at night, June 2016

Still, regardless of the odds, if there is one thing that the people of Seoul have demonstrated, it is the ability to enact major change and resist in ways large and small. We hope our bibliography captures that aspect of the city. As always, it is not comprehensive—far from it. Think of it more as a jumping off point. On Monday, Stanford PhD candidate Russell Burge is going to provide an addendum with ten annotated selections of his own.

Judging from correspondence with historians working in the field, there has yet to be a definitive history of Seoul written in or translated into English (@UrbanHistoryA if I am wrong, we’d love to add it to the list). That being said, be sure to check out work on Seoul by Elle Choi, Russell Burge, Jini Kim Watson, Hyun Bang Shin, Nan Kim and Jieheerah Yun all who have helped us with the Metropolis of the Month.

Featured image at top: Seoul – street scene toward East Gate, lantern slide, William Henry Jackson photographer, 1895, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Bird’s-eye view of Seoul, Korea, 1901, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


——–, Seoul, Twentieth Century: Growth and Change of the Last 100 Years, Ed. Kwang-Joong Kim (Seoul Developmental Institute, 2003).

Isabella Bird Bishop, Korea and Her Neighbors (Revell, 1898).

Russell Burge, “The Prison and the Postcolony: Contested Memory and the Museumification of Sŏdaemun Hyŏngmuso,” Journal of Korean Studies (Spring 2017): 33 – 67.

Im Sik Cho and Blaz Kriznik, Community-based Urban Development: Evolving Urban Paradigms in Singapore and Seoul (Springer, 2017).

Elle Choi, “Yi Kwangsu and the Post-World War I Reconstruction Debate in Korea,” The Journal of Korean Studies (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015).

Bruce Cummings, The Korean War: A History (Modern Library Chronicles, 2011).

David Fedman, “The Ondol Problem and the Politics of Forest Conservation in Colonial Korea,” Journal of Korean Studies, forthcoming (Spring 2018).

Tristen R. Grunow, “Western Urban Planning and Imperial Space from the Streets of Meiji Tokyo to Colonial Seoul,” Journal of Urban History 42.3 (May 2016): 506-556.

Todd Henry, Assimilating Seoul: Japanese Rule and the Politics of Space in Colonial Korea (University of California Press, 2016).

Shelia Miyoshi Jager, Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict in Korea (W.W. Norton, 2017)

Sanghoon Jung, “Oswald Nagler, HURPI, and the Formation of Urban Planning and Design in South Korea,” Journal of Urban History 40.3 (May 2014): 585-605.

Richard Child Hill and June Woo Kim, “Global Cities and Developmental States: New York, Tokyo, and Seoul” in The Global Cities Reader, Eds. Neil Brenner and Roger Keil (Routledge, 2006): 170 – 178.

Nan Kim, Memory, Reconciliation, and Reunions of Separated Families in South Korea: Crossing the Divide (Lexington, 2017).

Keith Pratt, Old Seoul: Images of Asia (Oxford University Press, 2002)

Hyun Bang Shin, “Urban Movements and the Genealogy of Urban Rights Discourses: the Case of Urban Protesters against Redevelopment and Displacement in Seoul, South Korea,” Annals of American Geographers 0.0 (2018): 1-14.

Hyun Bang Shin, “Living on the Edge: Financing Post-displacement Housing in Urban Redevelopment Projects in Seoul,” Environment and Urbanization 20.2 (2008): 411 – 426.

Hyun Bang Shin and Soo-Hyun Kim, “The Developmental State, Speculative Urbanisation and the politics of displacement in gentrifying Seoul,” Urban Studies 53.3 (2016): 540-559.

Jini Kim Watson, The New Asian City: Three Dimensional Fictions of Space and Urban Form (University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

Jeong Wonsik, “The Urban Development Politics of Seoul as a Colonial City,” Journal of Urban History 27.2 (January 2001): 158-177.

Jieheerah Yun, Globalizing Seoul: The City’s Cultural and Urban Change (Routledge, 2017).


Seoul at night from rooftop, June 2016


——, Postwar Korean Short Stories, trans. Kim Chong-un, 2nd ed. (Seoul: Seoul National University Press, 1983).

Se-hui Cho, The Dwarf, trans. Ju-Chan Fulton and Bruce Fulton,(University of Hawaii Press, 2006).

Ch’oe Inho, “Another Man’s Room,” in Ten Korean Short Stories, trans. by Kevin O’Rourke (Yonsei University Press, 1981).

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas, (Random House, 2004).

Yoojin Grace Wuertz, Everything Belongs to US, (Random House, 2017).

[1] John Burton, “Seoul tries to throw open the doors”, Financial Times, June 23, 1994, Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[2] Perry Anderson, “Diary”, London Review of Books, October 17, 1996, Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[3] Wonsik Jeong, “The Urban Development Politics of Seoul as a Colonial City”, Journal of Urban History 27.2 (January 2001): 158.

[4] Wonsik Jeong, “The Urban Development Politics of Seoul as a Colonial City”, Journal of Urban History 27.2 (January 2001): 159-160.

[5] Todd Henry, Assimilating Seoul: Japanese and the Politics of Public Space in Colonial Korea, 1910-1945, (University of California Press, 2016), 19-20.

[6] Jeong, “The Urban Development Politics of Seoul as a Colonial City”, 160-161.

[7] Jeong, “The Urban Development Politics of Seoul as a Colonial City”, 164.

[8] Sanghoon Jung, “Oswald Nagler, HURPI and the Formation of Urban Planning an Design in South Korea: The South Seoul Plan by HURPI and the Mok-dong Plan”, Journal of Urban History 40.3 (May 2014): 587.

[9] Jeong, “The Urban Development Politics of Seoul as a Colonial City”, 171.

[10] Henry, Assimilating Seoul, 4.

[11] Perry Anderson, “Diary”, London Review of Books, October 17, 1996, Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[12] Malcolm W. Browne, Muddy Boots and Red Socks: A Reporter’s Life, (Times Books, 1993), 53-54.

[13] Browne, Muddy Boots and Red Socks, 55.

[14] Perry Anderson, “Diary”, London Review of Books, October 17, 1996, Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[15] Jung, “Oswald Nagler, HURPI and the Formation of Urban Planning an Design in South Korea”, 586-587, 589.

[16] Jeong, “The Urban Development Politics of Seoul as a Colonial City”, 166; Jung, “Oswald Nagler, HURPI and the Formation of Urban Planning an Design in South Korea”, 589.

