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Spaces—Communities—Representations: Urban Transformations in the U.S.A.

A joint research and doctoral training project of the TU Dortmund, Ruhr-University Bochum and the University of Duisburg-Essen, funded by MERCUR – Mercator Research Center Ruhr of the Mercator Foundation (2012-2015)

Barbara Buchenau, University of Duisburg-Essen, Jens Martin Gurr, University of Duisburg-Essen, and Julia Sattler, TU Dortmund University

In the U.S.A. three paradigmatic forms of urban change have shaped cities and their representations in exemplary ways: urban growth has fostered a series of sprawls (frontier / suburban / postmetropolitan) while forging and galvanizing ethnic communities; various waves of depletion (rural / inner city / suburban) have spurned ethnic, racial as well as functional segregation; and times of shrinkage – industrial as well as postindustrial – have initiated multiple forms of genteel, cosmopolitan and gentrified repurposing. These urban transformations can be empirically observed in major historical and present-day American cities and metropolitan regions – most famously in New York, the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and Detroit, but also in San Diego/Tijuana, Seattle, Atlanta, New Orleans, as well as in less studied secondary and tertiary cities. Moreover, recent spatial, cultural, and media theory also advocate a critical reassessment of the multiple interdependences between American cities and processes of identity creation in the face of hybridization and mediatization, ultimately demanding a detailed examination of how urban spaces are constructed through inter- and transcultural communication, literature, and art.

We examine how pivotal urban transformations in the U.S.A. manifest themselves in the physical design and the actual usage of spaces, in the make-up and interaction of communities, in cultural practices, and finally in urban imaginaries. Exploring the three dimensions of spatial, communal and representational change, while probing current urban, ethnic, literary, cultural and medial theories, this project seeks to gain a better understanding of the dynamics of urban and metropolitan transformation processes in the Western world at large. Thus this project also takes comparative perspectives into account – e.g. early industrial as well as post-industrial urban transformations in North America and Europe, “smart cities” and the impact of information and communication technology on urban developments, the role of culture in processes of urban innovation and renewal, frontier cities, border cities and divided cities, the “provincialization” of American urbanity in the light of global megacities etc.

While the on-going project has allowed us to assess the impact of U.S. American urbanization and urban change on representations of urban life and its spaces, the follow-up project – currently in preparation as a possible DFG Research Training Group – acknowledges the centrality of scripting processes to North American cities (thus widening the regional and historical scope). Tentatively entitled Condensation, Inversion, Assemblage: City Scripts in North American Urbanity this collaborative research project takes its cue from the fantastical fame of the North American city. The North American city has powered the global imagination for over a century, and it has provided the epitome of citiness, but it has remained largely unclear how and why it has done so and in which ways this stellar career has engaged anti-urban imaginaries at home on the continent until today (built on settler colonialism, agrarianism, plantation culture). While descriptions of the city in the sense of modes of representing the urban have been widely studied, normative ways of scripting the city – from rescriptions of its past to prescriptions for its future – have only recently come into focus. How can forms, modes and strategies of scripting change the past, the present and the future of concrete cities and specific urban lifestyles? Junior and senior scholars from the fields of North American literary, cultural and media studies, urban studies, Inter-American and Anglophone studies as well as American and Canadian history use their disciplinary expertise to respond to this question. The analytical focus on North American urbanity and its scripts yields a novel conjunction of narrative and urban theory, allowing for fundamental insights into the mediation of and between social process and urban form. Our project hinges on the hypothesis that “condensation,” “inversion” and “assemblage” designate both fundamental strategies of textual representation and key processes of urban development.

Click here for more information on participating faculty members and doctoral fellows.