Member of the Week: Marcio Siwi

Marcio Siwi

Assistant Professor in Latin American History and Metropolitan Studies

Towson University 

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?

As an urban historian working at the intersection of race, class, and urban development, I am interested in exploring the city as a site of contestation where diverse populations with conflicting attachments and commitments struggle for space, visibility, and a sense of belonging. I explore these themes in published and forthcoming works, including my article “The Park and the Favela: Visions of the Progressive and Cultured City in Post–WWII São Paulo,” and in my book manuscript titled Making the Modern and Cultured City: Art, Architecture, and Urbanism in São Paulo. This book analyzes the challenges and consequences of overlaying a cosmopolitan vision of the city onto a dense, diverse, and rapidly changing socio-cultural environment. It reveals how São Paulo-based politicians, architects, artists, and museum directors collaborated with and drew inspiration from individuals and institutions driving New York’s rise to international prominence. According to these Paulistanos, and their New York interlocutors, São Paulo in the years following the Second World War was poised to become the next world-class city. However, to remake Brazil’s largest metropolis into a New York in the tropics, the city had to undergo a process of transformation in terms of its urban form as well as its visual and aesthetic identity. My book argues that the selective appropriation of ideas and practices associated with New York—including abstract art, modern art museums, high-rise buildings, and rational planning—enabled leading Paulistanos to pursue an idealized urban sensibility at home while projecting São Paulo internationally as a cultural center and a skyscraper metropolis. Though this vision earned São Paulo global standing, it further divided the city along the lines of race and class, and triggered a response among the urban poor and non-white residents. At its core, my book explores how longstanding patterns of racial difference and uneven urban development were reified and challenged in a country that considers itself the original “post-racial” society.

Several different factors drew me to this project and keep me engaged; I will mention two. On a personal level, the project is driven by my yearning to know São Paulo better. I was born in São Paulo; however, my family and I moved away (to Mexico City) when I was twelve years old. Every year we would return to São Paulo to visit friends and family. And while those trips were always exciting, they were also short. Going into a PhD program and pursuing this project was my way to spend more time living in and thinking about São Paulo. On an academic level, I am particularly drawn to interdisciplinary works. The first book that I read which opened my mind to this method of inquiry was Stephen Kern’s The Culture of Time and Space, 1880–1918.  For someone like me, who has many interests and is constantly being pulled in different directions, interdisciplinarity is the only way forward. I found, however, that by grounding my research on the city—or Urban Studies—has given me the freedom as well as the structure I need to pursue cross-disciplinary work. In my case, it consists of examining questions related to race, space, class, and the concept of modernity in São Paulo through the lens of art, architecture, and urban planning.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I have taught several courses that are directly related to my scholarship, including courses on Latin American history, cities and urban life in Latin America, race and nation in Latin America, as well as a seminar on transnational urban history. This teaching informs my scholarship in several ways. First, taking the connectedness of the world as a point of departure, I believe it is impossible to teach national histories in isolation. Therefore, in my courses on Latin America, for example, I situate the region’s history in a broader comparative and transnational context. Second, while my courses are grounded in history, I value interdisciplinary approaches to teaching. Consequently, students in my courses on cities explore major themes in urban history through readings in sociology, geography, art history, and other disciplines in addition to history. Third, committed to the idea that history should be learned from different perspectives, I expose my students and my readers to various kinds of primary sources from historical actors of diverse backgrounds, races, genders, and social classes. Finally, one of my main goals as a researcher and a professor is to make my readers and my students cognizant of how social inequalities and racial attitudes are reproduced and contested in Latin America—now and in the past.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either your own or from other scholars?

The pandemic has impacted so many parts of our lives, including our ability to keep up with recent works. Two recently published works that I am particularly looking forward to reading (hopefully over the summer) are Improvised Cities: Architecture, Urbanization, and Innovation in Peru, by Helen Gyger, which examines the history of aided self-help housing in Peru, and Ganhadores: A greve negra de 1857 na Bahia, by the Brazilian historian João José Reis, which explores how a work stoppage organized by enslaved African porters paralyzed the city of Salvador in 1857. This book will hopefully be translated into English, like so many of Reis’s other works. I also want to mention another Brazilian scholar, the great geographer Milton Santos, whose classic work The Nature of Space is now available in English. Urban scholars—especially those interested in Marxist spatial analysis—will no doubt find Santos’s work insightful and timely, despite the fact that it was originally published decades ago. In terms of forthcoming books, I am especially looking forward to Adele Nelson’s new book titled Forming Abstraction: Art and Institutions in Postwar Brazil which explores a topic that is very close to my own research interest—the rise of geometric abstraction in São Paulo.

What advice would you give to students, both undergraduate and graduate, who are interested in urban studies and just starting out their careers?

In terms of advice to undergraduate and graduate students interested in pursuing a project in urban studies, I say go for it. Urban Studies is a flexible and somewhat ambiguous category. And while this may be an issue for some, I like to think it’s a strength. So many different research interests and topics can be framed around this category. The urban is a particularly useful category for folks interested in global and interdisciplinary research. The urban is also a very generative framework to explore questions related to power, class, race, gender, climate change, and the Anthropocene, to name a few. What’s more, the world is increasingly urban and unequal. Therefore, the more we know and understand about cities and urban life, the better off we will be as a discipline and a society. Finally, it’s important to remember that to study a city, is to study its people—the decisions they make, their priorities, anxieties, aspirations, constraints, and so on.

Member of the Week series co-editor Alec Dawson continues the conversation with Marcio Siwi in this audio interview, with a discussion about the influence of New York City on urban design in Sao Paolo in the years after the Second World War.

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