Category Archives: Metropolis of the Month

Getting Over Grunge: Seattle in Pop Culture Part I

In a 2014 interview, indie rock malcontent Stephen Malkmus reflected on 1990s nostalgia. “It’s a time that seems romantic to people now, whereas at the time, it seemed like a cynical era,” he told the magazine. “There were all these worries about selling out and the Man and corporate rock and irony and sincerity. But in retrospect, being cynical just meant that you cared. There was something at stake.”[1]

For those of us who came of age in the 1990s, few cities embodied this awkward combination of cynicism, earnestness, and disdain for “corporatism” described by Malkmus than rain soaked Seattle. Much of this had to do with the rise of “alternative music” and under that umbrella, “grunge.”


Unintentionally, Cameron Crowe’s 1992 film Singles emerged as representative of the city and its music. The film revolves around a loosely defined group of white hipsters played by Matt Dillon, Bridget Fonda, Kyra Sedgwick, and Campbell Scott, among others, who are going through the usual malaise and confusion of their late 20s; these stories are largely told through various vignettes threaded throughout the movie. New York Times film critic Janet Maslin described it as an “utterly charming look at a small sample of Seattle’s young, unmarried population,” cautioning that despite an “irresistible theme song” by the decidedly non-Seattle Paul Westerberg, leaned “too heavily” on its grunge heavy soundtrack.[2]

Having watched Singles again recently, I can assure you it’s not that good–though it does serve as a useful time capsule from the period. Chris Cornell, Eddie Vedder, Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard all make appearances. Soundgarden and Alice in Chains also show up as bands playing in the background. Lesser-known Seattle indie rock stars like Tad Doyle and Sub Pop’s Bruce Pavitt also make cameos, raising the question of whether it’s really a cameo if no one knows who you are outside Seattle?

More representative of Seattle than Grunge?; Painting “Three Sets of Twelve” at interior main lobby of the U.S. Courthouse, Seattle, Washington, Carol M. Highsmith, August 2008, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Did Singles capture the look and feel of Seattle environs? Somewhat, though through Crowe’s lens it’s an entirely white, heterosexual city. To be honest, looking back at his filmography, this is unsurprising, as Aloha, Say Anything, Almost Famous, and Elizabethtown are similarly hetero- and white-normative. In 1990, the city might have been 75 percent white, but it had significant black (10 percent) and Asian populations (11 percent). Maki Smith discussed the intersection of the two communities in a recent blog post for The Metropole. Native Americans, though small demographically (1.4 percent), cast an influential cultural shadow. As evidenced by our interview with historian Gary L. Atkins, the LGBT community was quite prominent as well. All that said, aesthetically one could argue that Gus Van Zandt’s Drugstore Cowboy more effectively conveys the scenery and feel of the Pacific Northwest in his film about drug addicts hashing it out in and around Portland, Oregon.

Crowe has acknowledged he wasn’t super concerned about portraying Seattle in any way, arguing Singles was “not a movie about the birth of the now-hot Seattle scene” but really the disconnected nature of life in one’s twenties. I would even suggest that there are scenes from Say Anything, Crowe’s 1989 romantic comedy(?) which is also set in Seattle, that better depict the city–namely when Lloyd Dobbler and Diane Court drive a drunken party-goer home for the night as the highway beckons, the city’s skyline hovering above them.


Maslin’s dismissal of the film’s soundtrack, which included Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, The Screaming Trees, and other perennial bands from the era (minus the biggest one, Nirvana), highlights how the music matters much more now, 25 years later, than the actual film does in defining the city’s image despite it being known as “Crowe’s grunge movie.” A 25th anniversary re-issue of the soundtrack comes out this year.

If one really wanted to know about the city and its scene in this period, they would do better to consult the film Hype!. Despite interference by Crowe, who feared the film would damage Singles at the box office, Doug Pray’s documentary on the Seattle music scene came out four years later and became, at least according to Vice Journalist Cam Lindsey, “the definitive film on Seattle in the late ’80s and early ’90s.”


Then there is Mark Yarm’s 2012 oral history of the Seattle scene Everybody Loves Our Town, “basically a flannel-shirted soap opera, where sex, drugs, ego and money (or the lack thereof) wreak such colourful havoc that you wonder how anyone found time to make records, let alone a handful of great ones,” as journalist Dorian Lynskey writes. Arranged in the same fashion as the oral history of punk by Legs McNeill and Gillian McCain, Please Kill Me; in Everybody Loves Our Town, Yarm enables the participants to explain the history from their undoubtedly biased viewpoints. In life, there is no history but only histories.

Needless to say, more voices might deepen a history but they do not simplify things. In relation to Seattle being overly earnest, bands in grunge might have been politically sincere, but many let the personal narratives about them range freely. For example, musicians sought to portray themselves as untutored musical wild things, yet more than a few artists had gone to college, played the White House, or were even the progeny of celebrities. Others simply played havoc with the media attention. Locals fed journalists ridiculous stories such when Caroline records representative Megan Jasper famously punked the New York Times by feeding the newspaper fake slang from the scene including “swingin’ on the flippity-flop” (hanging out) and “harsh realm” (bummer) among Arm’s contrived and spurious lingo. Clearly, the media was not discerning. “When you live it and then you see how it’s covered, you’re like, Wow, that’s not accurate, or Oh, the feeling of this was different from how they portrayed it,” a former Sub Pop publicist notes. “It makes you question history.”


In some ways, grunge captured the city. The scene’s fashion—long unkempt hair, Doc Martens with shorts, flannel shirts, stocking caps—was Seattle through and through. Though many of these bands embraced the general grooves of 1970s classic rock, they also imbued their own music with a certain punk ethos. As New York Times music critic Jon Pareles wrote in the wake of Cornell’s death, Soundgarden and others turned their collective rage and doubt inward, much as the long months of rain force residents to do for much of the year.

Earlier this year, Pearl Jam was inducted into the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame. David Letterman introduced them, the band spoke about the usual things bands talk about when discussing their origin story; Eddie Vedder said a bunch of stuff that at once sounded inspirational and vaguely idiotic. Only a few weeks later, Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell committed suicide. Music critic Steven Hyden called Cornell “one of the towering rock figures of that era” and even recorded a 30-minute “emergency podcast” to address Cornell’s demise. The loss of Seattle native Cornell left Vedder as the last remaining frontman from the Grunge era’s big four: Vedder, Layne Staley, Kurt Cobain, Chris Cornell.

A quarter of a century later, a city now defined by Microsoft and Amazon remains tethered to arguably one of the most analogue last gasps of traditional rock music. Cities still do serve as incubators for scenes: 1980s Chicago with Ministry and the Wax Trax label,  Washington D.C. with 1980’s predecessors Bad Brains and Minor Threat followed by Fugazi, and Nation of Ulysses on Dischord Records in the 1990s, early aughts Baltimore around Animal Collective and Beachhouse and Brooklyn with Grizzly Bear and TV on the Radio (yes, Animal Collective moved to Williamsburg later, but Charm City was its origin). However, due in part to the fragmentation of popular culture which had reduced the importance of labels, even local ones, the rising costs of gentrification in many urban locals and the increasingly digital, Spotified nature of the music industry, it sometimes feels like Seattle as music mecca might be a vestige of a different era.

Music has changed greatly in 25 years, as has Seattle, yet for better or worse Grunge remains affixed to the city’s identity. Then again, I’m 41, and maybe I’m the one who can’t let go.


[1] Rob Sheffield, “Stephen Malkmus on Why Everyone Wants to be a Nineties Kid”, Rolling Stone, January 3, 2014.

[2] Janet Maslin, “Youth, Love and a Place of One’s Own”, New York Times, September 18, 1992.


Seattle History, Gay Activism, and the Future of LGBTQI Scholarship

atkinsIn many ways, 1977 represented a great deal of possibility for Seattle’s LGBTQ community. Granted in years prior, the Gay Community Center on Renton Hill had been bombed and Robert Sirico’s gay Metropolitan Community Church faced possible closure, yet on July 1, 1976 the state’s anti-sodomy law was repealed and the Seattle City Council had passed a fair housing act that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Through the leadership of LGBTQ leader Charlie Brydon Seattle residents witnessed their first Gay Pride Parade; advocates in the state legislature pushed further in an attempt to pass a Gay Rights Bill. The latter failed and the promise of 1977 curdled into “the bleakest year” in decades, writes Seattle University Professor and author of Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging, Gary Atkins. Forty years later, much has changed. The Metropole sat down (virtually) with Atkins to discuss Gay Seattle, the city’s present and past, and the future of LGBTQI activism and scholarship.

To what extent does Seattle’s LGBTQ history resemble and differ with other urban cities, particularly on the West Coast? For example, as you note in your book, WWII had a great deal of influence on the city’s expansion but also the creation of a larger LGBTQ (and I realize that individuals from that time would not identify this way, but for consistency in my questions I will use this term) community, but this was not unique to Seattle. San Francisco, L.A., NYC could all make similar claims, however, the creation of a Gay Community Center in 1969 in Seattle does predate L.A.’s own which I believe did not come into existence until the early 1970s. That said, the first attempts to establish a Mattachine Society in Washington occurred in Tacoma in 1959 and not Seattle, which I think would be a surprise to some readers. So the history is complex in this regard. I guess what makes Seattle unique in its development of an LGBTQ community?

 Thanks to the effort historians have made to discover our stories, as well as what activists have done to create unifying symbols such as the rainbow flag, we’ve gotten used to the “idea” that LGBTQ folks have a national and even a global history, that “we are everywhere” as the saying goes. Having modern media and transportation systems that let us know and visit people all over the world has helped develop that consciousness too. But it’s easy to forget that sexual attraction and desire and the history of those are originally intensely local, that we are also “some place” when we as individuals develop loving relationships or “come out.” And those local places heavily influence how we express that.

Every city on the American West Coast was shaped by a slightly different set of historical factors. The Spanish missionary influence that helped shape San Francisco and Los Angeles, for example, was largely missing in Seattle, although a very different style of French missionary influence was present in other nearby areas of Idaho and Montana. In Seattle’s case, the city brought together its own unique cultural configuration of local native understandings of gender and sexuality, of pragmatic Midwest immigrants who wanted neatly planned communities, of utopians who saw in the natural beauty of the area chances for varied paradises, and of adventurers escaping their families back east by joining the Alaska gold rush and laborers in mostly male camps cutting timber and building railroads. That gave the city an eclectic blending of interests and cross-purposes. Yet, everyone was, ultimately, trying to survive in what for a long time was just a gritty rain-driven frontier town–small compared to San Francisco or Los Angeles. I think you had the emergence of Seattle’s fame for being a rather tolerant, get-along kind of place with lots of niche groupings that, ultimately, were going nowhere in public influence unless they learned to form coalitions and not get too passionately involved or ideologically troubled with their neighbors.

The LGBTQ community that emerged reflected that, right down to the police department’s decision from the 19th century until the 1960s to simply let one side of the city pass laws and another side – us – who would have been heavily oppressed by them be tolerated, albeit for a monetary price, of course. So no Stonewalls raids here, just some low-level police harassment whenever payment weren’t made. Seattle had the pragmatic university professors who created the early political groups of the 1960s and 1970s, the Dorian Society and subsequent Dorian Group, operating with their keen sense of respectability, connecting with politicians and business people, running their meetings according to Roberts Rules of Order. But we also had gay women and men setting up utopian-style rural communes on the Olympic Peninsula and on neighboring islands – or joining economic co-ops in the city and promoting consciousness raising groups where everyone could feel safe to tell their stories. We drew on influences from the socialist and labor movement in Seattle – those unions that formed to represent laborers in the seafaring and timbering world. Radical Women, a socialist group, would demand that other organizations – like the respectably capitalistic middle class Dorian Group — recognize that the way homosexuals were treated as sick or as illegal was not really the core of the oppression. Rather, it was the challenge we presented to a form of capitalism that had been built upon the idea of the monogamous heterosexual family.

To be sure, there were battles within the community as it emerged with a public voice, but ultimately if anything was to be achieved, multiple voices had to be consulted, resulting in a low-key Seattle style of LGBTQ organizing and expression that continues to this day.



As a professor who came to academia through journalism, do you think you view scholarship differently from more traditional academics (particularly since you see the occasional flare up between journalists and academics when covering the same issue)? If so how? If not why? Relatedly, when writing Gay Seattle how did your background in journalism help you? How did you decide on your sources for Gay Seattle?

When I told my high school counselor I wanted to major in History in college, she discouraged me by saying, “The only thing you can do with that is teach.” Since I enjoyed writing, she encouraged me to instead consider journalism – the profession of “historians in a hurry” as the phrase goes. It was a good choice because I eventually found that journalism actually let me follow both my interest in writing narratives about real people and their struggles AND my interest in the historical context within which they were operating. Story, after all, is made from a character confronting a significant problem, but within a broader context.

I think it’s unfortunate that academic writing and narrative non-fiction journalism sometimes seem to exist in two different worlds. One targets writing primarily for fellow specialists and exploring theoretical propositions often in a style virtually indecipherable to a general audience. The other aims at that larger audience but often forgets to ask those more theoretical or political questions. The division that has occurred between “queer theory” with its theoretical emphasis and “gay studies” with its original focus on uncovering specific stories about people and communities is an example of that.

