“Barcelona, City of Comics is a must-read for anyone in comics studies and in urban cultural studies—and for any reader curious about comics, Spain, cities, and architecture. Fascinating, elegantly structured, and compellingly written, Fraser deftly weaves together urban history, politics, and close attention to aesthetics, offering readers snapshots of dynamic artists who exploded the myth of unification and homogeneity after the Francoist dictatorship. A lively, significant contribution that will resonate across fields.” — Hillary Chute, author of Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere
“A superb dialogue between the creative voices of unique comic artists and the way the urban territoriality of Barcelona inspired their multicultural work.” — Ana Merino, author of El cómic hispánico and Chris Ware: La secuencia circular
“This is an amazing book. As a scholar of peninsular culture and avid reader of comics, I find Barcelona, City of Comics highly informative for experts and non-experts alike, cohesive, entertaining, well-researched, and refreshing in the agility of its prose. Fraser’s writing is unencumbered by heavy theoretical entanglements but includes just enough engagement—with comics theory, urbanism, Marxism, and cultural studies—to undergird his assertions. The strongest point of the book, without a doubt, is the richness of the individual close readings of comics and comics panels, and their strong historical contextualization.” — Eduardo Ledesma, author of Radical Poetry: Aesthetics, Politics, Technology, and the Ibero-American Avant-Gardes, 1900-2015
“A deep dive into the ways that comics intersect with the social, cultural, and political life of a great city, Barcelona, City of Comics brings together urban studies and comics studies in entirely unexpected ways. Nimbly skipping across topics and works from dozens of creators, this book shines a spotlight on a creative scene far too little understood.” — Bart Beaty, University of Calgary, author of Unpopular Culture: Transforming the European Comic Book in the 1990s
“Barcelona, City of Comics tells a compelling story of Spanish graphic narratives in the wake of Franco, one that deserves to be more widely known. Across its several chapters, anti-fascist resistance interlocks with the emergence of new radical subcultures, feminist practices, and speculative urban worlds. Fraser moves deftly between material context and the comics page to show us the history and politics of artistic form, and to contribute to the growing awareness of comics’ ability to narrate our cities anew.” — Dom Davies, author of Urban Comics
Kerry Tribe, the director of Exquisite Corpse — a video project which documents life along the Los Angeles River — was generous enough to provide this excerpt of her film to accompany my forthcoming article in the Journal of Urban Cultural Studies. Please read more about her project here and try to see the film in full when you get the opportunity!
In Boston, a freeway runs through Chinatown. Actually two do: I-90, the barreling East – West interstate that stretches from Boston in Massachusetts to Seattle in Washington State, and I-93, an interstate that runs North from Massachusetts through New Hampshire, and Vermont. Freeways running through Chinatown – and other nonwhite neighborhoods – is not rare, but entirely common in the United States. In Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, D.C., New York, among other cities – highways slice Asian-American, Black, and other non-white neighborhoods. They do, so as George Lipstiz tells us about spatial racism in How Racism Takes Place, by design. When I lived in St. Louis, people recounted how Busch Memorial Stadium where the Cardinals baseball team played was built on top of — and destroyed — the existing Chinatown.
Areas where freeways run through often have increased toxic dust; nearby residents suffer increased asthma, and in turn often labor in embodied practices to mitigate the grit of the freeway.
Despite architectural violence, minoritized communities near these freeways often retain and grew their vibrancy. One of those is communities animated by Washing (洗作).
From their website, “Washing (洗作) is a multimedia art project created in collaboration with Asian Community Development Corporation (ACDC) to tell the stories of how community power and systemic injustice have shaped Boston’s Chinatown, and grow our collective capacity to imagine and demand a better future. This project showcases resident stories about the legacies of the I-93 and I-90 highways and their emotional, spiritual, and embodied impacts into the present day. Washing opens with an outdoor video projection installation in May 2021, where we will screen our audio and video piece in Chinatown.”
Late last year in 2021, I connected with Jenny Henderson, a researcher (and currently a PhD Candidate at Tufts University) who engages transportation and performance, and whose previous research includes “United States highway as both a route to freedom and a site of violence for Black Americans.” Jenny connected me with Lily Xie, Lead artist facilitator of Washing.
As a performance geographer, I am fascinated with embodiments that tack place in spaces, especially spaces re-routed due to racist development practices. In our conversation below we talk about this and more, including the collaborative team of residents, listening to geography (including to highways which can’t listen well), architectural memory, turning buildings into screens, and how bodies are impacted by highways.
Jasmine Mahmoud: I’m excited for this conversation.
Jenny Henderson: Thank you both! Lily, I’d love to hear about your journey with Washing and what inspired the project and what your process was with developing and sharing it.
Lily Xie: Absolutely. I’m an artist, and I started working with the Chinatown community in an arts capacity back in 2019. I had worked on a creative placekeeping project with the Asian Community Development Corporation and Pao Arts Center, called Residence Lab. It was through that line of work that I had been hearing from residents about their hopes and dreams for the future. One concern that was getting raised was around air quality. It just got me very interested, as I started to talk to more residents about what does air mean to people in this neighborhood? I heard a lot about the highways. Chinatown is in the elbow of two different highways, the I-90 and I-93.
The name of the project came from a conversation I had with one resident who was saying, “I don’t need research to know that the air quality is bad, because I can look out my window and see that my window is dirty.” These are the types of really domestic things that I would hear from people, like, “The air is bad, so I need to close my windows or I need to clean my countertops all the time, there’s always dust.” So this thinking about cleaning, dust, maintenance and repair is where the idea of “Washing” comes from.
Jenny: I remember reading an interview where you had shared that story and I was so struck by that comment: “we don’t need this paper. We can just look to our window and see that the air is dirty.” I would love to hear a little bit more about working with Chinatown residents to create the project. How did you first begin collaborating with them and how did those connections inform the piece?
