Category Archives: Unique Content

Metropole Travelogue Part II: The DF in the Rearview Mirror

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Outside Parque Espana near Condesa DF; it’s like the movie “Big” but you know actually religious

In 1933, the visionary designer Charles Eames absconded from St. Louis to Mexico, in an effort to “[take] stock of and ultimately [change] his approach and situation in life,” notes his grandson Eames Demetrios. Charles spent about ten months traveling in San Luis Potosi and Monterrey, now and then dipping into more rural areas of the Mexican countryside. He got by doing occasional manual labor and selling sketches and paintings for sustenance. When he returned, in 1934, he brought with him numerous depictions of churches and vistas, which so impressed his fellow Midwesterners that the St. Louis Museum deployed them as an exhibit; much of this art work later appeared in the color rotogravure section of the St. Louis Dispatch. Clearly, as one friend confided, Eames ate up “the visual culture of Mexico, the colors and textures, and all the materials things that one has there to see.” His Mexico trip remains, according to his grandson and biographers, a moment of demarcation in his personal and professional life.[1]

While I would never compare Eames’s apparent Mexican epiphany with my own recent experience in Mexico, a trip to the nation’s capital can surely inspire even the most quotidian of us.

Five days in Mexico City put myself, to quote Raising Arizona, in “the proverbial catbird seat” of life. The food, the neighborhoods, and the history combined to create a vibrant atmosphere. The walking paths that extend down the middle of Mexico City’s numerous boulevards — populated by joggers, dogwalkers, and others — allow for moonlight strolls and morning constitutionals. Numerous parks dot the city as well. The mix of colonial architecture and hyper post modern monstrosities simultaneously emphasize the city’s history and modernity. It might be sinking several inches a year, but its international esteem seems to only treble annually.

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District Federal (Distrito Federal more accurately), or the DF as Mexico City is often referred, remains one of the truly great cities of North America. I know Georgia State’s Alex Sayf Cummings (ASC) recently compared the DF to New York City but I have to respectfuly disagree and suggest Professor Cummings might be guilty of a touch of East Coast bias. Mexico City reminds this former SoCal resident of Los Angeles. Sure, it’s less racially diverse and has existed as an influential metropole for much longer, but the flora, the spatial layout, and the weather all scream Los Angeles. Besides, L.A.’s preponderance of Latin American residents juxtaposes neatly with the DF’s own brimming reserve of Central and South American citizens.

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Parque Espana, across the street from the notorious Condesa DF

Nor is it all about the now. You can visit pre-Aztec ruins; Teotihuacan is not more than 90 minutes outside the city, where one can climb the intimidatingly tall steps to the top and take in the majesty of what is considered the lesser of ancient ruins located in Mexico. Of course, some of this will depend on your tour guide. Mine believed in numerology and kept trying to convince his skeptical audience that the Mayans and Aztecs predicted Jesus Christ, Hitler, and the atomic bomb.

Still, for an American, the nation’s emphasis on its indigenous heritage offers an insight into the United States’ own shameful history of the same. Granted, most North American Native Americans did not construct the kind of awe inspiring cities that their Meso American counterparts did, but the most indigenous peoples in the U.S. get are the occasional Kevin Costner flick or a film like The Last of the Mohicans in which a white guy adopted by Native Americans serves as the film’s protagonist. Sure, you get the once-in-a-blue-moon Smoke Signals (1998), but even 1992’s Thunderheart featured a very white Val Kilmer as the hero. In any case, I’m getting off the subject. Mexico embraces this history, or at least it does to a much greater extent, which is still miles and miles ahead of its neighbor to the north.

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Teotihuacan, a pre-Aztec Mesoamerican city just outside of the DF

To be fair, this was not always so. When the aforementioned Charles Eames showed up in one Mexican town with a book devoted to pre-Columbian art, the local police locked him up. The book depicted the nation’s “primitive” phase and insulted the general body politic, the police informed him. Though Professor Cummings correctly notes that inequalities remain, to some extent this dynamic has clearly changed over the ensuing decades.

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Parque Espana at night; Watch out for PDA; it runs rampant in the park after sunset

We checked into the very designer oriented Condesa DF and stayed five nights and four days, using it as a central node for exploration of the city. While it had a great rooftop bar (if you happen to be in the DF, definitely check it out for drinks/eats), the rooms were small and apt to bleed noise. One night the room adjacent to ours had an all out drug-induced shindig (or it at least sounded drug-induced; I have no evidence and need none in the game of conjecture).

