Lina Tegtmeyer

Lansstraße 5-9
14195 Berlin

Cultural concepts in visual representations of Detroit and the Bronx. ”The ghetto” in between urban crisis, urban tourism, and post-industrial image production

Dissertation Abstract
Keywords: visual signifiers; ghetto; Shrinking City; urban tourism; exclusion; aesthetics of failure.


"Detroit is a cautionary tale about one-industry towns: it shrank the way the old boomtowns of the gold and silver rushes did, as though it had been mining automobiles and the veins ran dry, but most of those mining towns were meant to be ephemeral." Rebecca Solnit, 2007

"When the Bronx, after decades of peaceful anonymity, finally made it into the mass media as a symbol of all that could go wrong in urban life, it wasn't just the Bronx's buildings that were breaking down: it felt like a rupture in both New York's everyday reality and its archetypal
dream." Marshall Berman, 1999

What is the cultural meaning behind social phenomena such as urban wastelands, ghettos, urban decay and urban poverty in the US context?

Images of ghettos that cast people and their conditions in a negative light are produced within larger ideologies embedded in the socio-economic circumstances of the time. Rather than analyzing discourse that blames "the poor" or "the excluded" for their state, in my dissertation I propose to analyze the images themselves to uncover cultural meanings of crisis.

While urban destinations enter the race for recognition by various types of capital investors (tourism, real estate, finance), another trend in urban development also continues to take place: urban phenomena of spatial exclusion like ghettoization, abandonment, shrinking, decay. To understand mutual impacts of culture and socio-economic factors, I connect social theory (increasing emergence of post-Fordist industries like urban tourism) to the cultural sphere (tourism as temporary cultural practice which has a long-term impact on culture at large). The aim is not to analyze processes of ghettoization or shrinking; instead of evaluating the place that pictures depict, the purpose of this research is to evaluate the semantic field which depictions represent in a certain cultural moment. The motif is examined as referent to ideology, not as referent to the ”real.” Turning away from discourse analysis, I wish to find a method of picture analysis that seeks to understand the cultural symbolism (meaning) in visual representations of crisis and decay. That way, cultural values and ideologies that seem inscribed into the negative image of places can be located within representations (pictures), not the represented (city, people, places).

In order to understand the cultural meaning found in visual representations, I identify objects within the frame as visual signifiers (Barthes) to then in turn locate them within greater cultural implications in the US society at the historical moment. I will theorize visual interpretations of social reality as an aesthetic dimension that produces pictorial signifiers: for example, motifs of ”poverty” show trash, people in dirty clothes, broken cars, empty storefronts, children without parents in high-rise buildings, to name but a few.

The depiction of the city in cultural genres can only be fragmentary; my research so far suggests that different parts of a city are represented according to certain interest. At moments of crisis, the genre of social documentary framed conditions of urban inequality as social problem. Interestingly, since its beginning, urban tourism in the United States has been a cultural practice that in some form or another framed social problems as spectacle (slumming). Illustrations in city handbooks from the late 19th century re-cognize social inequality in New York City slums, but these books staged such living conditions as adventure to explore from a distance or accompanied by a guide. They did not present slums as social problem as Jacob Riis did about ten years later. What can we say about the representation of unequal urban conditions today?

Using the example of two oppositional cities, New York and Detroit, I will develop a comparative picture analysis principally of photographs and websites. Different from the aesthetics of failure established by the genre of social documentary, the aesthetic of tourism imagery highlights and - as I argue - transforms the visual representation of "spaces of exclusion" (Peter Marcuse) from sites of national failure to sites of tourism spectacle (ruins for nostalgia).

Taking an interdisciplinary approach, I draw on findings of Urban Studies to explain socio-economic conditions that lead to exclusion; American/Cultural Studies and critical Tourism Studies will be employed to carry out the analysis and interpretation of images. By applying central concepts of American Studies such as wilderness, the American Dream, Exceptionalism with those of critical Tourism Studies (authenticity, nostalgia (Graburn), semiotics of attraction (MacCanell)) to interpret my pictures, I hope to bridge two disciplines (cultural studies and social sciences) that have much to offer each other. This is a step towards researching the visual content of city representations in order to provide a method to interpret the pictorial side of tourism and tourism as aspect of culture.

I see my endeavor as answering the following questions: What are visual forms of city representation of the urban crisis since the 1960s? What narratives of failure and success do the images tell? What is the aesthetic employed to represent the narratives of decline and decay in the context of social documentary and tourism?



