A Tale of Two Cities: Buenos Aires, Córdoba and the Disappearance of the Black Population in Argentina

By Erika Denise Edwards

The recent explosion of black studies in Argentina has been a welcoming effort of various scholars and activists that have refused to accept the old and tired categorization that Argentina is a country of European descendants.[1] For instance, most recently activists challenged Argentine president Mauricio Macri’s association between Mercosur and the European Union at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January 2018. There the president stated, “I think the association between Mercosur and the European Union is natural because in South America we are all descendants of Europeans.”[2] I can’t say I wasn’t proud to see and hear the strong backlash that challenged this outdated and very tiresome notion that Argentina has always been a white nation. But is that all that is left for us? What I mean more specifically is we can and will continue to dispel that Argentina is a white country of only “European descendants,” but as the field of black studies in Argentina develops it is also time that we take a hard look at the scholarship and ask ourselves what comes next.

My response is that it is time to expand westward. Why? Because scholars of Argentina’s black history have tended to focus on Buenos Aires.[3] So much so that the black experience in Buenos Aires has become the national narrative. In other words, Argentina’s black history and more specifically the process of black disappearance references the black experience of Buenos Aires during the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century. By the mid-nineteenth century intellectuals such as Juan Batista Alberdi and Domingo Sarmiento (president of Argentina 1868-1874) justified policies that encouraged European immigration using pseudoscientific theories that purported to prove the biological superiority of “whites” over “nonwhites.” In effect, Sarmiento, and similar intellectuals joined the larger Latin American process of blanqueamiento, or whitening. Blanqueamiento serves as an operative word to describe the late-nineteenth-century state-led modernization process. Like Argentina, many other Latin American countries looked to European immigrants as the way to bring civilization. Historians have argued that this ideological erasure is one of the main reasons for the disappearance of people who identified as black in Argentina.[4]

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A busload of immigrants in Buenos Aires, between 1890 and 1923, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Instead of enforcing segregation policies to sanction white superiority, Argentine authorities sought to eliminate blackness through European immigration and miscegenation. The constant arrival of European males through immigration made this goal attainable. For example, Sarmiento often touted mulatos as proof of progress because they “had the brute force of the African and the intellect of the European.”[5] By the turn of the twentieth century, it seemed that the whitening project had achieved success. In 1905 Juan José Soiza Reilly wrote in the magazine Caras y Caretas, “The [black] race is losing in the mixture its primitive color. It becomes gray. It dissolves. It lightens. An African tree is producing white flowers.”[6]

In turn, scholars have also documented the importance of the Black press, which has proved paramount in understanding how African descendants in Buenos Aires responded to blanqueamiento. [7] Prominent Black newspapers such as La Broma were geared toward a more elite audience, while others, such as, La Juventud appealed to working-class audiences. La Broma perpetuated the politics of respectability while La Juventud focused on the social and economic choices left for a community whose proportion in the population continued to decrease every year because of European immigration. Over time, the newspapers revealed a developing class conflict within the Black community which failed to reach a consensus regarding how to deal with blanqueamiento.

The country’s adoption of blanqueamiento and the reactions to it in the Black press demonstrates the “success” of a state-led project that marked the beginning of the myth of black disappearance and more recently has propelled the field of black studies in Argentina. However, this is a Buenos Aires narrative. To be fair, this practice reflects larger trends in Argentine history as Buenos Aires’s history eclipses the histories of other prominent cities and regions in the country. And to borrow Macri’s natural analogy, it is very much because it is the capital as well as the largest city in the country. But if we are continuing to develop the field of black studies it is time to expand westward first to acknowledge that African descendants resided in all of the cities throughout Argentina and second that cities’ geographic, political, and cultural characteristics directly shaped and molded how they disappeared. In studying other cities, we not only extend the scholarship, but we also acknowledge that diverse and dynamic history of Argentina beyond Buenos Aires. My forthcoming book, Hiding in Plain Sight: The Disappearance of the Black Population in Argentina focuses on the city of Córdoba and expands our understanding of Africans and their descendants. It concentrates on the process of disappearance during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, prior to state-led and institutionalized whitening at the end of the nineteenth century.

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Cordoba Landscape, reproduction of wood engraving by Alberto Nicasio, Archive of Hispanic Culture, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Córdoba was a prominent city that served as a center of distribution because of its central location in the Río de la Plata during the colonial period 1573-1810. Like Buenos Aires, Córdoba had a large black population. But unlike Buenos Aires, Córdoba did not experience a wave of enslaved Africans at the end of the eighteenth century.[8] Instead, the city of Córdoba remained a small, close-knit society of ruling families who could trace their lineage back to the conquistadors, Indians and their descendants who survived the conquest, and Africans and their descendants both enslaved and free.  Together, they numbered roughly 7,240 inhabitants according to the 1778 city census. This small concentrated population stood in stark contrast to Buenos Aires which around the same time had 24,363 inhabitants. [9]

Absent of state-led institutionalized notions of blanqueamiento during the eighteenth century, individual choices and negotiated identities described the process of disappearance in the small but prominent city of Córdoba. This is because identity remained influx and dependent on dress, phenotype, occupation, and an individual’s reputed persona, which culminated into calidad during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Examples of calidad labels in Córdoba included negro (referenced the enslaved or freed Africans) mulato (mixture between European and African), indio (Indian), pardo (mixture between descendants of European, Indian and/or African mixture), mestizo (mixture between European and Indian), and español (referenced people born in Spain or their descendants). As a result, when possible, African descendants—especially those whose phenotype was often described as “the color of a Spaniard” in the documents—chose whiteness, as evidenced through contested marriage cases, to achieve privilege and status. Moreover, African descendants who risked enslavement sought Indian status in contested freedom cases, because Indian status meant freedom. Cases of contested freedoms continued throughout the early nineteenth century and African descendants continued to claim a case of mistaken identity and they were in fact Indians. After providing extensive proof of Indian identity which included dress, place of origin, voluntary service, and maternal Indian lineage, African descendants evaded enslavement and gained their freedom.

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Patio of Universidad Nacional, Cordoba, Argentina, no date, Archive of Hispanic Culture, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

African descendants’ transformation into Indians complicates the notion that all African descendants attempted to ascribe to whiteness. My findings have determined African descendants’ attempts to achieve freedom by transforming into Indians provides a more colorful narrative about the disappearance in the interior city of Córdoba. In particular, the transformation from African descendant to Indian status represents a “browning” rather than “whitening” process. As a result, Córdoba’s browning process at the end of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century provides a stark juxtaposition to blanqueamiento, which is very much associated with the late nineteenth century and the Buenos Aires experience.

By examining black experiences in interior cities such as Córdoba, the developing field of Black Studies in Argentina will not only continue to dispel myths of black disappearance but expanding westward will result in a field that reflects the varied and diverse black experiences in Argentina.

Professional Look IIIErika Denise Edwards is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is an expert on the black experience in Argentina. She has written various articles, book chapters, and has given lectures about her current research about the myth of black disappearance in Argentina. She has also been quoted and/or consulted by the New York Times, National Geographic, and interviewed by La Voz del Interior, an Argentine newspaper. She is currently finishing her manuscript Hiding in Plain Sight: The Disappearance of the Black Population in Argentina.

Featured image (at top): Façade of Iglesia de Santo Domingo, Córdoba, Argentina, no date, Archive of Hispanic Culture, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

[1] Erika Edwards, “Slavery in Argentina,” ed. Ben Vinson III, Oxford Bibliographies in Latin American Studies, May 2014.

[2] Federico Pita, “Marci y su orgullo blanco,” Marcha: Una mirada popular y feminista de la argentina y el mundo, January 31, 2018, http://www.marcha.org.ar/marcri-y-su-orgullo-blanco.

[3] George Reid Andrews, The Afro-Argentines of Buenos Aires, 1800-1900 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1980); Miguel Rosal, Africanos y afrodescendientes en el Río de la Plata : siglos XVIII-XIX (Buenos Aires: Dunken, 2009); Marta Goldberg, “La población negra y mulata de la ciudad de Buenos Aires 1810-1840,” Desarrollo Económico 16, no. 61 (1976): 75–99; Marvin Lewis, Afro-Argentine Discourse: Another Dimension of the Black Diaspora (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996); Lea Geler, Andares negros, caminos blancos. afroporteños, estado y nación Argentina a fines del siglo XIX. (Rosario, Argentina: Prohistoria Ediciones, 2010); Alejandro Frigerio, “‘Negros’ y ‘blancos’ en Buenos Aires: repensando nuestras categorías raciales,” Temas de patrimonio cultural 16 (2006): 77–98; Edwards, “Slavery in Argentina.”

[4] Andrews, The Afro-Argentines of Buenos Aires, 1800-1900.

