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Cities in Modernity 

Representations and Productions of Metropolitan Space, 1840-1930


Richard Dennis


Cambridge : University Press, 2008. 436pp. ISBN 978-0-521-46841-1


Reviewed by Jacques Carré

Université Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV)


Despite its misleadingly vague title, this book is basically a comparative history of three Anglophone cities, London, New York and Toronto, during a century of demographic expansion and technological progress. Richard Dennis borrows Marshall Berman’s definition of the dialectics of modernity as the ‘intimate unity of the modern self and the modern environment’ [p.1]. This implies that in the book the imaginative experience of city dwellers is considered as important as the facts of urban economic, social and architectural evolution.

The author also refers very frequently to the work of the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, especially La Production de l’espace (1971, translated into English in 1991) and to his three definitions of space: space as a planner’s idea, as an imaginative field, and as a concrete location. While displaying a vast multidisciplinary culture, Dennis constantly highlights the interplay between these three conceptions of urban space. Although a geographer by profession, he pays as much attention to literary and artistic images of the three cities as to specialised maps and statistics. For example the Victorian novelist George Gissing is often quoted as an invaluable guide to the experience of London life. But the novels of Morley Callaghan, set in Toronto, and those of Theodore Dreiser and John Dos Passos, set in New York, are also confronted with urban data. Dennis bluntly refuses to oppose facts to fiction, arguing that artists’ impressions can help urban historians ask new questions:

Unsurprisingly, I want to have my cake and eat it too ! — using the ‘content’ of artistic production to generate new questions with which to interrogate the social scientific record, or to answer questions of motive, mechanism or implication raised by spatial-temporal patterns generated by statistical analysis; but remaining sensitive to the conditions under which different forms of art were produced, to the positionality of producers, to their changing values, and to changes in ways of seeing and of translating experience into art [80].

While he firmly keeps a comparative course, Dennis is aware of the considerable differences between his three ‘metropoles’. Toronto certainly did not deserve the title at the beginning of the period, with only 30,000 inhabitants in 1850 (New York had 700,000 and London 2,600,000). Also it was practically a new town, unhampered by the unwieldy heritage of centuries of building as in the case of London. A modernist logic could therefore be deployed on the banks of Lake Ontario. And the very meaning of ‘progress’ could not be the same as in the British capital, where the first priority was the elimination of slum housing, bad sanitation and archaic local government.

After two introductory chapters, the author reviews the various types of textual and pictorial representations of the three cities. He insists on the differences in scale and point of view in modern all-embracing pictures such as painted panoramas, bird’s eye views and specialised maps. He points to the complacently narrative and picturesque aspects of the former, while he highlights the concern for surveillance inherent in poverty or cholera mapping. He reveals for example the existence of extremely elaborate and confidential set of maps of 19th-century London produced for fire insurance companies.

When he turns to close-up views of the metropoles, he gives pride of place to photographs of street scenes by such reporters as John Thomson (for London), Jacob Riis and Paul Strand (for New York), showing how the apparently neutral camera was often used to support the cause of social reform. There are also illuminating commentaries of several paintings and engravings of the three cities. Gustave Doré’s famous view of Ludgate Hill (from London, 1872), with its anarchic crowd of humans, animals and vehicles is tellingly compared to the picture by C.R.W. Nevinson, Among the Nerves of the World (1930), showing the same spot as a miraculously ordered combination of transport and telegraphic networks [176]. While he provides a very comprehensive survey of types of metropolitan pictures, Dennis is also able to identify and analyse the more emblematic ones, often illustrated in black and white in the volume.

Among non-artistic representations, the author emphasises the importance of the often voluminous results of the social surveys conducted on both sides of the Atlantic. Here again the book provides an encyclopædic review of these reports, while referring above all to Charles Booth’s mammoth survey of Life and Labour in London. An interesting connection is made between social surveys and contemporary novels characterised by ‘social realism’, found at the same time in Europe and America. For Dennis, these two genres combine panoramic overviews with intimate explorations, much as he does in his own book.

