Strausbaugh, John. Victory City: A History of New York and New Yorkers during World War II. (New York: Twelve, 2018). 497pp. $30. ISBN 1455567485
Reviewed by Michael L. Levine
Victory City tells what it was like to live in New York during the Great Depression and World War II. The book may not break new scholarly ground, but it succeeds admirably in bringing a time and place to life and as such can serve as an inviting introduction to students for whom the New Deal and World War II may seem quite remote. Students today are as far removed from the New Deal as those in the thirties were from the Mexican War.
Reading Victory City is a bit like coming across a yellowing newspaper in an old trunk. In that regard John Strausbaugh exercises a deft touch in selecting compelling details. Consider: During the Depression three out of ten Brooklyn doctors lost phone service for nonpayment of bills. Doctors, mind you! How did ordinary families get by? Meanwhile some of New York’s largest corporations and banks got by– hedging their bets by investing in Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy
We are reminded that during the thirties and forties New York was home as almost no place else to tremendous concentrations of a wide range of ethnic groups. Of particular interest is Strausbaugh’s take on the world’s largest Jewish city. When it came to political confidence in the thirties and forties, the Jewish population in New York seemed less assertive and more uncertain than we might imagine. To retaliate for Hitler’s boycott of Jewish shops in Germany, Jewish New Yorkers called for a boycott of German-owned stores, including Macy’s. Although Macy’s was owned by the Strauses, a Jewish family, it had emigrated from Germany.
Along these lines consider that Arthur Sulzberger, an assimilated Jew, didn’t want his family’s paper, The New York Times, to be seen as Jewish. So, in the thirties, the paper “methodically,” to use Strausbaugh’s words, downplayed news about the persecution of Jews in Europe. Other American Jewish leaders also hesitated to speak out in favor of admitting Jewish refugees for fear of rousing the country’s many anti-Semites. During World War II Washington’s policy toward European Jews was based on the idea that a more aggressive effort to save the Jews from the Nazis would make it appear that the conflict was “a war for the Jews,” in which case Americans would be less willing to make sacrifices.
Strausbaugh also reminds us that while New York was a center of Jewry, it was also very much a German city. New Yorkers of German ancestry (numbering three quarters of million) may not have mostly been pro-Hitler, but Nazism unashamedly maintained a conspicuous presence throughout the metropolitan area. In the thirties, Fritz Kuhn’s German American Bund ran a summer camp on Long Island where youngsters uniformed like Hitler youth marched up and down streets named for Hitler, Goring and Goebbels. On German Day in 1938, the camp drew 40,000 visitors along with 2,000 Storm Trooper guards. The Long Island Railroad thoughtfully obliged by running a Camp Siegfried Special. In 1939 the Bund drew 22,000 to a rally at Madison Square Garden.
Strausbaugh points out that FDR drew the best and brightest—disproportionately New Yorkers—to Washington. If FDR was less concerned with an employee’s religion, gender and race than previous presidents, then some measure of credit must be given to his enlightened First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. These were the years when appreciative African Americans abandoned Lincoln’s GOP for the New Deal. But Strausbaugh points out that all was not well in the matter of race relations even in progressive Gotham. The 1943 Harlem Riots reflected the city’s oppressive and discriminatory housing and employment practices which made life for Africans Americans so difficult to endure.
A caution: Victory City may prove disconcerting at a time when “enemy of the people,” a vicious slogan calling to mind the brutal authoritarianism of the thirties, now finds renewed currency. When it comes to protecting civil rights and civil liberties—on guard!
Michael L. Levine holds a doctorate in American history from Rutgers. A long-time freelance editor and writer, he has staffed the A. Philip Randolph Institute and has served as editor-in-chief of National Productivity Review and as Associate Editor of Political Profiles, a multi-volume series featuring biographies of contemporary political leaders.
The University of Texas at Austin, School of Architecture
Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
I am currently working on a dissertation that examines the material history of the American “old age home” during the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. Few architectural historians have studied the history of senior housing, and fewer still have examined congregate facilities for elder Americans (nursing homes, old age homes, assisted living facilities, etc.). What drew me to this subject was its contemporary relevance – as Baby Boomers start to enter retirement, the country will soon face its own senior housing crisis. I am curious how we reached this point, and how our ambiguous cultural, social, and regulatory attitude towards the elderly has manifested materially over time. More and more I realize the urban nature of the subject – not only the spatialization of these homes, but how they fit into the social “mosaic” of the American downtown.
Describe the ideal course you would create based on your research.
I’ve done a fair amount of writing about the incidental built environments of the US military. This includes studies of defense housing projects, and the most recent work I presented at UHA on the how the arrival of Korean-American “War Brides” and their extended families impacted the built environment around Fort Hood, Texas. I’ve conceptualized a class that uses an institutional history of the US military to understand larger built environment narratives. The military provides an architectural historian with a vehicle to study both “high and low” design, both local and transnational spaces, both rural and urban scales. It would be an exploratory “generator” to use with students towards understanding some of the fundamental considerations of the field.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
What advice do you have for graduate students preparing a dissertation project related to urban history or urban studies?
To simply look around! That’s one of the joys of this field (especially for built environment scholars examining cities) – our evidence is everywhere. Some of the best topics I’ve happened upon in my own work have come from simply moving through city-space. The material world (and even its absence) tells us things that other forms of evidence cannot.
You contributed a fascinating think piece about the film A Ghost Storyto Interiors, a publication about “how architecture functions in film and media.” What was it like to write an architectural critique of a film? Would you do it again?
I am constantly thinking about the way the built environment is represented in film. In many movies the architecture is just a backdrop, a support – in conjuring a scene, oftentimes the whole goal of architecture is to not be idiosyncratic. I think this resonates with my interest in the everyday built environment, the vernacular. But the vernacular is so loaded with meaning; in its ordinariness it contains cues and clues about the actual lived experience of people. What I learned in writing the piece on A Ghost Story was the role that “vernacular looking” played on the film set. The director, the set designer, and many others shared a thoughtful attunement to the nuance of creating an “everyday,” home-like setting which played a critical role in the narrative.
During the second half of the nineteenth century, Lagos became an increasingly diverse, urban node on the Atlantic circuit, where slavery and freedom defined individual identities and shaped the city itself. A series of political and economic transformations contributed to the social dynamics of Lagos. The nineteenth-century transition from the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the “legitimate” commerce in palm products created new economic opportunities for non-elite Africans; in particular, many Yoruba-speaking people from the hinterland brought goods and services to the town as part of the supply chain for the new Atlantic demand.
The British bombardment of the port in 1851—followed by the town’s annexation in August 1861—prompted further changes. Runaway slaves from the interior flocked to the burgeoning colony, seeking freedom and protection under the new administration. Liberated Africans—those whose slave ships had been intercepted by the British Royal Navy’s anti-slavery squadron and rerouted to Sierra Leone—also migrated to the town. There, they formed a community of Christian, African elites called the Saros. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Lagos also became the primary destination for African emigrants from Bahia who, after years of enslavement in Brazil, bought their freedom and boarded ships bound for the African coast.
Thousands of formerly enslaved Africans and their descendants repatriated to West Africa from Salvador da Bahia, Brazil over the course of the century. Multiple factors contributed to returnees’ increasing interest in Lagos as a destination for resettlement after 1850. First, like other self-liberated Africans in the region, these Amaros—as Afro-Brazilian repatriates were called in Lagos—sought British protection from re-enslavement. Benjamin Campbell, the consul of Lagos from 1853 to 1859, encouraged these freed Africans to emigrate from Brazil; he promised to protect them in exchange for their cooperation with the colonial administration. These returnees’ decisions to settle in this particular urban port may have also been guided by their interest in trans-Atlantic commerce; the economic inflation and periodic blockades in other West African coastal cities—which resulted from the British Navy centering its activity around Ouidah and other, more western portsin an attempt to suppress the Dahomean slave trade—were not issues in Lagos. Finally, many of these emigrants came from Yoruba-speaking towns in the interior. By settling in the colony, these individuals returned to their region of origin.
At the same time, while many Amaros perceived Lagos as a space of freedom in contrast to Brazil, slavery continued to exist in the colony. While the British insisted on abolishing the foreign slave trade in Lagos after their bombardment of the port in 1851, they delayed abolition in the colony itself. In her examination of slavery in nineteenth-century colonial Lagos, Kristin Mann purports that it was not until after 1866 that British officials in London argued for the prohibition of slavery in the town. However, she explains, “In the second half of the nineteenth century, the colonial state largely left it to the slaves themselves to redefine their relationships with owners. Struggle over the contested and shifting relationship between owners and slaves … dominated the history of the town in the closing decades of the nineteenth century.”
