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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 13: The City •

The City

St. Pancras Station, London

St. Pancras Station, London, c.1876

Urban modernity, networks and places

Richard Dennis, University College London (1)

The concept of modernity, as applied to 'Western' cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries, necessarily incorporates ideas about 'networked cities', in which flows of ideas, information, innovations, energy, capital, profits, goods, people and waste move between increasingly specialised, separate but interdependent places. Modernity, in the 'classical' formulations of Marshall Berman and David Harvey, building on foundations laid by Baudelaire, Benjamin, Freud, Marx and Simmel, involves the intersection of processes of political, scientific, technological, economic and social modernisation with the emergence of modern identities: the discovery of the self and the recognition of otherness. (2) These two dimensions to modernity might also be conceptualised as the structured, ordered and progressive, interacting with the ephemeral and transient. It may be argued that no one era is any more 'modern' than another, and that every generation experiences the 'shock of the new'; however, what is especially true of cities, from the early modern period onwards, is that technological, political and socio-cultural changes were not only played out in, but also depended upon, the manipulation of space as well as time.

Improved communications between and within cities facilitated increased specialisation in sites of investment, production, residence and consumption. This is most obviously visible in the differentiation of east and west ends, and of inner cities from suburbs depicted, for example, in Charles Booth's Poverty Map of London (1889). (3) But residential segregation of rich from poor, or established citizen from new immigrant, in turn reinforced new identities of 'self' and 'other'. These new identities were reflected in moral panics (for example, in a West End fear of the East End as an immoral, criminal or alien 'abyss'). Other examples include the sensationalism of Andrew Mearns's Bitter Cry of Outcast London (1883), Jacob Riis's photographic depictions of New York in How the Other Half Lives (1890) and Helen Campbell's Darkness and Daylight (1897), also focusing on New York. (4) On the other hand, this increasing geographical differentiation also prompted demands for municipal reform, leading to the establishment of bodies such as the London County Council (1888) or Greater New York (1898), which had the potential to provide essential services irrespective of ability to pay and to redistribute tax revenues from rich to poor areas. In turn, such 'progressive' or 'municipal socialist' activities provoked middle-class flight to the Home Counties, Long Island or New Jersey, beyond the clutches of the municipal state.

Harry Beck's famous diagrammatic map of the London Underground (1933), which reduced a complex system to a network of intersecting horizontals, verticals and diagonals, is rightly acknowledged as a masterpiece of modernist design; but the modernity of the Underground also lay in the way that it connected, and allowed the growth of, different functional areas of London (for example, allowing City clerks to commute from middle-class suburbs seemingly without passing through slum districts or industrial zones that bordered the City). Where the elevated railway in New York or above-ground London railways, such as those into Liverpool Street and London Bridge, straddled working-class districts (converting them into spectacles for middle-class voyeurs), the London Underground and the New York Subway (especially with its express trains bypassing many inner-city stations) conveniently excluded uncomfortable truths about poverty or poor living conditions from the everyday experiences of suburban commuters. (5)

Likewise with the new information networks associated with telegraphy and telephony. In London and most European cities, where telephone usage lagged behind North American cities (at least until World War II), phones were confined to businesses and middle-class domestic subscribers. London's first two telephone exchanges, opened in 1879, were both in the City of London. Even in New York, where in 1929 there were 27 telephones for every 100 residents (compared to eight per 100 in London), few working-class families were subscribers. (6) In The Job (1916), set in Upper Manhattan in 1907, Sinclair Lewis has his heroine walk four blocks from her apartment to find an all-night drugstore where she can phone for a doctor to visit her dying mother. Lewis highlights the irony of living in a modern networked city with a subway, asphalt streets and even 'a wireless message winging overhead' while modern communications for ordinary people at home remained practically inaccessible.

