- Cultural Production and Urban Latinidad:Retelling Urban History and Reconfiguring the Future of Cities
Struggles over culture, politics, and commerce adopt the urban landscape as their battleground, whether in nineteenth-century Paris or 1980s New York City. More recently, a renewed emphasis on cities has been driven by urban growth through migration and population increases that intensified during the first decade of the twenty-first century. Within this context, the terms by which urban space is produced are being altered in light of neoliberalism’s expansion, in which the world of the public has diminished in favor of privatized alternatives. Meanwhile, skepticism about the value of studying humanistic disciplines in the university has grown, not only in terms of the “return on investment” for undergraduates who major in these subjects, but whether scholastic attempts to advance these fields remain pertinent in contemporary society. Although these two sites, the city and the humanities, initially appear to bear little relevance to each other, Eric Avila’s Folklore of the Freeway and David Diaz and Rodolfo Torres’s Latino Urbanism reconsider the perceived gulf between these fields by foregrounding culture as a tool for dissecting the complex dynamics that undergirds urban space and its ongoing transformation. The Folklore of the Freeway and Latino Urbanism present multisited examinations of issues central to Latina/o urban spatial practice that explore race and ethnicity as intertwined in culture’s significance within urban spatial practice and question the ethnically homogeneous visions that determine the futures of cities. The Folklore of the Freeway inquires into a range of sites corresponding to thematic [End Page 231] chapters on gender, historical memory, race, and cultural reclamation, whereas Latino Urbanism’s essays individually examine a range of cities. This has the effect, in Avila’s case, of encountering each city fleetingly, as if viewed from a car window, whereas in Latino Urbanism, the authors extensively detail the specific contexts of each city.
The contributors to Latino Urbanism explore the mechanisms, processes, politics, and histories embedded in planning, policy, and redevelopment; attend to the visibility of cultural difference in the urban environment; and examine its role in remaking cities. Several essays note how cultural difference can operate as a strategic tool, for both opposing the reshaping of urban space and as an accessory to the interests of capital. For example, the final chapter, by Victor Valle and Rodolfo Torres, calls for sustained engagement with the concept of “cultural political economy,” a term advanced by the authors, which “[attempts] to resolve lingering theoretical tensions between socioeconomic (structural) and culture-based (semiotic) approaches to our neoliberal present” (181). This frame and the analytic project that it evokes—reevaluating humanistic scholarship’s capacity to generate compelling and useful critical work on contemporary urban life—characterize much of the work in Latino Urbanism.
Diaz and Torres’s introduction critiques the exclusionary history of urban planning and urban studies for their frequent omission of the contributions and spatial practices of communities of color—in this case, Latina/o communities. The authors reframe the contemporary trend of New Urbanism, an urban planning zeitgeist that privileges the neighborhood as a social unit, walkable streets, public spaces, and sustainable practices, as a reaction against, and implicit admission of the failures of, the modernist city in the United States. That city, of course, displaced and spatially isolated numerous Latina/o communities and other communities of color. The authors point out New Urbanism’s inability to recognize that the attributes it privileges have long been central to Latina/o urban spatial practices and call for a more inclusive narrative that encompasses a greater variety of practices and actors. This call to action strongly resonates throughout the text, and it is in those essays that describe particular everyday practices and ordinary spaces as terrains of transformation that the...