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.

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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.

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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

 

[1] http://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-americas/chinampas-floating-gardens-mexico-001537

[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.

Member of the Week: Mauricio Castro

MauricioMauricio Castro, PhD

@CastroHistorian

Postdoctoral Associate, Program in Latino/a Studies in the Global South

Duke University

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

I am in the process of converting my dissertation, “Casablanca of the Caribbean: Cuban Refugees, Local Power, and Cold War Policy in Miami, 1959-1995,” into a book manuscript. Like many other people from Latin America, Miami was the first place I visited in the United States. I was six years old, learning to speak English, and I wanted to piece together a sentence or two that I could say to someone on my first trip to the U.S. I arrived in Miami with my parents to find that just about everyone I met spoke Spanish. For a long time, Miami seemed like an aberration. When I began to study the city as a graduate student, however, I found that the investment in the Cuban exile community following 1959 and its effect on the city made it fit within established models of Sunbelt political economy. Instead of making Miami an outlier, the Cuban presence in the city made it a fundamental, but often misunderstood, part of the history of American defense spending and its effect on metropolitan areas. The project kept evolving from there, becoming a study of Miami’s Cuban community and its interactions with other groups in the city. I spend a good deal of the manuscript tracing the development of local economic and political power and the influence this afforded the Cuban American community. I am fascinated by the way in which transnational events and trends shape local communities and how local developments can affect politics at an international level.

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

I am currently teaching a course entitled “Society, Culture, and Rock and Roll.” This is the second time I have taught this course after taking over for the dearly missed Michael Morrison. My approach to the course leans more heavily on urban history than Mike’s did. I use the development of several styles of popular music in the postwar period as a gateway to teaching students about suburbanization and the urban crisis. I am currently also developing a course for the fall entitled “Latinx Communities in the U.S.” This course will be largely focused on transnational migrations and the creation of Latino/a communities in different regions of the United States.

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

I am currently very excited to read Llana Barber’s new monograph Latino City: Immigration and Urban Crisis in Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1945–2000. Barber’s approach, combining the history of the urban crisis with the histories of American intervention in Latin America and the migrations they caused resonates with my own approach to Miami. This book is also part of an important trend in urban history that seeks to correct how we have largely conceived of Latino/a communities as existing in the largest of American cities. Barber’s book on Lawrence and other projects currently in development will be crucial to our understanding of the vastness of the Latino/a urban experience.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

I would say that young scholars should keep the stories of the cities they study in perspective. As urbanists we tend to focus on the local histories and what they can tell us about national trends. I would tell young scholars to question whether these stories end at the city limits or even at the country’s border. While histories that deals with immigration and cities is most obvious, I would suggest that young scholars seek out other ways in which every city is a global city. Only when we consider this perspective in tandem with more traditional approaches can we form a more complete understanding of these places.

What is your favorite fictional (literary, film, art, media) representation of Miami?

I have yet to find something that captures Miami in the way that something like a Raymond Chandler novel evokes Los Angeles, or how countless films have represented aspects of New York City. My favorite representation of Miami is probably ¿Qué Pasa, USA?, the bilingual PBS sitcom from the late 1970s. While it is played for laughs, the encounter between cultures that is such a vital part of the Miami experience is the heart of that show.

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.

yee metropole photo 2
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.

yee metropole photo 3
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.

yee metropole 5
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.

Member of the Week: Alexia Yates

Alexia YatesAlexia Yates

Lecturer (Assistant Professor), Department of History, University of Manchester

Also an affiliate at the Manchester Urban Institute and the Center for History and Economics, Harvard University

@alexia_yates

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

I’ve just finished an article that I’ve been working on for some time about the way people in nineteenth-century France – principally lawyers, bankers, legislators, and some ubiquitous anonymous pamphleteers – tried to understand and change the relationship between land and money. My current research is continuing to pursue the intersection of property, politics, and space that influenced my first book but turns to a study of how finance became a routine part of daily life for French people in the first age of global capital. It might not seem urban, but there’s a strong spatial component to the project: tracing how people conceive of national and international financial networks, as well as how local financial districts were constructed. Scale is a crucial element of the exploration – for example, the idea that the police at the Paris Stock Exchange might influence the international economy by regulating the distribution of seats on the exchange floor. Like many others working on the history of economic life, I am attracted to the task of interrogating and reconfiguring our ideas about how the economy works, about how the production, circulation, and redistribution of wealth is effected, and for me the spaces and stuff of economic practice are both crucial technologies and entry points.