Needless to say, sleep was not to be had and much resentment harbored by this writer. The next night they were filming some sort of interview/video and asked that all the floor’s peons hush. That said, very cool layout, solid breakfast and so on. From CDF, we branched out to various sites around the city ranging from Frida Kahlo’s crib to Leon Trotsky’s surprising large abode nearby (judging from the mural pictured below in the photo essay, Trotsky loved big butts on the level of Sir Mix A Lot; note also PRI scrawled into his forehead).

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One doubts the historical efficacy here

In the hipsteresque neighborhood Roma, we visited the Museo del Objeto del Objeto for a pretty great exhibit dedicated to Mexican wrestling.

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I could go on, but I’ll spare you the commentary. As an addendum to Cummings’ recent photo essay, the Metropole would like to provide a second opinion on the DF, one that doesn’t stray too widely from ASC’s take but offers some different scenes and commentary from the ancient city.

From the ancient to the colonial to the frighteningly post modern modern 

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Relics from the Aztecs appropriately enough under the shadow of a colonial cathedral; actually located right in the DF
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Okay, outside the city proper: Teotihuacan has several temples, most able to be scaled but admittedly not for the weak of heart. Totally dug Teotihuacan despite the bat#$% crazy tour guide
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More Teotihucan
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Alright I’ll stop with Teotihucan now, but there’s a reason it’s a UNESCO site
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Spain’s influence runs deep through the city

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It’s cool but what exactly is it?
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It’s got boxes

Trotsky before the Stalinist ice pick 

Totally checked out Frida Kahlo’s blue house but regrettably they charge money for photos — not that much but my inner miser pretty much always kicks in during those moments. Still, definitely check out her home, very cool part of the city as well, Colonia de Carmen section of Coyoacan.  Plus, it just so happens a certain Soviet exile lived just around the corner.

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One forgets Leon Trotsky called Mexico City home while in exile from his beloved Soviet Union; you know who didn’t forget? That @#@hole Stalin.
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Trotsky’s home has what one might call ephemera; though this is in the museum section not really the home.
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One thing you know about Trotsky’s story: it has a sad ending

 

The National Museum of Anthropology is pretty dope 

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Not much to critique at Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology; I’d be snarky here but it’s just a really great museum that lays out the nation’s history better than most U.S. counterparts

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If that’s not the goofiest smile in the pre-Columbian world I’m not sure what is
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The museum goes out of its way to recreate architecture of the pre-Columbian period; it’s appreciated
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Remnants of the “ball game”; a truly frightening sport played in the ancient world but one that one finds represented at the Museum and at Chichen Itza in Cancun 
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The museum runs up to the present day and includes more modern works of art like this example and a second one pictured below

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La Lucha Libre in Roma 

Writing in The Mexico City Reader, José Joaquín Blanco described the Roma neighborhood as having “fallen on hard times.” In the 1950s, Roma had an air the aristocratic but by 1979, “despite the persistence of a handful of antique, emblazoned apartment building and mansions”, its famed Avenida Álvaro Obregón proved little more than a “seething track of people and vehicles between hotels, baths, trade academies, gyms, taco holes, and luncheonettes, cantinas, Chinese cafes, and all manner of stores…” Yet, for the most part, today, Roma falls somewhere in between those two poles: it’s aristocratic buildings refurbished, sometimes transformed into small museums or hipster enclaves; the dizzying, incoherent businesses more organized and middle class than Blanco’s depiction of the neighborhood.

Few things demonstrate its quirky, charm than Museo del Objeto del Objeto (MODO). If you’ve ever seen Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, and I’ll spare you the ubiquitous insight about it’s shift from fiction to fact, former porn star and pro-wrestler, Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho serves as commander in chief.  Mexico’s long tradition of wrestling and the possibility of future political leadership rising from such ranks (take the U.S. for example) meant I had to visit MODO’s “La Lucha Libre De Todos Los Dias” exhibit in Roma.

 

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It kind of explains itself doesn’t it?

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Half wrestler, half porn star, Love Machine! Coming to a U.S. presidential campaign near you!
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I could totally fit into that … when I was 19
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The Battle Royale to end all Battle Royales

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The best of the rest 

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Journaling New Orleans: Ten Years of the Big Easy in the JUH

 

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Sisters of the Holy Family, New Orleans, LA“, circa 1899, African American Photographs Assembled for 1900 Paris Exposition, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In 2014, the literary journal/magazine n+1 released the edited collection, City by City; a series of short vignettes from urban writers reflecting on the state of the nation’s metropolises. To its credit, the anthology included cities like Fresno and regions like Northern Kentucky, so it gave voice to oft ignored metropolitan areas. Moira Donegan’s piece on New Orleans not only serves as an example of the book’s larger whole, it also offers some guidance for understanding the Journal of Urban History’s effort to cover the city since Katrina.

