Blog

Category Archives: History

On statues, and what can and cannot be said

Posted on by Tina Novero
Filed under: Art, History

From the Berkeley Blog: http://blogs.berkeley.edu/2017/08/18/on-statues-and-what-can-and-cannot-be-said/
By Andrew Shanken (GUH fellow and co-instructor of the GUH course City of Memory )
August 18, 2017

I’ve been loath to write about what’s happening with Confederate statues, but a few sleepless nights cured my diffidence. As an architectural historian who works on memorials and has dabbled in the history of historic preservation, I’ve vacillated over the years between a Ruskinian position (“let it moulder”) and a Rieglian position, trying to establish some basis, however culturally relative, for how we value parts of the built environment.

My first thought on the matter at hand is that there have been waves of iconoclasm since memorials and statues first became fixtures in the built environment. While the present phenomenon is part of a modern reaction to what are essentially political interventions in the built environment, Romans regularly cleared out the statues that cluttered the Forum. It was a form of political erasure, a fine art for any successful autocrat. France experienced moments of “statuophobia” tagged to the waves of revolutions that swept through that country in the 19th century. More recently, statues came down after the fall of the Soviet Union and its former puppet states, Saddam statues fell in Iraq, and across the world reactionaries have used iconoclasm as a form of violence manqué, often alongside actual violence. This sort of erasure has been a tool of the left and the right; iconoclasm is not a politically fixed act.

But it is erasure and this is a point that we need to explore a bit more vigorously. What are these statues saying and should we be silencing it or responding to it? I’m not totally sure I know the answer to that question.

There is, luckily, a history of contest in the south over Civil War and civil rights statues, one explored in a recent book by Dell Upton: What Can and Can’t Be Said. The title gets right to the heart of it. We are witnessing a rupture in the basic conception of what can and can’t be said publicly.

White nationalists, emboldened by the present regime, feel empowered to speak and are using monuments to do so. This is not a new use for these monuments, but the situation is amplified, acute, raw. These monuments are linguistically flexible. They can be quietly beautiful one moment, a seemingly harmless piece of civic adornment—and many were erected, we have forgotten, during the reign of the City Beautiful—and harnessed for evil in another. People have rushed in to counter the darkness unleashed in places like Charlottesville verbally, bodily, and violently. The violence has a larger context, of course, but some of it may issue from the fact that these statues are bold: tall, dignified, larger than life, often aesthetically powerful, and laden with layers of dark history. Going back to Upton’s title, what words can possibly counter that! Fists, lassoes, physical force of some sort seems to be the answer for many people. Where words fail to win the day, the statue comes down.

But should it? It is, I suppose, not enough to argue that these statues are artistically significant. Beautiful things get destroyed routinely. We may rue their passing, but preservation often has a mightily precious view of artistic and age value.

Perhaps there is some verbal or cultural equivalent to a martial arts move that could turn the power of these statues against them. Can they be lampooned, subtitled or otherwise diffused by further intervention? At the moment, I think not, at least not now. If Americans were capable of meaningful, civil dialogue, the white nationalists would not be marching and Antifa would not be storming the marches. But perhaps these statues have a role to play down the road, didactically, politically, aesthetically. I was astonished to learn that there has been for about 20 years a return to erecting Stalin statues in the former Soviet lands.

Serious dialogue begins with empathy. Perhaps we might begin that dialogue with a considered act of empathy toward these statues. They are prisoners of war, in effect, and deserve that consideration.


Tokyo’s Flow: The Importance of Material in Historical Tokyo

Posted on by Genise Choy

As part of the Global Urban Humanities Initiative Colloquium called Reading Cities, Sensing Cities we have asked students and visitors to write responses to each of the weekly guest lectures.


November 20, 2014
The Tokyo Model: Lessons in Slum Non-Clearance from the World’s First “Megacity”
Jordan Sand (Japanese History and Culture, Georgetown University)

Presentation available here.
Video of the conversation available here.
Professor Sand presented his research on the activities of a Tokyo slumlord at the turn of the 20th century.


by Yael Hadar

No phenomenon can be explained outside of its context. In his lecture, “Lessons in Slum Non- Clearance from the World’s First Megacity,” Professor Jordan Sand talks about the historical context in which Edo became Tokyo, the largest metropolitan area in the world.

