A Modernist Church in the Outer Hebrides

Scotland’s Outer Hebrides aren’t a well known destination for architectural connoisseurs.

So I was surprised the other day, driving along the narrow lane that comprises the main road in the southernmost quadrant of South Uist, to be confronted by a plain, white, building; that rather resembled a pre-multiplex-single screen-cinema.

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Our Lady of Sorrows Church, Garrynamonie (author’s photograph)

Rather than being an unlikely north westerly outlet of the Rank Organisation, the structure, sited just across the road from the crofting hamlet of Garrynamonie-upon closer inspection-turned out to be a Roman Catholic church: Our Lady of Sorrows.

South Uist (population 1,818); along with the smaller neighbouring islands of Benbecula, Eriskay and Barra, are described, with complete justification, as being “the part of Scotland that the reformation didn’t reach”. This small chain of incredibly isolated islands are an example-unique in Britain outside of Ireland-of a surviving pre-reformation Roman Catholic community.

And they are, at least in outward expression, intensely Catholic communities at that. In a manner akin to Ireland, Brittany or further south in Europe the islands are watched over by a litany of carefully tended, colourful, alabasta saints statues situated in whitewashed grottos.

The islands; like North Uist their Calvinist neighbour, despite a low (and still shrinking) population are home to a large number of small chapels and churches, with each hamlet of more than a dozen houses seemingly served by some kind of place of worship. Very few of them, a quick scan of their outside notice boards reveals, have mass said their especially frequently. Yet still, like the saints statues, the communities within which they are situated, continue to diligently attend to their upkeep. A few church structures stand roofless, long ruined, but unlike in Wales or the parts of the far south-west there are no or few signs of churches being converted into residential properties.

Our Lady of Sorrows is no exception in this regard. Large by South Uist standards it is as unusual in its modernity, on a island where most churches are small, modest traditional structures, as it is striking in appearance.

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Our Lady of Sorrows’ imposing front (author’s photograph)

Designed by Richard J. McCarron (then newly qualified, it was his first commission) the church was built between 1964-5 replacing an earlier, dilapidated, structure. Due to the church’s remote location most of the building work was conducted by the parishioners themselves: a striking act of faith in of itself.

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Our Lady of Sorrows rear of the building (author’s photo)

 

In terms of appearance Our Lady of Sorrows is stark, possibly even harsh, and angular. Despite the similarities between its form and a mid-20th Century cinema and its obvious architectural debts to the modernist movement, Our Lady of Sorrows harks back as well as forwards. It is whitewashed like so many of the other local churches and its alcoves, even its angularity, recall early Christian sites, like Celtic monasteries built in the 6-7th Centuries, as much as anything constructed during the space age. In this way it’s incredibly simple form, almost like a slab of rock growing out the landscape, connotes thousands of years of Christian tradition, whilst also serving to inject a note of modernity into a landscape and a community that can seem ancient and unchanging.

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Our Lady of Sorrows top corner (author’s photograph)

Except this is not really the case. For all of South Uist’s remoteness, and the sheer proximity to nature inherent in life there, the island’s landscape, almost entirely deforested, subjected to horticulture, quarrying, fish farming and (admittedly light) demands from the tourism industry is as much of a manmade environment as anything on the mainland.

Only incorporated into Scotland in 1266, islands have always been plugged into wider networks of cultural exchange and commercial dealing. In many ways our Lady of Sorrows reflects this. Its construction indicates ways in which mid-20th Century Catholicism attempted to negotiate the demands that modernity placed upon the faith of its communicants.

Read this way Our Lady of Sorrows is a physical expression of how one small community attempted engaged with the movement for reform within Roman Catholicism that gathered pace around the time of the Second Vatican Council. This is expressed in the simplicity and lightness of the church’s form, it is as open in design as it is large and imposing. This speaks to the democratising impulses that animated Roman Catholic theological and liturgical thought at the time. It is also an impulse which finds its way into the church’s interior which is also plain and incorporates local slate and local timber.

What decoration there is, is largely locally inspired, taking on a rugged, naturalistic, Celtic, yet modern expression.

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small altar, Our Lady of Sorrows (author’s photograph)

The Stations of the Cross are expressionistic in form, arrayed abstractly and were rendered on slate from South Uist by Canon Calum McNeil, who was the priest of a neighbouring parish.

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Stations of the Cross, Calum McNeil (1965), Our Lady of Sorrows (author’s photograph)

The ceramic mural of the Sacred Heart produced by the artist David Harding is similar. Harding’s rendition of Jesus is abstract and colourful, recalling the tumult of the sea and the drama of the landscape within which the church and it community are situated.     

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Sacred Heart David Harding (1965), Our Lady of Sorrows (author’s photograph)

In terms of layout the front of the church is also open, the pews arrayed relatively informally in short rows. The fittings are equally simple and shorn of ostentation, the worship space as a whole is bathed with sunlight by two, unobtrusive, floor-ceiling height plain glass windows.

