While I’ve always hoped that I’m not the intellectual equivalent of the dullest spoon in your drawer of silverware, I’ve also always known I was not the sharpest blade in the kitchen. The former is aspirational and the latter factual, but the latter also demonstrates a valuable skill: knowing when you don’t know. Bibliographies for our Metropolis of the Month feature are always difficult; one always fears omitting some classic urban work, denying it’s author deserved public admiration and researchers a valuable source. The reality we must all face as urbanists, however, is that no urban historian can know all cities, but collectively, with your help, we can know many of them better.
Sensing my desperation and performing the ultimate good deed, Stanford History Department PhD candidate and burgeoning Korean expert Russell Burge sent us a much appreciated addendum to our somewhat anemic bibliography. Burge provides a concise and valuable addition to our list and includes Korean language works that we regrettably ignored in our initial bibliography. Of course, Seoul being the entertainment capital of Asia, Burge included films in his list–adding to its interdisciplinary flavor.
Isabella Bird Bishop, Korea and Her Neighbors (1898)
Part of a vanished genre of English-language travelogue literature, Bishop’s book is a sprawling tour through Korea, one that moves almost seamlessly between late-Victorian chauvinism and real perceptiveness and affection for Korean geography and history. Korea and Her Neighbors is as valuable today for its colorful descriptions of Seoul as it is for capturing a way of seeing that defined early encounters between Westerners and Koreans.
Keith Pratt, Old Seoul (2002)
A loving reconstruction of Seoul as it existed on the eve of the twentieth century, this book also uses the city as a microcosm to explore the remnants and broader history of the Chosŏn Dynasty (1392-1910), the last ruling dynasty of Korea. A thoroughly engaging read for anyone who has been to Seoul and attempted to scry its past through the glass and steel palimpsests the city presents today.
Todd Henry, Assimilating Seoul (2014)
This book is the first of its kind: an English-language monograph of deep original research that takes up the history of Seoul as its object of study. Henry focuses on the colonial history of the city (1910-1945), and sites of encounter between Seoul’s Korean residents and the Japanese colonial state. Paradoxically, this world – with its Shinto shrines and colonial exhibition halls – appears in many ways even more distant to modern eyes than the precolonial past.
Kim Paekyŏng, Chibae wa Konggan (2009)
While English-language works on Seoul are few and far between, the opposite is true in Korean; in South Korea, Seoul has a dominating presence as both an object of study and the setting for art, media, and literature. Still, Kim Paekyŏng’s Chibae wa Konggan (Domination and Space) stands out as a work of scholarship, charting many of the key transformations the city underwent in the colonial period, and its sometimes paradoxical geographies of power.
Mark Gayn, Japan Diary (1948)
This book is better known as an account of Japan following the empire’s defeat in 1945, but a significant portion of Gayn’s work is also dedicated to Korea and the goings-on in and around the political nucleus of Seoul. In many ways Gayn’s account is the inverse of Bishop’s, as the author – a Manchurian émigré and veteran newspaper correspondent – describes with candor and horror the United States’ impact on south Korea following its liberation from Japan.
Chang Yŏngch’ang, Sŏul-ŭn pul t’anda (1978)
The title of Chang’s book – “Seoul is Burning” – sets the tone for this wartime account of Seoul’s occupation by North Korean forces, as well as the protracted UN siege that ultimately broke the North’s grip on the city. By turns lyrical, liturgical, and deeply personal, this obscure and quixotic memoir offers one of the most powerful sketches of what it meant to live in wartime Seoul, a city simultaneously besieged from both within and without.
Cho Sehŭi, The Dwarf (1978)
Available in a 2006 translation from Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, The Dwarf is a classic of modern South Korean fiction, and chronicles Seoul’s rise as a sprawling jungle of exploitation and inequality during the period of rapid development in the 1970s. Many of the issues raised by Cho still haunt South Korean politics and thinking today, and the book remains relevant not only as a work of literature, but also as an introduction to an episteme.
Ch’oe Inho, “Another Man’s Room” (1972)
Perhaps no better paean exists to urban alienation in South Korea. Writing at a time when apartments were still an alien fixture in Seoul’s landscape, Ch’oe follows his protagonist – a married man with a strained and distant relationship to his wife, his neighbors, and his apartment – through increasingly surreal states of hallucination and de-personification that call to mind later work by David Lynch. A translation of this short story by Kevin O’Rourke is available.
Valérie Gelézeau, Ap’at’ŭ Konghwaguk (2007)
Literally meaning “Republic of Apartments,” Ap’at’ŭ Konghwaguk is the Korean-language adaptation (trans. Kil Hyeyŏn) of geographer Gelézeau’s pioneering French-language work Séoul, ville géante, cités radieuses (2003). By turns sociological, ethnographic, and historical, Gelézeau tells the story of a single architectural form – the gray apartment tower – and how it came to stand as an urban vernacular and symbol of prosperity in South Korea.
Dir. Bong Joon-ho, The Host (2006)
Director Bong Joon-ho’s The Host is the story of one family’s struggle against a river monster hell-bent on abducting and devouring as many Seoul citizens as possible. Simultaneously absurdist and terrifying, the real star of this film is Seoul, or rather the Han River that cuts through it and the labyrinthine network of bridges and tunnels that form its literal underbelly.
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (2004)
A work of historical and speculative fiction, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas covers an impossibly vast geography of places and times. Still, the setting of futuristic Seoul stands out for its attention to both historical and geographic detail, down to its neighborhood-by-neighborhood commentary on the city. If Tokyo once defined the mood at the heart of cyberpunk, Mitchell makes a similar bid for Seoul in this futuristic epic, though it remains to be seen if other authors will take up the call.
Dir. Kim Kyung-mook, Stateless Things (2011)
Stateless Things is a film about abjection, and the intimate relationships that obtain between the powerful and the powerless. With Seoul as its low-thrumming backdrop, Director Kim Kyung-mook explores rarely-touched topics in mainstream Korean cinema that are a constitutive part of life in the city, such as economic abjection, discrimination against ethnic Korean immigrants from China and North Korea, and queer sexuality.
Dirs. Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-kyong, Bitter, Sweet, Seoul (2014)
One of the more creative initiatives of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon’s administration, Bitter, Sweet, Seoul is far from the typical tourist campaign fare. Edited from 141 selected video clips out of thousands of crowdsourced submissions, the film – directed by Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-kyong – brings together various experiences of life in Seoul in a vision that is altogether more diverse, more melancholy, and more vibrant than any other.