In this way, an examination of the Afro-Brazilian community of Lagos illuminates the ways that the burgeoning colony was comprised of a series of contradictory, complex dynamics involving slavery and freedom, old and new, and local and Atlantic networks. For African returnees from Brazil, the memory of enslavement continued to impact their lives in Lagos, at the same time that it also defined policies and relationships in the colony during the period. In addition, for non-elite, repatriated Africans, Lagos was a space in which they reengaged with local kinship and commercial connections, while simultaneously asserting themselves as “Atlantic citizens.” Indeed, after these Afro-Brazilian repatriates settled in the colony, their social and commercial networks included new relations, emigrants who they had known in Bahia, and Yoruba family members with whom they reunited. Within these relationships, they constantly (re)negotiated spaces of freedom, both in the colony and in the larger Atlantic world.
Nineteenth-century courtroom testimonies from these emigrants, contained in documents housed at the Lagos State High Court, reveal these dynamics and the ways that they impacted the lives of returnees in the colony. Ewusu, a freed Yoruba emigrant from Bahia, serves as one such example. The late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Yoruba wars dispersed Ewusu and her family from their town in the interior; as a young girl, she was captured and sold into slavery in Bahia. In 1843, she emigrated to Lagos with her husband and a Brazilian-born child named Maria Mariquinha; ten years later, in 1853, her sister came to the port city from Sierra Leone, where she had been taken by the British after her initial capture. In an 1892 testimony, Ewusu’s nephew remembered the scene when the two sisters met for the first time in Lagos, after being apart for a quarter of a century. He told the court, “They embraced and wept together. They related the stories of the troubles they had passed through in captivity.” Upon Ewusu’s death, however, her Saro relatives went to trial with Maria Mariquinha, the young girl who had emigrated with her. In a fight over who would inherit her estate, the question became whether Maria Mariquinha was a kin relation or Ewusu’s former slave. In the end, the court ruled that Maria Mariquinha did not have rights to Ewusu’s property, illustrating the ways in which slavery continued to be an important element of defining identity and kinship in Lagos colony. These mixed families of formerly enslaved Amaros, Saros, and Brazilian-born relations, like that of Ewusu, illuminates the complicated identities and kinship dynamics in the city during the second half of the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, while the condition and memory of slavery still shaped these returnees’ lives in Lagos on both individual and institutional levels at times, the colony also became a refuge for freedom for many formerly enslaved emigrants.
In addition to being a city comprised of complex relational networks, Lagos also served as a node of Atlantic engagement that facilitated the free movement of formerly enslaved returnees between West Africa and Brazil. While these emigrants often rekindled their Yoruba social and commercial relationships in the region, the Amaros maintained the networks that they had forged across the Atlantic, as well. Passport registers from the port of Salvador show that many emigrants made multiple trips to Bahia after repatriating to Lagos, in order to visit family or to participate in trans-Atlantic trade. The colonial policy of issuing British passports to Brazilian returnees—despite the fact that they were not considered British citizens—allowed these Amaros to travel without the risk of re-enslavement. Lisa Earl Castillo’s work on mapping the nineteenth-century Brazilian returnee movement provides insight into the origins of this practice, which Consul Campbell implemented in 1858. Castillo explains, “He [Campbell] initially envisioned this as a way of assisting those who wished to resettle in homelands in the interior rather than remain in Lagos.” Campbell extended this practice to those returnees who wished to travel back and forth between Lagos and Brazil or Cuba. As Castillo notes, soon these Brazilian emigrants used their British passports “not only for international voyages but also for domestic travel within Brazil, much to the local authorities’ displeasure.” Such was the case for José Godinho Bastos, a liberated African who left for Lagos in April 1876. In November of the same year, Bastos returned to Salvador on a ship that embarked from the colony; he arrived in Brazil with a British passport. In March 1877, he again set sail for Lagos; police records from Bahia note that he was still in possession of his British documents. Another liberated African, Augusto João Barcellos, traveled from Rio Grande do Sul to Salvador, where he obtained a passport to sail to Lagos in 1868. He settled in the colony, where he became a farmer and a merchant. However, his trans-Atlantic business dealings brought him back to Salvador by 1889, at which point he had a British passport. He again sailed for his home in Lagos in March of that year, and the Brazilian police recorded his status as a British subject.
Using their British passports, these Afro-Brazilian emigrants exercised their freedom by expanding their mobility. The colonial policies, the changing dynamics, and the diverse population of Lagos allowed these returnees to maintain and create new trans-Atlantic connections, while simultaneously rekindling the social, ethnic and commercial ties they had lost when they were sold into slavery. In this way, the city of Lagos became an important freedom hub for Africans and their descendants throughout the Atlantic during the second half of the nineteenth century. While the early-twentieth century brought additional changes and increasingly restrictive colonial policies toward Africans, the Afro-Brazilian emigrants who settled in the city during the decades before used this urban space to contest the legacies of slavery and to reimagine themselves as free members of both their local community in Lagos and their commercial and social networks that spanned the Atlantic.
Susan A.C. Rosenfeld (@sarosenfeld) is a Ph.D. Candidate in African History at the University of California, Los Angeles. Based on multi-sited research, her dissertation—“Apparitions of the Atlantic: Afro-Brazilian Freedom, Mobility, and Self-Identification in Lagos and the Atlantic World, 1851–1900,” focuses on non-elite, formerly enslaved Africans and their descendants who emigrated from Brazil to Lagos during the second half of the nineteenth century.
 Robin Law, ed., From Slave Trade to ‘Legitimate’ Commerce: The commercial transition in nineteenth-century West Africa (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
 There is an ongoing scholarly debate over the number of nineteenth-century repatriates. See Pierre Verger, Flux et reflux de la traite des nègres entre le Golfe de Bénin et Bahia de Todos os Santos du XVIIe au XIXe siècle (Paris: Mouton, 1968), 633; Jerry M. Turner, Les Brésiliens: The Impact of Former Slaves upon Dahomey (Ph.D. dissertation, Boston University, 1975), 78; Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, Negros, estrangeiros: os escravos libertos e sua volta à África (São Paulo: Editora Brasiliense, 1978), 210–16; Clément da Cruz, “Les Apports culturels des Noirs de la Diaspora à l’Afrique” (Contonou: UNESCO, 1983), 5.
 Lisa A. Lindsay, “‘To Return to the Bosom of Their Fatherland’: Brazilian Immigrants in Nineteenth-Century Lagos,” Slavery & Abolition 15, no. 1 (1994): 26–27.
 Lisa Earl Castillo, “Mapping the Nineteenth-Century Brazilian Returnee Movement: Demographics, Life Stories, and the Question of Slavery,” Atlantic Studies 13, no. 1 (2016): 35.
 Kristin Mann, “Finding Slave Voices in British Colonial High Court Records: Lagos, 1879,” Conference on “Finding the African Voice: Narratives of Slavery and Enslavement,” Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Study and Conference Center, Bellagio, Italy, 24–28 September, 2007. Mann also discusses this dynamic in her book, Slavery and the Birth of an African City: Lagos, 1760–1900 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007).
 This phrase is adapted to the Afro-Brazilian context from Leslie Eckel’s work on nineteenth-century writers in the United States; see Atlantic Citizens: Nineteenth-Century American Writers at Work in the World (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013).
 Lagos State High Court (hereafter LSHC), Judge’s Notebook, Civil Cases, 386–88, Maria Mariquinha v. David Williams, 9 February 1892.
 Castillo, “Mapping the Nineteenth-Century Brazilian Returnee Movement,” 36.
 Arquivo Público do Estado da Bahia (hereafter APEB), Lista de Entrada e Saída de Passageiros (1876), maço 5953; APEB, Saídas dos Passageiros, Republicano No. 52; APEB, Registros de passaportes (1875–77), maço 5905.
 APEB, Registros de passaportes (1864–68), maço 5901; APEB, Registro de passaportes (1885–89), maço 5910; LSHC, Judge’s Notebook, Civil Cases, 48–53, Augusto João Barcellos v. Roqui João Gonsalo, 14 April 1891.