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plain glass windows, Our Lady of Sorrows (author’s photograph)

In these regards Our Lady of Sorrows is rather like hundreds of other post-war Roman Catholic churches across Britain. Churches often built to serve new estates or in slum clearance areas, part of the wide spread modernising imperative that prevailed in the middle of the 20th Century. Here’s another example (there are many more) on the excellent Sacred Suburbs website.

This said, thanks to South Uists remote location, low population density and unusual cultural and confessional history Our Lady of Sorrows is striking as an expression of how one particular and distinctive community partook in debates about modernisation and the future of religious expression. Given the number of abandoned crofts that litter the island and the modernity of the houses that most islanders live in today, it is clear that South Uist was undergoing its own form of development and modernisation at the time the church was built. The arrival of a large military base in 1958, the opening of causeways to neighbouring islands in 1961 and the creation of the Highlands and Islands Development Board in 1965 brought new contacts and new opportunities to the island.

Just as the islanders upgraded their own homes and living arrangements so they chose to update the house of their God. The years since have not been kind to Our Lady of Sorrows, like so many flat roofed buildings of its era its roof is leaking and the damp is not proving kind to its internal structure. The Islands to, have had mixed fortunes. Increased incomes, better services, rising incomes and improving transport connections, giving today’s islanders a standard of living comparable to that of mainland Scots, but conversely also making it far easier to leave and not return.

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View from the Our Lady of Sorrows church grounds (author’s photograph)

This said, the Outer Hebrides appear to be in the midst of a series of interesting experiments that raise questions for everyone interested in how people can live better, more sustainable lives, in the 21st Century. For the church’s part, Our Lady of Sorrows was listed in 2009 as part of a major exercise to recognise, record and preserve Scotland’s modernist heritage, perhaps restoration will be on the cards? The community of South Uist remains as much on the fringes of civilisation and at the centre of debate as ever.

Tracy Neumann-Wayne State & Harvard

“…in the US and elsewhere, historically and today, a term like “Rust Belt” does a lot of ideological work to naturalise the idea of decline and reinforce a binary of declining and ascendant regions.”

For the latest in my series profiling urban historians at work today, I was lucky enough to be able to catch up with Tracy Neumann. Tracy, (who’s fascinating sounding book came out yesterday) is an Assistant Professor at Wayne State University and a Postdoctoral Researcher at Harvard University. Her work explores the political and cultural ramifications of economic change, in the late 20th Century, upon North America’s “rustbelt” cities.

What is your background?

I grew up in Traverse City, a small town in Northern Michigan—when I was a kid, it was a farm town, and now it’s a popular resort area. I was a history and Russian Studies major at the University of Michigan, which is where I realized that my dream of becoming a historian of late-imperial Russia was unlikely to come true, since I only passed third-year Russian due to an extraordinary kindness on my instructor’s part. Growing up, I had wanted to be an architect, and I ended up at Cornell, combining my interests in history and architecture by pursuing a Master’s degree in historic preservation planning. While I was there, I took several urban planning courses, which sparked my interest in studying cities and planning history. After a few years working as a consultant for a cultural resource management firm, I decided I was sick of doing historical research on topics that I didn’t get to choose, and I ended up at NYU for my doctorate in history.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

“…I spent a lot of time driving around upstate and central New York, rural New England, and central Pennsylvania surveying old mills, waterworks, and grain elevators.”

Broadly speaking, I’m interested in the politics of urban development, and how global and local processes interact to shape urban space, public policy, and daily life. My first book, which comes out this month, explores the postindustrial redevelopment of manufacturing centers between the 1960s and the 1990s, with a focus on U.S. and Canadian steel towns Pittsburgh, PA, and Hamilton, ON. I came to the topic via my experiences growing up in Michigan and my job as a preservation consultant. Michigan, of course, was the center of the American auto industry, which was in the throes of restructuring when I was a kid in the 1980s. As a student at Cornell and later as a consultant, I spent a lot of time driving around upstate and central New York, rural New England, and central Pennsylvania surveying old mills, waterworks, and grain elevators. Many of my projects were in deindustrialised cities like Manchester, NH, and Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse, NY. I wondered how and why they had been allowed to decline, why urban planners and public policymakers had not done something to save manufacturing jobs. Together, these things led me to want to explain what had happened to Rust Belt cities.

Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?

“If I had understood what geography actually was when I was looking at graduate programmes, I probably would have applied for a PhD in geography instead of in history!”