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

I’m lucky to work in a place that is so enthusiastic for European history. I’m currently teaching a first-year seminar on nineteenth-century Paris as the capital of modernity, which is a fun introduction to urban studies and European history for new history students. I’m also teaching a masters course on the Landscapes of Modernity, in which I really get to dig deep into urban theory across transnational case studies. (I also got to teach Nature’s Metropolis, which is such a pleasure to introduce to students.) Happily I get to work out the economic history side of things in a second-year survey on Crisis and Prosperity, which tackles twentieth-century European history from the perspective of economic change and inequality in the modern era. I hope to develop my new research with a special third-year seminar on property and wealth in transnational perspective soon.

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

The list of new books about money, finance, and property awaiting me this summer is outstanding! I’m excited for Fahad Bishara’s Sea of Debt: Law and Economic Life in the Western Indian Ocean, 1750-1840 (Cambridge, 2017), as well as Noam Maggor’s Brahmin Capitalism (Harvard, 2017). As for those recent ones I’m behind on, I’ve had both Rosemary Wakeman’s Practicing Utopia: An Intellectual History of the New Town Movement (Chicago, 2016) and Jacob Remes’s Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era (Urbana, 2016) on my desk for too long, and Charles Maier’s Once within Borders: Territories of Power, Wealth, and Belonging since 1500 (Harvard, 2016) is getting a second read. Once those are out of the way, I’ll be ready for forthcoming works from Andrew Israel Ross, The Pleasures of Paris: Sex and Urban Culture in the Nineteenth Century, Michael Mulvey’s The Moral Moment: Catholics and the Housing Question in Postwar France, Pete Soppelsa’s Fragility of Urban Modernity on Parisian infrastructure, Catherine Clark’s Paris and the Cliché of History, as well as Desmond Fitz-Gibbon’s Particulars of Sale on the property market in nineteenth-century Britain.

What advice do you have for graduate students preparing a dissertation project related to urban history or urban studies?

Be comparative, move across scales, but stay locally embedded and make sure there are people in your story. Every history takes (and makes) place.

What’s your favorite street (or block) in Paris, and why?

Like choosing a favourite child. I’ll cut things short and say either the rue de Belleville or the rue de Ménilmontant – both are meandering, climbing above the city and making excellent routes to chase the sunset up through the streets; both take you through some of the sites of infamy of the Paris Commune (crossing the rue Haxo, in particular); and they end up nearly at the Archives de Paris, still one of my favourite places to work.

Friday’s ICYMI Roundup

This week, many of the emails we have received from UHA members have included sighs of relief–we’ve heard reports that classes are done, final exams have been administered, grading is complete, and the academic year has officially drawn to a close. The editors of The Metropole wish you all a relaxing and productive summer, in equal measure. In case you missed it in the chaos of end-of-semester work, we’ve rounded up recent news and blog posts for you to catch up on:

This week on the blog, recently-minted Ph.D. Barry Goldberg described his fascinating research on Jewish-Puerto Rican relations on the Lower East Side and offered up some newly published books on New York City’s history that he’s excited to read now that his dissertation is done. As part of our Metropolis of the Month coverage of Mexico City, we also posted travelogues that share two first-time visitors’ impressions, through text and especially via photographs, of the Distrito Federal.

Over on the UHA website, several new opportunities have been posted to the “News” section. Notably, Columbia University invites applications for a tenured position to fill the Bernard Hirschhorn Professorship of Urban Studies. We have also recently posted CFP’s for the CityLAB V Summer School, the ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius and the Gerda Henkel Foundation Summer School, and the Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting.

And on the web this week:

New York Times Magazine‘s Talk Column features UHA President Elect and Pulitzer Prize winner Heather Ann Thompson this week! Thompson concluded the interview with this powerful statement:

Sometimes I hear from people who have served time who say that prison was a place where they could finally get help, and that has been hard for me to process. I realized that one reason that’s the case with a lot of people is because it’s an institution and, for some people, they actually have health care for the first time, or housing for the first time. That’s what’s so powerfully sad about this whole story: It isn’t that we don’t know how to help people, but that we continue to do it through a prison, as opposed to other institutions. It could be so much better.

For the PBS Newshour’s weekly series, Making Sen$e, correspondent Paul Solmon reported from Columbia, SC–the city hosting the 2018 Urban History Association Biennial Conference–on why men are avoiding feminized jobs and industries.

Frontline investigates affordable housing.