Professor Sand addressed in his lecture two things that I found fascinating. One was the idea of fire as a force that shapes the city and its population. The other was the idea of materials and the flow of materials.

The buildings in Edo were destroyed by fire approximately once every 5 to 10 years. The temporality of place made investments in real estate not worthwhile. In this setting, Professor Sand brings the unique story of Osaki Tatsugoro, an illiterate builder who purchased peripheral land at the end of the 19th century and built a neighborhood called Nishimaru-cho that had approximately 300 housing units.

What I found most interesting about Osaki’s story is the lease agreement he had his tenants sign in which the tenants gave away their right to all the human waste they produced at the site so that Osaki could sell it as fertilizer. The lease agreement also states that when a tenant does not follow said agreement, Osaki is allowed to take out all the outside shutters and floor boards from the house to deter the tenant from staying.

This relates directly to a finding Professor Sand presented in the form of an image of what people from Edo took with them in the case of fire--their textiles, floor boards and movable doors.



Image courtesy of Jordan Sand


Both of those examples, Osaki’s lease and the image of what people chose to save from fire, can teach us the importance of movable materials in historical Tokyo. When everything can be destroyed quickly, things need to be moved quickly. This, Professor Sand says, can teach us about the importance of flow. When we come to look at a city like Tokyo we should consider looking at the movement of materials, the movement of “stuff,” rather than try to investigate the space, as it might be that those are still the things that are valued in a place like Tokyo.

Yael Hadar is a graduate student in the UC Berkeley Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning.


“Invoking” The Spirits of History: Tokyo’s Nishimaru-cho

Posted on by Genise Choy

As part of the Global Urban Humanities Initiative Colloquium called Reading Cities, Sensing Cities we have asked students and visitors to write responses to each of the weekly guest lectures.


November 20, 2014
The Tokyo Model: Lessons in Slum Non-Clearance from the World’s First “Megacity”
Jordan Sand (Japanese History and Culture, Georgetown University)

Presentation available here.
Video of the conversation available here.
Professor Sand presented his research on the activities of a Tokyo slumlord at the turn of the 20th century.


by Jon Pitt

In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau writes, “There is no place that is not haunted by many different spirits hidden there in silence, spirits one can ‘invoke’ or not.” In his recent lecture on the history of the Nishimaru-cho neighborhood of Tokyo, Jordan Sand, Professor of Japanese History and Culture at Georgetown University, reminded us of the importance of history in our reading of cities. Current literature on the “megacity,” Sand argued, is disconnected from the history of cities, and the history of Tokyo offers relevant evidence of “megacity” trends, should one care to “invoke” its spirits.

In offering a detailed history of Nishimaru-cho, Sand presented a narrative of its development from the Meiji Period up until present day. Central to this narrative was the figure of Osaki Tatsugoro, an illiterate builder who purchased the peripheral land at the end of the 19th century, and built a neighborhood that the government would eventually designate as a “slum” in 1932. A historical marker stands in Nishimaru-cho today, but neglects to mention Osaki’s importance in the area’s creation. The neighborhood’s narrow roads, holdovers from Osaki’s planning, bear witness to his presence all the same.



Image courtesy of Jon Pitt


Osaki was able to dictate his life story, and its publication serves as historical evidence of his role in the creation of Nishimaru-cho. In invoking Osaki’s story, through Osaki’s own words, and repositioning his life into the larger history of Nishimaru-cho, Sand reminds us of the important potential history offers in informing our reading of urban space. Many read Tokyo as a “megacity” today, but the history of Nishimaru-cho points to a larger scale in which to read Tokyo as such. Nishimaru-cho is but one small neighborhood in a vast metropolis, and one wonders what similar investigations into other neighborhoods could yield. If indeed, to quote de Certeau once more, “the very definition of a place… is composed by (a) series of displacements and effects among the fragmented strata that form it,” our understanding of cities may require as much digging as reading.

Jon Pitt is a graduate student in the East Asian Languages and Cultures Department at UC Berkeley studying Japanese Literature.


Power and the Audiovisual

Posted on by Genise Choy

As part of the Global Urban Humanities Initiative Colloquium called Reading Cities, Sensing Cities we have asked students and visitors to write responses to each of the weekly guest lectures.

