Setha M. Low, ed. Theorizing the City: The New Urban Anthropology Reader. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1999. xii + 433 pp. $27.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8135-2720-8.
Reviewed by Christopher Dole (Department of Anthropology, Case Western Reserve University)
Published on H-Urban (October, 2000)
With the publication of Theorizing the City: The New Urban Anthropology Reader, readers once again encounter how much urban anthropology has changed in the past twenty years. The volume's title itself -- which can be read either as a new reader in urban anthropology or as a reader in a new urban anthropology -- clearly sides with the latter and presents a range of essays concerned with "poststructural studies of race, class, and gender in the urban context, political economic studies of transnational culture, and studies of the symbolic and social production of urban space and planning" (p. 21). For the present volume, the editor Setha Low has compiled articles and book chapters to ground contemporary trends in research and theory in urban anthropology within numerous urban contexts and over a range of historical periods.
Low, in an introductory essay framed primarily as an overview of the contemporary urban anthropological literature, presents a set of twelve images or metaphors for understanding, analyzing, and writing about the city. The images are organized by four themes: social relational processes (the ethnic city, the divided city, the gendered city, the contested city), economic processes (the deindustrialized city, the global city, the informational city), urban planning and architectural approaches to urban analysis (the modernist city, the postmodern city, the fortress city), and religious and cultural aspects of urban life (the sacred city, the traditional city). Importantly, these images are described as lenses for understanding a range of complex subjects, not as an essentializing, reifying, or mutually exclusive typology of urban forms. For this volume, she has chosen five images around which the text is divided into sections: the divided city, the contested city, the global city, the modernist city, and the postmodern city. While these do not capture the full spectrum of research interests in urban anthropology, as she notes, they nonetheless cover some of the topics particularly influential in broader discourses of urban studies and urban policy.
Within the first section, the divided city, three essays explore the interplay of race, class, and gender in the construction of boundaries and segregation in North and South American urban contexts. In the first essay, Steven Gregory skillfully weaves together ethnographic, archival, and oral historical data to explore the shifting significance of race and class in a Queens African-American community. The author convincingly argues that the reforms that emerged from the civil rights era served to restructure political power in the community away from race-based to class-based politics which, in turn, privileged the economic interests and political orientation of black middle-class homeowners. With this came an emerging politics of homeownership in which homeowners' political values became increasingly aligned to those of white homeowners.
Ida Susser's second essay considers how New York City's homeless shelter system structures particular gender expectations and family forms in the lives of the poor. Based primarily on ethnographic research, the author argues that the policy of New York City's shelter system recognizes the single mother household as the accepted family form, a form that categorically excludes a criminalized generation of young men from the lives of their families. Despite an occasional tendency to over-generalize complex social and political processes - thus leaving the author open for critique - the essay nonetheless offers a good ethnographic, experience-near considerations of how broader public policies shape the lives of racially and economically marginalized people.
In the last essay of the section, Teresa Caldeira explores the "fortified enclave" as an emerging model of spatial segregation in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Justified by fears of the dangerous poor, these privatized, enclosed, and monitored spaces have come to represents markers of status in a new aesthetic of security and segregation that eventuates in an attack on modern public life. Coupled with a fitting comparison to Los Angeles, Caldeira reveals not only the parallels between the two contexts but how in fact they are linked within a global flow of culture, a flow intriguingly embodied by Joel Garreau's (author of Edge City) participation in the promotion of Paulista "edge cities." While a thorough comparative analysis is difficult in such a brief space, the author does well not to overstep her aims and provides a good comparative vehicle for better understanding the process of spatial segregation in Sao Paulo.