My work is transnational in scope (though the empirical research focuses on the two North American cases studies), and my desire to craft a project that looked beyond national borders was very much shaped by the work of my advisor, Tom Bender, and by reading Daniel Rodgers’ Atlantic Crossings. When I began the project, I was probably most influenced by Tom Sugrue and Robert Self, who had written big books on deindustrialisation that also offered models for how to write history that takes space seriously. Bob Beauregard’s work on urban decline and urban politics was also incredibly helpful to me. As I got further into my research, I found myself reading a lot of geographers: David Harvey, Jamie Peck, Neil Smith, and Jason Hackworth have had the greatest influence on how I think about space, scale, urbanisation, and neoliberalism. If I had understood what geography actually was when I was looking at graduate programmes, I probably would have applied for a PhD in geography instead of in history!

What do you hope that readers take away from your work?

“…economic restructuring, urban decline, and postindustrial redevelopment were neither natural nor inevitable.”

In North America as well as western Europe, popular narratives tend to portray the decline of basic industry and the regions in which that decline took place as a historical inevitability—an unfortunate by-product of natural business cycles and neutral market forces. I hope that the book convinces readers that, to the contrary, economic restructuring, urban decline, and postindustrial redevelopment were neither natural nor inevitable. Instead, they were the products of decisions made over several decades by political and business elites, who worked through public-private partnerships to allocate resources in a way that exacerbated inequality and sacrificed the well-being of certain groups of residents in order to “save” cities. In doing so, they abandoned social democratic goals in favor of corporate welfare programs, fostering an increasing economic inequality among their residents in the process.

How has your work evolved over the course of your project?

When I started the project, my questions were really about deindustrialisation: why had industries and the cities that housed them declined; why hadn’t government officials better protected these places and their blue-collar workers. I ended up doing a lot of research on what happened to the steel industry, and not much of that ended up in the book. Partway through writing the dissertation on which the book is based, it became pretty clear from my research that deindustrialisation served a particular set of business interests, and that local and national governments were also focused on serving those interests. And I realized, too, that planning for postindustrial cities actually began before large-scale deindustrialisation. So, I became much more interested in explaining how public officials at all levels and local civic leaders and business elites facilitated the postindustrial transformations of manufacturing centers and in figuring out to what degree that was or wasn’t bound up with neo-liberal urbanism.

On the broadest possible scale what ideological purpose has the “creation of the Rustbelt” served?

“…if decline is natural, well, then it’s nobody’s fault: not the corporations and banks who divested and certainly not the government, and these entities therefore don’t bear any particular responsibility to the communities and people affected.”

I think in the US and elsewhere, historically and today, a term like “Rust Belt” does a lot of ideological work to naturalise the idea of decline and reinforce a binary of declining and ascendant regions. Implicit in that is the idea that, again, decline is a product of neutral market forces—it is natural and inevitable, if perhaps unfortunate for people without the means to relocate to a place with a better economic climate. And if decline is natural, well, then it’s nobody’s fault: not the corporations and banks who divested and certainly not the government, and these entities therefore don’t bear any particular responsibility to the communities and people affected.

What does your research lead you to believe caused American cities to become politically divided in ways that led them to become test cases for pro-market and pro-developer policies?

“…U.S. urban history is in many ways history of raced, classed, and gendered conflicts over public space and public resources.”

Cities have always been politically divided in a host of ways, and privatist, pro-market/pro-developer policies aren’t particularly new. Sam Bass Warner, writing in 1968, dated privatism to America’s colonial period. Warner argued that cities were historically dependent on individual enterprise rather than community action; that US urban development was the outcome of profit-seeking developers, speculators, and investors; and that local politics were shaped foremost by private economic activities. But what happened in U.S. cities after 1945 was certainly an intensification or new iteration of Warner’s “private city.” At the risk of a historiographical oversimplification, U.S. urban history is in many ways history of raced, classed, and gendered conflicts over public space and public resources. So while I don’t think political divisions or the focus on the market were particularly new, I do think that in the late 20th century race and class divisions sharpened and, as federal urban renewal programs failed and the New Deal liberal project faltered, there was a growing dissatisfaction with “big government” and “big business” across the political spectrum. This created strange bedfellows, as historian Suleiman Osman has shown so well: liberals and libertarians and Black Power activists and blue-collar workers all advocated for community control in ways that laid the groundwork for federal retrenchment from urban development and opened the way for more market-driven solutions to urban problems.

Was there much resistance in the upper echelons of the political parties in US cities to the embrace of “pro-market”, pro-austerity” policies, or was the new direction broadly accepted?

“…like other recent political histories, the book points to a more complicated story about how political actors and social movements on the left and right… came to share the same sense of political possibilities.”

Well, that probably depends on the city. In Pittsburgh, they didn’t merely accept it, Democratic mayors actively pursued market-based policies and implemented austerity programs. One thing we see in the 1970s and 1980s is that Democratic mayors stopped thinking of the white working class as their base, and started thinking of entrepreneurs and corporate leaders as their most important citizens. But I want to be clear, too, that my research does not feed into a declension narrative of American political history, where liberalism collapses and conservatism becomes ascendant in the 1970s. Instead, like other recent political histories, the book points to a more complicated story about how political actors and social movements on the left and right—at both the local and national level, and across national borders—came to share the same sense of political possibilities.