And the tweet of the week:

 

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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Metropole Travelogue Part I; Ciudad de Oro y Plata: Impressions of Mexico City

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I am not exactly the world’s most cosmopolitan traveler. I never got on a plane until I was twenty years old, and I’ve only really visited a handful of countries.  When my wife and I decided to go to Mexico City for a week this Fall, we went into it with some unwarranted assumptions.  The biggest city in the Western hemisphere, we thought, would likely be a dense, chaotic metropolis akin to Karachi or Bangkok. The stereotype of the overcrowded and congested Third World city loomed large in our minds, and Mexico City seemed like it would fit that pattern.

Evidently, we were not alone in our assumptions. As journalist David Lida recalled in his 2008 book First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, The Capital of the 21st Century:

I was afraid of the capital, influenced by the propaganda dismissing it as a teeming, overpopulated, polluted bedlam, full of horrific testimonies of insuperable poverty. I imagined the armless beggars of Calcutta brandishing their stumps in tourists’ faces, hoping the display would result in a handout.

As it turns out, our expectations were very far from the truth.  The small slice of Mexico City that we saw, in any case, was affluent and orderly compared to, say, Karachi.  Undoubtedly much of Mexico is poor and rural, but the capital appeared to lack the evident and inescapable signs of extreme poverty that one finds in other megacities of the developing world. (As Lida points out, the city “has eighty-four hundred people per square kilometer, while Mumbai, Lagos, Karachi, and Seoul have more than double that figure.”) There were beggars and homeless people, of course, but one finds as many or more in American cities like New York or San Francisco.

The foremost financial and cultural center of Latin America was more distinguished by other hallmarks–those of capitalist prosperity and gleaming skyscrapers, gentrification and hip urbanism, tourism and historic preservation.  Indeed, more late model cars clogged its crowded highways than we see at home in Atlanta, a sign of growing affluence, at least, among the population of the urban core, if not the poorer districts that surround the capital.

A few scattered observations of the city:

A mind-bogglingly extensive and accessible public transit system, that stretched over a vast urban landscape encompassing as many as 20 million people.

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A remarkable predilection for PDA (public displays of affection), with couples kissing, groping, and practically dry-humping everywhere from escalators to subway cars to Starbucks.

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Lots of pizza places.

A rich history as a destination for artists, writers, and political radicals, from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Leon Trotsky.

A large number of bookstores and even a surviving Blockbuster Video.

Bootleg media, albeit seemingly not as prevalent as in many Asian cities.

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Piracy is the real reason Von Trier is so depressed

 

A visible legacy of radicalism, embodied in the ubiquitous paintings of Diego Rivera and other artists who contributed leftist depictions of class, race, and historical struggle to the nation’s iconography and mythology–as well as contemporary graffiti denouncing the murder of 43 students at the hands of government authorities and crime syndicates in 2014.

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The utterly comprehensive embrace of American popular culture–fashion, food, entertainment, and technology–by the urban middle class (if not necessarily everyone else), in a way that surpasses even the zeal for all things American in South Asia.  The affluent shopping mall we visited in Coyoacan/Copilco featured every American brand imaginable, from Skechers to Burger Fi to Quizno’s, with few local or national retailers to speak of.  (“While foreigners here, principally Europeans, complain about the proliferation of Starbucks and Wal-Marts,” Lida notes, “middle-class Mexicans revel in the First World status bestowed by these establishments.”)

And while notions of race, class, and ethnicity clearly function differently in Mexico than the United States, it was impossible to miss a gradation of economic inequality shading from European to indigenous ancestry. In the most lavish new shopping malls, consumers were overwhelmingly fair-skinned and middle-class, sporting designer clothes from America and Europe. In the metro (disdained by some affluent residents as a form of transit), darker faces were numerous–except, of course, in the nicer, newer train line (the one that had air-conditioning) where we noticed (surprise!) whiter ones.

In the end, we found a profoundly beautiful and varied built environment, from the grand Baroque structures of Zocalo, the historic downtown district, to the Spanish colonial architecture of Coyoacan and San Angel to the more contemporary commercial landscape of the city’s younger neighborhoods.  Like New York–the metropolis that Mexico City most reminded me of–a visit of a week is far too brief to get a sense of its vast and heterogenous social geography.  But, as the great urban historian Ken Jackson once said, you don’t have to drink the ocean to know it’s salty.  Here is a brief taste of the sights and textures of the capitol of Latin America, as seen from Copilco looking out.

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FloRida’s Crib

 

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Cardinal Ratzinger: Let me hear you say HOOOOOOOO!