Networks that connected rich and poor too directly could also prove threatening to the former. Prior to the implementation of Bazalgette's heroic scheme for intercepting sewers and pumping stations, there were worries among London's middle classes that if they were connected to mains sewers they would end up breathing in sewer gases generated by poor people's waste. At a time when most people accepted miasma as the source of disease, this was a terrifying prospect. (7)

Sewer maps, annotated with the time it took raw sewage to pass through the system from west London to sewage farms or outfalls far downstream (six and a half hours from Chelsea to Barking, just over four hours from the City), (8) remind us that a key dimension to modernity is 'time-space compression': a concern with the temporal-spatial imagination as well as with the material costs and savings of improved communications. Telecommunications and public transport were important drivers of time-space compression, but the time taken to move inanimate material, whether sewage or commodities for sale in new department stores, was also diminishing. Hence the ability of city-centre stores to move production sites and warehouses out of central business districts to cheaper urban-fringe locations from which goods could be quickly summoned by phone or cable. Again this had class (and gender) implications. One argument for the introduction of zoning in New York in 1916 was that middle-class shoppers on Fifth Avenue were discomforted by having to share the sidewalk with working-class girls employed in the clothing factories that occupied the upper floors of many buildings. (9) Once it was feasible to shift this kind of manufacturing out of midtown Manhattan, and once the installation of reliable hydraulic or electric elevators allowed retail activity to spread upwards, there was no excuse for not expelling production out of sight and out of mind.

What emerges from these examples is not so much that 'modernity' was a purely middle-class concept, of little relevance to working-class experience, but that it had different implications for different groups. Since many lower-income families obviously benefited from improved sanitation, housing, mass production, shorter working hours and enhanced opportunities for leisure, we cannot simply cast the poor as victims of modernity as, more recently, they have been cast as victims of globalisation. Rather, the impact of segregation and geographical specialisation was to differentiate the experiences of rich and poor and their day-to-day awareness of one another's lives. (10)

The cultural anthropologist, Constance Perin, argued that the rise of zoning and planning, especially in suburbs of 20th-century American cities, helped to create 'a place for everything and everything in its place'. (11) Diverse and even 'deviant' activities might be tolerated, but only provided they did not interfere economically or socially with one another. David Ward and Olivier Zunz expressed similar ideas in positioning New York's 'landscapes of modernity', 'between rationalism and pluralism'. Here rationalism implied the logic of the market reinforced by regulation (as in the introduction of zoning and height regulations in 1916), while pluralism meant accommodating cultural difference and ethnic diversity. (12) More recently, Patrick Joyce has explored the apparent contradictions of 'the rule of freedom' through which responsible citizenship could be nurtured without resort to overtly disciplinary regimes by, among other things, environmental improvements. Modern cities required disciplined and responsible behaviour if they were to work efficiently, but in a liberal democracy citizens would not tolerate explicit social control. In espousing Foucault's work on governmentality, Joyce comments that he is more interested in 'questions of agency' - how things work, rather than representation - 'what things mean'. Consequently, he shifts the emphasis away from the representation of modernity to its expression in performance or spatial practice. (13) The latter is also part of the theoretical armoury of the leading exponent of ideas on 'the production of space': Henri Lefebvre.

Lefebvre proposed a history of the production of (urban) space, identifying at least a loose and reflexive relationship between modes of production and the spaces they constituted. Progression through successive forms of mercantile, industrial and finance capitalism was accompanied by an increasingly abstract conceptualisation of space, less concerned with its unique topography or iconography than with its geometrical and quantifiable characteristics: space as a commodity and an object of regulation and regularisation. Lefebvre also differentiated between 'representations of space', made by planners, politicians, reformers and academics (those with power to shape and interpret space to their own ideas); and 'representational spaces', the spaces of imagination, resistance, carnival, subversion and appropriations made by the conventionally powerless. Articulating the two was a third element, 'spatial practices', comprised of spaces as experienced and used in everyday material life. (14) In Joyce's terms, the first two elements constitute what things mean, and the third, how they work. Among historical geographers, Philip Howell has framed his discussion of prostitutional space in 19th-century European cities in Lefebvrian terms, going far beyond a conventional geographical mapping of the locations of prostitutes' activities. Less formally, Peter Atkins has also invoked Lefebvre's ideas when discussing struggles to remove gates that regulated access to many streets in Victorian London. (15) At the very least, the interest in Lefebvre has directed researchers to focus, not just on 'spatial practices', but on the contested nature of space in modern cities.