[5] Domingo Sarmiento, Obras de D. F. Sarmiento: viajes por europa, áfrica i américa 1847–1854, vol. V (Paris: Belin Hermanos, 1909), 67.

[6] Juan José Soiza Reilly, “Gente de color,” Caras y Caretas, November 25, 1905.

[7] Geler, Andares negros, caminos blancos. Afroporteños, estado y nación Argentina a fines del siglo XIX.; Tomás Platero, Piedra libre para nuestros negros: la broma y otros periódicos de la comunidad afroargentina (1873-1882) (Buenos Aires: Instituto Histórico de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 2004); Norberto Pablo Cirio, Tinta negra en el gris del ayer: los afroporteños a través de sus periódicos entre 1873 y 1882 (Buenos Aires: Teseo, 2009); Lewis, Afro-Argentine Discourse: Another Dimension of the Black Diaspora.

[8] Alex Borucki, From Shipmates to Soldiers: Emerging Black Identities in the Río de La Plata (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2015).

[9] Andrews, The Afro-Argentines of Buenos Aires, 1800-1900, 66.

Member of the Week: Joseph Watson

watsonJoseph Watson

Ph.D. Candidate in the History and Theory of Architecture

University of Pennsylvania School of Design

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 
I am currently wrapping up my dissertation. It’s a study of competing ideas about the future of metropolitan America during the 1930s. I focus primarily on two architectural projects, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City and Rockefeller Center, designed by Raymond Hood and a handful of other architects. At face value, these two works seem entirely incompatible. Wright’s techno-pastoral celebration of decentralization, which only exists in a handful of books and a giant model, doesn’t appear to have much in common with a dense assemblage of office towers and theaters built in midtown Manhattan. My contention is that they were, in fact, two sides of the same coin. Not only because Wright first exhibited Broadacre City at Rockefeller Center in 1935. The two projects both used the same points of reference—the proliferation of skyscrapers, automobile-induced suburbanization, technologies like radio and television, an acute crisis of capitalism—to make divergent arguments about how the social, cultural, and economic landscapes of metropolitan America might be reconstituted. What drew me to these projects was a notion that reframing familiar works could produce something new.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?
I spent the past year teaching history and design in the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University of British Columbia. My dissertation work is part of a larger research interest in the histories of skyscrapers and suburbs, which (very conveniently) dominate the landscapes of Metro Vancouver. In my history seminars, I used the peculiarities of Vancouver’s mixture of density and dispersion to frame discussions of industrialization and financialization, infrastructure and environment, the pervasiveness of inequity and the persistence of utopia. By using Vancouver as a laboratory, my students were able to better grasp less visible, sometimes nebulous qualities of architectural and urban history.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
A number of recent books have helped me to define my own position at the intersection of architectural and urban history. Among them are Francesca Ammon’s Bulldozer: Demolition and Clearance of the Postwar Landscape, Brian Goldstein’s The Roots of Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle over Harlem, Reinhold Martin’s The Urban Apparatus: Mediapolitics and the City, and Sara Steven’s Developing Expertise: Architecture and Real Estate in Metropolitan America. Since last year would have been Frank Lloyd Wright’s 150th birthday, there are quite a few new studies of his work. Of the most interest to UHA members would probably be Frank Lloyd Wright: Unpacking the Archive, an edited volume that accompanied a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, and Neil Levine’s The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright. (Although, I argued in a review of Levine’s work that there are issues with his framing of Wright’s relationship to American urban history.) I’m looking forward to finishing the dissertation so that I have time to grapple with Edward Eigen’s On Accident: Episodes in Architecture and Landscape. Finally, and it’s not a work of historical scholarship, but I am currently enjoying Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, a science-fiction novel about the catastrophic convergence of climate change and finance capitalism set in a semi-drowned, 22nd century Manhattan.

What advice do you have for graduate students preparing a dissertation project related to urban history or urban studies? 
Since I’m currently trying to wrap up a dissertation, I’m not sure I’m in the best position to answer this right now. But, I think my own work has benefited from a willingness to let the project evolve as I made new archival finds (or didn’t find what I’d hoped for), which sometimes required rethinking how I was framing things. I’m not sure if that’s a terribly original observation or how it applies directly to urban history or urban studies, but a mix of focus and flexibility has been useful throughout this process.

Most people can list off the name of a few famous skyscrapers. What’s a skyscraper that no one knows about, but should? 
Here’s one I became fascinated with as I was researching the backstory of Rockefeller Center. The Standard Oil Building sits on Broadway, in New York, a couple blocks south of Wall Street. In terms of design, it’s fairly unremarkable. It was designed in the early 1920s by Carrère & Hastings, with Shreve, Lamb & Blake, and is composed of two roughly parallel, sixteen-story bars intersected by a bulky pyramidal tower, an arrangement all but dictated by the 1916 zoning law. Inside of this behemoth, however, are two earlier Standard Oil Buildings. The original is a ten-story, load-bearing masonry structure built in 1886 by Ebenezer L. Roberts. In the mid-1890s, Kimball & Thompson engineered a mostly self-supporting, steel-frame annex that rises alongside the original before adding seven floors to the overall height. The final, 1920s version assimilates the earlier buildings behind a uniform façade, but the floor plans retain obvious traces of each incarnation. So, hiding in plain sight, the Standard Oil Building is a singular accretion of almost fifty years of early skyscraper history.

Announcing The Metropole + Urban History Association’s Second Annual Graduate Student Blogging Contest!

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 uhacommunicationsteam@gmail.com. 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 who will be announced shortly. 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 (uhacommunicationsteam@gmail.com) 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.

Member of the Week: Kim Phillips-Fein

Gallatin HeadshotKim Phillips-Fein

Associate Professor

Gallatin School of Individualized Study and History Department, College of Arts and Sciences

New York University

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

I’m actually between major research projects now, which is a nice though sometimes anxiety-provoking place to be!  I have been thinking about a lot of different topics–about the far right in the 1930s; about how to tell the history of the Great Depression in a way that is not triumphalist about the New Deal; about the transformation of the lived experience of political economy between the 1970s to the 1980s, especially the major strikes of that era (most of which ended in defeat for the unions involved) and the ways they reflected a fundamental conflict about the future of the country; about the political ideas of business executives going back into the 19th century, and the ways that their thinking has helped to shape a distinctive political tradition in the United States, one that is far more ambivalent about democracy than our mainstream political culture would suggest–but my energies are still dispersed.  I recently finished writing an essay for an edited volume about the contested history of the idea of neoliberalism, and this was fun because it allowed me to pull together some of the thoughts I had while working on Fear City. In general, I think that the current political situation informs my research interests. I am always trying to understand how and why the right is so powerful in this country, what kinds of voices get heard in political life, who is able to exercise power and how.

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

This year I taught one class on the history of ideas about American capitalism in the 20th century, one course which I called “The American Business Tradition: Entrepreneurs, Robber Barons, Salesmen and Frauds,” and one on the history of social movements of both the left and the right in the 20th century (this was co-taught with Linda Gordon). All these classes are in direct dialogue with my own thinking about my research, even though in my classes I always try to take as broad a view as possible, rather than teaching my own arguments (I never really like assigning my own work).  In my writing I try to think about how to put complex ideas into clear language and how to foreground my arguments without making them too simple; teaching is great practice for both of these, as well as a chance to listen to what college students think about history, politics and American society.

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

There’s always so much I am looking forward to reading at the end of the semester!  One book I’m especially looking forward to is Stacie Taranto’s Kitchen Table Politics, about conservative women in New York State. I’m also excited about Keisha Blain’s Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom, as well as Michael Honey’s recent To the Promised Land, which is about Martin Luther King, Jr., and his longstanding commitment to economic justice. I’ve also been looking forward to LaDale Winling’s Building the Ivory Tower: Universities and Metropolitan Development in the Twentieth Century, as I think about the efforts of cities to adapt to the loss of industry in the 1970s and after.

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

Always let yourself become deeply engaged by the city you’re writing about. Spend lots of time walking around it, observing it, traveling it. Don’t just work in the archives, but try to let your work there go along with an immersion in the present life of the place whose history you’re exploring.  If it is your home town, think of ways to make it appear strange and new to you, and if it is a new city, try to talk to the people who have lived there all their lives.

Your book, Fear City, is one of the most frequently referenced publications on The Metropole! It has clearly been an influential and useful resource for urban historians. Looking back on your career so far, what book or article most influenced you and the questions you have asked about the past?

While it’s hard to pick a single book, Josh Freeman’s Working-Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II was the most important work for me as I was thinking about Fear City, in that it emphasized the distinctive nature of postwar New York and the unusual style of liberalism that existed in the city.  More generally, for thinking about urban history, both Jefferson Cowie’s Capital Moves and Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis were very important for me–they both suggested the importance of exploring the internal dynamics within cities while also seeing them as part of larger systems of power. Both books show that what we think of as the problems of cities are in many ways simply the problems of inequality, as they play out in a specific geographical space.

Cities of Exile and Other Crossings: Buenos Aires and Montevideo’s Shared Histories from the 19th to 21st Centuries

By Daniel Richter

Buenos Aires and Montevideo, the capitals of Argentina and Uruguay, are located approximately 120 miles away from each other across the Río de la Plata. Over the decade from 2003 to 2013, I traveled by boat between Argentina and Uruguay approximately 20 times while living in the two cities for an aggregate of six of those years. A fair number of these trips were primarily to renew 90-day tourist visas in Argentina, where I lived from 2003 to 2008. I was far from alone among the many Americans and other foreigners residing in Buenos Aires that would travel back and forth across the world’s so-called widest river. I had a Brazilian friend that would join me for the occasional overnight trip to Montevideo and to the closer Uruguayan port of Colonia del Sacramento for his own visa renewal reasons. I also made numerous trips to Uruguay for beach holidays in the months of December, January, and February.

Most memorably, I was once stranded on a ferry boat that failed to dock in Colonia del Sacramento due to a large thunderstorm. Our boat ran out of gas in the middle of the river, and we were towed back to the port of Buenos Aires by a tug boat. About 12 hours after leaving Buenos Aires on a planned boat trip to Colonia that would lead to a connecting bus to Montevideo and a weekend meetup with friends, I returned to Buenos Aires without having successfully stepped foot onto the sought-after Uruguayan soil.[1] The return of our stranded ferry was broadcast live on Argentine television news. My doorman in Buenos Aires told me the next day that he had seen me on television looking rather worn down by the odyssey at sea as I returned to the ferry terminal in Buenos Aires along with my fellow travelers to have our exit visa stamps cancelled.

Long before the early 2000s and my experiences with river crossings, Buenos Aires and Montevideo developed a long and shared history dating back to the late 16th century and the arrival of Spanish colonial rule in the region. During the early colonial era, Spanish settlers created a network of urban spaces in South America to administer colonial trade and settlements. Buenos Aires became the largest urban center. Across the river, Portuguese colonists founded Montevideo. By the early 18th century, Montevideo had become a Spanish colonial possession. Buenos Aires became a Spanish viceregal capital in 1776 with dominion over the whole of the Río de la Plata region. During the late 18th century, merchants in the two cities were key participants in the growth of Atlantic commerce. Buenos Aires and Montevideo both functioned as major centers for the transatlantic, trans-imperial, and regional slave trade, which expanded to the South Atlantic in the late 18th century.[2]

By the early 1800s, Montevideo’s citizens began to pursue their own political autonomy. When a Spanish colonial militia was needed to liberate Buenos Aires from a British invasion in 1806, they came from Montevideo. When Argentines and Uruguayans fought for independence from Spain during the 1810s, militia leaders in both cities forged alliances and lasting rivalries. Buenos Aires-based forces invaded Montevideo during the 1810s and then Uruguayans, led by national hero Jose Artigas, fought back to redefine the political alliances of the different regions of Argentina’s hinterland. From 1816 to 1825, Montevideo also fought for national independence against the occupation of Portuguese imperial forces from Brazil. Ultimately, Argentina won its decisive independence over a decade before Uruguay, but by the late 1820s, both Buenos Aires and Montevideo were the political centers of new nations in formation. Since then, connections between Buenos Aires and Montevideo have been shaped by ever-expanding commercial exchanges, but also by waves of migrations, political exile, boats and planes, tango and rock music, Carnival festivals, soccer rivalries, and familial ties.

In my book manuscript in progress, I examine the shared urban and cultural histories of Buenos Aires and Montevideo in the 20th century. My research focuses on the rise of Buenos Aires as a mass cultural capital in Latin America during the period from 1910 to 1960 and the under-explored role of cultural connections with Montevideo in shaping Buenos Aires’s emergence as a Broadway and Hollywood of Latin American mass culture. (I also have published an essay on the close ties between Uruguay’s small film industry and Argentina’s far more sizable cinematic industry from the early 20th century to the present).[3] My work builds on an interdisciplinary body of scholarship by Argentines, Uruguayans, Brazilians, Americans, Spaniards, and others who have paid attention to the varied aspects of connections between the two cities.[4] This essay is an exploration of the shared political histories of Buenos Aires and Montevideo that underpin my work and the second part is a brief introduction to the long history of cultural exchanges between the two cities. It is also an opportunity to argue that the long-standing connections between Buenos Aires and Montevideo as urban spaces for political exiles also speaks to the global historical importance of cities in shaping the transnational dynamics of oppositional political movements. As historian Michael Goebel has documented for Paris, an anti-imperial metropolis during the interwar period of the 20th century, it is crucial to understand how modern political movements have been shaped by the environs of interconnected cities.[5] In Buenos Aires and Montevideo, I would argue that the shared significance for urban history comes from how the two cities contributed to a shared intellectual world of universities, print culture, and the cultural effervescence of mass culture.

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Building in Montevideo, between 1920 and 1940, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Political currents have repeatedly shaped Buenos Aires’s relationship with Montevideo (and vice versa) since the independence of both countries. In the 1830s to 1840s, Buenos Aires and Montevideo developed a new form of connection as Montevideo functioned as a primary site of political exile for opponents of the Argentine government led by Federalist caudillo Juan Manuel de Rosas. Political exile of prominent Argentines in Montevideo and Uruguayans in Buenos Aires is a pattern that has repeated itself again and again. During most of the period from 1829 to 1852, Juan Manuel de Rosas was the Governor of Buenos Aires Province (including the city) and his opponents were members of the Unitarian political party. The most famous Federalist slogan was the succinct “Death to Unitarians.” The Unitarian Juan Bautista Alberdi, Argentina’s most prominent constitutional thinker and arguably the country’s James Madison, was exiled in Montevideo in the 1830s and early 1840s. Alberdi and other intellectuals wrote for Montevideo publications such as El Iniciador and imagined a post-Rosas Argentina from Uruguay. Alberdi was joined in Montevideo by Florencio Varela, Esteban Escheverria, Hilario Ascasubi. As literary scholar William Acree has written, Ascasubi was the most potent pen in angering Rosas and his allies.[6] (Another prominent anti-Rosas intellectual and eventual Argentine president, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, was exiled in Santiago del Chile, in large part because it was closer to his native San Juan in northwestern Argentina.)

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Cover of El Iniciador (1838), available at: http://www.periodicas.edu.uy/o/Iniciador/pdfs/Iniciador_1.pdf

In Montevideo during the 1840s, Alberdi fled during a siege of the city led by the forces of the Uruguayan general Manuel Oribe and backed by Rosas from Buenos Aires. In 1848, Varela was assassinated in Montevideo on orders from Oribe and Rosas, an act of political violence that would echo throughout the late 20th century with Argentines and Uruguayan civilians targeted while in exile from their respective homeland. After the fall of Juan Manuel de Rosas in 1852, Montevideo was not as synonymous with exile from Buenos Aires for the duration of the 19th century.

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Cathedral, Montevideo, Uruguay, between 1910 and 1920, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

During the 20th century, the cities would continue to switch roles back and forth as sites of exile. The Uruguayan capital would become a privileged space of exile for a few anti-Peronist politicians during the first government of Juan Perón from 1945 to 1955. Argentine intellectuals would also seek employ at the Universidad de la República in Montevideo during this period, including the University of Buenos Aires professor and historian José Luis Romero.[7] In the 1960s, more Argentine intellectuals would go to Montevideo when the University of Buenos Aires’s administration was taken over by another in a long array of military governments. In the early 1970s, Uruguayan politicians, intellectuals, and leftist activists would flee to Buenos Aires after the Uruguayan military began to violently repress Uruguayans considered opponents of the new junta. In March 1976, Argentina suffered a violent military coup and the new regime murderously targeted both Argentine and Uruguayan political opponents in Buenos Aires. A number of prominent Uruguayan politicians had chosen exile in Buenos Aires since 1973. Among them were Zelmer Michelini and Héctor Gutierrez Ruiz. Michelini was a Uruguayan senator and political leader of the Frente Amplio political movements in Uruguay. In May 1976, Michelini and Gutierrez Ruiz were kidnapped and killed on the same day in Buenos Aires. The murders were the work of military officers involved in Operation Condor, the transnational network of political assassinations involving military and intelligence officers in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Brazil.[8] Since the return of democracy, human rights organizations in both Buenos Aires and Montevideo have worked together in pursuit of justice and accountability for this period of state terrorism.