Russell Burge is a PhD Candidate in the History Department at Stanford University, where he focuses on modern Korea. His dissertation examines the history of Seoul in the 1960s and 1970s.
Columbia, South Carolina was intentionally designed to be a very livable city from its inception. Founded in 1786 as the Palmetto State’s second capital, its location holds both geographic and symbolic meanings. The city’s original two-mile-by-two-mile footprint was set atop a plain overlooking the Congaree River at the state’s fall line, where the waterway ceased to be navigable from the coast. Conveniently, this natural crossroads rested in the middle of the state, a benefit to lawmakers interested in achieving political parity between Lowcounty elites and growing numbers of backcountry citizens.
As with most fledgling towns or cities, Columbia developed at its own pace and in its own style. Early impressions of this upstart capital, as can be imagined, differed. During his May 1791 visit, George Washington recorded it as “. . . an uncleared wood, with very few houses in it, and those all wooden ones . . ..” A few years later, in 1805, Connecticut native Edward Hooker opined, “There is very little verdure in the town; the soil being too dry and sandy to produce grass. Consequently, the streets are very deficient in that life and freshness of appearance which usually prevails in the towns of New England.”
Further commentators offered their perspectives on the city’s climate . . .
We thought the heat of Philadelphia, New York, and Albany, about this time last year, excessive; but at Columbia its effects in prostrating the strength, and destroying all energy and all capacity for action, was even still greater . . . . I never have suffered so much inconvenience from the heat in Bengal, or any part of India. The soil is extremely sandy, but this contributes much to the healthiness of this place . . .” James Silk Buckingham, 1841
By the time the well-traveled English author rendered his assessment of the capital city, Columbia had evolved for two generations. Its physical growth included the founding of South Carolina College (1801), the construction of notable public and private buildings and the accumulation of great wealth made possible by the slave-based, agricultural economy that permeated all aspects of life in the city, state and region. By the 1830s, Columbia had matured into what its planners had envisioned: a seat of state government and a center of commerce, transportation and education. By the middle of the 19th century, in 1851, Daniel Webster found Columbia to be “one of the handsomest and nicest looking of our little inland cities.”
Shortly thereafter, amid this antebellum grandeur, representatives throughout the state gathered at what is today First Baptist Church, not with worship in their hearts but with secession on their minds. While the Union was dissolved slightly later and farther southeast, in Charleston in December 1860, Columbia’s reputation as the birthplace of secession left an indelible impression upon locals and people from away. A little more than four years later, 1/3 of the city lay in fiery ruins, as the Civil War Columbians helped start had returned to its place of origin. (The blame behind the conflagrations remains a hotly debated topic in some circles.)
While physical recovery from the war came in fits and starts, a sea change in the social and racial order that had defined the city for its existence arguably brought greater change more rapidly. As the state capital, Columbia was ground zero for many of the opportunities Reconstruction offered people of color, newly enfranchised and freed, and white citizens who had formerly ceded power to planter elites. Visitor Richard M’Ilwaine penned in 1870, “Columbia was a most agreeable place of residence . . . Its broad avenues, lined with two, three, or four rows of stately oaks, gave it an air of delightful repose. Its fine mansions, sometimes occupying a whole square, surrounded by roses, evergreens and other shrubs and trees, added dignity to the scene, while its less pretentious cottages with their broad verandas were pleasing and attractive . . . .”
This flirtation with a new order proved brief, as Columbia and the remainder of the state slipped back into the antebellum racial status quo with the end of Federal support for Reconstruction’s policies and a re-affirmation of power by former Confederates powerbrokers. “Old South” values underpinned an evolving New South city, an odd coexistence that lasted for the better part of the next century. Paying homage to old traditions, leaders erected monuments to fallen soldiers, aging or dead politicians and to past events for whom meaning was billed as universal, all the while championing the city’s temperate climate, cultural attraction and capable workforce. With these assets in hand, Columbians were poised to build their hometown into a New South city with all the hallmarks of modernity one would expect of such a distinction – large mills, skyscrapers, public transit and fashionable homes.
International conflict brought opportunity as Columbians, who once looked askance at Washington leaders, embraced Federal funds that came with the founding in 1917 of Camp Jackson. One of the many World War I cantonment centers established throughout the state, today Fort Jackson ranks as the nation’s largest Army basic training facility. Within the shadows of success lurked deeper issues—educational and health disparities, racial strife and urban decay, all of which were both predicated on and prolonged by Jim Crow laws. In the aftermath of the War to End All Wars, some progressives lobbied for and, to an extent, enjoyed partial improvements to these conditions, but it would not be until the decades following World War II, a period in which Columbia saw extensive growth and redevelopment, that greater change would be realized.
Like cities throughout the United States, Columbia in the 1950s through early 1970s was forever altered by Urban Renewal, which reduced generations-old inner-city neighborhoods to either memories or a shell of their former selves. In their place came the University of South Carolina, state, local and federal government and new development that paved the way for a new vision of a city enjoying the prosperity longed for during the lean times of the 1930s and war years. Mid-century architecture reshaped how people interacted—how they worked, recreated and lived—in the city and in its second-generation suburbs, which bloated as upper- and middle-income residents sought larger houses on more land. The stakes were high for those whose commute went from a reasonable walk or a short car ride to a prolonged trip downtown. Widening of main thoroughfares and the building of interstates offered some respite while further stimulating sprawl, a story played out elsewhere throughout the country time and time again. Columbia’s commercial vitality migrated from downtown to the ever-increasing number of suburban malls floating in seas of pavement, a trend that would be repeated every decade into the early 21st century.
Concurrent with these larger trends was an appreciation for downtown amenities and a rebirth in interest for older buildings, which had, by the later 1980s, enjoyed a tenuous following. A redefinition of what defined a livable city offered surer footing by the later 1990s and early 2000s, as entrepreneurs, historic preservationists and city planners met success in adapting old buildings to new uses through various incentives. Old department stores, office buildings and textile mills found new life as condominiums or apartments for new urban dwellers—college age through empty nesters—who flock to unique living arrangements. Nearly a generation old, this reinvestment in Columbia has placed the capital city at an interesting crossroad, but one whose paths have been trod, to an extent, by earlier citizens. Revitalization pays great dividends to many while running the risk of displacing long-time owners or tenants. Finding new uses for old places and filling in blank tracts can make for an aesthetically stunning skyline. Meanwhile, such improvement and growth can encourage homogeneity resulting in a monolithic character not in tune with contemporary aspirations for a truly modern city.