As is true of most long-form narrative journalists, I try to hit that sweet spot that links those two worlds of inquiry. As Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, two of the best once wrote, the particular genre I work in “mixes human content with academic theory and observed fact, allows specialized understanding of everyday events, and unscrambles and sorts the messages of a complex world.” Or at least tries to. So I always look for what we often refer to as the “ladder of abstraction” – those points within a particular character’s story where it’s possible to illustrate a broader theoretical or political context. My books are built upon characters and their problems, but woven through each are explorations of broader theories. Gay Seattle, for example, was built upon theories of geographic sense of place from Yi-Fu Tuan (especially his books Landscapes of Fear and Space and Place) and of figurative public architecture from Christian Norberg-Schulz (The Concept of Dwelling). The question that guided Gay Seattle was this: What communication experiences are required to transform individuals who have been marginalized as sexual or gender criminals and perverts into citizens who can participate equally in the public civic discourse that marks a city — into an empowered group that is no longer outcast but that can truly be said either to have found or at least be well on their way to creating a sense of belonging within a local urban environment? How do they gain a public voice?

But, whew, I wasn’t about to put all that into the prologue!

Seattle’s first street car turning from Occidental Avenue to Yesler Way, Theo. E. Peiser, 1884, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Instead I talked about an 18-year-old sailor, John Collins, who went looking for some male companionship on a cold Monday night in downtown Seattle in November 1895 and found another teenager named Benjamin Layton. The two ended up in a room in a nearby saloon catering to sailors, loggers, gold rushers – and female prostitutes. That’s when they got reported to the police by a jealous prostitute, turning Collins into one of the first men in Seattle to be prosecuted for violating a law he didn’t even know existed – the newly adopted state sodomy law intended to regulate male-male sexuality. The case had to be dropped, though, when Layton – coerced into being the state’s witness – hopped a train and disappeared. I was very fortunate to find the transcript of Collins’ hearing in court records. From there, it was easy to pivot repeatedly to aspects of the story of what was essentially a century-long saga to overturn that law and resist the police, as well as challenge various medical practices. That carried readers through the history that LGBTQ citizens had experienced to secure a voice and a sense of place in Seattle.

According to your book, 2017 marks the 40th anniversary of the earliest organized attempts to pass legislation that protected individuals from discrimination based on sexual orientation. How do you think about this moment in Seattle history and the city’s LGBT community? What might be some important take a ways not only in terms of history but also modern politics and Seattle municipal politics?

 Unfortunately, there’s a sad irony this year to that particular anniversary. It took from 1977 until 2006 to get the law adopted – three decades in a state often considered progressive. Success didn’t actually happen until the business community came on board, especially the power of Seattle’s new high-tech corporations. That’s certainly one lesson about how the effort to secure a public voice is a saga that evolves over many generations and that must involve both political and economic organizing.

Ed Murray was the gay state senator who helped complete that battle in the state Legislature and finally secure the non-discrimination law that bears his name. Murray also helped pull together a coalition to pass a marriage equality law in 2012 and then went on to beat an incumbent and become Seattle’s first openly gay mayor.

But as the city learned for the first time this spring, during Murray’s efforts to pass those bills, he was repeatedly being privately subjected to highly questionable charges that he had paid teenagers under the age of legal consent for sex in the 1980s before he entered the Legislature. The accusations never became public because those making them were considered not credible. But this spring, with Murray positioned to win an easy re-election and leading a very public effort to resist the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigrants, the local conservative newspaper, the Seattle Times, decided to publicize many of the charges it had actually known about and dismissed at the time as not reliable. It did so because of a lawsuit filed by a man who claimed Murray had paid him for sex when he was 15 — but who himself has severe credibility issues since he has dozens of criminal convictions and mis-described critical parts of Murray’s anatomy. (Yes, we’ve been treated to awkward press descriptions of the mayor’s genitals.) Murray flatly denies any molestation or ever paying for sex.

Compounding the suspicion about the nature and timing of the lawsuit is the fact that an attorney known for his past anti-gay stances heads the law firm handling the suit. So a pallor of political opportunism hangs over the accusations. Still, because of the media coverage of the supposed – and still unproven – sex scandal, Murray, the man who led the final successful battles for that non-discrimination law, was forced to withdraw from re-election.

The local LGBTQ community has been split and shaken – not wanting to buy into trumped up stereotypes of molestation that are often slung by political opponents against gay men, but also not wanting to seem to be challenging the credibility of those who claim to have been sexually abused. After all, many gay, lesbian and transgender youth do become victims of crime or exploitation. So now we wait for the civil trail.

I wrote in Gay Seattle that 1977 had been a particularly rough year for the local LGBTQ community as it began to deal with severe backlash against what had been some important legal accomplishments. Now, 40 years later, we see some similar things happening. I think it’s historical moments like this that will go on to become particularly crucial ones in shaping the next steps in the local community’s sense of itself.

[Update: The suit against Murray was dropped as Atkin’s pointed out in an email to The Metropole, “the accuser and his lawyer dropped the lawsuit, adding to the impression that the original lawsuit was — as Murray has termed it — a ‘political takedown’ using old stereotypes about gay men.” See here for more details. ]

Surplus Store, horizontal, 1st Avenue & Battery Street, John Margolies, 1977, John Margolies Roadside America photograph archive (1972-2008), Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

You write about the concept of “coming home” in Gay Seattle. Can you explain this concept (which seems to some extent multivalent in the book) and how places like Seattle fit into or draw out this idea?

As a writer, I look for themes that are universal in our lives. Creating a sense of place is a struggle many of us engage in. It involves more than just “coming out” and letting the world know who you are. In Gay Seattle I use a quotation from the theologian Walter Brueggemann who said that when you’re writing about people whose common experience is that of being emotional outcasts, rather than sharing a common race or social class, then the central question is not going to be about emancipation but about “rootage” – in our case, not just about “gay or LGBTQ freedom” but about “LGBTQ location” within a story about a series of generations gaining a promise and looking for fulfillment.

That’s one reason that in Gay Seattle I tried hard to locate the historical evolution of the gay community within the history of the city itself rather than treating it as a kind of “ghetto” history. So I spent a lot of time writing about the geography and overall factors that shaped the city, and then situated the lesbian and gay stories within that broader context. One of my goals, actually, was to be sure that the book ended up in the “Seattle/Northwest history” sections of bookstores and libraries and would not be ghettoized in some “Gay/Lesbian Studies” section. To this day, when I walk into one of the few bookstores we still have left in Seattle, I’m happy when I see it sitting there, right in front of the store, in the Seattle and Northwest history section – not several aisles back in the LGBTQ section. I wanted it to be clear that we were part of the entire urban history of the city, not some niche.

Rotating neon ampersand part of Roy McMakin’s installation `Love & Loss` (2005), photo by Ryan Reft, 2008

In political terms and scholarship, where do you see the movement and field going? You mention more work on transgender issues in the introduction to the paperback edition of Gay Seattle. Can you expand on this or discuss other directions you see both politics and academia moving?

I guess it might be said that we’re poised on intermingled waves. One wave brought us the new discoveries of historical stories and documents and is exemplified by the efforts of folks likes John Boswell, Lillian Faderman, Esther Newton, George Chauncey and all the other historical writers who are still giving us richly detailed accounts of the people who have been part of the LGBTQ saga. There’s a continuing international expansion of that research that I think is very exciting as we get more chronicles from Asia, Africa and South America.

Another wave has given us “queer studies,” building on theoreticians such as Michel Foucault and Eve Sedgwick. That has drawn us into deeper theoretical reflections on how knowledge about sexual and gender identities are constructed through local deployments of language and power.

Where does it go? I recently attended the world conference of the International Lesbian and Gay Association in Bangkok. It brought political activists from all over the world. Very importantly, the association adds the “I” for “intersexual” onto LGBTQI. It was fascinating to me to see how capably people from all over the globe and from all races are fusing what I refer to as those two waves – the specific stories of struggle and community and the critical theories about gender and sexuality. The thinking and the political activism going on in China, in Africa, in New Zealand, in South America – that’s the next big story in LGBTQI scholarship and history. It’ll be written city-by-city and nation-by-nation but always with an eye toward global impacts.



How did your work on Gay Seattle influence your second book, Imagining Gay Paradise: Bali, Bangkok, and Cyber-Singapore? What are you working on now?

The question that I looked at in Imagining Gay Paradise was essentially the same as in Gay Seattle: What communication experiences are required to transform individuals who have been marginalized because of their sexuality or gender into citizens who participate equally in the public civic discourse and who feel they have a strong sense of place?

But in Imagining Gay Paradise I wanted to look at a region rather than a city, and I wanted it to be an area that had been influenced by European colonialism. Hence, Southeast Asia became a logical choice, with three very different geographical areas being the focus: Bali, Bangkok, and Singapore. I wanted to see what communication processes were available when the American civil rights influence that helped shape the experience in Seattle was missing. So the processes of communication I looked at were quite different. There were no big public marches or civil rights actions. Instead, there was the creation of an art-based community in Bali in the 1930s and 1940s, one that was effectively then destroyed by a Nazi-inspired sex scandal. There was a very famous gay men’s sauna in Bangkok that reflected both the sexual image of Bangkok but also created a place for sexual dissent. And there was a new wave of cyberspace activism occurring in Singapore.

Photo by Ryan Reft, 2008

I bounced around through time and space to try to understand particular characters and their contexts over a period that ran from 1910 until 2010. That included the early 20th century king of Siam, Rama VI, who got rid of his father’s harem and began to adjust family laws to enforce British concepts of romantic heterosexual monogamy in what would become Thailand – and yet who himself resisted that type of marriage even while writing plays about romance. I examined the role of the famed German artist Walter Spies in Bali in the 1930s, as well that of Khun Toc who developed the Babylon sauna in Bangkok in the later part of the 20th century. And I focused on a fourth major character, Stuart Koe, who created a cyber-organizing platform called Fridae in Singapore. In all cases, they used a type of “magical reality” to create a sense of place for the expression of gender and sexual differences – so the book became a narrative non-fiction exploration of how “magical reality” – as a communication process — can be used to create places that serve as LGBTQ homes.

As for my next story: Given the spread of new communication technologies throughout the world – as well as global LGBTQI organizing and backlashes to that organizing – I think I’ll be looking at how we, as now much more public LGBTQI citizens, continue to evolve our understandings of ourselves especially through new media. I don’t think I’ll be writing history about particular bars or even political groups, but rather about the evolving impacts of technology and of concerns about environmental changes in the places we call home.

I’m interested in the next generation’s stories so I’m going to watch – and write – as they make the next history.

Gary Atkins is a Professor at Seattle University in the Women and Gender Studies Program and the Department of Communications. Atkins is also an award-winning journalist specializing in creative non-fiction. He is the author of Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging and Imagining Gay Paradise: Bali, Bangkok, and Cyber Singapore.

Reckoning with Seattle: Race, Class, and Community in the Emerald City

The historiography of Seattle evades simple classification. Urban historians might ask, why Seattle? What does the city’s history contribute to our understanding of urban planning, housing policy, and the urgent questions surrounding race and policing? Where to locate Seattle within regional and cartographic taxonomies, and their attendant historiographies, is similarly fraught. Indeed Seattle features prominently in scholarship coming out of the fields of Western History, Pacific Northwest History, and Urban History. Similarly, the transnational turn in U.S. history and American Studies has led to new insights that situate Seattle within the larger Asia-Pacific world. Finally, the city offers scholars in the fields of Ethnic Studies, Asian American Studies, Indigenous Studies, African American Studies, and Latina/o and Chicana/o Studies a rich text to examine multiracial an multiethnic solidarities as well as comparative and relational processes of racial formation.

It would be wrong to say my work is firmly grounded in, and ultimately about, Seattle. It would be more accurate, perhaps, to describe my scholarly relationship to the city as Seattle-adjacent. I began graduate school intending to write about the relationship between the city’s Black and Asian residents in the second half of the twentieth century. Some of that research will appear in a forthcoming article for the Pacific Historical Review entitled “Politics in Other Ways: Negotiating Black Power, Radical Politics, and Multiracial Solidarities in Seattle’s Asian American Community.” The article examines the terrain of Black, Asian, and Latino community activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I excavate the ways in which a cadre of Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino Americans joined with radical activists from the city’s Black and Latino communities, claiming solidarity across difference to articulate an inclusive, anti-racist politics in a city that had long heralded its exceptional commitment to racial harmony.

The article opens with Japanese American resident Mike Tagawa’s decision to join the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1968. Tagawa was not the only Asian American to join the Panthers; he was soon joined by Japanese American teenager Guy Kurose and Filipino musician Mike Gillespie.[1] To be sure, Seattle was not the only city in which Asian Americans were either official members of, or close collaborators with, the Black Panther Party.[2] But thanks to the incredible digital repository of documents, oral history interviews, and historical newspapers created by the University of Washington historian James Gregory and his students, robust, granular research of these multiracial and multiethnic encounters is possible. The Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project is a model for digital humanities projects on its own. It is a collaboration between faculty, archivists and librarians, students, and members of the local community, allowing for first-person narratives from the city’s activist grassroots.