Why did grassroots opposition to the increased finance and marketisation of American cities fail? Or alternatively why has its effects been “harsher” in some places rather than others?

“…residents did not organize against postindustrialism as a redevelopment strategy as they did against urban renewal, because postindustrialism was much harder to pin down.”

In the case of Pittsburgh, the kinds of groups that were likely to launch grassroots opposition to postindustrial redevelopment plans—historic preservation groups, civil rights organizations, neighborhood associations—had been co-opted by the city’s public-private partnership by the 1970s. Still, the lack of resistance to postindustrialism was surprising, because there had been so much resistance to urban renewal in Pittsburgh in the 1950s and 1960s; in fact, African American organizing against a renewal project in the city’s Hill District is one of the best-known examples of a successful protest against urban renewal. But even though federally sponsored urban renewal programs produced highly illiberal results, urban renewal was essentially a package of liberal social programs introduced to manage growth in an economic boom. Postindustrialism was instead a more varied and flexible set of tactics employed to manage decline during an economic crisis. This, I think, highlights an important difference between why we see more successful organizing against urban renewal than we do against postindustrial redevelopment models: because urban renewal was a clearly delineated set of government-funded programs that built housing and highways, opposition that initially formed around individual projects pretty quickly coalesced into a broader social movement against urban renewal as a redevelopment model. Postindustrialism, on the other hand, was more diffuse. It involved a broader range activities paid for by a more complex set of public and private funding sources. So, while there was certainly resistance to individual projects—say, a particular loft conversion, or a university hospital expansion—residents did not organize against postindustrialism as a redevelopment strategy as they did against urban renewal, because postindustrialism was much harder to pin down.

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MusikAnimal, “Abandoned railroad tracks in Gantry Plaza State Park New York City”, accessed via WikiCommons http://bit.ly/1UdHBbV

In addition to being contactable via the institutions with which she is affiliated, Tracy is on Twitter. For more urban historian profiles please see here. 

Sam Wetherell-University of California, Berkeley

“…the houses we live in, the routes we take to work, the buildings in which we buy our coffee and our shoes, were often built by planners and architects whose political assumptions and anthropological claims have long since been deemed to be defunct.”

For the latest in my series exploring urban historians at work today, I was lucky to be able to catch up Sam Wetherell (currently at UC Berkeley, soon to be at Columbia University). He explained how politics informs his approach to exploring and attempting to re-plot our understanding of urban Britain’s recent past and boldly grappled with one of most amorphous terms in contemporary social discourse: “neo-liberal”.

What is your background?

I spent my formative teenage years living in Milton Keynes. During this time I did most of my socialising in the town’s shopping mall (now branded “thecentre:mk”), attending a comprehensive school that was formally sponsored by Yahama keyboards and living in a high density apartment complex called (wait for it) “Enterprise Lane.” In other words I have lived every word of my dissertation on neo-liberal British cities!

I half-heartedly studied History at Oxford as an undergraduate, never really latching onto a topic that I loved. Afterwards I briefly worked for the Labour Party, before spending a year on a fellowship at Harvard. After another year spent in the wilderness, working at a second hand bookstore in Boston and then, later, for an unpleasant lobbying firm in the UK, I began my PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. I completed my dissertation this year and from next semester I’ll be working as a visiting lecturer in British history at Columbia University.

“…I have lived every word of my dissertation on neo-liberal British cities!”

What led you to choose your subject matter?

I decided that I wanted to be an academic long before I decided that I wanted to be an urban historian. I’d always loved ideas and loved writing but for a long time I couldn’t work out what I wanted to study. For me there were two stages to discovering what I wanted to write about. First, I took an American urban history graduate class at Harvard with Lizabeth Cohen, which exposed me, for the first time, to people such as Jane Jacobs, Margaret Crawford, Michel De Certeau, and Mike Davis – as well the fantastic historical literature on American postwar cities (including Thomas Sugrue’s work on Detroit and Robert Self’s works on Oakland). Living in London and in Boston I was exposed to large cities for the first time and (probably naively) associated them with freedom and adulthood.

“I’ve tried to maintain a political perspective in everything that I do…”

The second important stage for me was discovering left wing politics and activism in my early twenties. In 2011 I returned to the UK after a year and a half in America to find a Conservative government in power and a sense of generalized post-2008 crisis. I became involved in groups like UK Uncut and tried to teach myself as much about economics as possible. I’ve tried to maintain a political perspective in everything that I do and it was the wedding of this new interest in cities with a new investment in politics at this crucial juncture when I was applying for graduate schools that really determined my topic and informed my last five years of scholarship.

Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?

Like most graduate students/early career folks I’m left trying to carve out a theoretical niche on the back of a cannon of wonderful yet radically contradictory texts. In terms of urban history my go-to texts would be Carl Schorske’s essay on Vienna, William Cronin’s Nature’s Metropolis, Lizabeth Cohen’s work on New Deal Chicago, Doreen Massey’s For Space, Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s Disenchanted Night (the greatest history book ever written?), David Harvey’s work on Paris and of course the wonderful first few chapters of Engel’s Conditions of the Working Class in England. All of these say different things at different political and theoretical registers but all would be central to any class I would teach on urban history!

What do you hope that readers take away from your work?

“I’m endlessly struck by the capacity of the built environment to freeze political moments in space and project them forward.”

There’s that lovely line by John Maynard Keynes that we are all the slaves to some defunct economist. What I’d like to show in my work is how our daily lives unfold in cities and among buildings that were designed and built during times that are radically different to our own. That the houses we live in, the routes we take to work, the buildings in which we buy our coffee and our shoes, were often built by planners and architects whose political assumptions and anthropological claims have long since been deemed to be defunct. This seems obvious but I’m endlessly struck by the capacity of the built environment to freeze political moments in space and project them forward. What I love about the built environment is that it works at this meso level – between structure and agency and between high politics and spontaneous grass roots movements or individual instances of self-fashioning. Academically I hope my work allows people to periodise British history differently (escaping the endlessly rehearsed stories of 1945-51 and 1979-90). Politically I hope it offers an alternative (or at least supplementary) road map for political change – one that is isn’t trapped by the endless question of whether the left should throw its lot into the doomed process of winning un-winnable elections in a given nation state or the equally impossible challenge of forging a new hegemony or governmentality!

How has your work evolved over the course of your project?

“What I found while writing my dissertation… is that each of these case studies has a prehistory that stretches back well into the twentieth century, and sometimes beyond”

My dissertation is ostensibly about the transformation of the British built environment in the last third of the twentieth century, looking at five case studies (or “pilot zones” as I call them): the enterprise zone, the national garden festival, the housing estate, the shopping centre and the business park. What I found while writing my dissertation, however, is that each of these case studies has a prehistory that stretches back well into the twentieth century, and sometimes beyond, and in each chapter I found myself writing as much about the pre-history of these spaces as about their actual emergence.

I’m loathe to say exactly how I’m going to transform the dissertation into a book, just because I know it will change along the way, but at the moment I’m hoping to incorporate this prehistory and extend the thesis into a book about British cities from the late nineteenth century to the present. In the book I want to ask how we get from the individual home/house to the vast modernist housing estate to the private gated community. Next I want to ask how you get from the individual factory enterprise to the government managed trading estate to the private, suburban business park. Finally I want to trace the development of the unplanned sprawling high street to the state-planned shopping precinct to the private, out of town megamall.

On a very general note: how have you found the experience of studying British history through a university in the USA?

I have absolutely loved my time at Berkeley, to the point where people no longer let me talk to new admits who are considering coming (because I seem too optimistic and happy – and in America that’s saying something!). While the idea of flying across the world to study the place that you set out from seemed mad (and still seems a little mad) I think there is a lot to be said for studying Britain at a distance. Almost all of my friends or colleagues know almost nothing about Britain, so you have to think on a large, global scale to make your work relevant. Furthermore you are forced to study, teach and read hundreds of books, not just  just about all of British history since 1688, but also a second field (in my case US history since European contact) too.

“…there is a lot to be said for studying Britain at a distance…you have to think on a large, global scale…”

There are definitely downsides too of course. Being forced to think big means you lose a lot of detail and sometimes end up getting excited about claims that are frustratingly self-evident to those working in Britain. I always love going to conferences and meeting other British historians working on cities and being amazed by the detail of their knowledge and how their work is made immediate and relevant by being immersed in the world that they are historicizing. Also, while the three-year programs in Britain (compared with the six-year programs in the US) feel rushed, you come out of it younger and fresher and with the job market being what it is, doing a 3 year UK PhD is less of a risk!

What alternatives were there to the “neo-liberal” city in the 1970s and 1980s and why did these alternatives fail?

This question cuts to the heart of the ceaselessly awful issue of how one defines neoliberalism. Is neoliberalism a set of policies implemented by governments in the 1970s and 80s? Or is it a hegemony or a rationality or even an epoch (like the Late Medieval period)? I think the term can be used productively to mean all of these things as long as we are clear what we mean each time we use it. I think a lot of the best theorists of neoliberalism (Michel Foucault, Stuart Hall, Wendy Brown, Pierre Dardot) would take the latter of those two definitions, and would answer your question by arguing that neoliberalism left almost no ideological room for constructing alternatives. If neoliberalism is a rationality, or a set of claims about the world that have become commonsensical, then it’s a difficult thing to oppose, act outside of and construct alternatives to.

