Imagining Urbanity: Settling the 21st-Century City

An imagined South Africa depicted in Livingston's 1899 Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa.

An imagined South Africa depicted in Livingston’s 1899 Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa.

In 1843 English settler George Nicholson arrived in South Africa’s Algoa Bay having only “read some of the glowing descriptions given of this part of the country . . . It is true that I had not believed the El-Dorado stories which are so current of this and other colonies, but my expectations had been raised sufficiently high to make the disappointment at the really desolate appearance of the place, perfect.”  Nicholson painted a picture of South Africa that was a decidedly unappealing place in which “Two-thirds of the colony . . . are unfit for the reception of Europeans,” but his 1848 study The Cape and its Colonists was not a travelogue as much as it was a narrative on the European imagination of the colonial world.  Nicholson’s hyperbolic announcement of the challenges he surmounted was a ham-fisted show of imperial might.  Such traveler’s accounts were complicated ideological ruminations on empire, race, and frontier for readers unlikely to ever venture to imperial outposts.

Nicholson’s dehumanization of indigenous peoples lamented the end of enslavement, suggesting that “Ever since the philanthropical humanity of Great Britain conferred upon them complete liberty, these child-like people have been rapidly diminishing in numbers. They have expended the boon in a most lavish way; and, having no one to care for them, and not knowing how to care for themselves, the drambottle of the white man has done its work, and they have perished. . . None of the frightful horrors of the much talked of `middle passage’ could surpass those endured by these hastily made freemen, on their transition from the state of well-cared-for slaves, to that of unprepared, neglected, and dissipated free vagabonds.”

The rhetorical mechanisms Nicholson and many more scribes used to examine Others and empires takes quite different forms in the 21st century, but a thread of comparably moralistic imagination persists in discourses across lines of difference.  The downfall of Detroit and its descent into bankruptcy this week has been an especially powerful symbol of the collapsing inner-city.  However, nearly every American city has borrowed from urban narratives that reach into the 19th century and revolve around the imagination of the urban Other.  Many Americans appear to have become fearful of cities, whose meanings are an inseparable web of objective material and demographic realities as well as contested representations whose distortions have themselves become “real” in their effects on how we see cities and residents.


The King's new urban residence (image Indianapolis Star)

The King’s new urban residence (image Indianapolis Star)

Since May, the Indianapolis Star has been investigating urban Indianapolis through the lens of transplanted suburbanite Robert King.  In May King announced in the Star that his family was “leaving the suburbs for the Eastside,” and the newspaper has heralded the series of stories in which his family trades “the ease of suburbia for the edginess of an urban neighborhood.”  Settling a block from the scene of a horrific 2006 crime that left seven people dead, King says he and his suburban family were driven to move by “a growing unease with the paradoxes of our relationship to the city.”  King somewhat clumsily wields the colonial metaphor when he argues that “We don’t want to be part of a colony, but a community,” suggesting that his reporting on the city was perhaps its own form of a colonizing imagination.  Yet like any ethnographer King is compelled to wrestle with his status as both an insider/resident and outsider who feels a strong sense of aware (if undefined) difference.

Like most colonial travel scribes, King does spend much of his columns detailing the challenges of the move.  For instance, he suggests that at least some of his suburban neighbors cannot reconcile their sense of suburban tranquility to the city painted in local media, including the Star, indicating that “As soon as we mention the Eastside, as soon as the conversation zeroes in on our proximity to the murders on Hamilton Avenue, the eagerness fades for some. There’s an assumption we’ve had a setback, that there’s no other choice. There’s sympathy. In a few cases, folks have openly and vehemently questioned the move, even questioning whether we’re thinking of the welfare of our children.”  The Indianapolis imagined by most of the scores of residents scattered around its perimeter is indeed of a racialized criminality and material decline punctuated by aggravating hipsters.  The concrete dimensions of such social and material realities may remain largely undefined in his readers’ minds, but it nonetheless has a concrete effect on how people imagine the city (and, by extension, the suburbs).  After the first story in the series, for instance, a “former police officer wrote to say that our desire to come here and be a part of the solution is a romantic notion bound to end badly.”