Black Panther tagawa5 400w
Mike Tagawa, Garfield High School, 1969. Photo credit Eugene Tagawa,


Richard Aoki via

At the center of this story is the area in and around the Central District, a four square mile section of the city sitting between downtown Seattle to the west and Lake Washington at its eastern border. In addition to being the center of the Black community, it also sat directly adjacent to the Asian American International District. As was the case with Black neighborhoods and “ethnic enclaves” in cities across the nation, the composition of the region was the result of decades of legal and informal forms of racial housing segregation.[3] But the shared experiences caused by this spatial proximity created the very possibilities for a grassroots multiracial activism poised to challenge both the structures of racial inequality and the limits of racial liberalism. Seattle was not the only city in which residents built multiracial solidarities, of course. But the fact that Black and Asian residents were largely integrated in segregated Central District created opportunities not so easily realized in other cities. Tagawa said of growing up in in the Central District: “It was all good. We all got along. I guess I kind of thought that it was kind of like that every place” and “it was almost like paradise because all the races got along.”[4]

Seattle-as-place is fundamental to this research in another way. In the second half of the 1960s—marked by urban rebellion, the rising influence of Black Power direct-action tactics, and municipal debates about the War on Poverty—cities were at the epicenter of many of the nation’s most urgent debates. Within the national discourse about the so-called “urban crisis,” Seattle leaders made a case for its unique regional identity, couched in a celebratory historical narrative of multiracial and multicultural harmony.[5] In many ways—at least in the public pronouncements of officials and community leaders—it exemplified the post-World War II ideology of racial liberalism, which held that the problems of racial inequality and subjugation were not systemic and could be solved through the palliative effects of political inclusion.[6]

Seattle, Washington Roosevelt Hotel sign
Roosevelt Hotel sign, Seattle, Washington, Carol M. Highsmith, September 22, 2009, Carol M. Highsmith, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

In a 1967 address to the city council, Mayor J.D. Braman stated that the “social and related problems we have are far, far less critical than those in many other cities.”[7] Edwin Pratt, the Executive Director of the Seattle Urban League (SUL) and a celebrated leader of the city’s Black community also weighed in, telling a Seattle Times reporter in 1966, “Seattle, like San Francisco, has been given a reputation of a cosmopolitan, color-blind racially progressive city.”[8] Such pronouncements from city officials were especially meaningful at a moment of such turbulence in urban centers throughout the nation. In an era of widespread urban rebellion, conflict between municipal officials and residents over the appropriation of War on Poverty funds and programmatic leadership, the rise of Black Power and other radical grassroots formations, and growing national discontent with the Vietnam War, city leaders counted themselves lucky.[9] Indeed in 1967 alone, just one year after Braman and Pratt praised Seattle’s “progressive” racial politics, of the 164 collective disorders between police and urban residents reported by the National Advisory Council on Civil Disorders, Seattle was conspicuously absent.[10]

My analysis seeks to explicate the possibilities and limits of radical politics under hegemonic conditions of racial liberalism. And here again the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project as well as the records housed at University of Washington Special Collections provide a rich repository of documents, audio recordings, and images that illuminate a multiplicity of voices and disrupt establishment narratives.

In the wake of increasing tension and violence between Central District residents and the police following a number of police shootings of African American men and the arrest of Black Panther chapter head Aaron Dixon and member Curtis Harris ostensibly over stolen office supplies, the response from the established leadership of conservative organizations like the Japanese American Citizens League was often tepid at best. Nevertheless, a growing cadre of younger Black and Asian residents similarly committed to radical anti-racist, anti-capitalist exploitation politics continued to work—purposeful, intentioned dialogue based on an ethic of listening and hearing before speaking—to find common ground. As such, my analysis privileges complexity and contradiction, attending to the process of grassroots activism and politics.

One example in particular shows how these multiracial configurations of community and identity were put into practice. Between 1965 and 1969, local residents organized a monthly community meeting series. The Grass Roots Forum, as it was called, brought together a panel of “experts” and residents to discuss the chosen topic for the month. Crucially however, the largest portion of time was allotted for audience participation. Unlike community meetings initiated by city officials to introduce and discuss municipal programs, the purpose of the Grass Roots series was not immediate policy-making and implementation. Rather, it was meant to be an inclusionary, multiracial, and autonomous space in which the community decided for itself the issues it found most pressing. Topics, which included “The World Revolution of Color” and “Seattle’s Scheduled Race Riot,” offered a snapshot of the most urgent concerns and interests in the Central District area. By creating a space for creative and spontaneous engagement, Grass Roots offered alternatives to the often-stifling political process, and represented what the historian Anthony Macias calls “multicultural urban civility.”[11]

Unlike the frenzied bureaucratic efficiency of City Hall, characterized by cutthroat competition, deadlines, and funding constraints, and in which success and failure was measured strictly by legislation passed and government funds awarded, Grass Roots created space for alternative temporal rhythms and means of participation. At the same time, however, panelists and invited speakers often came from the leadership ranks of established civil rights and civic organizations. Rather than evaluate it according to moderate/radical or establishment/outsider binaries, I consider the Grass Roots Forum series as a contested terrain, one upon which panelists and audience members made competing claims to ownership over the space and its messaging. Inasmuch as the panelists’ words provide insight into the multiple identities and ideologies of Central District residents, the spontaneous disruptions of audience members and the debate they elicited revealed the tangled, nuanced relationship between established leadership and the alternative imaginaries of residents at the grassroots level. At different moments, and in unexpected ways, panelists either quarreled with audience members or departed from the organizational frameworks they represented, claiming solidarity with the radical demands of audience members.

On December 14th 1965 residents convened for a Grass Roots panel entitled, “Should Orientals Become Involved in the Civil Rights Movement?” The urgency of questions surrounding Black and Asian civil rights collaborations was evinced by the large turnout, with the Seattle Times noting over 100 people in attendance,[12] The six-person panel made up a cross-section of prominent members of the Chinese and Japanese community establishment: it included attorneys, architects, business owners, and leaders in Asian civic organizations.[13] While the panel certainly tended towards a middle-class orientation, the discussion that followed evinced the presence of genuine grassroots critique and alternative configurations based on more explicitly anti-racist and working-class orientations.

The panelists all acknowledged a collective hesitancy in the Asian American community to fully embrace and participate in movements for racial justice. They argued however, that their inaction did not reflect a lack of concerns; rather, they blamed the “particular cultural background of Orientals,” which discouraged “demonstrative acts like walking on picket lines or carrying signs.”[14] But Benjamin Woo, a prominent architect and member of a number of local civic organizations stated that this was no longer an acceptable justification for political inaction, and the time had come for leadership and active participation in the civil rights struggle in order to “arouse the citizenry, including the White population, to the same degree of indignation over racial discrimination as would ensue if the city decided to put a garbage dump next door.”[15] Chinese American attorney and active member of the Chinese American civic organization, the Cathay Post, Warren Chan echoed many of the same sentiments when he said in response to the forum’s central question: “Is it possible for a member of a minority group to not be involved?” when they were already involved each time they “walke[d] out into the street, climb[ed] on a bus, or sat down in a restaurant.”[16]

In the discussion that followed, audience members challenged the panelists in spirited and contentious debate. Walter Hundley, the director of the Seattle CORE chapter and who would later become director of the city’s Model Cities Program, argued that complaints from Asian American leaders about the challenges in political organizing were nothing more than a “red herring” meant to “divide and disrupt popular action.”[17] This was met with audible agreement from African Americans in the audience, with one noting the same tensions existed within the Black community between working-class residents of the Central District and middle-class Blacks who they believed to be “too well satisfied with the status quo.”[18] A Seattle Times article about the forum reported that the general sentiments among African American audience members was that the spirit of “defeatism” in the struggle to organize the Asian American community was the real obstacle to multiracial harmony.

Just when it seemed as though the debate had reached an impasse, the respected Japanese American community leader, Reverend Mineo Katagiri, rose to speak. As one of the elder statesmen in the Japanese American community, Katagiri elicited respect from middle-class members of the JACL to the younger generation of activists, many of whom aligned themselves with the working-class orientation of Black Power activists in spite of their own middle-class upbringing. Drawing perhaps the loudest applause of the night, Katagiri addressed Asian Americans in attendance, asking “Are we willing to recognize the leadership of the Negro in the civil rights movement and join with him?”[19] Local Japanese American architect Calvin Takagi followed with his own address to the Nisei. “Recognizing that tomorrow it may be our turn—again,” they had two options: either “play it cool or get in the fight.” The only possible decision, he said, was to get in the fight and build solidarity based not on direct equivalence of experience and circumstance, but on a shared commitment to racial and economic justice.

Public Market Center, Seattle, Washington
Public Market Center, Seattle, Washington, Carol M. Highsmith, August 4, 2009, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

The Grass Roots Forum series revealed two often-conflicting political trajectories in the Central District, both of which are central to my broader analysis. On the one hand, their very existence was a testament to the commitment among the established leaders of the area’s Black and Asian communities to build bridges and lines of communication across racial and ethnic lines. Conversely the largely middle-class and integrationist orientation of the panelists exposed the increasing ideological chasm between proponents of liberal integration and those who imagined radical alternatives and resisted co-option by the state.

The extant scholarship on Seattle has made crucial interventions in topics ranging from immigration, working class life and labor, race, gender and sexuality, environmental studies, urban studies, globalization, and popular culture (please see accompanying bibliography here). And yet important and interesting questions and problems remain. The changes to the landscape and the city’s demographic wrought by gentrification and expansion of the tech-economy are certainly worthy of study. The study of sport should also look to Seattle. As American professional sporting leagues increasingly become global commodities explicitly targeting Asian markets, the Seattle Mariners franchise has been a leader in actively scouting and signing Japanese and Korean players, notably the Japanese superstar Ichiro Suzuki in 2001. There were also a number of ethnic and racial community sports leagues throughout the twentieth century that may be useful for scholars of sport, Asian American history, and African American history.

Inasmuch as Seattle’s national profile is often based on pithy images of rain-soaked, outdoorsy coffee addicts listening to 1990s alt-rock, scholars have long made a compelling case for the significance and uniqueness of the city and its history. Indeed, Seattle may be uniquely positioned for relevance in the age of globalization, transnational mobilities and identities, and multiracial configurations of urban communities.

Maki Smith is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Global and Intercultural Studies (Asian/Asian American Studies) at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Smith received his PhD in US History from the University of California, San Diego in 2015, and is currently preparing the manuscript for his first book, Unruly Democracy: Global Movements and the Crisis of Cold War Governance

[1] Aaron Dixon, My People are Rising: Memoirs of a Black Panther Party Captain (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012), 104.

[2] Diane C. Fujino, Samurai Among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).

[3] Quintard Taylor, The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle’s Central District from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994); Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996); Steven Gregory, Black Corona: Race and the Politics of Place in an Urban Community (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998); Craig Wilder, A Covenant with Color: Race and Social Power in Brooklyn (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000); Robert Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003); Scott Kurashige, The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

[4] Mike Tagawa, interview by Janet Jones, 6 June 2005, Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project,


[5] See Shelley Sang-Hee Lee, Claiming the Oriental Gateway: Prewar Seattle and Japanese America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011) and Quintard Taylor, The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle’s Central District From 1870 Through the Civil Rights Era (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994).

[6] Racism, according to this framework was not structural and deeply embedded in the nation’s institutions and society, but was rather a problem of individual prejudice. As such, racial liberalism brought with it a kind of optimism about the capacity of individuals to overcome their own prejudices through increased understanding and familiarity. Since racism was simply the “bad ideology” of individuals and was contradictory to the fundamental tenets of equality and justice at the heart of national exceptionalist mythology, eradicating it would not require massive structural and institutional readjustments. See Daniel Martinez HoSang, Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives in the Making of Postwar California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 13-14; Mark Brilliant, The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941-1978 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); Peggy Pasco, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 313.

[7] Marshall Kaplan, Gans, and Kahn, The Model Cities Program: The Planning Process in Atlanta, Seattle, and Dayton (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970), 44-47.

[8] Lane Smith, “Potential Here, Say Rights Leaders: Seattle Not Immune From Race Disturbances,” Seattle Times, 12 October 1966, Box 13, Folder 31, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[9] Indeed, disputes over the degree to which the War on Poverty’s requirement of “maximum feasible participation” granted individual communities autonomy and programmatic authority was one of the principle sources of conflict between government officials and city residents throughout the country. In cities from Oakland, to Detroit, to New York, residents and officials clashed—at times to the point of violence and collective rebellion—over the boundaries between the government’s conception of permissible levels of participation and local demands for community control. See for example Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996); Donna Murch, Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); Daniel Widener, Black Arts West: Culture and Struggle in Postwar Los Angeles (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010); Alyosha Goldstein, Poverty in Common: The Politics of Community Action During the American Century (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012).

[10] See National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (New York: Bantam Books, 1968), 113.

[11] Anthony Macias, “Bringing Music to the People: Race, Urban Culture, and Municipal Politics in Postwar Los Angeles,” American Quarterly 56, no. 3 (September 2004), 694.

[12] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[13] They included: Midori Thiel of the JACL; prominent attorney and active member of the Cathay Post, Warren Chan; University of Washington professor of Social Work, Calvin Takagi; architect and active member of the JSCC the Seattle China Club, Benjamin Woo; attorney and member of the Seattle Housing Advisory and JACL, Toru Sakahara; and moderator and JACL chapter vice-president, Fran Wada.