 

October 23, 2014
Urban Space, Spectacle, Memory and Music in Nineteenth-Century Vienna
Nicholas Mathew (Music)

Presentation available here.
Video of the conversation available here.
Mathew presented on the role of music and sound in the emergence of modern civic sensibilities in Napoleonic Vienna, and how printed music came to shape a new politics of urban pedestrianism.

 

 

by Brandon Harrell

 

On October 23, Professor Nicolas Mathew gave us a taste of the Congress of Vienna as it was post-Napoleonic War. He challenged his audience, our classroom, to focus on the words “spectator” and “audience” as he explained how the Congress would organize grand events in urban spaces to acknowledge the elite heads of state while also arousing the masses. The large spaces, once bustling the day before with activity, were converted into pavilion-like landscapes where all things regal were admired. Again, I thought to myself, dramaturgy. I am being compelled to view the city as a spectacle where everyday life is a performance, where the image of the city is mediated by a binary social relationship, where individual choices are made in the sphere of production and consumption. In this case, the state of Vienna was producing an image, organized with symphonic arrangements to be consumed by the masses. The music would blast, sonic boom after sonic boom, and the words (in German) would describe and glorify particular events, solidifying them in historical memory. These elite narratives were more aural fantasy than anything and, as the music boomed over the spectators they were not being shaken into obedience, but becoming aware of themselves as an audience en masse. The public became aware of its own presence. Individual privacy of expression is gone when one becomes usurped by the crowd. All is laid bare; what would be a passive, disorganized sound becomes an active clamor of the masses.

The urban experience is fragmented and dramatic, and as Mathew focused deeper on the music and grand public performances of Vienna, I could not help but ask, “Where does state-sponsored music and performance fit into our cities today? How do we produce sound and communal identity through performance theory?” Knowing that the U.S. government maintains power norms through the commodification of resources and space, I believe that sound and image cannot be separated from space. We often don’t think of the commodification of land and space as directly affecting our audiovisual opportunities and what those audiovisual opportunities can do for us but let’s ponder for a moment: as more and more land becomes privatized, there are fewer public spaces in which to perform, to act, to play, to be free, physically. The cars, planes, drones, and construction drown out the music, the rhythms, the voices, the stories; that car blasting Drake or Lil Wayne as it winds down Telegraph only passes by for a second. Then, the roars and bustle are quickly back at the forefront-–that is the norm. Billboards, fast-food signs, curb paint and road paint, streetlights and the entangled web of telephone poles and wires, all distract from our relationship with space, passively extracting opportunities for collective voice and expression.

Where and how can we reclaim space, reclaim our voice? All of my examples come not from those in power, but the oppressed. Performing participatory pedestrianism–from the gypsy, flamenco culture of Andalusia, Spain, to the Black, hip-hop culture of North America–-they all screamed, “Fight the power! Pa’lante siempre!” By existing in these spaces we reclaim them. That message juxtaposed against the monolithic drone of commerce and mainstream media kind of summarizes U.S. society today…

Here is some local inspiration… a response to the death of a young, Black boy named June.

Brandon Harrell is a graduate student in the Master of City Planning program at the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design.


The Sound of Urban Spectacle

Posted on by Genise Choy

As part of the Global Urban Humanities Initiative Colloquium called Reading Cities, Sensing Cities we have asked students and visitors to write responses to each of the weekly guest lectures.


October 23, 2014
Urban Space, Spectacle, Memory and Music in Nineteenth-Century Vienna
Nicholas Mathew (Music)

Presentation available here.
Video of the conversation available here.
Mathew presented on the role of music and sound in the emergence of modern civic sensibilities in Napoleonic Vienna, and how printed music came to shape a new politics of urban pedestrianism.


by Swetha Vijayakumar

“The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”
- Guy Debord, The Society of Spectacle

