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

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.

As a joint research initiative of seven professors of North American Literature, Culture, Media, and History, our project takes advantage of the respective disciplinary American Studies foci at the TU Dortmund (medial, digital, and transatlantic), the Ruhr-University Bochum (transnational, poetic, and historical) and the University of Duisburg-Essen (urban, ethnic, and hemispheric). 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.

External funding by the Mercator Research Center Ruhr currently provides scholarships and research support for six dissertations and a 50% research position for a post-doctoral scholar. The PhD theses examine diverse subjects such as the racial element in New York City’s architecture, the Rodney King incident and how it triggered urban transformations in Los Angeles, and the work of Thomas Pynchon in the contexts of modernity and urban complexity, while the Habilitation explores the narrative interface of urban planning and American Cultural Studies, analyzing specific sites in Detroit and the Ruhr region. Each dissertation project is supervised by two professors from different universities within the project. Individual research is complemented by regular meetings, workshops, and conferences, building on and profiting from the tight network between scholars in American Studies in the Ruhr region and beyond.

This project benefits from the academic environment of the three universities conjoined by the University Alliance Ruhr Metropolis. Specifically, it complements a structured PhD program in “Transnational and Transatlantic American Studies” and profits from, among others, the international, interdisciplinary doctoral program “ARUS – Advanced Research in Urban Systems”, the IN EAST School of Advanced Studies, and the sustained engagement of the UAMR American Studies scholars in international networks and collaborations in the fields of Inter-American, Transnational, and Transatlantic Studies. It strategically brings together the complementary research profiles of American Studies groups at Dortmund, Bochum, and Duisburg-Essen to develop an innovative theoretical, methodological, and empirical understanding of historical as well as contemporary urban processes and imaginaries in North America.