Cityscape Number 9: October 19, 2020

The Metropole’s listing of recent, forthcoming, or overlooked writing. 

Recent Books

Driving While Black: African American Travel and The Road to Civil Rights
By Gretchen Sorin, Liveright, 2020

Overground Railroad: The Green Book and The Roots of Black Travel In America
By Candacy Taylor, Abrams Press, 2020

See the USA in your Chevrolet
America is asking you to call
Drive your Chevrolet through the USA
America's the greatest land of all
–Dinah Shore, circa 1952

For African Americans the open road could be anything but carefree. Even the Coke machines might be labeled “for whites only.” Gas stations? Bathrooms? Lodging? Meals? Careful! These complementary studies by Sorin and Taylor tell the story of how black families navigated their way through the “greatest land of all.” But they are more than chronicles of anxiety. Both books draw on the fabled Negro Motorist Green Book (1936-66), inaugurated by Harlem postman Victor Hugo Green, which listed where in America’s towns and cities African Americans might safely sleep, eat, and play. Green’s compilation testified not only to the pervasiveness of racism, but also to the fact that the very need for protection gave rise to institutions and to social and commercial activity which profoundly enhanced the African American sense of community and solidarity. Few would wish to repeal Title II (pubic accommodations) of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But it is also true that when African Americans began to check into the Holiday Inn, then something precious had been lost—the safe hotel that they had called their own. See also the Ric Burns documentary Driving While Black (2018), in The Metropole, Sarah Seo on how auto travel altered concepts of search and seizure, and the Driving the Green Book podcast from Alvin Hall and Janée Wood Weber.

A City In Fragments: Urban Text in Modern Jerusalem
By Yair Wallach, Stanford University Press, 2020

Since Islam and Judaism abhor the worship of idols, you will not find in Jerusalem many statues of great men on horseback, camel, or mule. What can be found all over town is “the word”–in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, and Turkish. Walking street by street, Wallach poked his way into abandoned buildings and copied graffiti, elaborate inscriptions on tombs and public buildings, shop signs, and place markers to tell the story of Jerusalem from mid-nineteenth century Ottoman rule to the end of the British protectorate in 1948.

Street Sounds: Listening To Everyday Life in Modern Egypt
By Ziad Fahmy, Stanford University Press, 2020

If Wallach in Jerusalem asks you open your eyes, then Fahmy in Cairo asks you to close them, the better to hear the incredible sounds of the bustling city–clanging trolleys, roaring trucks, cries of vendors, crackling neon signs, oversized speakers blaring propaganda, and the brass bands and ululations of funeral and wedding parades. How the respectable middle class would like things to quiet down. But listen! 

The Life and Death of Ancient Cities: A Natural History
By Greg Wolf, Oxford University Press, 2020

The focus is on the cities of the Mediterranean, but this is not the story of the glory that was Greece or the grandeur that was Rome; rather, it is a patient inquiry into how and why some insignificant villages grew to dominance and others did not. The historical game here features chance, luck, and the sometimes arbitrary will of kings, generals, and their henchmen.

Cities in The Plague Years

Cityscape continues its focus on cities besieged by contagion. 

Cholera in London

The amateur epidemiologist relying on the Internet can easily access maps that pinpoint Covid-19 hotspots around the world. In epidemiology, however, one map, dating to 1854, remains the stuff of legend. In that year, Dr. John Snow reviewed data to create a map showing where those who had died of cholera lived in relation to the Broadstreet Pump. In just three days, beginning August 31, 1854, some 127 of those living near the pump had died. At the time it was widely held that cholera was spread through the air. Dr. Snow believed that the problem was not foul air but tainted water, and he was alarmed by his findings. After Snow got the authorities to remove the pump handle to deny access to the well water—voila! The number of cases plummeted. An urban legend? Dr. Snow was correct that cholera was waterborne and that the pump water (tainted apparently by a dirty diaper) was killing the residents of London’s Golden Square, Soho. An article in The Lancet cautions, however, that while the map may have served as a useful illustration of Snow’s theory, it fell short of demonstrating cause and effect in a clear-cut scientific way. According to the authors, where Snow manifests his brilliance was in dogged, systematic collection of data comparing morbidity rates of those consuming water from two companies drawing their supplies from different intake valves on Thames. In the end, even these scientists concede that Snow was not only an urban legend, but also the father (more or less) of epidemiology.

1854 Broad Street Cholera Outbreak
By Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Map-making And Myth-Making in Broad Street: The London Cholera Epidemic, 1854
By Howard Brody, Michael Russell Rip, Peter Vinten-Johansen, Nigel Paneth, and Stephen Rachman
First published in The Lancet 356:64-68, 2000

The Death Rates, Predictable and Paradoxical 

The CDC reports that Covid-19 cases among African Americans and Hispanics relative to their population exceed the number for non-Hispanic whites by more than two to one. African Americans and Hispanics are almost five times more likely than whites to be hospitalized, and Covid-19 is twice as likely to kill African Americans as whites.

