Slums: Alan Mayne Responds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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