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The glorious global ubiquity of the Suzuki Swift/Geo Metro
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Guerilla marketing for CBS Sunday Morning
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Not to be taken literally

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Kahlo’s body braces, in ethereal light

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Kurt on, fittingly, the sign for Insurgentes Metro stop

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The joys of parenting

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The appropriately named “Progressive Bar”: Blah Blah

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The Illuminati is real

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Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of History at Georgia State University.  His work deals with media, law, and the political culture of the modern United States.  He has previously received a Consortium for Faculty Diversity fellowship, an ACLS-Mellon postdoctoral fellowship, and the American Baptist Historical Society’s Torbet Prize, among other awards. His work has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American HistoryTechnology and Culture, HNN, Pop Matters, OUP Blog, Al Jazeera Americaand the edited volume Sound in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction from the University of Pennsylvania Press. His first book, Democracy of Sound: Music Piracy and the Remaking of American Copyright in the Twentieth Century, was published by Oxford University Press in 2013.  He is the Senior Editor of the blog Tropics of Meta.

Member of the Week: Barry Goldberg

BG PicBarry Goldberg, Ph.D. (2017)

Department of History, CUNY Graduate Center

@bpg269

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

My project examines Jewish politics on the Lower East Side since the 1960s. I utilize congressional and municipal papers, court records, articles from the ethnic press, and quantitative voting data to examine how an influential network of Jewish elected leaders, civic institutions, and voters – residing on Grand Street and largely Orthodox — shaped the trajectory of civil rights activism, new education and antipoverty policy, and urban renewal on the Lower East Side during the last third of the twentieth century. In all, I make three central claims: first, that the Lower East Side remained an important site for the development of, and ideological fissures within, American Jewish politics after World War II; second, that Jewish-Puerto Rican relations became a central feature of both local and citywide politics at this time; and third, that Orthodox Jews helped shape American conservatism in the postwar period.

I am broadly interested in questions of race, political power, and neighborhood change. I became interested in my specific topic after researching a longtime Jewish congressional representative on the Lower East Side. Though he was not the original subject of my research, he provided a gateway into looking at the neighborhood’s larger Jewish community. I was surprised to learn that no one had written a postwar history of this community, or Lower East Side politics more generally, despite several factors that set it apart from other urban neighborhoods. Recent high-profile stories on the neighborhood have also spurred my research, and, as the descendant of a Lower East Sider, I feel a certain emotional connection to the area.

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

I teach the second half of the U.S. history survey at Queens College. My research has led me to cover more local (primarily New York City) history in the survey. Earlier in the semester, my students learned about redlining by perusing the Mapping Inequality online database. We also talked about the 1964 Harlem Riots and debates over police brutality (I blogged briefly on this here).

At the same time, my dissertation has also made me more attuned to congressional history. In my dissertation, I examine Lower East Side redistricting and judicial debates over enforcing the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA). As a result, I devote more time to discussing the VRA in class.

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

Three in particular: Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics by Kim Phillips-Fein; In the Heat of the Summer: The New York Riots of 1964 and the War on Crime by Michael Flamm; Radical Imagination, Radical Humanity: Puerto Rican Political Activism in New York by Rose Muzio

What advice do you have for graduate students preparing a dissertation project related to urban history or urban studies?

I have two connected suggestions. First, keep an open mind. I had broad interests at the start of graduate school and did not expect to research the Lower East Side, or urban history more broadly. But here I am. Trial and error is OK. Be patient, and keep working. My second suggestion is to prioritize archival research. Obviously, you need to know what others have said about your topic (or potential topic), but the archives will lead you in new and exciting directions.

Describe your most exciting archival find!

One of my favorite archival finds was the Board of Election reports and assembly district maps from the New York Public Library. Using these in combination allowed me to trace how people voted in different sections of the Lower East Side and break those sections down by a number of social factors. This quantitative data allowed me to show how political divisions, primarily around race and ethnicity, unfolded on the ground in the neighborhood and provided a needed element of social history to my work.

Crime in Mexico City

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[Dia contra la reacción; police break up a communist protest in front of the U.S. Embassy], Tina Modotti, May 1929, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In City of Suspects, published in 2001, I tried to understand crime as an urban phenomenon, a product of the interactions between actors and institutions suddenly brought together by the rapid expansion of Mexico City in the late nineteenth century. The most important sources for that project were the judicial records kept by the city’s judicial power in the basement of one of its main penitentiaries, which I consulted around 1995.

In the years since, those trial records were moved to the Archivo General de la Nación and, paradoxically, became harder to consult, at least for the decades following those covered by the first book. When I decided to return to the history of crime, starting the project that resulted in A History of Infamy, I tried to understand the urban setting of crime in different way.

