Cityscape Number 10: May 12, 2021

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

Recent Books

Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe
By Judith Herrin, Princeton University Press, 2020

O lone Ravenna! many a tale is told
Of thy great glories of the days of old;
Two thousand years have passed since thou didst see
Caesar ride forth to royal victory
Ravenna, Oscar Wilde (1878)

Before crossing the Rubicon, Caesar reconnoitered in Ravenna. After the fall of Rome and the rise of Byzantium, Ravenna, the seat of Ostrogoth and Lombard empires, served variously as the cultural, political, and artistic center of Western Europe. Byzantine archeologist Judith Herrin shows how and why Ravenna was the shining light of the “dark ages.” Well illustrated.

Seeing Trees: A History of Street Trees in New York City and Berlin 
By Sonja Dümpelmann, Yale University Press 2019

There’s a tree that grows in Brooklyn… in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps… out of cellar gratings… the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly . . . without sun, water, and seemingly without earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith (1943)

For Jane Jacobs, a good neighborhood meant old and new buildings, mixed uses, and short lively streets. Trees? Not so much. But for Dümpelman the tree remains a joyful, healthy, and perhaps necessary aspect of urban life. In the late nineteenth century, progressive-minded New Yorkers, following European cities, initiated a movement whose Arbor Day enthusiasm would carry the city through war and depression. At mid-twentieth century, African American women would find in trees not merely a symbol of urban vitality but also a very real way to cleanse and stabilize their troubled neighborhoods. For New Yorkers, it was Berlin, the city of lindens, that had served as a model. In Part II we see Berlin after the war, its lindens burned to a crisp or cut down for firewood. Later will come tree planting, renewal, and a city reunified.

Karachi Vice: Life and Death in A Contested City
By Samira Shackle, Granta, 2021

The violent and vital megacity of 15 million as seen through the lives of an ambulance driver, a TV crime reporter, a social activist, and a schoolgirl.

Cities in the Plague Years

Cityscape here concludes its historical series with typhoid in New York.

Typhoid Mary, The Asymptomatic Carrier: Menace and Victim

After a year of COVID, we know very well that even those without symptoms may infect others. You may feel fine, but keep your mask on!

At the beginning of the twentieth century, it was suspected, but still largely unproven, that apparently healthy individuals might transmit a lethal disease to others. In the summer of 1906, five members of a wealthy family that had rented a house on Oyster Bay on Long Island’s North Shore came down with typhoid fever, a dangerous disease associated with defective sanitation. The house was carefully inspected; water and sewer lines showed no evidence of contamination. But until the cause of the outbreak was discovered, who would want to rent or buy this haunted house? So the owner hired George A. Soper, a sanitary engineer and intrepid medical detective who discovered that Mary Mallon, who had been the cook that summer, had previously infected other families. When Dr. Soper requested that Mary undergo testing, she so strenuously refused (after all, she felt fine!) that the NYC Board of Health ordered the police to take her to the hospital. Stool samples showed that Mary, who failed to wash her hands prior to preparing food, was infectious. After being quarantined on North Brother, an island in the East River, she was released after more than two years. But afterwards, when several typhoid outbreaks were reported, it was discovered that Mary had broken her promise never to work as a cook. She was now sent back to North Brother where she was quarantined for 23 years; she died there in 1938. By some estimates, she had infected 122 individuals; five died. However, of the hundreds of other asymptomatic carriers, none had ever been quarantined for so long. 

Instead of working with her, to make her realize that she was a risk factor, the state quarantined her twice, making her a laboratory pet. Mary endured test after test and was only thinking of how she could cook again. She had become a victim of the health laws, of the press, and above all of the cynical physicians, who had plenty of time to test but never had time to talk with the patient.

Mary Mallon (1869-1938) and the History of Typhoid Fever
By Filio Marineli, Gregory Tsoucalas, Marianna Karamanou, and George Androutsos
The Annals of Gastroenterology 26, no. 2 (2013): 132-34.

The Curious Career of Typhoid Mary
By George Sopher
The Bulletin of The New York Academy of Medicine 10 (October, 1939): 698-712.

