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Flammable Cities

Urban Conflagration and the Making of the Modern World

Greg Bankoff

Publication Year: 2012

In most cities today, fire has been reduced to a sporadic and isolated threat. But throughout history the constant risk of fire has left a deep and lasting imprint on almost every dimension of urban society. This volume, the first truly global study of urban conflagration, shows how fire has shaped cities throughout the modern world, from Europe to the imperial colonies, major trade entrepôts, and non-European capitals, right up to such present-day megacities as Lagos and Jakarta. Urban fire may hinder commerce or even spur it; it may break down or reinforce barriers of race, class, and ethnicity; it may serve as a pretext for state violence or provide an opportunity for displays of state benevolence. As this volume demonstrates, the many and varied attempts to master, marginalize, or manipulate fire can turn a natural and human hazard into a highly useful social and political tool.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. iii-iv


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pp. v-vi


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p. vii-vii

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pp. 3-20

In most cities of the wealthy countries today, fires have been reduced to an occasional and isolated threat or a minor news item. Ordinary citizens entrust their suppression to professional fire departments. However, conflagration was once far more central a fact of urban life. Preindustrial cities burned frequently, and on

Part 1: Cities as Fire Regimes

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1. Jan van der Heyden and the Origins of Modern Firefighting: Art and Technology in Seventeenth-Century Amsterdam

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pp. 23-43

When fire broke out in a London baker’s shop in Pudding Lane in the early morning of September 2, 1666, it soon expanded into the vast conflagration known as the Great Fire of London. The loss of historic sites by fire remained frequent in the seventeenth century, especially when a blaze began ...

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2. Governance, Arson, and Firefighting in Edo, 1600–1868

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pp. 44-62

The city of Edo, whose name was changed to Tokyo in 1868, presents a particularly fruitful site for examining the way in which large preindustrial settlements managed the problem of uncontrolled fire. Edo was the capital city of the Tokugawa shogunate, the dynastic military government that ruled Japan ...

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3. Taming Fire in Valparaíso, Chile, 1840s–1870s

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pp. 63-81

Valparaíso clings to the shore of central Chile’s most usable natural harbor, poorly protected from storms at sea and hemmed in by bluffs on land. (See fig. 3.1.) After 1818, Chilean political independence and North Atlantic industrialization brought burgeoning seaborne trade to what had been a sleepy ...

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4. The Burning of a Modern City? Istanbul as Perceived by the Agents of the Sun Fire Office, 1865–1870

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pp. 82-102

In the postcolonial theoretical debate, it has become common to postulate the diversity of modernity, to seek and find multiple modernities instead of searching for the spread of a single European/Western modernity.1 There is not just one way to modernity; there are many ways to and also many kinds of ...

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5. Imperial Russia’s Urban Fire Regimes, 1700–1905

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pp. 103-125

In the late Soviet Union of March and April 1985, courtyard fires behind the dormitory for foreign graduate students on Shevchenko Street in Leningrad reminded those from the so-called kapstrany, or capitalist countries, who walked by that the USSR was poorer and less well governed than they had expected of ...

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6. Fighting Fires (or Not) in Porfirian Mexico

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pp. 126-143

The evolution of urban fire protection in much of North America followed a fairly standard trajectory in the nineteenth century. In the late eighteenth century, or soon after the new cities of the nineteenth century were established, volunteer fire companies, which included large numbers of merchants ...

Part 2: Fire as Risk and as a Catalyst if Change

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7. The Great Fire of Lisbon, 1755

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pp. 147-169

The Lisbon earthquake was one of the most dramatic and consequential events in European history. Without warning on November 1, 1755, a series of violent tremors, followed by a devastating tsunami and a raging fire, brought the capital of the Portuguese empire to its knees. The resultant debate ...

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8. A Tale of Two Cities: The Pyro-Seismic Morphology of Nineteenth-Century Manila

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pp. 170-189

The capital of the Spanish Philippines, colonial Manila, was two cities: a city of stone and wood largely but not exclusively inhabited by Spaniards, and a city of nipa palm and bamboo where the indigenous peoples of the archipelago mainly lived. In fact, this division was never quite as simple as this ...