In 1967, Guy Debord offered a radical critique on modern societies in his book The Society of Spectacle by arguing that the nature of society changes with the advent of mass media. Raymond Williams in his book Keywords (1985) describes “Spectacle” as a “Theory of Sight.” While much has been said about the role of sight in the making of a spectacle, Nicholas Mathew presents a new component of spectacles. He throws light on the role of sound in creating urban spectacles. In his presentation titled “Urban Space, Spectacle, Memory and Music in Nineteenth-Century Vienna,” Mathew discusses the relationship between music and social life, and the making of public spectacles in 19th century Vienna. The images of the 1814 Vienna Prater Fest that Mathew showed are depictive of this, illustrating many people gathered to witness a musical performance. It was described as “a poetic and sublime scene beyond description.” “Spectacle” in the Oxford English Dictionary is defined as “a person or thing exhibited to, or set before, the public gaze as an object either (a) of curiosity or contempt, or (b) of marvel or admiration.” For the burgeoning middle class in the 19th century, a large concert by a famous musician like Beethoven was not only a marvel of music but also a sight to behold. Beethoven’s piece that Mathew played during the presentation, when first performed in Vienna, he explains, was as visually captivating as it was musical. The Victory Music was intended to re-create the imageries from a battlefield for all those who weren’t present. The orchestra, divided into two parts, marched onto the stage from two sides and met in the middle to perform this piece.


Image showing a huge gathering of people on the other side of the bridge – Prater-Fest, Vienna 1814. Image courtesy: Nicholas Mathew


Vienna is the capital and largest city of Austria. It has had a long-standing tradition of classical music, where several famous musicians like Mozart, Joseph Haydn, Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, and Arnold Schoenberg lived and worked. Vienna houses some of the best opera houses, theatres, and concert spaces in the world. Viennese Balls are major tourist attractions, and have been a part of the city’s cultural legacy since the 19th century. These Balls are night-long events held in large concert halls or opera houses where up to nine live orchestras perform together. Music is often said to be a key part of Viennese culture and urban life. Mathew briefly discussed the role music plays as an instrument for political expression. In Napoleonic Vienna, musical compositions were often responsible for shaping new public experiences in urban spaces.

The new musical compositions reflected changes in society and responded to them in various ways. With the advent of a new class of bourgeoisie, the classical period in Vienna (late 18th century to early 19th century) was when public concerts were first held on a large scale, and became an important part of daily life in the city.


Performance under the direction of Antonio Salieri of Haydn's Creation at the Old University Hall in Vienna on 27 March 1808. The 76-year-old composer attended; he can be seen seated in the front, at the center, wearing a black hat. Image courtesy: https://sites.google.com/site/jarice18thcmusic/17-vienna-in-the-napoleonic-era


The moving away of musical performances from courtly rooms to the public sphere was reflective of an egalitarian nature of music. Ignaz Von Mosel, an 18th century Austrian composer, notes here the bonding effect of music:

Here music daily performs the miracle that is only otherwise attributed to Love: it makes people of all social stations equal. Members of the nobility and of the bourgeoisie, princes and their retainers, those in authority and those beneath them sit together at one music stand, the harmony of the music making them oblivious to the disharmony of their social standing.

In a city like Vienna, which has a strong classical tradition, and which in the 19th century was arguably at the forefront of radical musical creations, the city itself becomes a living museum for showcasing past musical traditions. The place is simultaneously both real and imagined. In his famous book Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau compares the act of walking to speech:

The act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language. It is a process of appropriation of the topographical system on the part of the pedestrian (just as the speaker appropriates and takes on the language); it is a spatial acting-out of the place (just as the speech act is an acoustic acting-out of language).

Here the city can be thought of as the metaphorical theatrical space of everyday life. Then, to quote Mathew, “public would be actors. They will be both spectators and performers in the city.” Lefebvre describes the experience of the “polyrhythms” of the city as “he who walks down the street is immersed in the multiplicity of noises, murmurs, rhythms.” Mathew’s presentation of the role of music in creating new civic sensibilities in 19th century Vienna can be understood as the historical backdrop for the impact that thousands of live concerts and public performances have on public life. Music, even today, has the potential to create an urban spectacle like no other.

References:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vienna
http://www.habsburger.net/en/stories/classical-music-nineteenth-century-vienna
https://sites.google.com/site/jarice18thcmusic/17-vienna-in-the-napoleonic-era

de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Rendall. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984.

Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Translated by Donals Nicholson-Smith. New York: Zone Books, 1994.

Swetha Vijayakumar is a PhD student studying the History of Architecture and Urbanism.


An Engaged Populace Through Music

Posted on by Genise Choy

As part of the Global Urban Humanities Initiative Colloquium called Reading Cities, Sensing Cities we have asked students and visitors to write responses to each of the weekly guest lectures.


