- Stigma Cities: The Reputation and History of Birmingham, San Francisco, and Las Vegas by Jonathan Foster
San Francisco, and Las Vegas
Jonathan Foster. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK., 2018.
xiv + 274 pp.; illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index.
$39.95 (cloth) (ISBN-13: 978-0-8061-6071-9).
Birmingham, Alabama; San Francisco, California; and Las Vegas, Nevada, are three American cities with three very different reputations: Birmingham as violently racist "Bombingham"; San Francisco as America's "gay Mecca"; and Las Vegas as debaucherous "Sin City." In Stigma Cities: The Reputation and History of Birmingham, San Francisco, and Las Vegas, Jonathan Foster convincingly argues that the popular stereotype of each city has played and continues to play an influential role in shaping its social, cultural, and economic trajectories. Therefore, to understand each of these cities, it is imperative that we also understand its reputation. Toward this end, Foster catalogs the events that informed popular conceptions (and misconceptions) of each city, broader cultural shifts that alternately intensified or mitigated the stigmatization of each city by the American public, and the reactions of city residents and leaders to their stereotypical role in the public consciousness. The result is a vibrantly written, thoroughly researched, and highly readable work that will appeal to urban, historical, and cultural geographers, particularly those interested in the Southeastern and Western United States.
Foster is a historian, and this book's theoretical and methodological framework draws primarily from the disciplines of history, sociology, and media studies, but the author's subject and approach is also inherently geographical. By applying sociological concepts of stereotyping and stigmatization to cities, Foster adds valuable perspective to explorations of place-based identity within the field of geography. Scale also represents an interesting thematic undercurrent throughout the book, as most of the events that inspired each city's reputation occurred within a relatively small portion of its physical footprint: the 16th Street Baptist Church and surrounding blocks in Birmingham, the Castro District in San Francisco, and Fremont Street and the Strip in Las Vegas.
The book is organized into six body chapters bookended by introduction and conclusion chapters. The six body chapters are paired by city: Chapters 2 and 3 focus on Birmingham, Chapters 4 and 5 on San Francisco, and Chapters 6 and 7 on Las Vegas. [End Page 87] The first chapter in each pair details the development of the stigma for each city, while the second examines the impact of the stigma on the city, its residents, and its position in the American cultural and economic landscapes. In each of these body chapters, Foster examines both the specific historical events and the national cultural contexts associated with the development and impact of stigmatization for each city. To do so, he draws upon an extensive array of sources, including scholarly publications, travel guides, inflight magazines, personal letters, online comments sections, and (most prominently) local and national news media.
Birmingham began the 20th century as an industrial beacon of New South modernization. But the violent and highly publicized resistance to Civil Rights era reforms by some city residents and officials, including the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church and brutal anti-demonstration tactics from city commissioner Bull Connor, coincided with an American cultural and political shift toward condemnation of overt racism and segregation. In a nation keen on validating its new role as a moral compass for the post-WWII world, Birmingham was cast as the racist misfit in an otherwise progressive United States of America. This "Bombingham" image has continued to shape negative perceptions of Birmingham into the present day, with contemporary media portrayals of both related and unrelated events often referencing the 1963 bombing.
Its origins as a Spanish mission, history of port-town cosmopolitanism, and associations with the Beat Generation and 1960s counterculture had long characterized San Francisco as "not quite American" (p. 70). This perceived otherness set the stage for the stigmatization of the city as the center of the United States' gay community, a stereotype firmly entrenched in the American consciousness by national coverage of Harvey Milk's election to the San...