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White Cities, Linguistic Turns, and Disneylands: The New Paradigms of Urban History

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 26, Number 1, March 1998
pp. 175-204 | 10.1353/rah.1998.0006

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Reviews in American History 26.1 (1998) 175-204

Few events better illustrate the multiple paradigms in recent urban history than the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. For decades, the considerable literature on the Fair emphasized the "White City" and issues of physical planning, moral order, and neoclassical architecture. But since 1980, the Exposition has exemplified the growing diversity of urban historiography. For Christine Boyer, the Fair was part of a new discourse reflecting the emergence of modern urban planning. By contrast, Stanley Schultz characterizes the Exposition not as a beginning, but the culmination of the city planning ethos of the nineteenth century. William Cronon invokes the event as a metaphor for the "shock city" of industrial America, "a fantasy landscape," and "a fairy city" symbolizing Chicago's historic climax. Alan Trachtenberg and Wim de Wit underscore nationalism, viewing the Fair as a "grand illusion" by American rulers "to win hegemony over the emerging national culture." Peter Hales, by comparison, emphasizes urban culture, with an elite seeking "control over the production of the urban vision." Most critical is Robert Rydell, who sees the White City as "a cultural Frankenstein," "a coin minted in the tradition of American racism."

Numerous narratives now emphasize the Midway over the White City. John Kasson cast the first stone in this direction, arguing that the Midway represented a new model of democratic urban recreation shaped not by the civic beliefs of cultural elites but by the commercial values of entrepreneurs seeking to attract a mass audience. A host of historians conclude that the Midway's architecture and leisure environment was constructed as imagined and commodified "representations of exotic culture."

In essence, the Columbian Exposition is an interpretive smorgasbord. For urban historians, the Fair represents a metaphor for elite and plebeian values, a symbol of leisure and commercial cultures, the industrial city at its apogee, the physical embodiment of racial, ethnic, class and gender conflict, the beginning and the end of nineteenth-century planning, and the very essence of nineteenth-century American nationalism.

The multiple and perplexing views of this one event are emblematic of the interpretive confusion marking urban history since 1980. The inclusion of topics ranging from cultural representations of cities found in fiction to empirical studies of the built environment fractured an already splintered and internally divided field. Some, like Stephan Thernstrom who helped invent the nomenclature "new urban history," even abandoned the label "urban" altogether.

Rejecting the category of "urban," however, does not justify ignoring cities. Intellectual identity crises and scholarly pessimism are hardly unique to urban history. Most subfields of history are susceptible to such charges. Western, diplomatic and intellectual history, for example, recently generated debates over their meaning or utility. Practitioners of cultural studies openly concede the impossibility of defining their field. Scholars will probably always contest the meaning of "urban" and "city." By now, the debate is pointless.

For most urbanists, the definition is quite simple. People identify cities as places; what happens in those places is considered "urban." Undoubtedly, such a broad, imprecise definition raises howls of protest in some academic quarters. Yet, recent urban history with its multiple paradigms and conflicting interpretations is a reaction to the narrow methodologies of the "new urban history" of the 1960s and 1970s. Sophisticated studies like Theodore Hershberg's Philadelphia Social History Project precisely analyzed space and certain social behaviors, but effectively excluded architecture, politics, gender, and culture. These themes constitute the bulk of recent urban scholarship. Most significant has been the application of "culture" as an interpretive paradigm, influencing not only studies of social groups but also examinations of the built environment, regionalism, and suburbanization. Even institutional approaches to urban political history, which have turned old paradigms upside down, represent a reaction to cultural methodologies and questions.

Urban Cultures

Since 1980, historians of urban social groups have largely abandoned "modernization" and Marxism for the subcultural theories of sociologist Claude S. Fischer and anthropologist Clifford Geertz. From Italians in the tenements of Elizabeth Street to Jews and Mexicans in the bungalows of Los Angeles, historians emphasize the persistence and adaptability of premigration cultures over time. Migrant groups shaped and controlled their lives, even within the harsh economic, spatial...


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