At Street Level in Mike Wallace’s Greater Gotham

By Thai Jones

Wallace, Mike. Greater Gotham: A History of New York City From 1898 to 1919 (New York: Oxford University Press,2018). 1182pp. $45.ISBN 978-0-19-511635-9

 Greater Gotham opens on New Year’s Eve, 1897, with thousands massing in Union Square before stepping off to join a parade celebrating consolidation of the five boroughs—including what were at the time the nation’s largest (New York) and fourth-largest (Brooklyn) cities—into one gigantic metropolis (7). “It had long been a civic tradition,” writes Mike Wallace, “for Gothamites to take to the streets” (3). While the city fathers orchestrated the parade, the myriad of unsanctioned street melees that followed often appeared so dangerous and disruptive as to threaten the very stability of the city. A mis-en-scène of conflict dominates the two decades examined in Greater Gotham.

This long-awaited second installment of Wallace’s Gotham series was intended to cover more than twenty years. But the significance and weight of an era when New York arguably stood at its zenith among all the world’s cities cannot be overstated. Also, the author and his research assistants had to contend with a mountain of archival research. The twenty years covered here takes up more than 1,000 pages, almost as many as the earlier volume required to tell the story of two and half centuries. To manage and reconcile both micro- and macro-histories of the city, Greater Gotham surveys the “historical landscape” from the altitude of a satellite, jetliner, helicopter, and a bird in flight. These elevations situate the city in global, regional and national networks. But the essential vantage point here is the street. That is where the action takes place. The din of streets overwhelms all else.

The flat boomers of Gotham, Albert Levering, April 11, 1906, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Although the book dutifully tackles an encyclopedic range of municipal issues from the rise of skyscrapers to the consolidation of Wall Street finance, it is Greater Gotham’s attention to the politics of confrontation that sets it apart. Almost every chapter here features some episode of unrest—race riots and rent strikes, suffrage rallies and Labor Day parades, and even mob violence against reckless automobile drivers (240). For New Yorkers of the time, such street scenes began to shape a certain cultural and psychological outlook. It was no accident, then, that the Ash Can School of painters began “relish[ing] crowds” (867), and that Tin Pan Alley composers would rhapsodize over the “Sidewalks of New York” (486). In political circles, the importance of demonstrating dissent was clear to the likes of “Big Bill” Haywood, who as a leader of the Industrial Workers of the World could urge the city’s leftists to take to the streets rather than “…sitting around waiting for the next election” (732). This rhetoric inspired such anxiety that the chief of police could extoll the new subway system as a way to “absolutely preclude the possibility of riots in New York.” Cops could be sent by rapid transit to any flashpoint in the city (234).

Unruly, fascinating, and beyond control, the city’s street demonstrations were the local iteration of global experience. The hundred thousand or so Russian Jews landing annually at Ellis Island were themselves reacting to street violence—pogroms and the Czarist massacre of Bloody Sunday. Italians—arriving at twice the rate of Jews—were fleeing a repressive state that had murderously suppressed bread riots in Milan, Naples, and Rome. In the Southern United States, “grisly lynchings and pogrom-like riots” (807) sent thousands of African Americans northbound on steamers and trains.

Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) demonstration, New York City, April 11, 1914, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Wallace’s earlier Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (written with Edwin G. Burrows and published in 1999) was also replete with disorder, including the fearsome Draft Riots of 1863, perhaps the most catastrophic urban uprising in American history. But in the disorders of the Progressive Era, Wallace sees something new. “Slowly, remarkably, for perhaps the first time in New York’s history,” he writes of a 1909 women’s garment workers strike, “a mass labor uprising in the streets began to win support from the city’s mandarins—or, more precisely, from their wives and daughters” (714).

Newspaper row, New York, 1906, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Beginning in the early twentieth century, in his telling, and continuing sporadically through to the present, New Yorkers seeking change fought for it in the streets. Though the city showed scant tolerance for violent demonstrations, activists in time won significant victories as this city, the quintessence of capitalism, also began to emerge as the nation’s center of progressivism.

For Wallace, who first engaged with radical politics as a graduate student in the campus protests at Columbia University in 1968, the politics of confrontation are central to understanding the city.[1] More recently, Occupy Wall Street showed how a protest movement, especially when confronted by a brutal police response, could effect change in mentalities and policies.

Wallace, who wrote widely on Occupy in its moment of fluorescence,[2] likely had these upheavals in mind while reconstituting the feverish cityscape of the 1910s, a period which he summarizes as having “witnessed nonstop battling between classes, races, ethnic groups, genders, and religions” (1052). Like the 2010s, those years saw extreme income disparity and an upsurge of popular frustration at the government. With economic opportunities limited and formal political process discredited, New Yorkers—a century apart—took the reasonable step and plunged into the streets.


Featured image (at top): He shouldn’t have any trouble in choosing, Louis Dalrymple, October 13, 1897, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

Thai Jones is the Herbert H. Lehman Curator for American History at Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library. He is the author of More Powerful Than Dynamite: Radicals, Plutocrats, Progressives, and New York’s Year of Anarchy (Bloomsbury, 2012).

[1] Reminiscences of Michael Wallace (1983), Student Movements of the 1960s project, Oral History Archives at Columbia, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University in the City of New York.

[2] Mike Wallace, “Before Occupy Wall Street,” Jan. 5, 2012,

Decision Making and Future Thinking in Lagos

By Olamide Udoma-Ejorh, Lagos Urban Development Initiative

But I think this election was decided, dominated and directed by social media. The power of social media came out for this country. Social media played a central role as a watchdog in keeping the integrity of the process. Within minutes of votes being counted at a polling unit, the results were all over social media. Ordinary people with Excel sheets were doing tallies. At the end of the day when it was announced officially, the results matched.