October 23, 2014
Urban Space, Spectacle, Memory and Music in Nineteenth-Century Vienna
Nicholas Mathew (Music)

Presentation available here.
Video of the conversation available here.
Mathew presented on the role of music and sound in the emergence of modern civic sensibilities in Napoleonic Vienna, and how printed music came to shape a new politics of urban pedestrianism.


by Matthew Goodman

This week’s lecture provided an interesting glimpse into how music shaped culture, patriotism, and national allegiance in 19th century Vienna. Beyond that, it provided a lens through which to evaluate the role that music can play in creating a shared civic identity.

Nicolas Mathew’s insightful lecture showed how the dissemination and recital of printed music gave the Viennese a sense of communal belonging. Music created a tableau depicting how important battles, including the Battle of Leipzig, played out. Intricate pieces by celebrated composers, including Beethoven, constituted music as theater, where percussion was often used to quite realistically represent cannons being fired. It struck me as being almost a reversal of silent film; instead of artists using soundless visuals to depict a story, composers recounted civic glories solely through sound.

Here’s an interesting link about the continued legacy Beethoven left on the city of Vienna: http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/europe/note-perfect-beethovens-spirit-lives-on-in-vienna-1650203.html

The most interesting issue raised by Mathew was how these battle songs acted as a means for catalyzing the creation of a shared civic identity. These songs were not recorded – the written notations were provided to Viennese citizens using a burgeoning printing industry so families (notably women) could play these songs in their homes and together recount heroic and victorious battles. Citizens were no longer passive “spectators” but now an involved “audience.” The result was an engaged populace, one buoyed by civic pride and a sense of inclusive civic identity.


Image: The Linus Pauling Papers. http://profiles.nlm.nih.gov/ps/access/MMBBPQ_.jpg


Unrelated to the points above, I couldn’t help but recount a lecture from earlier this year by Georgina Kleege and Chris Downey about how blind people experience cities. They described how important auditory inputs are for blind people in understanding their surroundings and city at large. Sound is a sense sighted people often take for granted, choosing instead to walk streets listening to pulsating Apple earbuds. Kleege, Downey, and Mathew all describe the role that sound plays in reading, sensing, and defining cities.

Upon leaving Mathew’s lecture, I couldn’t help but recall the famous first scene of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” where Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” is used to provide a canvas upon which to paint a picture of New York City. Romanticism, chaos, loud, quiet…all things conjured up in the song that symbolize various elements of Manhattan. Music can be an interesting prism through which to learn about and sense a city. Mathew’s lecture took that idea a step further by illustrating how music can have a profound impact on how citizens relate to one another as well as appreciate their heritage and nationality.

Matthew Goodman is pursuing an MBA at the Haas School of Business.


Redirecting the Relationship Between Tech and Innovation

Posted on by Genise Choy

As part of the Global Urban Humanities Initiative Colloquium called Reading Cities, Sensing Cities we have asked students and visitors to write responses to each of the weekly guest lectures.


October 16, 2014
Creative Class Civil Wars: Displacement and the Arts in the Bay Area
Shannon Steen (Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies)

Presentation available here.
Video of the conversation available here.
Steen presented research from her project “Creative Class Civil Wars,” which explores the ways our concepts of creativity are shifting to exclude those in the arts.


by Robyn Perry

"The notion that diversity in an early team is important or good is completely wrong. You should try to make the early team as non-diverse as possible.”
– Max Levchin, co-founder of PayPal

“I want to stress the importance of being young and technical. Young people are just smarter.”
– Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook

Shannon Steen’s recent talk, Creative Class Civil Wars: Displacement and the Arts in the Bay Area, situated the broad question of how US cities are changing economically in a discussion that touched upon my own studies of technology and culture at the School of Information. Steen used Richard Florida’s notion of the “rising creative class” as the focal point of an examination of the state of art and artists, and the shrinking support of the infrastructure that sustains their work and enlivens our American cities.

