Category Archives: Text

Loren Kruger, Imagining the Edgy City: Writing, Performing, and Building Johannesburg (2013)

City from the South (undated). Photograph copyright by David Goldblatt.

City from the South (undated). Photograph copyright by David Goldblatt.

As Johannesburg’s history shows, the city provoked extreme responses from the very beginning…Reflecting on developments around 1896, English observer William Butler displaced the already popular epithet “golden city” with the disparaging label: “Monte Carlo on top of Sodom and Gomorrah.” In 1926, William Plomer mixed aversion and admiration when he recalled the Johannesburg of his childhood as the “upstart city…Even the outright boosterism of “Africa’s Wonder City” on display at the Empire Exhibition in honor of Johannesburg’s 50th anniversary in 1936 jubilee was accompanied by stories of embezzled funds and other scandals…Rather than distinguish emphatically between a positive spin on the “Afropolis” and an allegedly long tradition of loathing”, as do Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall, the archive compels us instead to balance the history of fear and loathing with an equally long tradition of bullish appraisals, and thus to recognize that the persistent mixture of aversion and admiration, rather than loathing, has been the dominant response to the edgy city.

Working against the willful amnesia that has passed for memory in Johannesburg, this book excavates the history of the city and builds new links among recurring themes and forms in the literary, visual, and built representation of the urban imagination, in this city and in others with which it invites comparison. These themes, forms, and projects remind us that, even in twelve decades, Johannesburg’s answers to urbanist Kevin Lynch’s suggestive question “What time is this place?” multiply across temporal and spatial coordinates, as they produce images and echoes from half—remembered periods and buried strata.

Bringing together models, moments, sites, stories, and the networks, both real and imagined, that link them…this book wagers that the juxtaposition of different genres, forms, and representations of urban spatial practices in this edgy, fragmented, but still distinctive city will provide affective and critical links among hitherto separate realms of experience and fields of study and shed new light on some of the city’s darker corners. Retracing the edges between lived-in districts and their conjured others, as well as between and among the domains of urban history and design, and literary, filmic, and performance analysis illuminates not only zones of conflict but also the practices and people engaged creatively in reimagining Johannesburg. The edgy city has throughout its history balanced precariously between enchantment and disenchantment, aspiration to great heights and wonders and pedestrian navigation of the ground below, but a sustained precarity has testified, and continues to testify to the tenacity of those who persist in urban spatial practices from formal building to informal trade, from political parades to public art, to pedestrian negotiations as yet unnamed, and in temporal practices of narrative and storytelling in old and new media—in writing, performing, and building Johannesburg.

Although focused on a singular case, this exploration has not been bound by it. Johannesburg’s ambivalent mixture of cosmopolitan and xenophobic elements, and transnational and intensely local moments and representations, invites comparison across regions and continents. Rather than simply replace the self-conscious adaptation of northern models from London, New York, or Chicago with a mandate to privilege south-south contacts in the mock-belligerent manner of the Australian cartographer of the “corrective map of the world” who asserted “south is superior” more than thirty years ago…we should look beyond the confines of this particular project to other cities north and south that other points of comparison, such as Berlin, Bogotá, Chicago, Dakar, Los Angeles, or São Paolo. Readers of this study of one city to take to heart Anthony King’s remark that “all cities today are ‘world cities’”, with the understanding that their citizens aspire in unequal but nonetheless significant measure to inhabit the world and to imagine and re-imagine that habitation as their right to the city.

—Loren Kruger, Imagining the Edgy City: Writing, Performing, and Building Johannesburg. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Anthony D. King, Culture, Globalization and the World-System (1997)

…the first substantial encounter between (to use all terms defined by the center to describe its “Other”) Europe and non-Europe, between what have been called “developed” and “developing” societies, between capitalist and pre-capitalist economies, between white and non-white, between people largely of one cultural and religious backgrounds and those of many other cultural and religious backgrounds, took place in what were to become the colonies, not the the metropole; in the periphery, not the core; in non-Europe, not Europe, whichever conceptualisation we prefer. The first globally multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-continental societies on any substantial scale were in the periphery, not the core. They were constructed under the very specific economic, political, social and cultural conditions of colonialism and they were largely, if not entirely, products of the specific social and spatial conditions of colonial cities. Only since the 1950s (and somewhat earlier in the United States) have such multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-continental urban cultures existed in any substantial way in Europe.

Since the 1950s, different terms have been invented (almost entirely by “the West”) to map […] the global condition: First/Second/Third World, North/South, developed/underdeveloped, core/periphery/semi-periphery, and so on. The First/Second/Third World categories were first applied, using Western economic and social indicators, to measure processes of “development” in different market and centrally-planned economies. Yet if this classification were reinterpreted to refer historically to those societies which, racially, ethnically, socially and culturally first approximated to what today are the culturally diverse, economically, socially and spatially polarised cities in the West but also, increasingly, major cities around the world, what is now the Third World would historically more accurately be labelled the First World, and the First World would become the Third. In other words, the culture, society and space of early twentieth-century Calcutta or Singapore pre-figured the future in a much more accurate way than did that of London or New York. “Modernity” was not born in Paris but rather in Rio.

—Anthony D. King ed., Culture, Globalization and the World-System: Contemporary Conditions for the Representation of Identity. (1997) Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000, p.8.

Mohsin Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013)

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
Your city is not laid out as a single-celled organism, with a wealthy nucleus surrounded by an ooze of slums. It lacks sufficient mass transit to move all of its workers twice daily in the fashion this would require. It also lacks, since the end of colonization generations ago, governance powerful enough to dispossess individuals of their property in sufficient numbers. Accordingly, the poor live near the rich. Wealthy neighbourhoods are often divided by a single boulevard from factories and markets and graveyards, and those in turn may be separated from the homes of impoverished only by an open sewer, railroad track, or narrow alley. Your own triangle-shaped community, not atypically, is bounded by all three.

—Mohsin Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2013. p.20

Monica Ali, Brick Lane (2004)

Brick Lane

A row of police vans covered the mouth of Brick Lane. Behind them a legion of policemen stood with arms folded and feet turned out. A length of tangerine-and-white-striped tape stuck the sides of the street together.

“Let me through,” said Nazneen.

“The street is closed, madam. Go back.” The policeman sounded friendly but decisive. He seemed to think the conversation was finished.

“I have to go to Shalimar Café and find my daughter.”

Continue reading

Monica Ali, Brick Lane (2004)

Brick Lane

She began to spend time at the window, as she had in those first few months in London, when it was still possible to look out across the dead grass and concrete and see nothing but jade-green fields, unable to imagine that the years would rub them away. Now she saw only the flats, piles of people loaded one on top of the other, a vast dump of people rotting away under a mean strip of sky, too small to reflect all those souls. She lowered the net curtain and watched the groups of boys who drove endlessly around the estate, even on the parts where cars were not supposed to go. There were faces she did not recognize. They got out of their cars and approached other cars. They carried an air of violence with them, like a sort of breeding, good or bad, without ever displaying it.

—Monica Ali, Brick Lane. Reading: Transworld Publishers, 2004, p.364.