 Sunday Dare, Executive Commissioner (Stakeholder Management) of the Nigerian Communications Commission, discussion on the 2015 presidential election[1]

All over the world social media has made a significant impact in how citizens engage with their governments and vice versa. Engagement through social media can positively affect governance if used efficiently and this is no different in Lagos. However there is still a long way to go to ensure social media is used effectively towards good governance.

Governance in Lagos can be described as top down, where the Lagos State Government creates rules and regulations without involving citizens in the decision-making process. This therefore does not make for good governance.

Sunday Dare on the 2015 campaign trail courtesy of The News

For decision-making to happen successfully, multiple stakeholders, including those that will be affected, need to be involved. Social media can act as a means for engagement for those who are willing and have the capacity to voice their opinions, needs, and wants. However, the majority of citizens do not actively participate; this may be for a number of reasons including lack of access to the internet, loss of hope in governance, or general disenfranchisement.

There are many reasons why Lagos citizens are unable to participate in governance. Lagos Urban Development Initiative (previously Lagos Urban Network) has highlighted many of these issues, specifically the inability of residents to articulate needs and wants as well as identify their role as active citizens. Lagos Urban Development Initiative, through partner projects, has used scenario thinking as an experimental means to remove these governance road blocks from and between citizens of Lagos.

Both scenario thinking and social media can be used as tools to improve the engagement between Lagos State Government and residents to positively impact governance, decision-making, and how people experience the city.


Governance & The Use of Social Media

 The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) describes governance as:

The exercise of economic, political, and administrative authority to manage a country’s affairs at all levels. It comprises mechanisms, processes, and institutions through which citizens and groups articulate their interests, exercise their legal rights, meet their obligations, and mediate their differences.[2]

The UN’s definition asserts that an administrative authority usually manages the affairs of a country, city, or community. Therefore when thinking about governance it is important to note who the administrative authority is, the rules or policies they use to ‘manage’ the country’s affairs, and the processes by which these policies are selected and defined.

The definition of good governance goes further in that it is equated with specific outcomes. These outcomes hinge on principles such as accountability, transparency, responsiveness, inclusiveness, effectiveness, efficiency, participation, equitability and the rule of law.[3] Political, social and economic priorities should be based on a broad consensus within society and at all levels of society; the poorest and most vulnerable should be included in the process of deciding how to manage a ‘country’s affairs.’

Good decisions often need to balance the interests of multiple stakeholders. Additionally, expert knowledge needs to be added to the mix; decisions must align with an overall strategy while still making sense to people who will be directly affected by the decision.

Stakeholders involved in decision-making can be placed within four categories:

  • those who will implement the plan (e.g. ministries and parastatals, private sector)
  • those who will be affected (e.g. the population of Lagos)
  • those who will monitor its implementation (e.g. government, management committees, private companies)
  • those who can contribute (e.g. private sector, NGOs, and experts/consultants).

Governance in Lagos is top down and the administrative authority is the Lagos State Government. The state government consists of the executive, legislative and judiciary branches. The executive is responsible for implementation of bills and the daily administration of the state. The legislature is the state house of assembly and they are concerned with law making. The judiciary is concerned with ensuring the law is upheld. Decision makers sit within the executive and the legislative branches; they are also the two arms that interact with citizens most often.

Lewis Map of Lagos I

Lewis Map of Lagos II
Map of Lagos from the 1970s from the Anthony Lewis papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

In Lagos it is hard to see where the population actively contributes to decision-making. Those who implement the decisions and monitor the decisions actively participate in decision-making and therefore governance. At times those who can contribute are brought in to support these outcomes, however it is very unlikely [4] that those who will be affected actively participate in decision-making. If they are brought in at all, it is once the decision has already been made.

It is therefore no surprise that the populace has avoided politics and governance, demanding less and less from their leaders. The research on why this may be is scant but from conversations and observations, such civic passiveness may come from Lagos’s history of military rule or continued failure in leadership and government.

Worldwide, social media is increasingly being used as a way to bring leaders closer to their constituents and allowing for a more transparent relationship. In the United States of America social media has “changed the way campaigns are run and how Americans interact with their elected officials.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, U.S. Representative for New York’s 14th congressional district, has been described as a social media titan. Her twitter account (@AOC) has more than 3.9 million followers and on Instagram she has 3.2 million followers. She uses these two social media platforms and Facebook to reach her constituency and share her political agenda, progress, and the realities of working in congress. Her interaction rate is also very impressive, which means that dialogue is happening; discussions are not just one way. Personally, she has experienced both the positive and negative impacts of social media, which resulted in her quitting social media on weekends. Similarly the President of the United States of America, Donald Trump, used social media during his campaign and has continued to do so. He calls this engagement ‘MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL.’[5] With a constant and active presence on Twitter and Facebook, Trump used trending topics to tailor campaign messaging and win over voters. However, since becoming president Donald Trump has not used these tools effectively. Instead, Joanne Weiss describes his feed as ‘weirdly turgid, loaded with ponderous attacks on his perceived enemies and obscure multipart arguments about his legal situation’[6].

For Governments, despite limited resources and tight budgets, when used efficiently social media can drive citizen engagement. Research done by the American Congressional Management Foundation reported that 76% of policymakers reported social media enabled them to have more meaningful interactions with their constituents[7]. Being borderless, social media can reach audiences across continents at all times. Social media also allows for real-time data collection and instant feedback. This could lead to improved services within cities and communities. Social media can also be used as a tool to transform public perception, maximize awareness of agency goals and gain the trust of citizens by becoming more authentic and transparent. During elections or when implementing a project, social media can help test messaging and ideas.

Social media can also have devastating effects when used negatively. In 2018 it was discovered that Myanmar’s Military used online channels like Facebook and blogs to incite genocide. For over five years, using fake accounts, posing as pop stars and national heroes, members of the Myanmar military posted anti-Rohingya propaganda inciting murders, rapes and forced human migration. This emphasizes the need for governance in regard to how social media is used and received.
Social media can play a beneficial role in Lagos. Already it has been used in Nigeria as a tool to mobilize groups and ensure transparency during elections.