[17] Jung, “Oswald Nagler, HURPI and the Formation of Urban Planning an Design in South Korea”, 590.

[18] Hyun Bang Shin, “Living on the edge: financing post-development housing in urban redevelopment projects in Seoul”, Environment and Urbanization 20.2 (2008): 411, 422; Hyun Bang Shin and Soo-Hyun Kim, “The developmental state, speculative urbanization, and the politics of displacement in gentrifying Seoul”, 546-547.

[19] Shin, “Urban Movements and the Genealogy of Urban Rights Discourses: The Case of Urban Protesters and against Redevelopment and Displacement in Seoul, South Korea, 8.

[20] Hyun Bang Shin, “Living on the edge: financing post-development housing in urban redevelopment projects in Seoul”, 553; Hyun Bang Shin and Soo-Hyun Kim, “The developmental state, speculative urbanization, and the politics of displacement in gentrifying Seoul”, 544

Member of the Week: Christine Henry

IMG_7235 (1)Christine Henry, PhD

Assistant Professor

Department of Historic Preservation

University of Mary Washington, Fredericksburg, VA



Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

My current research is focused on several aspects of the history of Fredericksburg, VA including the influence of women in the preservation of local landmarks, and the role of the heritage economy in racial segregation in the city.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I currently teach four courses each semester on various topics of historic preservation including a wide range of class sizes, topics, and teaching styles. Classes include an introductory architectural history course, a building documentation course, a seminar on diversity in historic preservation and a seminar on vernacular architecture. In my large lecture courses I use my research on gentrification and neighborhood change as case studies to illustrate how historic preservation happens in urban environments. In my seminar, I have been able to involve my students directly in the documentation and development of a walking tour app for the Vernacular Architecture Forum meeting in Alexandria to be held in May 2018.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I am very excited about the upcoming publication of an edited volume titled Contested Pasts: Urban Heritage in Divided Cities. This past year I have been working with a colleague in the Department of Historic Preservation, Andréa Livi Smith, PhD, to co-author a chapter in the book which is titled ”Segregation, Gentrification, and Heritage in Fredericksburg, VA: A Preservation Perspective.”

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

The advice I have for young scholars is to keep an open mind in terms of research interests and to listen to as many people as possible about your research area. I am always talking with people about ideas, buildings and sites to investigate, which at first don’t seem to relate to my research areas, but after some exploration often have some connection I would not have found on my own.

As someone who studies neighborhoods, what would you personally argue is the most essential ingredient in making one great? Is it the built environment? The retail and services available? The relationships between residents? And what could you not live without in a neighborhood?

As a person who studies neighborhoods, I think that the most significant factor is the relationship between the residents and business owners. This atmosphere is of course shaped by the physical environment, which can enhance or inhibit interaction among residents, but the essence of a neighborhood is the people and the ties they create with one another. One thing that I could not live without in a neighborhood is age diversity—both personally and in my research I have found that having neighbors that are part of an age spectrum makes for a vibrant and interdependent community.

Children’s Fiction in the City

By Avigail Oren, with contributions from Kevin Seal, Melanie Newport, and other #twitterstorians

I’m spending the month of February living in the bedroom I occupied as a teenager, in the house my parents have lived in for almost twenty years, which is mercifully located in the warm and sunny state of Florida. In the parlance of the internet, I just can’t with winter anymore. So here I am, surrounded by the books my parents bought me as a child, brought from Chicago and St. Paul to Gainesville, where I added more to the collection.

When we proposed the City in Fiction series on The Metropole, I did not anticipate that I would simultaneously be editing thoughtful analyses of novels set in the urban landscape and weeding through my own personal archive of fiction. But I have been, and in addition to the books by Judy Blume and Sharon Creech, the volumes of the Anastasia and Alice series, and the bevy of great historical fiction for young readers, I found the seeds of my own personal interest in immigration, race and ethnicity, and the urban environment.

IMG_0598In amongst the Dr. Seuss I found a picture book that fascinated me as a child. In Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach, Cassie’s parents take the family out onto the roof of their neighbor’s Harlem apartment building one evening. Cassie and her brother Be Be eat dinner with their parents and Mr. and Mrs. Honey and, as the adults begin playing cards and socializing, Cassie and Be Be lay down on a mattress and go to sleep. Except that Cassie does not go to sleep. The story begins with her recalling how, that night when “the stars fell down around me and lifted me up above the George Washington Bridge,” she imagined flying above the city and taking ownership of all that she could see.

Sleeping on Tar Beach was magical. Lying on the roof in the night, with stars and skyscraper buildings all around me, made me feel rich, like I owned all that I could see. The bridge was my most prized possession. Daddy said that the George Washington Bridge is the longest and most beautiful bridge in the world and that it opened in 1931, on the very day I was born. Daddy worked on that bridge, hoisting cables. Since then, I’ve wanted that bridge to be mine. Now I have claimed it. All I had to do was fly over it for it to be mine forever. I can wear it like a giant diamond necklace, or just fly above it and marvel at its sparkling beauty.

Although the context was lost on me at the time, Cassie’s flight over the city and her repossession of the various infrastructure projects her father helped build was her response to the racism and exclusion her father experienced in the labor movement of the 1930s and 1940s. As a kid, I could understand and relate to Cassie’s worship of her father, a man who “can walk on steel girders high up in the sky and not fall,” earning him the nickname “the Cat.” I also admired my father, whose work as a political scientist was less risky but clearly intriguing enough to me that I followed him into academia. What I do not recall is what, if anything, I understood when my parents read me Cassie’s declaration that her “Daddy is going to own [the new union] building, ‘cause I’m gonna fly over it and give it to him. Then it won’t matter that he’s not in their old union, or whether he’s colored or a half-breed Indian, like they say.” I must have recognized that Cassie and her parents did not look like me, but did I register the unfairness that Cassie felt because of the discrimination her father faced? Did I intuit her need for reparation, and the reason why?

Regardless, I remember wanting to be Cassie and to have the ability to fly above the George Washington Bridge and wear it as a necklace. The idea of sleeping on the rooftop of an apartment building on a hot summer night in the big city was as fantastic to me as dragons and fairy princesses, but unlike dragons I knew that cities were real and that one day I too could move to the big city. And I did, and for two years I lived at the foot of the George Washington Bridge—though I never lay on my own tar beach.

