From Point Break to La La Land: Travel, Film, and the Circus that is L.A

Perhaps it’s fitting that I ended my week-long sojourn to the City of Angels eating Sushi on Sunset Boulevard while sitting behind 1990s super model Fabio. As someone who came of age in the 1990s – I graduated high school in 1994 and college in 1998 — the Los Angles of 20th century fin de siècle America, at least from the distance of the Midwest, felt more plastic and less vital than New York City. At the same time, Los Angeles of the 1990s seemed awash in troubled ambivalence.

I can guarantee you that man sitting over my left shoulder is Actor/Model Fabio

Fabio’s vacant image seemed to be simultaneously everywhere and nowhere during the decade; we all knew who he was, but I’m not sure any of us knew why we did. The last time I remember seeing Fabio, before his recent turn as celebrity Trump supporter, was Zoolander, where he expressed gratitude over receiving the Best Actor/Model award: “You consider me the best actor slash model, not the other way around.” I must confess as we all entered the 21st century, he served as an avatar of my (inaccurate) perception of the city: shiny, vacuous, and superficial.

My very sad Generation X celebrity sighting confirmed the city’s magnificent ridiculousness, while also putting my own misconceptions about L.A. into greater clarity; today’s City of Angels continues to exert a cultural influence while experiencing less violence and maintaining its persistent devotion to the absurd. “Then it suddenly occurred to me that, in all the world, there was nor would there ever be another place like this City of Angels,” journalist Carey McWilliams wrote. “Here the American people were erupting, like lava from a volcano; here, indeed, was the place for me – a ringside seat at the circus.”[1]

Considering that I’ve written about the city for Los Angeles’s KCET since 2012, my youthful ignorance regarding it feels that much more outlandish. One could try to blame pop culture for such dubious notions—after all, films like The Player (1992) and Get Shorty (1995) cast a jaundiced if humorous eye at the city’s entertainment-obsessed culture and emphasized L.A.’s superficiality. Yet, if one actually looks back at the cinematic offerings of the ‘90s, film depicted a much more diverse, nuanced and complicated city than I acknowledged then (see the footnote).[2] The truth is Los Angeles is a circus, but one that includes a multitude of players from a constellation of backgrounds. Since the 1990s, the big top has changed.

Hotel Casa Del Mar, Santa Monica, May 2018

Troubled 1990s Los Angeles

I bet I’m hardly the only one who at one point or another viewed L.A. narrowly. I’m guessing for many Americans the city existed on two poles: one, the cynical, superficial Hollywood dream machine and the other a gritty, troubled, drug infested, gang-ridden city inhabited by criminalized African and Mexican American residents—a perception based on films like Colors (1988), Boyz in the Hood (1991), Blood In Blood Out (1993), and Menace to Society (1993). I won’t even mention catastrophe films like Volcano (1997), because Mike Davis and Eric Avila have explored the fetish for literary and celluloid destruction of the city to much greater effect than I ever could.

Time, 1991, Anthony Lewis Papers, Library of Congress

As evidenced by a 1991 special issue of Time devoted to the Golden State, California remained a national curiosity; a state, and by extension a city, at a crossroads. “It’s still America’s promised land – a place of heart stopping beauty, spectacular energy, and stunning diversity,” a caption from the issue stated. “But faced with drought, mindless growth, and a sputtering economy, can it preserve the dream?”

Botanical Gardens at the Huntington Library, May 2018

Even city histories exuded pessimism. Mike Davis’s seminal work City of Quartz captured L.A.’s dark mood as it hurtled toward the millennium: “In Los Angeles there are too many signs of approaching helter-skelter: everywhere in the inner city, even in the forgotten poor white boondocks with their zombie populations of speedfreaks, gangs are multiplying at a terrifying rate, cops are becoming more arrogant and trigger happy, and a whole generation is being shunted toward some impossible Armageddon.”[3] In retrospect, Davis sounds a bit like ad-copy for the Purge movie series.

To be fair, at the time violence, though exaggerated by film and television, permeated the metropolis. The aforementioned films though empathetic to their respective characters, also helped burnish the city’s image as gang-ridden, which in part was true.

In his 2006 work Coast of Dreams, the late dean of California history Kevin Starr noted the struggle with gang violence during the 1990s grew so pervasive that local businesses morbidly adapted. “Florists in certain Los Angeles neighborhoods grew skilled in combining floral patterns with gang color ribbons. Other vendors specialized in producing custom-made sweatshirts and t-shirts with stylized messages honoring the departed,” he wrote.[4] One could even find the city’s famed diversity reflected in its gangs. By the 1990s the LAPD reported 230 black and Latino gangs with an additional 81 Asian ones, “Model Minority” myths be damned.[5]


Botanical Gardens at the Huntington, May 2018

Police corruption ran amuck as well. The LAPD’s Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) unit descended into lawlessness under the leadership of Rafael Perez, who coincidentally served as a model for Denzel Washington’s character, Alonzo Harris, from Training Day (2001). CRASH officers beat, shot, murdered, and extorted on a level exceeding that of its criminal targets. “No Los Angeles gang could have exacted a more stylized revenge,” remarked Starr. By 2000, 70 former and current CRASH officers had either quite, been suspended and/or relieved of duty, or were under investigation.[6]

Air polloution also plagued the city. The air was thick, disturbingly thick, which proved unhealthy. Yet, at moments, the smog was also aesthetically compelling. “They say the *%*%*%*%* smog is the *#*$@*$@ reason we have such beautiful %$%#&#%# Sunsets,” bad guy mob boss Ray Barbones (Dennis Farina) dispassionately tells B movie producer Harry Zimms in Get Shorty. Beyond picaresque sunsets, air pollution in 1990s Los Angeles was bad, though better than during the 1970s and 1980s (the latter examples being a central part of the plot to 2016’s comedic noir, The Nice Guys). During the 1990s air quality improved, though on average residents endured 200 bad air days each year.

Japanese Gardens at the Huntington, May 2018

Better Days? L.A. 2018

Since then, California, and especially Los Angeles, has righted itself. Crime has diminished, though certainly not disappeared. “Angelenos are far less likely to be murdered than in the 1990s, when homicides peaked at 1,094 in a single year,” noted the L.A. Times in late 2017. Homicides and gun violence had declined, but violent crime increased for the fourth year straight.

As for the city’s air pollution, 1991’s ripe, masculine, homoerotic action-adventure bromance Point Break encapsulates how far the city has come in this regard. “22 years. Man the air got dirty and the sex got clean,” LAPD Detective Pappas (Gary Busey) explains to partner Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves). Pappas wasn’t wrong, as noted the air was bad in 1991, but the 1990s for all its struggles would turn out to be a period of real environmental improvement as residents witnessed rapid gains in air quality. Granted, recent evidence suggests some back sliding. An uptick in pollution led to 145 bad days for the year in 2017. Angelenos had not inhaled that much pollution since 2004. Still, even this regression remained far better than where the city stood nearly 30 years ago.

Outside LACMA, May 2018

If one wishes to enjoy whatever fresh air L.A. provides, hikes around the city and county serve as a great option. For example, one can begin a long day hike with a trip to Griffith Park. Hit up the Autry Museum of the West, which has some “old timey” exhibits but is also currently exhibiting photography of the Chicano Movement, LA RAZA. From there trek via one of the various hikes at your disposal over to Griffith Observatory, where you can take in views of the city and, afterwards, hike back down (or catch a bus or call a ride-sharing service). If you get a nice day, the views are outstanding. If you’re closer to Pasadena/San Marino, drop in on the Huntington Library, whose botanic gardens alone are worth the trip—to say nothing of its notable art collections and the library itself.

The art scene in Los Angeles is quite impressive beyond LACMA and The Getty including the Broad and the Museum of Modern Contemporary Art (MOCA, which has more than one site), selections from the Broad are pictured here, where admittance is free but you need to make reservations

While hiking around the city, you’ll notice Los Angeles has been and is growing. Debates about economic development and housing have arguably grown more substantial and nuanced. No longer mindless, growth in Los Angeles often sparks fierce discussion particularly in the face of rising housing costs and efforts to blunt them. However, the city needs more affordable housing and better regulations. According to the L.A. Times, L.A. needs between 1.8 and 3.5 million new units of housing by 2025 to meet “existing demand and future growth.” The housing crisis has led to a homeless population of 116,000, roughly 21 percent of the national total. Attempts to allow for increased-density housing have been met with unanimous opposition.