The 20th-century New York photographer, Helen Levitt, observed that, 'the streets of a great city are a theatre and a battleground'. (16) New and improved streets functioned as instruments of reform, as Chris Otter and Patrick Joyce have noted. (17) They were deliberately routed through 'rookeries' and criminal 'dens' and were agents of slum clearance and surveillance; straight, well-paved, well-lit streets encouraged good behaviour, traffic lights disciplined traffic and licensing regulations controlled street-trading. (18) Premodern street markets and fairs were either abolished or removed to specialist premises in covered market halls and fairgrounds. But streets also provided space for display. Plate-glass windows, for example, allowed the theatrical display of commodities, while the pavement/sidewalk (clearly differentiated from the roadway), served as stage for a variety of modern types: the 'man about town', the flâneur, the streetwalker/prostitute and the private detective, many of whom subverted the reasons why streets had been improved in the first place. The 'polite politics' of 'tactical transgressions' by women and ethnic minorities laying claim to spaces from which they had hitherto been excluded, have been explored by, among others, Mona Domosh and Lynda Nead. (19) More explicit disruptions and appropriations of public space were associated with demonstrations, riots, the erection of barricades and with less political 'invasions' of exclusionary spaces, such as that depicted by George Gissing in The Nether World (1889), in which high-spirited, noisy, drunken, vulgar youths from the slums of Clerkenwell go on an August Bank Holiday excursion to the normally sober and decorous Crystal Palace, situated in the heart of middle-class suburbia. Where these activities occurred was critical to their performance and their meaning. Of course there was crime and disorder, procession and carnival on the streets of premodern cities, but the new context of geographical and functional differentiation made behaviour that was 'out of place' more obvious and more threatening.

Finally, consider the modernisation of space within buildings reflected in debates on the demarcation of public and private space and, within the latter, of functionally specialised spaces in 'mansion flats', or apartments for the better-off. In the context of both London and New York, blocks of flats were undoubtedly modern. They involved modern technology in their erection (concrete, prefabrication of standard parts like doors and windows and, by the 20th century, the use of a steel frame to allow high-rise construction) and their equipment (lifts, electric bells and lighting, and a high-pressure water supply). Frequently, they depended on modern forms of financing beyond the resources of individual investors. Often they accommodated modern types of household: childless couples, the affluent elderly and career women living independently or sharing with other women. They were marketed as offering a modern, carefree lifestyle; shorn of domestic responsibilities thus allowing time to concentrate on leisure. This was threatening enough to cultural conservatives who feared the rise of an amoral, self-indulgent middle class; however, it also challenged some critical tenets of modernity. Compared to semi-detached suburbia's increasing differentiation of private from public space, apartment buildings were full of ambiguous, not-quite-private, not-quite-public spaces: courtyards, staircases, landings and flat roofs that might be used as gardens or playgrounds. Who and what kind of behaviour was permitted in these areas? How were they to be policed and maintained? Within the confines of individual flats, how was space to be divided up to differentiate between residents', servants' and tradesmen's space; space for sleeping from space for eating or entertaining? What were the implications of situating bedrooms just across the corridor from, or, as in the French style, opening directly out of, living rooms? As Edith Wharton noted of Mrs Mingott's domestic arrangements in The Age of Innocence (1920, but set in 1870s New York), 'apartments with all the rooms on one floor' provided 'architectural incentives to immorality such as the simple American had never dreamed of'. (20) Should servants be accommodated inside individual flats, in rooms opening directly off the kitchen and ideally with their own toilet facilities, or should they be housed communally in attics or basements where gossip about their employers could more easily spread between servants attached to different families? Should there be separate staircases for servants, which would ensure a proper social segregation, obviating worries of meeting servants or tradespeople on the stairs or in the lift?

