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The City as Cultural Center - The Rise Of The Metropolis: Centers Of Experiment For Modern Social Life

cities urban ethnic development

For observers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (Simmel in particular), the development of the large metropolis is a major phenomenon, both in Europe and in the United States.

Capital cities benefited from the consolidation of states, the shift of political life onto the national level, and the strengthening of the states'—and therefore the bureaucracies' (including the army's)—capacity for control, as well as from industrial development and colonization. These major cities absorbed a large part of the flow of migration, thus providing sizeable reserves of labor. They were the first beneficiaries of the transport revolution, from tramways to road and rail networks. Open to the world in an era that saw increasing numbers of different kinds of exchanges, discoveries, and technical innovations, they established their role by organizing universal exhibitions and great fairs. Concerned with public health and safety, governments organized major improvement works, created wide avenues, and constructed new public buildings: stations, squares, and monuments that symbolized their dynamism and technical progress. These cities were also places of speculation, of public and private investment in housing, and of financial capital. Their cultural influence changed scale because of more rapid diffusion, transports, and colonial empires. In particular, London, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna were the theaters of extraordinary physical and cultural transformations. As university cities and cultural centers, they were the focus of unrest and the sites of the political and social revolts that punctuated the nineteenth century. The great metropolis became the site of consumption, of department stores and wide avenues, of overstimulation that changed the urban cultural experience. This led also to physical transformation with the ever-increasing diffusion of urbanization around those large metropolises, hence the rise of suburbs, either working-class ones such as the red belt in Paris or bourgeois suburbs where the middle class abandoned the center.

The rise of the large metropolis became an American feature: New York and Chicago and later Los Angeles in particular gradually replaced European cities in the urban imagination of the modernist metropolis. They grew thanks to stunning economic development and massive immigration. In the 1920s both the American and European metropolis became a place of strong inequalities, anti-Semitism, violence against foreigners, racism, anticommunist movements, and flamboyant cultural creativity. The U.S. model is constructed around the industrial city with its low-income neighborhoods linked to manufacturing districts and close to commercial cores and its middle-income neighborhoods beyond. Out of the suburban migration of the middle classes accentuated after World War II emerged the prototypical metropolis with its central city ringed by suburban enclaves. In the best case, the commercial core became dominant. In the worst cases it, along with the manufacturing district, was in decline. The dynamics of development was horizontal, with activities deconcentrated and decentralized.

The metropolis and the neighborhood are associated with the Chicago school of urban sociology, which for several decades developed ethnographic studies on different ethnic communities and neighborhoods, and also—in research such as that by Robert Ezra Park, Ernest W. Burgess, and Roderick D. McKenzie—on groups such as hobos, gangs, and the like. Such work concentrates on interaction and on the density of interactions within the city, leading to an ecological model of the urban process based upon the dynamics of competition and conflict between different groups and their evolution in terms of social and spatial mobility. The city is the place of dense interaction, of mobility, within a context of rapid social change, industrialization, and immigration, a "social laboratory" of modernity where more classic social structures are eroded.

The issue of immigration and the presence of ghettos became central, and racism was quickly established as the leading cultural divide within cities. The question of race and relations between ethnic groups, particularly in U.S. cities, became the cornerstone of American sociology and urban sociology. Ghetto formation, competition between ethnic and racial groups, and assimilation remain the main lenses through which cities are analyzed.

Related debates concerning the integration of diverse ethnic groups took place in European cities during the period of mass migration to industrial cities in the 1960s and 1970s, and the urban-ethnic issue also became central in the political and social dynamics of cities: suburbanization and the rise of xenophobic organizations.

The City as Cultural Center - Cities Of Difference: Globalization In Progress [next] [back] The City as Cultural Center - The Industrial City

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