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Immigrant Hotel, Buenos Aires, Argentina, between 1900 and 1922, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer and committed leftist, wrote in the heartrending “Chronicle of the City of Buenos Aires” in his The Book of Embraces about his experience of returning to Buenos Aires in 1984 after fleeing Montevideo in 1973 and then having to escape in 1976 from Buenos Aires to Spain.[9]

In the middle of 1984, I traveled to the River Plate. It was eleven years since I’d seen Montevideo; eight years since I’d seen Buenos Aires. I had walked out of Montevideo because I don’t like being a prisoner, and out of Buenos Aires because I don’t like being dead. By 1984, the Argentine military dictatorship had gone, leaving behind it an indelible trace of blood and filth, and the Uruguayan military dictatorship was on its way out.

The exile of Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti coincided with Galeano’s in Buenos Aires before he too departed for another exile in Lima, Peru. Benedetti’s short story “La vecina orilla” (in translation with the title of “The Other Side”) is an evocative tale of the exile of a young Uruguayan political activist in Buenos Aires.[10] The two stories shared the experiences of both writers and the conditions of double exile that shaped the lives of many Montevideo natives who felt almost at home in Buenos Aires during a dark chapter of Latin American history.

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Rows of tables crowded with men, dining room, Immigrant Hotel, Buenos Aires, Argentina, between 1890 and 1923, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

While political exiles colored the relationship between residents of Buenos Aires and Montevideo at decisive moments in the 19th and 20th centuries, decidedly more cultural exchanges proliferated during the same period and were not shaped by formal politics. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Podesta family popularized the Creole circus in cities including Buenos Aires and Montevideo and numerous towns throughout Argentina and Uruguay. In the early 20th century, playwrights and performers from both cities increasingly traveled back and forth between Buenos Aires and Montevideo to forge a shared world of popular culture. The two cities also functioned as incubators for the world’s greatest tango singers, musicians, and composers during the 1910s and 1920s.[11] For Uruguayan dramatists like Angel Curotto, Buenos Aires’s Avenida Corrientes was the South American equivalent of Broadway and increasingly offered what Montevideo could not. However, with the rise of Peronism in Argentina during the 1940s, numerous leading Argentine performers pursued theatrical opportunities in Montevideo where there was less political tension and censorship. Curotto became a major figure in attracting Argentine directors and performers to Montevideo’s Teatro Solis in the late 1940s and early 1950s.[12] With the rise of film culture in the 1930s and 1940s, Buenos Aires simultaneously attracted more and more performers from Montevideo and Santiago del Chile to pursue their dreams on screen while working for Argentine film studios. At the same time, mass audiences filled Buenos Aires’s dozens of movie theaters, thereby popularizing Argentine films. In addition, Buenos Aires developed as urban metropolis for various exiles; many of these figures contributed to the city’s mass cultural marketplace in different forms of intellectual production. In the late 1940s, the African-American writer Richard Wright opted to film an adaptation of his novel Native Son in Buenos Aires while collaborating with the émigré French director Pierre Chenal.[13]

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The Hotel de Los Pocitos circa 1920 (Photograph in Edward Albes, Montevideo, The City of Roses. Washington, DC: Organization of American States, 1922)

During the 20th century, Buenos Aires and Montevideo continued to influence each other’s imaginations. The Hotel de los Pocitos, located on the Río de la Plata beachfront in Montevideo, was a prominent vacation destination for middle and upper-class Argentineans in the early 1900s before being destroyed by a hurricane in 1923. Montevideo’s “salubrious climate” attracted international visitors and helped to transform it into a summer resort for Uruguayans, Argentines, and Brazilians during the early decades of the 20th century.[14] By the 1950s, Argentines began to vacation en masse in Uruguay’s ocean town of Punta del Este, which had more coastline than the Argentine capital and was largely on the Atlantic Ocean. In different moments, residents of Buenos Aires imagined Montevideo as a city of anti-Peronism, frequent business trips, extramarital affairs, and offshore accounts. Buenos Aires occupied the urban imagination of montevideanos as South America’s modern metropolis, and in the 1960s and 1970s as a city of revolutionary and then violently repressive politics. These urban imaginaries ebbed and flowed to shape generations of porteños and montevideanos. In the framework of transnational urban history, my work grapples with the appropriate comparisons to explore the relationship between the two capital cities. Many comparisons come to mind, but the cities lack the clear political schisms of Havana and Miami, are not equally global and political metropolises like London and Paris (and do not differ in languages), and unlike New York and Toronto the cities exist in closer proximity and function as national capitals. My framing of the comparative and transnational histories of Buenos Aires and Montevideo seeks to trace the connections between the cities as contributing to Buenos Aires’s place as a capital of Latin American mass culture and builds on the longer histories of political and cultural connections between Argentina and Uruguay.

RichterHeadshot.JPGDaniel Richter is a Lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Maryland. He received his doctorate from Maryland in Latin American history in 2016. His research focuses on the urban and cultural history of 20th century Latin America, transnational urban history, and global histories of mass culture and commodities.

 

Featured image (at top): The Atheneum, Montevideo, Uruguay, between 1908 and 1919, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

[1] “Pánico y quejas en Buquebus,” La Nación, February 24, 2006, https://www.lanacion.com.ar/783606-panico-y-quejas-en-buquebus

[2] Alex Borucki, “The Slave Trade to the Río de la Plata, 1777–1812: Trans-Imperial Networks and Atlantic Warfare,” Colonial Latin American Review, Vol. 20, No. 1 (2011): 81-107.

[3] Daniel Richter, “Big Screens for a Small Industry: A History of Twentieth-Century Uruguayan Cinema,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Available online: http://latinamericanhistory.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199366439.001.0001/acrefore-9780199366439-e-341?rskey=fXixMP&result=6

[4] Roger Mirza, Teatro rioplatense: cuerpo, palabra, imagen: la escena contemporánea, una reflexión impostergable. Montevideo: Unión Latina, 2007.

[5] Michael Goebel, Anti-Imperial Metropolis: Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

[6] William G. Acree, Jr., Everyday Reading: Print Culture and Collective Identity in the Río de la Plata, 1780-1910. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2011, 72-74.

[7] Juan Carlos del Bello, Osvaldo Barsky, Graciela Giménez, La universidad privada argentina. Buenos Aires: Libros del Zorzal, 2007, 69.

[8] John Dinges, The Condor Years: How Pinochet And His Allies Brought Terrorism To Three Continents. New York: The New Press, 2012, 145-147.

[9] Eduardo Galeano, The Book of Embraces. Translated by Cedric Belfrage with Mark Schafer. New York: W.W. Norton, 1992, 188-189.

[10] Mario Benedetti, “The Other Side,” in Blood pact and other stories, edited by Claribel Alegría and Darwin Flakoll. Translated by Daniel Balderston. Willimantic, Connecticut: Curbstone Press, 1997.

[11] Juan Carlos Legido, La orilla oriental del tango. Historia del Tango Uruguayo. Montevideo: Ediciones de la Plaza, 1994.

[12] Daniela Bouret and Gonzalo Vicci, “Relaciones creativas y conflictivas entre el teatro y la política. La institucionalidad de las artes escénicas en Uruguay en la Comisión de Teatros Municipales,” Telondefondo. Revista de Teoría y Crítica Teatral Publicación semestral (December 2011), 123-143.

[13] Edgardo Krebs, Sangre negra: breve historia de una película perdida. Mar del Plata: Festival Internacional de Cine de Mar del Plata, 2015.

[14] Edward Albes, Montevideo, The City of Roses. Washington, DC: Organization of American States, 1922.

Book Review: Slums by Alan Mayne

In this, our first book review in a new series edited by Jim Wunsch, UHA President Richard Harris tackles an epic historiograpical effort by Alan Mayne.

Alan Mayne, Slums. The History of a Global Injustice. London: Reaktion, 2017. 360 pp. notes, index. ISBN 978 1 78023 809 8

9781780238098More than ever, we need broad syntheses that bridge the specialized literatures in which most of us spend our time. That is one reason why Alan Mayne’s Slums. The History of a Global Injustice is so welcome. Another is that, by whatever name, slums have been a significant element in the modern urban experience, the object of much planning, policy, and writing.

Mayne builds two big bridges. The first connects the extensive body of work on slums in Anglo-America with the even more abundant literature on those in the global South. The second links past and present, in a survey that extends from the 1810s to the 2010s.

He moves between thematic and chronological treatments. Early chapters dissect the definition, connotations, and uses of ‘slum’. He then considers its influence on policy in Anglo-America through the 1960s, before turning South, where ‘slum’ has been “orientalized”, in the colonial, early postcolonial (1940s-1970s) and more recent periods. Since the 1970s, U.N. and World Bank policy has globalized thinking, whether for slum clearance, upgrading, or neoliberal market reform. His strongest criticism is of clearance programs but, although he prefers upgrading, he argues that even these usually fall short because they fail to “partner” with local residents (287).