Florida propounds the rising creative class as the solution to struggling cities, perhaps the most recent in a line of silver bullet strategies for urban renewal, as a commenter aptly pointed out in the discussion following Steen’s talk. Though the “creative class” sounds like artists of all stripes, Florida’s analysis leans away from the (struggling) thespian, painter, poet or muralist, and towards the oft-lauded tech worker. Many cities have created favorable conditions to usher in this tech worker, his company, and his future startup. Some of the I School curriculum is designed to funnel more workers, albeit thoughtful and informed ones, directly into Florida's creative class. In effect, Florida drops the actual artist from said creative class. What he offers instead is an ode to the tech workers, the “productive” creative class that brings innovation, “disruption,” and infallible youth.

Particularly interesting was Steen’s guidance through the history of creativity as a notion in Western culture, and its move from the exclusive domain of God to that of the Renaissance artist, the elitism of artist as distinct from artisan in the 19th Century, to the scientific study and intentional propagation of creativity in children in the modern era, which saw the beginning of the removal of the artist from her authoritative position on creativity. Steen’s talk brought into relief the fact that the current notion of creativity, like many other commodities in US culture, is something we think we can manufacture on demand, and something that we can grow, as if in a Petri dish, if only we arrange the right conditions for it. Many use the existence and bustling churn of Silicon Valley to evidence the fact that indeed, creativity is being pumped out by the hundreds of startups and apps and interfaces.


From an April Fool’s Day action by activist group Heart of the City and artist/interventionist Leslie Dreyer of Google bus action fame. Activists blocked buses and announced that a new service, GMuni, would be offering free transit for all.


However, this is all taking place at the risk of the heart and soul of our cities, and artists themselves. As “old-fashioned” creatives like playwrights, poets, writers, potters, sculptors, and their ilk are forced to resort to Indiegogo and other crowd-sourced funding strategies for one-off projects, their ability to thrive and produce art in the city withers. Meanwhile, the tech companies that are operating in the physical world are raising skepticism that this kind of “innovation” is at all good for San Francisco. On the contrary, it has spawned (some) companies that are capitalizing on public goods, sometimes with unabashed greed and opportunism. After Steen’s talk, I wondered how the burgeoning tech worker community might put some of their high incomes towards strengthening the arts in our cities. Although I’m skeptical that the problem would be solved by the very forces that have caused it, it would be interesting to challenge the Valley to produce a startup that makes the crowd-sourced funding of arts infrastructure extremely easy, fun, and hip.

Steen’s talk drove home the fact that there’s a direct interplay between the elements that make San Francisco and its surrounding cities the place to be, and those that forewarn its decline. Those of us at the I School have the responsibility to double-down on our efforts to be thoughtful and discerning in our contributions to innovative technologies, and tread lightly in a city that was made cool long before we came on the scene. Given a recent article by Carlos Bueno in Quartz from which the quotes at the top of this post were drawn, the tech worker culture of Silicon Valley has tended towards insularity and in-crowd behaviors. I can’t think of a better antidote to such insular clique-ishness than a thriving and protected arts culture in the Bay Area.

Robyn Perry is a candidate for the Master of Information and Management Systems degree at the UC Berkeley School of Information.


From Bricks to Bus Stops: Protesting San Francisco’s Second Tech Boom

Posted on by Genise Choy

As part of the Global Urban Humanities Initiative Colloquium called Reading Cities, Sensing Cities we have asked students and visitors to write responses to each of the weekly guest lectures.


October 16, 2014
Creative Class Civil Wars: Displacement and the Arts in the Bay Area
Shannon Steen (Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies)

Presentation available here.
Video of the conversation available here.
Steen presented research from her project “Creative Class Civil Wars,” which explores the ways our concepts of creativity are shifting to exclude those in the arts.


by Will Payne

Shannon Steen’s presentation about the shifting role the term “creative” has had over the years provided a fascinating glimpse at the power of words to define and redefine populations, and their respective perceived value to the city and its rulers. Specifically, she carefully demonstrated how Richard Florida’s famous invocation of the “creative class” of liberated and affluent workers in his eponymous 1991 book has been used carelessly by planners, politicians, and journalists to describe a multitude of people, often highly fragmented by more traditional class and identity categories. Specifically, the difference in lifestyle and worldview between a poet and a programmer can be a much bigger wedge than the common educational background the two may share, or the fact that both rely on crafting “new forms” (a fairly durable definition of creativity) on relatively flexible work schedules to support themselves.