With developers and entrepreneurs adapting 19th and early 20th-century buildings to new uses, Columbia’s Main Street has enjoyed a renaissance during the past decade. Today, Columbia is known as “the real southern hotspot,” which speaks to both its storied climate, as well as its burgeoning attractions.
To learn more about how South Carolina’s capital city got to where it is today, consider exploring the following resources that speak to the history of Columbia, either in a general or detailed sense: Print Resources
Deas-Moore, Vennie. Columbia, South Carolina. Black America Series. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2000.
Edgar, Walter B. and Deborah K. Woolley. Columbia: Portrait of a City. Norfolk, VA: The Donning Company, Publishers, 1986.
Nell S. Graydon. Tales of Columbia. Columbia, SC: The R. L. Bryan Company, 1964.
Helsley, Alexia. Lost Columbia: Bygone Images from South Carolina’s Capital. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2008.
Hennig, Helen Kohn ed., Columbia: Capital City of South Carolina, 1786-1936. Columbia, SC: The R.L. Bryan Company, 1936.
Israel, Charles and Elizabeth Durant. Columbia College. The College History Series. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2001.
Jansen, John. Going to Blazes: A 200-Year Illustrated History of the Columbia, South Carolina Fire & Rescue Service, 1804-2004. Evansville, IN: M.T. Publishing Company, Inc., 2005.
Lumpkin, Alva M. Vignettes of Early Columbia and Surroundings. Columbia, SC: The R.L. Bryan Company, 2000.
Maxey, Russell. South Carolina’s Historic Columbia: Yesterday and Today in Photographs. Columbia, SC: The R.L Bryan Company, 1980.
Montgomery, John A. Columbia, SC: History of a City. Woodland Hills, CA: Windsor Publications, Inc., 1979.
Montgomery, Warner M. Eau Claire Memories: A Pictorial History of the Eau Claire Neighborhood in Columbia, South Carolina, 1890-2000. Columbia, SC: The Columbia Star, 2000.
Montgomery, Warner M. Shandon Memories: A Pictorial History of Shandon, a Neighborhood in Columbia, South Carolina. Columbia, SC: The Columbia Star, 2000.
Moore, John Hammond. Columbia and Richland County: A South Carolina Community, 1740-1990. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.
Salsi, Lynn Sims. Columbia: History of a Southern Capital. The Making of America Series. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2003.
Scott, J. Edwin. Random Recollections of a Long Life, 1806-1876. Columbia, SC: Charles A. Calvo, 1884.
Selby, Julian A. Memorabilia and Anecdotal Reminisces of Columbia, South Carolina. Columbia, SC: The R. L. Bryan Company, 1905. (REPRINTED 1970)
Sennema, David C. and Martha D. Columbia, South Carolina: A Postcard History. Postcard History Series. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 1997.
Sherrer III, John M. Remembering Columbia. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2015.
Williams, J. F. Old and New Columbia. Columbia, SC: Epworth Orphanage Press, 1929.
West, Elizabeth Cassidy and Katharine Thompson Allen. On the Horseshoe: A Guide to the Historic Campus of the University of South Carolina. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2015.
Woody, Howard. South Carolina Postcards, Volume V: Richland County. Postcard History Series. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2000.
Allison Baker, Jennifer Betsworth, Rebecca Bush, Sarah Conlon, Evan Kutzler, Justin McIntyre, Elizabeth Oswald, Jamie Wilson, and JoAnn Zeise, Slavery at South Carolina College, 1801–1865. (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Libraries, 2011).
South Caroliniana Library, View of Columbia, S.C. (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Libraries, 2007).
Columbia SC 63. Our Story Matters. (Columbia, SC: Historic Columbia Foundation, 2017).
A Columbia native, John has served Historic Columbia in a variety of curatorial and administrative capacities since 1996. In his current position as Director of Cultural Resources, he recently authored Remembering Columbia, which chronicles South Carolina’s capital city from its earliest years through the late 1970s. Previous museum experience includes stints at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, the National Trust’s Drayton Hall Plantation, Old York Historical Society in York, Maine and Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
He holds a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in English and history and a Masters of Arts in English from Clemson University, a Masters in Public History from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in museum management from McKissick Museum. Continuing education has involved a summer program with the Museum of Southern Decorative Arts and a certificate from the Southeastern Museum Conference’s Jekyll Island Management Institute.
“I believe … the Cuyahoga will be the place,” Moses Cleaveland wrote in July of 1796. Working for the Connecticut Land Company, Cleaveland had arrived in Ohio to survey the land and plot it for settlement. Cleveland, he believed, would be well situated for future success. “It must command the greatest communication either by land or Water of an River on the purchase or in any ceded lands from the head of the Mohawk to the western extent or I am no prophet,” he wrote to his superiors. Others viewed the potential hamlet more problematically. “Cleveland has a Thousand Charms but I am deterred from pitching on that place by the Sickness, the poorness of the Soil, and the inhabitants under the hill,” wrote Gideon Granger in 1804. Needless to say, Granger’s views suggested changes needed to be made.
Transformation occurred. Due in part to the kind of physical alteration of the environment that made its larger counterpart Chicago famous, “the Sickness” that Granger noted was afflicting residents eventually dissipated. Engineers opened new channels that more directly connected to Lake Erie; the Cuyahoga River’s swift current eliminated sandbars that had previously prevented larger ships from accessing the lake. It also eliminated “the miasmic swamps from the mouth,” thereby bringing greater health to inhabitants.
With other transportation improvements such as the completion of the Erie and Ohio Canals and the introduction of the railroad, Cleveland boomed. The city evolved from hamlet to “commercial village and city [to] industrial city, and [to] post industrial city,” as historians Carol Poh Miller and Robert A. Wheeler summarize in their short history of the metropolis. Though it lay it in what was then considered the American West, planners and leaders attempted to construct the city on the model of the New England town. It would not stay that way.
