- Ordinary Cities Between Modernity and Development
Published in Routledge’s Questioning Cities series, Jennifer Robinson’s book is addressed in the first instance to urban scholars and policy makers. Robinson challenges the habitual categorical divide in urban studies between so-called global or world cities that determine the flows of information and capital and thus exemplify also the urbane and cosmopolitan, and so-called “third world” or “structurally irrelevant” conurbations characterized by poverty, disorder, or at best [End Page 177] imitation of innovations imported from the West. This hierarchical categorization that privileges exemplary cities usually of the global north over dysfunctional cities usually of the south rests, in Robinson’s view, on longstanding assumptions that modernity, innovation, and progress are properties of the north to which cities and citizens of the south, allegedly bound by tradition, poverty, and underdevelopment can only imperfectly aspire. Against this categorical divide between modernity and development, north and south, innovation and imitation, she argues that cities across the world should be understood as ordinary, that is, distinct, diverse, and creatively if differentially engaged with global and local flows of people and cultural practices as well as capital. This critique of the parochial assumptions of classic urban theory, identified in her view with the Chicago School, may occasionally lapse itself into parochialism—Robinson is apparently unaware of the powerful critique of Chicago School ethnocentrism launched by black sociologists in Chicago, such as St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton in Black Metropolis—but her overall critique of the binary oppositions between modernity and traditionalism propping up northern theorists’ assumptions of their own modernity is well taken. While other African urbanists have drawn attention to the creativity of ordinary citizens (one thinks of AbdouMalique Simone’s focus on “people as infrastructure”), Ordinary Cities tackles the difficult task of bringing together street-level negotiations with regional and national policy making.
Despite its primary address to social scientists, Ordinary Cities has much to offer scholars of literature and other cultural forms in Africa and elsewhere. Robinson’s account of the diverse innovations of cities worldwide draw not only on the research of urbanists and anthropologists, but also on the creative work of artists and writers. Her analysis of the urban form and function of cities in Africa, in particular but not only Johannesburg, Durban, and Lusaka, provides social and theoretical context for the reading of fictional imaginations of urban spaces as well as brief examples of the latter. The cover image reproduces Tito Zungu’s vivid pictures of city towers and airplanes that he used initially to decorate migrants’ letters home from Durban. The book itself opens with Phaswane Mpe’s evocation of cosmopolitan Johannesburg in his 2002 novel Welcome to our Hillbrow and closes with an extended analysis, at once rhetorical and practical, of the contradictions in the Johannesburg Municipality’s City Development Strategy, Egoli 2030 (also 2002) exemplified by the document’s attachment to the modernist but apartheidera Hillbrow Tower and thus to neoliberal consultants’ emphasis on producing environments favorable to global capital rather than citizens’ demands not only for the services but for a more elusive but no less compelling quality of life. Mpe’s narrative embrace of recent rural arrivals, alleged foreigners demonized by locals as amaKwerekwere (“those who talk funny”), and long-time city dwellers joins other works, like Zola Maseko’s film The Foreigner (1998) in expressing a generosity of imagination well in advance of city policy. Only in 2007 did the city open a Migrants’ Office explicitly to address the needs of the thousands who cross the continent in search of a better life in the city of gold.
While Robinson focuses primarily on Southern African cities, her call for attention to the diverse creative strategies of ordinary citizens finds an echo in many evocations of other African conurbations, such as the Nairobi of Ngugi’s Wizard of the Crow or the Lagos of Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come, both of whom, like Phaswane Mpe, give voice and shape to the citizens and the...