“I think many people who are (rightly) critical of British cities today look back on this moment as a time of decent, affordable public housing, subsidized municipal transport networks, unregulated public space etc… etc… and see it as a workable alternative to the present. I’m less sure.”

For this reason I might rephrase your question to ask what the alternatives were to the privatization and securitization of space and infrastructure, and the re-orientation of cities as engines for attracting global capital and rather than providing services. The clearest alternative to this was the built environment that emerged out of late nineteenth century liberal reform and twentieth century social democracy, in other words the built forms that were transformed and re-negotiated in the late twentieth century. I think many people who are (rightly) critical of British cities today look back on this moment as a time of decent, affordable public housing, subsidized municipal transport networks, unregulated public space etc… etc… and see it as a workable alternative to the present. I’m less sure. While our present cities are a disaster, we also know that the British social democratic experiment was deeply flawed. Economically it was predicated on US Cold War spending and the residues of an increasingly repressive imperial world system. It was paternalistic and at times inhumane, a terrible place to be a woman or a person of colour. Its survival depended on an international monetary system that no longer exists. While, in the 1980s, the alternative to the neo-liberal city may have been tower blocks, trading estates, and a nationalized train network, the left now needs a bolder, more globally orientated vision. This is something Stuart Hall was arguing 30 years ago in the Hard Road to Renewal.

“One of the things I learned writing this dissertation was the extent to which the urban forms developed in the heyday of state planning went on to structure or thwart the late twentieth century city.”

I would also challenge the idea that the mid century British city “failed” as an alternative model. One of the things I learned writing this dissertation was the extent to which the urban forms developed in the heyday of state planning went on to structure or thwart the late twentieth century city. Local authorities struggled (and often failed) to price and sell individual council flats on estates, for example, because they were plugged into comprehensive, holistically planned worlds. Meanwhile the first shopping centres in Britain were state-run affairs in towns like Coventry, built to try and re-centre British cities around ideals of public space and assembly. In this sense, rather than “failing”, the social democratic city was sublimated, reconstituted and repressed.

For more about Sam and his work check out his UC Berkeley Department of History profile page and his Academia.edu profile, he can also be contacted through Twitter. For more urban historian profiles see here.

20110803 Coventry Cathedral Tower West Panoramic View [Pano4] Original

Coventry Cathedral Tower panormamic views, taken on 3rd August by Si (User:mintchociecream). This version released into the public domina via Wikicommons on 25 Aug 2011. West view-towards Broadgate

“Global Urban History”, Freie Universität Berlin, a discussion with Michael Goebel

“…we began to start thinking about ways to combine our interest in the history of long-distance connections, European colonialism overseas, and urban history.”

For the latest in my series on urban historians at work today, I was very lucky to be able to catch up with Michael Goebel, of Freie Universität Berlin; the  who edits and writes for the Global Urban History blog.

What is your background?

I grew up in Munich, Germany, and went to a secondary school right next to the city’s central station. So, although Munich is not huge, I come from a pretty urban environment and have never been much of a country person. But I’m not an urban historian by training. I did my PhD in history at University College London, with a thesis on the intellectual history of nationalism in postcolonial Argentina, so modern Latin America was my broader region of specialization. There were two distinct paths of how this has stirred my interest in urban history. First, whoever studies nationalism in Argentina cannot do without considering two factors: the importance of the country’s capital city (economically, culturally, politically, but also for the national imagination) and the history of European immigration, for which Buenos Aires again has always been the chief point of entry. Second, modern intellectual historians are almost always urban historians in one way or another, though usually without knowing or admitting it. And my interest in the intellectual history of Latin America eventually took me to study early twentieth-century Paris as a sort of cultural capital of Latin America. 

These two paths flowed together in my book Anti-Imperial Metropolis, which came out last year. The book eventually concentrated much more on immigrants to Paris from French colonies such as Algeria than on Latin Americans, but it brings together the social history of migration with an intellectual history of the roots of nationalism in Africa and Asia. These concerns also led me to look in more detail at the Parisian cityscape, the everyday social fabric of non-Europeans there, and their settlement patterns. In the course of this research I have grown more interested in the history of ethnic segregation in cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, in particular in world regions outside the North Atlantic, for which there has been much less research so far. So in hindsight there were a few unforeseeable twists that took me where I am now.

What led you to decide to set up Global Urban History?

“…we noticed that urban history… has perhaps been shaped more profoundly by European and North American categories and continues to focus… on North Atlantic examples than other quarters of historical writing.”