Donegan had moved to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and after graduating from college. She snagged a position working for Americorps at a food bank in the city, but sold merch on the side at music clubs on Frenchman Street to supplement her income and one assumes, to get a broader feel for the city in the process. The city seduces tourists and residents alike, “it tricks you into participating in its own mythology in ways that you don’t expect it to” she confessed. It largely still looks like it does in film. The broad oak lined avenues, the historic buildings, and gas streetlamps are just a few examples.

New Orleans La [Street scene showing 4 children and an African American man watching another African American man with a hurdy-gurdy
New Orleans, LA [Street Scene showing four children and African American man watching another African American man with a hurdy gurdy“, photo by Arnold Genthe, circa 1920-1924, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Donegan arrived just in time to witness Hurricane Isaac and, unsurprisingly, fatalistic locals told her the city would inevitably flood again “worse than it did in 2005.” Though the fatalism of residents seems to stretch back to its founding, as Lawrence Powell and other have suggested, the New Orleans Donegan encountered was a different city in other ways: “the heavy lifting of hurricane recovery was done and the steady push of gentrification had changed much of the city,” she wrote. The Winn-Dixie sold kale, and cupcake-only bakeries now existed. “After Katrina, New Orleans became a place where some people could live as yuppies. When the city was rebuilt, it was rebuilt largely in these people’s image.” Visitors to the Big Easy, she observed, descended on the city for two reasons: “to perform charity or party.” Each shaped its reformation.

The Katrina tours that became so morbidly popular rankled Donegan as much as they did everyone else in New Orleans, but though she wanted to rage at the night for such indignities, the fact was she “didn’t have much claim to.” Her interaction with the Big Easy had been framed by volunteerism and non-profit work, the focus being on solving its pathologies. “This was starting to feel like voluntary rubbernecking … Places are filled with all kinds of self defeating contradictions and in New Orleans one of the most potent was that many of the people who had come to help the city were also hurting it.”

[Large crowd gathered to hear Booker T. Washington speak, with men standing on railroad box cars in the background, New Orleans, Louisiana]
Large Crowd gathered to hear Booker T. Washington speak, with men standing on railroad cars in background, New Orleans, LA“, photograph by A.P. Bedou, circa 1912, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Urban historians hope to avoid falling into such traps; how successful such endeavors are probably depends on numerous factors. Since 2005, Katrina sometimes feels as if it has sucked the air out of any discussion of the city. Scholarship and popular culture understandably focuses on the natural disaster and political tragedy (after all the levees could and should have been fixed). Indeed, beyond those lives lost in its path and the heartbreak of locales who managed to survive, Katrina had national implications. Undoubtedly, numerous works have examined the city’s history beyond Katrina: the aforementioned Powell’s 2012 work The Accidental City, Emily Landau’s Spectacular Wickedness (2014), Emily Clark’s The Strange History of the American Quadroon (2013), and Raushana Johnson’s Slavery’s Metropolis (2016) among numerous other examples.

Over the past ten years, the Journal of Urban History has, of course, published several essays that relate in some way to 2005, including a special issue in 2009 dedicated to the subject (the Journal of American History did the same in 2007). However, rather than rubbernecking at disaster, the JUH, JAH, and others have tried to use the hurricane to situate the city’s longer history; Katrina as organizing principle rather than a principle unto itself.

Below is a listing of articles and reviews essays published in JUH since 2007. Please keep in mind, you might need to login into your UHA account at urbanhistory.org and then cut and past the link into the browser to access the PDF (this will all depend on your browser, be warned that Safari works about as well you would expect it.)

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A Levee at Night – Electric Light Illumination, Sketches on the Levee, New Orleans“, wood engraving by J.O. Davidson, March 1883, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Journal of Urban History articles 2007-2017

David Benac, “The New Orleans Lakefront: Nostalgia and the Fate of New Urbanism”, Journal of Urban History 41.3 (2015): 388-403.

Farah D. Gafford, “’It Was a Real Village’: Community Identity Formation among Black Middle-Class Residents in Pontchartrain Park”, Journal of Urban History 39.1: 36-58.

Farah Jasmine Griffin, “Children of Omar: Resistance and Reliance in the Expressive Cultures of Black New Orleans Cultures”, Journal of Urban History, 35.5 (July 2009): 656-667.

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Jazzman, New Orleans, LA“, photo by Carol M. Highsmith, circa 1980 – 2006, Carol M. Highsmith collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Arnold Hirsch, “Almost a Closer Walk with Thee: Historical Reflections on New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina”, Journal of Urban History 35.5 (July 2009): 614-626.