Lily: I’m working with a really amazing group of people. Their names are Chu Huang, Charlene Huang, Dianyvet Serrano, and Maggie Chen. They’re all folks that I’ve met in the past couple years doing other projects. They’ve all been involved in the community to some capacity, either as youth workers, organizers and volunteers, and all of them are residents. I really specifically wanted to work with a group of people who had done some community or political work in the past, with their neighborhood, because I really wanted their perspectives. For me, I don’t live in Chinatown. I live in a nearby neighborhood, Jamaica Plain and making any project about this neighborhood, it was really important to center the voices of the residents, especially the residents who live close to the highways.
We went through a process where we started by asking, “what are the big questions we want to think through and chew over with this project? What would be a desirable outcome, in terms of presenting the work?” Those were really important for us to all decide together, for the project to be led by their vision around what would be meaningful. Then, we had a couple of guest facilitators come in and help us with how to conduct oral histories, like how to record on Zoom. Then, we had a wonderful facilitator Daphne Xu come in to help us with filmmaking.
We were shooting on our phones. Everything was done over Zoom, because it was the early part of the pandemic this year [in 2021]. We had to work with a lot of those constraints. All of these residents, they feel comfortable as artists in different capacities. So we wanted to choose mediums and ways of working that would feel comfortable for different levels. We met every week for about five months, from January to May. I was really lucky to have a group of people who could commit this kind of time and this kind of energy to this project.
Jenny: What was it like building that community over Zoom? I know you had worked with some of them prior, but over that five months… Was it mostly one-on-one interviews or a lot of group work?
Lily: We met as a group every week. It’s a bilingual group too. So in addition to the four residents plus me, we also had a ton of help from May Lui from AsianCDC, who helped with interpretation and community engagement. Sung-Min Kim also supported us as a project assistant and co-researcher. I think it’s really hard actually to build something over Zoom. It’s a really vulnerable thing to be doing this work together, be doing artwork and I think it’s hard to be vulnerable with each other in person and even harder over Zoom.
Also our team was made up of working women and moms, and so the only time that most folks can meet was really early on Sunday morning. I think folks had so much going on. I think that’s harder to balance, but I think Zoom also made that possible. I don’t know if we could have done this actually, in different circumstances, but the timing ended up working out.
Jenny: When I read about the process behind creating the projections, I noticed listening was such a key theme and your artist team held open listening sessions for the Chinatown community, right? I would love to hear your thoughts on what it might mean to think about listening alongside and with geography and just how this idea of listening impacted both the process of creating and watching the final art installation?
Lily: Such an interesting question. The community listening session for us was really important as an opportunity, as a way to prototype our work. Part of what I think about as someone who is not from the community, but is working with residents and trying to make a piece that says something about Chinatown, it was really important to know what we are saying, how it’s landing for other people, especially residents. And are those things the same? So it was really important to open up and invite the community, for folks to come in and get a sense of, what are they sensing and taking away? Does this feel good for you to hear? Does it have like the impact that we’re hoping to have? I think as a prototyping question and checkpoint, that felt really important.
And since we’re talking about listening to geography, that’s also really interesting. I’m not sure I’ve thought about that. One thing that we talked about a lot as a group was the importance of naming, and especially for people of different generations to name the impacts of the highway. One of the people in our co-creation group, she grew up in Jamaica Plain, and she was saying that it wasn’t until she heard the stories that the other folks in the group had collected in their interviews that she connected her community’s experience with asthma with her environment.
She was saying, “Oh, it was important for me to realize that, that wasn’t just a random thing, it’s something that’s connected to my environment where I grew up.” I think there’s something very special about sharing personal experiences and finding resonance with other people that live in the same space, and especially folks who have lived there for a long time and can definitely share about the history of a place through their memories. What do you think Jenny? Or what does listening geography have to do with each other?
Jenny: I’m really moved by what you just were saying, and I’m thinking about how knowledges of places can be passed down and these sort of informal networks of how we get to know where we’re from or where we live. I don’t know, as you both are, I’m very interested in thinking about counter geographies and thinking about these networks of listening and past shared knowledge as another kind of geography. What do you think, Jasmine?
Jasmine: I think a lot about the root or root-ish of the word geography as “earth writing” and what is written into the earth and how we listen to that. So, this has been an amazing conversation and I was thinking obviously we can listen to people’s voices, but I think Lilly with the work that you’re doing, we’re also listening to their bodies, the health of their bodies to cultural traditions.
I think a lot about – I’ve lived in a bunch of different cities – body language in cities. When you go to New York, obviously things are different after COVID but the quick, quick, quick in Seattle where I live, people are super passive aggressive, no one looks you in the eye and how that’s also part of what’s written into the space. So ues, I’m totally with you, Jenny and Lilly thinking about who academia centers in geography and what sort of knowledges exist within spaces that are not centered by that, but are still passed down through bodies through other things like that.
Lily: Actually that reminds me too – I think a lot of the work with Washing has uncovered, I don’t know what the word is…I guess architectural memory, because so much development happens quickly in Chinatown. For example, there’s a road called Hudson Street in Chinatown that was demolished to build one of the highways and you can still see on some of the buildings that got built up after, the outlines of the houses that used to be there, the rowhouses on the brick. That was where we situated the first set of projections. We were projecting windows onto the row house outline that used to be there. So these ghosts and memories, brought back into the space. You can still see the basketball court on that lot.
It’s so interesting about geography and listening and also just tuning in. Realizing that, once you start seeing these things or hearing about these stories, it’s easy to notice that the same repetition in other space. And to your point too, Jenny, about knowledge sharing, I feel like it’s not always clear what the buildings or the built environment around us is saying to us… I think you need some interpretation to learn about the histories that you’re living in. It’s not obvious.
Jenny: I love that phrase, architectural memory and just tuning in to these histories and residues that are in places I think, is really interesting. Jasmine, I hadn’t heard that root word of geography either, and that’s also getting me thinking about, I don’t know, climate crisis has been on my mind obviously, but also listening to, like you were saying, the dust on the windows and on the countertops and things like that is another form of understanding place.