Protests over President Goodluck Jonathan’s decision to end oil subsidies.

Nigeria is an oil producing country, but with inefficient refineries the majority of the raw crude is exported and petrol is imported, making the refined product expensive for half the citizens. With this in mind, a fuel subsidy policy was introduced in 2006. It was supposed to last six months while the refineries were rehabilitated but instead it has lasted years, putting a strain on the country’s economy. There were debates and discussions at all levels of government about the removal of subsidies (as well as several attempts to do so). In 2012, protests ensued when then-President Goodluck Jonathan removed the fuel subsidy. Facebook and Twitter were used to connect and unite people. Protests took place across the country, including in the cities of Kano, Lagos, Abuja, and at the Nigerian High Commission in London. The Facebook group called Nationwide Anti-Fuel Subsidy Removal: Strategies & Protests was created on 2 January 2012, and within seven days it had grown to over 20,000 members. The mobilization of people standing together with one message led to closed-door-meetings with government officials, and part of the subsidy was restored. Though not fully successful, Occupy Nigeria showed how cyber interactions can move to offline mobilization and more inclusive decision-making.

Another example of how social media has played a role in governance in Nigeria is the 2015 presidential elections. Social media was used as a tool for transparency. Sunday Dare’s quote at the article’s outset aptly expresses how social media was used

7b23c9bcdaee8c657d6da58cf814cf0b_400x400.pngDespite the growth of social media and its potential for more inclusive and transparent governance, the number of people online and engaged is still limited. The digital divide is vast in Nigeria and this was clearly demonstrated during the TweetChat held by Future Lagos in 2015 as part of Open City Lagos.[8] The TweetChat happened on Twitter. Six questions, on Lagos as an online city, were asked and answers came from all over the globe with opinions and examples of technology, citizenship, and urban development in Lagos.

The one-hour TweetChat lead to break-away discussions on technology being an enhancer and not a solution. Therefore the emphasis should be on creating sustainable, people-centered governance and administrative systems that are supplemented by technology. Other strands of the conversation focused on online governance and if decisions should really be made within 140 characters.

@nsibidi: Real time governance sounds like a disaster. maybe faster decision making, but real time decisions can’t be made in 140 characters

@victoria_okoyeIf governments are not interested in listening to citizens in 1st place, internet, open data won’t change this

One of the highlights of the chat was the realization that a large percentage of Nigerians are not online. Nigeria has 51% Internet penetration and 10% of the population actively uses social media.[9] Therefore, despite technological advances and the growth of affordable smartphones, the majority of the population is offline and therefore cannot engage in discussions online.

The two examples in this essay of how social media in Nigeria has been used for better governance have been publically led. The public sector has accepted the application of social media, however it has been used as an unsophisticated tool for education and information only. True engagement, which can lead to some of the benefits stated earlier — such as real time data collection and improved services — is still in its infancy.

Rush hour traffic in Lagos courtesy of Future Lagos via

Scenario Planning & Active Citizenship

To make the decision-making process more inclusive, more voices from all socio-economic levels of society need to be heard. This means that the populace needs to be active as citizens, able to participate in discussions that will change their environment. At Lagos Urban Development Initiative, when performing street interviews for research projects it has been difficult to garner opinions on the changes people would like to see in Lagos. Interviewees are able to tell us what they do not want but it can be quite hard to articulate what one needs or wants. Our conclusion was that imagining a different reality was not the problem but providing a solution without ever seeing alternative possibilities was.

Knowing that the inability to articulate the changes one envisions in Lagos removes many people from decision-making has led Lagos Urban Development Initiative to embark on some projects where scenario planning has been deployed to stimulate ideas and open up discussions about the issues and needs of Lagosians.

The Economist describes scenario planning as “a structured way for organizations to think about the future. A group of executives sets out to develop a small number of scenarios—stories about how the future might unfold and how this might affect an issue that confronts them.”[10] Scenarios are created to help understand the changing aspects of our present environment, how that will effect the future and how we can adapt to ensure it happens or to change the outcome.

Lagos 2060 was a project that used scenario planning to encourage radical thinking that involved a wide cross-section of society beyond the formal means of city-making and social commentary. The aim was to not leave the future of cities solely in the hands of policy makers but to engage citizens in policy and change-making discourse. By hinting at ideas of what the future of Lagos could be, this enabled every day citizens to take a step back to understand how Lagosians could create a different future. It also helped to open up minds and expand their knowledge of the present-day city.

Lagos 2060 was presented in various ways, including videos, talks, a book, and feedback forms at exhibitions in Lagos, South Africa, and London. Some of the questions we asked exhibition attendees were:

You came here today in your flying car, but your Local Government is online debating if flying cars should be banned from Lagos skies. What do you think? Do you agree?

 3D laser printing is now available commercially for those wanting to print instant houses, furniture and even temporary girlfriends. What was the last thing you printed?

 Now that Lagos is no longer part of Nigeria, what regional network of global cities do you think we should join?


When projects and policies are created by the executive branch and legislature, public participation is usually seen as a box that needs to be ticked. Therefore it is done in the simplest of manners without real engagement. Scenario planning is a tool that can be used to stimulate ideas and open up discussions about the issues and needs of Lagosians. It can build individual capacity to participate in discussions about the future of Lagos. With this potential it should be used more often in policy making and public participation workshops and meetings.

Within the four main categories of stakeholders that should participate in governance, the two largest groups are the government and its citizens. Both parties need to play their part to ensure good governance takes place. With more active citizens it is likely more voices will be heard.

Social media has the potential to foster engagement between citizens and the different arms of government. However there is some way to go to ensure that social media as a tool is used more efficiently in Lagos when dealing with governance and decision-making. In addition, the digital divide in Lagos is still apparent, though decreasing.

The push on social media comes mainly from citizens. Government officials, both elected and non-elected, need to have a presence and use the tools available to them to drive citizen engagement, collect real time feedback, test ideas, gain trust, and therefore be more transparent. As the digital divide continues to decrease and social media is seen as a means for more ‘real’ participation in decision-making, it is likely that more citizens will engage online.