Floor-plans mostly depict long, narrow apartments in late 19th-century New York. (21) Working-class versions of this arrangement were referred to as 'railroad flats'. In middle-class elaborations, a bay-windowed parlour at the front overlooked the street, usually with a dining room or best bedroom also enjoying this aspect. Behind stretched a succession of bedrooms, with bathroom and kitchen at the rear. While this layout neatly segregated 'public' rooms at the front from 'private' rooms behind, it meant that food from the kitchen had to be carried down a long corridor past the bedrooms. If, on the other hand, the dining room was placed towards the rear, nearer the kitchen, guests would have to be ushered past the bedrooms. Where flats were L- or U-shaped and arranged around a central courtyard, or at least an 'area' or ventilation shaft (to carry away steam and smells from kitchens and bathrooms), there could be multiple routes from the entrance hall: one leading to bedrooms, another to public rooms and a third to the kitchen and servants' rooms. While this successfully maintained the required spatial segregation, it was an elaborate and expensive layout, infrequently achievable in practice.

Similar analyses could be made of suburban villas and model dwellings, department stores and office blocks, churches, pubs, theatres and sports stadia. All accommodated a variety of different social classes and genders, in differently priced, or more or less desirable settings. Better-off patrons expected protection from the disconcerting effects of 'others'. In cities where almost everything was commodified, and especially where homeownership was encouraged and private residences were as prized for their 'exchange value' as for their immediate 'use value' (already the case in most North American cities in the 19th century and increasingly true in Britain after the First World War), a defensive attitude to space predominated. (22) Yet, for all this spatial segregation, different groups depended on one another. They could not live too far apart and they relied on communications and utilities networks, conceptually no different from the networks that characterise our postmodern world. Although my focus has primarily been on the conflicts and contradictions inherent in modern cities, ultimately, cities still had, and have to, function as communities of difference.