Again, this comes out of a confluence of several factors. My first idea stemmed from this interest in the global history of ethnic segregation on which I had also taught a course in our MA in Global History here at the Freie Universität Berlin. Given the changes that digitisation has wrought on our discipline in recent years a topic such as ethnic segregation in cities seemed especially apt for the blog format, which is much more flexible, visual, and digital than our traditional ways of presenting our research. It’s also a topic of great concern for the public in Germany, Britain, the USA, and other countries at the moment. But it’s too narrow a concern for a blog with a hopefully wider readership. So I teamed up with a few great colleagues in urban history such as Joseph Ben Prestel and Antonio Carbone, who I was lucky enough to find in my immediate surroundings here in Berlin. With them involved the blog quickly expanded topically.

Since we all work in the area of global history, we began to start thinking about ways to combine our interest in the history of long-distance connections, European colonialism overseas, and urban history. At the same time, we noticed that urban history as an established field has perhaps been shaped more profoundly by European and North American categories and continues to focus more frequently on North Atlantic examples than other quarters of historical writing. This realization mutated into a sort of embryonic mission statement encouraging our readers to think more explicitly about how global history and urban history have related to one another in the past and should communicate in the future.

What do you hope that readers get from the blog?

“…we hope that our readers get both, entertaining and interesting posts that inform about recent scholarship, but also a broader theoretical and methodological discussion.”

Ours is a pretty academic, i.e. not so journalistic or personal, blog. We first took other blogs, such as the Imperial & Global Forum based at the University of Exeter and the one of the Journal of the History of Ideas, as models to emulate. Accordingly, I suspect that our readership consists largely of academics, in particular historians, mostly based in Germany, the UK, and the United States. Yet some successful posts, such as one on colonial Mexico City, also attracted readers beyond academics in these countries. It’s not easy to strike a balance here between general accessibility, interest, and scholarly specialization.

In accordance with our initial ideas we hoped to attract a great deal of sophisticated theoretical and programmatic reasoning about what we saw as the missing link between urban and global history, presented in accessible language and adorned with fancy pictures. Then the nitty-gritty of everyday management kicked in. If you have a blog with no or very few followers, yet hope to get brilliant and famous people on a terribly busy schedule writing for you, there is a mismatch in what you are asking and what you can offer. So in the first place you have to position your blog as a platform for the dissemination of the research of your contributors. Then, if you call yourself global, you want to cover different world regions once in a while, but you also want both male and female authors, senior academics and PhD students. If you take into account all of these factors, you run the risk of becoming what from the outside looks like a random cabinet of curiosities about aspects of the history of particular cities spread over the globe; a little bit like The Guardian’s series on the “Story of Cities,” which of course generates much more traffic than our little site.

At its best, this sensitizes our readers to the huge global variations in the urban experience. And we do hope that our readers get this from our blog. But this doesn’t amount to generating a programmatic discussion about where and how global and urban history should intersect. So we decided to flank this format of presenting contributors’ empirical research with a few other formats, such as book reviews and, soon to come, a conversation between leading urban historians about their relationship with global history. In the medium term, we hope that our readers get both, entertaining and interesting posts that inform about recent scholarship, but also a broader theoretical and methodological discussion.

What would you say are the key scholarly benefits of taking a global approach to studying urban history?

“the North Atlantic was furthest ahead in terms of urbanization… in the decades before and after 1900… the period when history as an academic discipline emerged. This coincidence in my view shapes urban history to this day in that the field has a heavy focus on the North Atlantic.”

This question can be approached from the angle of urban history and from the angle of global history. Beginning with the first, one reason of why urban history is important is that an ever growing proportion of the world population lives in cities. Historically, people saw Europe and North America as the most urbanized regions of the world, where the great cities were located. Think of London and New York. In truth the North Atlantic was furthest ahead in terms of urbanization mainly in the decades before and after 1900. Yet this was also the period when history as an academic discipline emerged. This coincidence in my view shapes urban history to this day in that the field has a heavy focus on the North Atlantic.

Fast forward a century and most of today’s megacities are located in the Global South, a trend that will no doubt continue. This realization should really push urban historians to rethink how useful their conceptual tools are for studying the histories of, say, Manila or Lagos, which are different from that of Paris. I don’t think this discussion is as prominent in urban history as it should be. The same is true if you turn the tables: Many good urban historians of course, have always been aware that London and Liverpool would be unthinkable without the British Empire, but I don’t think this realization has had the effect of explicit and systematic reasoning about the role of the global in urban history that it should have.

Now if you approach the question from the opposite side, I also believe that global history could benefit from a closer look at cities. As Frederick Cooper, a historian of Africa, stresses, the history of global connections never proceeded evenly through geographic space, but was “lumpy.” That means some places on earth have much denser long-distance connections than others—port cities being the obvious case, to which a project at the University of Portsmouth is devoted. Global historians have been good at drawing attention to connections, but in doing so they are tempted to “overuse the network metaphor,” as the Princeton historian David Bell has complained. Grounding their empirical work in specific places such as cities can work as an antidote to this problem. It helps to make their work more tangible and testable. Looking in detail at the local nodal points of long-distance connections of the past may actually also tell us something new about the nature of historic globalization.