IMG_9352ed.jpgOlamide Udoma-Ejorh is a researcher, writer and filmmaker holding degrees in BSc Architecture, MA Design and MPhil Infrastructure Management. Olamide started her career in PR, giving her a business and marketing foundation. Olamide has worked in London, South Africa and Nigeria with various organizations focusing on transport management, slum upgrading, and housing rights in urbanizing African cities.

 Currently based in Lagos, Olamide is engaged in bridging the gap between communities and their environment as the Director at Lagos Urban Development Initiative. She is also a trustee at Open House Lagos and the Editor-in-Chief of the Lost in Lagos magazine.

Featured image (at top): Lagos Island, Pride of a State, photograph by Ademola Akinlabi, September 23, 2015

[1] Eddings, J. (2015, April 20) How social media ‘decided, dominated and directed’ the Nigerian elections, Retrieved from

[2] World Bank, What is Governance? Retrieved from,,contentMDK:20513159~menuPK:1163245~pagePK:34004173~piPK:34003707~theSitePK:497024,00.html


[4] Murse, T. (2017, August 16). How Social Media Has Changed Politics, Retrieved from

[5]Twitter, @realDonaldTrump, July 2, 2017

Joanne Weiss (2019, January 3) How Trump got bad at Twitter

[7] Congressional Management Foundation. (2015, October 14) New Report Outlines How Congress and Citizens Interact on Social Media,

[8] Future Lagos is a Lagos-based organization promoting democracy about the future of cities. It is part of Our Future Cities NPO. The publication “Open City Lagos,” a cooperation with Nsibidi Institute Lagos and Fabulous Urban Zurich, intends to initiate a public reflection and discourse on the characteristics of an “open city” where the co-existence of different social groups and the richness of cultural diversity come together to foster growth that is diverse, equitable, creative, sustainable and inclusive.

[9] Hootsuite, 2017,

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Retrieved from

[10] Scenario planning, (2008, September 1), Retrieved from

Transnational Boundary Crossing in Fictional Lagos

 In 2018, the website Ozy famously crowned Nigerian Americans as the most successful ethnic group in the United States. Nearly 30 percent of Nigerian Americans over the age of 25 held graduate degrees—almost three times the overall average within the general U.S. population. “Among Nigerian-American professionals, 45 percent work in education services … many are professors at top universities,” the online publication asserted. Admittedly, some questioned these numbers and how Ozy attributed success, but the larger point remains true: the Nigerian diaspora reaches far and wide and while many have struggled, many members of this group have excelled. Moreover, not all have chosen to remain abroad. Some have returned from brief sojourns for college or graduate school in the U.S., Europe, and U.K. to start careers in Nigeria. Others have established themselves in America or elsewhere and make the occasional pilgrimage home, and finally another segment, living as ex-pats for years, have discovered a desire to resettle permanently in their homeland.

Such are the transnational stories at the heart of three novels by Nigerian authors: No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe, Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole, and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Each novel features a protagonist returning to Nigeria with Lagos as his or her port of call. Each of these characters witnesses the city’s transformation while undergoing their own self-realization and navigating Lagos in ways that had previously been foreign—transnational lives crossing national, societal, and personal boundaries in a metropolis that abounds with new frontiers hemmed in by old, traditional borders.

Sunset at the beach in Lagos, February 3, 2019, photograph by CE Blueclouds

Returns, 1960 – 2000s

In 1960, Chinua Achebe published No Longer at Ease, in which the author follows the travails of Obi Okonkwo, a rural Nigerian returning from London after completing four years of study to take a position in the Nigerian government. Published on the cusp of independence, the novel reflects a nation attempting to modernize as it sheds its colonial traditions and European prejudices.

Stationed in Lagos, Okonkwo admits that even in his four years abroad, the city had changed: “There were many things he could no longer recognize, and others – like the slums of Lagos – which he was seeing for the first time.”[1] Though less renowned than his towering work, Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease carries with it a similar simmering discomfort that critiques both European imperialism and the customs and traditions of Nigeria.

NoLongerAtEase.jpgNever one for simplistic truths or platitudes, Achebe presents the reader with a Lagos filled with opportunity, but also wretched poverty. “His car was parked close to a wide open storm drain from which came a very strong smell of rotting flesh,” Okonkwo observes. “It was the remains of a dog which had no doubt been run over by a taxi.” Even small tragedies such as this have been transformed into a talisman of greater things as one driver tells him to that to strike a dog with a newly purchased car brought good luck; a duck, however, brought darker realities. “If you kill duck, you go get accident or kill man,” he confides.[2]

As in many a metropolis, Lagos streets on a Saturday night “were … quite noisy and crowded.” Walking its avenues, one encountered “bands of dancers” every few steps. “Gay temporary sheds were erected in front of derelict houses and lit with brilliant fluorescent tubes for celebration,” be it for engagement, marriage, birth, promotion, business success or death of an elderly relative.[3] The “hustle” frequently attributed to and exhibited by Lagosians was clearly a long-term character trait of the city. Yet whatever its collective resiliency, Achebe refused to soft pedal Lagos, and by extension the city’s complexities. Okonkwo eventually discovers his youthful potential quickly fades as, between his living expenses, debts, and family obligations, getting by on an honest paycheck alone remains a difficult path to navigate: “If one did not laugh, one would have to cry. It seemed that was the way Nigeria was built.”[4]

81fZ4WCGt7LOver 50 years later, Lagos’ tumultuous energy persisted. “Combined with traffic congestion … and considering the thousand natural shocks to which the average Nigerian is subject – the police, armed robbers, the public officials, the government, the total absence of social services, the poor distribution of amenities – the environment is anything but tranquil,” Teju Cole’s nameless Nigerian ex-pat narrates in his vaguely existentialist novel Everyday is for the Thief, in which he documents his return to Lagos after a decade in America.[5]