Arnold Hirsch and A. Lee Levert, “The Katrina Conspiracies: The Problem of Trust in Rebuilding an American City”, Journal of Urban History 35.2 (January 2009): 207-219.

Ari Kelman, “Even Paranoids Have Enemies: Rumors of Levee Sabotage in New Orleans’s Lower 9th Ward”, Journal of Urban History 35.5 (July 2009): 627-639.

Anja Nadine Klopfer, “’Choosing to Stay’: Hurricane Katrina Narratives and the History of Claiming Place Knowledge in New Orleans”, Journal of Urban History 43.1 (2017): 115-139.

Scott P. Marler, “’A Monument to Commercial Isolation’: Merchants and the Economic Decline of Post– Civil War New Orleans”, Journal of Urban History 36.4: 507 – 527.

Elizabeth C. Neidenback, “’Refugee from St. Domingue Living in This City’: The Geography of Social Networks in Testaments of Refugee Free Women of Color in New Orleans”, Journal of Urban History 42.5 (August 2016).

Danille K. Taylor, “Chocolate City’: Personal Reflections from New Orleans, August 29, 2006”, Journal of Urban History 35.5 (July 2009): 668 – 674.

Clarence Taylor, “Hurricane Katrina and the Myth of the Post–Civil Rights Era”, Journal of Urban History 35.5 (July 2009): 640-655.

Joe W.Trotter and Laura Fernandez, “Hurricane Katrina: Urban History from the Eye of the Storm”, Journal of Urban History 35.5 (July 2009): 607-613.

 

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Dixieland Jazz Band on Bourbon Street, New Orleans“, photo by Carol M. Highsmith, circa 1980-2006, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Review Essays

Carolyn Goldsby Colb, “Rhythm and Race: Riffs on New Orleans History”, Journal of Urban History 40.1 (2014): 201-206.

Sandra M. Frink, “Searching for the City in the Past: The Many Histories of New Orleans”, Journal of Urban History 35.4 (May 2009): 578-588.

Christopher E. Manning, “Voices from the Storm”, Journal of Urban History 40.2 (2014): 407-414.

A New Destination

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The High Bridge, Manhattan/Bronx, New York City. 2015.

Welcome to The Metropole, the new blog of the Urban History Association. We envision this digital space as the hub of the Association’s scholarly network, bringing together UHA members who live scattered throughout the United States and across the globe. Furthermore, our aim is for The Metropole to serve as a central public square where anyone interested in urban history can find and share new scholarship, engage in debate, and learn more about cities around the globe.

In the interest of drawing together such a large association, we are launching a Member of the Week series. Each Tuesday on The Metropole, a different member will get the opportunity to answer a few questions about their scholarship, teaching, and interests in urban history—including a lightning round question that will change from week to week! Our goal with this series is to highlight scholars at different stages of their careers, from graduate students to professors emerita or emeritus, and especially urban historians working in non-traditional, alt-ac, or non-academic jobs. Furthermore, we aim for geographic diversity. Member of the Week posts will feature scholars living and working throughout and beyond the United States, as well as those that study a wide variety of global cities. Finally, we aspire to highlight UHA members of a wide range of intersecting identities, including (but not limited to) race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexuality. Check back tomorrow for our first Member of the Week post, and we invite you to email uhacommunicationsteam@gmail.com if you are interested in being featured.

This week, The Metropole will also inaugurate the “Metropolis of the Month”. In April our attention will turn towards New Orleans—to coincide with the conference of the Organization of American Historians taking place there this upcoming weekend—and in May we will head southwest to Mexico City,  in June north to Seattle, and in July west (or east depending on where one begins) to Honolulu. We also welcome reader suggestions for future metropolises. Blog posts will include a mix of recurring features and unique content, including interviews, book reviews, bibliographies, article roundups, and highlights from archival collections. We hope that scholars will enjoy having an opportunity to showcase their research, make connections between different urban environments, and get inspired to plan their next vacation.

Finally, we also hope to shine a spotlight on the inspiring activism, public scholarship, and digital projects in which our members are involved. In late April, we will begin a monthly series highlighting scholar-activists. In the coming weeks, we will also publish posts that introduce new or enduring work in the digital humanities that is related to urban topics.

We hope that members will actively participate in this new forum—either by commenting on posts or by sharing them on social media. The Metropole is only as strong as its army of scholars. We are also open to pitches or new ideas for series. We are especially interested in posts/series written by or for: graduate students and early career scholars, urban scholars working outside academia, and those with underrepresented perspectives. You can reach us at uhacommunicationsteam@gmail.com.

Avigail Oren, Ryan Reft, and Hope Shannon