The following chapters deal with the street in its relation to technological modernity and social evolution. Dennis first shows the blurry frontier between private and public space in working-class districts (with children playing in the street and mothers chatting on their doorsteps). This kind of appropriation of urban space disappeared with the advent of modern transport, when the space of the street was ‘devalued’ into an anonymous ‘empty space’ [115] for which citizens felt no responsibility whatsoever. The new thoroughfares opened in 19th-century London are said to contribute to this loss of meaning of the urban street. Dennis devotes some fascinating pages to Victoria Street, with its ‘chambers’ for bachelors, its big hotels and department stores, all endowed with a somewhat louche modernity because they were at first associated with new, objectionable lifestyles. Another striking feature of urban modernity was the advent of electric light, illuminating the temples of commerce and entertainment, extending the hours when urban space was available for pleasure. Similarly, the development (very largely in America) of telephone services among the middle classes seemed to accelerate the pace of life.

Perhaps the most original feature of the book is the considerable attention given in several chapters to the role of women in urban modernity. Unlike classic feminists who tend to deplore the relegation of middle-class wives to the privacy of the home, as well as the exploitation of working-class girls, Dennis throws out the idea of an urban flâneuse. Unlike Baudelaire’s aimless observer of the urban scene, the metropolitan flâneuse is construed as an energetic and confident woman setting out to enjoy the various pleasures offered by shops, museums, parks, women’s clubs and societies in the central parts of the metropoles. This suggestion, however, sounds most acceptable in the case of American cities where the middle classes had not yet displaced their homes to distant suburbs.

Suburbanisation is indeed another major topic of the book, one which reveals considerable differences between the two sides of the Atlantic. Building was different: in London’s suburbs, single contractors erected rows of ‘speculative’ terraced houses, while in America individual contracts were signed by prospective inhabitants, and even ‘self-build’ was for a time a common practice. Financing was different: the working man could not expect to rent council or philanthropic housing in America, and had to finance his own home. Regulations were different: while English bye-laws increasingly prescribed minimal norms, there was little regulation of building in American suburbs. Also Dennis notes the preference for renting homes among the middle classes, at least until the First World War.

The central, or downtown parts of the three cities are the subject of the last chapters. First Dennis discusses the remarkably early development of London’s philanthropic ‘model dwellings’, before discussing the development of residential blocks of flats for the American middle classes. The traditional Anglo-Saxon misgivings about living in a flat are humorously dealt with, while the estate agents’ advertising techniques are skilfully dissected. The basic asset of the metropolitan flat, according to Dennis, was indeed its modernity:

Flats provide an ideal distillation of numerous facets of modernity, mobilising capital through new forms of corporate agencies, embodying the architectural and technological up-to-date, accommodating new household structures that responded to the ‘servant problem’ at the same time as providing space for the ‘new woman’, organising space internally and citywide in ways that expressed the anxieties of a class-conscious but socially mobile society, and employing advertising that was keenly aware of the power of representation [261].

Rather less original are the pages concerning office blocks and department stores. We find standard explanations of the building of sky-scrapers in early 20th-century New York, where the choice of the number of floors was conditioned by precise calculations of the financial returns. We then find classic descriptions of the early appeal of huge department stores as part-theatres, part-international exhibitions. And finally there is a chapter on some of the main networks developed in the three metropoles: sewer, telegraph and railway systems. Here the limitations of the book appear, in so far as similar department stores and similarly ‘modern’ networks were developed in other Anglophone cities, and indeed in continental Europe. Dennis never really accounts for the choice of his three metropoles, even if their specific features are duly identified. And the reader may be puzzled about this choice as soon as he realises that some features at least of the three metropoles were exactly replicated in other cities of the world and occasioned similar responses, as we can see for example in Émile Zola’s evocations of Paris.

In spite of this weakness, the volume offers an extremely comprehensive and generously illustrated survey of images and realities in three English-speaking cities. Dennis clearly enjoys combining several approaches: he is in turn, and often at the same time, a geographer, a historian, an economist, a connoisseur of literature and art. While he often refers to theory (Benjamin, Lefebvre, De Certeau, Berman) he remains sensitive to the infinite variety of experiences of metropolitan life that do not always fit with such conceptual frameworks. His style is personal, unpretentious, and often humorous. And he is modest enough not to overstate his case for the modernity of London, New York and Toronto between 1840 and 1930. In the conclusion of the book he refuses to idealise this modernity as a kind of lost golden age, and fully admits that it was full of tensions and even contradictions, as it hesitated between modernisation and modernism.







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