Mark Wild. 2019. Renewal: Liberal Protestants and the American City After World War II. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 336 pp. $50. ISBN: 978-0226605234. Hardcover.
In some ways, the idea for this book began during my childhood in 1970s-era San Francisco. The city in those years was much more dynamic, much more interesting, and much scarier than it is today. This was as true of the city’s Protestant religious communities as anything else. A few examples: In the Tenderloin district, the once fading Glide Memorial Methodist church had transformed under the leadership of pastor Cecil Williams into a thriving interracial congregation with an international reputation and a substantial local political presence. Not far away (and just a few blocks from my home), Jim Jones’s People’s Temple had acquired a comparable level of publicity, while rumors about its cultish and treacherous leader foreshadowed the carnage that followed the temple’s relocation to Guyana. Even our family’s church—a staid, white Episcopalian congregation in a well-to-do neighborhood—was not insulated from the forces of cultural change. One Sunday morning in 1978, the associate rector, William Barcus, announced that he was gay. At the time, such a declaration from a mainline clergyman was shocking, even in San Francisco. Father Barcus went on to deliver the eulogy at Harvey Milk’s funeral and to establish a homeless ministry before dying of AIDS-related complications in the early 1990s.
Renewal investigates a problem that vexed many people in the years after World War II: how should the church respond to the volatile climate of modern urban America? One movement of mainline clergy and laypeople believed that new kinds of ecclesial institutions were needed. Capital flight and suburbanization were luring the middle-classes, especially the white middle class, out of cities. Their replacements were more working-class, more racially and religiously diverse. The renewalists argued that mainline congregations no longer served the needs (spiritual, social, and political) of these parishioners. They designed new forms of ministry and spiritual community to appeal to these residents. Along the way they rethought the church’s relationship to the city. Hoping to abolish, or at least reduce, the distinction between sacred and secular, they carved out a vision of a church embedded in all dimensions of urban America.
A few of these efforts, like Glide Church, enjoyed spectacular success. Most did not. Renewalists envisioned unified parishes and the simultaneous empowerment of the diverse ethnic, racial, and cultural communities within them. Balancing unity and autonomy was (and remains) notoriously difficult, and by the time I was going to church, renewalists had lost much of their energy and resources.
Why should urban historians care about a movement that failed to achieve most of its objectives? For one thing, renewalists, despite their limitations, had a significant impact on the communities where they worked, not only through their own ministries, but by supporting the larger network of community organizations and campaigns that reshaped urban America in the postwar period. For another, renewalist efforts bear striking similarities to those of other institutions—freedom-movement and ethnic nationalist organizations, unions, and local political machines, to name a few—of their era. When Father Barcus came out to our congregation, he did so partly to protest a state referendum, sometimes referred to as the Briggs initiative, that would have barred LGBT teachers from public schools. The coalition that mobilized to defeat Briggs spanned local and regional organizations, both secular and church-based. These kinds of subjects have occupied the attention of urban historians for a long time. Understanding them requires understanding the church people who supported and sometimes led them. These renewalists were not just the religious arm of a secular cause, but active constituents in the evolution of urban history, whose stories hold lessons for people inside and outside the church.
Mark Wild has taught history at California State University Los Angeles since 2002. In addition to Renewal, he is the author of Street Meeting: Multiethnic Neighborhoods in Early Twentieth Century Los Angeles (University of California Press, 2005).
We live in a time of New York Triumphalism—it is hard to avoid the celebratory tone and the accompanying music that rehearses New York’s being the World City that dazzles and amazes. It was not always thus. Cities like New York in the 18th and 19th century were places where people died with alarming regularity as outbreaks of cholera, influenza, small pox, yellow fever and diphtheria killed thousands in seemingly unstoppable waves. Doctors, scientists, reformers and of course the clergy struggled to understand such devastation.
Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis at the Museum of The City of New York walks the viewer into an ever-widening glade of understanding and an appreciation of the eventual success which came as scientists began to grapple with the fact that the microscopic could be deadly. Practitioners and city public health offices were forced to abandon their inherited theory of disease—bodily humors balanced by bleeding and emetics—as the appropriate approach. Instead they began to learn how to deal with the specifics of various afflictions. Disease was no longer a matter of puckish humor; it was a specific ailment that happened in specific ways.
Early notions of public health, such as quarantining infected patients, gave way to more informed treatments. Some of the great breakthroughs introduced even before Pasteur’s germ theory of disease resulted from improved sanitation—a clean water supply and a dedicated system for the removal of waste meant that cholera would no longer ravage poor communities where water was drawn from shallow contaminated wells. Germ City does particularly well in giving the viewer a lively sense of the degree to which the city’s growth ultimately depended on the development of an improved water/sewer infrastructure along with health-related research and educational activities.
What the exhibit does not do, except tangentially, is to invite the viewer to come to grips with the moralization of disease—the blame-the-victim attitude in which the affliction was seen as rooted in the patient’s sinfulness. Why were the poor more likely to succumb to tuberculosis or cholera or yellow fever? They were dirty, drunk and lascivious. The film by Mariam Ghani which uses Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor raises some of those questions on the way into the exhibit, as does the AIDS material in one of the displays.
More detail about early forms of hospitalization would have provided a fuller reading of how the city responded to epidemics. It is however the display of the artifacts that practitioners developed for treatments that gives this show a very useful tactile quality. This material approach to depicting medical history calls to mind the work of the writer/physician Sherwin Nuland. Though Dr. Nuland is not directly referenced here, we see his influence as he underscored in his work on medicine, doctors and how we live and die, the centrality of “seeing.” Nuland argued that we have to see what is happening and why. We do not need an “idea” only of what ails us; we need granular specificity. That essential insight informs Germ City. Through this deeply informative exhibition you begin to understand the uncertainty, confusion and insights regarding the effects of what van Leeuwenhook called “the cavorting wee beasties” that both sustain and end your life.
Robert B. Carey, Ph.D. isProfessor of History at Empire State College/SUNY Emeritus
Featured Image (at top): Dr, John C. Peters, “Routes of Asiatic Cholera” map from Harper’s Weekly, April 25, 1885. Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library
ETH Zurich, Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta)
Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
Intellectual history alongside (and intertwined with) urban and architectural history has always caught my interest. At the moment, I am following this research interest firstly in a project that is looking at a larger, regional scale: At ETH Zurich, we are conducting a research project on the Swiss civil engineer Heinz Isler (1926–2009), who played a major role in the development of prestressed thin concrete shells and was influential in shaping the Swiss infrastructural landscape by implementing a network of industrial buildings. These structures can shed light on developments in engineering, on changing conditions inside the construction industry, as well as on the phenomenon of land-consuming sprawl in industrial zones. Secondly, I am following the traces of several disciples of the architect and urban planner Theodor Fischer (1862–1938), who was one of the doyens of modern, yet traditionally rooted architecture in Germany. My goal is to carve out the effect that Fischer’s teaching had on the younger generations of architects who then, in turn, set the tone during the interwar years and in the reconstruction of cities during the early postwar period.
Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?
During the current semester, I am taking a pause from teaching to concentrate on my research. In the upcoming semester, though, I will be teaching History of Urban Design as a guest lecturer at Hochschule München. It is the relationship between theory, cultural history, and practice that intrigues me and that I want to reveal to the students. In past years, I concentrated on the discourse of space in German architectural theory – a discourse which also evolved in urban planning around the turn of the century. This opens up new perspectives on industrialized cities as both estranged environments that could be reclaimed and on larger spatial relationships that went beyond the historical boundaries of cities on the other. This investigation into theory and its actual effects on planning practice informs my teaching of urban history.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
I am very much looking forward to the publication of my PhD thesis on the architect and theoretician Herman Sörgel (1885–1952), which will appear in the fall this year. It is not only that this research – as is the nature of a dissertation – accompanied me for many years. It is also my aim to contribute with this book, which for the first time shifts the focus from both Sörgel’s unfinished “Theorie der Baukunst” and his architectural and urban designs to a broader understanding of modernism in general by introducing a figure that until now has not been in the center of the historiography of modern architecture.
What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?
One that sounds rather self-explanatory: be curious, and be aware that when you answer one research question you raise at least two new ones. Although this can sometimes be sobering or even annoying, it is the best driver for research. And certainty about the fact that history never follows an easy logic of smooth progress, but that it contains a bundle of fascinating sub-plots, is one of its best outcomes.