[14] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[15] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[16] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[17] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[18] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[19] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

A Bibliography for the Capital of the Pacific Northwest: Seattle


Over the last quarter of a century, Seattle has gone from remote, grunge rock, alternative Pac NW paradise (as portrayed in the now 25 year old movie Singles) to environmental aggro bike riding hipster World Trade Organization protesting enclave (see 2007’s Battle in Seattle) to new Silicon Valley tech Amazon/Microsoft led metropolis. Its sibling Portland has “Portlandia”; Seattle, “Grey’s Anatomy” and for the older that walk among us, “Frazier”. The former remains smaller, weirder, and perhaps, more iconoclastic, while the latter has donned its adult clothes as it transforms into what some now dub a new San Francisco.

Still, as often happens when one draws upon pop culture to form narratives about a city–a subject The Metropole will explore this month–many things get obscured. For example, with the exception of the more recent “Grey’s Anatomy”, one could be forgiven if he or she envisioned the city as devoid of minorities. The reality of course is much different. Seattle’s black, Asian, and Native American populations have been around for a long time and the (controversial) global economy means its location on the lip of the Pacific Rim ensures it an increasingly important place in national and transnational flows of labor and capital.

In the process of building our biography for June’s Metropolis of the Month, more than one historian acknowledged that Seattle remains understudied. Yet as you can see below, the city’s history proves more fertile, and richer, than one might expect. This history helps place Seattle into proper perspective. For example, its tech-centric 21st century Amazonesque gloss could arguably be traced back to the 1962 World’s Fair, notably its Century 21 Exposition. Eminent historian of the American West and University of Seattle professor John Findlay captured this turn in his Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture after 1940.

Bird’s-eye view of waterfront, Seattle, Washington, 1904, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

To a greater degree than its western counterparts, Seattle “inherited a more intact central core from the nineteenth century and seemed less overrun by growth, although not for lack of trying,” writes Findlay. Its “more constrained” urbanization made it attractive and the Century 21 Exposition promised to bring “metropolitan stature” and “order to a growing city.”[1] Century 21 operated on several levels: a means to push through urban renewal plans for the downtown area, an exemplar of American scientific prowess, and symbolic outreach to the global Cold War community, namely the benefits of working with the United States and its apparent technological sophistication.

Naturally, much like Amazon does today, Boeing played a role. It existed as an entity unto itself even in the confines of the fair. “The Space Needle, the U.S. Science Pavilion, the glimpses of the future, and the numerous rides into outer space all paid homage to the aerospace manufacturer rather than to downtown business or tourism,” notes Findlay.[2] The Space Needle, like Disneyland before it did for Anaheim, came to symbolize the city and served as an organizing principle in resident’s mental maps of the metropolis.

Skyline, dominated by the Space Needle, which appeared in the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, or “Century 21 Exposition.” Seattle, Washington, Carol M. Highsmith, 1980-2006, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Like urban planning of the era more generally, but particularly in the West, the fair was aimed at suburbanites thereby delivering “middlebrow culture to middle class fairgoers.”[3] With this in mind, mid-century consumerism also engaged the fair. Shopping centers had exploded in American life and planners drew upon this new development promoted by designers like Victor Gruen: “shopping malls provided not just retail outlets but also entertainment , culture and services in a novel form of space.” Organizers added a retail mall to the fair, which simultaneously promoted commerce and brought the suburbs to the city.[4]   “Perhaps, however, no society had ever come close to approximating the ideal of a middle class, consumer oriented culture than the United States in 1962,” writes Findlay. To that end the Seattle World’s Fair “captured much of the outlook of postwar America” from the vantage point both of consumerism and dominance of science over nature.[5]

Seattle Music Project by architect Frank O. Gehry
Seattle Music Project by architect Frank O. Gehry, Seattle, Washington, Carol M. Highsmith, Prints and Photographs Division

This brings us back to the Seattle of the present, fifty-five years later. In many ways, the Experience Music Project Museum, Amazon, Microsoft, and even the persistence of Boeing (it’s headquarters moved to Chicago years ago but it still maintains a presence in the area) embody a certain consistency in Seattle history: the intersection of commerce, science, and technology as a symbol of the city and economic engine of its urban economy. Shopping malls no longer dominate commerce. Instead, the disembodied internet, which also facilitates the Pacific Rim investment and trade that Seattle lauds, drives the national economy. Paired with this ultra modern economic base, Seattle planning has embraced the new environmental ethos; in 2016 it was named the most sustainable city in the U.S., though as some have pointed out this sustainability and environmentalism is not shared equally across the city’s population. Which in turn draws attention to the fact that it may be a city full of environmentally conscious liberals, but its racial history, like many other metropolitan regions, remains problematic. The bibliography strives to amplify historical studies on these issues. We hope it helps to flesh out this complex history from the economics that have shaped the city to the fissures that have sometimes emerged due to the effect of race and class on Seattle residents. It is never a simple story, but it is always an interesting one.

Thanks to Quintard Taylor, Margaret O’Mara, Maki Smith, and Megan Asaka for their help with the bibliography.




Second Ave. and Marion St., Seattle, Wash., July 1889, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Digital Collections Martin Luther King County, Washington (Seattle is the county seat) history. In addition, a simple search from the homepage using “Seattle” as a search term produces 3,400 articles on specific topics related to the city’s African American history, many with their own bibliographies.

Densho Project – Over 1,000 “free and accessible entries” documenting the Japanese American experience during WWII internment policy including oral histories, lesson plans, and more. This encyclopedia of Washington State history can also be mined for Seattle history. Searching the site with the term “Seattle” produces nearly 1,300 links.

The People of the Central Area – a really valuable digital social history of the Central District achieved through interviews by blogger Madeline Crowley with the people who have made it so.

Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project (University of Washington) – multi-format collection of oral histories, videos, research articles, and more on civil rights and labor history in the city.

Vanishing Seattle – Facebook page highlighting news and articles on the city’s history and advocating for the preservation and conservation of Seattle’s past.


Birds’ eye view of Seattle and environs, King County Wash., 1891, eighteen months after the great fire, Augustus Koch artist, Hughes Litho Co., Graphics Arts Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

19th and 20th Century History

Gary L. Atkins, Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging, (Seattle, University of Washington Press, 2003).

Susan Armitage, Shaping the Public Good: Women Making History in the Pacific Northwest, (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2015).

Eds. Michael P. Brown and Richard Morrill, Seattle Geographies, (Seattle: University of Washington, 2011) – Seattle Times write up not a review

Frederick Brown, The City is More than Human: An Animal History of Seattle, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016) – Article/Review

Paul De Barros, Jackson Street After Hours: The Roots of Jazz in Seattle, (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1993) – Very brief Entertainment Weekly review (yes, EW; their book reviews are often excellent!)

Christopher T. Bayley, Seattle Justice: The Rise and Fall of the Police Payoff System in Seattle, (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2015) – Seattle Times review

Bruce Brown, Mountain in the Clouds: A Search for the Wild Salmon, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995) – Short LAT review

Elizabeth Brown, “Race, Urban Governance, and Crime Control: Creating Model Cities,” Law and Society Review 44, no. 3/4 (2010).

Michael Brown and Larry Knopp, “Between Anatamo- and Bio-Politics: Geographies of Sexual Health in Wartime Seattle,” Political Geography 29 (2010).

Carlos Bulosan, America is in the Heart: A Personal History, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014) – Race, Class and Ethnicity in American History blog review. (Note: book was originally published in 1946)

Kornel Chang, Pacific Connections: The Making of the US-Canadian Borderlands, (Berkeley: University of California, 2012) – AHR review

Andrew Childs, “Hyper or Hypo-Masculine?: Re-conceptualizing ‘Hyper-Masculinity’ Through Seattle’s Gay, Leather Community,” Gender, Place & Culture 23/9 (2016).

Aaron Dixon, My People Are Rising: Memoir of a Black Panther Party Captain, (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015) – Very short Publishers Weekly review and longer review at International Socialist Review

Gale Dubrow and Donna Graves, Sento at Sixth and Main: Preserving Landmarks of Japanese American Heritage, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002) – H-Net review

David D. Alt and Donald W. Hyndman, Roadside Geologies of Washington, (Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing, 1984).

Timothy Egan, The Good Rain: Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest, (New York: Vintage, 1991).

Angeline, daughter of Chief Seattle, Seattle, Washington, Detroit Photographic Co., 1902, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

John M. Findlay, Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture after 1940, (University of California Press, 1992) – (notably the book’s chapter on Seattle) Videri review

Louis Fisset, Camp Harmony: Seattle’s Japanese Americans and the Puyallup Assembly Center, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009) – Journal of Asian Studies review (via project muse)

Dana Frank, Purchasing Power: Consumer Organizing, Gender, and the Seattle Labor Movement, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) – H-Net review

Chris Friday, Organizing Asian American Labor: The Pacific Coast Canned-Salmon Industry, 1870-1942, (1994).

Dorothy Fujita-Rony, American Workers, Colonial Power: Philippine Seattle and the Transpacific West, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003) – History: Review of New Books review

Katie Gale: A Coast Salish Woman’s Life on Oyster Bay, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013) – Pacific Historical Review and Aspen Times review

Timothy Gibson, Securing the Spectacular City: The Politics of Revitalization and Homelessness in Downtown Seattle, (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2004) – H-Net review

Shelley Lee, Claiming the Oriental Gateway: Prewar Seattle and Japanese America, (Philadelphia: University of Temple Press, 2011) – Journal of American History review

Ester Mumford Hall, Calabash: A Guide to the History, Culture, and Art of African Americans in Seattle and King County, (Seattle: Anase Press, 1993).

Matthew Klingle, Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007) – review

James Lyon, Selling Seattle: Representing Contemporary Urban America, (London: Wallflower Press, 2004) – NYT very short review of book, last on the list.

Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews, Gates: How Microsoft’s Mogul Reinvented an Industry and Made Himself the Richest Man in the World, (New York: Touchstone, 1994).

Murray Morgan, Skid Road: An Informal Portrait of Seattle, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982).

Second Av. & Yesler Way, Seattle, 1904, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


Polly Myers, Capitalist Family Values: Gender, Work, and Corporate Culture at Boeing, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016) – AHR review

Doris Hinson Pieroth, Seattle’s Women Teachers of the Interwar Years: Shapers of a Livable City, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004) – Pacific Historical Review

Peggy Pascoe, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) – PopMatters review and blog review

Roger Sale, Seattle: Past to Present, (Seattle: University of Seattle Press, 1976).

Jeffrey Sanders, Seattle and the Roots of Urban Sustainability: Inventing Ecotopia, (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh University Press, 2010) – Environmental History review (via Jstor)

T.M. Sell, Wings of Power: Boeing and the Politics of Growth in the Northwest, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001).

Monica Sone, Nisei Daughter, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1953) – Very short Kirkus review

Brad Stone, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, (New York: Little, Brown, & Company, 2014) – Seattle Times review

Quintard Taylor, The Forging of a Black Community: A History of Seattle’s Central District, 1870 through the Civil Rights Era, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994) – Oregon Historical Society review

Quintard Taylor, “Blacks and Asians in a White City: Japanese Americans and African Americans in Seattle, 1890-1940,” Western Historical Quarterly 22:4 (November 1991).

A ship, Monongahela, passing under Aurora Bridge, Seattle, Washington. Center truss of bridge has not yet been installed, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Sallie Tisdale, Stepping Westward: The Long Search for Home in the Pacific Northwest, (New York: Henry Holt & Co, 1991) – Short Kirkus review

Nayan Shah, Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality, and the Law in the North American West (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011) – H-Net review; longer historiographical review at Tropics of Meta

Joan Singler, Seattle in Black and White: The Congress for Racial Equality and the Fight for Equal Opportunity, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011) – H-Net review

Coll Thrush, Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing Over Place, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007) – H-Net review

Thaisa Way, The Landscape Architecture of Richard Haag, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015).

Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River, (New York: Hill & Wang, 1996) – BC Studies review essay including The Organic Machine

David Williams, Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015) – Seattle Times review

Lesley J. Wood, Direct Action, Deliberation, and Diffusion: Collective Action After the WTO Protests in Seattle, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012) – Mobilizingideas blog review

 Special mention:

Margaret O’Mara (University of Washington Historian and author of Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley; not necessarily directly Seattle related but a review via Tropics of Meta) provides commentary of late aught Seattle via “We are Not the ‘Next Silicon Valley’” (18 February 2008); “Seattle’s Transportation Malaise is Nothing Special” (3 January 2008); “Amazon Joins the Parade of Tech to the Urban Core” (20 December 2008).

Precautions taken in Seattle, Wash., during the Spanish Influenza Epidemic would not permit anyone to ride on the street cars without wearing a mask. 260,000 of these were made by the Seattle Chapter of the Red Cross which consisted of 120 workers, in three days, American National Red Cross photograph collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


Sherman Alexie, Indian Killer, (New York: Grove Press, 1996) – NYT review

Peter Bacho, Dark Blue Suit and Other Stories (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997) – NYT review

Charles Burns, Black Hole, (New York: Pantheon Books, 2015) – Guardian and PopMatters review

Annie Dillard, The Living, (New York: Harper Collins, 1992) NYT and LAT review

Jim Lynch, Truth Like the Sun, (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2012) – NYT review

John Okada, No No Boy, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014) – the book was originally published in 1956 – Genji Press blog and TheUltimateBookGeek blog review

Marie Semple, Where’d You Go Bernadette, (New York: Little, Brown, & Company, 2012) – NYT review

Sunil Yapa – Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, (New York: Lee Boudreaux Books/Little, Brown and Company, 2016) – NYT and NPR review

[1] John Findlay, Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture after 1940, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992), 215.