Canal building and railroad construction enabled the city to establish itself as a commercial center; circumstances did not remain static. First the “west” moved; in 1825 Cleveland could lay claim to frontier status, but by 1845 that frontier had moved 1,000 miles further west. Second, demographics shifted. If its population consisted primarily of the native born in 1825, two decades later half of the city’s residents had been born abroad. Third, the disinterested gentlemen politicians of 1825, serving only for the “public good” had, twenty years on, become machine hacks as ”party politics” determined most elections.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the city had emerged as a regional economic force. Cleveland shed its provincialism and its political and civic leaders engaged in national debate particularly in regards to slavery and abolitionism. Industry soon flourished; its police and fire departments formed in the 1860s. Having emerged as a center of abolitionism, the city threw its support behind Lincoln and, after secession, the Union. European immigrants poured into the city. In its early years the city housed mostly new arrivals from Ireland and German, but with the onset of industrialization it welcomed Italians, Slavics, Greeks, Hungarians and other immigrants. Hoping to escape discrimination in Europe, Jews also arrived in large numbers. Roughly 3,500 resided in Cleveland by 1880, and within 40 years the number climbed to 75,000, making Jews nearly 10% of the overall population. In 1890, 37 percent of its population had been born in Europe, but even more telling, three quarters of the city were either born abroad or the progeny of parents who were immigrants.
Jewish Americans would be critical to the city’s wellbeing in the coming decades particularly as the black population swelled and pressures resulting from segregation and structural racism in the housing market bulged. In moments, Jewish homeowners resisted African American attempts to purchase homes in Cleveland neighborhoods; at other times, they worked to reduce tensions between the two groups as communities slowly integrated. An odd amalgam of self interest, altruism, and fear over alleged declining home values shaped responses. “[I]n Cleveland, ethnic and religious divisions shaped divergent responses and decisions,” historian Todd Michney points out. “Whites of different backgrounds reacted more or less disconcertedly, some departing sooner and others later, with patterns hardly resembling unanimity.” Still, on average, when compared with their Catholic white ethnic counterparts in the city, Jewish Clevelanders demonstrated greater flexibility and understanding in relation to housing integration.
Admittedly, for much of the nineteenth century, African Americans made up a small percentage of the city’s population. Serving as a guide, navigator, and interpreter, Joseph Hodge (aka Black Joe) had been an important contributor to Moses Cleveland’s initial founding of the future metropolis in 1796, but the state’s Black Laws, which essentially discouraged black settlement in Ohio, and the practice of slavery south of the state’s borders, more generally helped keep these numbers low.
It was not until World War I and the Great Migration that residents would witness an increase in the city’s African American population. With immigration at a standstill, “Cleveland’s industrialists turned to the ready supply of black labor in the South,” historian Russell H. Davis pointed out in 1972. The great flow of labor north brought the quotidian, the remarkable, and everything in between. For example, James Cleveland Owens, named after the city his parents viewed as “the promised land,” arrived in the Ohio metropolis during the 1920s. During his first day of school he took on the name that he would later make famous. Unable to fully understand Owens due to his southern accent, his teacher mistook his nickname of J.C. for Jesse. His teachers “from that day forward, called him Jesse instead. So did everyone else in this new world he was in,” writes Isabel Wilkerson in her Pulitzer Prize winning work, The Warmth of Other Suns.
Jesse Owens needs little introduction, of course , but rather embodies Cleveland as a site of opportunity, both shaping and shaped by new arrivals. The growth of the black population continued through and after World War II. Most settled on the city’s east side which would be “the principle place of residence” for Black Cleveland for much of the twentieth century. Though limited by segregation, as Michney argues in his recently published work, Surrogate Suburbs, Cleveland’s black working and middle classes “dynamically and creatively engaged with space at the urban periphery” and transformed communities into critical centers of black economic, social, and political life. This influence exceeded local neighborhoods, labor, and demographics. In 1967, Carl B. Stokes triumphed in the mayoral contest becoming the first black mayor of a major U.S. metropolis.
World War II drove Cleveland to further economic and demographic heights. In 1950 the city reached nearly 1,000,000 residents with almost 150,000 of that figure accounting for black Clevelanders. Unfortunately, like other rust belt counterparts such as Pittsburgh or Detroit, the fall came soon after. In ensuing decades, the usual story of decline and deindustrialization unfolded, yet its history, while similar to its sister rust belt metropolises, proved unique. As Mark Souther notes in his forthcoming work Believing in Cleveland, it did not “endure collapse as stultifying as that in Detroit”; it lacked the kind of global connections and vastness of the Windy City or the tourist friendly James Rouse revisionist reboot of Charm City. Pittsburgh, perhaps its closest relative, found ways to rebuild successfully upon the dual industries of “eds-and-meds” and cutting edge robotics and medical technology (though Patrick Vitale’s arguments to the contrary are noted). Cleveland, arguably the most understudied of these examples, went its own way.
For example, in the area of race relations and housing, though it witnessed its own tensions and occasional violence, it never endured the kind of unrest and bloodshed that defined other cities. Cleveland “did not experience anything remotely approaching the sustained and highly organized violence mounted by white residents in … Chicago and Detroit”, writes Michney. White ethnics in Cleveland, particularly its Jewish residents, might have been uncomfortable with neighborhood transitions, but they never resorted to the kind of brutality that defined the era, and many even tried to work with community groups in order to blunt population changes or enable them to occur more efficiently.
Urban historians have spent decades peeling back the layers of rust belt ascension–decline–ascension narratives. In addition to groundbreaking work like Tom Sugrue’s The Origin of the Urban Crisis which established a new template for discussions of urban America, a newer cohort of scholars like Tracy Neumann, the aforementioned Vitale, Michney, and Souther, Elihu Rubin, Andrew K. Sandoval Strausz, Chloe Taft and others have been reworking the rise-and-fall narratives by intellectually sauntering down previously ignored avenues of exploration. In particular, Michney and Souther seek to place Cleveland, with some exceptions, into this discussion. “Like many cities across the Great Lakes region,” writes Souther, “Cleveland was a city whose leaders faced broad challenges that forced them to manage its decline or, perhaps more accurately, to manage perception of metropolitan transformations that produced spatially differentiated outcomes – winners and losers.”
Even if rise and fall narratives obscure important realities, few would argue that by the 1970s Cleveland could use some improvements. In a fifteen-year period from 1958 to 1973, the city lost 50,000 manufacturing jobs. Schools struggled, neighborhoods faced declining infrastructure, and air pollution soared. While some African Americans found purchase in the suburbs, most remained relegated to struggling communities in the inner city that ultimately served as a “repository for the metropolitan area’s worst socioeconomic hardships,” Souther argued in a recent article.
“The Best Location in the Nation” (1940s), “The Best Things in Life are Here” (1970s), “Comeback City” (1990s), and “Believe in Cleveland” (2000s) serve as only a few taglines among countless others that were meant to sell post-World War II Cleveland to the nation. “New York might be the Big Apple, but Cleveland is a plum,” the Cleveland New Dealer once asserted. Unfortunately, no degree of semantics could alter opinions held by even local residents. “Anyone dumb enough to believe that ‘the best things in life are right here in Cleveland deserves to breathe Cleveland’s air and live in Cleveland’s filth,” wrote one disbelieving Shaker Heights resident. “Cleveland is a rotting corpse clothed in a hazy, blue gray shroud. Cute songs and slogans won’t fix it. You fix a trash heap by cleaning it up. You start with the air and work your way down period.”
Today, disgruntled Clevelanders of the past aside, it would seem such attempts to renew interest in the metropolis are unnecessary; the city has shed the image of the “mistake on the lake,” when the Cuyahoga River caught fire from pollution. Pop culture overflows with references to the city. The soap opera that is the relationship between Lebron James and the Cavaliers has transfixed the nation for over a decade and arguably boosted the NBA to new heights of popularity. ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary “Believeland” laid out the angst of the city’s erstwhile sports fan for all to see; only to be improbably redeemed by James and the Cavaliers the same year. Tina Fey’s Thirty Rock dedicated an entire episode to the city’s undeniable if unexciting pleasantness; the film Trainwreck gently teased it for the same. It even gets a mention on the latest album, Sleep Well Beast, by Ohio’s most famous aging hipster rock band, the National: “Young mothers love me / Even ghosts of girlfriends call from Cleveland / They will meet me anytime, anywhere.”
Whether or not our bibliography for Cleveland fully explains how the city came to its current incarnation remains to be seen. We do hope that it piques interest in a rust belt city that has persevered through two centuries of existence. Beyond trite slogans, 1990s sitcoms (Drew Carey, we are looking at you), or museums dedicated to dying art forms (we kid, Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame. Millenials love dinosauresque four-piece garage bands … ), the city of “progress and prosperity” soldiers on in ways 1970s resident might never have predicted. Perhaps, Mr. Carey, Cleveland does rock.
As always, we know the list has flaws but hope that readers will use the comments section to help us fill in the blanks. Special thanks to J. Mark Souther (especially herculean in his efforts), Todd Michney, and Nichole Nelson for their help in creating the bibliography.
Campbell, Thomas F., and Edward M. Miggins, eds. The Birth of Modern Cleveland, 1865-
1930. Cleveland: Western Reserve Historical Society, 1988.
Cigliano, Jan. Showplace of America: Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue, 1850-1910. Kent, OH: Kent
State University Press, 1991.
Davis, Russell H. Black Americans in Cleveland: From George Peake to Carl B. Stokes, 1796-1969. Cleveland: Associated Publishers, 1972.
Hammack, David C., Diane L. Grabowski, and John J. Grabowski, eds. Identity, Conflict, and Cooperation: Central Europeans in Cleveland, 1850-1930. Cleveland: Western Reserve Historical Society, 2002.
Harwood, Herbert H., Jr. Invisible Giants: The Empires of Cleveland’s Van Sweringen Brothers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.
Howe, Frederic C. The Confessions of a Reformer. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press,
Keating, W. Dennis. The Suburban Racial Dilemma: Housing and Neighborhoods.Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.
Keating, W. Dennis, Norman Krumholz, and David C. Perry, eds. Cleveland: A Metropolitan Reader. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1995.
Kerr, Daniel R. Derelict Paradise: Homelessness and Urban Development in Cleveland, Ohio. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011.
Kusmer, Kenneth L. A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870-1930. Urbana: University
of Illinois Press, 1978.
Michney, Todd M. Surrogate Suburbs: Black Upward Mobility and Neighborhood Change in
Cleveland, 1900-1980. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.
Miller, Carol Poh, and Robert Wheeler. Cleveland: A Concise History, 1796-1996. 2nd ed.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.
Moore, Leonard N. Carl B. Stokes and the Rise of Black Political Power. Urbana: University
of Illinois Press, 2002.
Pekar, Harvey, and Joseph Remnant. Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland. Scarsdale, NY: Zip Comics,
Phillips, Kimberley L. AlabamaNorth: African-American Migrants, Community, and Working-Class Activism in Cleveland, 1915-1945. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
Souther, J. Mark. Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline in “The Best Location in the
Nation.” Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2017.
Stokes, Carl B. Promises of Power: A Political Autobiography. New York: Simon & Schuster,
Stradling, David, and Richard Stradling. Where the River Burned: Carl Stokes and the Struggle to Save Cleveland. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015.
Swanstrom, Todd. The Crisis of Growth Politics: Cleveland, Kucinich, and the Challenge of
Urban Populism. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1985.
Tittle, Diana. Rebuilding Cleveland: The Cleveland Foundation and Its Evolving Urban
Strategy. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1992.
Toman, James A., and Blaine S. Hayes. Horse Trails to Regional Rails: The Story of Public
Transit in Greater Cleveland. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1996.
Vacha, John. Meet Me on Lake Erie, Dearie!: Cleveland’s Great Lakes Exposition, 1936-1937.
Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2010.
Van Tassel, David D., and John J. Grabowski, eds. Cleveland: A Tradition of Reform. Kent,
OH: Kent State University Press, 1986.
Wiese, Andrew. Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth
Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Borchert, James, and Susan Borchert. Downtown, Uptown, Out of Town: Diverging Patterns of Upper-Class Residential Landscapes in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland, 1885-1935. Social Science History 26, no. 2(2002): 311-346.
Jenkins, William D. “Before Downtown: Cleveland, Ohio, and Urban Renewal, 1949-1958.” Journal of Urban History 27, no. 4 (May 2001): 471-496.
Michney, Todd M. “Race, Violence, and Urban Territoriality: Cleveland’s Little Italy and the 1966 Hough Uprising.” Journal of Urban History 32, no. 3 (March 2006): 404-428.
Michney, “Constrained Communities: Black Cleveland’s Experience with World War II Public Housing,” Journal of Social History 40 (Summer 2007): 933-956
Michney, Todd M. “White Civic Visions Versus Black Suburban Aspirations: Cleveland’s
Garden Valley Urban Renewal Project.” Journal of Planning History 10, no. 4 (November 2011): 282-309.
