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Social Science History 24.1 (2000) 1-6

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Elizabeth Faue

This special issue on the working classes and urban public space presents readers with an opportunity to view new scholarship at the intersection of urban and working-class history and to explore the spatial dimensions of class, race, and gender analysis. The authors of the essays present us with important case studies of how the working classes in Latin America, Europe, and the United States defined, contested, and occupied public spaces, urban terrain designated for common or public transportation, communication, and [End Page 1] economic exchange uses. In doing so, they define and implement the concepts of public space and the public sphere from a range of theoretical and methodological approaches, including those of urban sociology and cultural analysis. In all of the essays, public space has both political and rhetorical dimensions. Further, the essays analyze how working-class men and women claimed these spaces—markets, streets, public squares, and churches—for their own use and how they defended this class terrain politically through public protest and debate.

A key problematic is the contest between social classes and among social groups for the control of public space. The right to sell in public markets, long understood as a customary right, was repeatedly threatened by public authorities concerned about public health and urban reformers worried about public disorder (Porter). Contesting the uses of the street—for commerce or pleasure, street life or political protest, strike action or police patrol—was a central political battle in cities rapidly transformed by growing populations, overcrowding, new transportation, and new city forms (Witwer, Porter, Pagán). Within the working-class, public sphere of community and union hall, working-class men and women developed political skills and collective interests in changing the urban landscape and in vying for control (Hurd, Sterne, Fure-Slocum). The search for legitimacy and dominance occurred in the public space of newspapers and political debate as well as the physical contest of strikes, riots, and protests (Hurd, Porter, Witwer, Pagán). Outlining and defining city boundaries and city form were issues within the context of urban class politics (Reiff, Fure-Slocum). Understanding the content of urban culture and the uses of public spaces such as churches, union halls, and voluntary associations plays an important role in a new, reinvigorated spatial analysis of the working classes (Reiff, Rosenthal, Hurd, Porter, Sterne).

In the opening essay, “Rethinking Pullman: Urban Space and Working-Class Activism,” Janice L. Reiff explores a case study of the creation, use, and transformation of a working-class city and its redefinition of public space. Drawing on the work of Henri Lefebvre in his distinction between the city as conceived, perceived, and lived, Reiff leads us across the boundaries and through the streets, social gatherings, and public spaces of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Pullman. A company town that was the center of a crucial railroad worker strike in 1894, Pullman was conceived as a planned and controlled community. Yet, as Reiff shows, workers neither perceived nor lived [End Page 2] in George Pullman’s vision. Rather, they inhabited a community that was more than the laid-out streets and company-designed houses. It stretched beyond those boundaries to nearby towns and became imbued with meaning as a symbol of working-class solidarity and struggle. By the twentieth century, deindustrialization and segregation fundamentally altered Pullman as a working-class city in both perception and in lived experience. The urban narrative of decline, fall, and rebirth hid another story of working-class transformation and racial division.

Anton Rosenthal’s “Spectacle, Fear, and Protest: A Guide to the History of Urban Public Space in Latin America” surveys the spatial dimensions of class analysis in his historiographical review of urban public space in Latin America. His essay covers the central tension in labor and working-class history cross-culturally, in that older Marxist paradigms focused on production and formal politics have been challenged and reenvisioned through cultural analysis. Many of the central figures in this development, and urban sociologist Manuel Castells most notably, argued that a postwar shift in urban politics toward...


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