King’s narrative persistently revisits the social meanings of urban criminality, which seems to be addressed to the faceless suburbanites who he supposes (probably accurately) are apprehensive of the urban core painted in their imaginations.  The tale of King’s city neighborhood aspires to cut directly to a distinction between representation and reality; at least implicitly he is suggesting that most suburbanites experience the city only on TV news (or in isolated forays to football and basketball games), and he aspires to use his objective experience to unravel those distortions.  King maintains a rhetorical grip on these anxious suburbanites—and does not completely quell their apprehension–by, on the one hand, examining his city neighbors’ own apparent wariness of crime (which comforts suburbanites that their anxiety is “real” because it captures residents’ experience) and, on the other hand, sharing idiosyncratic stories of individual kindness in the midst of urban neighborhoods.

Some of King’s contrast between media representation and experienced reality is perhaps simplistic by failing to completely acknowledge the profound sway of media representations of cities.  Any remotely literate TV news viewer can recognize all of the tropes of TV and newspaper crime coverage, which tends to frame stories in metaphors like the drug trade, gangs, and Black-on-Black violence that we do not really need to read, listen to, or watch because we can recite the stories and already have memorized the visual conventions.  The tropes of urban criminality have become real unto themselves and are now difficult if not impossible to separate from the concrete realities of everyday experience in cities.

Some of King’s contrasts of reality and imagination risk seeking a picture of good-and-bad or right-and-wrong that breaks from the grey ambiguities of everyday life.  A typical suggestion is his fanciful suggestion that “the Near Eastside we were warned about is frightening.  There’s danger at every turn, and it’s a place you don’t go. . .  This is a place that’s made me a little jumpy, and more alert to my surroundings than I’ve ever been in my life. Here, I’m a spy with an eye on every car that passes and every figure that walks up the street. I am the Jason Bourne of St. Clair Place.  But that contrasts sharply with the Near Eastside we’ve found, which has been nothing so dreadful as the billing. It’s been a place where neighbors come to help you with your yardwork and where they bring you cookies and jars of rhubarb preserves. . .  It’s a place where neighbors wave when they see you and stop at the fence and talk. It’s Mayberry in the ‘hood, the kind of place where my wife, Tammy, and the girls left town for a few days and couldn’t wait to get back.”  Likening any urban neighborhood to Mayberry—a fictional rural community troubled by one peaceful drunk—is perhaps a rhetorical over-reach stumbling to contrast King’s experience to the perception of the city.  Yet popular culture (including the press) routinely distills complex realities to apprehensible and resolved meanings, and the press often aspires to resolve urban life’s complexities through ideologies like racism that inelegantly ignore the material and social realities of 20th century urban life.

What Robert King may most misunderstand about his former neighbors is the degree to which they aspire to pierce the city in their imaginations.  Many suburbanites probably do not want to accept urbanites’ full humanity and are completely comfortable insulated in a very different kind of suburban order providing material predictability and social homogeneity.   Colonial travelers’ accounts were not especially focused on comprehending indigenous peoples and were instead intent on imagining them in distinctive forms that served colonizers’ social, ideological, and material interests.  The ethnographic lens on Indianapolis, Detroit, and any other city is illuminating, but rather than provide suburbanites a comforting picture of the city it would probably be more challenging to dissect the fears that drove people into suburbs.


Susan Brin Hyatt

2009 Eastside Story: Portrait of a Neighborhood on the Suburban Frontier.  Neighborhood Alliance Press, Indianapolis.

Robert King

2013 Why we’re leaving the suburbs for EastsideIndianapolis Star 27 May: B1.

First days in a welcoming, protective neighborhood. Indianapolis Star 3 June:B1.

A hidden treasure on the Near Eastside. Indianapolis Star 10 June:B1.

Sorting out what we’ve heard vs. what we’ve seen.  Indianapolis Star 17 June:B1.

Four Scenes of Life from the Near EastsideIndianapolis Star 10 July:B1.

Taking on a grim new hobby: crime cartographyIndianapolis Star 15 July:B1.

George Nicholson

1848 The Cape and Its Colonists: with Hints to Settlers in 1848.  Henry Colburn, London.


King House image from Kelly Wilkinson, Indianapolis Star

Posted on July 25, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. An incisive piece, Paul. I agree that there needs to be a historicising of urban flight, on both a personal and collective level. In Manchester, like many other post-industrial cities in the UK, there’s a push to get wealthy people back into the city centre. Here, the projected image of the future city in an area like Ancoats is emphasised (in billboards showing Ancoats as a kind of new Amsterdam), one that blatantly rejects the established image (and by implication the residents who live there now). It’s precisely this kind of image-making that requires historicising in order to embed the representation in what is already there.

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