Brad Beaven, Karl Bell, Robert James, eds. Port Towns and Urban Cultures: International Histories of the Waterfront, c.1700–2000. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. 289 pp. $74.99 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-137-48316-4; $119.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-137-48315-7.
Reviewed by Madison Heslop (University of Washington)
Published on H-Environment (June, 2020)
Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)
Review of Port Towns and Urban Cultures: International Histories of the Waterfront, c.1700–2000
Histories of ports have focused overmuch on mercantile perspectives, write editors Brad Beaven, Karl Bell, and Robert James in the introduction to Port Towns and Urban Cultures. In this collected volume, they instead present a series of cultural histories of port-city relationships that explore “the contrasts and connections between maritime communities and their urban hinterlands” (p. 4). As a whole, the contributors argue that port towns have been hosts to distinctive cultural entities that formed in relation to their specific geographies and cultural plurality.
Port Towns and Urban Cultures is, as the subtitle claims, an international history, but it is an international history that remains decidedly Eurocentric. The chapters barely glance at the Pacific, John Griffiths’s chapter on Australia and New Zealand port cities excepted, and none touch the Indian Ocean—two areas of robust scholarship in recent decades. This lack of geographic diversity is likely due to the book’s origin within the University of Portsmouth’s Port Towns and Urban Cultures research group, in which scholars of Europe predominate.
The book has been sorted into two thematic sections, each ordered chronologically. “Urban-Maritime Cultures,” the first section, “explores the nature and character of land-based maritime culture” (p. 4). This section interrogates the persistent “otherness” of portside neighborhoods; tensions between cities and their sailor towns; and the fluid identities of the sailors, soldiers, and others who spanned the urban-maritime threshold. The second section, “Representations and Identities,” offers analyses of depictions of port towns, their inhabitants and visitors, the ways sailors identified themselves, and mechanisms of authority and control in the urban-maritime setting. The two sections have significant thematic overlaps. The examination of identity is a strong through line across Port Towns and Urban Cultures—fitting for a book focused on culture.
One manifestation of the authors’ interest in identity is the recurring argument that community identities can coalesce from intimate relationships with local environments, usually a sea or river in these cases. This notion that groups might build personal or collective identities around environments or extractive industries should strike a chord with environmental historians who have explored other iterations of this theme in mining or logging towns. In chapter 3, Paul Gilchrist argues that his great-great-great grandfather, Newcastle poet, songwriter, and sailmaker Robert Gilchrist’s songs and sonnets celebrated connections with the sea and contributed a sense of place based on a port town identity. Tytti Steel’s chapter observes how oral history interviewees used ports to construct local, professional, and personal identities, connecting “otherness” to “identity work” in 1950s Finnish port towns. In each of these chapters, however, and across the majority of the volume, environments function as a setting, not a method of analysis.
Contributors’ peripheral treatment of environmental factors illuminates potential avenues for future research. The seasonal nature of maritime work in the age of sail, for example, is an established fact with wide-ranging implications for urban-maritime cultures. As Nigel Worden argues in the second chapter, local dynamics in mid-eighteenth-century Cape Town hinged on the seasonal nature of sailors’ presence in the city. Climate and seasons, nevertheless, are subjects left for other scholars to explore.
A few chapters shed light on built environments. Others offer mere tantalizing glimpses. Jo Byrne’s contribution, “Hull, Fishing and the Life and Death of Trawlertown: Living the Spaces of a Trawling Port-City,” especially stands out in this respect. Byrne applies Tim Ingold’s “taskscape” concept to oral history testimonies in order to analyze the specific character of the port-city relationship in Hull, England, in the late twentieth century. Hull’s port district, Trawlertown, “was a ‘lifeworld’ that was walked, smelt, heard, felt, and touched. It was lived space, embodied place and although it could be observed from the outside, it could only be fully understood from within,” she writes (p. 248). John Griffith’s chapter on the design of port cities in British Australia and New Zealand, William M. Taylor’s analysis of fictional and factual accounts of London’s wet docks, and Brad Beaven’s examination of Ratcliffe Highway in Victorian London are likewise noteworthy. Griffiths applies “built environment” to mean “architecture” in his chapter, but the content should nevertheless interest urban environmental historians.
Environmental historians will be most interested in Isaac Land’s “Doing Urban History in the Coastal Zone.” This concluding chapter shifts from the specific to the abstract as Land proposes a theoretical framework for future histories of urban coasts by placing them in three categories: the urban foreshore, the urban offshore, and the urban estuary. “Is it possible to adapt the language of ecology and physical geography to express the way that cities inhabit their coasts?” asks Land. “How can we describe the way that individual port towns shape, or allow themselves to be shaped by, their coast’s particular form?” (p. 268). The question Land has not asked, and an environmental historian should, is what kind of assumptions would historians be assimilating in adapting the ecological language of “estuary,” etc. In developing these terms, Land has taken inspiration from the natural sciences but has not offered any critique or analysis of the same. Moving forward, effective scholarship would need to address this issue and the way such categorization might obscure the confluence of the three forms. Even so, Land’s proposal is creative, potentially generative, and intentionally counters some of the declensionist tendencies common to histories of waterfronts.
Port Towns and Urban Cultures is not an environmental history, but as an influential text in the growing body of coastal history work, it is a worthwhile read for environmental historians studying urban and waterfront spaces. Scholars strictly interested in environmental approaches to port cities, however, may find Michael Rawson’s Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston (2010), Kara Murphy Schilichting’s recent New York Recentered: Building the Metropolis from the Shore (2019), or David Worthington’s edited volume The New Coastal History: Cultural and Environmental Perspectives from Scotland and Beyond (2017) more instructive.
. See, for example, David Robertson, Hard as the Rock Itself: Place and Identity in the American Mining Town (Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2010).
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Madison Heslop. Review of Beaven, Brad; Bell, Karl; James, Robert, eds., Port Towns and Urban Cultures: International Histories of the Waterfront, c.1700–2000.
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