My next question: I would love to hear a little bit more about the role of memory and geography for you and how it shows up in your work, specifically thinking about washing.
Lily: I guess where my mind goes first, Chinatown is a neighborhood where, like many other neighborhoods of color, there’s been a lot of displacement. So collective memory can be very fractured, because, people have left and been forced to move elsewhere. What I found very moving about our process was one resident in our group, Charlene, has lived in Chinatown for 20+ years and was able to interview a couple folks who lived through the building of the highways and saw that entire process. Hearing their memories of what the space was like before, during, after, was really powerful. It felt really special to be able to experience that.
I think the other thing, I mean, I think we talked about this already, but I think part of the aesthetic sense that we were bringing into Washing is about revealing, I feel like that’s the magic of projections is that you can really cast images onto existing things without having to build anything. We were projecting these window onto these massive walls in this parking lot space. I think it’s a great way of using art and light to bring out the histories and start to generate questions about what is this space that we’re standing in, and what did it used to be? I think that felt really exciting, as a memory possibility.
Jenny: Coming from Performance Studies, hearing that is so exciting to me. These choices in medium can reveal and do this kind of memory work on these haunted spaces that are already there and yeah, it’s really exciting to think about that alongside performance and how these different mediums are performing.
Jasmine: I think it’s interesting thinking materially about it as well. What does it mean for light projection, a different technology and conceived of as temporary, to land on a building, something conceived of as permanent? Those different materials are really interesting to think about.
Lily: Definitely. Turning buildings or objects into screens, giving them a chance to talk. I’m still thinking through the question of how much do we talk about the way that this neighborhood has been harmed or taken advantage of, and how much do we talk about the ways that folks in the neighborhood have really organized, fought back, resisted, created their our own community and agency. I think there is a tension because I think for our group, a lot of us were like, “Oh, well, we really want developers and planners and architects and to know the history of the neighborhoods, and we want them to know the history of harm so they can start to think about repair.” But I think there’s also other folks that I’ve met through this work that have been like… We talk enough about this. We should talk more about community power and organizing and activism.
For example, Hudson Street, the street where all the houses were torn down, can really hold this memory of displacement and violence. On that same street now, there’s also this newer building at 66 and 88 Hudson Street, that was developed by one of the local community development corporations, that was land taken by eminent domain through the highway construction process. And they won a bid to redevelop it into affordable housing, including a community room, an art center, and a small park space. I feel like that’s another opportunity for memory of a different type.
Jasmine: That really reminds me when Lily you were talking about how residents say that academics go in there and they’re like, “I don’t need an academic to tell me about what’s happening.” Here, it reminds me of Eve Tuck who’s indigenous scholar has this article called “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities.” where she talks about how so much research on minoritized communities has a damaged-centered focus and she wants to switch it towards a desire-centered focus. I think about that a lot. Also, I had a really amazing Black grad student read that who also critiqued that to also have us not forget the damage that’s been caused by these systems and also what does it mean to think about desire and joy and other practices that are not just about the damage that these horrible racist, colonialist systems have caused. So that just when you talked about it just was reminding me of that.
Jenny: Lily, one of the things that I really loved about the project was that highlighting of the history of community, power and coalition, particularly in the accompanying zine. I found that to be so exciting, because I think that tension is something that is at the center of so much geographic work and I thought the project dealt with that balance really beautifully.
Lily: Thank you for saying that. I love what you said, about the desire-centered. Because I feel like when we’re portaling in to these stories about harm, it’s so dark. I think that was sometimes the response I’ve gotten for other work that I’ve done, it’s been like, “It’s so depressing. What do you want us to do about it?” With air, it’s also the thing that’s so intangible. The solutions can also feel so intangible, and literally living next to these major highways can feel so massive and insurmountable. So I think having a way out of that, a way to express our desires and to believe that they can come true and to know historically that people have desired things in the past and have they have come true, I think is really necessary.
Jenny: My next question was pretty much exactly to this point. I’ve said highways’ archives are fraught with stories of displacement and state violence, but also coalition and protests. How do arts and performance specifically help us navigate and reckon with those highway histories?
Lily: I’m still thinking about that. I mean, I think one thing that was important for our group in our discussions as we were creating and designing this project was to have a focus on people’s individual, embodied experiences. There’s a great group called CAFEH (Community Assessment on Freeway Exposure and Health) in Chinatown that works on like the science and research, or at a population level, “Here’s how air pollution affects populations, broadly.” I think that work is so important and so necessary, and they’re doing really great work. I think for art, we have a privilege in being able to get really personal and intimate and we don’t have to speak on the level of populations. Bringing that was definitely something I felt like we could do.
I think especially if we’re thinking about infrastructure, something that’s so big, and drilling that down to the level of the very personal, that was something that we were trying to do. I’m still thinking through how to articulate this, but there’s something really interesting about activating these spaces in Chinatown, with being really specific about where we bring these stories, where we’re doing these productions and the lot that we did our first one in May, with those real house outlines. It was a really important site. It’s called Parcel R-1. It’s one of the last remaining pieces of publicly owned land in Chinatown and it’s going up for redevelopment this year.
I think having Washing there meant making R-1 part of the conversation – what can happen with this parking lot? What could we have here? And bringing that conversation about harm and repair into that, felt really important. Actually, next week there will be another showing at Chin Park, right by the Chinatown Gate. The placement was important, because in that same park, there’s a vent stack from the highway, which was moved underground during the Big Dig.
The vent stack is a chimney that lets the exhaust out from the highway, right into one of the most popular parks in Chinatown. Having Washing there, looking out onto that monument of the vent stack, and then also in the context of Big Dig. There’s people in Washing who say, “they moved the highway underground, why can’t they do that again? Why can’t they do that for more of these highways?”