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New York, New York. Demolition for slum clearance. Blocks of slum area are torn down for housing project“, photography by Edwin Rosskam, December 1941, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Mostly, Mayne focuses on how areas have been (mis)represented, rather than the places and people themselves. The exception is a late chapter where he considers how residents have lived, made a living, and built community. His theme is the “slum deceit”: how the stereotype oversimplifies, implies that residents are deficient, overlooks their contribution to the urban economy, and justifies “coercive intervention” (10). Yes, he says, ‘slum people’ are poor, live in deficient housing, lack municipal services, and feel ambivalent about their neighbourhoods and also the ‘slum’ label; and yes, some policies have been well-intentioned (196-199). But, he argues, none of this justifies the use of ‘slum’, and the “warped ‘reform’ agendas” that it encourages (199).

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“Cross out slums. USHA”, by Lester Beall, 1941, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

His critique of ‘slum’ could use more nuance. Not all substandard areas can be saved. Upgrading projects have usually, and even clearance has occasionally, done some good. Although clearance has had a higher profile, unobtrusive improvement (including basic servicing) has surely been more common than Mayne suggests, and certainly more than the index indicates. Overall, his dissection of the rhetoric could usefully have been judged with closer reference to the reality.

Those who know London in the 1880s or Delhi in the 1950s will inevitably find something to quibble about. There are geographical biases. In the South, we hear a lot about India, something about Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, but little elsewhere. And Mayne overlooks early bustee and kampong improvement programs in Calcutta (1880s) and the Dutch Indies (1920s). But, given the available historiography, gaps are inevitable. This survey and sustained critique, a life’s work, is the first of its kind. A complement to Carl Nightingale’s Segregation, it makes principled connections across time and space. Anyone interested in slums should check it out.

Richard Harris, McMaster University

harrisr@mcmaster.ca


Slum: A building or area that is deteriorated, hazardous, unsanitary, or lacking in standard conveniences; also, the squalid, crowded, or unsanitary conditions under which people live irrespective of the physical state of the building or area. The latter definition is a deviation from the standard meaning, which puts emphasis on physical conditions. At three persons per room, however, even sound housing is a slum. A neighborhood may be physically sturdy, but if it is devoid of good transportation (as in Watts, Los Angeles) it could be classified as a slum. If the neighborhood school is a disgrace, the best cosmetic treatment of the housing will not eliminate its slum aspect.

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. (See BLIGHT; GRAY AREA.)

Charles Abrams. The Language of Cities (New York: Avon Books, 1971) 285-86

Featured image (at top): “Children in slum area, Washington, D.C. Children in their backyard in a slum area near the Capitol. This area inhabited by both black and white”, photograph by Carl Mydans, November 1935, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Popular Theater in Buenos Aires:  The Madrid of South America?

How many times have the city, its architecture, and the theatre been intertwined, for the theatre is often a foil for the representations of public life, and public space frequently is arranged as if for a theatrical performance. Both the theatre and urban space are places of representation, assemblage, and exchange between actors and spectators, between the drama and the stage set.

M. Christine Boyer, The City in Collective Memory

By Kristen McCleary

The cliché phrase that Buenos Aires was the Paris of South America exemplifies the exaggerated focus that elites placed on the French capital as they promoted and shaped the national identity of Argentina. Marcy E. Schwartz explains the fascination with Paris as follows: “Since the early independence period, criollo culture has had to confront and define itself with European urban models in its continuing attempt to determine political and aesthetic boundaries. The Paris written into Latin American cultural consciousness has emerged from this persistent confrontation.”

While all of Latin America’s elite were fascinated by Paris around this same time—indeed Porfirio Díaz of Mexico went into exile there on the cusp of that nation’s revolution—the link between Argentine elites and Parisian culture was especially strong. Buenos Aires served a particularly important role in connecting Paris to the rest of Latin America through publishing. Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters underscores the links between Paris as the world capital of literature and Buenos Aires, where Nicaraguan modernist writer, Rubén Dario, first published Prosas profanes in 1896. Casanova argues Dario,  “rearranged the literary landscape of the Hispanic world” by importing the latest edition of modernity from Paris to Buenos Aires. Dario worked for and disseminated his work in the largest Latin American daily newspaper of the era, Buenos Aires’ La Nación.

In contrast to a large body of scholarship supporting a relationship between Paris and Buenos Aires, there is very little that discusses the relationship between Madrid, the Spanish capital, and Buenos Aires. In his study of Spanish immigration to Argentina, José Moya writes, “volumes on the ‘conquistadores’ fill shelves but not one scholarly book has been written about these more recent and more numerous [Spanish] newcomers to Buenos Aires.” In the Independence-era historiography, there is a deliberate neglect of Buenos Aires’ connections  to Madrid, or to Spain more generally, particularly in relationship to culture. It makes sense that Argentina would distance itself from the country that had once colonized it. And that is largely what the elites did. Argentine elites looked for their national foundations outward to Paris or inward to the Pampas and the mythification of the disappearing gauchos.

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Gaucho, 1868

Julio Ramos explicitly links the writings of the Argentine elite after independence to modernity:

Beginning with the 1820s, the activity of writing became a response to the necessity of overcoming the catastrophe of war, the absence of discourse, and the annihilation of established structures in the war’s aftermath. To write, in such a world, was to forge the modernizing project; it was to civilize, to order the randomness of American ‘barbarism.”

Domingo F. Sarmiento in his 1845 narrative Civilization and Barbarism bifurcated the political ideologies of his era into urban and rural and positioned the “civilized” city against the “barbaric” countryside: “The nineteenth century and the twelfth century coexist, the one in the cities; the other in the countryside.” Sarmiento and many of his like-minded brethren were influenced by French enlightenment thought.  In particular, Sarmiento disparaged Argentina’s Spanish ancestry—absorbing the tendency in literature and history to demonize Spanish culture as uniquely backwards and obscurantist.  Sarmiento and other liberal elites, like Bernadino Rivadavia, advocated the de-Hispanicization of Argentina in the aftermath of independence. On the stages of Buenos Aires, however, an entirely different story might be reconstructed than the one told by the elites. This counter narrative concerns the dominance of Spanish popular theater from the colonial era up until 1904—the first year that Argentine theatrical productions outnumbered Spanish zarzuelas.

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Justo López de Gomara who wrote de paseo en buenos aires

The main theatrical entertainment during the era of Argentine independence was a number of short musical genres that originated in Spain and which were performed by Spanish acting companies: loas, tonadillas, and sainetes. Oscar F. Urquiza Almandoz notes that in the colonial era Madrid and Lima set the standard most South American cities followed.  In Madrid and Lima, a night at the theater would be loa, tonadilla, sainete, and then comedy. Loas were prologues from the Golden Era of Spanish theater that attempted to get the audience’s attention before a play began. Tonadillas were one of several small genres of music that gave rise to the zarzuela, a Spanish operetta with both sung and spoken dialogue. Sainetes (farces) were short one-act plays drawing characters from the urban working classes and employed their vernacular as well.

In 1817, the year after the nation declared independence at the Congreso de Tucumán, independence war hero Juan Martín de Pueyrredón formed La Sociedad de Buen Gusto [The Society of Good Taste] in order to harness and promote theater as a ‘civilizing’ tool. Promoting particular plays about the ‘American experience’ and about independence, the Society attempted to suppress popular theater, in particular the Spanish tonadilla and its main instrumentation, the guitar. Audiences knew what they liked, however, and more than once demanded the return of tonadillas to the stage. The failure of the Society of Good Taste to achieve its mission speaks to the power of the ingrained customs and habits of audience members, who continued to demand Spanish tonadillas, sainetes, and zarzuelas, over dramatic or lyrical theater.

The nineteenth century was a turbulent one for Argentine nation-building and theatrical entertainment waxed and waned along with economic and political stability. Spanish-originating theater and actors remained a constant presence on Argentine stages, simmering on the back burner, so to speak, until society transformed enough to sustain urban commercial theater.  This would happen after 1880, the moment that the port city of Buenos Aires became designated as the federal capital, cementing its power over the provinces. Between 1879 and 1914, almost six million people came to Argentina with a little more than half of them permanently settling.

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El Comprarito

The constancy of Spanish theatre and acting troupes in Buenos Aires throughout the nineteenth century provided a base from which the Spanish zarzuela would arise to dominate urban entertainment in the 1890s. Zarzuelas were written in Spain and often reproduced on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in a few days. Playscripts were transmitted via the telegraph and acting companies arrived to Buenos Aires on steamship. A touring company might leave the port city of Cádiz, Spain, arrive to Buenos Aires, rehearse, and perform in under three weeks time. Zarzuela performers were drawn to Buenos Aires for many reasons. The city had strong cultural ties to Spanish theatre and a large enough population to make a sojourn there profitable. The high season of theatre in Buenos Aires coincided with the off-season in Europe. In addition, the natural audience, Spaniards, comprised a large immigrant group in the 1880s, making up over 20 per cent of the population, and could sustain upwards of ten zarzuela companies. In 1886, zarzuelas comprised 8 per cent of the city’s indoor leisure time entertainment. By 1895, this number had jumped to over 60 per cent.