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9. Fire and Urban Morphogenesis: Patterns of Destruction and Reconstruction in Nineteenth-Century Montreal

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pp. 190-211

In the nineteenth century, most residents of North American cities lived with the constant threat of fire. Rapid industrialization and urbanization, associated with high densities, cheap construction, hazardous mixing of land uses, inadequate means of fire protection, and postponed investment in social ...

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10. The Great Fire of Hamburg, 1842: From Catastrophe to Reform

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pp. 212-234

Fires in cities are generally described as singular events and exceptional catastrophes in their history. The course of a fire, dates and facts about buildings destroyed, and reconstruction plans are often recorded in detail, but “fire historians” seldom look at the social, political, economic, and environmental ...

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11. Did the Fire Insurance Industry Help Reduce Urban Firesin the United States in the Nineteenth Century?

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pp. 235-253

In the rebuilding of cities following disasters such as sweeping fires, the physical layout of a place, or the manner of constructing individual buildings, might change in order to avoid a recurrence. But in the United States in the nineteenth century, property owners rarely made such changes voluntarily. They were ...

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12. Inflaming the Fears of Theatergoers: How Fires Shaped the Public Sphere in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1880–1910

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pp. 254-272

On December 30, 2004, a concert in Buenos Aires, Argentina, by the rock group Callejeros had barely begun when pyrotechnics from its light show jumped from the stage to the walls and ceilings of the nightclub, República Cromañón. The fire quickly spread as flames spilled onto flammable materials ...

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13. Points of Origin: The Social Impact of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire

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pp. 273-292

San Francisco is best known for an event that took place over one hundred years ago when a great earthquake and conflagration stripped the ninth largest American city bare. The 7.8 magnitude earthquake surprised city residents, many of whom were still in bed, just before dawn on a Wednesday ...

Part 3: The Politics of Fire

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14. The Politics of Singapore’s Fire Narrative

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pp. 295-313

The Bukit Ho Swee fire of May 25, 1961, holds a special place in the lore of modern Singapore. Although small fires broke out all too frequently in urban communities overcrowded with self-made wooden structures, this conflagration was epic in scale: it leveled an entire community of sixteen thousand ...

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15. The Beirut Central District on Fire: Firefighting in a Divided City with Shifting Front Lines, 1975–1976

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pp. 314-331

They Tried to Burn Beirut” read the main headline on the front page of the Arabic daily An-Nahar, a progovernment newspaper, on September 19, 1975. Martyrs’ Square and the surrounding streets in downtown Beirut were the scenes of fierce fighting and ferocious fires. Bullets, explosives, and incendiaries ...

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16. Who Burned Cleveland, Ohio? The Forgotten Fires of the 1970s

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pp. 332-352

In October 1965, Cleveland, Ohio, mayor Ralph Locher officiated a “home burning ceremony” and torched four abandoned houses with the help of the city’s fire department. The first one burned in an hour, “aided by a stiff breeze and 20 gallons of kerosene.” Basking in the warmth of the burning ...

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17. “There Is More to This Fire Than Meets the Eye”: Anatomy of Fire Outbreaks in Lagos, Nigeria, 1980–2008

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pp. 353-371

Recurring conflagrations in the West African port city of Lagos in the 1860s– 1880s—which earned it the reputation of a “veritable fire-place,” reminiscent of the “flowers of Edo” discussed in Jordan Sand and Steven Wills’s chapter in this volume—and since the 1980s have attracted popular commentary and ...

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18. Fires, Urban Environments, and Politics in Contemporary Jakarta

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pp. 372-398

Destroying the city’s neighborhoods in violent ways, sometimes putting thousands of people on the street, fires have been part of the common urban landscape of Jakarta since colonial times.1 Their unchallenged strength makes them part of the everyday life of the metropolis, suggesting that Jakarta ...

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Afterword: Fire on the Fringe

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pp. 390-396

In April 2010, the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) held a weeklong workshop on the subject of fire and humanity. The immediate setting was a large conference room on the third floor of the NCEAS building at 735 State Street in downtown Santa Barbara, California.


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pp. 397-400


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pp. 401-409

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780299283834
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299283841

Page Count: 368
Publication Year: 2012