Souther, J. Mark. “A $35 Million ‘Hole in the Ground’: Metropolitan Fragmentation and
Cleveland’s Unbuilt Downtown Subway.” Journal of Planning History 14, no. 3 (August 2015): 179-203.
Souther, J. Mark. “Acropolis of the Middle-West: Decay, Renewal, and Boosterism in
Cleveland’s University Circle.” Journal of Planning History 10, no. 1 (February 2011): 30-58.
Stradling, David, and Richard Stradling. “Perceptions of the Burning River: Deindustrialization and Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River.” Environmental History 13, no. 3 (July 2008): 515-35.
Tebeau, Mark. “Sculpted Landscapes: Art & Place in Cleveland’s Cultural Gardens, 1916-
2006.” Journal of Social History 44, no. 2 (winter 2010): 327-50.
Cleveland Historical. https://clevelandhistorical.org. A website and mobile app that puts
Cleveland history at your fingertips. Developed by the Center for Public History +
Digital Humanities at Cleveland State University.
Cleveland Memory Project. http://clevelandmemory.org. An online collection of digital photos, historical texts, oral histories, videos, and other local history resources. Developed by the Michael Schwartz Library at Cleveland State University.
Cleveland Voices. https://clevelandvoices.org. An online streaming-audio collection of
approximately 1,000 interviews conducted since 2002 as part of the Cleveland Regional
Oral History Collection, a project of the Center for Public History + Digital Humanities
at Cleveland State University.
Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. http://ech.case.edu. Originally published in 1987 by Indiana University Press and now online, the ECH is edited by Case Western Reserve University historian John J. Grabowski, contains more than 3,000 entries about all aspects of Cleveland history.
 Carol Poh Miller and Robert A. Wheeler, Cleveland: A Concise History, 1796 – 1996, (Indiana University Press, 1997), 9.
“It’s a cosmic irony that the longest, most grueling nonstop in the United States ends in the sweetest arrival of all,” Jocelyn Fujii, Hawaiian native and New York Times writer, wrote in a recent edition of its 36 Hours travel book series. Travelers will inhale the smell of “tuberose and plumeria” in the Hawaiian air, and find countless ethnic restaurants to satiate their taste buds, numerous accomplished art galleries to dazzle the eyes, and “hula dancers at sunset” to nostalgically transport tourists to the past. Such activities represent only a germ of the promise that one discovers in the nation’s most distant state, she pointed out.
Despite the fact that Honolulu and Hawaii date back centuries, most Americans know the city for Pearl Harbor, beaches—notably those on the North Shore and in Waikiki—surfing, tiki drinks such as Mai Tais and Blue Hawaiians, and luaus. Fans of network television might claim to watch the current iteration of Hawaii-Five O meanwhile their more benighted hipster counterparts will proudly attest to only watching the original series.
Many of us will admit to watching reruns of the 1972 Brady Bunch season opener. Greg discovers a cursed tiki statue at his Dad’s construction site, which predictably results in near disaster by the third episode of the three-episode arc. I will only touch upon Mad Men’s Season 6 opener where creator Matthew Weiner utilizes Honolulu’s mythical properties to comment on the shallowness of mid-century America. Don visits the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu; part business trip and vacation. He attends a luau where a hotel executive denigrates native cuisine; serves as witness to a soldier’s beach front wedding just before the latter ships off for Vietnam; and later alienates his Royal Hawaiian Hotel clients with an ad campaign for their company that appears to equate vacationing in Honolulu with suicide. “History is erased and blocked out with electric-blue cocktails,” Molly Lambert wrote in her cogent review. Hawaii isn’t a place with its own past and culture but instead a setting through which we discover the truth about ourselves. It would seem that these pop culture depictions of the 50th state fail to bring us any closer to grasping the complexity of Hawaii and Honolulu’s cultural, economic, and political importance over the past centuries.
Yet, perhaps these examples implicitly point to underlying issues regarding our knowledge of Hawaii, and Honolulu more specifically. Could Greg’s discovery of the cursed tiki statue, for example, be some sort of metaphorical comment on the unrelenting urban and economic development that has reshaped Hawaii in an Americanized image, thereby negating its longer history? Or is it just another Saidian Orientalist refraction of reality? Did Don Draper’s dreamlike walk through his Honolulu vacation represent his and the state’s own alienation from American society? I’ll leave that for readers to determine. Ultimately, Lambert’s larger point about historical erasure seems loudly evident. Tragically many Americans only know Honolulu through the lens of package vacation deals; the city equated with the number of days one spends lazing on the beach imbibing mixed drinks with umbrellas. Obviously there is so much more.
Europeans first made contact with Hawaii via Captain James Cooke in 1778. Cooke may not have meant to open the door to disease, which wiped out nearly 90 percent of the native population, nor intended for Americans to usurp the island during the late nineteenth century, but both occurred as a result of his encounter. About three decades after Cooke’s arrival, King Kamehameha unified the islands, utilizing his knowledge of European weaponry and iron-making and deploying each in his own violent unification of Hawaii. Europeans and the U.S. would take greater interest in the archipelago due to its burgeoning sandalwood trade from which the King profited. Americans helped introduce Hawaiian sandalwood to the international market.
Kamehameha and other Hawaiian elites grasped the idea of scarcity in capitalism quickly; the sandalwood futures market in Hawaii traded briskly. Honolulu as a port gained importance. Whaling would prove lucrative for the city particularly in the mid 1800s when demand for whale oil was high, whale stocks full, and petroleum not yet a resource. International demand brought sailors and ships to the archipelago and especially its urban center. Honolulu gained official status as the capital of the kingdom in 1850 around the same time sugar took whaling’s place in the local economy; after petroleum was discovered and whale stocks had collapsed. Though Maui would become the chief sugar producer among the eight Hawaiian Islands, Honolulu, situated on the coast of Oahu, would serve as the kingdom’s business center. Soon white haoles came to dominate much of the economy. Nineteenth century historian and advisor to Kamehameha III Davida Malo recognized the danger haoles represented for Hawaii’s continued independence. “The ships of the white men have come … they know our people are few in number and living in a small country; they will eat us up, such has always been the case with large countries, the small ones have been gobbled up.”