Ifemelu, the protagonist propelling Americanah forward, admits a similar shock upon return: “At first Lagos assaulted her; the sun-dazed haste, the yellow buses full of squashed limbs, the sweating hawkers racing after cars, the advertisements on hulking billboards … and the heaps of rubbish that rose on the roadsides like a taunt.” Lagos proved predictable in its unpredictability. “One morning a man’s body lay on Awolowo Road. Another morning, The Island flooded and cars became gaping boats,” she observes. “Here, she felt, anything could happen, a ripe tomato could burst out of solid stone.”[6] Planning to re-establish roots in the city she left many years earlier, Ifemelu views the city with greater aplomb and joy than Cole’s narrator, who remains fairly sullen throughout, announcing, “I have returned a stranger.”[7]

Street in Lagos, photograph by Harry Porwanto, December 10, 2018

Trying to Tell Tales of the City

Conflict and disorder make for great stories. Lagos exists as a cauldron of drama, an entrepot of narrative. Yet while the city might contain a million stories, for writers wanting to document them, Cole’s nameless protagonist comments that in the metropolis there is a “rarity of creative refuge.”[8] Though filled with tales, Lagos contains a dearth of solitude in which to spin them. “Lagos is not regarded as a writer-friendly city. Let me concede this point straight away: that Lagos is not a city where you may read a book in the comfort of a bus or train or recollect emotion in Wordsworthian tranquility,” writes Nigerian poet Odia Ofeimun.[9]

The solution to such an unabated lived reality of sensory overload? More overload: “I have no right to Coltrane here, not with everything else going on,” Cole’s narrator reflects. “This is Lagos. I disagree, turn the volume up, listening to both the music and the noise. Neither gives way.” In his own way, Cole’s unnamed narrator gives literary flesh to one of Ofeimun’s observations of Lagos: that it exists as “a city of blocked wills.”[10]

Boys fishing in Lagos Lagoon, March 17, 2018, photograph by CE Blueclouds

Despite these convergences and oppositions, Lagos, and Nigeria more broadly, has not lacked for novelistic attentions. “The truth of the matter is that this city by the lagoon fascinates, if for nothing else, because it offers the closest Nigerian parallel to a melting pot,” asserts Ofeimun. “This, as I see it, is our prime city of crossed boundaries.” Crossed boundaries, be it nationalities, classes, mores, and so forth, make for compelling characters and riveting stories with the city serving as thefinest of Archimedian points from which dreams may be regenerated and a new way found of gaining access to the future.”[11]

Indeed, not all retuning ex-pats view the city as critically as Cole’s narrator or Achebe’s Obi. Despite her rough introduction to Lagos, Ifemelu finds opportunity in her return to the city when she first takes a job as an editor at a women’s journal, Zoe Magazine, under the supervision of Aunty Onenu. An expression of the new Lagos, the magazine’s offices are located in “Onikan … the old Lagos, a slice of the past, a temple to the faded splendor of the colonial years….” The energy of a revitalizing metropolis spills outward. Many of the buildings had sagged and rusted over the years, but enterprises like Zoe Magazine (along with real estate development) gradually refurbished the area around the publication’s offices, which welcomed visitors with “heavy glass doors [that] opened into a reception area painted a terra cotta orange….”[12]

Frank Edward at Victorious Army Ministries International 2016 Convention in Lagos Photo: Hodimages|Kunle Ogunfuyi

The Ties that Bind: Religion and Culture

 Though she eventually leaves the magazine to work on her blog, The Small Redemption of Lagos, Ifemelu’s experiences at work illustrate the Nigerian city’s broader culture. The receptionist Esther embraces evangelicalism. “’Will you come this Sunday, ma? My pastor is a powerful man of God. So many people have testimonies of miracles that have happened in their lives because of him,’” she tells Ifemelu. The women profiled in the magazine do much the same. “All of them, the madams she interviewed, boasted about what they owned and where they or their children had been and what they had done, and then they capped their boasts with God. We thank God. It is God that did it. God is faithful.[13] Her mother also practices Christianity with fervor.

As Kaye Whitman notes in his cultural history of Lagos, “The best ways to make money in Nigeria, I was told in 2001, were ‘currency speculation and religion.’” Evangelical churches began to blossom during the economically challenging 1980s, but continued flourishing in the decades that followed.[14] The New Yorker’s George Packer adds that religion often comes packed with a message of personal advancement. “Abandoned warehouses and factories on the Apapa – Oshadi Expressway have been converted into huge churches with signs that promise, ‘The Lord Shall Add,’ and on Sundays they fill up with adherents of what is known as ‘the gospel of prosperity.’” Ifemelu imagines Esther this way, describing her as a women of “small ambitions” who dressed neatly, wore slightly “scuffed but carefully polished high heels, read books like Praying Your Way to Prosperity, and was superior with the drivers and ingratiating with the editors.”

0f3ee814b97ec2848a8221690616c4697149752dA sense of salvation for those Lagosians invested in religion pervades the broader society. Upon visiting the diminishing National Museum (also located in Onikan), Cole’s narrator encounters a female staff member singing hymnals “as if for all the world, she were not at a place of work.” After admonishing him not to take photos, she “resumes sweetly singing the glories of her Lord. Her disconnection from the environment is absolute. A victorious Christian among the idols.”[15]

Of course, not every Lagosian buys into this religiosity. As one cynical observer tells Packer, he doesn’t believe God has much to do with any of it. “They pray to be rich . . . Whether they go to Heaven or to Hell, they could care less.”[16] One should note, this is hardly unique to Lagos; one could make remarkably similar arguments about the Joel Osteens of the world and those that follow his path. Moreover, it’s worth remembering that this explosive growth in evangelicalism in Nigeria has been offset by the steadier and equally persistent popularity of Islam.

