Dreaming of Japan’s Urbanscape

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I had the pleasure of making a first visit to Japan over the holiday break – Tokyo, Kyoto, Himeji, Kobe, and the small mountain town of Takayama. Japan and its somewhat mythologized urbanscapes are one of the places often represented, symbolized, and stereotyped in film and popular imagination – the great economic competitor to America’s post-war boom; generator of ‘better’ cars, electronics, games, and cartoons; and succumbing to the nuclear-monster Godzilla’s destructive whims. The disconnections, contradictions and synergies between US and Japan have been perhaps carelessly portrayed in films like ‘Mr Baseball’ (the failed USA baseball player finds fame in Japan, and a love interest to boot); or more recently, Sophia Coppola’s ‘Lost in Translation’, featuring the actor-playing-the-actor Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson (wife of a travelling businessman), largely cloistered in their Western-enclave Park Hyatt hotel, overlooking a vast city they lack the skills (or desire) to engage with.

These, and many other portrayals, have a somewhat imperial / colonial bent – the United States was, after all, an occupier of Japan from the end of World War II to 1952 and still maintains a heavy military presence. And follows in the older tradition of orientalist portrayals of ‘the East’, which typically feature Western-male (macho) characters interacting in a subjegative and misogynistic manner with feminized and passive Asian characters (both male and female) (see ‘Madame Butterfly’, ‘Miss Saigon’, among others).

In approaching Japan – the world’s third (nearly second) largest economy, and Tokyo – the world’s largest urban region, at approximately 37 million people – I was conscious of my own formative views of Japan partly based on these tropes; and of the urban literature on Asian cities and ‘comparative urbanism’ which both falls back upon, and departs from, myths, stereotypes, and assumptions.

Rem Koolhaas mused that ‘A skyline rises… in the East’ (in Roy and Ong, 2011), a fairly common ‘otherized’ view of the unapproachable, vast, and super-scaled East Asian metropolis, a place of envisioned strange, hyper-modern processes; buildings too-tall to scale; populations too vast to count.

However, Roy and Ong (2011) caution that “the vagaries of urban fate cannot be reduced to the workings of universal laws established by capitalism or colonial history” (2011, introduction). Aihwa Ong suggests moving away from an assumed comparison of cities like Tokyo with any one model or trajectory toward / through modernity, proposing that:

“alternative modernity,”…suggests the kinds of modernity that are (1) constituted by different sets of relations between the developmental and the post-developmental
state, its population and global capital; and (2) constructed by political
and social elites who appropriate “Western” knowledges and represent
them as truth claims about their own countries.’ (Ong, 1999: 35).

In our 2015 paper (Ren and Luger, IJURR, 2015) we navigated the ways that approaching Asian urbanism through a ‘cosmopolitan’, comparative lens is a necessary, but fraught process: how to chart and define observations from places like Tokyo without reference to parallel modernities, patterns, systems? How to engage across language and cultural barriers, looking down at a city from a hotel room, without remaining trapped in the ‘observer, outsider’ lens – is there in fact value of reconciling ‘outsider’ perspective in making valid observations, connections, assumptions? How to talk about a place like Japan without exoticism, orientalism, imperialism, tokenism?

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Am I therefore wrong to say that Tokyo’s neon canyons – vast, confusing and beautiful; the trains, gliding like ice dancers with perfect precision; the food, universally outstanding and artistic; and the general pace of life I observed – measured, methodical, process-oriented, are unique and inherently “Japanese?”

Must we always speak of alternative, multiple modernities, or can there be a sort of middle-ground between a distinctive ‘Japanese’ urban modernity (a unique blend of ancient Japanese textures, 20th-century destruction and reconstruction, largely American-financed; and 21st century Pan-Asian blends) and a global, urban, 21st century modern form?

This seems to remain the key tension between urban theorists striving to form a unified urban ‘model’ in which urbansim assumes a ‘planetary’, modern form and exists at once, in all places – (see Brenner and Schmid, 2015; Scott and Storper, 2015) and those who reject this, proposing that site-specificity may be incomparable, incommensurable, impossible to reduce or universalize. Logan, 2011 asked, ‘to what do we compare China?’

My observations were complicated further by living where I do, in the polyglot and cosmopolitan California Bay Area, home to not only one of the largest Japanese diaspora populations, but huge Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino and Taiwanese communities as well. The food I eat on a regular basis, and elements of daily culture in San Francisco, take on bits and pieces of traditional ‘Japanese’ characteristics, blended uniquely with the broader Northern California melting pot. It is not, therefore, foreign to encounter those who do not speak English; to be asked to remove shoes when entering a home or business; to eat green tea ice cream; or queue for 2 hours for sushi or ramen (as is common in Tokyo).

Perhaps, it is the land itself – the earth, mountains, soil – that are incomparable and most uniquely situated to a place, most uniquely Japanese. People, ideas, foods, cultures, religions and technologies move, blend, and replicate; mountains like Fuji (holy in the Shinto religion) do not. It was in the zen gardens of Buddhist/Shinto temples that surround Kyoto that Japan seemed to present itself in its purest form; unique formations of rock, trees, moss and soil charged with spiritual and symbolic significance. At one garden, pebbles formed the shape of Mount Fuji itself. This was, I thought to myself, Japan, and nothing is lost to translation. 

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Brenner, N. and Schmid, C., 2015. Towards a new epistemology of the urban?. City19(2-3), pp.151-182.

Logan, J. ed., 2011. Urban China in transition (Vol. 60). John Wiley & Sons.

Ong, A., 1999. Flexible Citizenship. Durham: Duke University Press

Ren, J. and Luger, J., 2015. Comparative urbanism and the ‘Asian City’: Implications for research and theory. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research39(1), pp.145-156.

Roy, A. and Ong, A. eds., 2011. Worlding cities: Asian experiments and the art of being global (Vol. 42). John Wiley & Sons.

Scott, A.J. and Storper, M., 2015. The nature of cities: the scope and limits of urban theory. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research39(1), pp.1-15.

 

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Barcelona as a City of Migrants

[forwarded from Isabelle Anguelovski, Director of the Barcelona Lab for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability]:

Dear colleagues,

I wanted to share a recent web documentary coordinated and produced by a colleague/friend filmmaker & sociologist, Alberto Bougleux, on Barcelona as a City of Migrants (La Ciudad Migrante). In addition to being an interactive visual platform of many (younger and older) migrant lives and a visual path through photographic installations in the city, it also contains an interactive map of solidarity resources in Barcelona. Have a look at it, it’s a really fascinating project: http://ciudadmigrante.org. The project was supported by the Ajuntament de Barcelona, the Museu d’Historià de la Immigració de Catalunya, and the Mescladis foundation. I’m copying Alberto in this note in case you have any questions or comments!

As researchers, web and interactive documentaries are also a fantastic way to share one’s research (especially in Sociology and Geography) and make it closer to diverse public and audiences. It’s really creative and meaningful at the same time.

I hope you enjoy it and share it around you!

Cheers,

Isabelle Anguelovski, PhD
ICREA Research Professor
Director, Barcelona Lab for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
ICTA – Institute for Environmental Science and Technology
IMIM – Medical Research Institute, Hospital del Mar

Web: www.bcnuej.org

‘Priced Out,’ ‘Erased,’ and ‘Eminent Domain’: Voices from Portland, Kansas City, and Saint Louis – Part Two

How do we best document those displaced by pernicious, dehumanizing forms of urbanism?

In October, I attended “We Lived Here!,” a panel at the Griot Museum featuring residents—all black women—displaced by processes of eminent domain in St. Louis, MO and Kansas City, MO. As detailed in this previous post, each described eminent domain as an ugly, hurtful, demeaning process used as the reason to take her home and displace her mostly black neighborhood and as a tool for economic development that only benefited a few.

Image from “Eminent Domain/Displaced” exhibit at the Griot Museum, curated by Lois Conley and Matt Rahner.

The panel took place as part of events for the “Eminent Domain/Displaced” exhibit at the Griot Museum of Black History. Described on the Griot’s website, the exhibit is a:

[m]ulti-media installation of place, portraiture, landscape, and appropriated space that explores how the use of eminent domain contributed to the disappearance of three Missouri communities: Wendell-Phillips (Kansas City), Mill Creek Valley, and St. Louis Place (St. Louis). Salvaged objects, oral interviews, archival materials, photographs and more explore the impact of displacement.

Matt Rahner, a photographer and Assistant Professor of Art at Missouri Valley College, and Lois Conley, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of The Griot Museum, curated the exhibit. Conley’s own history and the museum’s location only amplify the exhibit’s meanings. Conley “was a teenager when her parents lost their Mill Creek neighborhood home to eminent domain. A portion of her former backyard became Market Street after the city leveled the area in the name of progress.” The Griot Museum “sits across the street from the site of the future National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, in a demolished area that was part of the St. Louis Place neighborhood.” (The above two quotes are from an interview with Lois Conley about the exhibit, found here.)

Image from “Eminent Domain/Displaced” exhibit at the Griot, curated by Lois Conley and Matt Rahner.

How do we best document those displaced by pernicious, dehumanizing forms of urbanism? I talked the exhibit’s co-curator, Matt Rahner, for more about creating work that documents deleterious urbanization.

Jasmine Mahmoud: How did you begin putting together this exhibit and photographing displaced neighborhoods?

Matt Rahner: I’ve always been a documentary photographer and as an artist I’ve always been interested in real world things. In August of 2012 I read an article in The Pitch [free alternative weekly newspaper of Kansas City] about eminent domain and the city’s plan to tear down the neighborhood of Wendell-Phillips and replace it with a new police station and crime lab. The article grabbed my attention, and I became interested in the process, the neighborhood, and the residents.

The article raised more questions than answers, so I decided to contact Ameena Powell, who was mentioned in The Pitch story. Ameena became a central figure in my series, and was integral to making the work. One of the most important photographs from my series, Eminent Domain, is a photo of Ameena on the steps of the Jackson County Courthouse. She had just left the courtroom where her home was condemned by the city, as one of the final steps in the Eminent Domain process. Ameena stands in front of the courthouse with bags of paperwork, defiant in the face of a city that has forcibly, yet legally, made her move from her home. The city had decided this was going to happen, and there was really nothing Ameena could do other than fight for more just compensation for her home. Her goal was to save her house, but everything was stacked against her. There really was no way she could have done that.

Ameena Powell standing on the steps of the Jackson County Court House after her condemnation hearing in 2012. Credit: Matt Rahner.

JM: What other subjects have you documented in your photography?

MR: Eminent Domain was my Masters of Fine Arts thesis project. Before that I was just a photographer of the world. I had documented people who stay on the side of highway exits holding signs and got to know their stories. However, Eminent Domain was my first real in depth documentary project.

JM: How did you meet the residents of St. Louis?

MR: I was connected with Lois [Conley] at the Griot through Robert Powell who owns Portfolio Gallery in St. Louis. Robert is actually the uncle of Ameena [Powell] so Ameena contacted Robert and said “hey, Matt just made this project, I don’t know if you’re interested in it or if you know somebody who is.” It just so happened that Lois had gone through eminent domain herself growing up in the Mill Creek Valley neighborhood. On top of that, her museum, the Griot Museum sits right on the border of the NGA site. Lois had been wanting to do a project on eminent domain herself, and it seemed quite pertinent and a great time to bring our two projects together. Her project Displaced and my project. 

JM: What were you trying to communicate in the exhibit?

MR: In the photographs I wanted to communicate how the residents felt about the process of eminent domain because they didn’t have a choice in the matter and they had to move. They had to leave behind a house they’d lived in for 50 years.

My photographs aim to communicate the way the residents felt. Their reaction to eminent domain. As I took the photographs my camera became a stand in for the city and their presence in the photograph was more a reaction to the city. There are definitely pictures of defiance but also I was trying to give the residents a voice, give them agency over the situation … because no one really listened to what they wanted or to how they would have liked to see things handled differently.

A note scrawled inside an upstairs closet in a home of a long-time resident of Wendell-Phillips. 2012. Credit: Matt Rahner.

And with the exhibit my goal was to transform the space of the white wall gallery into a homelike space. I wanted to create an intimate environment where my photographs could reside on the wall with objects from the homes and neighborhood. I decided to recreate wallpaper that I had found in one of the homes and use it to transform the space of the show. On top of the wallpaper, I hung my photos as well as found paintings and prints that came from Wendell-Phillips.

I used objects that were left behind, and I was never sure why they were left behind. Some of them were damaged beyond repair and I could understand why people threw those away. But the objects allowed me to access the past and to understand the neighborhood better than I could have in the time that I was there.

For example, one of the main found sculptures in the show is a pile of bricks that came from one of the homes after it had been demolished. I chose to bring the bricks into the gallery space to speak to my experience of watching this place be torn apart. As I was documenting Wendell-Phillips, it was a common sight to go back to the neighborhood and find a new house had been torn down, until eventually all of the homes were razed. The pile of bricks in the gallery represents the essence of these homes and the devastation brought onto this neighborhood by the city. The bricks are physically in the space, and you have to walk around them, you have to bear witness in your own way and have your own experience of this place. The bricks on the floor relate to the photographs on the wall, so they tie together the past and the present.

As I organized the plethora of objects I had collected, I realized there were specific arrangements that became more potent than my photographs in terms of communicating the story of the neighborhood. I arranged the objects for the viewers of the show to be astute and to pay attention to the clues hidden within the arrangements. My hope is that viewers saw the connections between the objects and how they can describe a larger narrative of the history of Kansas City and this place in particular.

JM: What were some of those objects that were more potent than the photographs?

MR: The family photographs that I found were really potent. I was an outsider going into this neighborhood as it wasn’t my neighborhood, so I was really respectful of that. My photographs were from my point of view, as an outsider, but the family photos come from a different place. They are insider views on people’s lives, and something I wasn’t able to access as a documentarian.

Found object assemblages installed in the exhibit Eminent Domain. Credit: Matt Rahner.

Many of the items in the exhibit were given to me. One resident’s family lent me this incredible document that goes back into the 1800s that shows every transition of ownership on their land and house. It’s an incredible object, visually, and the history of the neighborhood can be read in the creases and folds of this document. It’s powerful that way.

In the show I wanted to draw comparisons between the treatment of this neighborhood and the history of the United States. Obviously Native Americans were here first and were pushed out by settlers. From day one in America there is a history of taking, and systemic racist ideology. These practices have been perpetuated in urban America, and continue to happen in cities like Kansas City and St. Louis. Practices of redlining, block busting, white flight, and racially restrictive covenants have left negative effects on cities and neighborhoods. I believe that this particular eminent domain project is an extension of systemic racism, it was an extension of all of these things that had been in place since our country was founded. I wanted to talk about this in the show, and I used the objects to tell that story. Specifically, I used a print of Jesus on the cross, hung next to a velvet painting of a Native American Indian. Each story (of Christ and Native Americans) deals with taking. Interestingly, in the print of Jesus, his wounds are visible on his torso, hands and feet, and on the painting I found of the Native American the velvet canvas was pierced and had holes in the figures torso, hands and feet. I put these two pieces in the show to specifically raise the question of power and authority, and of who is able to “take” from whom. Often it is the powerful wielding influence and taking from the powerless. I saw this correlation in the history of the neighborhood up to the use of eminent domain.

A found velvet painting of a Native American, installed in the exhibit Eminent Domain. The wall paper the painting hangs on is recreated from one of the homes within Wendell-Phillips. Credit: Matt Rahner.

A found print of Jesus Christ on the cross, surrounded by two angels. This print was found hanging on a wall in a home in Wendell-Phillips. Credit: Matt Rahner.

JM: Did anything surprise you while putting together this project and/or once it was displayed?

MR: I think the surprise came when I had everything in the gallery, and I was like wow, the installation, with my photographs and the found object felt complete. That was actually a surprise for me. I’ve been surprised as well by how Eminent Domain has resonated with people. My goal was to tell “A” story of the neighborhood and not to write “THE” history. I wanted to tell the story of eminent domain in a compelling way and hoped that people connected with it, which I think they have.

While making the work, one thing that was more appalling than surprising was that the city handed out these bricks at the groundbreaking that were brand new and had silver plaques on them with the inscription, “Kansas City: rebuilding our city one brick at a time.” It was such a tone-deaf and disingenuous gesture that ignored the history and relevance of the neighborhood. It was totally opposite of what the city had done, because in reality they had torn the city down one brick at a time. Now, these city employees and contractors have these bricks in their homes or offices as a sort of trophy for destroying this neighborhood. Luckily, for posterity, I was able to secure one of these bricks, and I display it in the exhibition to serve as a reminder of the city’s complicity in the process.

JM: At the event, I remember that many were so depressed after hearing the residents’ stories. They asked, “what can we do? It seems like we can’t do anything.” Do you have thoughts about what we as citizens can do to either stop eminent domain or make more equitable neighborhood change?