Economics further influenced Honolulu. Undoubtedly lucrative, sugar reshaped Hawaiian society in nearly every manner. The crop had a halting start in the archipelago, but by 1866 fortunes had turned and Hawaii had achieved its first “positive balance of payments,” notes James L. Haley in Captive Paradise: A History of Hawaii. U.S. economic interference and corporate consolidation of the land eventually followed. Yet, even on the eve of Pearl Harbor, it remained a colonial territory rather than the tourist paradise it is today.
Sugar introduced immigration flows that previously had been minimal. Chinese, Portuguese, and Japanese workers flocked to the island. By 1884, the Chinese accounted for nearly one fourth of Hawaii’s population; around the same time, Honolulu’s Chinatown bulged to nearly 8,000 residents, “such a tightly packed warren of houses, shops, shacks, and lean-tos that a fire [in 1866] could not be extinguished before devastating most of it.” The sugar cane that drew Chinese labors and others to Honolulu would persist as a cash crop into the late 20th century, the ethnic diversity needed to harvest it continued as well; in 2010, over 50 percent of the city’s population was Asian (Japanese, Filipinos, and Chinese nearly half), 18 percent white, nine percent Native Hawaiian, five percent Latino, and just over one percent African American.
Honolulu’s multiculturalism has had national implications in producing two ground-breaking politicians. Patsy Mink, champion of Title IX, became the first woman of color and first Asian American woman elected to Congress in 1965; Barack Obama became the nation’s first black president in 2008. More recently, its federal courts challenged President Trump’s travel bans and forced a showdown that will occur during the Supreme Court’s 2017 October Term.
One should not overstate the economic forces that shaped Honolulu; other cultural influences worked in parallel and imposed political and financial costs. Beginning in the 1820s, missionaries brought Calvinism; other forms of Christianity followed, all of which had myriad affects on Hawaiian society. At the risk of oversimplifying, Christianity became the state religion; the children of missionaries came to dominate sugar and other industries and their parents influenced the kingdom’s politics. In an era of imperial intrigue, religion gave the U.S. a cultural and economic advantage over British and French competitors, which the Yankees fully exploited to annex the kingdom at the end of the nineteenth century.
Later when, pineapple and sugar began their long decline—today each is mostly gone from the archipelago’s economy—tourism and the military took their place. While the implications of a military presence seem obvious and would seem to highlight the imperial aspects of Honolulu’s past, as Beth Baily and David Farber noted in The First Strange Place, WWII ushered in a wave of black, white, Latino, and Asian Americans who encountered the multiracial island during the era of Jim Crow. A conservative institution, the military regularly produces situations that challenge that very conservatism; the racial logic of mainland America faced a direct assault in the multicultural tropical setting of Honolulu. Sexual and racial boundaries would be crossed, violated, reinforced, and rethought. During the Second World War, Honoluluans of “different backgrounds were brought together in a common cause. This contact—collision, even—of cultures led to struggle and contestation, and sometimes to negotiation, improved understanding, or change,” noted Bailey and Farber.
If the military presence, arguably problematic, demonstrates complexity, so too does tourism and one of Honolulu’s premier symbols of this tourism, its beaches. “The beach was historically a place where hoale and Hawaiian worlds collided,” writes historian Isaiah Helekunih Walker in Waves of Resistance. Culture was not unidirectional. On Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach, Hawaiian and haole relationships “were redefined and reconstituted … the ocean was not simply a place from which haole, on the decks of their ships, transposed their image of the islands onto Hawaiians.”
In the water that rolled onto its beaches, argues Walker, native Hawaiian surfers subverted hegemonies. “[I]n the early twentieth century Hawaiian surfers in Waikiki successfully combated elite haole annexationists, had sex with elite white women, ran lucrative beach concessions businesses, and beat up American and European soldiers, and dictated what haole could and could not do in the surf.” Figures like Olympic gold medalist and surfer guru Duke Kahanamoku carried the sport to California where its history and bloodlines were whitewashed, but ultimately exploded into international acclaim after WWII.
Honolulu played a central role throughout this history. Since the 1970s, there has been a resurgence in capturing Hawaii’s native past and pushing past staid narratives. We hope you see this reflected in the bibliography below and, if not, fill in our blind spots in the comments.
Michael M. Okihiro, A’ala: The Story of a Japanese Community in Hawaii, (Honolulu: Japanese Cultural Center, 2003) – Not really a review, but this article from the.honoluladvertiser.com provides some useful description on the book.
James Michener, Hawaii, (New York: Random House, 2002).
Paul Theroux, Hotel Honolulu, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001) – NYT review
 Haoles, according to historian James Haley it means literally “without breath, unable to speak the language”, is general term for non-native residents of Hawaii, initially white missionaries occupied this status later it came to include plantation workers and others.
 James L. Haley, Captive Paradise: A History of Hawaii, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2014), 90.
 James L. Haley, Captive Paradise: A History of Hawaii, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2014), 48-49, 263.
 Beth Bailey and David Farber, The First Strange Place: Race and Sex in World War II Hawaii, (New York: Free Press, 1992), 18.
 Isaiah Helekunih Walker, Waves of Resistance: Surfing and History in Twentieth Century Hawaii, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2011), 11.
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.
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.” 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. 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.
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.” 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. “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.
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.
Blackpast.org: 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.
Historylink.org: 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.
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 Crosscut.com: “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).
“The city has become a monster, an urban disaster, a planner’s nightmare,” wrote Ruben Gallo. “Glorious Mexico City, once known as the city of palaces, is now gasping for breath in a sea of people, poverty, and pollution,” Diane Davis bemoaned in the opening to her deeply influential history of the city, Urban Leviathan: Mexico City in the Twentieth Century. Indeed, over the course of the twentieth century, countless scholars offered similar assessments of the Mexican capital; Octavio Paz assailed Mexico’s leaders for their technocratic modernizing efforts which failed to solve the overcrowding and rampant expansion that had “converted Mexico City into a monstrous inflated head, crushing the frail body that holds it up.”
For some, even revisiting the city’s establishment and place at the center of the Aztec empire provoked deep ambivalence. Jorge Ibargüengoitia characterized the city’s founding as a mistake, only “one of the most belligerent tribes in history” would think to build a city “in the middle of the lake,” he opined. Once the lake “dried up” and the surrounding tribes and Aztecs came into close proximity, local hostilities abated. “What remained was mud, unstable ground, and dust clouds. So our first conclusion can be that the city is here because it was put here, although there’s no good reason for its continued presence on this spot.”
