Making Cities Global: The Transnational Turn in Urban History

By A.K. Sandoval-Strausz

In conjunction with our friends at the Global Urban History Project, this article is cross posted at the GUHP blog, go check them out!

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


Outside the United States, there were clear reasons for people to think in terms that transcended the nation-state. The contributors to the new volume that I’ve co-edited with Nancy Kwak, Making Cities Global: The Transnational Turn in Urban Historymany of whom work on South Asia, East Asia, and Latin America, readily pointed out why: in the parts of the world long controlled by colonial powers, , people understood that empires could reach from beyond the horizon and exert authority over them. Scholars trained in Europe, meanwhile, had long understood overseas empires as a taken-for-granted historical formation.The sheer extent of imperial infrastructure—both colonial districts overseas and the looted monuments to their empires that dotted so many metropolitan capitals—made it more intuitive for scholars of urbanism and architecture like Anthony King, Peter Hall, Swati Chattopadhyay, and Zeynep Çelikto place cities in an imperial context.      Methodologically, urban historians have studied particular places. Indeed, the entire subfield is defined by its focus on specific categories of space. Our approach is to know a place in great detail; our purpose may be to examine larger processes on the human scale, but that requires close attention to the local instantiation. As Simon Schama once put it, historians can be divided into parachutists and truffle-hunters depending on their preferred scale of inquiry; in that framework, we were clearly more truffle-oriented. To the extent that the community study was the basic building block of the field, that often circumscribed our ability to think systematically beyond the horizon. Indeed, even in areas where U.S. urban history consistently crossed borders, as in the history of immigration to cities, until relatively recently most attention was on immigrant destinations rather than migrant networks or the process of migration. The idea that a substantial contingent of immigrants eventually or repeatedly returned home, for example, was unexplored for decades.

Making Cities Global seeks to combine the most intellectually revealing aspects of transnational studies and urban history. The ground was already well prepared, since many studies of globalization in other fields already viewed cities as the most important sites of transnationalism in actual practice. In many cases, however, globalized scholarship tended toward grand narrative or abstraction. Some approaches seemed to emplot cities into existing narratives of imperialism, while others took unmistakably useful concepts like “system” and “flow” but used them in ways that privileged capital to the exclusion of people and power on the ground, yielding accounts that didn’t have the look, sound, taste, or feel of the world’s extraordinarily diverse metropolitan areas.

In response, we emphasized aspects of urban history that would keep the analysis empirically grounded and fully global. In particular, many of us focus on specific types of metropolitan places; equally important, most of our essays deal with trans-Pacific and pan-American linkages rather than the more commonly researched Atlantic world. In this way, we encourage scholars to think about multiple transnationalisms that were often discontinuous and contested.


These approaches are reflected in the text, of course, but also in an illustration program that is an essential part of our collection. For example, Margaret O’Mara’s chapter on high-tech suburbs features a magnificently mid-century photograph of President Charles De Gaulle visiting Silicon Valley in 1960 as part of his efforts to create a French equivalent—efforts, O’Mara shows, that set the stage for a worldwide competition to establish spaces for innovation.

One of the most striking images in the book is of a man dressed as Jesus walking the streets of Chicago. Arijit Sen sees the man—a member of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, which attributes its origin to St. Thomas the Apostle’s landing on the coast of India in 53 CE—as a way to explore the changing character of immigrant parades and the embodied character of transnational performances in urban space.


Building types, too, can cross oceans. Malls, for example, have become some of the most standardized set pieces in metropolitan areas worldwide. Erica Allen-Kim demonstrates, however, that these spaces include local variations like the retail condominium—a spatial arrangement created by small business and real estate investment imperatives in East Asia—that have emerged and been disseminated across great distances. Among her examples is Pacific Mall, a Chinese-Canadian shopping center in suburban Toronto.


Transnationalism is a fundamentally historical process, and Matt Garcia shows how a community’s migrants and immigrants can take on very different meanings depending upon its position in a changing global economy. Arbol Verde, originally a Mexican settlement on the periphery of Los Angeles, meant one thing to workers in early-twentieth-century agribusiness like the one who drew this map of the barrio and something very different to college administrators in the globalized educational economy of the turn of the millennium.


In these and eight more essays, we try to show how urban history can think beyond the nation-state, especially by continuing to modify its methodological traditions to encompass a broader, transnational framework. In so doing, we build upon a body of work in globalized urban history that has been growing quickly in recent years. We discuss a lot of this literature in greater detail in the introduction to the volume, but you can get an initial sense of the emergence of work in this vein by going to the Urban History Association website and perusing the conference programs over the years: research on transnational urban history is one of the components of an efflorescence in the field, a reason why the most recent biennial conferences have between two and three times as many papers as the early ones. Moreover, a group of scholars recently launched the Global Urban History Project, a wide-ranging effort to continue transnationalizing the field; the project also has its own blog.

As far as future directions for transnational urban history, there are all kinds of promising points of departure, but I think political history has a great deal of potential. After all, the entire field of urban history was revitalized in the mid-1990s by scholars who used community studies—often within a metropolitan framework rather than a municipal one—to illuminate trends connecting local and national politics. Theirs was a thoroughly national framework that needs to be globalized.

In this political moment, there is a great deal that is transnational about urbanism and politics. The shocking outcome of the U.S. presidential election of 2016 has become something that needs to be explained, but of course that was only the most surprising of a number of recent political reversals around the world. Domestically, the initial narrative of a blue-collar revolt has been called very much into question by people who have pointed out the centrality of race to people’s electoral choices. But the role of urbanization needs a lot more explanation, since one of the most consistent divides was people living in urban areas and inner suburbs versus those on the further periphery and in rural areas; even after adjusting for race, the differences were considerable, as Richard Florida and others have pointed out.

This is also a transnational story, however. Immigration was not just an important issue in the U.S. election, but also in the earlier Brexit vote and in subsequent national and local elections in the Netherlands, France, Germany, and then again in the United Kingom. But this has not played out the way that people often think. in the U.S., places with the highest proportion of foreign-born people were strongly Democratic (again after controlling for race), while GOP anti-immigrant sentiment paradoxically flourished in places where comparatively few newcomers to our shores reside. In Europe, the relationships among immigration, urbanization, and voting have also been consequential, though less straightforwardly than here.

This is also a transnational matter because this pattern of reactionary politics thriving in rural areas has been apparent for quite some time. The metropolitan split in the politics and violence that followed the dissolution of Yugoslavia comes to mind, as the more complex political geography of the Brexit vote. If we consider this more globally, though, the picture changes dramatically: in India, the world’s largest democracy,the nationalist BJP rests on an electoral base that is relatively urbanized. There is much to think about here, and the answers may have a great deal to tell us about what we analyze in Making Cities Global as the “intertwined historical development” of “the connections between urbanization and globalization.”

sandoval-strauszA. K. Sandoval-Strausz is the incoming Director of Latinx Studies and Associate Professor of History at Penn State, having moved after sixteen years at the University of New Mexico. He is a life member of the Urban History Association, the author of Hotel: An American History (Yale University Press, 2007), “Latino Lanscapes: Postwar Cities and the Transnational Origins of a New Urban America” (Journal of American History, 2014), and the coeditor of Making Cities Global (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).


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