The zarzuela was an inherently urban form of theatre.  Originating in Madrid, the topics of the zarzuelas were Spanish. Some of the titles centering on Madrid and the provinces of Spain:  La verbena de la Paloma, de Madrid a Paris (From Madrid to Paris), La gran vía (The Great Thoroughfare), La Romeria de Miera (Miera’s Pilgrimage), Un gatito de Madrid (A Cat From Madrid), La Salamanquina (The Girl from Salamanca), and Olé Sevilla. 

Spanish zarzuela companies dominated urban culture in Buenos Aires in the 1890s. They quickly began to adapt Madrid-centered themes to Argentine ones. For example, La gran vía, written by Federico Chueca (1846–1908) and Joaquín Valverde Durán (1846–1910) and first performed in Madrid in 1886, was performed in and adapted to Buenos Aires as well as Havana, Cuba and Santiago, Chile. It was even adapted and performed in the United States.  The first scene of La gran vía opens with performers personifying Madrid’s streets and plazas, lamenting their fate in the face of urban renovation where a new Grand Boulevard will result in their destruction.

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Justo López de Gomara, a Spaniard by birth and prominent Spanish journalist and playwright in Argentina, debuted his play De paseo en Buenos Aires [Strolling Through Buenos Aires] as a loose adaptation of La gran vía in 1890.
De paseo
travels through the quintessential institutions of Buenos Aires, from the San Martin Theatre, to the police commissary, the Plaza Victoria (later the Plaza de Mayo), the Immigrants’ Hotel, La Boca del Riachuelo, a fruit market, the port, the stock exchange, and the Avenida de Mayo [May Avenue]. It also includes local character types, like compadritos, gauchos, and Italian and Spanish immigrants, and borrows from La gran vía several allegorical representations of urban life: squabbling street sweepers and cooks, boys selling newspapers, an Italian opera singer, French chorus girls, and [yes, apparently the porteño infatuation with dogs dates back to the nineteenth century] a professional dog walker.

dogwalker

If in the early 1890s there was a demand for zarzuela performances to be exact replicas of those in Spain, by the decade’s end audience members were increasingly contesting performances that they viewed as inauthentic, especially in regards to the presentation of national themes and character types. The zarzuela resulted in collaborations between Argentine playwrights and Spanish actors who set the template for Argentine national theatre. It also fostered a network of intellectuals and performers who unified their work with political activism during moments of democratic openings. The genre also generated conversation and debate about what it meant to be ‘Argentine,’ as Spanish performers and Argentine playwrights colluded to create a hybrid genre known as the zarzuela criolla where Argentines wrote the plays and Spaniards performed them.

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Final scene from zarzuela Cleopatra, 1915

If zarzuela performers tended to integrate themselves smoothly with Argentine audiences most of the year, twice a year it was impossible to forget the historical relationship between the two countries: May 25 and July 9, Argentina’s two days celebrating important moments in their independence from Spain. During independence days, theatres were decked out in the national colours of whichever nation was being celebrated. Streamers were hung, national anthems were sung. As such, theatres were arenas where patriotic gestures and national traditions were embraced and displayed. In addition, theatres were largely masculine spaces and young elite men went there to enact their own sense of manhood by protecting (and over-interpreting) slights to Argentine national identity. The fact that Spanish performers were required to sing the Argentine national anthem, which included lyrics derogatory against Spain also assured that theatres would be loaded affairs on these days.

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El compadrito

The preponderance of Spanish performers on Argentine stages resulted in the curious case of the first actor to dance the tango on the stages of Buenos Aires: a Spaniard that performed in blackface. Ezequiel Soria’s Justicia criolla [Creole Justice] (1897) is a Spanish zarzuela that focuses on Benito, an Afro-Argentine doorman for the national congress who peppers his dialogue with political commentary and who also attempts to seduce Juanita, a white Argentine woman. Benito’s primary characteristics are his flirtatiousness, verbosity, and musicality. Benito is famously remembered for being the character credited with introducing the tango to the stages of Buenos Aires. Enrique Gil, an actor from Spain, who directed theater in Buenos Aires, first played Benito.

It was inevitable that the Spanish zarzuela would decline as Argentine theatre matured. 1904 was the last year that the zarzuela genre dominated in Buenos Aires. After the passage of a law that gave Argentine writers a guaranteed 10% of the box office for their plays, something which Spanish writers had secured in 1890, Argentine national theatre became a relatively lucrative business. While Buenos Aires has often been referred to as the Paris of South America, throughout the nineteenth century in matters of popular culture, Buenos Aires looked towards Madrid.

Featured image (at top): Avenida de Mayo, Buenos Aires, between 1908 and 1919, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

la biela me and n - 1Kristen McCleary is an Associate Professor of history at James Madison University. She is currently finishing her book manuscript, “Engendering the Urban Sphere: Theater and Society in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1880-1920.” She has published a number of articles about popular culture in Argentina on topics ranging from the transformation of carnival celebrations in Buenos Aires, to the performance of masculinity on the city’s stages, to narratives of theater fires as a way in which to understand processes of urban modernization in Buenos Aires. Her courses on Latin America focus on visual and popular culture, gender, and social change. She has co-directed a study abroad program to Buenos Aires, Argentina since 2008.

Member of the Week: Mason Williams

WilliamsMason Williams

Assistant Professor of Leadership Studies and Political Science

Williams College

@masonbwilliams

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

I’m writing a book about how New York City rebuilt its public institutions in the wake of the 1975 Fiscal Crisis—looking especially at schools, policing, and public space. The era of New York’s political history that I described in City of Ambition really does come to an end in the 1970s—if anyone hasn’t read Kim Phillips-Fein’s book Fear City, stop reading this and go find a copy! That moment of pure disinvestment doesn’t last very long, though; by the 1980s, liberals and technocratic problem-solvers alike are trying to recapture a vision of a democratic public sphere. But they’re doing so in ways that end up embedding racial and class inequalities in new institutional forms: public school choice, quality-of-life policing, public-private partnerships, and the like. (If anyone’s interested, there’s a preview of this argument in the latest issue of Dissent.)

To me, the most interesting thing about neoliberalism in New York is that key parts of the neoliberal state are not simply the products of a power grab by capital—which means they have at least some democratic legitimacy among people who think of themselves as progressives. All of which helps to shed light on one of the interesting paradoxes of contemporary American politics: the most progressive places are also the most unequal ones.

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

I’m teaching a course I offer every spring, Race & Inequality in the American City. It began a few years ago as a chronologically-organized history of American cities since 1945. But it became obvious that what the students really wanted to understand was what to do about contemporary forms of urban racial inequality. So I reorganized it. We now start with the deep structural underpinnings of contemporary compounded deprivation—they read Tom Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis, Massey and Denton’s American Apartheid, Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law (and Destin Jenkins’s great review of it). Then we look at how specific policy areas like policing and criminal justice, education, and housing/gentrification fit together and rearticulate broader structural inequalities. I want them to understand how much is being elided, for instance, when people speak of school equity in terms of an “achievement gap,” “failing schools,” or “bad teachers.”

By the end of the semester, the students understand just how deeply contemporary urban inequality is embedded in American capitalism, politics, and culture—and so they realize that small-scale reforms that leave larger structures of inequality intact risk making things worse. Once they’ve really grappled with that reality, we’re ready to talk about what “solutions” might actually look like.

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

I’m about to publish an edited volume with two great historians of urban America, Brent Cebul and Lily Geismer. It’s called Shaped by the State: Toward a New Political History of the Twentieth Century, and it will be out with the University of Chicago Press in November 2018. The project started as an inquiry into what historians were missing by framing post-1932 American politics as a story of “red vs. blue”—the rise and fall of the New Deal order, the rise of conservatism, the turn from “embedded liberalism” to “neoliberalism.” By the time we were putting the final manuscript together, the controversy over what constitutes “political history” had broken out. So we ended up doing a broader audit into what political history really is right now. A number of the contributors are UHA members: N. D. B. Connolly, David Freund, Andrew Kahrl, Matt Lassiter, Suleiman Osman, and Kim Phillips-Fein.

Of course, as a historian of New York, I’m also excited by all the work that’s coming out on Gotham’s recent political history: Kim Phillips-Fein’s Fear City, Julilly Kohler-Hausmann’s Getting Tough, Mike Woodsworth’s Battle for Bed-Stuy, Brian Tochterman’s The Dying City, Brian Goldstein’s The Roots of Urban Renaissance, Aaron Shkuda’s The Lofts of SoHo, Heath Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water, Saladin Ambar’s American Cicero, Chris McNickle’s Bloomberg, Joe Viteritti’s The Pragmatist (on de Blasio’s first term)—plus in-progress work by Marsha Barrett, Amanda Boston, Dylan Gottlieb, Ben Holtzman, Dominique Jean-Louis, Nick Juravich, Lauren Lefty, Suleiman Osman, and many others who I’m mortified to be leaving out. This is a golden age of scholarship on New York politics, and it’s exciting to be a small part of it.