Other residents of the city find connection not in religion but in their transnational existence. The Lagosian diaspora – epitomized by Okonkwo, Cole’s protagonist, and Ifemelu – cuts across decades and opinions; those returning from the West bring with them their own ideas that sometimes conflict with Lagosian tradition and each other. In regard to the former, Okonkwo chaffs at Nigerian traditions that prevent him from marrying his beloved Clara, who, being a descendent of the untouchable Osu caste in Nigeria, would bring shame onto his Christian family. No amount of accumulated culture or education abroad can overcome it. Ofeimun’s point about crossed boundaries was no less true in 1960 than today. After all, the heartrending tragedy of Clara and Obi’s relationship is compelling.

Ifemelu’s experiences with the Nigerpolitan Club, which she describes as “a small cluster of … chic people, all dripping with savoir faire, each nursing a self-styled quirkiness – a ginger colored Afro, a t-shirt with a graphic of Thomas Sankara, oversize handmade earrings that hung like pieces of modern art,” best embodies this the awkward transnational dynamic facing returnees from the West. They decry their inability to find good smoothies in Lagos and lobby for a more robust Nigerian civil society. At one meeting, Ifemelu, worried about her own Western proclivities, defends Nollywood after one fellow Nigerpolitan attendee critiqued it for its over-the-top theatricality, poor technical standards, and misogyny. “‘Nollywood may be melodramatic, but life in Nigeria is very melodramatic,” she responds. “Hollywood makes equally bad movies. They just make them with better lighting.’”[17]

Whether pretentious in their Western affectations or not, returning ex-pats like those represented in the fictional Nigerpolitan Club have helped to reshape the city and inject it with an obvious edginess. The current uptick in the city’s art “eco-system” results from a mix of homegrown talent, African immigrants, and those returning from abroad. “Generational renewal and art-world globalization are shaking up habits in the Lagos gallery scene,” a recent New York Times article noted. The music scene has also traversed cultural borders in its melding of traditional Nigerian music and sounds from the West. Bianca Adanna Okorocha, a musician described as “magnetic,” able to coax “bodies in her thrall to give in to their baser selves,” represents this trend. Okoroacha has gained fame for “her ability to fuse rock music with Afropop, the predominant contemporary sound in Lagos.”

Lagos Carnival – Ikoyi Lagos State Nigeria, photograph by Juju Films, April 30, 2011

Some boundary crossings, though inspirational, demonstrate risk as well. The Lagos fashion scene, like those in art and music, also challenges traditions, particularly in a city still dominated by conservative viewpoints on gender and sexuality. In 2014, laws were passed that banned same sex marriage and civil unions, but the legislation is sometimes is deployed more broadly by law enforcement to intimidate the city’s LGBTQ community. For example, the fashion designer Ezra Olubi’s use of make up, lipstick and nail polish has lead to conflict with the police, who harassed him by claiming that “painting his nails and wearing makeup is illegal” even though they are not. Civil society can be less than civil as well. Denola Grey, a television host, received death threats for posting an image of himself on social media dressed in a suit with a belt worn not through the loops of his trousers but over the jacket at his natural waist. “That belt you used to tie your waist, we will tie it around your neck,” wrote one ungenerous, homophobic commentator.

Construction for future part of Eko City, Victoria Island, Lagos, Nigeria, photograph by Harry Powanto, May 4, 2017.

Where It All Leads

Traversing new frontiers and challenging boundaries can have any number of outcomes: some undoubtedly positive, some undoubtedly negative, and others more ambivalent. Without giving away too much, each of these novels ends on a tonally different note. Achebe’s conclusion is largely revealed at the book’s outset; it’s somewhat desultory ending comes as no surprise. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ifemelu settles well into her new life. She reconciles with her exes in America, blogs about the city, and makes strides toward rekindling an old relationship from her youth in Lagos. “Still, she was at peace: to be home, to be writing her blog, to have discovered Lagos again,” she reflects. “She had, finally, spun herself fully into being.”[18]

Teju Cole’s narrator arrives in Lagos with no small amount of ambivalence and departs irresolutely with a case of malaria. Having arrived back in New York, he remembers one particular Lagos street scene, a hive of activity, with carpenters working “rapt in their meditative task” as they constructed caskets for the deceased. Despite the avenue’s “open sewers and rusted roofs,” he recalls that it maintained a certain “dignity”: “Nothing is preached here. Its inhabitants simply serve life by securing good passage for the dead, their intricate work seen for a moment and then hidden for a lifetime.”[19]

As he made his way out of this labyrinth of back streets he merged onto another, one reminiscent of Obi’s Lagos, where death in old age is celebrated “with great fanfare”: the most expensive casket ordered, a secondary school’s football field rented, and a “large party with canopies and live music and colorful outfits” thrown. However, if the dead is young, fallen “before the full fruition of life, the rites are performed under grief’s discreet shadow, a simple box, no frills, a small afternoon burial on a weekday, marked by bitter and unshowy tears, and attended by neither the parents nor by the parents’ friends, for the old should not see the young buried.” Marked by these two poles, the people of Lagos reside between them, an ocean of experience, the borders and frontiers of life and death sloshing across one another in wave after wave of human existence. One need not be a writer to know this. “The carpenters, I am sure, have borne witness to all of this.”[20]

Featured image (at top): Lagos, April 17, 2017, photograph by CE Blueclouds.

[1] Chinua Achebe, No Longer at Ease, (, 1960), 14.

[2] Achebe, No Longer at Ease, 17-18.

[3] Achebe, No Longer at Ease, 19

[4] Achebe, No Longer at Ease, 112.

[5] Teju Cole, Everyday is for the Thief, (New York: Random House, 2008), 67.

[6] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, (New York: Anchor Books, 2013), 475.

[7] Cole, Everyday is for the Thief, 17.

[8] Cole, Everyday is for the Thief, 68.

[9] Odia Ofeimun, “Imagination & the City.” African Quarterly on the Arts Vol. 3, no. 2 (2001): 138.