None of this comes as a surprise. Since antiquity it has been well known that the poor and disadvantaged are far more likely to get sick and die– plague or no plague– than others. For example, African American life expectancy lags white life expectancy by more than 3.5 years. 

The “problem” here is that even taking into consideration their high Covid-19 infection rate, Hispanics continue to outlive whites by a considerable margin. How can we account for the so-called “Hispanic Paradox—that a socioecomically disadvantaged population enjoys a mortality advantage over a socioeconomically advantaged population.” A good part of the difference can be explained by the fact that suicide, deaths by smoking and heart disease, accidental poisoning, and homicide take a far greater toll on whites than Hispanics. That said, the Hispanic Paradox has not been fully explained. It would appear, however, that after a generation or two of living in the U.S. the Hispanic advantage begins to disappear.

The Hispanic Paradox aside, income and educational attainment almost invariably translate into longer life expectancy. Thus Jews, wealthier and better educated than most Americans, also enjoy a significantly longer life expectancy. But more than a century ago Jews living in extreme poverty on the Lower East Side, the nation’s most overcrowded neighborhood, outlived almost everyone else in the city. In the colorful language of the Charity Society of New York (1903): “In spite of narrow chests and slight stature, in spite of extreme poverty and still greater frugality, in spite of mental overexertion, lack of exercise, employment in sweated industries and the probability of contact with infection in second-hand clothing…” Deborah Dwork goes on to explain, “from living in such congested quarters without air or sunlight, Jews were not only healthier than their gentile immigrant neighbors they were healthier than the Yankees.”

Historian Dwork admits that we do not know precisely why Jews lived so much longer than gentiles, but she suggests that Jewish law mandating the washing of hands before and after meals, the regular cutting of fingernails, careful inspection of meat and poultry, and low rates of alcoholism may have contributed significantly to longer Jewish life expectancy both on Lower East Side, the U.S. and Europe.  Jews did have significantly higher suicide rates. Dwork’s article is among the most interesting of Lower East Side studies. 

Covid-19 Hospitalization and Death by Race and Ethnicity
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, August 18, 2020

Hispanic-White Differences in Lifespan Variability in the United States
By Joseph T. Lariscy, Claudia Nau, Glenn Firebaugh, and Robert A. Hummer
Demography 53, no. 1 (Feb. 2016): 215-239.

Health Conditions of Immigrant Jews on The Lower East Side of New York: 1880-1914
By Deborah Dwork, Medical History 25 (1981): 1-40.


The Classic Slum: Salford Life In The First Quarter of The Century
By Robert Roberts, Penguin Books, 1990 [1971]

A Ragged Schooling: Growing Up In The Classic Slum
By Robert Roberts, Manchester University Press, 1997 [1976]

In his early twenties, Frederich Engels was packed off by his Prussian family to Salford, an industrial suburb of Manchester. The hope was that by working in the family’s cotton factory in England, the young revolutionary would come to appreciate industrial capitalism. Matters turned out otherwise. Salford in the 1840s was for Engels, “unwholesome, dirty and ruinous,” a place where living conditions were even worse than in squalid Manchester.

Sixty years later, Robert Roberts reported that the Salford neighborhood where he grew up remained steeped in Dickensian misery. 

“Workers of the world unite,” Marx and Engels had proclaimed, but Roberts pointed out that Salford workers were anything but united; trifling differences among even the most desperate fostered a pathetic kind of snobbery. Celebrating King and Country, Salford voted Tory. If there was solidarity it was in the common belief that blacks, Jews, and the Irish would have no place in their neighborhood.

From this description, Salford may appear a perfect hell, but that is not quite right. With a deft touch and affectionate regard for those he knew so well, Roberts brings a neighborhood to life. He makes it possible for readers to understand the emotional, physical, and social realty of poverty.

When would the misery end? Spoiler alert: in conventional histories, World War I comes across as the great catastrophe, and Roberts does acknowledge its staggering toll. But he also points to the Great War as a bolt from the blue, creating for the first time the opportunity to earn the living wage which would allow many of Salford’s poor, especially women, the chance to see and embrace a world beyond the slum.

What Roberts means by “classic” is not clear. What we can say is that with his uncanny ability to balance scholarly detachment with genuine compassion and to animate the talk, behavior, and activities of the working poor, Roberts gives us a genuine classic–two modest volumes (the second published posthumously) that might find a place with Hard Times, How The Other Half Lives and The Road to Wigan Pier

Would you like to review or comment on one of these books, articles, or other recent releases?
Let us hear from you via the comments section or e-mail the Cityscape editor, Jim Wunsch,

Featured image (at top): Charlesdrakew, “Salford Quays, Manchester, England” (2010), Wikimedia Commons (cropped).

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