Jasmine: One of the things that Jenny and I, when we first met, were talking about, and one thing that’s been really interesting to me and really that’s one of the reason I love your work is, it’s just interesting to me the practice of freeways through minoritized communities. I’m from Southern California, I live in Seattle, I’ve lived in Chicago and St. Louis and New York city and Boston. I went to college in Boston and what’s interesting to me is almost every city I’ve lived in, there’s a freeway through Chinatown and that’s like… I go visit my family in LA, when you go to Japan town or… There’s a freeway through Asian-American communities. When you go to Japantown, it’s right off the freeway. In Seattle, there was a freeway through what’s called Chinatown/International District. New York, obviously, right that downtown battery place is right there.
That to me signals a systemic anti Asian-ness and that’s built into our infrastructure. In St. Louis, where I lived, the Chinatown that existed in the 60s, they completely got rid of it and put the baseball stadium there. Also in St. Louis, they built one of the freeways I-40 through not only Chinatown, but also Mill Creek, that was a thriving middle class Black community in I think in the ’50s and ’60s, and there was a woman named Vivian Gibson, who’s a black, she’s become…. She grew up in St. Louis lived there all her life, and then she’s recently become a writer and she just wrote a book called The Last Children of Mill Creek to remember those that were displaced, black residents that were displaced by the freeway.
I think a lot about both how these things are really systemic. It’s interesting to step back and realize the extent to which there was a freeway through Chinatown and so many major cities in the United States and also things like the work that you’re doing Lilly and the work that Vivian is doing with, how do we write back? How do we remember?
Lily: You’re right, it is so systemic and I feel like timing is so important. So many of these public major highway projects were happening during a time where Asian-Americans were just recently allowed to start immigrating into the country, were just starting to like gain rights as citizens. What I hear from the folks that we interviewed who grew up during this time was, “We weren’t going to push back.” Their rights felt like they could be taken away so fast, and it didn’t feel like they were safe to be able to protest or resist.
I talked with Michael Liu, who’s this wonderful historian and activist. He had just had a book come out called Forever Struggle. He was a kid living in Chinatown when they were building the highways and he was saying that a lot of the folks who grew up at his age and generation were just so impacted, not only by the violence of the construction, but also their elders who they felt like didn’t do enough, or couldn’t do enough, to stop it.
I think that fire fuels a lot of the activism that happens in the ’70s and beyond for this generation, who watched this happen. Speaking of memory – the way that the legacies of our spaces, they don’t just live in the buildings and structures around us, but also in us as people, in the way that we conduct ourselves and build our communities. I would love to hear from other folks from other Chinatowns about highways.
Jenny: Lily what you had said about the timing of highway construction reminded me of some research I had done on the I-10 freeway through Tremé, a historic Black community in New Orleans and that construction was happening right around the time that a lot of the trolley street car protests were happening within Black activists groups in New Orleans. So it’s just looking at these patterns of state oppression, particularly around mobility, happening around these times of greater freedom and protest is compelling and upsetting.
The next question that I have: what are some practices that you would recommend to people hoping to engage more rigorously with local histories? What are some things that you do in your own practice if you feel comfortable sharing?
Lily: That’s a great question. I felt very blessed and lucky because of how I started working with folks in Chinatown. I was invited to be part of a program that was organized by Asian Community Development Corporation, who have built a lot of really strong community relationships. I think that just let me build trust with individuals and groups more quickly than I could have if I had just walked in and been like, “Hello, I’m here.” I was very lucky, to be able to lean on those relationships, but I think in general, when I am working on things like this, I think I just try to cast a wide net because I know in most communities, there’s people that have been working on whatever you’re trying to learn about, for much longer and much deeper than you know.
When I started this project, I reached out to folks who have been actively engaged in community organizing and environmental justice work, such as folks from the Chinese Progressive Association and the Chinatown Community Land Trust, and CAFEH. So just trying to tap into all the different sources of community knowledge and movement that was happening and going to community meetings. We went to a lot of community meetings this year, just hearing what folks have to say, and hearing what’s exciting and interesting and contentious at this present time is really important. Walking is a really important practice for me, just walking and looking and hearing. I don’t want to sound too preachy, but I feel like I’ve been trying to work on humility, and knowing that there are spaces that’s not for me to enter as an outsider and that’s okay.
Jenny: The first thing you said about realizing that these have been conversations and things that people have been talking about for longer than you can even imagine is something I really resonate with, and I also love what you said about walking. It reminds me of our earlier conversation about listening and different ways that you can listen to the community, especially if we’re thinking about walking alongside driving, particularly driving on highways, which aredesigned to go over neighborhoods and not really be these sort of listening ways of traveling. It’s designed to be from point A to point B.
Jasmine: It’s making me think about when I lived in St. Louis, I was there for two years on a postdoc and I taught this class twice, Urban Ethnography in St. Louis. And one of the exercises we did… St. Louis, it’s shaped like a seed and the north half is 98% black and all the things that… Because of this obsession associated with it, property values, and then literally cross the street of Del Mar, properties go from 50,000 to 500,000. My joke was always to white friends, I’m like, “Move to North St. Louis and use your whiteness to leverage your wealth and blah, blah, blah, and really fuck up ways.”
Anyways, we did a walk, I did the ethnography class where every week we engage different senses. So I have my students took the light rail and listened to and attend to what they heard, just what they heard. Then we did a walk from North St. Louis, through black neighborhoods to the more white neighborhoods and they attended to what they saw and of course other senses. But I think it was interesting walking, because I think there’s so much stigma about North St. Louis for a lot of folks that don’t live there like, so dangerous.
Every time we walk there and I’ve been there other times, people say hello. It’s residents saying “Hi, how are you? How are you doing?” I think that walking can be a way to, I don’t know, experience or be with people. I also want to acknowledge that it’s super fraught. My students and I asked “Is it ethical to do this?” But I also was wondering, would they/we ask about those ethics if we were walking in a white neighborhood? It’s interesting how different racialized bodies, because of how they’ve been treated by the state, prompt different ethics come up when engaging neighborhoods? Also, to your point about being an outsider, what does that mean? So anyway, there’s some questions I’m thinking about, but also just a vote of approval for walking or moving.
Jenny, I really love your point about when you drive how you miss spaces and what does it mean to… How does walking differently attune you to space, is something I think about.
Lily: That’s great. I think definitely taking things at the speed of a pedestrian versus the speed of a car, can teach you a lot.
I think in Chinatown, when I first started visiting the neighborhood when I first lived within Boston, I think in my head I was like, “Oh, this is a place where there are restaurants and it’s like a business area.” When you start paying attention, I think you start to notice that this is also people’s homes. I think thinking about an area, through a residential capacity versus just a business capacity, really shifts our mindsets about a neighborhood.
Jasmine: I love that. I teach a public policy arts class where we engage, among other topics, the creative economy, the concept that Richard Florida popularized. So much of that concept and practice is about business, but actually ignores people. I think it’s interesting to shift to think about, as you say, the residents.
Jenny: I have one more question, thinking about embodied knowledge and bodies: what kind of questions and ideas do you think bodies specifically can open up about highways and city space? I mean this as generally or specifically as you want, thinking about either performance and arts, but also protest, or even proximity and what we were just talking about — walking through neighborhoods and attuning to, saying hi, and being with other people.
Lily: I don’t know if I have a super well articulated answer, but I think what this is making me think of is – looking at the highways, the history of this infrastructure from an air and body perspective, it’s different than the way that I’ve been taught to think about it. We learn a very structural or even economic perspective through school, but we don’t hear as much about how the body responds to highways. There’s obviously people that have asthma, respiratory issues or cardiovascular that are impacted by the highway, but there’s also more subtle things, like the noise of the highway and the vibrations that you’ll feel. One person that we interviewed was talking about how her daughter would always get nosebleeds because they would close the windows to keep out the pollution, with the air conditioning going all day long.
These things that make your body feel so vulnerable and really not in control of your environment, they have a really strong impact on your psyche. And also this feeling of, how much power do you have over your environment and over your home. What can you really do to impact the air that you breathe, this thing that surrounds you and it feels so all encompassing. One thing that I am still thinking about a lot is a conversation I had with someone, where they were reflecting back to me, “Oh, your work is about healing.” I think I really struggle with the word “healing”, because, what does it really mean to heal? To have a work be healing when the environment circumstances are still unchanged? Washing is very heavy and during our first installations, I was thinking about, how should we open the work?
I feel like if had it been presented somewhere else, I would have been like, “ok everyone, let’s take a deep breath together.” But I was like, “I can’t have people take a deep breath, the highway is right there!” It’s so ironic, it’s so sad. I think centering the body, Jenny, maybe it makes me think about what’s possible in terms of repair and restoration. When we talk about spatial inequities, spatial injustices, I think the work is inviting us to think about attending to the personal, intimate, and domestic harms, in addition to the material repair, in order to attend to the harms of the past.
Jasmine: I think one thing I think about and this conversation is making me think about, is George Lipsitz who writes How Racism Takes Place talks about… His argument is that racism is spatial and space in the United States racist and racialized. Lily so much of what you’re talking about makes me think about how these infrastructures are literally put on bodies. They’re put on bodies, health-wise also, it’s interesting thinking racially about this infrastructure and maybe expectations to see Asian-American folks near highways in American cities or the expectation to not see a black person in a rural area, even though we think about enslavement and that black folks were in often rural areas. So what are the meaning put on bodies? How do highways frame how meetings are put in bodies? That also is for folks living in suburban, mostly white areas. How do those highways put meetings on those bodies as well?
Lily: Definitely. There’s such a huge racial component. The institutional racism behind the way that so many highways were built in the US really ties together a lot of marginalized communities, in Boston. There’s the famous I-95 and the way that that was constructed and actually was the site of cross-racial solidarity for people to organize together to move the path of that highway. Within Chinatown, I think it is that solidarity of, we all experienced the same type of thing, is definitely an area for folks to build coalition and just seeing the ways that their oppressions are linked, which is so important, I think.
Jenny, I’m so interested to hear your perspective too, as someone that studies performance.
Jenny: I love this conversation and I guess, one thing is, just coming off of doing my thesis on highways in the spring, it’s so nice to have a really thoughtful conversation that helps me see highways and things I’ve been thinking about, but also new perspectives, taking that break from my thesis. So thank you for that. But I guess thinking about performance, I am also really interested in how highways can be used as — and Lily, you looked at this, as well — as sites of protest. I looked at specifically Black Lives Matter protests on highways and also some protests from the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement.
I think it’s really compelling to think about how the choice of site and location is so important and can be so revealing in these ways of both histories of harm, but also histories of solidarity and community power and other stories of these highway locations. I’m a big fan of Rebecca Solnit’s Atlas Project, I don’t know if either of you are familiar, but basically she has these different maps that will put two different or related ideas alongside each other. So she has one in San Francisco that’s queer nightlife spaces and butterflies that she maps alongside each other. I would love to see what a map like that of the highway will look like and what those two themes could be that would maybe tell another story of highways or highlight a story that’s already being told. That’s what I’m thinking about after this conversation.
It’s October, which means only two things: Halloween, and horror films.
Within the genre of horror, cities play an active role as settings, characters, and themes. In William Friedkin’s ‘The Exorcist’ (1973), Georgetown, Washington (DC) is the setting of a demonic possession. But the city takes on a greater role, as Friedkin’s demon pulses through its Catholic infrastructures (the Jesuit namesake university, churches), and the infamous stairwell which animates the film’s visceral defenestration-finale (spoiler).
In Roman Polanski’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (1968) it is New York City which serves as the backdrop of demonic activity, but, more importantly, a specific building: The Dakota, an exclusive Victorian apartment building. In the film, The Dakota casts dark shadows over not only Central Park, but the lives of the characters living within it, including Rosemary (Mia Farrow). Famous residents of The Dakota have included John Lennon and the actress Lauren Bacall. John Lennon’s assassination in 1980 was, some have suggested, to do with the demonic vortex The Dakota represents.
‘Candyman’, first released in 1992 (Bernard Rose) and re-made in 2021 (Nia DaCosta), may be the most urban of urban horror films in the way it directly engages with themes of urban semiotics, racial injustice, housing injustice, neighborhood development, displacement and change, and place-identity. The original film was set in the notorious Cabrini Green public housing estate in Chicago’s African-American West Side; the remake (2021) is set in a now-redeveloped Cabrini Green, which has been demolished and redeveloped into a row-house neighborhood. In Candyman, historical racial / spatial injustice comes raging into the present through the murderous monster ‘Candyman’, conjured by saying the name once, twice, thrice, into the mirror. Gentrification and development are dangerous. Very dangerous.
Cities have always been scary. Georg Simmel (1976) wrote of the anxiety and dread of electrified, fast-paced, industrial urban modernity, the “…intensification of nervous stimulation which results from the swift and uninterrupted change of outer and inner stimuli.” The modern city, for Simmel, was a nervous place, an anxious place, a spooky place. Picking up on the idea of the spectral, or the haunted, Walter Benjamin (1927-1940) denoted the capitalist, commodified city as a “phantasmagoria”, likening the experience of drifting through Parisian shopping-scapes to watching a parade of ghosts (Cohen, 1989:90), a sort of troubling dream, a half-waking nightmare.
The urban nightmare, or phantasmagoric-experience ,is a common motif in horror films. In John Carpenter’s ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ slasher series (1980s), sleep itself is death, when the monster Freddy Krueger comes to terrorize. Staying alive, in these films, means not sleeping. Staying awake to avoid Freddy slowly leads to a perpetual half-sleep, a hazy dream-state, where the city’s sunshine is filtered in a menacing, hallucinagenic sepia.
Perhaps most troubling within urban horror is the role of the suburb, which takes a primary role across the genre as a space of alienation, loneliness, vulnerability. It is in the suburb that horror is able to be rendered so familiar, so close to home, and so terrifying. In 2018’s ‘Hereditary’ (Ari Aster), a family is terrorized by demonic possession in an un-named, affluent suburb: scenes take place in shopping center parking lots, pleasant-looking schools, and architect-designed log-mansions. These symbols of safety, security and class-comfort are ripped away as a satanic cult destroys a family from the inside-out.
While these examples have been North American films, it would seem there are cross-cultural convergences. ‘The Grudge’, for example, a Japanese horror franchise first released in 2002 as ‘Ju-On: The Grudge’ (Takashi Shimizu) and subsequently remade in Hollywood-style (2004 and 2020), has a decidedly suburban-slant to it. The house of horror is not a Tokyo high-rise, but a low-slung suburban home surrounded by dark forest. Similarly, in Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 ‘Parasite’, (sort of a horror film, sort of not), a suburban mansion contains horrific secrets, in an oasis within high-density Seoul.
Cities, to conclude, induce screams.
Benjamin, Walter. [1927–1940] 1999a. The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Cities Under Stress: Urban Discourses of Crisis, Resilience, Resistance, and Renewal The Third International Conference of the Association for Literary Urban Studies (ALUS) University of California, Santa Barbara on 17–19 February 2022. Deadline for submissions: September 1 Conference website: https://blogs.helsinki.fi/hlc-n/2022-conference/
Caroline Levine (Department of English, Cornell U) Sara Meerow (School of Geographical Science & Urban Planning, Arizona State U)
We invite proposals for contributions at the third international conference of ALUS, scheduled to take place at the University of California, Santa Barbara on 17–19 February 2022. Following earlier successful meetings in Tampere, Finland (2017) and Limerick, Ireland (2019), and sessions at the Modern Language Association Convention (MLA) in both 2020 and 2021, ALUS now organizes its first event in North America.
This conference explores the theme of crisis and response as conveyed in cultural representations of urbanity. We welcome contributions that take up any aspect of or perspective on urban crisis and response, working on any period or genre of literature, from any linguistic tradition. Proposals are invited for individual 20-minute papers or multi-paper panels that in some way work with the theme of urban crisis and response.
The 2020-21 pandemic has led to widespread speculation about how cities will change over the decades to come in response to the vulnerabilities of urban populations exposed by the virus. Other recent events have foregrounded the various roles that cities play as sites of political contestation and social conflict. These include the recent unrest over structural inequalities and police violence (in the USA and around the world), debates over public symbols of cultural memory (as in Bristol, UK), protests against gentrification (as in Berlin), and anti-inequality or pro-democracy demonstrations (as in Santiago, Hong Kong and Cairo). Meanwhile, the nexus of existential threats associated with climate change has lent even greater urgency to the question of how cities must evolve, and whether they can do so in ways that promote more sustainable, equitable, and socially cohesive modes of existence.
Of course, these are hardly the first events to have made cities face the possibility of profound and irrevocable change, nor is this the first time that fears of contagion, violence, and other threats have been concentrated on cities. Only in dialogue with the many profound changes of earlier historical moments can the present moment become explicable, a process in which the humanities have a crucial role to play. Papers concerning literary representations of numerous other crisis moments in the cities of the past are therefore warmly welcomed for this conference.
The triumphalist tone that much urban theory took on at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first is being heard less. Now, it seems, is a time for recognition of profound uncertainty, a time for learning from the numerous crises cities have overcome in the past. In particular, it is a time for awareness of the particular challenges facing peripheral cities, shrinking cities, and cities in the Global South. And yet, as the United Nations’ New Urban Agenda of 2017 asserts, “If well-planned and well-managed, urbanization can be a powerful tool for sustainable development for both developing and developed countries.” Recognizing the central role that cities have played in human history in the past, for better and for worse, and stressing the apparent inevitability of increasing urban growth in the foreseeable future, the UN document expresses optimism about the future of cities, provided that they can be made “inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.”