“And yet not everything in Mexico City is all that bad,” Gallo later admitted. The city’s history as the magnet of MesoAmerican Empire in the pre-Columbian period, a colonial metropole, and later a capital of Latin America—culturally, economically, and politically—undoubtedly bestows upon Distrito Federal no small measure of gravitas. The DF can claim “influential publishing houses”, “a booming film industry, a lively music scene”, “spectacular museums … And above all it is one of the most vibrant urban spaces in the world.” Gallo paraphrases Juan Villoro, “we have fallen in love with the bearded lady.” It might be a mess, but no other city matches its chaotic charm.
Consider its centuries of importance; an echo over the North American landscape that shaped not only policy in Latin America and Mexico, but brought dollars, culture, and politics to the Yankees up North. The city witnessed Aztec conquest, the unimaginable wealth and exploitation of Colonial Spain, the dizzying liberation of independence, the struggle of revolution, and the burgeoning modernism of the 20th century. Trotsky, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo called it home for periods; the Menshevik communist famously died at the hand of Stalinist assassin in the DF.
Anyone who has ever visited the city marvels at the architecture, a compelling mash up of colonial, modernist, and post-modernist styles. Its people hail from across the Americas, Europe, and even on occasion Asia; indigenous faces and culture are sewn into is fabric. Like many cities, the DF struggles with inequality, poverty, and corruption, but to focus only on its problems misses the point.
As with every Metropolis of the Month, The Metropole has compiled a bibliography for anyone interested in reading more about the history of Mexico City. Our list leans heavily toward the modern and the English language, a weakness that can undoubtedly be ascribed to our own specialization in the twentieth century history and our sadly inadequate language skills. As always, we hope readers can improve upon our start here by providing further suggestions in the comments.
Over the course of May, several scholars will publish posts with The Metropole on various aspects of the city’s history. First up will be Columbia University’s Pablo Piccato, who provides some perspective on crime and justice in the DF while also giving readers a taste of his new work, A History of Infamy: Crime, Truth, and Justice in Mexico. Several other posts will follow including travelogues by non-specialists such as Georgia State Professor and Tropics of Meta Senior Editor, Alex Sayf Cummings on his 2016 visit to the city.
Edward E. Calnek, “Patterns of Empire Formation in the Valley of Mexico, Late Post Classical Period 1200-1521”, in Inca and Aztec States, 1400-1800: Anthropology and History, Eds. George A. Collier, Renato I. Rosaldo, John D. Wirth, (New York: Academic Press, 1982), 43-62.
Christopher P. Garraty, “Aztec TeotihuacaÌn: Political Processes at a Postclassic and Early Colonial City-State in the Basin of Mexico,” Latin America Antiquity 17.4 (December 2006): 363-387.
“It has been said that, in any New Orleans bar, the three subjects most likely to be discussed are the status of the seafood in season at the time, politics and sports – all with equal fervor,” notes the introduction to the 1983 reissue of The W.P.A. Guide to New Orleans. In the original guide, Harry L. Hopkins, the head administrator of the W.P.A. noted that the challenges of using and controlling the Mississippi River had “resulted in brilliant feats of commerce, engineering, sanitation and medical research.” Rost. S. Maestri, the Mayor of New Orleans, called the guide “the first major accomplishment of the Federal Writers’ Project of Louisiana” and described it as “more than a conventional guidebook” but rather an attempt to capture the “the history and heritage” of the city. The three perspectives underscore the intersection of environment, culture, and history that have made New Orleans a transnational American treasure.
Here at The Metropole, we harbor no grand ambition to reshape your understanding of the city, but as part of our monthly series have chosen arguably the nation’s most unique urban metropolis as our first focus. Admittedly, the Organization of American Historians (OAH) conference might have drawn our attention to “the Big Easy.” With that in mind, I’ll make a soft plug here for Craig Colten’s piece that The Metropole will publish tomorrow. Colten, the author of several works including Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from Nature (listed below) will be speaking at the UHA’s OAH luncheon on Saturday, April 8. The subject of Colten’s talk is one he’s explored widely in books like Unnatural Metropolis: Exporting Risk: New Orleans, Commerce, and Flood Water Diversion.
To the chagrin of the aforementioned denizens of New Orleans drinking establishments, we’ve not covered sports or culinary history, but have included plenty of politics (minus the Kingfish Huey Long), culture, geography, and of course, sex.
Regarding matters of the flesh for which the city has drawn equal parts renown, condemnation, and approbation, it would seem that from its birth writers depicted New Orleans “as a dark, primitive, an abandoned place, governed by immoral pleasures than by rationality or law,” as Shannon Dawdy noted in her 2008 work, Building the Devil’s Empire: French Colonial New Orleans. Then again, according to Herbert Asbury Americans brought the city’s famed licentiousness to its peak: “it was under the rule of the United States that New Orleans embarked upon its golden age of glamour and spectacular wickedness.” As Dawdy, Jennifer Spear, Emily Epstein Landau and others have demonstrated, sex in New Orleans meant more than sinful pleasure; rather it was intertwined in politics, economics, and culture. Such examples tells us that complexity beats at the heart of the Big Easy.
Every month, we will bring you a curated bibliography or historiography in the hopes of piquing further exploration into the world’s cities and helping those who might be embarking on research in the area a means to get their proverbial feet wet. With that in mind, a very good starting point is the Journal of American History’s December 2007 special issue, “Through the Eyes of Katrina”. The issue features over 20 essays by prominent scholars in the field, many of which appear in the bibliography below.
Our list is by no means comprehensive and undoubtedly we’ve probably missed more than a few landmark works. Later this month we will post a roundup of New Orleans-related articles from the Journal of Urban History. We hope that readers will add those books and articles that have eluded us in the comments and/or on twitter (@UrbanHistoryA). Also, we’ll be putting out calls for future bibliography lists on social media and welcome your suggestions. For example, Mexico City is the Metropolis of the Month for May, Seattle for June, and Honolulu for July, so please do forward us book/article recommendations at our twitter account or via email at email@example.com.
Virginia Meacham Gould, “A Chaos of Iniquity and Discord”: Slave and Free Women of Color in the Spanish Ports of New Orleans, Mobile, and Pensacola,” in Catherine Clinton and Michelle Gillespie, eds., The Devil’s Lane: Sex and Race in the Early South, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997): 232-246