Recently, the most vivid skirmish in the creative civil war has been related to an astronomical rise in the cost of living in the Bay Area, particularly in San Francisco, along with the fastest rise in income inequality in the country. One question comes to mind as I read about the latest unbelievable price statistics, or the rise of Ellis Act evictions, or the people struggling to get by on fixed incomes: haven’t we been here before? Some of the stories could have been copied and pasted from 1998, swapping Pets.com and Webvan for Uber and Airbnb. Not having lived through the first boom, one of the most striking differences I’ve seen through accounts of the earlier boom and bust is the earlier focus on radical action against property, exemplified by the Mission Yuppie Eradication Project of the late 1990s. See the posters below for an example of the kind of tactics they advocated, and their extremely specific target businesses (3/4 of the businesses are still around, although Circadia is just a regular Starbucks now, around the corner from KQED’s main office).


Posters from the 1990s Mission Yuppie Eradication Project


Image credit: FoundSF


While the group seems to have been a fairly small, violent segment of a broader movement criticizing Web 1.0 excess in a city full of exclusive parties and double-parked SUVs, I haven't seen anything this radical emerge in reaction to today’s crisis. Maybe the fleet of private buses ferrying commuters down to Silicon Valley is too massive a target, too perfect a metaphor for today's two-tiered economy, creating a handful of gold-plated jobs and a sea of intermittent gigs. Perhaps the most vocal critics of the yuppiefication of San Francisco made their way to greener pastures during the first boom, and what we’re left with is only a shadow of the activist Left who used to call the city home. Maybe the Bay Area’s much-vaunted food culture has been internalized to the point where rock star chefs feel more like creative class allies than mere gentrifiers. Maybe the impact of a decade and a half of slow-boil warfare and economic anxiety has limited the capacity of radical activists and allies to strike out too strongly at today's Crockers and Huntingtons, or the symbols of their wealth and status littering the city. Or maybe the creatives today on both sides of the civil war are just content to wage their battles with words, symbols, and social choreography (sometimes literally, in the case of some of the Google Bus protests), instead of the blunter instruments of bygone days.

Disclaimer: This post is a speculation on the history of anti-gentrification activism in San Francisco, not an endorsement of any particular method of protest, especially violent ones. If you feel the need for physical protest against urban space, may I suggest yarn? If you’re fighting eviction or want to help people who are, considering joining and supporting the San Francisco Tenants Union.

Will Payne is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Geography at UC Berkeley.


Crossroads Modernity: The Case of Tbilisi

Posted on by Genise Choy

As part of the Global Urban Humanities Initiative Colloquium called Reading Cities, Sensing Cities we have asked students and visitors to write responses to each of the weekly guest lectures.


October 9, 2014
Uneven Modernity and the “Peripheral” City: Between Ethnography, History and Literature in Tbilisi
Harsha Ram (Slavic Languages and Literature; Comparative Literature)

Video of the conversation available here.
Ram discussed the literary culture of Tbilisi as it relates to modernism and the unique history of Georgia.


by Elisa Russian

Tbilisi, the current capital of Georgia, was founded in the 5th century on one of the main trade and travel routes that historically linked West and East, Europe and Asia. It was for a long time the stage of important cultural encounters and economic exchanges, a city where goods and people from different areas came into contact and interacted in a variety of ways, shaping a unique environment. Due to its strategic location, Tbilisi was repeatedly contended for between empires, until its annexation by Russia in the early 19th century, a factor that is to be taken into consideration when accounting for the city’s complex ethnic identity and urban fabric. Professor Harsha Ram’s analysis of Tbilisi’s particular history casts new light on the center-periphery paradigm, leading not only to the rejection of this dichotomous model in favor of a crossroads one, but also to the rethinking of the very notion of modernity.



Trying to understand the late 19th century from the point of view of a reality like Tbilisi, a reality which is very different from metropolises such as London and Paris since it is neither a Western city nor an industrialized one, is a challenge worth taking on. In fact, this change of perspective may provide a new understanding of what being modern means and may lead to the discovery of how complex and multi-layered modernity is. Indeed, unevenness – or “the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous,” to quote the German philosopher Ernst Bloch – may be considered the defining quality of what we call modernity, and the crossroads model invites us to approach this issue in terms of hybridity and new discursive formations, where adaptation and resistance to novelty imply a collective renegotiation of meanings.

Elisa Russian is a first year Ph.D. student in the Italian Studies department.