You have written about the application of the philosophical concept of “Einfühlung” (empathy) in architecture. What is an example of a structure or architectural work that you particularly empathize with, and why?
It is rather an urban project than an architectural work that I am empathizing with, if I have to choose one. I am thinking of Joze Plecnik’s (1872–1957) renewal (or better, refurbishment) of Ljubljana’s city center. He was able to implement this by a series of punctual interventions: When strolling through the city along the river bank of the Ljubljanica, one is confronted with several bridges that were carefully implanted into the urban fabric, flights of stairs, monuments, and public buildings such as the Market or the National Library. In Ljubljana, one can experience a vivid urban center and at the same time some kind of open-air exhibition making visible the architectural search for an identity which the newly constituted capital city undertook in the crucial years after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Slovenia’s independence from the Viennese reign.
A decade before the American Civil War, James Churchwill (“Church”) Vaughan set out to fulfill his formerly enslaved father’s dying wish: that he should leave his home in South Carolina for a new life in Africa. With help from the American Colonization Society, he went first to Liberia, though he did not stay there long. In 1855, Vaughan accepted an offer of employment in Yorubaland—about which Americans knew virtually nothing–with Southern Baptist missionaries. Over the next four decades in today’s southwestern Nigeria, Vaughan became a war captive, served as a military sharpshooter, built and re-built a livelihood, led a revolt against white racism in missionary churches, and founded a family of activists. When his relatives were struggling in South Carolina in the late 1860s, he sent them canvas bags filled with gold. His descendants in Lagos and those of his siblings in the United States maintained contact for the next century. When Church Vaughan died in 1893, he left his widow and three children land, businesses, and multiple houses in central Lagos, and he was buried under an imposing monument in Ikoyi Cemetery.
Vaughan’s remarkable story reveals two fundamental features of Lagos life, a century ago and now. First, this is a place where strangers came, and still come, to seek their fortunes. Originally a fishing village, Lagos had developed as an outpost for international slaving and then “legitimate trade” in palm oil and other tropical produce. By the late nineteenth century, the city was known as the “Liverpool of West Africa.” New settlers arrived, pulled by economic opportunities generated by the export trade and pushed by violence and insecurity in the interior that had begun with the disintegration of the Oyo Empire in the 1820s. In the 1860s, when Vaughan, his African wife, and their little son walked there after being expelled with other Christians from the inland town of Abeokuta, Lagos’s population was estimated at 25,000. He prospered as a carpenter and then as a merchant of building supplies, importing hardware and other materials for the houses and stores that newcomers continued to build. By 1881, the city had grown to 38,000, which included only 111 Europeans, despite the fact that Lagos had become a British colony twenty years earlier. The numbers kept increasing, so that by 1911 Lagos’s population numbered three times what it had been in 1866. People came for many reasons, including to escape interior warfare or slavery, or as part of another migrant’s retinue of dependents. But it was the lure of wealth through trade that called many of them to the city, even though few new migrants ultimately became rich. “The real Lagosian loves above everything else to be a trader,” a resident missionary wrote in 1881.
Many of the most visible and prosperous traders were, like Church Vaughan, refugees from Atlantic world slavery. Ex-slaves from Brazil and Cuba, most of them Yoruba or of Yoruba descent, had resettled in Lagos (and nearby Whydah and elsewhere) since the late 1830s, largely through their own initiatives. They formed a residential and commercial quarter in the city, and many of them worked as carpenters, builders, or other artisans, giving Brazilian-style flourishes to the homes and businesses of their clients. Vaughan, in fact, lived among them and became their supplier when he went into the hardware business. The other significant group of newcomers were the so-called Saro, people who themselves or whose parents had been enslaved in the disintegration of the Oyo Empire, forced onto slave ships headed to Brazil or Cuba, been rescued at sea by British antislavery patrols and landed at Sierra Leone. They later made their way back to their areas of origin. By the mid-1860s, probably around 1,000 Sierra Leonians and equal numbers of Brazilians had settled in Lagos, and their numbers tripled over the next two decades. Their prior commercial experience, initial capital, contacts with Europeans, and western education enabled some Sierra Leonians to move quickly into the import-export trade and ascend to the top of the local elite. In fact, it was mostly Saro whom Martin Delany was describing when he noticed, passing through Lagos in 1859, that “The merchants and business men of Lagos [are] principally native black gentlemen, there being but ten white houses in the place…and all of the clerks are native blacks.” Both they and the Brazilians literally made their mark on the city’s landscape. To this day, central Lagos’s streets bear the names of early returnees, including Savage, Cole, Doherty, and Davies in the Olowogbowo area settled by Sierra Leonians and Bamgbose, Pedro, Martins, and Tokunboh in the Brazilian quarter (Tokunboh meaning a person who has returned from abroad).
Church Vaughan’s remarkable life also serves as a reminder of the persistent ability of Lagosians to borrow creatively and make something new. In his case, it was his connections with the African diaspora that helped inspire him to lead a rebellion against racist white missionaries in the late 1880s. Taking inspiration from African Americans who formed their own churches and schools as a response to discrimination, in 1888 Vaughan and several others formed the first non-missionary Christian church in West Africa, the Native (later Ebenezer) Baptist Church in Lagos. But Yoruba people had long appreciated the potential of new ideas from elsewhere to improve things locally. The term ọ̀lajú, meaning “enlightenment” or “civilization” (from the Yoruba verb meaning “to open the eyes”) was first used in the mid-nineteenth century to describe the cultural package brought by European missionaries, including technical, medical, and clerical skills as well as Christianity. It also referred to those who were not necessarily well educated, but who gained worldly knowledge by pursuing opportunities away from home. Either way, the central idea was to use knowledge or experience from somewhere else to bring progress back home. This was certainly what new arrivals in Lagos tried to do, building on trading connections or using ideas from places they had lived in order to pursue success in their new hometown.
The most famous Lagosian of the twentieth century may have been Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the pioneer musician and inveterate political critic, who died in 1997. Fela grew up in the town of Abeokuta, where his father had been a school principal and his mother led a massive women’s protest against a colonially-backed local ruler. After stints in London, Ghana, and Los Angeles, in the 1960s Fela made Lagos his lifelong home and creative muse. There, he created Afrobeat, an infectious musical style that blended local highlife, Yoruba melodies, jazz, and the funk of James Brown into something altogether new. Fela, like Church Vaughan and countless others, brought to Lagos the creative vitality of people on the move. The city has been built by people like them—refugees, entrepreneurs, and hustlers, who “opened their eyes” in multiple directions.
Lisa A. Lindsay is Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Term Professor and Chair of the Department of History at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. A specialist in the history of Nigeria, the slave trade, and the Atlantic world, she is the author of Atlantic Bonds: A Nineteenth Century Odyssey from America to Africa, which won the African Studies Association’s prize for the best book in any field of African studies published in 2017. Previous publications include Working with Gender: Wage Labor and Social Change in Colonial Southwestern Nigeria (2003); Captives as Commodities: The Transatlantic Slave Trade (2008); and the co-edited volumes Men and Masculinities in Modern Africa (2003) and Biography and the Black Atlantic (2014).
Featured image (at top): James Churchill Vaughn’s tombstone, Ikoyi Cemetery, Lagos, Nigeria.
 Lisa A. Lindsay, Atlantic Bonds: A Nineteenth Century Odyssey from America to Africa (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).
 J. Buckley Wood, “On the Inhabitants of Lagos: Their Character, Pursuits, and Language,” Church Missionary Intelligencer (1881): 683-91, 687 quoted.
 M.R. Delany, “Official Report of the Niger Valley Exploring Party,” in Howard H. Bell (ed.), Search for a Place: Black Separatism and Africa, 1860, edited by (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969), 113-14.
 J.D.Y. Peel, “Olaju: A Yoruba Concept of Development,” Journal of development Studies 14 (1978): 139-65.
As historians gather their kits together to embark on the quest that is #OAH19, The Metropole would like to provide some Philadelphia-centric reading material to those travelling the highways and byways of America to reach the City of Brotherly Love.
We offer, first, a round up of our March coverage of the Philly for our Metropolis of the Month feature (MotM). Second, Alyssa Ribeiro took a peek at our initial Philadelphia bibliography and found it a bit wanting on issues such as ethnicity and social movements. She’s provided a cracker jack addition to our foray into the field, her list being particularly focused on the twentieth century. Professor Ribeiro’s recommendations are, as the kids like to say on “the twitter,” “chef’s kiss!”