As I became a stronger reader and began tackling chapter books, the American Girl books introduced me to historical fiction and made me fall in love with immigrant stories and American history. At the time, there was only Felicity, Kirsten, Ada, Samantha, and Molly, and I read and loved all of their stories. Molly, whose story was set on the home front during WWII, was my favorite. I eventually became a historian of post-1945 America.

IMG_0599When I moved on to more substantive historical stories, one of my favorites was Joan Lowery Nixon’s Land of Hope—which I just reread. It tells the story of Rebekah Levinsky, who we meet in 1902 as her family is in the woods at the border between Russia and Austria, attempting to sneak across en route to the port of Hamburg. As pogroms crept steadily towards their shtetl, her father decided that his family should join his brother Avram in New York City. Rebekah, at age 15, is brokenhearted to leave the life she knew—but that changes when, onboard the steamship to New York, she finds two spunky girlfriends who help her imagine the life she can have in America. The proto-feminists Kristen Swensen from Sweden and Rose Carney from Ireland encourage Rebekah to pursue her dream to get an education and become a teacher, despite that her parents have prioritized the education of her brothers and need Rebekah to work to support the family. As her family passes through the inspection at Ellis Island, their carefully-laid plans begin to go awry; with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the generous but pragmatic Avram, they begin to adapt to life on the Lower East Side.

The first time I read the book, I remember that I finished the final chapter, sprung out of the teal pleather beanbag chair I was sitting in, and ran to ask my mother when Grandma came over on a boat from Europe. I was crushed to learn that Grandma was born in the Bronx (as was her mother). This most recent re-reading, I had a more pleasant historical realization—the book is remarkably accurate on the facts of European immigration, down to the detail that inspectors at Ellis Island only denied entry to around 2% of migrants. And I say this having taught U.S. Immigration history last semester.

Land of Hope provided a backstory and context for another fictional Jewish family on the Lower East Side in the early twentieth century, Sidney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family. I learned the terrain of New York City from Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie. The adventures of the five sisters took them from the local and familiar—school, their Poppa’s junk shop, the candy shop, and the public library—to the faraway and foreign, such as when they rode the train out to Coney Island on a hot summer day, and when eventually the family moved to a nicer apartment in the Bronx. I’m constantly reminded of tiny details from Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family books. I can’t go into a candy store without thinking how marvelous it would be if you could buy four candies for a penny. Drinking black tea reminds me of when Henny spilled some on her sister’s white dress, so she dyed the dress in a bathtub filled with tea to match the stain. And when I dust the house I wish that someone had hidden buttons and pennies for me to find. These are the details that captivated me as a girl, that made me fall in love with this family and their lives, and that piqued my curiosity about their particular time and place. Years later, despite coming to graduate school to study something entirely different, I wrote a dissertation about Jews in New York.

I’ve gone through every bookshelf in my parent’s home and cannot find the last novel that made me fall in love with city life: Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Egypt Game. Set in the 1960s in what I presume to be Berkeley, though it’s only named as “a large college town in California,” The Egypt Game follows April and Melanie and Marshall and Elizabeth as they build a shrine to Nefertiti in the overgrown yard behind a neighborhood curiosity shop. The devotion of this multiracial group of friends to the study and celebration of ancient Egypt spurred them to search throughout their neighborhood for objects to decorate the shrine and items needed to perform rituals. Their urban neighborhood was one of limitless opportunity, so long as you had imagination and elbow grease. And it’s this possibility and creativity that remains what I most love about cities today.

And some additional recommendations, for those in search of great books to read or gift to kids. This list comes from Kevin Seal, a 4th Grade teacher, native New Yorker, and–in the interest of full disclosure–my husband. These are listed in reverse chronological order.

Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia

Set in New York City (get used to that), this middle-grade novel follows blues-loving Clayton in the aftermath of a family tragedy. Seasoned New York subway riders will connect with Clayton’s underground journey. It’s showtime!
Defying the notion that community doesn’t exist in urban areas, this modern throwback follows the Vanderbeeker family in New York City’s Harlem. The Vanderbeekers, beloved members of their neighborhood and all-around lovely family, find out that their landlord will not renew their lease, and turn to community ties, activism, and old-fashioned acts of kindness to turn the tide.
When The Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop by Laban Carrick Hill; illustrated by Theodore Taylor III
An historical fiction picture book, When The Beat Was Born traces the story of hip-hop’s roots from Jamaica to The Bronx. DJ Kool Herc is the star of the show here.
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
Rita Williams-Garcia’s second entry on this list, One Crazy Summer is the story of three sisters moving from New York City to Oakland, California in 1968 to live with their estranged mother. The sisters discover mysterious depths to this seemingly heartless matriarch, and soon find themselves enrolled in and energized by a Black Panther day camp.
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Set in Manhattan, this first-person narration features a unique mix of urban, cynical savvy and magical revelations. For a slightly older crowd than previous entries, this book demands to be re-read to fully appreciate what on earth just happened. Stead’s Liar & Spy could just as easily be on this list as well.
Macaroni Boy by Katherine Ayres
This novel is wonderfully confined in place and time: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s working class, immigrant-filled Strip District during the Great Depression. Main character Mike Costa balances working for the family business and dodging bullies with solving a mystery to save his failing grandfather. A great way to learn about an underappreciated neighborhood.
From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun by Jacqueline Woodson
Set in Brooklyn, this novel examines the relationship between 13-year-old protagonist Melanin Sun and his single mother. Their bond is imperiled when the latter reveals that she is gay and dating a white woman. Tackling issues of race, sexuality, and masculinity, Woodson pulls no punches in showing Melanin’s once-simple world spiraling out of control towards a promising but uneasy conclusion. Woodson’s novel in verse Locomotion could also be on this list.
An immigrant story of struggles and triumphs, Lord sets Chinese protagonist Shirley in Brooklyn at the same time that Brooklyn Dodger and civil rights pioneer Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier. No real appreciation or knowledge of baseball is required for this one, but it does help a bit to round out the context. May inspire curious minds to learn more about Jackie Robinson or professional sports’ role in America’s racial history.

And finally, some crowd-sourced recommendations from UHA members, #twitterstorians, and enthusiastic readers.

Melanie Newport on Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street

I first read The House on Mango Street at Curtis High School in suburban western Washington. I loved how the book captured the energy of the city and the importance of taking in every detail. I was most excited by the fact that it centered how young women moved through the world. My favorite chapter, “Hips” starts out, “One day you wake up and they are there. Ready and waiting like a new Buick with the keys in the ignition. Ready to take you where?” At a time when I thought my body was in revolt, that passage made me feel powerful. I can see now that The House on Mango Street was a book that made me appreciate that you can love where you came from and still leave.

Katy Peplin (of Thrive PhD) on The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Amanda Kolson Hurley (of CityLab) on David Macaulay and Castle

Art Blake on Time of Trial by Hester Burton

Help us create a valuable resource for parents, teachers, gift-givers, and book lovers! Share your favorites with us on Twitter @UrbanHistoryA or on the UHA Facebook group and we will add them to this post.

UHA award submissions now being accepted: Send us your brilliance!

“What is so detestable about war is that it reduces the individual to complete insignificance,” wrote the English surrealist poet David Gascoyne during World War II. Existentialism, which began with phenomenology prior to World War I and came of age during the Second World War, arose in an era of “extreme ideology and extreme suffering” notes Sarah Bakewell in her excellent 2016 intellectual history of the movement, At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom Being and Apricot Cocktails.

Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, and numerous others sought a new way forward amidst a generation besot by industrialized total war. Though wide differences existed between each in terms of philosophical thought and beliefs, in general they all embraced the idea of authenticity and personal agency.  Survival in this new age depended on one’s ability to “decide to live” to engage the issues of the time; a philosophical system “designed for a species that had just scared the hell out of itself, but that finally felt ready to grow up and take responsibility,” writes Bakewell.

Well, most of us don’t live in Occupied Paris, the Pacific Theater, or the Russian Front, but needless to say, several aspects of this era seem to be reappearing and millions of people around the world do live under such distress: see Syria and Myanmar for just two examples. So at first blush, our announcements regarding the UHA awards might feel slight, yet, in our own way as historians, we aspire to the same kind of engagement and authenticity that Camus, Beauvoir, and Sartre all attempted.

Camus, pictured above receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, bickered with Beauvoir and Sartre about how to move forward. In novels like The Plague and treaties like The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus put forth the idea that life and the impersonal systems we all toiled under were absurd, however, it was up to us to determine how and why we endured. “We must decide whether to give up or keep going,” Bakewell summarizes. Heroism, as depicted by the protagonist of The Plague, was not about winning or losing but rather about enduring for a purpose even in the face of limitless odds. Despite differences, Sartre and Beauvoir came to a similar conclusion: “the art of life lies in getting things done.”

Sometimes the fetid residue of social media can be distressing, even oppressive. However, this only adds value to the work done by UHA members. Every article, book, and dissertation produced is an effort to push through this post-truth age of political discourse; a grappling with who we are and an expression of a writer’s belief system even when submerged beneath historical detail. History’s importance, be it for national debates or identity, has rarely been greater. In our role as historians, we search for evidence, craft narratives, and assert arguments as both an expression of our authentic selves and as a means to get closer to establishing the truth about our ocean of municipal, state, and national history. After all, to quote David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas: “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”  It’s our ocean, drop your knowledge into it, watch the multiplicity of historical waves roll in and let us celebrate your contribution to the rising tide of truth.

Kenneth Jackson Award for Best Book in North American Urban History in 2017

61+W9nLjhkL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThe UHA will award a prize of $500 for the best monograph in North American urban history with a copyright date of 2017. To be considered, please submit three (3) copies of the book, each containing a complete publication citation. All materials must be received by May 1, 2018.

Submit one book directly to each member of the Jackson Award committee:

Margaret Garb
Washington University in St. Louis
Campus Box 1062
One Brookings Drive
St. Louis, MO 63130-4899

Paul Gleye
Department of Architecture & Landscape Architecture
North Dakota State University
650 NP Avenue
Fargo, ND 58102

Monica Perales
Department of History
University of Houston
3553 Cullen Boulevard – Agnes Arnold Hall Room 524
Houston, TX 77204-3003

Criteria for selection for all awards: significance, originality, quality of research, sophistication of methodology, clarity of presentation, cogency of arguments, and contribution to the field of urban history. Membership in the UHA is not required. All works must be in English or in English translation. Late or incomplete submissions cannot be considered. Submissions will be considered incomplete unless a copy of the book is received by each of the three (3) award committee members by the deadline. Submissions must be accompanied by a single page providing the author’s current address, e-mail, and telephone number(s). Letters of recommendation and endorsement are discouraged. The winner will be announced in late summer 2017, with formal presentation of the award at the UHA biennial conference in Columbia, South Carolina, on October 18-21, 2018. The Urban History Association reserves the right not to award this prize.

Arnold Hirsch Award for Best Article in Urban History published in a scholarly journal in 2017 (no geographic restriction)

9780226342443The UHA will award a prize of $250 for the best article on urban history published in a scholarly journal with a publication date of 2017 (either in print or online as part of a journal’s early online version). To be considered, please submit three (3) copies of the article, each containing a complete publication citation. All materials must be received by May 1, 2018.

Articles must be submitted by email as attachments in PDF format. Submit one copy of the article directly to each member of the Hirsch Award committee:

Brodwyn Fischer
University of Chicago

Lionel Frost
Monash University (Australia)

Benjamin Looker
Saint Louis University

Criteria for selection for all awards: significance, originality, quality of research, sophistication of methodology, clarity of presentation, cogency of arguments, and contribution to the field of urban history. Membership in the UHA is not required. All works must be in English or in English translation. Late or incomplete submissions cannot be considered. Submissions will be considered incomplete unless a copy of the article is received by each of the three (3) award committee members by the deadline. Submissions must be accompanied by a single page providing the author’s current address, e-mail, and telephone number(s). Letters of recommendation and endorsement are discouraged. The winner will be announced in late summer 2017, with formal presentation of the award at the UHA biennial conference in Columbia, South Carolina, on October 18-21, 2018. The Urban History Association reserves the right not to award this prize.

Michael Katz Award for Best Dissertation in Urban History completed in 2017 (no geographic restriction)

KATZ-1-obit-master180The UHA will award a prize of $350 for the best dissertation in urban history with a completion date in 2017. To be considered, please submit three (3) copies of the dissertation, each containing information on where and when completed. All materials must be received by May 1, 2018.

Dissertations must be submitted by email as attachments in PDF format. Submit one copy of the dissertation directly to each member of the Katz Award committee:


Andrew Diamond
Sorbonne Université

Lily Geismer
Claremont McKenna University

Jim Wunsch
SUNY Empire State College

Criteria for selection for all awards: significance, originality, quality of research, sophistication of methodology, clarity of presentation, cogency of arguments, and contribution to the field of urban history. Membership in the UHA is not required. All works must be in English or in English translation. Late or incomplete submissions cannot be considered. Submissions will be considered incomplete unless a copy of the dissertation is received by each of the three (3) award committee members by the deadline. Submissions must be accompanied by a single page providing the author’s current address, e-mail, and telephone number(s). Letters of recommendation and endorsement are discouraged. The winner will be announced in late summer 2017, with formal presentation of the award at the UHA biennial conference in Columbia, South Carolina, on October 18-21, 2018. The Urban History Association reserves the right not to award this prize.

Featured image: Camus wins Nobel Prize, October 17, 1957, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Romance Novellas and the Postcolonial African City

By Emily Callaci

In the late 1970s, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania was one of the most rapidly growing cities in the world. Each year, thousands of young men and women left their rural homes and made their way to the city, expanding the squatter settlements and the ranks of the city’s youth population. The global economic recession of the 1970s, followed a decade later by structural adjustment policies and the gradual collapse of Tanzania’s socialist experiment, led to great hardship for most urban residents. Public buses ground to halt for lack of petrol, and Dar es Salaam residents queued for hours outside government cooperative stores to access basic necessities, such as soap, tea, flour and rice, only to find that the shelves were often empty. More gallingly, despite an official public rhetoric of egalitarianism, the city was a place of visibly dramatic inequalities, where the corrupt could prosper and those who followed the rules often found themselves living in dire poverty. Yet in this context of scarcity, at least one thing could be found in abundance: love stories.

SImbamwene(1978)Swahili romance novels proliferated in Dar es Salaam in the late 1970s. Every year, tens of thousands of novellas were produced and sold in the city’s informal economy. They were printed on thin, cheap paper, and had titillating cover artwork depicting voluptuous women, kung-fu fighters, guns, suitcases of cash, and motorcycles. The books circulated from person to person, traded along social networks of readers until they eventually began to fall apart from wear and tear. The back covers of the novellas helped amplify the reputation of the writer by displaying his picture and bio, alongside several blurbs of bombastic praise from other young writers. The authors were young migrant men from rural areas, newly arrived in Dar es Salaam, and they circulated throughout the city on foot, selling their books out of briefcases or displaying them at newspaper stands or religious bookshops. These romance stories offer up a kind of unintended archive of the emotional lives of Dar es Salaam’s young men in the mid-1970s through 1980s, the final decade of Tanzania’s socialist experiment.

The romance novellas are formulaic and share similar casts of characters. They feature young, handsome and athletic male protagonists, fashioned after international celebrities including Bruce Lee, Muhammad Ali and Bob Marley. The heroes are well-versed in global black popular culture and radical political thought, and can quote James Brown songs and Julius Nyerere’s writings with equal ease, yet at the same time, they are rooted in the contemporary material realities of Dar es Salaam. Physically, they are lean from hunger and fit from playing soccer and practicing kung fu. They are often broke. Crammed into shabby apartments with their mates, the protagonists of these novellas nonetheless piece together their outfits from second hand clothes, tailored to the latest fashions on the sewing machines of street tailors. Their elegance in the face of scarcity attests to their taste and street-smarts. They are virtuous, cosmopolitan and frugal. And they are always in love.

fig4.5A beautiful “girl” is always part of the story. Sometimes she is virtuous and pure, and sometimes conniving and greedy. In these male-authored romance novellas of 1970s Dar es Salaam—and despite the many Tanzanian women writers at the time, the authors of this particular popular genre were men—she is never complex, never has an inner life of her own. The story is not about her; rather her depiction furthers a story that is about young men. Attached to the girl are her conservative parents, who antagonize their daughters’ suitors and stand in the way of love. Take, for example, Juma Mkabarah’s Kizimbani (On the Witness Stand), in which the young Rosa is found dead in the bed of her boyfriend, Joseph Gapa. Rosa’s father comes after Joseph with a machete, publically berates him for stealing Rosa away from his household, calls him a hooligan, and accuses him of killing her. But in a dramatic final courtroom scene, a letter from the departed Rosa is presented in which she reveals that she killed herself out of despair when her parents refused to allow her to marry the boy she loved. Joseph Gapa is exonerated and carried out of the courtroom on the shoulders of a cheering crowd, a hero.

fig4.6The great obsession of many of these romance writers was the figure of the sugar daddy. In Kassim Kassam’s Shuga Dedi, the titular character is Fabian Mwaluso, owner of a factory and seducer of the young and beautiful Fatuma: a schoolgirl from a poor family. Fabian is overweight and arrogant, and he seduces Fatuma with a meal of chicken and chips, rides to school in his Mercedes Benz and nights out dancing. In Kajubi’s Kitanda Cha Mauti (Bed of Death) it is Fadhil Magoma, a schoolteacher who sleeps with schoolgirls and impregnates at least one student: the protagonist Diana Kiboko. In the end, Diana kills him, herself and their child. In Mkufya’s The Wicked Walk, Magege is a manager in a factory, drives a Mercedes Benz, and ruthlessly exploits his employees. Outside the workplace, he seduces the young Anna away from her hip and politically righteous boyfriend, the protagonist Deo: a tall, thin, handsome man in bellbottoms and platform shoes, and a fan of Bruce Lee films. In contrast with the young male lovers like Deo, the sugar daddies are fat and old. They are wealthy and can wear expensive imported clothes, but they have no style. They drive around Dar es Salaam’s dilapidated roads in expensive imported cars while young men walk on foot or wait in lines for public buses that may never arrive. They leave their wives and children at home and steal young girls from their rightful partners—young men—by plying them with rides in cars, dinners of chicken and chips, and access to the city’s bars and nightclubs, with bottled alcohol and dinner and dancing. The relationships are always ruinous for the “girls,” who end up dying through botched abortions or suicides, or else destitute and shunned by their communities.


As an urban archive, these novellas take us into the intense generational tensions that structured experiences of the city. The young male migrants who came to the city in the 1970s had been to secondary school in the more optimistic years of decolonization, and as citizens of a newly independent nation, had expected to become a new generation of literate, salaried men supporting families in the city. Yet the economic decline of the second half of the seventies laid waste to those ambitions, and they encountered a city starkly different than the one they had envisioned, with skyrocketing unemployment rates and rapidly declining real wages. Marriage was increasingly out of reach as the cost of bridewealth—gifts offered from the family of the husband to family of the wife to solidify the bond between them—was increasingly high, making it impossible for many young couples to form socially recognized families. Forms of adulthood that had been available to their parents and grandparents’ generations, attained through land cultivation and marriage, were increasingly out of reach. In these circumstances, young men in the city found themselves stalled, unable to find public recognition as an adult. In these novellas about love, writers gave voice and pathos to their generation, placing blame at the feet of older generations, and creating a counter-narrative to the more dominant public narrative of degenerate urban youth.
The Swahili romance novellas of 1970s Dar es Salaam were whimsical, raucously imaginative, cheeky and sometimes absurdly far-fetched. They were also dead serious. They lured the reader in with fabulous cover images, bombastic prose and suspenseful plots, and grounded the reader in the emotional contours of urban life as experienced by young African men. At a time when the young and unemployed in cities were blamed for Tanzania’s ills, the writers of romance novellas wrote a new moral script of the city, recasting young transient men in the city as virtuous, emotionally authentic and heroic. The Swahili romance novel made room in the collective imagination for a new kind of urban resident.

Featured image at top: Tanganyika. Dar-es-Salem. Sunrise seen through palm grove from across the bay, 1936, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Emily Callaci is an assistant professor of African History at the University of Wisconsin Madison and author of Street Archives and City Life: Popular Intellectuals in Postcolonial Tanzania (Duke, 2017).

Race, Sexuality, and Noir in Chester Himes’ Wartime Los Angeles

Recently, UHA member, historian and social media personality extraordinaire Kevin Kruse tweeted out a thread of advice on writing in which the Princeton professor noted that historians, young and old alike, would do well to read outside of the field. Though the thread covered a great deal of territory, Kruse emphasized the need for historians to engage works of fiction as a means to improve their writing and that of the larger discipline.





While much of Kruse’s advice focused on style, pacing, and plot, one might add that works of fiction can provide emotional and contextual insights regarding various historical subjects, eras, geographies, and cities that sometimes elude traditional history.

Taking Professor Kruse’s advice, The Metropole sat down with a classic but arguably under-read work from the 1940s: Chester Hime’s If He Hollers Let Him Go. An admittedly imperfect novel, in If He Hollers Himes captures the existential tension of World War II-era Los Angeles for its black population while delving unflinchingly into the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality. A contemporary of Richard Wright and James Baldwin, Himes remains less familiar to the larger public than his two aforementioned peers. Though during his Los Angeles sojourn he only wrote two novels and several essays and short stories, Himes made an indelible mark. Literary critic John N. Swift places him in the company of Joan Didion, Nathaniel West, and Thomas Pychon as one of the “city’s great mythographers.”[1]

[Portrait of Chester Himes], Carl Van Vechten photographer, March 9, 1946, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Himes offers a dark vision of American racial relations in If He Hollers while also charging headlong into the fraught dynamics of interracial sexuality—all under a sun-drenched Southern California sky that casts brighter light on Black Los Angeles.

L.A. Race

In his 1971 autobiography, Himes wrote that despite the city’s welcoming climate and racial and ethnic diversity, Los Angeles had harmed him: “Los Angeles hurt me racially as any city I have ever known – much more than any city in the South … The difference was that the white people of Los Angeles seemed to be saying, ‘Nigger ain’t we good to you?’”[2] The protagonist of If He Hollers Let Him Go, Bob Jones, encapsulates the contradictions and tragedies of mid-century Los Angeles but also the nation’s grim history of sexual violence, or, perhaps more accurately in this discussion, violence related to sexuality. Jones shares Himes’ grim view of the city. “’Just between you and me,’” he confides to another character, “Los Angeles is the most overrated, lousiest, countriest, phoniest city I’ve ever been in.”[3]

During World War II Los Angeles drew 70,000 African Americans to the metropolis, growing from a population of 63,774 in 1940 to 133,082 in 1947. “Most new arrivals found atrocious housing and poor jobs,” points out historian Daniel Widener. Many came for work in the war industry, including Jones, who had also migrated from the Midwest.

Though multicultural for decades, the city placed definite boundaries on its populations: Jews, Mexicans, Asians, African Americans and non- white immigrants (sometimes even European ones in certain cases) were relegated to specific neighborhoods. “Housing restrictions consigned nonwhites to less than a tenth of available housing stock, and the homes of recently interned Japanese and Japanese Americans often constituted the only residences open to African Americans,” writes Widener.[4] While whites might visit minority neighborhoods, blacks and others found themselves less welcome in white communities.

Racism in Los Angeles depended more on custom than law. As evidenced by internment, the Zoot Suit Riots in the 1940s, and bombings and house burnings that occurred in some L.A. neighborhoods during the 1950s and 1960s, violence did occur. In comparison to the South or even Midwestern cities like Chicago, however, racism in the city of Angels was shrouded by a false veneer of respectability.

Construction of the liberty ship “Booker T. Washington.” Black skilled workers in many crafts participated in the construction of the “Booker T. Washington,” first liberty ship named for an African American. James Kermit Lucas, welder, is shown working on the top deck of the vessel which bears the name of the noted African American educator, Alfred T. Palmer photographer, September 1942, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Economic segregation proved especially pervasive—so much so that in 1941 Los Angeles hosted the first hearings of the Fair Employment Act Commission to be held outside of the nation’s capital. However, due in part to the bonanza of military spending that cascaded over the state as a result of the war, federal scrutiny of employment discrimination increased. By 1945, one estimate suggested that 85 percent of the city’s black laborers worked in connection to the manufacture of military equipment.[5]

Though the war had raged for two years before the U.S. entered following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Himes’ protagonist initially thinks little of the growing international conflict. “I’d never given a damn, one way or the other about the war excepting wanting to keep out of it; and at first when I wanted the Japanese to win,” Jones narrates. However, wartime employment provides opportunity and even briefly reshapes Jones’ conception of his place in America. “I was stirred as I had been when I was a little boy watching a parade watching the flag go by. That filled up feeling of my country. I felt included in it all. I had never felt included before. It was a wonderful feeling.”[6]

Unfortunately, such emotions proved transitory. Jones had arrived in L.A with the mindset that while the color of his skin might be an obstacle, it was not wholly limiting. “Race was a handicap, sure, I’d reasoned. But hell, I didn’t have to marry it. I went where I wanted and felt good about it,” he tells the reader. For a moment or two, such beliefs even rang true. Jones ascends to the rank of Leaderman, a working class middle management position at an L.A. Navy Yard devoted to wartime production. He dates Alice, a social worker and the daughter of prominent Black Los Angeles elite. Things appear to be on the rise.

Los Angeles, California. Japanese-American evacuation from West Coast areas under U.S. Army war emergency order. Japanese-American child who will go with his parents to Owens Valley, Lee Russell photographer, April 1942, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Events, unfortunately, conspire to disabuse Jones of such ideas. His optimism sours as Japanese internment unfolds, thereby wiping away any feeling of belonging: “It was taking a man up by the roots and locking him up without a chance. Without a trial. Without a charge. Without even giving him a chance to say one word.”[7] Jones understood the same fate could befall him. “And since I’d begun earning enough money to live my own life, I hadn’t felt my life belonged to me. Any moment the white folks might ask me to check it in.”[8]

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had unleashed something in L.A’s white population. “It was the look in the white people’s faces when I walk down the streets,” he notes. “It was that crazy wide-eyed, unleashed hatred … All that tight, crazy feeling of race as thick in the street as gas fumes.”[9] Throughout, Jones expresses unease at whites’ ability to demonize the other. “I was the same colour as the Japanese and I couldn’t tell the difference. ‘A yeller-bellied Jap’ coulda meant me too.”[10] Himes’ awareness of this particular inequality may have been heightened by the fact he wrote the novel while living in a Boyle Heights home that had been abandoned by an interned Japanese American family.[11]

Police check draft cards on explosive Central Ave.–Tempers tense as officers patrol area to curb battles, 1943, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

As in any good L.A. novel, cars play a critical role. Jones drives a 1942 Buick Roadmaster; it “gives Bob the illusion of freedom and equality as he challenges even white drivers to race him on Los Angles streets” knowing that even the toniest resident of Beverly Hills could not get a Roadmaster amidst wartime rationing. Yet it also brands him “an arrogant, uppity Negro” argues literature professor Charles Scruggs.

Indeed, though it provides his mode of transportation throughout the novel, it hardly sets him free: “It was a bright June morning. The sun was already high. If I’d been a white boy I might have enjoyed the scramble in the early morning sun, the tight competition for a twenty-foot lead on a thirty mile highway. But to me it was racial.” Even the scenic “snowcapped mountains” fail to win his attention. “I didn’t even see them; all I wanted in the world was to push my Buick Roadmaster over some peckerwood’s face.”[12] Revenge fantasies rather than escapism dominates his thoughts, notes Scruggs.[13] Doom hangs over Jones, observes novelist, literary critic, and Himes expert Robert Skinner. His “relentless travel” throughout the novel “serves only to bring [Jones] closer” to his tragic end.[14]

Policemen and wounded African American man inside police ambulance, during Los Angeles “Zoot Suit” riot of 1943, 1943, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Between revenge fantasies, employment discrimination at the Navy Yard and housing segregation, Jones vibrates knowing the all-encompassing nature of American racism. Minorities stood subject to the racial law of L.A. Sure, Japanese Americans experienced the most blatant form of internment, but as Lynn M. Itagaki points out, in Los Angeles racial groups of all kinds were interned in some fashion: “the Japanese Americans in desert prisons, the African Americans in neighborhoods constrained by residential ordinances and segregation.”[15]

The fate of Japanese American Angelenos struck an admitted fear into Jones that pervades much of the novel and drives him to act out in ways indicative of an individual living under a kafkaesque racial regime. “Do you ever wake up scared?” he asks his roommate and occasional paramour Ella Mae one morning.

When a white co-worker knocks Jones unconscious and robs him of his gambling winnings, Jones stalks and nearly kills the man. A desire to turn the tables on his antagonist and escape his feelings of confinement motivates his actions: “I wanted him to feel as scared and powerless and unprotected as I felt every goddamned morning I woke up.“[16] The idea of striking back mattered as much as the act itself. “As long as I knew I was going to kill him, nothing could bother me … they couldn’t hurt me no matter what they did. I had a peckerwood’s life in the palm of my hand and that made all the difference.”[17]

Nine huge Liberty cargo ships at outfitting docks of California Shipbuilding Corporation’s Los Angeles yards, nearly ready to be delivered to the U.S. Maritime Commission, December 4, 1943, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Nonetheless Los Angeles’s structural racism, even amidst wartime emergencies, does damage Jones—be it in his troubled relationship with his girlfriend/fiancé, the distinctly upper middle class Alice, or in his interactions with his white co-workers at the Navy Yard. The former encourages accommodation while the latter reveals that the Midwestern and Southern whites that migrated to L.A. brought with them the racial beliefs that governed their hometowns. Even before penning If He Hollers, Himes acknowledged this reality in a 1943 article for The Crisis, concluding “the outcome is simply that the South has won Los Angeles.”[18]

“Women aircraft workers. Perched high on the wing of a giant bomber, women of a large West Coast aircraft factory are speeding the installation of electrical units contolling the engine.” David Bransby photographer, May 1942, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

L.A. Sexuality

Himes was not without his own overdriven masculinity. Many of his characters, including Jones, drew upon noir traditions of the “unapologetic and testosterone driven” male. “Turned on by their own bravado, they claimed entitlement and viewed sex as a struggle for power – the only form of intimacy that engaged them,” wrote the New Yorker’s Hilton Als in 2002.[19] Himes admitted as much. He treated his wife Jean Johnson in “the most casual of manner; sometimes I would leave her standing on a corner waiting for me for hours on end.” Moving to New York in 1944, he confessed to a philandering lifestyle that had wronged his wife, writing “I lost myself in sex and drunkenness … And I almost lost my wife too … and when I came to” If He Hollers had been published to general acclaim.[20]

The black female characters in If He Hollers reflect this sort of ambivalence. Alice, his girlfriend and fiancé, is depicted as a middle-class accomodationist more interested in fading ideas of the “talented tenth” than general racial uplift or protest. “I’m ambitious and demanding. I want to be important in the world. I want a husband who is important and respected and wealthy enough so that I can avoid a major part of discriminatory practices which I am sensible enough to know I can’t change,” she tells Jones during one of their many arguments. “I don’t want to be pulled down by a person who can’t adjust himself to the limitations of his race.”[21] Jones does not stick to only one woman; with Ella Mae’s husband off at war, she and Jones sometimes sleep together and he pursues Madge while dating Alice.