Since 2010 Doctoral candidate, Graduate School for Northamerican Studies, Freie Universität Berlin. Research subject: cultural significance of visual representations of urban decay and ruinscapes in image productions in the context of new urban tourism

Magistra Artium (Mag.a), John-F.-Kennedy Institut für Nordamerikastudien, Freie Universität Berlin. Major: Northamerican Studies (Cultural Studies, Political Science). Minor: Latin American Studies (Literature, Spanish). (Grade 1,2)

Thesis: "Moving Around the Urban Blank. Visual Exclusion and the Relation to the Real in Contemporary Picture Postcards of Urban America." (Grade 1,0. Supervision Prof. Dr. Stefan Brandt, Prof. Dr. Margit Mayer)

2009 DAAD Research Travel Grant, 3 months, UC Berkeley and New York
2005 Research travel grant, Lateinamerika-Institut, Berlin, 1 month, Havana, Cuba
2001/2 ERASMUS-Sokrates Stipend, 2 semester at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona


Conferences and Research Presentations

June 2013

"Post-tourism? Bargaining the exchange rate of monetary and cultural value of post-industrial tourist destinations" Berlin Roundtables on Transnationality, Travel and Museums: Rethinking the Modern Experience. Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB)

Feb 2013

Visual Representations of Success and Crisis: Negative and Positive Branding of Cities and Urban Spaces. Panel development, organization and chair for the Visual Culture Caucus at the 101st Annual Conference of the CAA, New York.

Jan 2013

”Examinamos possible souvenirs for da Bronx. Not.” Negative location branding and gentrification aesthetics between real estate value and international academic tourism. Symposium Intervention Workshop SouthBronxUnite!, FIFFIZTM and Spanish Attack, New York City

Dec 2012

"Aesthetics of Failure as Success Narrative? The Image of "'Detroit'" Between Urban Social Crisis and Iconic Post-Industrial Site." Invited lecture Tourism Studies Working Group, UC Berkeley.

Nov 2012

"Shrinking Detroit: Urban Crisis As Success Narrative?"  Presentation at SUNTA panel led by Miriam Greenberg,2012 Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, San Francisco

Nov 2011

Is Urban Space a Showcase of An Aesthetic of Commodification? Aesthetics and Signification of Street Art In Havana and Berlin,” research paper for the SUNTA panel ”Public Arts/Arts Public” at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Montreal

Sep 2011

”Cultural representations of the "ghetto" in the context of new urban tourism            in the United States,” research paper for the ”1st Doctoriales: Tourisme/Tourism. Concepts and methods at the disciplinary crossroads” organized by Institut de Recherche et d'Études Supérieures du Tourisme (IRÉST), Université de Paris I Sorbonne

May 2011

Chair, ”Bodies in Urban Space,” Fourth International Graduate Conference ”American Bodies: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Modes of Power,” GSNAS, FU Berlin

Feb 2011

”Mapping the Imaginary in the Theoretic Bubble - Western Tourism Studies, Urban Studies, American Cultural Studies,” conference presentation at the international conference ”Tourism Imaginaries/ Imaginaires Touristiques,” organized by the Tourism Studies Working Group, UC Berkeley and IRÉST, Paris I Sorbonne, Berkeley

Chair ”Relationships between locations and types of imaginaries and potential

carriers/users.” at ”Tourism Imaginaries,” UC Berkeley
Dec 2010

”’What about the music?’ Retrieving the ghetto in the US-American urban imaginary and the international academic imaginary,” conference presentation at conference ”Destination Slum,” University of the West of England, Bristol

Nov 2010

”Gallerization of Segregated Urban Spaces,” presentation research colloquium of the Department for Political Sciences, JFK-Institute, FU Berlin

Oct 2010

”Staging the Temporary ‘Real’: The Concept of Authenticity in Tourism Studies,” research paper for ”The Aesthetics of Authenticity – Representing Self and Other in Literature and Culture,” Leibniz University Hanover

Sep 2010

”The Periphery As Center of Attraction: The Case of the US-American City,” conference presentation. Chair with Noel Salazar at the international conference ”Tourism and Seductions of Difference,” organized by TOCOCU and CTCC, CRIA, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Lisbon.

July 2009

”Moving Around the Urban Blank: Positivity and Exclusion in Tourist Imagery of Urban America,” conference presentation ”Emotion in Motion: The Passions of Tourism, Travel and Movement”, Leeds Metropolitan University, Leeds

Jan 2009

Out of the Picture - Visual Exclusion in Tourist Imagery? A Cultural Analysis of Postcards and Guide Book Pictures of New York City and Detroit,” invited guest lecture at the international colloquium of the Tourism Studies Working Group, UC Berkeley


Research Networks and Committees

Since 2013

Anthropology of Tourism Interest Group

2009 - present Tourism-Contact-Culture International Research Network (Member of the Academic Advisory Board)
2009 - present Tourism Studies Working Group (based at University of California, Berkeley; Core Research Affiliate (since 2012); Member of the Scientific Committee 2010-2011)

Member of the Scientific Committee and conference organization of the Fourth International Graduate Conference ”American Bodies: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Modes of Power,” Graduate School for Northamerican Studies


Professional Memberships

Deutsche Gesellschaft für Amerikastudien

American Anthropological Association


Courses Taught

Vertiefung BA "Tourism and Photography. Pictures of people and places in everyday culture and tourism culture in the United States." JFK-Institute for Northamerican Studies, FU Berlin

PS ”American Values in US Television Series since the 1970s,” FB Anglistik/Amerikanistik, Univ. Siegen

PS ”Literature of the Transnational Diaspora – Regional focus: US-Cities and the Caribbean (Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico),” FB Anglistik/Amerikanistik, Univ. Siegen

Ü ”Academic Writing,” FB Anglistik/Amerikanistik, Univ. Siegen

Dahlem Research School
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft