Sharon Zukin: The Cultures of Cities (1995)

Take note of the way in which Zukin’s work plays with the (much) earlier title by Lewis Mumford’s 1938 text.

In the preface, Zukin writes that hers are “very different concerns from those that animated Lewis Mumford’s classic work The Culture of Cities, whose title inspired mine. Though his book and mine are both concerned with urban design, democracy, and the market economy, for me the very concept of culture has become more explicit and problematic.”

The two books share many commonalities–as Zukin points out, even if only at a general level–but also differ fundamentally. This is true in terms of both content and perhaps more importantly, method. The content of Mumford’s book harkens back tot he medieval city as a way of gradually approaching more contemporary problems–namely, the way in which capitalist industrialization scarred the nineteenth-century city. And he is right to point out that the legacy of this formative role of industrialization on city planning has been disastrous. But Zukin focuses on more contemporary realities (museums, restaurants, theme parks, public spaces, etc.) and on a pluralist and more problematic notion of culture, asking “How do we connect what we experience in public space with ideologies and rhetorics of public culture?”

In the end, if culture for Mumford is a generalized reflection of the state of humanity’s civilization/barbarity, for Zukin, it is some else–something intimately connected to issues of power. Culture–while a “powerful means of controlling cities,” a “source of images and memories,” a “set of architectural themes,” the “unique competitive edge of cities” and the fuel for “the city’s symbolic economy”–is also a “dialogue” (heterogeneous and fluid), involving “material inequalities” and necessarily rooted in place.

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