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

Go out of your way to meet scholars who are a few cohorts ahead of you. You’ll get to know your peers, and you’ll hopefully have good relationships with the senior faculty members on your committee and elsewhere in your area of study. But having mentors, role models, and friends a few years ahead of you who’ve recently been in your shoes and really understand what you’re going through is invaluable—and only more so as your career progresses.

You work at the intersection of history and political science. We at The Metropole would like to know: which discipline throws better conferences? 

You’re trying to get me in trouble! I will say, the best thing about conferences is catching up with old friends, and I’ve been a historian longer than I’ve been a political scientist. But an occasional four-cell table wouldn’t hurt anyone!

Graffiti art, Protest and Memory in the Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires city

By Yovanna Pineda

On a casual stroll through Buenos Aires City, the pedestrian’s eyes can follow the public spaces lined with colorful graffiti. Though the latter is illegal, it is socially accepted, and for some urban residents and tourists it is even valued. Indeed, they locate their graffiti, including name tags, screen printing, and murals, in highly visible and trafficked areas to share messages or evoke memories across time and space.

Europeans learned the history of graffiti in Spanish America thanks to Hernán Cortés—even though he, in the words of Angel Rama, “condemned graffiti because anyone could produce it.” Yet that very condemnation of its popularity is—perhaps ironically—why it is such an effective art form throughout modern Latin America.[1] In Buenos Aires in particular, graffiti has become an art of protest, messaging, and spectacle.

The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo serve as evidence regarding graffiti art’s importance and its intersection with protest and public space. The Plaza de Mayo has symbolized Argentina’s urban core space since the early twentieth century. Through a discussion of the Mothers and how others use the Plaza space, we can better understand the strength of their physical protest and their ability to evoke memory

 The Plaza de mayo

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, elite leaders sought to control spaces within the city. Influenced by positivist philosophy, they engineered public space to represent their bourgeois ideals of order and progress—and materialized their imagined modernization. [2] With rising city income from sales of exported cereals and beef, they were able to finance their new city, an “ordered city,” which they envisioned as an architectural urban style and grid that emphasized order and progress.[3] Such a new, ordered city would promote politics, public health, and culture.[4]

01 IMG Plaza de Mayo AGN 1890.jpg
 “Plaza de Mayo, 1890 (Photo).” Archivo General de la Nación, Buenos Aires Argentina

The core of this ordered city was a public square, the Plaza de 25 de Mayo, established in 1884.[5] Ironically, though termed a modern square, the Plaza de Mayo appeared similar to a traditional sixteenth-century Spanish plaza, surrounded by the essential buildings of administration, finance, and religion, including the presidential palace, the Casa Rosada  Nevertheless, elites perceived that this central area demonstrated their high culture, including beautiful landscapes in geometrical shapes. This architectural landscape of Plaza de Mayo has remained relatively consistent for more than a century

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Plaza de Mayo, photography by Yovanna Pineda, 2014

By the mid-twentieth century, the Plaza de Mayo became less a symbol of beauty and modernization, and more of a central, public space for rallies and protests. During the Presidency of Juan Domingo Perón (1946-1955), for instance, his allies often organized pro-government rallies in the Plaza de Mayo, conveniently across from the Casa Rosada, where Perón could wave from the balcony of his office. The political and cultural significance of the Plaza was clear with numerous demonstrations taking place in this space—though the larger, truly mass demonstrations took place near the former building of the national labor organization, Confederation of General Labor (CGT), about a mile south of the Plaza.[6] International audiences likely became aware of the importance of this Plaza through English composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Evita. [7] In Webber’s version, he placed Evita on the balcony of the Casa Rosada during her iconic speech in which she announced her resignation as the vice-presidential candidate. In reality, her speech took place in front of the CGT building.

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Casa Rosada, photograph by Yovanna Pineda, 1999
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Evita Duarte de Perón

Evita’s Resignation Speech (Spanish Subtitles)

Protest and memory of the mothers of the plaza de mayo

During the second half of the twentieth century, mothers whose children had “disappeared” (desaparecidos) used the Plaza as a space of protest against the military dictatorship and its Dirty War (1976-1982). During this period, the military tortured, killed, and disappeared persons that it viewed as subversive. By 1977, fourteen women collectively demanded information regarding their missing children.[8] They eventually called themselves the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. They silently walked around the Plaza every Thursday afternoon—and still do to this day. They wear white head kerchiefs, carry signs of their missing children to recognize each other, and allow onlookers to join them. They intentionally remained visible to be “politically effective” and stay alive during the Dirty War.[9] By the end of the Dirty War in 1982, they held large demonstrations in the Plaza demanding information on their disappeared children.

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Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Protest, 1982.; “Segunda Marcha de la Resistencia, Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, Diciembre 1982,”

Though the founders of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo group have split into two, both groups, the Association of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the Línea Fundadora, continue to walk around the Plaza every Thursday afternoon. Both groups wear the head kerchief, which was once embroidered with the name and date of their disappeared loved one. Today, the kerchiefs are embroidered with “aparición con vida de los desaparecidos” (making visible the lives of the disappeared). Though most mothers have accepted the death of their loved ones, their weekly march continues to memorialize the living, and most importantly, remind Argentines how their lives were taken during the Dirty War.[10]

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“A Mother’s Head Kerchief,” photograph by Yovanna Pineda, 2007.

The two groups are distinguishable from each other only through their marching banners and followers. The first group, Línea Fundadora (founding mothers), is the smaller of the two and focuses on the original goal of the Mothers, demanding answers as to what happened to the disappeared. The second group, the Association of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, has a much larger following because they march for the disappeared and in support of other social justice issues.

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Línea Fundadora, courtesy of http://www.madreslf.com/
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Association of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, courtesy of  http://madres.org/ 

In addition to walking around the Plaza to protest, the mothers evoke memory even when they are not physically present. Through graffiti, they continue to demonstrate their power. In 1999, for instance, they drew outlines of the bodies of the disappeared on the Plaza de Mayo with white paint . Within each body they wrote the name of the disappeared and the date that they went missing. Through the display, the mothers made the disappeared “re-appear” on the Plaza. But the sketches of the bodies slowly faded with time. By 2002, they remained but were clearly fading as expected, having a ghostly appearance, such as an apparition

09 IMG Mothers draw Bodies Plaza de Mayo Pineda 1999
Mothers draw bodies, photograph by Yovanna Pineda, 1999.

During the early twentieth century, the mothers varied the symbolic graffiti art painted on the Plaza. The head kerchiefs had become a symbol of the Mothers; hence, their allies painted them in white paint on the Plaza de Mayo in 2002. That same year, there were numerous protests on the Plaza in response to the major economic crisis of December 2001. The piqueteros (protesters) set up signs, posters and audio speakers to demonstrate in the Plaza. They were physically located near the painted head kerchiefs on the Plaza. The synergies of the protests highlighted the importance of creating spectacle to enhance the power of dissent.[11] 

By 2016, the Mothers and their allies combined the white outline of the disappeared bodies and the kerchiefs on the Plaza. This time, the bodies were painted in dynamic poses, resembling ghostly figures moving along the plaza, rather than the original drawings of static figures in 2002

 

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Bodies Fade on the Plaza de Mayo, photograph Yovanna Pineda, 2002.

Today, the Plaza continues to be a diverse urban core space for protests. In addition to the Mothers, veterans and a host of groups representing social, environmental, and economic justice issues use graffiti or install art in the Plaza. In 2016, a reproductive justice group demanded legal abortions in hospitals to reduce the number of injuries or deaths due to illegal procedures. Painted clearly on the divider fence is “aborto legal en el hospital,” which ironically, is behind the painted kerchiefs of the Mothers (Image 14. Aborto Legal). It is a message for women’s rights to control their own bodies, and that women should have the right to choose whether they want to be mothers or not.