[2] Findlay, Magic Lands, 228.

[3] Findlay, Magic Lands, 239.

[4] Findlay, Magic Lands, 244.

[5] Findlay, Magic Lands, 249.

Mexico City in the Journal of Urban History

To be frank, when compared our April Metropolis of the Month, New Orleans, the Journal of Urban History’s record of publication in regard to Mexico City is not as robust. During the 1990s, the JUH published articles on the city’s demographics in 1811, class and urban space in the Porfirian era, and an epic essay by Diane Davis exploring the DF’s social construction during the mid-20th century.

Reflecting broader changes in the field, over the past twenty years or so, historians have focused to a greater degree on gender and sexuality–notably their relationship to political meaning and expression–while others have examined the city in a more transnational and regional context. Provided below is a listing of those articles on or related to Mexico City published since 2000. As always, members might need to login into the UHA website to gain access.

Articles Since 2000

Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho, “Urban Economies in the Spanish World: The Cases of Madrid and Mexico City at the End of the Eighteenth Century”, 27.5: 604-632.

Harold L. Platt, “Exploding Cities: Housing the Masses in Paris, Chicago, and Mexico City, 1850-2000”, Journal of Urban History 36.5: 575-593.

Anton Rosenthal, “The Street Car in the Urban Imagery of Latin America”, Journal of Urban History 42.1: 162-179.

Kathryn A. Sloan, “Death and the City: Female Suicide and Meaningful Space in Mexico City”, Journal of Urban History 42.2: 396-418.

Ageeth Sluis, “Projecting Pornography and Mapping Modernity in Mexico City”, Journal of Urban History 38.3: 467-487.

Review Essays

Jeffrey Bortz, “Mexico’s Urban Revolution”, Journal of Urban History 29.6: 750-759.

Thomas H. Holloway, “Immigrants in Latin American Cities”, Journal of Urban History 32.1: 147-151.

Andrew G. Wood, “New Approaches to Crime, Health, and Poverty in Mexico City”, Journal of Urban History, 33.3: 527 – 531.

This concludes our coverage of CDMX as May’s Metropolis of the Month. The scholarship that our contributors have highlighted represents the newest wave of research on the city. Read together, Sharon Bailey Glasco’s piece on eighteenth century efforts to reform drunken behavior at pulquerias and David Yee’s description of the city’s attempts in the twentieth century to develop affordable housing reveal continuities in how the city’s governors used architecture to influence the behavior of the lower classes. Sarah Selvidge’s close reading of three examples of integración plastica, the use of art and sculpture in architecture, similarly reveals how the city’s developmentalist goals often overshadowed humanist values. Matthew Vitz’s intellectual history of how Mexican environmentalists and engineers viewed the city’s precarious water conditions highlights how a Mexican elite existed that was deeply critical of this development policy. And Pablo Piccato’s newest book, which he wrote about for us, provides insight into the popular critiques of the crime and corruption that were rampant in the modernizing, mid-twentieth century Ciudad de México.

Next week, we will head northwest to Seattle—our Metropolis of the Month for June. As always, we will kick off our coverage with a bibliography of essential historical texts about the city. Throughout the month we will feature new research on Seattle, including a historiographical piece by Maki Smith that positions the city transnationally. We hope you’ll pull out your flannel, pour a nice cup of coffee, and enjoy exploring the Pacific Northwest with us.

Elites, Plebeians, Drinking and Space: Alcohol and Ideas About Urban Space in Late Colonial Mexico City


My first introduction to Mexico City was in December of 1988. I was a college junior, returning from a semester abroad of study in Central America. As my plane flew over the city for what seemed to be an eternity before landing at the airport, I marveled at the astounding space and scope of the urban metropolis. While I only spent one week there, the city would later capture my imagination and attention, as I chose it as my professional focus in the realms of teaching and research.

As a historian of Mexico, I focus on late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Mexico City, and explore its transition of the city from a colonial capital, to an emerging “modern” city. More specifically, I consider how Enlightenment values – and their specific manifestation in New Spain through the Bourbon Reforms – both changed the city landscape, but also revealed tensions that existed in late colonial urban society over how to define and use space.

My first book engaged this dynamic by looking at a series of urban reforms, around the themes of potable water and public sanitation, garbage collection, drainage systems, paving, and the renovation of public spaces like markets, plazas, and parks, considering both the intentions of the architects, urban planners, and public officials – but also the resistance to change by the wider urban population that these projects entailed. My most recent work – exploring the ways in which alcohol consumption by the plebian classes in Mexico City shaped conceptions regarding urban space – continues in this trend, and offers us a way to explore both class dynamics in the urban setting, while also examining contested visions of tradition and modernity as Mexico City started to transition away from the heart of the colonial Spanish empire, to the capital of a newly independent nation.

            During the late eighteenth century Mexico City was a study in contrasts. On the one hand, it was the wealthiest city in the Americas. The highest level of State and ecclesiastical power resided there and it was the center of culture and propriety in the empire. It was the playground of the elite. Colonial powerbrokers like the Viceroy and the Archbishop put their material wealth on full display in their patterns of consumption, dress, palaces, and celebrations in their honor. Wealthy elites, who had amassed fortunes in agriculture, mining, and trade and commerce, also preferred the vice regal capital, and many could be seen flaunting their status, riding their carriages throughout the streets, attending the theater bedecked in jewels and the finest styles imported from Europe, and spending Sunday afternoons leisurely strolling through the Alameda, a large and beautifully appointed green space in the city center. The apex of colonial power and wealth were concentrated in Mexico City, and it was near impossible not to encounter the trappings of this wealth on a daily basis.

Yet, at the same time, roughly 80% of the population of the capital was classified as poor, meaning that they could not meet the most basic needs of food, clothing, and housing, and struggled to survive on a daily basis. In search of opportunities in the city, many had fled drought and poor economic conditions in the countryside.. Yet, the opportunities were few, and many urban residents lived day to day on the material edge. One outlet for dealing with the stress and uncertainty that a marginalized existence in Mexico City entailed was drinking – often to excess. Elites blamed the abuse of alcohol as the source of a number of social ills, including violence and crime, immoral sexual activity, and the persistent problem of public nudity and loathsome hygienic practices.

            We must put the place of alcohol in the colonial world in its proper context. Historians have argued that from the beginning of the colonial enterprise, the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages played a prominent role in the lives of different social groups; from rural indigenous communities to the urban popular classes, alcohol was an important part of the larger social milieu in which people lived.[1] It played a role in a variety of social and cultural contexts, and was often defined by class culture. Elites tended to consume alcohol socially, at home, in a contained and moderate manner (or so they would say). The types of spirits that they consumed were considered more refined – wine and brandy in particular. The popular classes’ consumption of alcohol was also social in nature, but focused on the pulquería – or public tavern. The public nature of drinking for the masses is not surprising, as they lacked contexts of privacy in their lives. The drink they consumed was also considered much less refined than their elite counterparts – pulque, a rough fermented alcohol from the agave cactus, and aguardiente, a less refined sugar cane spirit.

The production of alcohol – especially pulque and aguardiente – was controlled through a monopoly by the colonial State, and the product was heavily taxed, thus providing significant revenue for Crown coffers. One of the other key colonial institutions, the Church, also made significant profit off the production of alcohol. Yet at the same time, they were one of the most vocal moralizers when it came to critiquing the social dangers of alcohol consumption and its destructive tendencies.

The vices of alcohol could been seen all around, as much of this drinking was done in public, at local pulquerías, and colonial elites in particular often complained about the social ills such as violence, crime, and social delinquency that came with an abuse of alcohol.[2] One aspect of this research that I am particularly interested in is the connection between the material consequences of drinking, and how they intersect with emerging and growing debates about the physical order of the city – in a sense trying to reshape popular practices which then reinforce emerging ideas about modern urban spaces. What were the efforts of city political leaders, urban planners, architects, and engineers to contain the physical consequences of alcohol consumption, in particular the common practice of peeing and defecating in public spaces. In particular, by examining how the ever present problem of excessive drinking amongst the popular classes impacted and shaped emerging policies about the ordering and control of urban space, we can see larger tension between the cultural practices of the urban masses vs. the “new culture” of the reform minded Bourbon elites.

Explanation of a view of the City of Mexico, exhibiting in the Panorama, Leicester Square, circa 1800, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In Mexico City, these connections between alcohol consumption and the immoral excesses of the plebeian classes made by elites coincided in the late eighteenth-century with increasing debate about the condition of the city’s physical infrastructure and spatial organization. Building on ideas about Enlightenment order and rationality, and embodied in a larger sense in the Bourbon Reforms, engineers, architects, urban planners and political leaders justified, in part, the need to clean up, organize, and thus “modernize” the city by citing the immense social and physical problems that resulted, in part, from the consumption and abuse of alcohol. Indeed, the latter decades of the colonial period saw a concerted effort on the part of city leaders to improve both the physical condition of Mexico City as well as its image as the capital of a great empire.

The apex of this process is reflected in the leadership of Viceroy Juan Vicente Güemes Pacheco y Padilla, the second Count Revillagigedo, who served as viceroy of New Spain from 1789-1794. His programs, which are often referred to as “beautifying the city”, encompassed a number of issues, including sanitation, drainage, paving, widening of streets, construction of new plazas and markets, and potable water. As an enlightened Bourbon elite, Revillagigedo viewed the streets of Mexico City, and the people who occupied those streets, as disorderly; spaces where garbage and filth, along with the diseases they perpetuated, wreaked havoc. I like to say that he wanted to see a city “without the poor, garbage, or dogs”. We should note here that reform of urban space was not just about the infrastructure – about the space. It was also about reforming and modernizing the people themselves. Colonial leaders’ desires to pull the capital into the modern era included efforts to modernize the masses themselves. This included a refinement of manners, propriety, and the setting of standards as to what was considered appropriate public behavior. What elites viewed as inappropriate activities attached to excessive drinking, such as peeing in the streets, bathing in public fountains, sleeping in the streets, markets, and abandoned structures, public sex, public drunkenness, and public nudity, were the antithesis of modern, civilized, and rational behavior. Seen as chaotic and disorderly, these acts constantly challenged not only elite sensibilities, but also elite culture and social power, and were considered a threat to molding Mexico City into an urban milieu exemplifying beauty, hygiene, safety, efficiency, order, and reason.[3]

While Revillagigedo’s plans for the physical environment of Mexico City encompassed a number of different elements, he paid particular attention to what he considered one of the most onerous and vile realities of widespread drunkenness among the popular classes: the commonly accepted practices of public urination and defecation, as well as the dumping of human wastes in public thoroughfares, fountains, and canals. New laws for the containment of these activities were part of a larger set of regulations issued on August 31, 1790. For a city with an extremely large poor and homeless population, it should not be surprising that these problems were commonplace. City officials, however, viewed this public display of an intimately private act as the ultimate in disorderly behavior. Revillagigedo himself denounced those who dirtied city streets and plazas as “indecent…committing abominable excess”.[4] Neighborhoods throughout the city were witness to this activity daily, as he wrote:

The abuse, disorder, and liberty with which the neighborhoods of this Capital are accustomed, with all classes of people ridding themselves freely of their natural functions, dirtying whatever place, lacking in modesty and with damage to the public health, must be remedied with vigilance.[5]

To Revillagigedo, most urban residents lacked discipline and self-control, two important characteristics he was trying to instill in the city’s population. To him, this activity represented the unruly nature of the urban masses. It also represented the danger that this activity posed, both in challenging the cultural norms upon which elites based their social superiority, as well as the potential to transgress established boundaries between the classes. If plebeians could not control their actions when they drank, including their bodily functions, and chose to perpetuate these activities in public rather than private, then they had the potential to lack control in other situations. To elites, the all too common practice of public urination and defecation had the promise to digress into other types of public disorder, including violence and crime. More importantly, these actions reflected badly on the state, illustrating its lack of influence and control over the residents of the city and undermining its legitimacy.

Manuel Ignacio de Jesus del Aguila, “Plano ichnographico de la ciudad de Mexico”, circa 1794, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

Revillagigedo’s approach to this problem was multifaceted. One part of his reform plan involved the creation of citywide dumping sites specifically for human waste. He also instituted stiff penalties for public defecation, with time in the city stocks as punishment.[6] Like his contemporaries who used corporal punishment against indigenous garbage collectors who improperly disposed of public waste, the viceroy did not institute monetary fines for public defecation. While this activity did indeed cross class lines, he associated this activity with the plebeian classes, especially those who were destitute and forced to live on the street.   As with earlier regulations from the 1760s and 1770s, monetary fines would have been seen as inappropriate for this particular urban group; it was impossible to enforce this type of punishment to change behavior. Consequently, physical penalties became the norm, as those did not assume any type of financial stability. Also, the public and humiliating nature of the stocks would not only send a message to the larger community that this type of behavior was unacceptable, but it would in theory entice the perpetrator to change the offending behavior.