  1. Many of the arguments in this paper are discussed and illustrated in more detail in my book, Cities in Modernity: Representations and Productions of Metropolitan Space, 1840-1930, published by Cambridge University Press in Spring 2008. See also R. Dennis, 'Modern London' in Cambridge Urban History of Britain Volume III, 1840-1950, ed. M. J. Daunton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 95-131, and 'Historical geographies of urbanism', in Modern Historical Geographies, ed. B. Graham and C. Nash (Harlow: Longman, 2000), pp. 218-47. Back to (1)
  2. M. Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (London: Verso, 1982); D. Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989). Back to (2)
  3. D. Reeder, Charles Booth's Descriptive Map of London Poverty 1889 (London: London Topographical Society, 1987). Back to (3)
  4. For important discussions of New York art and photography, see P. B. Hales, Silver Cities: The Photography of American Urbanisation, 1839-1915 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984) and D. Tallack, New York Sights: Visualising Old and New New York (Oxford: Berg, 2005). Back to (4)
  5. In The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), Engels had famously noted how omnibuses carrying the bourgeoisie to and from work kept to main streets, lined by commercial buildings which hid the slums from view. After a brief period of panoramic spectacle - the view from the viaduct or the elevated railway - subways restored the opaqueness of modern cities. See also M. W. Brooks, Subway City: Riding the Trains, Reading New York (New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997); D. L. Pike, 'Modernist space and the transformation of Underground London' in Imagined Londons, ed. P. K. Gilbert (Albany NY: New York State University Press, 2002), pp. 101-19, and Subterranean Cities: The World Beneath Paris and London, 1800-1945 (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2005). Back to (5)
  6. C. Poitras, La Cité Au Bout Du Fil: Le Téléphone à Montréal de 1879 à 1930 (Montreal: Presses de l'Université de Montréal, 2000). Back to (6)
  7. M. Allen, 'From cesspool to sewer: sanitary reform and the rhetoric of resistance, 1848-1880', Victorian Literature and Culture, 30 (2002), 383-402. Back to (7)
  8. For example, 'Plan of the District of the Metropolitan Board of Works, c. 1883', map on loan to the Museum of London, reproduced in R. Dennis, Cities in Modernity. Back to (8)
  9. K. D. Revell, 'Regulating the landscape: real estate values, city planning, and the 1916 zoning ordinance' in The Landscape of Modernity: Essays on New York City, 1900-1940, ed. D. Ward and O. Zunz (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1992), pp. 19-44. Back to (9)
  10. See, for example, the variety of experiences of modern Paris portrayed in D. Harvey, Paris, Capital of Modernity (London: Routledge, 2003) (primarily focused on the marginalisation and resistance of the working classes); D. J. Olsen, The City as a Work of Art: London, Paris, Vienna (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 1986) (concentrating on the wealthy); and S. Marcus, Apartment Stories: City and Home in 19th-Century Paris and London (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999). Back to (10)
  11. C. Perin, Everything in Its Place: Social Order and Land Use in America (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977). Back to (11)
  12. D. Ward and O. Zunz, 'Between rationalism and pluralism: creating the modern city' in Landscape of Modernity, ed. Ward and Zunz, pp. 3-15. Back to (12)
  13. P. Joyce, The Rule of Freedom: Liberalism and the Modern City (London: Verso, 2003). Back to (13)
  14. H. Lefebvre, The Production of Space (tr. D. Nicholson-Smith) (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991); for simple introductions, see A. Merrifield, 'Henri Lefebvre: a socialist in space', in Thinking Space, ed. M. Crang and N. Thrift (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 167-82; The Dictionary of Human Geography, 4th Edition, ed. R. J. Johnston, D. Gregory, G. Pratt and M. Watts (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), pp. 644-7. Back to (14)
  15. P. Howell, 'Prostitutional space in the 19th-century European city' in Place, Culture and Identity, ed. I. S. Black and R. A. Butlin (Quebec: Laval University Press, 2001), pp. 181-202; P. J . Atkins, 'How the West End was won: the struggle to remove street barriers in Victorian London', Journal of Historical Geography, 19 (1993), 265-77. Back to (15)
  16. Cited in 'Faces in the Crowd', exhibition at Whitechapel Art Gallery, 2004-05; see I. Blazwick et al., Faces in the Crowd: Picturing Modern Life from Manet to Today (London and Milan: Skira, 2005). Back to (16)
  17. Joyce, The Rule of Freedom; C. Otter, 'Making liberalism durable: vision and civility in the late Victorian city', Social History, 27 (2002), 1-15; and 'Cleansing and clarifying: technology and perception in 19th-century London', Journal of British Studies, 43 (2004), 40-64. Back to (17)
  18. On London, see J. Winter, London's Teeming Streets, 1830-1914 (London: Routledge, 1993); on New York, see M. Page, The Creative Destruction of Manhattan, 1900-1940 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999). Back to (18)
  19. M. Domosh, 'Those "Gorgeous Incongruities": polite politics and public space on the streets of 19th-century New York City', Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 88 (1998), 209-26; L. Nead, Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in 19th-Century London (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2000). Back to (19)
  20. Consider, for the same reasons, the ambiguous status of early bungalows: A. D. King, 'Excavating the multicultural suburb: hidden histories of the bungalow' in Visions of Suburbia, ed. R. Silverstone (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 55-85. Back to (20)
  21. E. C. Cromley, Alone Together: A History of New York's Early Apartments (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1990). Back to (21)
  22. See, for example, D. Hayden, Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000 (New York: Pantheon, 2003). Marx's ideas on 'use value' and 'exchange value' were introduced into urban and historical geography by David Harvey, for example in his The Urbanization of Capital (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985). Back to (22)

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