More art from the Broad

The city remains car-centric though, as will be discussed in a moment, getting around the city has gotten significantly easier. Its history as an autotopia remains troubled. Joan Didion famously described Angelenos’ relationship to driving a form of “secular communion.”[7] Reyner Banham observed similarly that “the freeway is not a limbo of existential angst, but the place where [Los Angeles residents] spend the two calmest and most rewarding hours of their daily lives.”[8] Perhaps, but freeways also imposed costs on working class communities, particularly those of color and especially those in East Los Angeles. “By the late 1960s, after the California Division of highways had completed its assault on East Los Angeles, freeways dominated the sensory experience of daily life in the nation’s largest barrio,” UCLA’s Eric Avila notes.[9] In 2015’s Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Andersen captured the city’s tradition of imposition on non-white minorities—whether for highway construction, economic development or urban renewal—through the voice of the film’s narrator, Sortilege (Joanna Newsome): “Mexican families bounced out of Chavez Ravine to build Dodger Stadium. American Indians swept out of Bunker Hill for the Music Center. And now Tariq’s [African American] neighborhood bulldozed aside for Channel View Estates.” Though fictional, Tariq Khalil (Michael Kenneth Williams) and the plight of his neighborhood represent the city’s general attitude toward minority communities for much of the 20th century.

Bunker Hill not far from the Broad, May 2018

In the face of this history, development arguments bleed unsurprisingly into issues of gentrification as well. In Boyle Heights long time residents battle gentrification as art studios and galleries scoop up spaces on the Eastside, having already changed the face of the nearby communities of Echo Park and Highland Park. “Newcomers, including artists, have been drawn to Boyle Heights by its rich cultural character — forged from generations of Mexican, Japanese, Russian and Jewish immigrants relegated to the city’s eastern periphery — as well as its cheaper rent and property in an increasingly unaffordable city,” writes Carribean Fragoza. As the “epicenter of all the social ferment that emerged around the Mexican American civil rights movement of the late 1960s”, Avila noted in a KCET short documentary, Boyle Heights “sustains” the current national backlash against gentrification in urban areas.

Less-visibly ethnic neighborhoods have also struggled with gentrification. Downtown Los Angeles and its Arts District serve as one example. In 1981, the city passed the “Artist in Residence” ordinance, which enabled artists to live in their downtown lofts; the L.A. Times noted in 2014 that “it became a bohemian playground – but a rough one.” One could witness drug users shooting up, cars with smashed windows, and “Christmas trees on fire in the middle of the street,” older residents reminisced. The planting of artist/hipster flags established a certain level of stability such that during the 1990s new restaurants began opening one by one, “warehouses became condos,” and new coffee shops moved in month by month.[10]

DTLA, May 2018

The transformation of DTLA proved so stark that it even worked its way into pulp noir novels. “The Arts District was more than a neighborhood. It was a movement,” Detective Harry Bosch reflects in Michael Connelly’s 2016 L.A. noir, The Wrong Side of Goodbye. The fictional Bosch had been assigned to the district in the 1970s and remembered its various incarnations and how different they were from present day Los Angeles. “The Arts District now faced many of the issues that came with success, namely the swift spread of gentrification. … The idea of the district being a haven for the starving artist was becoming more and more unfounded.”[11]

Little Tokyo near DTLA, May 2018

Unsurprisingly, amidst all this change, complexities abound; improvements for some Angelenos spark fear in others. For example, the late Mayor Tom Bradley established the first seeds of mass transit in Los Angeles in the 1980s. In 1985, the city broke ground on the Blue Line Light Rail; it debuted five years later and soon become one of the nation’s most used light rails lines. Since then the city has added traditional bus lines, light rail, subways, and even Bus Rapid Transit. Tough battles with the Bus Riders’ Union in the mid-1990s forced the city to adopt more environmentally-friendly buses and to expand service especially in working class areas. While these changes vastly improved transit around the city, they contributed to gentrification. In Boyle Heights, where four light rail stops have connected the once isolated community to the city, the improved transit has also opened the door for gentrification that threatens to displace thousands of longtime residents.

Budget deficits and legislative rancor led many to dismiss 1990s California as unmanageable. However though once denuded of funds, today state coffers brim with dollars. “We’re nearing the longest economic recovery in modern history,” Governor Jerry Brown told the public in May 2018. Even the state’s Rainy Day Fund now holds billions of dollars primarily to address homelessness, infrastructure needs, and mental health service. “Isaac Newton observed: What goes up must come down,” said Governor Brown. “This is a time to save for our future, not to make pricey promises we can’t keep. I said it before and I’ll say it again: Let’s not blow it now.”

Hiking in Griffith Park, May 2018

As a result, Los Angeles—even acknowledging the above struggles—feels like America’s most vibrant city. Whether depictions have expanded the public’s idea of the city remains debatable. L.A.’s celluloid identity during the early aughts was certainly helped by films like the confusing but mesmerizing Mulholland Drive (2001), Paul Thomas Anderson’s odd Punch Drunk Love (2002), the Rampart-scandal-inspired Training Day (2001), Kurt Russell’s problematic rogue cop and the 1992 L.A. Riots in Dark Blue (2002), the overwrought Oscar winning Crash (2004), the Shane Black noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), the East L.A. coming-of-age story Real Women Have Curves (2002) and more recently films and television series like Tangerine (2015), Beginners (2010), Insecure (2016 – present) and Barry (2018) have expanded the nuances of the city’s image.

Hiking in Griffith Park with Griffith Observatory in background, May 2018

One controversial example, the simultaneously maligned and celebrated La La Land (2016), seems to be a sort of standard bearer for modern Los Angeles (at least through sheer repetition, considering its numerous showings on HBO):  “a love letter to Los Angeles like the ones Woody Allen gave Manhattan, with fireworks popping over the cityscape (minus the Gershwin) and a romantic bench looking out on the Hollywood Hills instead of the Queensboro Bridge. I ♥ N.Y., but they made L.A. a ★,” New York Times assistant editor Dave Renard wrote in 2017. Perhaps it goes without saying that even those voices that criticize the film often use it as a reference point for what observers misunderstand or obscure about Los Angeles.

Hiking at Gene Autry State Park, May 2018

Putting aside one’s feelings about La La Land as a movie, the film highlighted some of the city’s most notable, and mundane, destinations: the Griffith Observatory, 105/110 Freeway Exchange, Hollywood Drive, the Rialto Theater, and Griffith Park among several others. Of course, the film is anything but realistic; it’s an oddly nostalgic fever dream based on earlier films like Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). For example, you don’t witness many homeless people (or any at all really), despite homelessness being a persistent, grinding and tragic problem for the city. Even I, who really enjoyed the film, can see why the idea of white Angeleno Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) as Jazz purist and apparent savior along with Mia’s (Emma Stone) tale of a lone actress trying to make it in the big city annoyed many viewers.

Hiking at Will Rogers State Park, May 2018

To be honest, having lived in Southern California for half a decade during graduate school, Los Angeles felt like gravity; it was an irresistible force, yet it wasn’t an open city. Hanging out there depended on your L.A. connections. Did your friend know the best bar in Silver Lake to knock back a few drinks? What about cool restaurants in gentrifying DTLA? Or the best time to hit Comedy Meltdown in Hollywood?

The Last Bookstore in DTLA, may 2018

In contrast, New York City, where I lived for a decade, is so dense, crowded, and threaded together by the subway that one can find old time bars, hip cafes, and alluring dives almost by accident. Stumble off the F train at 2nd Avenue or Delancey Street and you’re bound to find something. The expanse of Los Angeles makes this sort of geographic serendipity nearly impossible. “There are not enough dimensions for a film to truly convey the meaning of Los Angeles, so vast it is in its miles of sprawl,” noted Emily Hunt Kevil at cinemathread.

The Last Bookstore in DTLA, May 2018

Yet, everyone has a vision of Los Angeles. “People who have never lived or even breathed in Los Angeles have an idea of what Los Angeles is. But I don’t know if they’re wrong. That’s the privilege of Los Angeles,” Kevil asserts. “It’s the privilege of a city that claims the home to Hollywood and Paramount and Warner Brothers and whose buildings have been reproduced countless times across countless screens all over the world —it’s everybody’s city.” The circus, after all, was meant for everyone.

Between improved mass transit and ride sharing options, one can take numerous paths through, around, and parallel to the L.A. circus. Early in 2018, the New York Times, famous for its awkward coverage of the city, journeyed along all 22 miles of Sunset Boulevard from Echo Park to the Pacific Ocean chronicling the changing face of the city along the way. The newspaper did so always with an eye toward pop culture depictions: “at any point along the route, you will see the images that movies, TV shows and magazines have implanted in your brain.”

I spent my last three days in the city in West Hollywood on Sunset, where one can find great views of the city and the mountains that hem it in, but also a tangle of billboards, bars, and restaurants. During my first three days I crashed in Mar Vista on my younger brother’s sofa. Only blocks from Sawtelle Japantown and a thirty minute walk from Santa Monica, I took in Venice Beach, Korean cuisine, and, after a bit of a trek, Will Rogers State Historic Park, where one can tour the humorist’s old home (house tours only on Thursdays and Fridays however) and go for a short hike in the mountains just behind it.

From Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place to The OC to Insecure and the ill-fated season two of True Detective, Los Angeles’s image will always remain tied to television and film depictions. Yet, change has always been afoot; 1993 Los Angeles differs greatly from its 2018 reality. Fabio might stay the same but the city hasn’t. It remains a circus, but an ever-changing one.

[1] Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land, (Gibbs-Smith, 1946), 376.

[2] Plenty of other films along the way depicted L.A. very differently, the neo-noirs Grifters (1990) and L.A. Confidential (1997), the Cohen Brothers through-the-looking-glass comic noir of The Big Lebowski (1998), the racist dog whistle of Falling Down (1993), the Mexican American saga of American Me (1992), the inspirational Stand and Deliver (1988), the tragic heist caper of Heat (1995), the magnanimously weird Ed Wood (1994), the San-Fernando-centric porn tale Boogie Nights (1997), SoCal’s take on Jane Austen, Clueless (1995), the groundbreaking Boyz n the Hood (1991), and the underrated but equally captivating Menace to Society (1993). Throw in Generation X staple Swingers (1996), the Walter Moseley-based Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), the paranoid parable regarding fascism Barton Fink (1991), the overly long but also moving Magnolia (1999) and the iconic post-Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure Keanu Reeves in both Point Break (1991) and Speed (1994). I dig 1999’s revenge tale The Limey (1999) as well, but this is getting ridiculous. Still, one more thing: once Boyz and Menace demonstrated an ability to make money (see Straight Outta Compton (2015) for a more recent example), Los Angeles filmmakers treated the public to a string of movies like Boyz, such as Baby Boy (2001) and South Central (1992) which inspired more purposely ridiculous variations of the theme in Don’t Be Menace in South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (1996) and the horror/black exploitation of Tales from the Hood (1995). I’m not even counting 1988’s controversial Colors. This is all to say, yes, I realize much more was offered to the public than Get Shorty and The Player.

[3] Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles, (Verso, 2006), 316.

[4] Kevin Starr, Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003, (Vintage Books, 2006), 78,

[5] Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles, (Verso, 2006), 316.

[6] Kevin Starr, Coast of Dreams, 93.

[7] Joan Didion, The White Album, (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1979), 83.

[8] Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971), pg. 204.

[9] Erica Avila, The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City, (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 120.

[10] Marisa Gerber, “Arts District’s changing landscape is worrisome to longtime residents,” Los Angeles Times, July 29, 2014.

[11] Michael Connelly, The Wrong Side of Goodbye, (Grand Central Publishing, 2016), 312.


A Quick Reflection on the Member of the Week Series

While I’m waiting for the newest batch of responses to roll into the UHA’s inbox, I wanted to share some thoughts on the first year-and-a-quarter of editing the Member of the Week series:

First and foremost, I am unceasingly amazed at the generosity of UHA members. I have solicited just over 50 posts since we launched The Metropole, and all but a handful have enthusiastically agreed to participate despite it adding unpaid labor to their already full plates. I do my best to make the process easy, straightforward, and fun, but even writing five short answers can take an hour of time. And yet our Members of the Week generously give the time and share pieces of themselves with the rest of the community.

Second, our Members of the Week have terrific senses of humor and I consistently find myself chuckling when I read over their responses. Topher Kinsell‘s recent remark about doing archival research in Hawai’i made me guffaw (“Living in Hawai‘i for six months was pretty rough. In between the hiking adventures, sunsets, and countless acai bowls, I barely had enough time to take naps at the beach”), and Cynthia Heider‘s favorite archival find had me giggling for a week (“an extraordinarily formal letter sent by Bernard J. Newman of the Philadelphia Department of Health in 1911 that simply said, ‘I am sorry you did not wait at my office as I was only away to get a bite to eat.’ I love, by the form and content of the letter, the insight it gives into this man’s fussy personality”). But the response that I found most memorable and funniest was from Andrew Konove, who, when I asked what item sold at Mexico City’s thieves market would most surprise or delight The Metropole’s readers, shared this perfect gem:

In 1895 a vendor in the Baratillo was caught with rails stolen from the Federal District Railway. The report doesn’t specify the length of track he was trying to sell, but it seems like a particularly conspicuous item to try to unload.

Standard Oil Building, drawing by Joseph Pennell, 1923, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

My third thought: you cannot read the Member of the Week posts and not remark on the wondrous history buried in global cities. I know that this is stating the obvious to an audience of urbanists, yet I read about Nate Holly‘s incredible archival find (Oconostota’s 1773 Certificate of Admission to the St. Andrew’s Society of Charlestown) or about the matryoshka doll that is the Standard Oil building, as described by Joseph Watson, and feel that we’ve only scratched the surface of what there is to know about these places.

Finally, the range of interests, experiences, and work done by UHA members is as vast as the Pacific Ocean and as dynamic as a coral reef. I try to ensure that the fifth question for each Member of the Week will not re-tread their description of their research or teaching, which can sometimes send me scrolling pretty deep through our members’ bios. Among us are artists, students of geomancy, photographers, foodies, tour guides, and yuppies. Our members work in political science departments and museums and at university presses, and quite a few have contributed to museum exhibits.

Thank you to our UHA members who have already participated, and, to those who I have yet to approach, I hope that you will feel that you are in good company!

Featured image (at top): Scene on campus of University of California, Los Angeles, 1950, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Slums: Alan Mayne Responds

The Metropole‘s recently launched a new series of book reviews, edited by Jim Wunsch. UHA President Richard Harris inaugurated the series in May with a review of Alan Mayne’s Slums: The History of a Global Injustice. Wunsch contacted Professor Mayne regarding his response to Harris’ review, which Mayne generously wrote and shared:

9781780238098I thank Richard Harris for his searching review of my Slums: The History of a Global Injustice. I especially appreciate his concluding assessment that “it makes principled connections across time and space”: this book draws upon a long and now (largely) concluded career as an urban historian, and I would very much like to be remembered with those words!

Allow me to respond to four of Richard’s criticisms.

Firstly, that I obscure the fact that clearance and upgrading schemes have “done some good.” Yes, I am guilty of that, because I wanted to emphasize the appalling social costs overall of ‘slum’ programs from the nineteenth century to the present day.

Secondly, that there are gaps and imbalances in my analysis of global trends and events. Yes, the book inevitably reflects my research years spent in Britain, the US, India, and — quirkily — my homeland Australia. I spent a lot of library hours attempting to smooth out the imbalances, and in so doing learnt a great deal about Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. Richard is right about the gaps, but I think my general historical arguments are nonetheless unassailable.

Thirdly, that “Mostly, Mayne focuses on how areas have been (mis)represented, rather than the places and people themselves.” Again, Richard is right, although as he acknowledges there are substantial parts of this book in which I move beyond the misrepresentations that I highlighted in my 1993 book The Imagined Slum: In doing so I draw upon anthropology, cultural geography and sociology. I also harness my collaborations with historical archaeologists over the past 30 years.

Better housing The solution to infant mortality in the slums” produced by Benj. Sheer as part of the Federal Art Project, 1936, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Which brings me to a fourth and final point. Richard and I fundamentally disagree — albeit, I think, in a constructive sense — about ‘slums’: he thinks of them as a socio-spatial reality whereas I think ‘slum’ is an imposed and caricatured denial of those realities. Richard writes, “by whatever name, slums have been a significant element in the modern urban experience.” I would argue instead that whereas social disadvantage has indeed always been an element in urbanization, the linguistic construction of ‘slum’ — dating from the ‘urban revolution’ of the early nineteenth century, and unfortunately reasserted in the ‘developing world’ by well-intentioned reformers since the middle of the twentieth century — has sought to deny or trivialize that connection.

Jim Wunsch’s insertion of Charles Abrams’ thoughts about ‘slums’ in his The Language of Cities (1971) highlights this juxtaposition of viewpoints. Yet as Abrams concludes, “The word ‘slum’ is a piece of cant of uncertain origin, little more than a century old. Slum reveals its meaning the moment it is uttered. Abhorrence of slums has often led to reckless destruction and more than once contributed to severe housing shortages.”

Featured image (at top): “Eliminate crime in the slums through housing,” Federal Art Project, 1936, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Digital Summer School: Tropics of Meta

Distinguished urbanist Matthew G. Lasner of Hunter College recently completed his term as Exhibitions and Media Bibliographer for the UHA newsletter, and in his outgoing comments he shared some wry and accurate advice with editor Hope Shannon: “I’m certain far more of our members would be interested in digital projects, new websites and tools, etc. than in a list of exhibitions that have already closed (which what I’ve been serving up the last several years).”

In his remarks, Professor Lasner actually paralleled our internal discussions at The Metropole. With the explosion of the interwebs, digital scholarship has taken on a new life and importance within the field of urban history and in the culture more broadly. There are so many worthwhile online sources, so how does a historian began to tackle them?

The Metropole, a digital project in its own right, wants to be part of the solution, and so from July through August we will be running Digital Summer School. Much like our Member of the Week format, each week we will highlight a different online digital project. We’ve tried to create a diverse list (particularly in terms of subject matter, geography, and demography), but more generally the goal is to increase the visibility of each project while hopefully sparking discussion regarding the place of digital scholarship and the role of digital scholars both within the field of urban history and more broadly among the general public.

With this in mind and on the eve of the World Cup, The Metropole wanted to provide a launch the series with Tropics of Meta (ToM) which itself just launched “The Other Football,” a new initiative coinciding with the famed international soccer tournament. Undoubtedly, ToM has been covering much more than football over the past eight years; it has served as a digital clearing house for a variety of academic pursuits. Senior Editors Alex Sayf Cummings and Romeo Guzman give us the inside details on one of the internet’s longest running academic/culture blogs.

ToM co-founder and Senior Editor, Georgia State University Historian, Alex Sayf Cummings

Why did you establish this digital project and who is your audience?

Tropics of Meta (or “ToM”) was founded in early 2010 by Alex Cummings and Ryan Reft. Its goal was to bring together early-career scholars, both in-grad-school and just-out-of-grad-school, to create some kind of online forum for discussing their own work and historical scholarship in general. The aim was to provide a space for the feeling of camaraderie and intellectual community that many of us found lacking as we moved into the dissertation-writing, postdoc, and junior faculty phases of our careers. At first, we did not know exactly what form it would take, but we settled on a blog platform.

Our original audience was really ourselves and our small network of historian friends. We did not think much about traffic, site stats, or social media outreach in the beginning. However, over time our roster of contributors expanded, and with it the reach of the site; we soon began to run into strangers at conferences who said they liked the site and read it regularly. Since our focus is very general — “historiography for the masses” is our motto, and the site ranges from urban studies to legal history, from sports to foreign policy — we tend to grab a readership across disciplinary bounds. Our main audience remains within academia, but we also attract a good deal of traffic from general-interest readers who find articles by searching terms such as “civil war total war” or “female gremlin” or “what was the orginal purpose for sanctuary cities” online.


Photo. Guzman..jpg
ToM Senior Editor and SEMAP co-founder, Fresno State Historian Romeo Guzman

What do you hope people take away from it?

We really want ToM to show that scholars can use an online platform to present original research and synthesize scholarship in a way that is engaging for any reasonably intelligent and curious reader. We also try to cultivate a voice that can be intellectually serious but also wry, funny, and freewheeling, while still focusing on publishing substantial, longform writing.

ToM has hosted a variety of different digital and public history projects over the years — the South El Monte Art Posse’s (SEMAP) East of East and the Valley Public History Initiative’s Straight Outta Fresno and The Other Football: Tracing the Game’s Roots and Routes in the San Joaquin Valley (Fresno State). As the co-director of SEMAP and founder and director of VPHI, Romeo Guzmán has served as director or co-director on all these projects, as well as an editor at Tropics, with Alex Cummings, Carribean Fragoza, and Ryan Reft contributing as editors on various initiatives. Sean Slusser, an adjust at Fresno State and PhD Candidate at UCR is the co-director of Straight Outta Fresno. In all these projects, Tropics of Meta has served as a space to promote the original work of students, faculty, and independent scholars; to invite community members to contribute to the archive; to share what we are collecting; and to begin to use digital archives to actually publish scholarship.

How did the project come to fruition? What obstacles did you have to overcome?

Tropics of Meta has really come to fruition through the unstinting effort of our editors and the generosity of dozens of contributors who freely shared their creative work over the years. It’s an extraordinary thing considering the fact that early-career scholars — nervously sweating the job market or awaiting decisions about promotion & tenure — have no definite assurance that this work will “count” for them in professional terms. We do believe that writing for ToM has redounded to the benefit of many of our contributors, though, as digital work is increasingly valued by the academy and the public at large. (Numerous contributors have had their pieces re-published widely by major news outlets worldwide, while others have found career opportunities in part because of their work for the site.)

One of our biggest challenges has been developing a collaborative structure and workflow that makes sure pieces get solicited, posts reviewed and edited, feedback given, books reviewed, pieces pushed out on social media, and so on. We’re all pretty allergic to having a hierarchical structure and did not want to recreate a little mini corporation, but having some kind of effective organizational communication is really a necessity. We’ve tried different ways of collaborating over the years (Gchat and Google Docs, Slack, and so on), and we’re still feeling our way through this even now. What has worked very well, though, is our current structure: senior editors and associate editors, who solicit new contributions, spearhead new projects, and edit and give feedback on posts; a larger team of senior writers who contribute frequently; and a digital content coordinator who focuses on our social media outreach.

 Where do you hope it goes in the future?

With all these projects Tropics of Meta serves as a really important place-holder. Instead of waiting for the entire project to be done or for a digital collection to be created, we are able to improvise and build and share as we go. To use language from SEMAP’s East of East, in many ways our digital presence allows us to center the community and public and to remain in touch. The process itself is really important with or without a goal, but we are also always thinking about ways to translate the work into bigger projects of lasting significance, such as an actual digital archive or a book manuscript. For example, East of East: The Making of Greater Mexico, 1700-2017 (edited by Alex Cummings, Carribean Fragoza, Romeo Guzmán, and Ryan Reft) is currently under review at Rutgers University Press.

Playing Cards for “The Other Football” project

So far, what moment or event related to your digital project comes to mind when I say “greatest achievement” or “unique insight”?

That is a great question. We think Tropics of Meta and SEMAP are similar in that they are ultimately grassroots projects in the sense that they happen because we dedicate time and energy to them. For the most part, they aren’t housed in an institution. So perhaps one of the greatest achievements is getting so many folks to believe in our idea and to lend their time, energy, and expertise. Perhaps also the credibility that we’ve gained and doors that have opened up as a result of these projects. Guzmán, for example, got a job as a public historian based on his work with SEMAP. And of course, it’s pretty awesome that we’ve convinced so many people that a small working-class community east of East Los Angeles is vital to understanding the history of Southern California and California in general.

Jaime Ramirez playing card (front) from “The Other Football”

In general, we have just come to understand that the so-called borders within the field of history — between public history and… non-public (?) history, digital and non-digital, academia and the public, institutions and local communities — are far more porous than people often think. Sometimes they hardly matter at all. It is quite possible to engage faculty, students, activists, artists, and community groups, young and old, scholar and non-scholar, in really dynamic conversations.

What have you learned about Fresno or what surprising aspects of Fresno have been revealed to you through your projects?

We just started The Other Football this spring, but we’ve already learned so much about soccer in Fresno and more broadly about soccer in the U.S. It’s a cliche to say that immigrants brought soccer to the U.S., but it’s absolutely true. The history of immigration to the United States can’t be separated from the history of soccer in the valley. Perhaps the most clear example of this comes from the work of Guzmán’s undergraduate student Tyler Caffee. His work has shown that it was an Iraqi immigrant who brought soccer to Visalia and started its first high school soccer team.

The other insight relates to a lot of conversations about soccer in the United States. The

Jaime Ramirez playing card (back) from “The Other Football”

USMNT’s failure to make it to the World Cup has raised a lot of questions about U.S. soccer and its pay-to-play system. Often times folks will use “formal” and “informal” to describe soccer worlds in the U.S., pay-to-play vs “Sunday Leagues” (or adult leagues). From Fresno, we’ve learned about the vital role that folks who move between these two worlds can play. For example, in 2018 Fresno welcomed its first professional soccer team: Fresno FC. This USL team was made possible because of the groundwork that the PDL team Fresno Fuego had created. Fuego was successful because it brought together these different soccer communities. There are a ton of really important individuals who made Fuego possible, but I’ll just mention one to illustrate this point. Jaime Ramirez, Fuego’s first coach, attended Pacific University and eventually became the men’s head coach. As a head coach at one of two four-year universities, he has created a club team (pay-to-play) for kids in a working-class neighborhood, coached adult teams in the San Joaquin Valley, and recruited first generation college students. Perhaps it is not surprising that one of his former players — Tony Alvarez — spearheaded the founding of Fresno Fuego. In short, the movement of individuals between these two worlds is vital to the healthy growth of soccer in the United States. I think we’d do well to find ways to replicate and encourage this type of movement.

Walking through Rio de Janeiro: Short Reflections on Memory, Emotions and the City    

By Yuri Gama

Cities are a tangled mess of spaces that incite memories, desires, symbols and meanings. As time passes, we develop a more complex notion of place and create, sometimes consciously and other times unconsciously, a collection of maps connecting all of these factors and associating them with people that we encounter in our everyday life. Authors such as Ítalo Calvino[1] and Rebecca Solnit[2] have written about how the way we inhabit cities contains more meanings than the eyes can see; an avenue is not just an avenue but a combination of stories with people, places, and feelings that have shaped us through the years. These meanings emerge when the eyes see beyond the form of the objects and spaces, recognizing the emotion and memories embedded within their histories.

The first thing that came to my mind after being invited to collaborate with The Metropole was to write about the city in which I was born and then left when I was 8 years old: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In contrast with traditional political-historical analyses applied to urban development changes in Rio between 1840 and 1940[3], or sociological reports on favelas and affordable housing projects dating from the 1950s to the 1980s[4], I will present reflections on how I saw Rio in 1994, at the age of eight, and again two decades later at the age of 28 (in 2015); throughout I will explore the expansion of my mental map of the city and how the city became more cohesive in my mind although socially and economically segregated in its geography.

In 2015, after being away from Rio for 20 years, my cab navigated through the narrow streets of Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas on a sunny summer afternoon. I peered outside the window at the lagoon as shy tears fell on my lap with an overwhelming feeling of saudade.[5] Because of my absence from Rio for so many years, I could not differentiate between my lived experienced and what I had imagined. I remembered the times when everything seemed very big and distant from me. Now the beauty of Rio appears to me marked by the conversation between hills and buildings, the meeting of the asphalt and my nostalgia, in the unknown combination of my living memories with the constructions of my mind. Throughout my journey, Rio was unveiled to me slowly and confusingly. I struggled to see the city in its entirety. All I could visualize was a blurred image of different places disconnected from each other. Even though the city contains its history written in the alleys and wide opened urban squares, Rio never confided in me regarding its past; so I needed to dig.

2 newsstand
A typical newsstand in Rio

When I was 8 years old every newsstand, building, and signpost seemed so much larger than me. According to my father, following my slow pace, we used to take 20 minutes to walk from my building to my favorite newsstand. I remember that over the course of these walks, I used to greet all the janitors and the newsstand workers. I used to make my own time to have a walk, but I never consciously made sense of the path itself. Twenty years later, twice I tried replicate the same walk: the first time with the intention of capturing all the details and activating my old memories, while on the second I just wandered on auto-pilot. Through this experiment, I noticed all the same trees were closer to my height and seemed greener, and I recognized only one janitor; for my amusement, I consciously connected every single aspect of the course to the gaps in my memories. In my recollection of the 1990s I did not have to cross as many streets as I had to this time. As a young boy, I could not see the end of buildings – they all seemed infinite.

Although not as busy as during the twentieth century, Rio’s newspaper newsstands still represent a remarkable feature of the city. Since their emergence in the 1910’s and through the hard work of the Italian immigrant Carmine Labanca[6], newspaper newsstands (called bancas de jornais in Portuguese) gained recognition; they appeared in every single neighborhood and created a place for public socialization and leisure around the printed matter of the daily news. Bancas were definitely a huge piece of my childhood in Rio: along with things like comic books and bubble gum, I used to buy trading cards of futebol[7] players from Italy and Brazil.

3 rodrigo de freitas lagoon
A View from Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas

The overlapping of stories and myths that abound in Rio are visible through the conversation/conflict between the asphalt and the hills. Whether you are walking on the beach or staring from one hillside to another, one can see asphalt stripes crisscrossing the hills. At times this can be viewed as a remarkable landscape, and in other moments, as a social-economic division between classes. From Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, a natural lagoon located in Zona Sul, one can see the strip of upper-middle-class buildings attached to hills. On the opposite side of the lagoon, you see a sand belt with beaches such as Ipanema, Copacabana and Leblon. Although the lagoon was not man-made, throughout its existence the place was shaped by society. By the 1970s the local government, working with corporations, came up with a real estate plan focused on the construction of fancy condominiums that became part of Rio’s skyline in the late 1980s.

4 beach.jpg


5 coconut kiosk
“Toni do Coco” Food kiosk/Quiosque de Côco

Walking from Lagoa to the beach, I could see that the old food kiosks remained, but all the main symbols from 1994 had been assaulted by the irrefutable force of transformation wrought by time; the public building attached to the square was doomed to decay and the school near the church was completely renovated. Unfortunately, my favorite quiosque[8] owner was not there anymore. By the time I stopped at the beach, one of his friends told me he had moved back to an unknown city in Northeast Brazil. Historically, food kiosks or quiosques in Rio de Janeiro have had two main moments: one in the early 1900s that ended with the urban reformations of Downtown led by Pereira Passos (1863-1913), and the other that started in the 1960s with the installation of shacks on the city shores.[9] To be honest, when I arrived in Rio I thought the quiosques were gone because of the reforms for the 2016 Olympics. I’m glad I was wrong, because they are still a charming tradition just like the bancas de jornais.

6 street fare - feira.jpg
Brazilian Fruit Market Feira

Moving away from the beach, I traveled to the well-known feira – the Brazilian fruit market. Similar to farmer’s markets in the United States, these small food stands intend to provide fresh and frequently organic vegetables, fruits, cereals, nuts, meats, dairy products as well as local dishes such as pastel, caldo de cana, and tapioca. In my mind such fare never existed along my path during the 1990s. After stopping to eat a pastel and drink a caldo de cana, one of the sellers informed me that he has been working in that feira for more than 20 years, despite my recollection.

It was then I realized the possibility of living a new story in an old city during a short summer trip. At that very moment, my childhood in Rio felt like a dream or a book that I had absorbed into my own personal history—something that actually never happened to me. These words are the product of my bittersweet feelings and my blurred memories of a city that courses through my veins and my heart. As a child in 1994, the year my second grandfather died and the Brazilian national futebol team won its fourth World Cup, I was not aware of how far these places were from each other, not even if they were in the same neighborhood. Fast-forwarding to 2015, with improved spatial awareness, I could visualize some borders between neighborhoods, and the interconnection among streets, supermarkets, schools, churches, and parks. I still do not know much about Rio or its history, and definitely have much to learn, but through this experiment I had the opportunity of understanding a small part of how the city became more cohesive in my mind although socially and economically segregated in its geography.

Yuri Gama is a member of the Urban History Association, and Latin American History PhD student at University of Massachusetts Amherst researching the urban history of Brazil with focus on Northeast cities in light of the global context of the Cold War era.

All photos taken by Yuri Gama; featured image (at top): Downtown Rio circa 2015

[1]    Ítalo Calvino with Invisible Cities.

[2]    Rebecca Solnit with Wanderlust: A History of Walking.

[3]    You can see the urban renewal changes by Pereira Passos in the early 1900s at the digital project of Rice University called imagineRio

[4]    Example: Janice Perlman with O Mito da Marginalidade: Favelas e Política no Rio de Janeiro. RJ: Paz e Terra, 1977.

[5]         Definition of saudade: Deep, nostalgic, and melancholic longing for something or someone, or the will to relive experiences, situations or moments that are already gone.

[6]    Juarez Bahia with Dicionário de Jornalismo: Século XX. Rio de Janeiro: Ed. Mauad, 2010.

[7]    Soccer in Portuguese.

[8]    Quiosque can be translated as kiosk. A small hut designed to sell food and beverage, but well-known for selling coconut and coconut water in front of the beach

[9]    You can read more about these reformations through Teresa A. Meade with “Civilizing” Rio: Reform and Resistance in a Brazilian City, 1889-1930.

Member of the Week: Topher Kindell

image1Topher Kindell

Doctoral Candidate

The University of Chicago

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

Broadly speaking, my research lies at the intersection of urbanization, commercial trade, race, and public health in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. My dissertation examines how medical professionals, legislators, indigenous Hawaiians, and East Asian migrants transformed Honolulu from a passive, mid-Pacific seaport into a vital, disease-screening checkpoint for the Hawaiian Islands, the Pacific Basin, and America’s overseas empire. The proliferation of steamship traffic during the second half of the nineteenth century accelerated the rate of transpacific trade and migration, thus amplifying the urban prevalence, interisland diffusion, and international circulation of infectious diseases. As a result, health officials in Hawai‘i came to view Honolulu’s position at the crossroads of the Pacific as both a blessing and a burden—a contradiction, they asserted, that needed to be controlled at all costs. Alongside its role as a lucrative waystation, agricultural entrepôt, and budding tourist destination, I contend that Honolulu assumed a unique and often self-proclaimed responsibility as a “sanitary sieve”—an urban clearinghouse that could filter out infectious diseases traversing the Pacific. Indeed, by the turn of the century, safeguarding the Hawaiian Islands, the Pacific Basin, and the U.S. Empire from disease had emerged as Honolulu’s chief public health responsibility.

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

I recently finished a year-long preceptorship mentoring undergraduate BA thesis students through the research and writing process. Topics ranged from urban redevelopment in Paraguay and labor recruitment in Hawaii to education reform in India and foreign policy conflicts in Palestine and Israel. In the fall of 2018, I will be teaching a course of my own design—“Pacific Worlds: Race, Indigeneity, and Migration”—which will examine how race, racism, and racial ideologies were integral to the formation of three long-nineteenth-century Pacific Worlds. By focusing primarily on the northeastern Pacific, Oceania, and a selection of islands scattered in between, the course will investigate how divergent, convergent, and evolving notions of race shaped the histories of Pacific exploration and settler colonialism; indigenous sovereignty and the law; gender and sexuality; disease, depopulation, and public health; transpacific commerce and labor migration; war, imperialism, and national belonging.

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

As I’m in the throes of dissertation writing, I’ve had few opportunities to delve into new publications. However, I recently taught selected chapters from Amy Lippert’s first book, Consuming Identities: Visual Culture in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco (Oxford University Press, 2018), which sparked an engaging in-class discussion about the interplay among migration, urbanization, and visual imagery (e.g. photographs, political cartoons, etc.). I’m also excited to sink my teeth into Seth Archer’s recently released book, Sharks upon the Land: Colonialism, Indigenous Health, and Culture in Hawai‘i, 1778-1855 (Cambridge University Press, 2018), as it appears to be a precursor to many of the themes I address in my own research on the Hawaiian Islands during the second half of the nineteenth century.

What advice do you have for graduate students preparing a dissertation project related to urban history or urban studies?

First and foremost, find something you’re passionate about, but also embrace any changes that may arise. When I began graduate school, I hoped to pursue a dissertation topic on the circulation of medical knowledge among municipal health officials in San Francisco, Sydney, and Honolulu; however, due to time constraints and funding hiccups, I found it to be in my best interest to focus my efforts on a single city. In so doing, I’ve been able to demonstrate how the physical and commercial growth of Honolulu had far-reaching consequences for other Pacific seaports and, inversely, how epidemic events beyond Hawai‘i had direct, persistent, and often detrimental effects on Honolulu’s development.

What torture do you endure, having to do research in sunny Honolulu? Describe a typical post-archive evening, so we can at least live vicariously through you.

Living in Hawai‘i for six months was pretty rough. In between the hiking adventures, sunsets, and countless acai bowls, I barely had enough time to take naps at the beach. Honestly, though, the Hawai‘i State Archives were open from 9am to 4pm, which gave me plenty of time to explore Honolulu and the island of O‘ahu.

Metropole/UHA Grad Student Blog Contest is On!

Well it’s the second Monday of June 2018 meaning we are now over two weeks into the Second Annual Metropole/UHA graduate student blog contest. Undoubtedly, many of you have embarked or will be soon embarking on summer research trips. Keep the contest in mind as you dig through archives building an argument for your dissertation, thesis, or article. Did you discover some archival treasure that sheds new light on an old argument or have you compiled a set of data/sources that uniquely shape your narrative? Sharpen your public history skills, publicize your work, and receive feedback on both from top historians in the field: Heather Ann Thompson, Tom Sugrue, and Richard Harris. Plus, $100 to the winner!

See below for more information. Send submissions to All submissions due by July 15, 2018.


The Metropole/Urban History Association Graduate Student Blogging Contest exists to encourage and train graduate students to blog about history—as a way to teach beyond the classroom, market their scholarship, and promote the enduring value of the humanities.

The summer’s blogging contest theme is “Striking Gold.” With golden rays of summer sunshine in our near future, we invite graduate students to submit essays on lucre and archival treasures. Tell us how you found the linchpin of your dissertation argument hidden in a mislabeled folder, or share the history of an event or era characterized by newly-realized wealth.


All submissions that meet the guidelines outlined below will be accepted. The Metropole’s editors will work with contest contributors to refine their submissions and prepare them for publication.

In addition to getting great practice writing for the web and experience working with editors, the winner will receive a certificate and a $100 prize!

The contest will open on June 1 and will close on July 15. Entries must be submitted to Posts will run on the blog in July and August, and we will announce the winners in September. Finalists will have their papers reviewed by three award-winning historians: Heather Ann Thompson, Tom Sugrue and Richard Harris. The winning blog post will receive $100.

Contest Guidelines

  1. Contest entrants must be enrolled in a graduate program.
  2. Contest entrants must be members of the UHA. A one-year membership for graduate students costs only $25 and includes free online access to the Journal of Urban History.
  3. Contest submissions must be original posts not published elsewhere on the web.
  4. Contest submissions must be in the form of an essay related to the theme of “Striking Gold.” Essays can be about current research, historiography (but not book reviews), or methodology. Essays that stick to the following criteria will be most successful:
    1. Written for a non-academic audience and assume no prior knowledge.
    2. Focused on one argument, intervention, or event, and not trying to do too much.
    3. Spend more time showing than telling.
  5. Posts must be received by the editors ( by July 1 at 11:59 PM EST to be eligible for the contest.
  6. Posts should be at least 700 words, but not exceed 2000 words.
  7. Links or footnotes must be used to properly attribute others’ scholarship and reporting. The Metropole follows the Chicago Manual of Style for citation formatting.

Representing the Street: Buenos Aires 1900 Through the Eyes of Travelers

By Anton Rosenthal

Fuelled by waves of immigrants from Western and Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Buenos Aires grew at an unprecedented pace, expanding toward the pampas and developing new neighborhoods along with an enormous streetcar network and a subway line. Historians often refer to the Buenos Aires of 1900 as “cosmopolitan,” but such a characterization should be used reservedly. Certainly the new metropolis was a different animal than the colonial city from which it metamorphosized, and its diversity was evident everywhere, from a new language of the streets (lunfardo) to new urban public spaces in which strangers could encounter each other. As a recent history of the tango has noted,

“The Italians gathered in La Boca district whose painted houses reminded them of Genoa or Naples. The Spaniards, who were the second largest group, gathered on the Avenida de Mayo, while the Jews of Eastern Europe hovered around the Plaza 11 de Septiembre. The English migrants were for the most part entrepreneurs and chose to live beside their Argentine associates in and around Belgrano.”[i]

Bs As Avenida de Mayo
Avenida de Mayo, Buenos Aires

But a cosmopolitan city also has a connotation of tolerance if not open welcoming of the “other,” and Buenos Aires’ track record on this is decidedly mixed. To cite the most egregious example, during a significant general strike, the Argentine capital was the site of the only pogrom in the history of the Americas, the Semana Tragica of January 1919, in which hundreds of Jews were tortured, burned, raped, injured or killed by the sons of the oligarchs and complicit police, imbued with a noxious blend of anti-Semitism, nationalism, anti-anarchism and anti-Communism. The violence began in the street and jumped into the private spaces of immigrant workers and their families.[ii] The ideologies underpinning the violence did not disappear over time, but re-emerged with renewed zeal during the Perón years and again in the “dirty war” of the 1970s.

This diverse city of wonders of the early 20th century was both chaotic and unknowable. It was no longer a walkable city, and to some degree the duties of the flaneur devolved upon fictional protagonists, such as those invented by Roberto Arlt in the 1920s. Borrowing the idea of the “word city” from Peter Fritzsche,[iii] perhaps the way for residents to draw meaning from this new Buenos Aires and to become oriented to its changing spaces was to view it symbolically as a text created by newspapers and reports. Adriana Bergero noted that the rapidly expanding city was in constant movement and through listening to various contemporary discourses concluded that “Daily life in Buenos Aires between the beginning of the twentieth century and 1930—what took place in the city’s private and public domains—was absorbed into countless social texts and imaginaries that spoke of crises, fractures, and chaos from kaleidoscopic points of view.”[iv]

But was there a way for non-residents to get at least a partial glimpse of this moving object? There is a genre of texts that historians have looked at with some skepticism regarding their reliability as a source—the travel account. It is true that they often suffer from the tendencies of their time to “order” and to “other” what they see, in hierarchies that often reveal racist, sexist and nationalist attitudes, as noted by historian Ricardo Salvatore in his critique of 19th century accounts.[v] But by the 20th century, travelers had become more varied in their backgrounds and attitudes and wrote for a wider audience, and they cannot all be easily placed in the category of “ugly American.” Those who published accounts of their trips were journalists, diplomats, doctors, businessmen, architects, clergymen, engineers, members of geographic societies, novelists and adventurers. I have come to find these accounts fascinating in their attention to detail of the contours of the life of the street in Latin America, and Buenos Aires was a destination for many of them. Their perceptions, because they are foreign, do not take many things for granted that would be the case with local journalists, and so they attempt to convey many aspects of modern urban culture in the region that do not appear in newspapers. Some writers are whiny travelers whose expectations are not met by the circumstances they encounter, but others are humorous and sympathetic to their subjects and genuinely open to the practices of other cultures. Through their eyes we can see aspects of public space in Buenos Aires that may not be visible in other sources. Taken as a whole, they create yet another imagined version of the metropolis.

Bs As Calle Florida
Calle Florida, Buenos Aires

Arthur Ruhl, a music critic and war correspondent, wrote of Buenos Aires as a spectacle city, describing the largely elite ritual of the promenade, by carriage, on Calle Florida, a commercial street located downtown:

It is only wide enough for two rows of carriages, so close together that the occupants might also shake hands with one another or with the spectators on the sidewalk, and when festooned with lights, as it was when Mr. Root was there, it glares and sparkles like a ball-room. And in this glare, from the lights overhead, from milliners’ and pastry cooks’ windows, the strange procession flows jerkily by—powdery old ladies, blinking in the shelter of their broughams, tourists and sailors, quiet mothers with their children, the chanteuses from the music halls lolling back in their victorias and lavishing smiles. The young men smile back, with cynical good humor, twirling their black moustaches the while, and the line flows on past the Grand Hotel, the Jockey Club past the “Sportsman” and into the Avenida again, round and round, till dinner time comes and it melts away.[vi]

Rosita Forbes, an ambulance driver and a pilot writing several decades later, provided a view of the same space, but through a gendered lens: “Buenos Aires belongs to men. They crowd the narrow pavements and congregate in groups at street corners. They loiter on the steps of clubs and public buildings. They fill the cafes which are unusually silent, and impede the traffic with their haphazard wandering, for there is no hurry in the streets of Buenos Aires…There are no smiles in Buenos Aires till the shop-girls come out for lunch, or till that convivial hour when traffic is swept from Calle Florida and women, in twos and threes, never alone, rarely in company of a man, take possession of the scene.”[vii]


Bs As La Prensa
La Prensa, Buenos Aires

Travel accounts also offer some information on the ways in which urban space shifts between the public and private realm. Harry Franck, who worked as a gopher for the American consul general in Buenos Aires, observed of the elite cemetery of La Recoleta, “This is a crowded cement city within a stone wall, as much a promenade and a show-ground as a last resting-place. Men sit smoking and gossiping on the tombs; women take in one another’s gowns with critical eye as they turkey-walk along the narrow cement streets between the innumerable family vaults…Everywhere reigns a gaudy luxury wholly out of place in a city of the dead. The self-respecting corpse must feel as if he had been set up in a museum instead of being disposed of in a sanitary and inconspicuous manner.”[viii] More surprising to me was this account of the very public space created by the headquarters of a newspaper office: “One of the leading daily newspapers, La Prensa, which has the handsomest newspaper building in existence, displays its patriotism by devoting a large part of its home to public uses. At its own expense it provides physicians and a consulting room, where the poor can have medical attention free, a law office where those who cannot afford to pay for it can have legal advice, an excellent museum of the manufactures and products of the country, a free technical library for the use of students, a large hall for public meetings, a charming salon des fetes, in which literary, scientific and charitable entertainments are given.”[ix]

Bs As Racetrack.jpg
Racetrack, Buenos Aires

Although these accounts primarily take the form of travel essays, they no doubt served more adventurous readers as guidebooks as well, and so some of the descriptions center on spaces of interest to tourists. James Bryce visits the racetrack in 1912 where he encounters the well-heeled in all their finery. “Betting on horses is the favourite amusement, and the races the greatest occasion for social display. An immense concourse gathers at the racing enclosure and fills the grand-stand…. Nowhere in the world does one get a stronger impression of exuberant wealth and extravagance.”[x]

Bs As promenade.jpg
Promenade, Avenida Los Lagos in the Palmero neighborhood, Buenos Aires

Many writers comment on the nightlife, from the docks to the opera house, and some cannot resist the impulse to denigrate immigrants, anarchists, and the poor who walk the streets selling goods and living in squalid conditions. In general, their gaze is from a distance and they may not be particularly reflexive about their position as privileged guests. J.A. Hamerton, an active complainer, did not apparently see the irony in this observation: “And what has never ceased to irritate me was the rudeness with which the passers-by stared at me and at each other. I was prepared for them feasting their eyes on the odd women, but man scrutinizing man was new to me. They inspect your neck-tie, study the style of your hat, stare at your boots! They gape at you, so that you wonder if you have forgotten your collar or if your suspenders are hanging down! You are reassured, however, by their gaping at each other for no obvious reason. It is merely a vulgar habit, probably acquired by the gapers when they first arrived from the hill villages of Italy or the desert towns of Spain, when any person decently clothed was novelty to them.”[xi]

For all their considerable shortcomings, the travel accounts do provide some useful takes on the changing spaces of Buenos Aires as it grew from a colonial backwater into a global city. They suggest a city in search of order yet one experiencing overlapping worlds, an incomplete modernity, and constant struggle between social groups.

Anton Rosenthal is associate professor of history at the University of Kansas.  His most recent article is “The Streetcar and the Urban Imaginary of Latin America,” Journal of Urban History, January 2016, 42:1, 162-179 and he has a forthcoming article from the Journal of Urban History entitled “Sin Cities: From History to Sociology to Urban History, An Interdisciplinary Journey in Teaching.”

Featured image (at top): Buenos Aires. Lago De Palermo, between 1890 – 1910, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

[i] Mike Gonzales and Marianella Yanes, Tango: Sex and Rhythm of the City (Reaktion Books, 2013) 25.

[ii] Adriana J. Bergero, Intersecting Tango: Cultural Geographies of Buenos Aires, 1900-1930 (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008) 263-266; Victor A. Mirelman, Jewish Buenos Aires, 1890-1930 (Wayne State University Press, 1990) 61-65.

[iii] Peter Fritzsche, Reading Berlin 1900 (Harvard University Press, 1998).

[iv] Bergero, 2.

[v] Ricardo Salvatore, “North American Travel Narratives and the Ordering/Othering of South America (c.1810-1860), Journal of Historical Sociology, 9:1, March 1996, 85-110.

[vi] Arthur Ruhl, The Other Americans (Scribners, 1908) 220.

[vii] Rosita Forbes, Eight Republics in Search of a Future (Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1933), 109-110.

[viii] Harry A. Franck, Working North From Patagonia (Grosset and Dunlap, 1921) 19.

[ix] H.W. Van Dyke, Through South America (Thomas Y. Crowell, 1912) 204.

[x] James Bryce, South America: Observations and Impressions (Macmillan, 1912) 318.

[xi] J.A. Hamerton, , The Real Argentine: Notes and Impressions of a year in the Argentine and Uruguay (Dodd, Mead and Company, 1915,) 47-48

Member of the Week: Cynthia Heider

meCynthia Heider

M.A. Student in Public History, Temple University

Digital Projects Assistant, Center for Digital Scholarship at the American Philosophical Society


Describe your current public history project(s). What about it/them are you finding interesting, challenging, and rewarding?

I suspect that some readers may be confused by or unfamiliar with the term “public history,” so I’ll begin with the short definition given by the National Council on Public History (NCPH): “[P]ublic history describes the many and diverse ways in which history is put to work in the world. In this sense, it is history that is applied to real-world issues.” You can learn more in this section of the website.

Part of the challenge and reward of public history work is that it can be highly variable in topic and audience. I enjoy this because I’m interested in lots of different historical topics, and it keeps my research skills sharp. Currently, I’m working as Digital Projects Assistant at the Center for Digital Scholarship at the American Philosophical Society Library, which allows me to make notable Early American documents available to a wider audience through digitization, transcription, data visualization, and open data initiatives. I’m an emerging scholar currently finishing my master’s thesis on data collection and exhibition practices of Progressive era settlement houses as well, part of which includes an institutional history project in partnership with a still-operational settlement house in Philadelphia. I am finding these projects rewarding due to their potential for near-immediate community impact.

What is one of your favorite examples of public history, and why?

I’m very excited about the National Public Housing Museum which will be opening next year in Chicago. From everything I’ve seen, it is going to be really relevant, showing examples of family life in the public housing units as well as engaging contemporary issues of housing insecurity, gentrification, zoning, and other topics particularly pertinent to urban settings. It has been a long time coming, in planning since 2007, which is sometimes a reality of public history projects. But if it can involve the local community in a fundamental way, while starting fruitful public conversations about these issues, I think it will have been worth the wait.

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

I recently published a dataset in the Magazine of Early American Datasets (MEAD), and I expect to publish another within the calendar year. This open data initiative records receipt and dispatch of all mail in the Philadelphia Post Office between May 25, 1748 and July 23, 1752; it should be of interest to scholars of Benjamin Franklin, informational networks, and/or the early colonial postal service.

As for other scholarship, I just recently read and admired Joyce M. Bell’s The Black Power Movement and American Social Work (Columbia University Press, 2014), which gave greater depth to my understanding of the historical context of American social work institutions including settlement houses. I look forward to learning more about women’s role in the movement in Ashley D. Farmer’s Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era (UNC Press, 2017).

What advice do you have for urban historians who want to work with the public but might not know where to start?

I think the idea of working with the public can be rather intimidating sometimes; there’s an assumption that you have to act or be a certain way in order to “connect” with them. But “the public” is just composed of individual people, many of whom have deep community roots or feel strongly about neighborhood issues. The best place to meet the kind of people who might want to work with a historian is anywhere where people gather: city council meetings, churches, recreation centers, cafes, city parks, even online. Strike up a casual conversation, see where it takes you- but remember first and foremost to listen.

What’s the coolest document you’ve discovered in your own research? And what’s the wackiest document you’ve processed as an archivist?

I’ve had the good fortune to have worked in a wide variety of archival collections–from the point of view of both researcher and archivist. I am fascinated by the decision-making processes that go into archiving things. For instance, my absolute favorite archival find from a research point-of-view was an extraordinarily formal letter sent by Bernard J. Newman of the Philadelphia Department of Health in 1911 that simply said, “I am sorry you did not wait at my office as I was only away to get a bite to eat.” I love, by the form and content of the letter, the insight it gives into this man’s fussy personality, and I’m so intrigued by the fact that it was archived at all! Similarly, from the archivist’s point-of-view, I’ve come across items that I waffled about archiving- for instance, an eminent scientist’s ca. 1970 copy of High Times. I’ll leave it unanswered whether I chose to accession this item or not.

Adelante: From Buenos Aires to Travelogues, by way of Buenos Aires Travelogues

By Avigail Oren

This summer, The Metropole is departing from its Metropolis of the Month format and will instead feature travelogues from globetrotting urbanists. We’ve asked some great contributors to share photos, reflections, and lists of their favorite things to do in the cities they’re visiting. But before we bid Buenos Aires adios, we actually have two travelogues from the city. Next week we have a post from Anton Rosenthal, who has collected perspectives on the city from 19th and 20th century travelers , but first I want to share some recollections of my three encounters with Buenos Aires and a list of recommendations for those making a visit.

My siblings and I each got to take a big international trip the summer after we turned 16, and my turn, in 2003, was to Buenos Aires. That year I became fascinated by Latin American literature and magical realism after reading Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban, ironically in my Sophomore English class. I had been taking Spanish for a few years and my parents, watching my enjoyment of learning the language, wanted to give me an opportunity to practice. Argentina’s economy was still spiraling after its crash in 2001 and the favorable exchange rate gave us an opportunity for a slightly more luxurious vacation than we might otherwise be able to afford.

We stayed in a nice hotel in Palermo, within walking distance of the Jardín Japonés and the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano (MALBA). I recall visiting both, and being particularly enchanted by MALBA’s permanent collection. I bought several postcard-sized prints in the museum shop and they were prominently displayed in my bedroom for years afterwards.

My dad in front of Parilla Don Julio, 2007

My most vivid memory from that trip, however, was the day we spent in La Boca—the working class neighborhood whose colorful row houses are most vividly associated in the public imagination with the city. We walked around, and saw outdoor tango performances, and who knows what else. It had been several hours of exploring, and I was tired. That’s when “the incident” occurred, the one thing for which my father will never forgive me.

We were walking past La Bombonera, the stadium of the Boca Juniors football club, and a game was about to begin. A life-long soccer fan, my father’s face lit up. The gears began turning in his mind, as he imagined himself in the stands cheering for Boca and enjoying what would likely be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In equal measure the gears began turning in my mind, but I imagined being simultaneously bored and scared by the pressing crowd of screaming men surrounding us. So I put my foot down, literally stomping my foot and crying and refusing to go. I won, and my father angrily hailed us a cab back to the hotel.

During that week Buenos Aires made a strong impression; I remembered it as a vibrant, cosmopolitan city with delicious and cheap food. Four years later, I decided to spend a semester abroad there during my junior year of college. By 2007, the economy had not measurably improved and it was still the best bang for your educational bucks.

Helado in Palermo, 2007

My experience of the city as a twenty-year-old college student was mixed. I had hugely formative experiences–I took a modern dance class at a community center, which kicked off a three year love affair with, if not talent for, dance; I attended services at Jewish congregations throughout the city and realized that religious practice was important to me; I attended concerts and festivals and films and by the end could actually understand the Spanish–but I also found myself exhausted by porteño culture. My clothes were too casual by the standards of the formal, fashionable women of Buenos Aires, and as I ate and drank my way through a city obsessed with thinness I had fellow passengers on buses and trains admonish me for standing (because I was “clearly” pregnant). In an email I wrote to friends back at home, I shared an anecdote capturing the best and worst of the city and my experience abroad:

 Standing on a crowded bus yesterday, a woman yelled at me for not making someone give me a seat, since I was so obviously pregnant. Although it was the 4th time now that this has occurred, it was still humiliating. It was worse this time though, because despite 4 months of constant language immersion, I could not formulate even the most perfunctory response. Eventually I just managed to say “No, no lo necesito” and got off the bus (luckily, it was my stop).

I got off the bus at the Palermo Wine Tour. For 40 pesos, we got a souvenir wine glass, and all of the businesses on Calle Honduras had representatives from various bodegas (vineyards) offering unlimited samples. We were celebrating my friend’s 21st birthday, so we got pretty sloshed. It was a good time.

I found myself back on Calle Honduras in 2015, when I dragged my husband and in-laws to Buenos Aires so they could experience the city themselves. Seeing the city through their fresh eyes, it felt bigger than when I left in December 2007. Quickly, though, I found myself gravitating towards what I had always loved about Buenos Aires: lingering over long meals without being harassed by waiters, watching films in immaculately clean theaters, visiting craft fairs on Saturday afternoons, buying candy and snacks from the kioskos, and drinking lots of cheap, delicious Malbec.

Visiting Buenos Aires? Check out:

Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA)

This is my number one recommendation to anyone traveling to Buenos Aires. The permanent collection of Latin American art is one of my favorites of any museum in the world–and I’ve been to a lot of museums! Make sure to see the Wifredo Lam and Xul Solar paintings. Before going, also check what films they are showing.

Notorious Jazz Club, 2015

Notorious Jazz Club

Both times I’ve been to Notorious, I’ve seen solid performances. It’s not the Blue Note, but I’m hard pressed to think of a more enjoyable way to spend an hour or two nursing a few cocktails.

Teatro Colón

If you like opulence and pink marble and chandeliers and stories about how a nation deals with its Napoleon complex, the tour of this opera house won’t disappoint.

Feria de Plaza Serrano

Most neighborhoods in Buenos Aires have an arts/crafts/antiques fair each weekend, but my favorite has always been the one in the neighborhood of Palermo (though multiple times I found jewelry I loved at the feria in Belgrano, and the one in Recoleta, outside the cemetery, isn’t bad either). These fairs are the best place to find distinctly Argentine gifts.

El Ateneo

This bookstore in Recoleta is in a converted theater, and there’s a cafe where the stage used to be. Browse the books and have a coffee before heading to eat at….


Cazuelas at Cumaná, 2015

If you leave Buenos Aires without trying Cumaná, you screwed up. The empanadas are above average but the restaurant is really known for their cazuelas, or little casseroles. Just know that at lunchtime there can be lines, so don’t go starving–or make sure to arrive before noon or after 2-3 PM.

Belgrano Chinatown (Barrio Chino)

No one specific restaurant or market is remarkable, but I never ceased to get a kick out of hearing old Chinese men speaking in flawless Castellano.


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