Revillagigedo also called for property owners (including pulqueria owners, for example) to construct, at their cost, latrines for residents and patrons to use.[7] By establishing sites throughout the city where personal functions could be tended to in private, he hoped to force public urination and defecation back into the private realm, where it belonged and could be contained. These sites would reintroduce ideas of modesty and control, which Revillagigedo felt so many residents lacked. Through his sanitation programs, he tried to force the cultural expectations of elites into the realm of the popular classes. Also, by criminalizing the very act of public defecation (and to a lesser extent the dumping of human waste into the streets), he hoped to instill a notion of containment, order, and self-control in city residents, one that was reflected in their personal hygiene habits. Greater emphasis was placed on the public nature of these acts, and how they offended the sensibilities of others. After all, the Bourbon state was trying to establish a greater sense of order and efficiency in the colonial world; this applied even to the everyday habits and activities of urban residents.

Despite his best intentions and seemingly well-formulated plans, community practices and ideas about the uses of public space, along with the realities of densely populated neighborhoods, compromised the success of Revillagigedo’s system from the very beginning.[8] Throughout the colonial period, the lines between private and public space for most city residents was decidedly blurred, and choices about how space was used was often left to residents themselves. Pulqueria owners complained bitterly about these reforms, and it is not clear from the record how much they were enforced. In the case of waste disposal, systems had developed over time in accordance with the needs of residents and urban barrios alike, systems that were convenient to the user, if not the best designed. Popular perceptions viewed the new systems as inconvenient at best, and, at worst, insufficient for the disposal needs of most neighborhoods. They were also seen as unnecessary and unwanted intrusion by the State into the private lives of city residents.

A good example of these tensions, tied directly to the effects of alcohol consumption in Mexico City, is the case of pulquería el Águila.[9] On June 15, 1796, Don Joaquin Alonso Alles, a city judge and member of the city council, reported that the public space adjacent to the pulquería was constantly dirty and overflowing with human waste, and that people had resorted to dumping it in a nearby canal.[10] This should not be surprising – pulquerías were notorious for their dirty and unhealthy environments. Even though Revillagigedo passed major tavern reforms between December 1792 and February 1793 in an attempt to deal with the social and physical problems connected with overconsumption of alcohol, it was not uncommon for drunken patrons to relieve themselves wherever they pleased.[11] Residents in the neighborhood surrounding the pulquería told Alles that people really had no other options because the public dumping site near the tavern was always full; the cleaning carts that passed by were never able to pick up all the waste that accumulated; the site was too far away so to be inaccessible; and that in general the new system was inconvenient for most.[12] This was not a new problem for the tavern. Similar complaints of excessive garbage and public defecation had been lodged against the establishment earlier in October, 1794.[13]

The very actions that the viceroy hoped to contain continued unabated. This was due, in part, to how society viewed public space. A tension existed between two cultural modes and practices; one a more baroque model from earlier generations, the other one grounded in the new, modernizing and enlightened vision of the Bourbon Reforms. The material wealth of elites allowed them to carve out private spaces where they could be removed from the dirt and disorder of the city — in the construction of their homes, their use of carriages, and their dependence on servants to help them negotiate the public sphere. They rarely had to contend with the down and dirty conditions that most urban residents lived in. For the rest of the urban population, a lack private space meant that many of the mundane activities of life were carried out in full public view. Public spaces, such as streets, alleyways, and plazas, were merely extensions of their living spaces, and treated as such

Revillagigedo left office in 1794, and those who followed him seemingly lacked the vision and commitment necessary to end Mexico City’s problems with the structural and material consequences of alcohol abuse in colonial society. Indeed, filthy conditions in many public spaces throughout the city continued. The Plazuela del Conde de Santiago, located just south of the central plaza near the magnificent home of the Conde de Santiago de Calimaya, was repeated cited as one of the worst examples of public sanitation gone awry.[14] It was also a perfect example of the blurring of space within the city, where the palatial homes of the wealthiest of colonial citizens stood in sharp contrast to the teeming masses.

In 1795, a year after Revillagigedo left office, a resident complained to the city council that the plazuela was being used as a public toilet. Convicted of disorderly activity, offenders faced corporal punishment; male offenders were to spend time in the city’s stocks, while female offenders were to be sent to jail.[15] The plazuela was singled out again in 1798, in an ongoing discussion between the Junta de Policía and Revillagigedo’s successor, Viceroy Branciforte over new fines for dumping garbage in public spaces. Garbage in the plaza continued to pile up, and the problem of public defecation had not been remedied. With this in mind, city police advocated increased fines for those who dumped waste in public spaces.[16] As with earlier punishments meted out to those dirtying public space, the police used physical punishment for public defecation, and monetary fines for those dumping garbage, suggesting that the former was viewed as a vagrancy issue, while the latter was not. It also points to the continued use of corporal punishment as an attempt to bring plebeian behavior more in line with elite norms.


Using the city stocks for male offenders also reflects the fact that colonial officials believed that public shaming, or “teaching the larger society a lesson”, would be an effective way to combat the problem. Major streets in the city center, such as Calles de San Bernardo, Capulinas, Cadena, and Zuleta, as well as the area around the Hospital San Andrés – the city’s largest hospital – continued to face problems with people either dumping bodily waste in the street, or simply relieving themselves when the need arose.[17]   Those dirtying public spaces also slept in and around the plazas, public fountains, churches, and abandoned buildings that dotted the city. They also used the cover of night to participate in all sorts of “offenses against God,” a term used by city and ecclesiastical officials for a variety of activities, but most often referring to sexual acts.   On May 16, 1809, city resident José María Gómez wrote to the viceroy, Pedro Garibay, regarding the problem of people defecating and bathing around the Puente de la Merced, one of the major streets running east out of the Plaza de Volador and fronting the Convento de la Merced:

…likewise, men and women at all hours come around [the street] without modesty, to attend to their bodily needs, and after washing or bathing they stay partially or entirely naked….they cause serious harm to those who see them. They inflict the worst on the eyes of the cantos like those of the Convento de la Merced, whose windows open to the street , the many young women who travel by and live in the area, and ultimately the many young people who are around during the day.[18]     

Punishment in the stocks was designed to also send a message to other members of colonial society; lack of modesty and decency, as well as threatening the moral sensibilities of more vulnerable residents of the city, would be dealt with through public example.[19] Yet these punishments remained largely ineffective in shifting practices.

Battles over issues of public sanitation pitted elite reformers against large segments of the urban population. To the former, cities represented the civis – or civilization – with Mexico City representing the model of Bourbon Reforms put into practice. That residents of all walks of life either openly resisted the attempted changes, or merely ignored them, only reinforced elite perceptions that most people in the vice regal capital did not share the enlightened visions of their leaders. The continued presence of more specific polluting activities associated with alcohol only re-enforced elite fears and anxieties about the urban poor as drunkards, prone to violence and lacking in modesty, morality, and self-control.

Gustave Toutant Beauregard, “Map of Mexico City Region”, circa 1847, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

To me, non-compliance with new sanitation regulations was not so much a question of a power struggle, or even open defiance and resistance. It was more a reflection of the lack of authority and legitimacy that the State had in the day-to-day functioning of the city. People did not feel compelled to follow city leaders’ dictates on matters of sanitation, such as the Revillagigedo’s tavern reforms. Residents juxtaposed their preferences against a reformed system that they saw as inefficient and unsuccessful in dealing with problems of urban sanitation. But they also resisted against a State apparatus that they probably found too evasive. Therefore, there was little incentive to change their behaviors.

This brief look at one aspect of the intersection between alcohol use, elite concerns about its disorderly consequences, and goals for eradicating this disorder raises some interesting questions regarding the nature of urban spaces and how they are organized and functioned, as well as the influence of State authority vis-à-vis the urban population in the waning years of colonialism. Certainly, urban groups had their own ideas about how spaces should be organized and used; that in the realm of popular practices – especially the use of alcohol – city leaders and other colonial representatives lacked an element of authority necessary to push people in the direction it desired. Control over daily aspects of life – even at the neighborhood level – was important.

While political leaders in Mexico City were indeed concerned about what they perceived as the destabilizing influences of the over-consumption of alcohol which permeated society, and articulated programs aimed at moving the popular classes more in line with elite cultural sensibilities, they also walked a fine line, and had to strike a balance between themselves and those that they ruled. While elites may have feared the masses to a certain extent – their potential for inciting urban unrest, the fact that elites were demographically outnumbered – the very nature of elite identity and superiority depended on the seemingly disorderly plebeian classes. In a colonial world ordered by the Bourbon rationality, urban planners and reformers needed the existence of lower class groups and their practices to justify their new ideas and systems of order, efficiency, and control. While they may have wanted to create a cleaner, safer, and more orderly city, state leaders had to be careful not to alienate or anger people too much, lest they revolt.

The reforms programs directed at taverns were a profound failure; attempts to remodel popular plebeian practices – public urination and defecation – can be seen in the same light. There was indeed a certain amount of ambivalence regarding the uses and abuses of alcohol, and its impact on both society in general and public space in particular. Many elite families in the capital city had direct ties to the production and sale of alcohol, and the state gained tremendous revenue from taxes on it.[20] Reigning in excessive use of alcohol, as troubling and negative as some of the consequences of its use were, had profound economic consequences that elites and the State did not want to engage. So in the end there continued to exist an uneasy tension between the popular use (and abuse) of alcohol by the urban masses, and anxiety on the part of elites in regards to the urban disorder and perceived chaos, which they believed this consumption produced.

Sharon Bailey Glasco is an Associate Professor of History at Linfield College in Oregon where she teaches courses on Latin American History with a particular focus on Mexico. She is author of 2010’s Constructing Mexico City: Colonial Conflicts Over Culture, Space, and Authority and a forthcoming article in the Journal of Urban History, “Alcohol and the Concept of Modernity in Late Eighteenth-Century Mexico City”. 

[1] William B. Taylor, Drinking, Homicide and Rebellion in Colonial Mexican Villages (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press), 1979; Michael Scardaville, “Alcohol Abuse and Tavern Reform in Late Colonial Mexico City”, Hispanic American Historical Review, 60 (4), 1980, 643-671.

[2] Juan Pedro Viqueria Albán, Propriety and Permissiveness in Bourbon Mexico (Wilmington: Scholarly Resources), 1999; also see Scardaville’s work above for discussion on tavern reforms and the effect on alcohol consumption in 18th century Mexico City.

[3] A more detailed discussion of the ideas of civilization as a specific transformation of human behavior can be found in Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1994).

[4] Archivo Historico de la Ciudad de México (hereafter AHCM), Licencias para limpieza de la Ciudad, Vol. 3241, Exp. 39.

[5] AHCM, Pulquerías, Vol. 3719, Exp. 8.

[6] 24 hours for the first offense, 48 hours for the second and third offenses. ACHM, Licencias para limpieza de la Ciudad, Vol. 3241, Exp. 39.

[7] Ibid., Exp. 42. In the ordinances, property owners were given three months to comply.

[8] Apparently, the re-issue of the 1790 bando in late 1792 did little to encourage property owners to get behind the law. The regulations were issued a third time, in 1793, in yet another attempt to execute this part of his sanitation program. Revillagigedo argued that he felt compelled to because of “in the observance of measures that were in the best interest of the cleanliness and dignity of the vice regal capital, as well as the health of its inhabitants.” Archivo General de la Nacion (hereafter AGN), Bandos, Vol. 17, f. 77.

[9] Pulquerías were similar to taverns, whose business was specifically focused on the sale of pulque, an alcohol fermented from the agave cactus. It was very popular with the plebeian classes, and accounted for a large percentage of colonial revenue through both production and taxes.

[10] AHCM, Cloacas, Vol. 515, Exp. 18.

[11] See Scardaville, “Alcohol Abuse and Tavern Reform”, pg. 658. Pulquerías were specifically targeted by a number of different viceroys for reform. Revillagigedo’s were by far the most extensive, however. The number of taverns operating in the city, their physical structure, interior design, and operating hours were all regulated. The main underlying goal of these reforms were to discourage patrons from hanging around these establishments for hours on end, causing social disruption, etc.; rather, alcohol was to be consumed quickly, and then patrons were to be on their way.

[12] AHCM, Cloacas, Vol. 515, Exp. 18.

[13] AHCM, Licencias para limpieza de la Ciudad, Vol. 3241, Exp. 64.

[14]The Museum of Mexico City now occupies that former palace of the Conde de Santiago. It is located on Calle Piño Suarez, which feeds south out of the central plaza. For a discussion on the design and building of the palace, see Ignacio Gonzalez Polo, El palacio de los condes de Santiago de Calimaya (México: Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1973).

[15]AHCM, Licencias para limpieza de la Ciudad, Vol. 3242, Exp. 69.

[16]AHCM, Licencias para limpieza de la Ciudad, Vol. 3242, Exp. 81. The system of fines for public dumping of garbage had not changed significantly since the 1790 regulations put in place by Revillagigedo.

[18]AHCM, Licencias para limpieza de la Ciudad, Vol. 3242, Exp. 103.

[19]As discussed earlier, corporal punishment had been advanced as a solution before, but obviously was ineffective as a deterrent, as the problems existed. Why city leaders continued to advocate its use is unclear.

[20] See Scardaville, “Alcohol Abuse and Tavern Reform” for a more detailed discussion of the conflict of interest that elites and the state faced in dealing with issues of alcohol reform.

Integrating Art and Ideology: Murals and Modernist Architecture in Mexico City

Site plan, Ciudad Universitaria. The Library is located on the northwest corner of the open, rectangular green space known as “Las Islas.”

Most visitors to Mexico City gain their first, and perhaps last, insight into the close relationship between art and politics from the murals of Diego Rivera. Located inside the former Secretariat of Education, a neo-colonial building on the capital’s grand central plaza, the murals date to the 1920s, a period of political consolidation after the 1910 Revolution. Rivera’s work is indeed, important evidence of the ways artists have shaped the narrative of Mexican history.