Many of the watchwords of the UN document–resilience, efficiency, development, consumption, sustainability–are themselves subject to critique, raising larger questions about how the proper goals of urban development should be defined and what principles should guide city planners and city dwellers in an era of proliferating challenges. What clues does the past offer? Do the kinds of representations found in literary texts offer any special insights? How do specific literary forms, including those found in poetry, drama and both prose fiction and nonfictional prose genres mediate and contest the notion of resilience? These are the questions we hope to address in 2022.
Areas you might choose to focus on include:
– theoretical and fictional discourses of urban resilience;
– urban resilience and genre: speculative fiction; creative nonfiction including life writing,travel writing, essay and reportage;
– environmental change including the current climate emergency and its possible impacts incultural representations;
– identities including queer, feminist, and intersectional literary urban studies;
– cities of the Global South, postcolonial literary urban studies and related decolonizingperspectives;
– networks of larger and smaller cities, including global measures of alpha, beta and gamma-level urban regions and representations of secondary and tertiary cities;
– literary representations of city subsections and divisions including but not confined to
o downtowns in crisis, o exurbs, o gentrifyingzones, o informalsettlements, o industrialzones,or o portsandotherfrontierpoints;
– sites associated with mass transportation and other urban mobilities;
– representations of plague, epidemic and disease in any historical or national context;
– urban planning texts and other not explicitly literary texts read using literary studiesmethodologies;
– resilience as comprehended in urban poetry or drama;
– accounts of displacement and acts of resistance to it including squatting and rent protests.Please send an abstract of your proposed talk (max. 250 words) and a 50-word bio indicating your affiliation and any other key points to firstname.lastname@example.org by 1 September 2021. You may also direct any questions about the conference to this address or individually to the conference organizers.
Jason Finch, Åbo Akademi University Liam Lanigan, Governor’s State University Eric Prieto, University of California Santa Barbara
In 1969, New Communities was established in the state of Georgia as the largest single tract of Black-owned farmland in the United States. This was achieved through the community land trust (CLT), boldly put forth by Charles Sherrod, a black pecan farmer, and other civil-rights activists after a fact-finding trip to Israel in 1968 sponsored by the National Sharecropper’s Fund. Particularly drawn to moshavim shitufim, a system of land ownership in which large, cooperatively owned farm fields were surrounded by small, private homesteads, the committee brought their notes from the newly established Jewish state to their troubled home in the U.S. They had their model for change.
Worldwide, land is a fraught commodity. Land sees violence, greed, domination, and gross devastation. Land cannot fight back, and so it is the humans upon it who see their battles waged. New Communities managed to establish its six-thousand-acre cooperative not through the promise of a $1 million grant from then- President Lyndon Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity, which never materialized, but through loans and community-based fundraising. Truly owned by the people, the CLT delivered on its purpose whereby land is held in a community trust and the buildings upon it privately owned by CLT members, allowing families to build wealth and inherit equity over generations. By insulating the land from market speculation, the homes remain permanently affordable.
New Communities sustained its purpose for many years, giving Black farmers the independence to live and work on the land that had historically enslaved them. Then, a devastating drought persisted through the mid-1980’s. As soon as federal relief was again required in the state of Georgia, this time in the form of the United States Department of Agriculture, white farmers (who today hold 98% of farm income in the U.S.) and the agency itself rerouted the funds to white farms. New Communities went into foreclosure in 1985 and was razed to the ground by the white farmer who purchased the land.
The story of New Communities encapsulates the paradox of the American dream: wealth and opportunity can be won, but only by the settlers; subscribing to ideals that applaud the status quo and marginalize anyone audacious enough to challenge it. Few understand this better than working artists in the U.S., and particularly artists of color, who have seen their jobs, their spaces, and their value to society debated as topics of partisan policy through various federal, state, and local programs. Art is highbrow; art is middlebrow. Art is elitist; art is indecent. Art builds intelligence; art is superfluous. As the culture wars maneuver their way through the economic underpinning of the U.S., artists are left to invent social safety nets – formal and informal – to ensure their work continues in society.
In thinking about the New Communities CLT as a mechanism by which Black farmers were able to acquire agency and build equity in their work, how might a CLT achieve the same purpose for working BIPOC artists for the long haul? And when it comes to community, how might cities better support the original intent of the CLT with an artist-led model that binds the arts to upward mobility and community preservation?
What is owed
Like the history that defines “land” in the U.S., the idea of “community” is fraught in American consciousness. With individualism the driving model for success and prosperity, and a fierce competitive spirit that keeps wealth inaccessible at the highest rungs, community is often formed in isolated ideological pockets. There are few models of community that achieve a real sense of equity, diversity, and balance – instead we see confirmation bias creep in and sow distrust between cities’ invisible divides.
This has only been encouraged by federal policies, which through the guise of the newly formed Federal Housing Administration in the 1930’s took great pains to provide opportunities for home and land ownership to white citizens while actively shutting out Black citizens in the same neighborhoods based on racist criteria, passed along to the banks as official record used by mortgage lenders. White families were steered away from Black neighborhoods and Black people were denied mortgages in “red grade” areas, leading to severe racial segregation in cities and an impossible situation for Black families, incapable of building wealth through home ownership. The ramifications define redlining and affect future generations to this day.
In response to these intractable structures, CLTs have been somewhat in vogue since the formation of New Communities in the Civil Rights-era of the late 1960’s. There are over 200 CLTs in the U.S. today, each with the goal of providing low-income families with affordable housing by protecting land from market pressures and rising property values. This, at least, is the intent.
The commonsense outcomes of the CLT – affordable housing, protected land, long-term sustainability, community benefit – conflict with the reality on the ground. An in-depth piece in Jacobin from writer and advocate Olivia R. Williams speaks to the persistent phenomenon within the modern CLT. Power structures inevitably manifest between owner and member, giver and receiver. Precisely because CLTs are such a “holy grail” model, they have been co-opted by the boards that direct them for self-serving interests including efficiency in mass-producing affordable housing developments with little community-backed input. Williams reiterates the point that “the CLT model (as it is typically implemented) is not financially self-sustaining.” Again: this is the point. A CLT is not meant to profit for itself, but for the homeowners who comprise the organization’s membership. But this is antithetical to American capitalism, and so the CLT has been commoditized away from the community itself into “more capable” hands.