Finally, global history has a bit of a bias against social history in my opinion. This has to do with the biography of global history, which was midwifed by a generation of historians who reacted against the generation of social historians of the 1960s and their characteristic belief in large sets of serial data and “modernization. To an extent, urban history is a child of this social history of the 1960s, in which urbanization was considered a key ingredient of “modernization.” I think the fact that urban history and global history developed out of synch has generated a certain mutual mistrust that we should work to overcome.

“I also believe that global history could benefit from a closer look at cities.”

What would you say are the current key trends in the study of global urban history?

Global history per se has been the fastest expanding subfield of history during the last two decades, I think. Whereas fourteen years ago, when I began my PhD, I was under pressure to justify my decision to study Argentina as a German in the UK, today the onus is on those studying their own country’s past to uphold what they are doing—to a silly extent at times, I believe, when I see quite how apologetic today’s historians are if they don’t have “global” or “transnational” in their working titles. But for better or worse, urban historians have not remained unaffected by this trend, even if this is one of the more Eurocentric (or North Atlantic-centered) part of historical writing.

From what I can see, these broader trends have so far taken mostly the form of an expansion of research on cities in what today is called the Global South. I think of the work of Tim Harper, Su Lin Lewis, Carole Woodall, Emer O’Dwyer, and many others I can’t mention here. These are also the kind of people we admire and seek to approach for our blog.

Tellingly, however, in my impression most such historians do not present themselves as “urban historians in the first place. Instead they first recur to other labels to describe their work, geographic ones in particular, such as global history, Southeast Asian history, colonial history, or whatever their specialization may be precisely. There are exceptions to this rule, to be sure. Leicester University’s Centre for Urban History now produces more and more research on the history of cities in the Global South, while avowedly maintaining the label “urban history.” Carl Nightingale’s book on the global history of urban segregation would be another example. So there are exciting developments if you look for them, but on the whole I would argue that they are still too exceptional.

Is there any advice that you have for historians looking to work collaboratively across countries?

To have time at their hands and never underestimate the importance of language. For our blog—and many other projects we are involved in—it is nowadays commonplace to work with people in other countries. In my particular case, my academic upbringing was mostly outside of Germany anyway, having done a PhD about Argentina in the U.K. before going to Italy and spending a year in the US. But it’s all too easy to underestimate the real challenges in cross-national cooperation and language has everything to do with this. In choosing to produce an English-language blog in Germany, we also chose to lose potential German readers outside of academia. We will never attract many readers in Latin America. If I look at our followers on Twitter, the overwhelming majority are based in Britain and the US.

“…it’s all too easy to underestimate the real challenges in cross-national cooperation and language has everything to do with this.”

Conversely, it is difficult to find contributors outside of Anglophone academia. History is a literary discipline and a blog is the kind of format where you want to upload something that also sounds nice, so the level of English of potential contributors is something we constantly discuss among the editors, especially bearing in mind our own time constraints in proofreading. In history, national—or linguistically specific—markets also continue to shape the conceptual concerns and interests that scholars bring along, making it much harder to convey our approach and goals outside the core areas of our readership. On the other hand, if all your contributors and readers are in Germany, the UK, and the USA we really shouldn’t call this “global.” So we really try hard to keep an open mind for influences from beyond the English-speaking world, which is something global history should heed more generally given its tendency towards increasing monolingualism.

Is there any advice that you have for academics looking to create a blog like Global Urban History?

In my impression there are lots of people with great ideas, but the main danger for creating a new blog is that it becomes a flash in the pan. We were all enthusiastic in the beginning—and still are—but the everyday maintenance of the whole structure is arduous. On top of that we all have teaching and admin duties and we pursue our actual research, which means going to archives, reading other historians, and writing journal articles and books. So if you want to create a blog that lasts for a year or so and is meant to be read by a few more people than your closest friends, ask yourself how many hours per week you are able and willing to invest in the coming twelve months.

Horacio Coppola - Buenos Aires 1936 - Corrientes desde el edificio COMEGA nocturna.jpg

Horacio CoppolaCÓPPOLA, H., PREBISCH, A. y ANZOÁTEGUI, I.: Buenos Aires 1936: visión fotográfica por Horacio Coppola, Buenos Aires, Municipalidad de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1936 (editado en ocasión del cuarto centenario de la fundación de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1536-1936)

You can find out more about Michael Goebel, of Global Urban History; and his work from his page on the Freie Universität Berlin website. He is on Twitter as are his co-editors Joseph Ben Prestel and Antonio Carbone . If you’d like to read more urban history profiles, please follow the link here.