Emphasizing concepts of contestation and resistance within the production and meaning of built environments, the second section takes up the image of the contested city. The first essay, authored by the editor, considers the social production and social construction of two very different plazas in San Jose, Costa Rica, giving particular emphasis to the dialogic relationship between the circumstances of production of public space and people's experience of it. Drawing on the concept of "spatializing culture" - locating social relations and social practice in space - she illuminates how people attempt to resolve larger conflicts (e.g., globalization, tourism, loss of cultural identity) through the contestation of design, form, meaning, and use of the plaza. As perhaps one of the most developed essays of the volume, Low's chapter provides a useful example of how an ethnographically grounded anthropological approach would work in the study of urban space.
The next essay of the section, Robert Rotenberg's discussion of the politics of gardening in Vienna, similarly examines the spatialization of culture and how the "garden of discovery" (gardens allowed to return to their "natural" state) become enmeshed in struggles over the meaning and structure of urban landscapes. Based on earlier research that found landscape as a powerful language for asserting ideologically based models of community life, he describes how widely shared values of a discourse, namely ecological gardening, problematically intersect with the social production of "gardens of discovery" in Vienna. Well-grounded in ethnographic data, this essay provides an illuminating mean of understanding the relationship between power and space not from the perspective of those in power (e.g. city planners) but from residents' contested image of community life and landscape.
The following section -- the global city -- presents two chapters that highlight the transnational role of social networks in the global flows of capital and culture. Aptly utilizing the potentials of anthropological analysis, Josephine and Alan Smart's essay examines how the skilled use of reciprocal relations of gift exchange grounded in preexisting social relationships in much of Hong Kong investments in South China bridge some of the incompatibilities between the capitalist entrepreneurs of Hong Kong and the socialist economy of China, without the problems of direct investment practices of other capitalist nations. Importantly, this essay provides a much needed anthropological perspective on discussions of globalization that too often remain devoid of the social relationships that constitute the global economy.
In the second essay of the section, Theodore Bestor builds on this theme and presents a thorough and convincing analysis of the global flow of taste and culture making in the Japanese food industry. Situated within the context of the Tsukiji marketplace, he traces the commodification of fish into food as it passes through the complex framework of social institutions that make up the marketplace, a critical link between Tokyo residents and the domestic and global sources of their food. Significantly, the author moves beyond standard analyses of consumption by characterizing the market not merely as a provider of a commodity to be consumed, food, but also as a generator of cultural meaning and an aspect of the social formation of "distinction" or taste. In this well-written essay, the reader -- like with the previous essay -- encounters the potential of ethnography to make sense of local processes of social production within rapidly globalizing economies.
Essays of the fourth section emphasize the role of political power and urban planning in the construction of space and the shaping of social relations in the modernist city. The section opens with James Holston's consideration of the street, and its death, in the consummately modernist city, Brasilia. Exploring how dominant political ideologies play out in the architectural organization of a city, Holston argues that the design of Brasilia sought to overturn the architectural organization of public and private life, thus attempting to subvert the role of the street in public life. Deeply in conflict with the wishes of the city's residents, however, he outlines ways in which they have struggled to reclaim the streets. While a more ethnographically grounded and thorough consideration of this last point may have strengthened the essay, the author's use of solid-void/figure-ground conventions in comparing Brasilia with another Brazilian pre-industrial city nonetheless provides researchers with potentially useful tools for making sense of the relationship between political ideology and the construction of space.
The second essay of the section, by Deborah Pellow, follows from the previous essay in its emphasis upon the relationship between political power and the construction of space. In this case, the author explores the impact of the British colonial spatial system on life within a community known as Sabon Zongo -- "new stranger community" -- of Accra, Ghana. She demonstrates through both historical and ethnographic analysis how this community's development and political legitimacy operates within subordinated physical spaces ordered by colonial systems of authority. While the essay nicely accompanies the previous essay -- particular in her foregrounding of the residents' response to the structuring of space -- the author appears to expect an audience more knowledgeable with the research site, which in turns makes the essay difficult to follow at times.
Essays of the final section analyze discourses of city planning to provide telling critiques of the postmodern city. Charles Rutheiser, for instance, explores the creation of the "'non-place urban realm" where cities with nondistinctive identities -- here, Atlanta -- are repackaged as commodities, "imagineered" as Disney-fied theme parks, and made "user-friendly" to structure visitors/residents' reading of the city. Highlighting a national trend, he describes how the power elite of Atlanta, particularly in the context of the politics of urban redevelopment that accompanied the 1996 Olympics, employ a discourse of "traditional urbanity" and the image of the dangerous "urban frontier" to renovate the public character of the city into a "sterilized essence of urbanity." While the essay excellently unravels the ideological underpinnings of urban redevelopment policies, there is unfortunately not enough space to develop the unique position of urban anthropology to localize the impact of such policy within the lives of the city's residents.
The next essay of the section, by Gary McDonogh, nicely follows Rutheiser and considers the historical emergence of hegemonic discourses of urban planning in post-transitional Barcelona, discourses about the city that laid the foundation for the Olympic and global city of the 1990s. Interestingly, this essay goes beyond an analysis of dominant urban planning discourses to a consideration of their impact on life within one of Barcelona's most marginalized districts, the Raval. Although the reader may expect a more thorough consideration of this last point, McDonogh aptly displays the potential for understanding how dominant ideals of urban planners interact with alternate beliefs and actions of those who live in particular communities.
Mathew Cooper's final essay considers the historical emergence of a new spatial discourse for imagining the Toronto waterfront, bioregionalism. Bioregionalism, as Cooper explains, emphasizes natural boundaries over political jurisdictions in the imagining and social construction of space. Like McDonogh, he incorporates residents' understanding of planning policy into his historical consideration of spatial discourse and argues that focusing on changing forms of discourse opens a window on the historical processes through which spatial meanings and the experience of space change. Although the position of the resident remains marginal in the essay -- the use of bioregionalism in planning, after all, is new -- the location of his analysis within what appears to be a major shift in the imagining of space provides a good framework for future analysis.
Taken together, this volume represents a valuable collection of essays that do well to capture the contemporary state of urban anthropology, as well as providing useful theoretical frameworks and methodological examples for understanding and writing about the city. To varying degrees, the essays collected here judiciously integrate the particular analytic powers of ethnographic and historical analysis to frame local social processes within transnational and global processes. Despite expected limitations in regard to covering such a broad range of images, even when whittled down to five, Low does well in organizing a text that fulfills her intentions of identifying "what urban anthropological research and theory can contribute to an understanding of the city within a culturally distinct urban, national, and transnational context" (p23). Further volumes considering the unaddressed images of the city introduced by her are certainly much anticipated. For the reader looking for a more historically grounded and broader introduction to urban anthropology, however, this may not be the best volume. Nonetheless, it does well to facilitate a range of voices within a new urban anthropology.
In particular, this volume -- and the images of the city Low offers -- may serve as an excellent resource for teachers interested in provoking students to think about and understand the cities they (may) inhabit. In this regard, with some supplemental examples fleshing out the ethnographic potential of urban anthropology, this volume could serve as a good touchstone for student research projects, which in turn -- if organized properly -- could itself work to inform urban public policy.
This brings me to a final point, specifically regarding the potential role of urban anthropology in urban public policy, something Low alludes to in the introduction. My own experiences with city planners and urban public policy repeatedly reinforce the need for an anthropological voice in urban public policy debates. Within the current climate of urban "renewal," the voice of city residents -- particularly the working poor -- are increasingly left out and relegated to rhetorical ripostes of inclusiveness and public dialogue. Models based on the unmitigated quest to attract decreasingly accountable capital have eclipsed even basic considerations of affordable housing, homelessness, and unemployment. Low, in this regard, has put together a much-needed volume that has the potential to bring the unique methodological tools and theoretical frameworks of urban anthropology into urban public policy debates. However, a great deal of work remains, both in the realm of theorizing the city and organizing collective voices that will force these issues into public policy debates.
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Christopher Dole. Review of Low, Setha M., ed., Theorizing the City: The New Urban Anthropology Reader.
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