Sacrificios-humanos- C morado
Sacrificios humanos Chavez Morado

But Rivera and the other great muralists were active well beyond the 1920s—state sponsorship of the muralists actually peaked after WWII. During the post-war period, muralists worked with modernist architects to produce another distinctive and highly controversial practice.[1] Integración plástica is the use (or “integration,” hence the awkward English translation “plastic integration”) of art and sculpture in architecture. In the decades after WWII in Mexico, during a period of sustained economic growth and rapid urbanization in the capital, it became something of an official architectural style of the federal government, leveraging the symbolism of muralism to promote a narrative of development.

mural and ip
Sculptural Relief “Medicine in the History of Mexico” by José Chávez Morado and “The History of Medicine in Mexico” by Diego Rivera

Lauded by some as the truest expression of Mexican modernism, integración plástica was criticized by others as contrived, didactic, and even absurd. The architect Max Cetto once compared the “ludicrous” combination of murals and modernist architecture to “feather head-dresses on the heads of businessmen in city clothes.”[2]

The Mexican government had been an important patron of modernist architecture since the 1930s, from functionalist schools in rural towns to headquarters of new government agencies along the grand boulevard of the capital, hospitals, and even some low-cost housing. These buildings were concrete symbols of the post-revolutionary state and its commitment to the basic promises of the revolution, such as delivering primary education, health care, and housing to the masses. By the 1950s, however, the federal government’s architectural and planning efforts became loftier and more ambitious, as did its promises to citizens. Grand plans replaced individual buildings, and the scale of state intervention in the built environment grew exponentially. Yet this expansion of scale was accompanied by a narrowing of political scope, and architectural modernism turned from a radical vision for change into a prosaic tool of development. This shift towards a greater focus on economic development, epitomized by the so-called “businessman president” Miguel Alemán (1946-1952), was reflected not only in overall economic policies, but also in specific building programs.

Chávez Morado at CM

At first glance, integración plástica seems almost too perfect as a metaphor for this post-WWII agenda. And, even today scholars and critics echo Cetto’s critique, noting the limited formal success of this practice. But if anything, integración plástica accurately reflects the tension between radical pretensions and developmentalist goals, the first mostly confined to figuration in two dimensions, the latter unfolding in three-dimensional space, a tension that reveals the contradictions of a political paradigm in its relationship to the urban built environment.[3]

The Central Library at the National University and the Centro Médico Nacional la Raza are two of Mexico City’s major sites of integración plástica. Both projects helped shape the capital’s urban development and the national political imaginary. They were part of a larger endeavor that combined institution building with urban planning; two modes that were far more complementary than the image of the feather headdress on the business man would suggest.

Ciudad University

The Ciudad Universitaria and the Central Library

The Ciudad Universitaria (University City, or CU), inaugurated in 1952, was the most comprehensive planning endeavor and largest construction project in modern Mexico. A vast collaboration among leading architects and artists, it was a showcase for the government of Miguel Alemán and the commitment to training professionals with the technical skill and academic preparation to carry out the promise of a fully industrialized Mexico. Its exterior murals and extensive sculptural programs symbolized a commitment to the radical goals of the revolution, but simultaneously projected the goals of modernization and development. The CU probably has more examples of integración plástica than any other site in the world, including one of the most widely regarded, the University Library, designed by Juan O’Gorman, Gustavo M. Saavedra, and Juan Martínez de Velasco, with murals by O’Gorman.

library before
The Library before ….

The Library rests on a base of local volcanic stone that includes a large-scale sculptural program based on Mexica (Aztec) and Maya cosmology. Architecturally, the building emphasizes the relationship between surface and interior, content and mass. Sitting atop two stories of reading rooms supported by ground-level pilotis, the imposing structure is entirely covered in an intricate mural that depicts what O’Gorman referred to as “A Historical Representation of Culture.” The mosaic mural, composed of stones that O’Gorman collected from across Mexico, occupies the entire surface of the building. It is intricate and complex, but focuses, like the building itself on dualities: life/death, history/future, Mesoamerica/Spain. Resembling the Codices of the early colonial period, the surface of the library purports to be a pictorial narrative that illustrates a framework for understanding the world of Mexico, both in great detail and as a cohesive entity. Like most of the art work on the campus, it directly addresses both history and the potential of the future, as tied to the institution it adorns. The history of Mexico, the mural suggests, should be learned at the CU and from the collection of knowledge within the four walls, a proposal that links progress (through education) to the former greatness of Mexico.

… and after


The IMSS and Centro Médico Nacional la Raza

While the CU is considered the best example of integración plástica, the government agency most closely associated with the practice is the IMSS, Mexico’s Social Security Agency, the leading provider of medical services. From the agency’s founding in 1943 it embarked on two decades of what architectural historian Rodolfo Santa María González calls “a heroic era of hospital building.”[4] This culminated with the Centro Médico Nacional La Raza, designed by Enrique Yáñez, completed in 1961. The complex includes various hospitals, centers of education and research, as well as a cultural center and an auditorium. Hailed as a state-of-the-art medical facility, the complex draws on architecture to emphasize the future, art to connect to the past.

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The Main building

The site contains murals by Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Chávez Morado and sculptural works by Federico Cantú and Francisco Zúñiga. The main building combines the rectilinear lines of the international style with a sculpted covered portico designed by the artist Federico Cantú, the artist whose original sculpture became the logo for the agency. The artwork monumentalizes medical service in the context of the legacy of pre-Hispanic cosmology and the historical experience of Mexico, from the colonial period to the revolution. Among the canonical noble peasants, colonial priests, and pre-conquest leaders are doctors and healers. Like the library, the artistic program at Centro Médico tells a story of development and of progress, rooted in history: a narrative that embraces the past but emphasizes the future potential of Mexico.

Much less known than the murals of the 1920s, these examples of art and architecture demonstrate the ongoing engagement of the government with the urban built environment. However limited their aesthetic, they are fascinating examples of material and symbolic interventions that reflect an ambitious and complex moment in the history of Mexico City after WWII.

IMSS Neurologists at Centro Médico, 1970.

Sarah Selvidge received her PhD in history from the University of California Berkeley in 2015. She currently now lectures on Latin American history at Berkeley and Stanford. She is currently at work on a book examining housing, architecture, and urbanism in Mexico City. 

[1] Though they have since been incorporated into the canon of Mexican official culture, the murals were very controversial in their day. On this transformation, see Mary K. Coffey, How a Revolutionary Art became Official Culture: Murals, Museums, and the Mexican State. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.

[2] Cetto, Max, Modern Architecture in Mexico. New York: Praeger, 1961, page 29.

[3] While free-standing and relief sculpture were a part of integración plástica, it was primarily used as surface decoration.

[4] Rodolfo Santa María González, “Arquitectura para la salud integral: La Obra del IMSS, 1958-1964” in Enrique Ayala Alonso, Marco Tulio Peraza Guzmán, Lourdes Cruz González Franco, eds. Segunda modernidad urbano arquitectónica: proyectos y obras. México: Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana 2014, 215.

Making My Way Down to Mexico City

A few weeks after co-editor Ryan Reft and I decided to feature Mexico City as the Metropolis of the Month for May, I received a call from my parents inviting me to accompany them on a short trip to Mexico City over Memorial Day Weekend. The coincidence seemed auspicious, and so I accepted the offer despite my suspicion that they invited me to serve as their private translator. None of us have been to Mexico before, and so after booking my flights I headed to the public library to begin my preparations for the trip.

I learned to travel from my father, who is also an academic and an elite-level trip planner. We share an appreciation for a well-constructed itinerary of long walks, museums, meals, and a solid afternoon nap. From him I learned what to do before a trip to ensure the optimal balance of stress-free sightseeing when visiting a new destination: familiarize yourself with the geography, brush up on the language, book the essentials (hotel, car, meal reservations) in advance, pick a few must-see sites and events, and play the rest by ear.

Mx BooksI began preparing by reviewing some travel guides. I usually borrow physical copies from the library, preferring to peruse several guides rather than buying just one (though my favorites are often the guides published by Lonely Planet). Depending on availability, I have also downloaded guides for free from Amazon through their Prime or Kindle Unlimited programs. I use the guides to read up on the history of the destination, discover the neighborhoods I am likely to visit and stay, and glean some basic advice such as if I will need immunizations or an adaptor for my iPhone charger.

Through my undergraduate coursework in Latin American Studies I studied Mexican history from pre-Columbian civilizations to post-WWII neoliberal “reform.” The historical background provided in the guidebooks refreshed my knowledge of the Spanish conquest, Mexican Independence, the Porfiriato, and the Revolution. For a deeper but still national review of the country’s history, I re-read the sections on Mexico in John Charles Chasteen’s classic textbook Born in Blood and Fire. Finally, blog posts on The Metropole by Pablo Piccato, David Yee, and Matthew Vitz provided insight specifically about Mexico City, including more particular elements of the city’s past.

Desiring to also gain a more contemporary understanding of Mexico and Mexico City, I also sought out works of literature and non-fiction. After finishing my dissertation, I picked up Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo—an old favorite of mine, with the added benefit of being very short. Although the book was published in 1955 and the story is set in a fictional rural town far to the east of Mexico City, the fractured and surreal narrative of the inhabitants of Comala evoke the upheaval that the Revolution and industrialization inflicted on Mexicans in the early twentieth century. I then savored Down and Delirious in Mexico City: The Aztec Metropolis in the Twenty-First Century by Daniel Hernandez. Hernandez excels at providing readers with a thick description of the city’s subcultures, particularly of punk rockers and religious sects. Hernandez also evocatively portrays the transnational, postcolonial in-betweenness felt by many Mexican-Americans living in Mexico. Just from reading his descriptive forays throughout the city, I have a better understanding of the city’s geography and the character of its neighborhoods. I’m taking Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City by John Ross with me to read on the trip.

In the midst of all of this reading, I have also been brushing up on my Spanish. Despite nine years of formal language instruction, five months living in Buenos Aires, and a bachelor’s degree, my conversational Spanish eroded throughout graduate school. To ensure that I would be able to say essential phrases like “más vino, por favor,” I used the DuoLingo app to refresh my vocabulary and practice verb conjugation. I also began watching Spanish-language videos on YouTube. As a devoted fan of beauty and makeup tutorials, I found several makeup artists and influencers who produce videos in Spanish. Although I’m not sure I’ll have a chance to discuss como contornear el rostro (how to contour the face) with anyone in Mexico City, the videos got me to actively listen with a level of attention that that language-instruction videos usually fail to inspire.

Since we will only be in Mexico City for two full days, I have only picked out a few must see sites beyond the Zócalo and the Museo Frida Kahlo (my mom’s sole request). I’m hoping to check out the Museo del Estanquillo, a collection of popular art assembled by writer and DF resident Carlos Monsivais, and the Museo Casa de León Trotsky. And, just as I do everywhere I travel, I have to visit a grocery store and try out the city’s public transportation. I truly derive no greater pleasure in life than perusing the aisles of grocery stores abroad, finding new foods to try while simultaneously marveling at how similar grocery shopping can be throughout the developed world.

We leave on Friday, and so I’d love to hear recommendations from readers of The Metropole for where we should eat near Centro Historico, Roma, and Condesa. The only thing that could make this a more historically informed trip would be to have the input of UHA members in the creation of our itinerary. ¡Gracias por adelantado!

Avigail Oren is co-editor of The Metropole. She recently completed her Ph.D. in History at Carnegie Mellon University. More of her travel writing can be found here.

The Lake’s Specter: Water and the History of Mexico City


Until images of Beijing air pollution captured the world’s attention several years ago, few megalopolises rivaled Mexico City in the global imaginary of urban disaster and unsustainability. In the 1980s and early 1990s, news of black smog clouds asphyxiating Mexico’s capital and of birds falling to their death from pollution circulated in major media outlets. A 1985 earthquake toppled hundreds of buildings, killed thousands, and created a dystopian and eerie urban streetscape. Reflecting on daily smog, twisted steel, and concrete ruins, Mexico’s leading cultural critic Carlos Monsiváis wondered if the city’s inhabitants might have already lived through the apocalypse. If Mexico City had had a Hollywood, it, not Los Angeles, would have been the global icon of apocalyptic and dystopian imagery at the end of the twentieth century.

But Mexico City’s environmental woes do not end there. In fact, while Mexico City continues to experience toxic levels of air pollution, government regulations on gasoline, automobile usage, and industry have at least mitigated it and brought to the world’s attention other ecological problems of a more insidious nature. These problems stem from one element: water. One might say, albeit ahistorically, that these environmental dilemmas have a single origin—an environmental original sin if there ever was one: the Aztecs’ decision to build Tenochtitlan on an island surrounded by a vast lake system and in an enclosed basin at 7,250 feet above sea level. Ever since, Mexico City has been unable to escape its destiny; it is a city on a lake, an environmental paradox: a city with simultaneously too much water and too little, flooded while desiccated.

