cities: ‘the intersections of multiple narratives’


“Doreen Massey describes cities as ‘the intersections of multiple narratives’, a nexus of distinctive and coexisting stories.” (p.1)

“But when does a city become a global city and is this the same as a ‘metropolis’? And what of the ‘modern’ city? In one of its main uses, emphasizing the economic, technological and social character of urban development, the ‘modern’ city was the ‘industrial city’, with nineteenth century Manchester as its pre-eminent example. In the related sense deriving the modern from the Enlightenment tradition of rational scientific and human progress, the example would be late nineteenth century Paris. Other European cities (and this is a Eurocentric tradition), such as Vienna or Berlin, though of lesser stature and with their own distinctive characters, followed this second modern type. But both types were then decisively outdistanced by London at the end of the nineteenth century. The term ‘metropolis’ had been used earlier in the century to help comprehend London’s growing size and its national and international function, and by the 1840s it had emerged ahead of manchester as ‘the Empire’s commercial stronghold and as the world’s financial capital’. By 1890, London was the largest city the world [-p.5] had known with a population of 5.5 million, and easily qualified for the description, ‘A modern big city of international importance’ as Andrew Lees glosses the related term ‘Weltstadt’. London was, however, a distinctively imperial capital, at ‘the heart of the empire’ in C.F.G. Masterman’s pointed title of 1901, whose every advantage, especially its ports, maintained its commercial, administrative and political hegemony in the world. Schneer prefers on these grounds to describe the London of 1900 as an ‘imperial metropolis’. And this helps emphasise the type of global city London was – one whose pre-eminence was founded on a commanding economic and political position and depended on the mechanisms of military, ideological and administrative power. Globalization in this case, therefore, or this kind of globalization, implied conquest and exploitation, and the ideological processes of conversion, assimilation and subordination. The term ‘metropolis’ (from Greek ‘mother city’), further implied that London performed a co-ordinating role in the nexus of power and control that defined Empire. Arguably, the shape and style of the city as well as its major forms of employment supported it in this role. Thus, in the 1900s, London employed 20,000 colonial administrators, while colonial investments enabled the wealthy to settle in the West End and to enjoy its developing communications systems, theatre and new department stores (Selfridges opened in 1909, Heals in 1917). The very physical appearance of turn of the century London – the use of ‘Edwardian’ or ‘classical baroque’ for buildings in Whitehall and elsewhere and the construction of Kingsway as an imperial avenue from the Strand to Holborn – played its part too in asserting the merits and magnificence of Empire.
Other European cities developed as variations on this model of world or imperial global cities. New York, however, introduced a new type. For it was not a political but a commercial capital, and was above all a cultural city in which the famous symbolic verticality of its skyscrapers, the ambitious iron work of its bridges and its elevated transport system conveyed a sense of the modern as ‘newness’ in the here and now. By the 1920s, new York was ‘the type of the modern metropolis’, a model which spoke of the present and of an imagined future society in a way London, Berlin or Paris did not. This symbolic role was part, we have to recognize too, of New York’s own global identity: the shape of things to come, calling other older nations and their citizens to a new future.
Saskia Sassen suggests this future has come to pass, after a fashion at [-p.6] least. For ‘the agglomeration of high rise corporate offices we see in New York, London, Frankfurt and Tokyo… has emerged as a kind of representation of advanced city form, the image of the post-industrial city’. But this homogeneity of urban forms in the economic sectors of cities worldwide, is intersected, Sassen adds, by other tendencies in outlying districts associated with the traditional working class and new immigrant communities ‘beyond the central urban core’. Thus finance capital and old labour, white middle class and immigrant poor, coexist in uneasy juxtaposition and Sassen goes on to detail the disparities as well as the connections between these groups and neighbourhoods.
“How is this different from an earlier New York? In terms of its general structural morphology it is not different. Like other global cities, New York continues to exhibit tensions throughout the period between homogenization and decentralization, between the transnational and the local, or between rationality and pluralism There are differences in scope and scale, however, bordering on a difference in kind. For in the later period globalization has produced a different ‘World Order’ in which the technologies of power are controlled by an ‘electronic herd’ (Friedman, 1999), rather than Tammany Hall, and the instrumental rationality which served mid-century capitalism has shifted from the boardroom to the faceless, indeed placeless, information and finance networks or ‘flows’ which circuit the globe. The last two decades have seen the undermining if not erosion of the manufacturing base of the first generation global cities, the widely noted expansion of the service sector, the growth of uniform consumer outlets, the recruitment of workers in all sectors to short term contracts and the extremely rapid development and inescapable penetration of information and media technologies.
These are the features of ‘post-Fordism‘, so named because of the passing of a way of work and of life embodied in the production techniques, work practices and controlling influence of the magnate Henry T. Ford over his workforce and their families. Fordism presents a model of monopoly capitalism, or of early to mid-century modernity: the emblem of a productivist economy before the swing into predominantly consumer societies. In post-Fordism the rock-like associations instilled by the Fordist factory regimen between class, masculinity, workplace and hours of work, and of women and the home, have proved porous, while our social, ethnic, sexual and psychic lives have been further moulded by media technologies. The world is in the home: by way of the PC monitor or TV screen, or, what might be the [-p.7] same thing, is nowhere particularly. The effect, as many writers and commentators have noted, is dramatic, especially in the city, where these developments have produced a sense of new possibility and self-invention alongside a sense of unbelonging and an urban mentality of fear, paranoia or nostalgia..” (pp.4-7)

“…from the beginning of the century… The metropolis was thought to be without balance and harmony, a landscape of physical and psychic extremes in which the modern citizen was subjected to the mayhem of the city’s ungoverned, shapeless sprawl, or to the tedium of its unrelieved sameness. Either way, the metropolis appeared to spell the end of community. Both the imagined national and collective class communities were in a sense defined by these conditions but constituted themselves outside and against them.
At least one further kind of community of a different type did emerge from within these conditions, however: the artistic community comprised of a temporary and fragile alliance of emigres who, as Williams puts it elsewhere, shared the medium of their art and the divergent project we have come to know as modernism. The artistic medium, which centrally held their interest, was reworked to express an altered mentality and simultaneously register the time of a new modernity. For if realism was the representational mode of the earlier type of community and experience of synchronous time, new modes were required to capture the experience of the anonymous crowd and multiple times of the metropolitan scene.” (p.18)

“But if community depends on sameness, what, in a world of mobile peoples and circulating commodities, where local, national and global intersect, remains the same?” (p.22)

“Certain key and recurrent terms […] – estrangement, collage, hybridity, syncretism – begin to offer a common vocabulary for reflexive modern and postcolonial communities and for the mixed discourses of a reflexive aesthetic.” (p.23)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Peter Brooker (2002) Modernity and Metropolis: Writing, Film, and Urban Formations. New York: Palgrave Macmillan


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