[10] Cole, Everyday is for the Thief, 69; Ofeimun, “Imagination & the City,” 137.

[11] Ofeimun, “Imagination & the City,” 138.

[12] Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, 494.

[13] Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, 494, 507.

[14] Kaye Whiteman, Lagos: A Cultural History (Northampton, MA: Interlink Books, 2004), 87.

[15] Cole, Everyday is for the Thief, 72-73.

[16] Kaye Whitman, Lagos: A Cultural History, 87; George Packer, “The Megacity: Decoding the Chaos of Lagos,” The New Yorker, 2008; Cole, Everyday is for the Thief, 73; Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, 494.

[17] Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, 501, 503-504

[18] Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, 586.

[19] Cole, Everyday is for the Thief, 160-161.

[20] Cole, Everyday is for the Thief, 162

Book Review: City of Inmates by Kelly Lytle Hernández

Kelly Lytle Hernández. City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771-1965. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.

We are living in an era of human caging on a massive scale. Each night, 2.2 million people fall asleep locked inside one of more than 6,000 prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers, and juvenile correctional facilities in the United States – a vast network of cages that sprawls across the land of the free.

Historians have done tremendous work documenting the expansion of incarceration in the late 20th century. The war on crime and the advent of militarized policing were strategic efforts to eradicate Black rebellion in the late 1960s and 1970s. The war on drugs, draconian sentencing laws, and the dramatic expansion of zero-tolerance policing in the 1980s and 1990s caused the prison population to nearly quadruple between 1980 and 2000.

And yet, it is significant that Kelly Lytle Hernández’s City of Inmates ends in the year that most narratives of mass incarceration begin – 1965 – concluding with the event that is often considered the catalyzing moment of the late-20th century carceral “frontlash”: the Watts Uprising (195). In this framing, Hernández joins scholars excavating the roots of the carceral state deep in the U.S. past, such as in Reconstruction-era convict labor and the early 20th-century criminalization of Black life.

The Los Angeles lens, however, offers a radically new perspective. The settler colonial and immigrant history of California indisputably shaped the caging policies and practices that emerged in the City of Angels. In six distinct histories spanning nearly two centuries, Hernández locates the origins of the carceral state in longstanding efforts to eliminate Native populations as sovereign entities, to control and exploit the labor of non-settler populations, and to exclude racialized immigrants from settler territory.

A Los Angeles police officer, armed with a shotgun, searches bag of African-American woman while another woman holding baby watches, August 14, 1965, New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Hernández excavates the legal architecture and cultural assumptions that made incarceration the answer to so many distinct questions: Indigenous resistance to colonial labor regimes, vagrancy among white male seasonal workers, the presence of Chinese laborers on the West Coast, the growing Mexican population in the borderlands, the increasing activism of Black L.A. – these posed distinct problems for a white supremacist settler society, and yet the solution to each of them was the same: incarceration. Why?

Hernández answers that incarceration is a form of elimination, and elimination is inherent to the settler colonial project. Adopting incarceration as a strategy to remove Native peoples from settler L.A., to undermine their resistance, and to compel them to labor for a society from which they were simultaneously excluded in every meaningful way, Los Angeles officials established a template that would be flexibly applied in subsequent eras to “tramps,” Chinese, Mexicans, and African Americans as the city grew.

Evidence for this recycling abounds in City of Inmates, but the clearest example is the use of public order charges to incarcerate a shifting array of “targeted populations” throughout the city’s history (1). Beginning in the 1850s, Los Angeles officials criminalized Indigenous “vagrancy” and swept up Tongva and other Native peoples to work on roads and public works projects in chain gangs, including auctioning convicts to private employers.

By 1910, Los Angeles had one of the largest jail systems in the nation, and the labor of its convicts built many of the city’s roads and public infrastructure, including Sunset Boulevard. By this era, nearly all of the city’s incarcerated were white, largely temporarily unemployed seasonal workers, targeted for removal on public order charges. As the Los Angeles Herald advocated in 1902, “It is infinitely better to take tramps and vagrants into custody on minor charges, than to permit them to roam about the city unmolested” (quoted on 51).

Broadway at 8th Street, Los Angeles, California, ca. 1920, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

As the city’s Mexican and Black populations grew, they became the focus of L.A.’s carceral apparatus. From 1928 to 1939, 86 percent of the LAPD’s arrests of Mexicans were for public order charges. In the same era, Black activists protested the LAPD’s overzealous enforcement of those charges in Black neighborhoods, arguing that it “unfairly corralled African Americans, namely the poor, into jail for nonviolent crimes” (159).

City of Inmates concludes with the voices of several activists fighting mass incarceration today. Their stories illustrate how public order arrests still operate to remove people from their neighborhoods, now in service of gentrification. As Hernández makes clear, selective enforcement of public order laws strip targeted populations of their “right to be” in the city (148).

Chinese pharmacy, Los Angeles, California, 1899, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

With its groundbreaking emphasis on immigrant incarceration, City of Inmates “sutures the split” between histories of mass incarceration and immigrant exclusion (5). This is an essential intervention, and not merely a historiographic one; viewing them as separate systems blinds us to their ongoing relationship. The carceral and nativist states have long shared overlapping targets, discourses, strategies, and even the same literal structures.

Hernández focuses on the 1892 Geary Act (explicitly aimed at removing Chinese laborers from the nation) and the Supreme Court cases it provoked, which determined that deportation is not punishment for a crime, but that immigrants could nonetheless be legally be detained during the deportation or exclusion process. These decisions formed the judicial anchor for our contemporary system of immigrant detention and deportation, the legal framework by which immigrants are denied the most basic protections of the criminal justice system, such as the right to counsel or protection from indefinite detention.

With unlawful residence thus removed from the purview of criminal law, legislators responded to the growing Mexican population in the Southwest by criminalizing unlawful entry in 1929, making first-time offenses a misdemeanor and unlawful reentry a felony. Within a decade, tens of thousands of Mexicans had been imprisoned for illegally entering the United States. This dramatic influx of immigrant prisoners led Congress to expand the federal penal system in the 1930s, including constructing the first federal prison in the U.S.-Mexico border region in 1932.