March Metropolis of the Month (MotM): Philadelphia
Temple University PhD candidate, James Cook Thajudeen discusses a sometimes maligned but absolutely critical aspect of urban living: sanitation and waste removal. One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure takes on new meaning in his piece.
It’s always good to get a peek at upcoming works, particularly when contextualized in our current political moment. DePaul historian James Wolfinger discusses both Philadelphia history in the era of a certain orange-tinged leader and the upcoming anthology of the city that he edited, featuring contributions from leading historians of Philly.
Meds and eds has been a well publicized strategy for urban renewal in former rust belt cities like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The Miller Center’s Guian McKee delves into the subject to explore the ramifications of such policies and just how advantageous the public-private relationships on which these developments rest are for the city and its citizenry.
Black-Latino relations have often been portrayed as frayed and, while not untrue, it remains only part of a larger, more complex story. Through the person of Philadelphia Tribune columnist and frequent flyer Nancy Giddens, Allegheny College’s Alyssa Ribiero provides a window into mid-20th century Black-Puerto Rican relations and Giddens’ efforts to build community.
Additions to Philadelphia Bibliography courtesy of Alyssa Ribiero
Adams, Carolyn T. From the Outside In: Suburban Elites, Third-Sector Organizations, and the Reshaping of Philadelphia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014.
Anderson, Elijah. Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.
Arnau, Ariel. “The Evolution of Leadership within the Puerto Rican Community of Philadelphia.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 136, no. 1 (2012): 53–81.
Bauman, John F., Norman P. Hummon, and Edward K. Muller. “Public Housing, Isolation, and the Urban Underclass: Philadelphia’s Richard Allen Homes, 1941-1965.” Journal of Urban History 17, no. 3 (1991): 264–92.
Binzen, Peter. Whitetown, U.S.A. New York: Random House, 1970.
Canton, David A. Raymond Pace Alexander: A New Negro Lawyer Fights for Civil Rights in Philadelphia. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2010.
Capozzola, Christopher. “‘It Makes You Want to Believe in the Country’: Celebrating the Bicentennial in an Age of Limits.” In America in the Seventies, edited by Beth Bailey and David Farber, 29–49. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004.
Cutler, William W., and Howard Gillette, eds. The Divided Metropolis: Social and Spatial Dimensions of Philadelphia, 1800-1975. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980.
Donner, Frank J. Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
Dubin, Murray. South Philadelphia: Mummers, Memories, and the Melrose Diner. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.
Dyson, Omari L., Kevin L. Brooks, and Judson L. Jeffries. “‘Brotherly Love Can Kill You’: The Philadelphia Branch of the Black Panther Party.” In Comrades: A Local History of the Black Panther Party, edited by Judson L. Jeffries, 214–54. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007.
Ellison, Elaine Krasnow. Voices from Marshall Street: Jewish Life in a Philadelphia Neighborhood, 1920-1960. Philadelphia: Camino Books, 1994.
Ershkowitz, Miriam, and Joseph Zikmund II, eds. Black Politics in Philadelphia. New York: Basic Books, 1973.
Feffer, Andrew. “The Land Belongs to the People: Reframing Urban Protest in Post-Sixties Philadelphia.” In The World the 60s Made: Politics and Culture in Recent America, edited by Van Gosse and Richard Moser, 67–99. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003.
Franklin, V. P. The Education of Black Philadelphia: The Social and Educational History of a Minority Community, 1900-1950. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979.
González, Juan D. “The Turbulent Progress of Puerto Ricans in Philadelphia.” Centro 2, no. 2 (1987): 35–41.
Goode, Judith. “Polishing the Rustbelt: Immigrants Enter a Restructuring Philadelphia.” In Newcomers in the Workplace: Immigrants and the Restructuring of the U.S. Economy, edited by Louise Lamphere, Alex Stepick, and Guillermo Grenier, 199–230. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.
Goode, Judith, and Jo Anne Schneider. Reshaping Ethnic and Racial Relations in Philadelphia: Immigrants in a Divided City. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.
Griffin, Sean Patrick. Philadelphia’s ‘Black Mafia’: A Social and Political History. New York and Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2003.
Harry, Margot. “Attention, MOVE! This Is America!” Chicago: Banner Press, 1987.
Haumann, Sebastian. “Modernism Was ‘Hollow’: The Emergence of Participatory Planning in Philadelphia, 1950-1970.” Planning Perspectives 26, no. 1 (2011): 55–73.
Johnson, Karl E. “Police-Black Community Relations in Postwar Philadelphia: Race and Criminalization in Urban Social Spaces, 1945-1960.” Journal of African American History 89, no. 2 (2004): 118–34.
Kairys, David. Philadelphia Freedom: Memoir of a Civil Rights Lawyer. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008.
Luconi, Stefano. From Paesani to White Ethnics: The Italian Experience in Philadelphia. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.
Lukacs, John. Philadelphia: Patricians and Philistines, 1900-1950. 1981. Reprint, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2017.
McAllister, David. “Realtors and Racism in Working-Class Philadelphia, 1945-1970.” In African American Urban History Since World War II, edited by Kenneth L. Kusmer and Joe W. Trotter. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Muller, Peter O., Kenneth C. Meyer, and Roman A. Cybriwsky. Metropolitan Philadelphia: A Study of Conflicts and Social Cleavages. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger Publishing Company, 1976.
Naples, Nancy A. Grassroots Warriors: Activist Mothering, Community Work, and the War on Poverty. New York: Routledge, 1998.
Nash, Gary B. Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.
Ribeiro, Alyssa. “Forgotten Residents Fighting Back: The Ludlow Community Association and Neighborhood Improvement in Philadelphia.” In Civil Rights and Beyond: African American and Latino/a Activism in the Twentieth-Century United States, edited by Brian D. Behnken, 172–94. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016.
Rose, Dan. Black American Street Life: South Philadelphia, 1969-1971. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987.
Shelton, Jon. Teacher Strike!: Public Education and the Making of a New American Political Order. University of Illinois Press, 2017.
Simon, Roger D. Philadelphia: A Brief History. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2017.
Sullivan, Leon H. Build Brother Build. Philadelphia: Macrae Smith Company, 1969.
Takenaka, Ayumi, and Mary Johnson Osirim, eds. Global Philadelphia: Immigrant Communities Old and New. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010.
Vásquez-Hernández, Víctor. Before the Wave: Puerto Ricans in Philadelphia, 1910-1945. Centro Press, Center for Puerto Rican Studies, 2017.
Velázquez, José E. “Coming Full Circle: The Puerto Rican Socialist Party, U.S. Branch.” In The Puerto Rican Movement: Voices from the Diaspora, edited by Andrés Torres and José E. Velázquez, 48–68. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.
Weiler, Conrad. Philadelphia: Neighborhood, Authority, and the Urban Crisis. New York: Praeger, 1974.
Whalen, Carmen Teresa. “Bridging Homeland and Barrio Politics: The Young Lords in Philadelphia.” In The Puerto Rican Movement: Voices from the Diaspora, edited by Andrés Torres and José E. Velázquez, 107–23. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.
———. “Citizens and Workers: African Americans and Puerto Ricans in Philadelphia’s Regional Economy Since World War II.” In African American Urban History Since World War II, edited by Kenneth L. Kusmer and Joe W. Trotter, 98–122. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
———. From Puerto Rico to Philadelphia: Puerto Rican Workers and Postwar Economies. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.
Wherry, Frederick F. The Philadelphia Barrio: The Arts, Branding, and Neighborhood Transformation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.
Wilson, Kathryn E. Ethnic Renewal in Philadelphia’s Chinatown: Space, Place, and Struggle. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2015.
Winch, Julie. Philadelphia’s Black Elite: Activism, Accommodation, and the Struggle for Autonomy, 1787-1848. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.
Editor’s note: In anticipation of this week’s #OAH2019/#OAH19 in Philadelphia, the March Metro of the Month was the City of Brotherly love (you can see here for all of our offerings; it begins with the post below but if you scroll down you’ll find all the others). We offer a final new post to whet your intellectual appetites for the city. To get more info about the conference click over to the organization’s website, where you can also download the OAH’s program for the event.