Mary Mallon

Sara Josephine Butler, Who Subdued Mary and Pioneered Preventive Medicine

The way to keep people from dying from disease, it struck me suddenly, was to keep them from falling ill. Healthy people don’t die. It sounds like a completely witless remark, but at that time it was a startling idea. Preventive medicine had hardly been born…
Fighting For Life, Sara Josephine Baker (1939)

S. Josephine Baker, 1922. National Library of Medicine.

When it was decided that Mary Mallon should be taken into custody, the Board of Health not only summoned the police, but also one of its staff, Dr. Sara Josephine Butler, a plain-spoken lesbian, who was accustomed to taking on all sorts of unpleasant tasks including vaccinating Bowery bums. To keep the struggling and frantic Mary under control in the ambulance, Dr. Butler more or less sat on her all the way to Willard Parker hospital. 

Although invariably linked to Mary, Dr. Butler’s fame rests on her pioneering work in preventive medicine. She created a sensation after writing that American infants were at greater risk of dying than the doughboys in World War I. When Butler began working for the Board of Health in 1902, one in three children in New York was likely to die before the age of five. The city had about the highest infant mortality rate in the country. When Butler retired in 1923, New York had the lowest rate of any big city. What Butler did was teach immigrant mothers how to bathe, feed, and clothe babies. She encouraged breast-feeding and, when necessary, bottle-feeding with formula which she had developed. She stressed that healthy babies needed to be hugged and loved. She set up clean milk stations in the poorest neighborhoods and worked to ensure that trained nurses were assigned to public schools. She moved the city to license midwives. She taught Louis Pasteur’s still relatively new germ theory of disease not only to the mothers but also to their older daughters and other teenaged girls who were often charged with caring for babies when mothers were at work. No one had ever undertaken such a well-organized, popular, and practical teaching and training program to advance preventive medicine. By the time Butler retired in 1923, it was estimated that she had saved 90,000 infant lives.

The de Blasio administration has compiled a list of New York women worthy of a monument or memorial; Butler’s name did not appear on the list, but it could be argued that she might well have been put at the top. 

S.J. Baker: The New Yorker Who Saved 90,000 Infants
By Leila McNeill
BBC Future: Missed Genius Series, May 17, 2020.

Sara Josephine Baker (1873-1945)
By Manon S. Parry
American Journal of Public Health 96, no. 4 (April 2006): 620-622.

Sara Josephine Baker


Competition In The Promised Land: Black Migrants In Northern Cities And Labor Markets
By Leah Platt Boustan, Princeton University Press, 2017.

In 1910 when ninety percent of African Americans were still living in the South, they began moving North and West in what would become, over the next sixty years, one of the largest and most significant migrations in American history. A people long rooted to the soil by slavery and peonage would, in the twentieth century, be transformed by the city.

The story has been told, by among others, James R. Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners and The Great Migration (1989); Nicholas Lemann, The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration And How It Changed America (1991); and Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010). Often overlooked is Dwayne E. Walls’s The Chickenbone Special (1970), a thoughtful journalistic account of those who took passenger trains up from the Carolinas and Virginia to settle in Washington, Philadelphia, New York, and other East Coast cities. The unadorned transcriptions of interviews with the elderly residents of public housing in Newark’s Central Ward–When I was Coming Up: An Oral History of Aged Blacks (1982)–is unsurpassed in its offering authentic personal testimony of what it was like to live through the exodus.

What is missing, however, from otherwise poignant and well-wrought narratives is relevant data. That is what Princeton economist Leah Platt Boustan provides in her brief, accessible, and technically sophisticated monograph, Competition in The Promised Land: Black Migrants in Northern Cities and Labor Markets. Boustan’s analysis of the years 1940-1970 suggests that the African Americans most likely to leave the South were on the one hand, better-off, educated individuals and on the other, the poorer and less well-educated. The middling sort were less likely to depart. She estimates that the income of those who moved was twice as high as the income of their counterparts who stayed. But as a result of job competition from the new arrivals, the income of African Americans already settled in the city was 20 percent lower than it otherwise would have been. Boustan also points out that for every African American family that arrived in the city, two white families departed. She cautions against attributing “white flight” solely to white concern that Black encroachment would bring down neighborhood property values and quality of life. Whites generally lived at such considerable distances from ghettos that the fear of encroachment on white neighborhoods must be considered as only one of a number of factors contributing to the suburban exodus. Whites were also concerned about the growing citywide political clout of the newcomers; and, like many others who had previously moved to suburbia, they were looking for more substantial living space and better schools. While Boustan’s work is hardly definitive, it invites historians to consult current economic research to better understand the complex forces that shaped American cities, suburbs, and race relations. 

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): Karachi, Pakistan. Greg_flickr, 2006,

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