Mexican quarter of Los Angeles. One quarter mile from the City Hall, Dorothea Lange, February 1936, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

City of Inmates demonstrates incontrovertibly that the systems of immigrant exclusion and mass incarceration emerged together and fed each other. Incarceration was a weapon in the war against immigration, and anti-immigrant policies drove the expansion of the carceral state. This is an important lesson for those of us working to build a world free from human caging.

Los Angeles shaped and was shaped by national transformations, and Hernández moves seamlessly between urban, national, and transnational frames. Lest we feel compelled to dismiss L.A.’s story as too unique to be representative, Hernández reminds us that Los Angeles locks up more people than any city in the United States – the nation, of course, that imprisons more people than any country on earth. Los Angeles is, in this sense, the global epicenter of the human caging catastrophe, and its history offers insight for us all.

Llana Barber is associate professor of American Studies at SUNY Old Westbury. Her first book, Latino City: Immigration and Urban Crisis in Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1945-2000, was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2017, and won that year’s Kenneth Jackson Award from the Urban History Association. She is currently researching the history of militarized exclusion of Haitian migrants and the formation of the nativist state.

Featured image (at top): Chinese Features, La Fiesta de Las Fleures [i.e. Flores], Los Angeles, Cal., c. 1903, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Last Chance to Enter the 2019 UHA Award Competition

If you are an urban scholar who put a book, article, or dissertation out into the world in 2018, we encourage you to check out the Jackson, Hirsch, Katz, and unnamed “best non-North American book” awards and consider applying.

The selection criteria for all awards is the samee: significance, originality, quality of research, sophistication of methodology, clarity of presentation, cogency of arguments, and contribution to the field of urban history. Membership in the UHA is not required, but all works must be in English or in English translation. And all the awards have the same deadline of May 1, 2019!

Best of luck in your pursuit of these major awards!

Book Review: John Strausbaugh’s Victory City

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

New York, New York. Sidewalk merchant in the Jewish section, Marjory Collins, August 1942, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

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.

Hitler Street in Long Island
From The Atlantic: This “Adolf Hitler Strasse” is a street running through “Camp Siegfried,” a summer camp of the German American Bund in Yaphank, Long Island, New York, Bettman Archive, Getty

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.

World War II Era Harlem courtesy of Cole Phelps at

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.

 Featured image (a top): World War II Era Harlem courtesy of Cole Phelps at



Member of the Week: Willa Granger

2709E908-D200-47D5-AE2F-8EA6573020CDWilla Granger

PhD Candidate

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?

I am excited (for my own dissertation work!) to read Carla Yanni’s forthcoming Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory. If you’ve read The Architecture of Madness: Insane Asylums in the United States, you know that Yanni is particularly adept at filtering social history through the lens of a specific typology – not dissimilar from what I hope to do with my dissertation. Dormitories – like insane asylums, like old age homes – fit into the landscape of the Victorian city, and I am eager to see what she has uncovered.

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 Story to 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.

Reimagining Slavery and Freedom: Afro-Brazilians in Lagos during the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century

By Susan A.C. Rosenfeld

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.[1]

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.

Representation of colonial Lagos, ca. 1885. “Lagos looking West from Church Tower,” from the National Archives UK, CO, 1069/78. Courtesy of Ademide Adelusi-Adeluyi and Global Urban History Blog

Thousands of formerly enslaved Africans and their descendants repatriated to West Africa from Salvador da Bahia, Brazil over the course of the century.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.”[6]

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.”[7] 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.

Joao Esan da Rocha
João Esan da Rocha (left image) was a Yoruba slave sent to Bahia. He returned with his Brazilian-born son, Candido (right image, with his mother Angelica). João built the famous Water House in the Brazilian Quarter of Lagos, and Candido lived there courtesy of Wikipedia.

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.”[8] 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.


This is a passport application for José Gantois, a “preto liberto,” or “liberated black,” who is requesting to go to the “Coast of Africa.” His “nation” (ethnicity) is Mina, which was a generic term used during the nineteenth century to describe people from the Bight of Benin region. Gantois’ passport application is dated 12 March 1867. Source: APEB, Escravo embarcação, desembarcação para seguir viagem (1867–69), maço 6371. Photo by Susan Rosenfeld.

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.”[9] 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.”[10] 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.[11] 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.[12]

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.

DSC03231.jpgSusan 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.

Featured image (at top): The Bamgboshe Martins House, home of a Candomblé Egúngún from Brazil, photograph by Aderemi Adegbite courtesy of

[1] 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).

[2] 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.

[3] Carneiro da Cunha, Negros, estrangeiros, 137.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] 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).

[7] 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).

[8] Lagos State High Court (hereafter LSHC), Judge’s Notebook, Civil Cases, 386–88, Maria Mariquinha v. David Williams, 9 February 1892.

[9] Castillo, “Mapping the Nineteenth-Century Brazilian Returnee Movement,” 36.

[10] Ibid.

[11] 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.

[12] 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.

The Metropole Bookshelf: Mark Wild’s Renewal: Liberal Protestants and the American City after World War II

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.

9780226605234.jpgRenewal 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).

Featured image (at top):

Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, renovation, San Francisco, CA, photo by Beverly Willis, 1966, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.


Exhibit Review: Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis at the Museum of the City of New York

By Robert B. Carey, Ph.D.

Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis.
Museum of the City of New York until April 28th

Review of Germ City and Related Podcasts
Radio Station WYNC

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.

Jacob A. Riis, An Italian Home under a Dump, c. 1890. Museum of the City of New York, Jacob A. Riis Collection,

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.

D. Appleton and Company, Sanitary and Social Chart of the Fourth Ward of the City of New York …, c. 1865. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of the University of Western Ontario, 37.152.8

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. is Professor 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