By Alyssa Ribeiro
Ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico—due to both humanmade and natural disasters—has accelerated migration from the island to Philadelphia. In the past decade, the city replaced Chicago as the second largest concentration of Puerto Ricans on the US mainland, behind only New York City. These migrants joined enclaves established in the early and mid-twentieth century. Even more so than today, earlier Puerto Rican arrivals found a city sharply divided between black and white. Neighbors often dismissed them as “foreigners,” even though they were U.S. citizens. Building relationships across racial and cultural divides thus became crucial to migrants’ opportunities in a new city. Black Philadelphians were generally more likely allies than their white counterparts.
Beginning in the mid-1950s, the growth of Philadelphia’s Puerto Rican population quickly accelerated. Clustered in a handful of North Philadelphia neighborhoods, recent arrivals shared space and resources with a predominantly black population. In these years, Puerto Ricans forged early ties with black communities through Nancy Giddens, a middle-class, African-American woman who was a well-known socialite and journalist. These ties prefigured relationships that would coalesce into multiracial grassroots organizing and political coalitions in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.
Nancy Giddens was born Nancy Bryant in Portsmouth, Virginia and moved to Philadelphia sometime prior to 1940. She attended business school in the city and settled with her husband Earl in West Philadelphia, where they raised one son. She was an expert seamstress with an interest in fashion, the social scene, travel, and charity work. She played active roles in many organizations, and for two decades she spoke to the public through the pages of the Philadelphia Tribune, a twice-weekly black newspaper.
Giddens was involved in an array of established organizations and created several of her own. From the early 1950s, she coordinated the activities of the Mahlon M. Lewis Guild of Greater St. Matthews Independent Church, where she worshipped. She was founder and president of the Traveleers Civic-Social Club, a group through which Philadelphia professional women traveled and offered their service. She also organized fundraising events for Heritage House, an educational and cultural institution for black youth. Her civic activism gained wide recognition, and in the midst of the Vietnam War Giddens became the first black woman to be appointed to a draft board in the state of Pennsylvania. Such representation mattered during a foreign conflict that disproportionately took its toll on communities of color.
Giddens’ love of travel took her to Puerto Rico regularly beginning in 1955. Friends often threw lavish bon voyage parties before her departures from home, with as many as one hundred guests. Her daughter-in-law, Marion Gracia, said Giddens was “loved” on the island, adding “She was their queen, and she received many honors during her visits there.”  This reception likely reflected her warm personality as well as her desire to bring much-needed resources to island residents. Giddens also warmly received visitors from the island back in Philadelphia, on one occasion throwing an elaborate dinner party for Reverend and Mrs. Jose Anthony Luciano from Naguabo, Puerto Rico. Giddens’s personal relationship with the Lucianos and others on the island guided the Traveleer’s relief efforts. The group created a Milk Fund for Puerto Rican children and donated supplies in the wake of a hurricane.
Closer to home, Giddens hobnobbed with Puerto Rican migrants to Philadelphia, most of them likely middle class and involved in civic organizations. Giddens was well enough regarded in the growing Puerto Rican community that she was elected president of the Puerto Rican Civic Association in 1959. She also served as director of the Puerto Rican Women’s Committee, sat on the board of the Spanish Youth Congress, and advised the Puerto Rican Center at Berean Institute.
Many more Philadelphians encountered Giddens through her long career with the newspaper. In the mid-fifties, she sat on the Tribune’s Board of Directors and started to write a dressmaking column. Meanwhile, out of personal interest she began occasionally writing about Puerto Rico and its people. In late 1958, her efforts became a regular column titled “Under Two Flags,” which sought to “enlighten the public on the problems encountered and faced by the Puerto Rican migrant.”  The column ran with varying frequency until 1967. Giddens also provided the public with general updates in “Social Whirl,” which was later renamed “The Changing Scene.” In the early seventies, she penned a column that profiled local working women. In addition to writing, Giddens served as the paper’s Women’s Editor for more than a decade. Giddens had a strong and wide-ranging network of social connections, and she used the Tribune’s women’s pages to promote and publicize the activities of local programs and organizations.
Giddens’s contributions and popularity did not go unnoticed at the time. While presenting her with an award, radio personality Del Shields of WDAS-FM called her “the woman who literally holds the key of influence and leadership among women in Philadelphia.”  In addition to honors from many local organizations, the mayor recognized the breadth of her community service in 1963. She later received a Distinguished Service Award from President Gerald Ford for her work on the Philadelphia Selective Service Appeal Board. After leaving the Tribune in the early seventies and starting a public relations firm, Giddens passed away in 1989.
Giddens served black and Puerto Rican residents in several ways. She was a ubiquitous participant in clubs and civic organizations, where she often used her artistic, logistical, and social skills to coordinate impressive events. Given her popularity and level of involvement, she likely facilitated networking among Philadelphia’s black middle class, and may have inspired others to serve or donate resources. She also served as a type of cultural ambassador between Philadelphia’s black and Puerto Rican residents through her widely-disseminated columns and her involvement in early Puerto Rican organizations. These ties created a foundation for broader alliances as Philadelphia’s Puerto Rican population continued to grow in the following decades.
Alyssa Ribeiro is a historian of 20th century US cities, race, and ethnicity. She holds a PhD from Pitt and is currently an assistant professor of History and Black Studies at Allegheny College. She previously studied Black and Puerto Rican relations in Philadelphia and is now working on a book manuscript which traces how North Philadelphia residents responded to the pressures of deindustrialization, fiscal austerity, and growing political conservatism between the 1960s and the 1980s. You can read other brief essays she has written on related topics at the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia (https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/alyssa-ribeiro/).
 Quote from Kendall Wilson, “Social Columnist Nancy L. Giddens Succumbs at 76,” Philadelphia Tribune, June 27, 1989.
 Quote from Nancy Giddens, “Under Two Flags,” Philadelphia Tribune, December 13, 1958.
 Quote from Priscilla Penn, “21 Key Club’s 2nd ‘Creative Arts’ Award Presented to Tribune Society Editor,” Philadelphia Tribune, December 11, 1962.
In its section on Nigeria, Lonely Planet’s 1995 edition of its Rough Guide to West Africa advised that getting the most out of one’s visit to the country depended on avoiding “Lagos and the sprawling congested cities of Ibadan, Port Hartcourt, Enugu, and Onitsha.” Several years later, a 30th anniversary edition offered a more nuanced take suggesting that some travelers might find the city “compelling” but that the metropolis remained a wild ride: “Lagos is chaos theory made flesh and concrete.”
To be fair, Lagos struggled mightily in the early 1990s. “Lagos’s prosperity peaked in the early 1980s,” notes sociologist Oka Obono, “before military coups and difficulties with the IMF drove Nigeria into recession.” Military rule ensued, as did restrictions on civil liberties and a debilitating crime wave. Over time, although crime rates fluctuated on the whole they remained high. During 2007, 50 people per month perished in Lagos State robberies. “Home invasions were extremely common in Lagos in the 1990s, they still happen, though less frequently,” the unnamed protagonist of Teju Cole’s Everyday for the Thief —a Nigerian ex-pat returning to the city for the first time in over a decade—tells readers.
During the ‘90s, the city became the epicenter for political resistance to the authoritarian government. Even with such dissent, Lagos had lost some of its governance mojo as Nigerian leaders moved the capital to Abuja in 1991. Abuja bloomed under the jaundiced influence of malfeasance and graft as greedy military leaders and contractors conspired to build the new capital for personal benefit and largely at the public’s expense. “The stink of corruption, presumed to be too much the vernacular of life in Lagos, become the breath of air in this Medina,” famed Nigerian poet Odia Ofeimun observed.
Amidst economic, political and social struggle, Lagos still made its mark on Africa, let along Nigeria. The proliferation of VCR’s and hand-held recording devices during the late 1980s and early 1990s intersected with a city struggling through economic depression and a debilitating crime wave. No longer safe enough to venture out to the cinema nor able to afford its cost, Lagosians invested time and money in “home movies,” as they are sometimes referred. Film making on Lagos streets emerged as a popular new and widely disseminated media form. Known as Nollywood, Nigeria’s movie industry, the third largest in the world behind America’s Hollywood and India’s Bollywood, soon asserted itself continentally.
