JUCS enters year 5 of interdisciplinary research on the culture(s) of cities

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Thanks to all who have helped the journal through our first four years – editorial team, editorial board members, our new assistant editor team, authors of all types (research articles, short-form articles, blog posts), the team at Intellect publishers, and especially our peer-reviewers and readers!

We’re thrilled to have published four special sections to date and more are on the way (already published:”Urban Soundscapes” in vol 2.1-2; “Cinematicity” in vol. 3.1; and both “Imagining Ground Zero” and also “Cities in the Luso-Hispanic World” in vol. 4.1-2).

Araceli, Stephen and I are pleased to be entering year five with the publication of issue 5.1 (going through production) – and therein you’ll find an editorial (“Urban Cultural Studies, Behind the Scenes: Notes on the Craft of Interdisciplinary Scholarship”) where we review the first years of the journal and emphasize the need to continue to forge places for both interdisciplinary scholarship and reflections on critical urban practice.

Here is a sneak peak of what we discuss in that editorial – regarding the percentage of published material that deals with certain forms of cultural content:

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Era o Hotel Cambridge (2017) / The Cambridge Squatter: A Fictional Documentary on Urban Okupation

I again revisit issues of homelessness and housing evictions, this time focusing on a different cultural production from Brazil. The film Era o Hotel Cambridge (2017) is a recent fictional documentary on occupations in the city of São Paulo, Brazil, that analyzes some of the issues in urban housing and private accumulation of interest to those working with urban studies and Latin-American Studies. Translated as The Cambridge Squatter, by the Brazilian cineast Eliane Caffé, the work narrates the period after the bankruptcy and closure of Hotel Cambridge, when rooms and common areas were occupied by homeless individuals from all over. The documentary combines professional actors and real occupants of the building. A prominent feature is its gaze on the lives of immigrants and refugees inside the hotel, as well as an empathetic look on the lives of families and the elderly.

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A initial shot establishes the center of São Paulo as the physical space where the occupied building is located. In it we see constant reference to Human rights of housing, and a discussion of specific issues affecting immigrants. There are several scenes of foreigners communicating with their families back home. It also documents some of the ways these occupants try to make a living in the informal economy.

In the constant references to the negotiations of urban space, there is clear defense of the political movement “Frente de Luta por Moradia (FLM)” (Front of the Fight for Housing), a collective of different social movement groups seeking fairer urban development and more prompt solutions for the issue of homelessness in urban centers in Brazil.

We should revisit the study by Vilaseca (2013) on the impact of Okupas on global urban activism, focusing on the Barcelona movement dating back to 1997.  There are similarities to consider, showing the power of capital in creating spaces of exclusion in unoccupied areas of urban speculation. At the same time, both examples show new ways of resistance, giving that space new social signification.

As affirmed by Merrifield (2014), “Every Revolution Has Its Agora,” pointing out the concern that revolutionary political acts need to have space for public discussions. In the Spanish context, in the aftermath of the financial crisis there were generalized acts of protest and a general understanding that the political situation had to change, not only from marginalized peoples, but with support from a large fraction of the middle-class. In that context, we witnessed a series of anti-eviction platforms created due to the generalized feeling of helplessness. what we see in this case in São Paulo is the existence of overlooked groups of people: those occupied buildings are ignored, while the legal precautions are fought in a judicial, often invisible sphere. Most urban population, not involved in political activism, will consider those situations as best left ignored or handled by the government without interference. São Paulo is, as a matter of fact, a city with an intense history of gentrification: despite its high rank as a South-American economy, it is a urban space that puts a lot of pressure on low and low-middle classes, evidently serving a transnational financial and corporate elite.

 

Works Cited:

Merrifield, Andy. The New Urban Question. New York: PlutoPress, 2014.

 

Villaseca, Stephen. Barcelonan Okupas: Squatter Power! Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson, 2013.

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.

 

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 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 produced by 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

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.

 

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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.