To be fair, the noir genre has long been riddled with misogyny apart from racism. As a result, recent work like the 2014 film “Man from Reno,” which features a Japanese female protagonist in the usual role of the hardboiled male detective, easily distinguishes itself as a result of breaking with genre traditions. Whatever his problematic stances on race and gender, in terms of sexuality, Himes writes squarely within this noir structure.

Still, with such caveats noted, Himes understood the deadly intersection of race and sexuality for minorities. In the aforementioned 1943 essay on the Zoot Riots, he argues that one of the precipitating factors of the violence hinged on white men’s perception that Mexican Americans had been harassing “their women.” Himes refuted the idea that black and Latino men pined for white women. “Mexicans do not desire” white women; “They do not even look at them.” Black men he argued will “crack at anyone of any race who is nice looking … But they will never go as far as white men toward a Negro woman in a white district.” Himes wades into a very problematic and patriarchal view of sexuality, but it’s one that, whatever we think of it today, defined sexual and racial relations at mid-century.

The six plane factories of the Douglas Aircraft Company have been termed an industrial melting pot, since men and women of fifty-eight national origins work side by side in pushing Americas’s plane output“, circa 1940s, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

When involving white women, interracial sex led to violence or at the very least, the distinct threat of it. Americans “are strictly a gang minded people,” Himes argued, “we lynch Negroes, rob banks, kidnap babies, extort merchants, beat strikers, etc.”[22] Jones himself is both titillated and horrified when his antagonistic co-worker, the relocated Texan Madge, tells him sex with her would “get him lynched” in her home state.[23]

Himes depicts a white Los Angeles obsessed with interracial encounters; its black counterpart less so. When two white soldiers walk into a black bar with a young white woman interested in the male patrons, the tension builds. Though the two soldiers, apparently tired of her behavior, attempt to leave the girl behind, the black manager immediately intervenes “She came in with you, she’s got to go out with you,” he tells them. Jones conveys the dangers succinctly, “She could take those two black chumps flirting with her outside and get them thirty years a piece in San Quentin; in Alabama she could get them hung.”[24]

Despite his own knowledge of these dangers, Jones pursues his white female co-worker, Madge. A recent arrival from Texas, Madge carries with her the kind of racist thoughts common to white Americans of the day. She refuses to take orders from Jones, freely throws racial epitaphs in his direction, and more or less gets him demoted.

Yet like Jones, she seems excited, arguably for different reasons, at the prospect of interracial sex. Even after his demotion, Jones pursues her. Madge proves a willing participant, though she throws around the word rape to remind Jones, and perhaps herself, the taboo nature of their potential coupling. Jones eventually decides against it, yet even his contemplation of sex with her proves worthy of punishment under the racial logic of Los Angeles. His decision to pursue Madge puts into motion a series of events that don’t quite end tragically but also do not result in anything remotely triumphant. “She pretends to be terrified of him, and he wants nothing to do with her, but as in a nightmare he lives out Freud’s repetition-compulsion cycle,” observes Scruggs.[25]

To their credit historians like Josh Sides and Daniel Widener have acknowledged Himes’s contributions to L.A. culture and history. Sides describes his L.A. works, If He Hollers and The Lonely Crusade, as “searing indictments of racism, unemployment, and the emasculation of African American men in the 1940s.” Widener notes Himes’ “incisive and dystopian” outlook, and the two books as “exemplary examples of California noir, as pioneering examples of interethnic, cross-racial politics linking disaffected black, Asian American, and ethnic Mexican communities and as a challenging … effort to write seriously about the problematic boundary between race, sex, and violence in Jim Crow America.”[26] Reading fiction serves many purposes, as Kevin Kruse aptly detailed in his tweet thread, but one of the more enjoyable and insightful is when it tells us a story about history with pathos, tragedy and emotion. Whatever his flaws, Chester Himes captured the despair and hurt of mid-century Black Los Angeles.

Featured Image at top:  Launching of the SS Booker T. Washington. Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune, Director of Negro Affairs, National Youth Administration (NYA); an identified member of the local committee; Marian Anderson, celebrated contralto; Dr. William J. Thompkins, Recorder of Deeds, Washington, D.C.; Reverend F.D. Jordon, Los Angeles; and Mrs. Portia Washington Pittman, only living daughter of Booker T. Washington, wave farewell as the Liberty Ship named for the great Negro educator and leader, slides down the ways at the California Shipbuilding Corporation’s yards at Wilmington, California, Alfred T. Palmer photographer, September 1942, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

[1] John N. Swift in Lynn M. Itagaki, “Transgressing Race and Community in Chester Himes’s If He Hollers Let Him Go, African American Review, Vol. 37 No. 1: 78.

[2] Chester Himes, The Quality of Hurt: The Early Years, The Autobiography of Chester Himes (Paragon, 1972), 73-74.

[3] Chester Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go (Da Capo, 2002), 41.

[4] Daniel Widener, Black Arts West: Culture and Struggle in Postwar Los Angeles (Duke University Press, 2010), 32.

[5] Widener, Black Arts West, 32.

[6] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 38.

[7] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 3.

[8] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 163.

[9] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 4.

[10] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 4.

[11] Edward Margolies and Michel Fabre, The Several Lives of Chester Himes, (University Press of Mississippi, 1994), 50.

[12] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 14.

[13] Charles Scruggs, “Los Angeles and the African American Literary Imagination”, in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, Ed. Kevin McNamara, Cambridge University Press, 2010, 77.

[14] Robert E. Skinner, “Streets of Fear: The Los Angeles Novels of Chester Himes” in … 229.

[15] Lynn M. Itagaki, “Transgressing Race and Community in Chester Himes’s If He Hollers Let Him Go, African American Review, Vol. 37 No. 1: 68.

[16] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 35.

[17] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 45.

[18] Chester Himes, “Zoot Riots are Race Riots” in Black on Black, 225.

[19] Hilton Als, “In Black and White” in If He Hollers Let Him Go, (Da Capo, 2002), xiv.

[20] Als, “In Black and White”, xv.

[21] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 97.

[22] Chester Himes, “Zoot Riots are Race Riots” in Black on Black, 220-225.

[23] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 147.

[24] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 76.

[25] Charles Scruggs, “Los Angeles and the African American Literary Imagination”, in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, Ed. Kevin McNamara, Cambridge University Press, 2010, 76.

[26] Josh Sides, L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present, University of California Press, 2006, 54-55; Widener, Black Arts West, 30.

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