While in the first book I looked at the spatial and demographic expansion that produced the capital’s colonias, neighborhoods often built during the late 1920s and 1930s on expropriated urban land for workers, the new book focused on the debates about crime and justice that took place in courtrooms, newspapers and crime fiction. These were also essentially urban settings, but they reflected the realities of crime and punishment in different ways. Judicial records demonstrated, for example, that the lack of interest of the Porfirian state in the welfare of urban working classes forced urban communities to deal in their own terms with the problems of theft and interpersonal violence. Thus, neighbors and relatives could intervene to negotiate the return of stolen property, or fights could be arranged in order to solve long-standing disputes—all of this without the disruptive intervention of the police.

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By the mid twentieth century, however, the tabloid newspapers centered on crime (the publications were known in Mexico as the nota roja) became a record of the critical views of urban dwellers toward the police and the judiciary. While crime rates declined, reflecting the diminishing frequency of people’s use of violence to solve conflicts, the pressure of public opinion became the most important driver in the pursuit of justice. Newspapers reflected, and shaped, the emergence of the urban publics that demanded investigations and the solution of the most egregious crimes.

Newspapers became the main, although not the only, source for what I call criminal literacy–the knowledge that any inhabitant of the city had to possess in order to navigate the dangers of modern life. This knowledge included a map of the dangerous areas of the city, the colonias where it was better not to walk at night, the practices of thieves and con men, and the risky attractions of night life. At the heart of criminal literacy were the stories of famous criminals, like Goyo Cárdenas, the man who killed four women and buried them in the backyard of his house, in a new working class neighborhood north of the city.

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[Los sangrientos sucesos en la ciudad de Puebla, la muerte del jefe de policía Miguel Cabrera; A Mexico City newspaper reports the killing of the city of Puebla’s Chief of Police], Jose Guadalupe Posada, 1910, Caroline and Erwin Swann collection of caricature and cartoon, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
One piece of criminal literacy of particular importance required to understand the transformation of the city between the turn of the twentieth century and the 1950s was the emergence of the pistolero. This was the name given to the gunmen who worked for politicians, usually under the guise of bodyguards, and were charged with intimidating, beating and in some cases eliminating adversaries.

Pistoleros became a highly visible component of post-revolutionary politics with their violent interventions in strikes, agrarian conflicts, and elections. People knew about them and their threat, but they also knew that they were protected by powerful interests and seldom faced punishment. Impunity also allowed pistoleros to maintain other profitable activities on the side: they could extort prostitutes, protect drug traffickers, engage in robberies and, in some cases, murder for money. For the inhabitants of Mexico City, pistoleros embodied the corruption of post-revolutionary politics but also the legacy of the revolution itself. They were perceived as a byproduct of the violent rural politics that in the second decade of the century exploded with the civil war and invaded the city after the end of the conflict. With their brutality and ostentatious impunity, pistoleros seemed to represent the occupation of the respectable spaces of the capital by strong men from the countryside. Yet pistoleros also evoked the dizzying pace of modernization: with their tailored suits, Texan hats, shiny cars, and general similarity to U.S. movie gangsters, they were only appropriating the goods that all city dwellers aspired to have.

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Looking beyond the judicial and police records, in other words, allowed me to appreciate how crime and justice, or the lack thereof, became central aspects of urban life in modern Mexico. Newspapers and crime fiction reflected on impunity, a key shortcoming of the state that emerged out of the revolution. Public debates involving actors from all social backgrounds proved that the concern about violence and corruption was a constant of everyday life for city dwellers, even as violence was, in general terms, becoming less frequent. The city that I had initially explored as a space for social practices was also, I realized, the virtual space of a public sphere where crime and justice were central themes.

Pablo Piccato (B.A. Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1989; Ph.D. University of Texas at Austin, 1997) is professor at the Department of History, Columbia University. His research and teaching focus on modern Mexico, particularly on crime, politics, and culture. His books include City of Suspects: Crime in Mexico City, 1900-1931 (2001) and The Tyranny of Opinion: Honor in the Construction of the Mexican Public Sphere (2010).

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A History of Infamy: Crime, Truth, and Justice in Mexico (University of California Press, 2017) explores the broken nexus between crime, justice, and the truth in mid-twentieth century Mexico. Facing the violence and impunity that defined politics, policing, and the judicial system in post-revolutionary times, Mexicans sought truth and justice outside state institutions. During this time, the criminal news beat and crime fiction flourished. Civil society’s search for truth and justice lead, paradoxically, to the normalization of extrajudicial violence and neglect for the rights of victims. Ordinary people in Mexico have made crime and punishment central concerns of the public sphere during the last century, and in doing so have shaped how crime and violence took form over time.

 

 

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