Due in part to Lagos’s “low capital” economy dominated by informal employment, directors and producers discovered cost efficient strategies to scatter celluloid stardust across Africa. “Nollywood is cheap and nimble,” a 2010 Economist article summarized. “Films are shot on digital video cameras. Scripts are improvised.” Pirates understood how to smuggle and distribute Nollywood products across national boundaries and over vast distances, thereby creating the pan-African movie market. It gave voice and representation to not only Lagosians and Nigerians, but Africans generally. “Nollywood is the voice of Africa, the answer to CNN,” Lancelot Idowu, one of Nigeria’s best-known directors noted. The Economist furthered this argument by declaring film “Africa’s dominant medium, replacing music and dance. It links distant societies, fosters the exchange of ideas and drives fashion trends.”
Due in part to Nollywood and a burgeoning art scene, a new Lagos—or, at the very least, a new projection of Lagos—has come to dominate the media narrative about the city. A February 2019 New York Times article depicted the Lagos art world as an edgy, transnational, and still developing affair, though emergent enough that Lagosians refer to it as an art “ecosystem.” Gallery showings draw Lagos’ upper crust and exude an air of excitement amidst the chaos that many point to as the metropolis’s defining characteristic. “Cars snaked out from the hideous traffic and deposited the city’s elite, dressed to impress, at the Civic Center, a concrete-and-steel edifice fronting Lagos Lagoon,” journalist Siddhartha Mitter noted. “Women exuding Vogue beauty and power paused on the patio to give television interviews.”
Do not underestimate the importance of such developments. “Literature, music, visual arts, theater, film. The most convincing signs of life I see in Nigeria are connected to the practices of the arts,” Cole’s aforementioned protagonist remarks. “And it is like this. Each time I am sure that, in returning to Lagos, I have inadvertently wandered into a region of hell, something else emerges to give me hope.”
Keep in mind, on the one hand, 21st century Lagos is replete with chaotic traffic, electricity blackouts, violent crime, and overcrowded housing. On the other hand, it boasts glittering skyscrapers, a burgeoning art scene and an ascendant film industry. Today’s Lagos did not emerge from a vacuum but rather took its shape from a postcolonial order over the course of six decades.
In 1950, fewer than 300,000 people resided in Lagos, but by 1963, 1.14 million residents lived there; thirteen years later, the population had climbed to 2.55 million. By 1982, the city counted just over 4 million residents, and today estimates often exceed 21 million. Industry took root in Lagos even before independence, such that by 1965 roughly a third of the nation’s manufacturing could be found in the metropolitan area. The rise of Lagosian industry in turn set off migration from the countryside to the city. Over the course of the second half of the 20th century, the city’s overall growth rate averaged 6%. Due in part to this industrialization, particularly after 1960, the annual growth rate of Lagos State averaged just below 10% from 1970 to 1980, three times the national standard. Many of the newcomers hacked it out as squatters or found spaces in illegal housing. For example, in 1952, 22% of families lived in unplanned areas; just over two decades later, this figure had more than doubled to 50%.
Though massive slum clearance legislation passed in 1955 and persisted into the post-colonial era, colonial rulers made few if any concessions for this migration. The only sections of Lagos that appeared to have been actually planned were those inhabited by Europeans. The rest of the metropolis would be shaped by economic forces rather than direct government intervention.
Lagosian urban renewal focused on projecting a newly independent Lagos as a symbol of national standing. Much as in American cities of the time, the Lagos business district along Marina Road, Broad Street, and Nnamdi Azikiwe Street received special attention. Nigerian architects adapted the international style of Europe to the African climate, inventing tropical modernism. “Slim, streamlined slabs of reinforced concrete with unadorned faces – the signs of modernism in Europe – were also the markers of tropical modernism,” writes historian Daniel Immerwahr. The excitement of independence allowed for adaptations such that Nigerian architects “let fly with all the clichés, gambits and stylistic treatments” that European tastes and regulations forbade.
Yet tropical modernism represented only one side of the coin in the nation and city’s bifurcated housing policy. The new architectural style would be reserved for government offices and downtown buildings, but government housing estates would follow European models. While tropical modernism represented an exciting break from the colonial past replete with Nigeria’s personal stamp, housing estates signaled the newly independent nation’s stability and power as it drew upon the modern, though not necessarily modernist, styles of Europe. The yolk of colonialism persisted even after independence: the “respectability politics” of architecture.
For example, one of the earliest housing estates built, Surlure, was constructed on the British Garden City model and looked much like the contemporaneous “automobile suburbs of the U.S.” As one of the state’s first such efforts, it established a pattern for public housing regimes. Erected during an oil boom on the northern section of Lagos’ mainland, much like public housing in the United States, Surlure was isolated; its location made work commutes difficult and attempts by the government to transform “slum dwellers” into “polite suburbanites” proved misguided and unsuccessful. 
Government housing provisions established in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s placed regulations on housing that made its cost prohibitive for many city residents. Unplanned communities sprouted. To the extent one can assign a noticeable design influence, the Brazilian bungalow model brought to Nigeria by formerly enslaved Muslims and Catholics who settled in Nigeria in the latter half of the nineteenth century would be the best example. The inability or unwillingness to follow regulations did not hamper the growth of such communities since the government failed to enforce their provisions, until crime, depression, and political decline assaulted Lagos during the 1980s.
By then, the government imposed its draconian will with overly zealous policing and intervention into daily affairs. The latter was exemplified by the government’s “War Against Indiscipline,” begun in 1984, which attempted to raze the city’s informal sector by eradicating slums, disrupting local markets, and getting Nigerians to “queue patiently at bus stops, shops, and government offices.” Between 1985 and 1986, the government demolished nearly 5,000 illegal structures. The “War Against Filth” followed, which required Lagosians to clean their homes and yards during the last Saturday of every month from 7am to 10 am. While it sounds like a noble goal, in reality, it functioned as a carrot for the well off and a stick for the working classes and poor.
Those driven out by land speculation settled in what the United Nations describes as “peri-urban” areas, almost like slum satellite cities. In Lagos, “new shantytowns grow all the time like shifting sands” in the ever expanding mega-city, journalist Kaye Whiteman points out, notably along Badagry Road, Agege Motor Road, and the Ibadan Expressway. Others end up moving to mainland slums like Mushin, living in “rectangular concrete-block houses” with seven to eight people to a “single, mosquito infested room – in bunks or on the floor – along a narrow corridor of opposing chambers,” as the New Yorker’s George Packer observed in 2006. Both famously and troublingly, only .4% of the Lagos population resides in a home with a toilet connected to a sewer system; two of three residents lack direct access to clean drinking water, electricity, waste disposal or roads.
Despite a problematic housing policy and authoritarian regimes, democracy returned to Nigeria in 1999. From the quick, but especially over the last twenty years, Lagosians discovered new ways to navigate the city—notably by building on its long-existing informal economy. In 1963, 70% of women in the city depended on petty trading and related activities to buoy their finances. Hawking one’s wares and services from the home or a nearby sidewalk beat paying rent for a storefront. By the mid 1970s over half the city claimed a foothold in the informal economy. Such hustle, as it is widely known, still accounts for much of the Lagosian economy. As of 2006, informal transaction accounted for over 60% of economic activity. “Everywhere is a market,” one resident told Packer. “The market – as the essence of the city – is always alive with possibility and danger,” Cole’s narrator tells us.
Few things exemplify the complicated existence of Lagos more than its traffic jams and the informal economy that inexplicitly buzzes around them. Markets pop up spontaneously around them; cottage industries such as okadas, motorbikes that traverse traffic congestion far more quickly and cheaply (if at greater risk) than cars and which ferry low-income workers to their place of employment, have gained traction in the informal economy. The “hustle” is literal and metaphorical.
Of course, one should not lionize such developments too much. After all, okadas represent a survival tactic by workers facing structural readjustments in the economy, a nod to the fact that pay in the “regular economy” declined significantly over the course of the 21st century. Traffic jams at once embody the resourcefulness of Lagosians but also the ways in which they remain subject to neoliberal forces of the megacity. “To mention traffic jams is like twiddling a raw nerve in many cities: In Lagos, it is the rawest nerve,” Nigerian poet Ofeimun reminds us.
Middle class Lagosians do not have it easy either. Take, for example, the fictional case of Ifemelu, the protagonist and returning Lagos ex-pat from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah. Despite returning to Lagos after many years abroad as a fairly successful professional writer, she must temper her expectations for housing. “The other flats she liked were too expensive. Even though pipes poked out under the kitchen sink and the toilet was lopsided and the bathroom tiles shoddily laid, this was the best she could afford.” Her rent payment helps to explain why illegal housing proves so attractive to many residents. “She wrote the check for two years’ rent. This was why people took bribes and asked for bribes; how else could anyone honestly pay two years’ rent in advance?”
