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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. Read the rest of this entry