If this sounds familiar, it is because the arts find themselves in a similar situation as modern-day organizations of goodwill. The mission is never enough. It must be supported, hard-won, through vicious battles of grantwriting, policymaking, and financiering, often in competition against neighborly arts organizations with their own righteous, community-based goals. There is apparently not enough money to go around, or else the tax base is highly restricted beyond basic infrastructure, with wealthy patrons in cities acting in precarious self-interest: a co-opting of working-class support systems. Trust in the community has faltered.
None of this is sustainable for the future of the arts and inequity will only increase if CLTs operate out of sync with community interests. In these extraordinary times, it is inevitable that a land grab will result from the failures of the housing market, with banks and investors pilfering what has been lost to local communities and overwhelmingly benefitting white homeowners more than Black communities – fueling the already enormous racial wealth gap and encouraging further gentrification. American cities find themselves in a crucial moment where change and innovation may rise from the ashes or the status quo may remain.
Is an arts-based CLT the answer? And if not, is there a hybrid model by which artists and arts organizations may benefit from the full potential and original intent of the community land trust? Combining the incentives and democratic structures of cooperatives, trade unions, and CLTs, a collaborative movement might take place to acquire land and cede it to BIPOC artist communities, planting a seed for future equity and agency in the post-COVID era. This must be treated as an investment and a moral obligation by city leaders, giving access to land and buildings that would otherwise be sold to the highest bidder.
The arts take place in communities. It is this sense of place that is both the biggest strength and threat to the arts and artists. Once a place is made attractive through its cultural value, the very land beneath it becomes a commodity and is seized by those in power. To ensure an equitable future for the arts, repeated history must be disrupted. This can be achieved through the original intent of CLTs, incumbent upon local communities to take up the mantle of justice and equality.
I am excited to introduce two new writers for the Journal of Urban Cultural Studies Blog: Jonathan Banfill and Danielle McClune!
Jonathan Banfill is Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. He holds a PhD in Comparative and International Education from UCLA and his research focuses on interdisciplinary and experiential pedagogies for engaging with global cities. From 2016-2019 he was a teacher and researcher at the UCLA Urban Humanities Initiative, helping to lead study programs that compared contemporary urban life in Los Angeles, Tokyo, Mexico City, and Shanghai.
Danielle McClune is a Master’s degree candidate in Arts Leadership at Seattle University and Senior Communications Manager at Microsoft. A Wisconsin native, she earned a B.A. in Creative Writing and spent six years as an arts critic in Milwaukee before moving to Seattle in 2015. Her graduate research has focused on economic equity in the arts focused on community wealth building through reparative, cooperative financial models. She has spoken at the EMERGE Conference in Minsk, Belarus for Eastern European startups on the importance of humane design in tech, as well as the Association of Arts Administration Educators (AAAE) Conference on the realities of arts economy and the wealth gap in Seattle. She misses a good Midwestern thunderstorm.
Over the next few months, the three of us will write about urban cultural studies topics including pedagogy, land use, and the arts.
Cover illustration: Ron Frenz and Josef Rubinstein, New York, New York by Kate Novak and Jeff Grubb (1985) TSR Role Playing Game booklet
It is often said that New York and the comic book share a unique relationship. It is less often said what that relationship is, exactly — beyond the use of the city as setting in text, or headquarters for the industry, historically. In this course, we look critically at the so-called “New York–comics relationship”: what it meant that the city was so often chosen as the backdrop for story, and how that pattern helped shape new, popular understandings of space, place, and belonging, using the particular narrative forms and rhetoric of the medium.
Nothing in a comic is there accidentally. It is always the result of artistic choice. No story about New York speaks to the same experience of the city, either. And no setting captures every part of it. All of this means something, framing particular, chosen images and ideas. By looking at a variety of comics set in NYC, and different themes — from superheroes and romance and crime to 9/11 and future visions of utopia and dystopia — this course offers both an overview of major tendencies in this genre of comic, and tools for understanding it.
As such, it explores how the so-called New York–comics relationship is created anew every time a creator or creative team decides to make the city its setting. And why New York is so often chosen, against other cities in the US. The course will focus on how New York City is represented, what parts of it are shown, and who in it. It also considers how structural factors, such as differing genre, format, audience, or creator, have produced sometimes wildly contrasting interpretations of the very same places, and, even, ideas.
–Martin Lund is Assistant Professor in Religious Studies at Malmö University in Sweden, a comics researcher, and a former Visiting Research Scholar at the Gotham Center for New York City History. His research mostly revolves around comics in relation to different forms of religion, identity, space and place, as well as racism and whiteness. A particular topic of interest is the representation of New York City in comics, and the rhetoric in fandom, pop culture journalism, and the Academy on the so-called “New York–comics relationship.”
Using Digital Tools in 20th and 21st Century Iberian Studies
Seeking presentations of 5-8 minutes for a round table discussion on using digital tools in research and teaching about contemporary Spanish and Iberian studies. Abstract 250 words and CV to session organizer email@example.com
Spatial (In)justice in the Anthropocene
Proposals dealing with gentrification, displacement, gender inequality, right to the city and other forms of spatial (in)justice examined in contemporary Spanish and Iberian visual culture. 250-word abstract to session organizer Monica Lopez Lerma firstname.lastname@example.org
Great post at the official blog of the Urban History Association by Peter Soppelsa,
Here is the opening paragraph and the link below,
“This post focuses on a remarkable source for illustrating popular urbanism and urban imaginaries: European and American photomontage postcards from around 1900 to 1920 that visualize future cities. Cobbling together an online archive of over 400 future cities photomontages, I discovered an under-utilized body of evidence about popular urbanism. Visual and textual traces of the urban imaginaries of card makers and senders demands further study because they reveal a specific practice of placemaking through print culture. This archive suggests how urban historians can engage with media history, visual studies, and ephemeral sources…”