MR: That’s a great question. First of all, I think understanding the history of the place you live is really helpful, understanding how our cities are formed, developed and redeveloped. Some people are aware of racially restrictive codes and redlining … but for the most part people aren’t aware of those ideas. So understanding this history. … Places that are chosen for eminent domain have usually struggled and I think for neighborhoods it’s helpful to be organized and have neighborhood organizations that have a plan for their own development. Also, I think it’s important to document the place and create projects in the neighborhoods, whether that be art making projects, creating written histories, or visual documentations. Neighborhood leaders can create asset lists of the neighborhoods and document those things now so that when the city does come up and say, “We want to do this project here,” the neighborhoods can say, “NO, there are all of these important cultural markers in our neighborhood that we think are important.”

Found object assemblages installed in the exhibit Eminent Domain. Credit: Matt Rahner.

Found object assemblages installed in the exhibit Eminent Domain. Credit: Matt Rahner.

In Wendell-Phillips many residents felt that the city never cared enough to ask them (the residents) what they thought the City should do to spur economic growth or to curb crime, and that’s too bad because I think the residents had a lot of great ideas, and tearing down the neighborhood wasn’t one of them. The city, however, had their “reasons” for taking the neighborhood, and perversely, one of the more prominent ideas they pushed was that it was going to help the surrounding neighborhoods. They tried to sell the idea that this re-development would help the residents. This kind of faulty logic is on the city, and the effects are yet to be seen. Many residents wished the city would be more involved with the neighborhoods and listen to their feedback.

JM: Are there any other thoughts you have about this project?

I think it’s important for artists everywhere to be involved in their communities … if not making work about these topics, then to at least get involved in some way, whether joining associations or attending city council meetings. I don’t feel like I can measure in any qualitative way what my project has done, but I feel like it has helped raise awareness on these issues. Other professionals are working in their respective fields to raise awareness and create change. It takes multiple perspectives and multiple people to create change, and it can’t be just one person. There are strength in numbers.

Envisioning Cities in an Authoritarian Age

Is there such a thing as an ‘authoritarian city?’ If so, where is this city,  what does it look like, how does it operate, and what are the textures of the power flows within, across, and beyond it?

Foucault (1980) envisioned a circular, rather than top-down flow of power, in a similar vein to the way that Arendt (1958) complicated extant understandings of power flows from, and across, the grassroots.

 

climate_change

Indeed, if urbanism is global in scale and planetary in operations (as Brenner and Schmid, 2015 propose), then perhaps authoritarianism is likewise planetary. And if this is so, then all cities are, by extension, comprised of the full range of authoritarian flows, processes, structures, and institutions. Such a reality would necessitate a huge broadening of the approach to authoritarianism, urban studies, and the geographies of power, which often sit cloistered in area studies or political science research. If there is no ‘Global East’, ‘Global West’, or territorial delineation between ‘liberal’ and ‘illiberal’ – which is a fair argument, given the rise of dictators in the United States and the rise of liberal arts colleges in places such as Singapore – then how to expand and deepen the understanding of power, place, and the urban? I propose that such an expansion is necessary as we continue the paradigmatic shift into a new planetary authoritarian age.

Arendt, H. (1958) The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Brenner, N. and Schmid, C. (2015) Towards a new epistemology of the urban? City, 19(2-3), pp.151-182.

Foucault, M. (1980) Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977. Pantheon Books, New York, NY.

JUCS ISSUE 4.3 now available!

Volume 4 Issue 3

Cover Date: September 2017

Contents
Zombie urbanism and the city by the bay: What’s really eating Geelong?
Authors:  Fiona Gray And  Matt Novacevski

Page Start: 309
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‘Comics on the Main Street of Culture’: Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell (1999), Laura Oldfield Ford’s Savage Messiah (2011) and the politics of gentrification
Authors:  Dominic Davies

Page Start: 333
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A dark imaginarium: The Bridge, Malmö and the making of a ‘non-existent’ place

Page Start: 361
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Glossy postcards and virtual collectibles: Consuming cinematic Paris
Authors:  Isabelle McNeill

Page Start: 387
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New South, ‘New Athens?’: Angels, mobility and myths
Authors:  Jason Luger

Page Start: 407
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Smoothing space in Palestine: Building a skatepark and a socio-political forum with the SkatePal charity
Authors:  Dani Abulhawa

Page Start: 417
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Global social activism, DIY culture and lack of institutional help

Page Start: 427
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Multiple landscapes of capital cities

Page Start: 437
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