 

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Mothers Head Kerchiefs Plaza de Mayo, photograph by Yovanna Pineda, 2002
12 IMG Protests Plaza de Mayo Pineda 2002.jpg
Protests on the Plaza de Mayo, photography by Yovanna Pineda, 2002

 

13 IMG Dynamic Bodies Plaza de Mayo Pineda 2016
Dynamic Bodies Plaza de Mayo, photography by Yovanna Pineda, 2016.

 

14 IMG aborto legal Plaza de Mayo Pineda 2016
Aborto Legal Plaza de Mayo, photograph by Yovanna Pineda, 2016

Representations of the mothers across the city

Graffiti in the city includes themes of encouragement, love, identity, soccer, labor, and of course, protest. It is so varied that a few tourist companies specialize solely in graffiti tours in the northern and southern parts of the city. They offer bike, walking and shuttle tours, helping commodify graffiti. The influence of the mothers has been strong in this process across space and time. On graffiti tours, the guide cannot skip the homage to the Mothers. In the upscale Palermo district/neighborhood, the mothers’ white head kerchiefs are painted on the side of a building facing a playground. The kerchiefs float above all the other graffiti on this wall, and appear like powerful ghosts

 

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Palermo Madres, photograph by Yovanna Pineda, 2017

 

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Palermo Madres, photograph by Yovanna Pineda, 2017

In the south side of the city, artists in the working-class neighborhood of Boca represent the mothers as powerful indigenous warriors, showing their physical and emotional strength that helped carry the movement of memory and protest.

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Boca Madres, photograph by Yovanna Pineda, 2017 
16b IMG Boca Madre Pineda 2017.JPG
Boca Madres, photograph by Yovanna Pineda , 2017
17 IMG Ni Ovido Ni Perdon Pineda 2017
Ni Olvido Ni Perdón, photograph by Yovanna Pineda, 2017

In the final image, the names of the missing in Boca are listed on the wall, and clearly written is “Ni Olvido, Ni Perdón.” It powerfully conveys the message that the struggle will continue until each and every disappeared person is accounted for.

2018 05 13 Pineda IMG_0575.jpgDr. Yovanna Pineda is Associate Professor of history at the University of Central Florida. Currently, she is finishing her manuscriptInnovating Technologies: Farm Machinery Invention, Rituals, and Memory in Argentina and its companion documentary The Harvester.  She has published works on various topics including industrialization, farm machinery users, development, patent records, and labor. She writes articles about advising and empowering our first generation students. Her courses on the history of South America, science, and the global drug trade focus on how culture, politics and economics intertwine. 

[1] Angel Rama, The Lettered City (Duke University Press, 1996), p. 38. [Italics added].
[2] Auguste Comte, Cours de Philosophie Positive (Paris: Bachelier, Imprimeur-Libraire, 1839); The porteño (as Buenos Aires was known) elite were very much aware of the international Park Movement, and interested in shaping spaces like Georges-Eugène Haussmann had done for Paris. Adrián Gorelik, La grilla y el parque: Espacio público y cultura urbana en Buenos Aires, 1887-1936 (Bernal: Universidad Nacional de Quilmes Editorial, 2010).
[3] Gorelik, Chapter 1, “Ciudad nueva: La Utopía del ‘Pensamiento Argentino’,” La grilla y el parque.
[4] Angel Rama, The Lettered City; Gorelik, La grilla y el parque.
[5] May 25, 1810 is the declaration of independence day. Today, this space is simply known as the Plaza de Mayo.
[6] Regarding the struggle for physical and symbolic space, see Mariano Ben Plotkin, Mañana es San Perón: A Cultural History of Perón’s Argentina, translated by Keith Zahniser (Wilmington, Delaware: SR Books, 2003)
[7] Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote the lyrics to “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” depicting Evita Duarte de Perón’s resignation speech of the vice-presidency in his musical Evita (1978).
[8] An estimated 30,000 persons were disappeared during the Dirty War (1976-1982).
[9] Diana Taylor, “Making a Spectacle: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo,” Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering, Volume 3, number 2 (2001): 97-109.
[10] Vikki Bell and Mario Di Paolantonio, “The Haunted Nomos: Activist-Artists and the (Im)possible Politics of Memory in Transitional Argentina,” Cultural Politics, Volume 5, number 2 (2009): 149-178.
[11] Diana Taylor and Juan Villegas, editors, Negotiating Performance: Gender, Sexuality, and Theatricality in Latin/o America (Duke University Press, 1994).

 

 

 

Policing Unpolicable Space: The Mulberry Bend

By Matthew Guariglia 

During the Progressive Era, there were parts of New York City that police understood as being immune to the exertions of state power. These areas could be rendered illegible and uncontrollable for a number of reasons. In some instances, as I have discussed on The Metropole before, the foreignness of immigrant populations, especially people of Chinese descent, often made it hard for the majority of Anglo-Irish police officers to communicate with witnesses or understand the motives behind alleged crimes. In other situations, the city’s unknowable alleyways, shadowy dead ends, dangerously unstable infrastructure, and rebellious residents prohibited police interventions.

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View of “Mulberry Bend” – Arrival of contract laborers for the coal mines, 1888, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The Mulberry Bend served as one of the most notorious examples of a location seemingly immune to state intervention or local attempts to instil law and order. A crowded collection of tenements and alleyways, the Bend formed in the elbow-like turn of Mulberry and Baxter streets in the Five Points neighborhood. Before the administration of Mayor Strong took on the Bend in 1895, reformers concerned with overcrowding, squalid conditions, and the breeding of crime and disease, had for years advocated the destruction of the crooked cluster of buildings and its crisscross of alleyways. Jacob Riis, the journalist, reformer, and close personal friend of President of the Police Board of Commissioners Theodore Roosevelt, was partially responsible for the eventual push that resulted in the destruction of the Bend. His 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives, shocked upper class New Yorkers with its sensationalized and often demeaning depictions of working class life in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. One of the more disturbing photographs to aristocratic sensibilities was that of the “Bandit’s Roost,” at 59 ½ Mulberry Street. The image shows a narrow alleyway in the Bend, darkened by the closeness of the buildings and the prevalence of laundry draped from clotheslines above. On either side of the alley men, presumably immigrants, stare down the photographer—some hanging from windows, one holding a plank menacingly.

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Stale bread vendor– Mulberry Bend, photograph by Jacob Riis, 1890, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

“There is but one ‘Bend’ in the world, and it is enough,” wrote Riis. “In the scores of back alleys, of stable lanes and hidden byways, of which the rent collector alone can keep track, they share such shelter as the ramshackle structures afford with every kind of abomination….”[1] The Bend depicted by Riis was one in which police feared to enter—where fleeing criminals could run down an alleyway, or into a tenement, and be lost to authorities. “Post Thirteen,” as police referred to it, was everyone’s last choice to patrol and often where officers would send recent appointments to scare them, or perhaps as a hazing ritual.[2]

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If and when police did enter the Bend, it was often as part of a raid on the area’s “stale beer” dives and required a number of policemen to execute. These raids often required either local guides or undercover police to scout ahead of time to find the dives which were often hidden “in back rooms at the end of long, dark hallways, up creaking and greasy stairways or in attics with low, blackened ceilings.” In one instance, an undercover officer doing reconnaissance before a planned raid actually consumed the “stale beer,” and was reportedly bedridden for six months as a result.[3]

The Bend was not just dangerous for police attempting to navigate it alone; it was also a place that was profoundly filthy. One report from the 1870s, suggested that only 24 of the 609 tenement buildings in the Bend were in decent condition. In the mind of Riis, these dark, damp, and crumbling living quarters bred disease as well as crime. In the year 1882 alone, he recorded that 155 children died in the Bend from disease. It was a place where even the “sanitary reformer, gives up the task in despair.”[4]

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Baxter Street Alley in Mulberry Bend, photograph by Jacob Riis, 1888-1889, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Riis, and many like him, saw one solution to both the problem of health and crime in the Bend; remake the space so it would not longer be a literal and metaphorical dark spot on the maps of police and sanitary inspectors. Under the new reformist Strong administration, and with the help of Roosevelt, the 600 families that inhabited the Bend were required to vacate by June 1, 1895. The city auctioned off each building, and their new owners were required to move them off the bend as soon as possible. Despite Riis’s claim that only residents and rent collectors could navigate the alleyways of the bend, as of the day of auction, it was estimated that no one had been able to secure rent money from tenants in over six months.[5]

After the destruction on the Bend, the elbow-shaped plot of land became the open and green Mulberry Bend Park, renamed Columbus Park in 1911. Where once there stood an illegible area, a place seemingly immune to the exertion of state power, there now stood an open park, which purposely left barely a tree to hide behind.[6]

Matthew Guariglia is the editor of The Metropole’s Disciplining the City series and a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Connecticut. His most recent work exploring Donald Trump’s use of MS-13 in rhetorical fear mongering appeared in the Washington Post in April. 

Featured photo (at top): A vegetable stand in the Mulberry St. bend, photograph by Jacob Riis, 1889-1890, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. 

[1] Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives, New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1890, 56.

[2] “A Night on Post Thirteen,” The World, March 7, 1891, 6.

[3] A Night on Post Thirteen,” The World, March 7, 1891, 6.

[4] Ibid, 56, 62, 67.

[5] “Mulberry Bend’s Auction,” The Evening World, June 6, 1895, 2

[6] Letter from Henry Percy to Jacob Riis, June 14, 1897, Reel 3. Jacob Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.