Of course, the explanation of urban ecological crisis is much more complex than assigning it to geographical determinism. Over centuries, colonial and postcolonial authorities, engineers, planners, landowners, and others have transformed Mexico City’s environment to suit landowner interests, capitalist urbanization, public health, and state builders’ dreams of a Mexican modernity where nature would be subdued and controlled. Two monumental and costly drainage projects from the early colonial era to 1900 drained most of the largest lakes including Lake Texcoco; the drinking water imperative depleted much of Lake Xochimilco and its canals, the iconic space south of the city where indigenous peasants relied on a healthy waterscape to practice the productive agricultural technique known as chinampería.[1]

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The General Drainage of the Valley of Mexico, completed in 1900

Sanitary engineering of this sort promoted urban expansion that accelerated after 1940 as streams of campesinos (country-people) fled precarious rural conditions for the promise of a job and urban lifestyle in the capital. Mexico City’s manufacturing output skyrocketed at mid-century, but a sparse few of the millions of recent migrant arrivals secured a job in the industrial sector and even fewer could afford a home with adequate urban services like water, sewerage, and electricity. Many eventually settled in the flood-prone dried lakebeds or in the foothills at the edge of the basin’s mountainous walls, on land once used for conventional farming, chinampería, hunting, fishing, or forestry. They bore the brunt of the city’s environmental troubles: dust storms from the dried Texcoco lakebed; land subsidence caused by desiccation and aquifer overexploitation, the effects of which resulted in exacerbated flooding; and sporadic, or non-existent, water supply.

Mexico City’s environmental crisis is part and parcel of a larger social crisis rooted in an unequal geography of settlement. But the crisis is also felt by the affluent. Whereas urban elites might succeed in isolating themselves from poverty and the social problems associated with the lower classes, flooding can occur almost anywhere in the basin; water supply is, indeed, a long-term problem of sustainability; and land subsidence threatens to impair all kinds of infrastructure, both above and below ground. It was in this context, one of fantastical urban growth (the population increased from 2 million in 1940 to nearly 15 million by 1980), that a host of urban professionals—engineers, planners, scientists, and artists—began to question the urban growth model’s dependence on draft-and-drain hydraulics.

Dissenters among Mexico’s lettered elite expressed nostalgia for a lost Tenochtitlan, for a time when the basin’s inhabitants ostensibly lived in harmony with their natural surroundings. The eminent Mexican essayist Alfonso Reyes wrote of the Aztec capital: “Two lakes occupy almost the entire Valley: one saline, the other fresh. Their waters mix together to the rhythm of the tides within a narrow straight formed by the surrounding sierra…In the middle sits the metropolis, like an immense stone flower (flor de piedra), connected to the mainland by four gates and three causeways.”[2] He went on to praise the bustling canoe-based trade within the lacustrine space, a sine qua non of any paean to the Aztec city during this era of nationalist myth-making and revolutionary indigenismo.  The juxtaposition with modern Mexico City was made explicit in Reyes’ later essay, “palinodia del polvo,” in which he rued over the desiccated lakebeds and the tormenting alkali dust storms that rose from them.

National Palace mural by Diego Rivera showing the chinampas in Lake Xochimilco

Engineers and scientists centered their critique on the environmental blindness of past engineering philosophies and the absence of a conservationist ethic. To be sure, they too often tapped into memories of a lost past, but their objectives were not literary let alone to muster a social critique of unequal capitalist urbanization; rather, they sought to pursue new means of intervention in the material environment that might better sustain such urbanization. These “engineer ecologists,” as one vociferous opponent pejoratively labeled them, wholeheartedly believed Mexico City’s growth was imperiling urban health and prosperity. They promoted a new environmentalist engineering, along with a liberal dose of family planning, to place the city within the limits of nature. This represented “sustainable development” avant la lettre. It was also highly technocratic; only experts could conceive of the city’s environmental predicaments as an integral whole of interwoven elements—both human-made and natural—and devise the appropriate prescriptions. In Mexico’s mid-century authoritarian political climate, this philosophy lent itself to contempt for the urban working classes, perceived as threats to ecological balance and as profligate users of resources.

Influential experts such as scientist Enrique Beltrán, agronomist Gonzalo Blanco Macías, and architect Guillermo Zarraga drew on Pan-American scientific dialogues in the wake of WWII and the oncoming Cold War to craft their environmental thought. Mid-century U.S. environmentalists Tom Gill and William Vogt had spent time in Mexico City where they shared ideas with Mexican professionals confronting emerging environmental problems and fast-paced growth. Zarraga perhaps best captured the tenor of the times: “The different issues that constitute the problem of the Valley of Mexico are interconnected in such a way that one cannot refer to one of them without alluding to the rest. Water and subsidence, for example, are intimately united, just as water and sewerage are and the latter to flooding. Deforestation, erosion, and dust storms are other threads of the same warp.”[3] They decried “ecological disequilibrium” spawned by past hydraulic engineering projects. The cornerstone of their environmental vision, in fact, was a return to the city of lakes. Ecological balance hinged on a healthy waterscape to curtail dust storms, facilitate aquifer recharge, and curb flooding by storing water. Layers of development, infrastructure construction, and the twin processes of lakebed sedimentation and land subsidence meant resurrecting Mexico City as an environmentally healthy land of lakes necessitated additional artifice, that is, more engineering.

DF Map of Tramways and Railroads
Mexico City on the eve of its twentieth-century boom, circa 1910, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

These ideas were both reaction against Mexico City’s development and a remedy to ensure the continuation of it. Only one planner, the socialist architect Alberto Arai, seemed to upend the principle of growth, but did so only partially. He proposed descaling the city, in which five urban centers positioned along the rim of the regenerated lake Texcoco would reorganize urban life. This descaling and reorganization would usher in a new era of urban development for the city, one that supposedly adhered to the precepts of environmental health. Development was (and remains) the hegemonic script in Mexico City, as it has been throughout the urbanizing global south, and has hampered the imaginaries of environmentalists and social justice advocates for decades.

Thus far ideas of environmental rebirth have outpaced action. Besides a partially revitalized (and artificial) Lake Texcoco and the much-maligned Lake Xochimilco “ecological park,” little has been accomplished to deal with Mexico City’s water woes. Indeed, even these so-called solutions have tended to aggravate social inequalities, exemplars of the technocratic and decidedly neoliberal urban environmentalism currently sweeping the globe. Other Mexican architects and planners now follow in the well-trod path of history, presenting proposals for urban sustainability through lake regeneration in ways that would reproduce—even exacerbate—existing social and economic inequalities throughout the urban fabric.

Aerial photo of Lake Nabor Carrillo within the Texcoco lakebed and the sprawling Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl in the background.


If air pollution and the devastating 1985 earthquake temporarily displaced water in Mexico City’s environmental imagination, a wide array of chilangos (as residents of Mexico City are known) are now contemplating Mexico City’s water predicaments like never before. The Mexican Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennial featured Tania Candiani and Luis Felipe Ortega’s work “Possessing Nature,” which juxtaposed Venice’s aquatic environment with Mexico’s legacy of drainage and desiccation. A social movement has surged in the last 6 months to rescue the place long depicted as Mexico’s Venice, Xochimilco, a synecdoche for the world-renowned chinampería, which depends on the area’s iconic and fast-drying canals. NGOs and community organizations, meanwhile, are working to achieve a more equitable distribution of environmental services and cultivate environmental consciousness, including an appreciation for lost waterscapes, around the city.

The vast lake system of the Basin of Mexico is mostly gone now, but it has not been vanquished. It has persisted in all kinds of foreseen and unforeseen ways. The lake has helped define the city’s social geography and its cultural imaginary. It has haunted planners and has been at the heart of social and scientific disputes over equality, the distribution of resources, and the very nature of growth. The story continues: President Peña Nieto broke ground on a multibillion dollar airport on Lake Texcoco’s eastern fringe, a project that promises to unleash another round of debates about the place of the lake in urban development. Urbanization around the airport will no doubt induce further subsidence of the spongy clay soil, flooding, and community land dispossession. Mexico City’s rich past of environmentalist thinking is laudable, but it has not been up to the task of tackling the city’s intricate social and environmental problems. In fact, they have been more about reaffirming the power relations and structures responsible for the problems in the first place. A new vision is necessary, one that borrows from long-standing dreams of a city of lakes and environmental equilibrium but one that also learns from past limitations in confronting Mexico’s deep-seated developmentalism and its obdurate inequalities.

Matthew Vitz is assistant professor of history at UC-San Diego. His book, A City on a Lake: Urban Political Ecology and the Growth of Mexico City, is forthcoming from Duke University Press



[2] Alfonso Reyes, “Visión de Anáhuac” in Visión de Anáhuac y otros ensayos (Mexico City: FCE, 2004), 17

[3] Guillermo Zarraga, La tragedia del valle de México (Mexico: Stylo, 1958), 29.

The Radiant City: Public Housing in Modern Mexico

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Plans for Multifamiliar Alemán, Mexico.
Architect Mario Pani, 1948

At the end of the 1940s, Mexico City was at a crossroads. Massive waves of migration from the countryside doubled the city’s population in less than ten years.[1] The city’s old tenements (vecindades) began to buckle under the weight of overcrowding and talk of a “housing crisis” became commonplace. The problems surrounding Mexico City’s housing crisis emerged at a time when the post-revolutionary government began to envision a modern social welfare system as a key step towards national progress. Nowhere was this convergence more vividly expressed than in Mexico’s first public housing complex – the Multifamiliar Alemán.[2]

The Multifamiliar Alemán was a collaboration between the government’s civil pension department and architect Mario Pani. Born into a powerful family, Pani returned to Mexico City after studying architecture at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris during the 1930s. As a student, he attended a lecture on social housing by Swiss architect Le Corbusier and was profoundly influenced by Le Corbusier’s modernist vision of a “radiant city.” Le Corbusier’s call to “build the city vertically” in order to increase both population density and available green space appealed to Pani, offering a viable means to create a more rational, ordered urban landscape. After Pani was commissioned to design the Multifamiliar Alemán in 1947, the young architect was confronted with the challenge of finding a synthesis between the modernist “internationalist style” and Mexico’s postrevolutionary nationalist ethos. At the time, government officials were apprehensive about Pani’s proposal and questioned if it represented the continuation of a dominated society forced to import ideas from Europe due to a lack of national identity.

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Multifamiliar Alemán, 1948. Photo courtesy of the “Centro de Documentacion Sobre la Ciudad”/ UAM

Fortunately for Pani, he was given the freedom to experiment and design the Multifamiliar Alemán far from the confines of the bustling city center. The Department of Civil Pensions acquired a large plot of undeveloped land to the south of the city in an area that would become known as Colonia Del Valle. In a sign of things to come, the Multifamiliar Alemán was not the product of urban renewal but a harbinger of urban sprawl.

Due to a tenuous alliance between historic preservationists, the tourism industry, and Mayor Ernesto Uruchurtu who took a firm stance against urban growth, Mexico City experienced relatively few slum clearance campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s (the Nonoalco-Tlatelolco complex being a notable exception). The first residents of the Multifamiliar Alemán were not drawn from impoverished slum dwellers displaced by the wrecking ball, but the more formally educated migrants who were flooding into the ranks of Mexico’s expanding public employee sector. In midcentury Mexico, housing would serve as a visible marker of social distinction in a growing divergence between Mexico City’s rising middle-class (la gente decente) and the informal masses relegated to the distant shantytowns.

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Aerial photo of Multifamiliar Alemán
Cia Mexicana Aerofoto, S.A, 1949

Before the Multifamiliar Alemán was inaugurated on September 2, 1949, aerial photographers were hired to capture “the grandeur” of the complex from above. The image of six towering buildings rising out of a barren field was quite striking. The six high-rise buildings were laid out in a diagonal “zig-zag” pattern in order to maximize greenspace and sunlight. At the center of the complex was a swimming pool, surrounded by gardens and walls that featured pre-Hispanic symbols. Although a relatively minor feature, the pre-Hispanic symbols can be seen as a precursor to Pani’s next housing project – the Multifamiliar Juárez – where a pre-Hispanic aesthetic was more prominently featured through a collaboration with Guatemalan artist Carlos Mérida. The designs reflected Pani’s attempt to synthesize the international and the local, in what can be called a form of mestizo modernism.

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Image from film “La Bienamada” (1951), dir. Emilio Fernández

The government viewed the housing complex as a “grand human experiment.” It was conceived as a “city outside of the city” equipped with its own daycare centers, medical facilities, stores, and laundromat. Social workers visited mothers to instill the values of keeping a clean, hygienic home. One government official proclaimed “tenements were places just to sleep…husbands used to spend their free time in bars and pool halls, now they go to work and return to their collective home, where they have everything.”[3] The success of the government’s state-led socialization campaigns in public housing complexes remains an unresolved question for scholars. Nevertheless, the material benefits and social capital bestowed upon residents living in public housing during the 1950s and 1960s ultimately proved to be key factor in the ruling party’s consolidation of political support among Mexico’s urban middle-class.

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Photo by Jean Paul Rocafort, 2010

David Yee is a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American History at Stony Brook University. His current research explores the historical ties between housing and inequality in Mexico City.

[1] Mexico City’s population grew from roughly 1.6 million in 1940 to 3.4 million in 1950.

[2] The full name for the building complex is the Conjunto Urbano Presidente Alemán, but it is commonly referred to as the Multifamiliar Alemán. A multifamiliar is broadly defined as a large-scale, mixed-use housing complex where each unit is designated for one family.

[3] Quote is cited from speech by Antonio Acevedo Escobedo in Mario Pani, Los Multifamiliares de Pensiones (Mexico City: Arquitectura, 1952), 45.