As Whiteman admits, though troubled, Lagos remains a buzzing hive of human ingenuity; in the face of deprivation and with neoliberalism run amok, it contains a “deep and complex cultural richness,” the source of “a multitude of creativities.” The power of Lagos lies in its people, relentlessly hustling and endlessly defiant. “Lagos is more than just a city or megacity; it is in its essential form a ‘spirit of defiance.’ Everything that works can be subverted to some other use,” writes Obono.
Nor can the city or its residents rest on its historical laurels. There can be no dependence on past glories but rather an emphasis on future progress. “Nigerians don’t buy houses because they’re old. A renovated two-hundred-year-old mill granary, you know, the kind of thing Europeans like. It doesn’t work here at all,” Obinze, Ifemelu’s main love interest in Americanah, tells her upon her return to Lagos. “But of course it makes sense because we are Third Worlders and Third Worlders are forward looking, we like things to be new, because our best is still ahead, while in the West their best is already past and so they have to make a fetish of the past.”
Lagosians have always specialized in making something out of very little. Enduring very similar urban policies and navigating far more corrupt systems of graft and governance, Lagos’ citizens have carved out their place in Africa and the world – a booming film industry, an expanding art scene, and an unabated hustle. Lagos, despite all its contradictions, remains an entrepot of promise and opportunity. Peril undoubtedly lingers, but on the streets of Lagos everyone is the star of their own movie.
As always, we’ve provided a bibliography of the city below. Great thanks to Titilola Halimat Somotan and Susan Rosenfeld for their help in compiling the bibliography. The Metropole realizes that we might have left some essential works off of the list, so please fell free to add those titles we missed in the comments!
Adebanwi, Wale. “The City, Hegemony and Ethno-spatial Politics: The Press and the Struggle for Lagos in Colonial Nigeria.” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 9, no. 4 (2004): 25-51.
Adefuye, Ade, Babatunde Agiri, Akinjide Osuntokun, eds. History of the Peoples of Lagos State. Lagos, Nigeria: Lantern Books, 1987.
Adelusi-Adeluyi, Ademide. “Historical Tours of ‘New’ Lagos: Performance, Place Making, and Cartography in the 1880s.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 38, no. 3 (December 1, 2018): 443–54. https://doi.org/10.1215/1089201x-7208790.
Aderibigbe, A.B., ed. Lagos: The Development of an African City. Nigeria: Longmans, 1975.
Aderinto, Saheed. When Sex Threatened the State: Illicit Sexuality, Nationalism and Politics in Colonial Nigeria, 1900-1958. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2015
Agbola, Tunde. The Architecture of Fear: Urban Design and Construction Response to Urban Violence in Lagos, Nigeria. Ibadan: Institut Français de Recherche en Afrique, 1997.
Akinsemoyin, Kunle and Alan Vaughan Richards. Building Lagos. Jersey: Pengrail, 1976.
Akinyele, Rufus T. “Contesting for Space in an Urban Centre: The Omo Onile Syndrome in Lagos.” In African Cities, eds. Francesca Locatelli and Paul Nugent. Brill, 2009, 109–134.
Apter, Andrew A. The Pan-African Nation: Oil and the Spectacle of Culture in Nigeria. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005.
Baker, Pauline. Urbanization and Political Change: The Politics of Lagos: 1917-1967. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.
Barnes, Sandra T. Patrons and Power: Creating a Political Community in Metropolitan Lagos. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986.
Echeruo, M.J. Victorian Lagos: Aspects of Nineteenth Century Lagos Life. London: Macmillan, 1977.
Falola, Toyin and Matthew Heaton. A History of Nigeria. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Fapohunda, Olanreqaju J. The Informal Sector of Lagos: An Inquiry into Urban Poverty and Employment. Lagos: University Press Limited, 1985.
Fourchard, Laurent. “Lagos and the Invention of Juvenile Delinquency in Nigeria, 1920–60.” The Journal of African History 47, no. 1 (2006): 115-137.
Gandy, Matthew. “Planning, anti-planning and the infrastructure crisis facing metropolitan Lagos.” Urban Studies 43 (2006): 371–96.
George, Abosede. Making Modern Girls: A History of Girlhood, Labor, and Social Development in Colonial Lagos. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2014.
George, Abosede. “Introduction: The Imaginative Capital of Lagos.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 38, no. 3 (2018): 439–42.
Giles, Omezi. “Nigerian Modernity and the City: Lagos 1960-1980.” In The Arts of Citizenship in African Cities: infrastructures and spaces of belonging, edited by Mamadou Diouf and Rosalinds Fredericks. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, 277-298.
Godlewski, Joseph. “Alien and Distant: Rem Koolhaas on Film in Lagos, Nigeria.” Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review 21, no. 2 (Spring 2010): 7-19.
Hargreaves, John. Prelude to the Partition of West Africa. London: Macmillan, 1963.
Haynes, Jonathan. “Nollywood is Lagos, Lagos in Nollywood Films.” Africa Today 54, no. 2 (Winter, 2007): 131-150.
Immerwahr, Daniel. “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 19, no. 2 (December 2007): 165-186.
“Lights, Camera, Africa,” The Economist, December 16, 2010.
Lindsay, Lisa A. “‘To return to the bosom of their fatherland’: Brazilian Immigrants in Nineteenth-Century Lagos.” Slavery & Abolition 15, no. 1 (1994): 22–50.
——–. “Domesticity and Difference: Male Breadwinners, Working Women, and Colonial Citizenship in the 1945 Nigerian General Strike.” American Historical Review 104, no. 3 (1999): 783-812.
——–. Atlantic Bonds: A Nineteenth Century Odyssey from America to Africa. UNC Press Books, 2016.
Mabogunje, Akin. Urbanization in Nigeria. New York: Africana Publishing Corporation, 1968.
Mann, Kristin. Marrying Well : Marriage, Status, and Social Change among the Educated Elite in Colonial Lagos. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
——–. Slavery and the Birth of an African City: Lagos, 1760-1900. Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2007.
Marris, Peter. Family and Social Change in an African City: A Study of Rehousing in Lagos. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1962.
Matory, J. Lorand. “The English Professors of Brazil: On the Diasporic Roots of the Yorùbá Nation.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 41, no. 1 (1999): 72–103.
Muritala, Monsuru Olalekan. “Urban Livelihood in Lagos, 1861-1960.” Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 20 (2011): 193-200.
Nzegwu, Nkiru. “Bypassing New York in Re-Presenting Eko: Production of Space in a Nigerian City.” In Re-Presenting the City: Ethnicity, Capital and Culture in the 21st-Century Metropolis, ed. Anthony D. King. New York: New York University Press, 1996, 111–36.
Obono, Oka. “A Lagos Thing: Rules and Realities in the Nigerian Megacity.” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 8, no. 2 (Summer/Fall 2007): 31-37.
Ofeimun, Odia. “Imagination & the City.” African Quarterly on the Arts l3, no. 2 (2001): 12-15, 137-141.
Olukoju, Ayodeji. The “Liverpool” of West Africa: The Dynamics and Impact of Maritime Trade in Lagos, 1900-1950. Africa World Press, 2004.
Olorunyomi, Sola. Afrobeat! Fela and the Imagined Continent. Ibadan: IFRA, revised edition, 2005.
Oluwasegun, Jimoh Mufutau. “The British Mosquito Eradication Campaign in Colonial Lagos, 1902-1950.” Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne Des Études Africaines 51, no. 2 (May 4, 2017): 217–36. https://doi.org/10.1080/00083968.2017.1302808.
 Oka Obono, “A Lagos Thing: Rules and Realities in the Nigerian Megacity,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 8, no. 2 (Summer/Fall 2007): 32.
 Daniel Immerwahr, “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986,” Journal of African Cultural Studies 19, no.2 (December 2007): 166, 176; George Packer, “The Megacity: Decoding the Chaos of Lagos,” New Yorker, November 13, 2006, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/11/13/the-megacity.
 Immerwahr, “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986,” 170-171.
 Immerwahr, “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986,” 168-169.
 Immerwahr, “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986,” 171-175.
 Immerwahr, “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986,” 178.
 Immerwahr, “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986,” 179.