Wednesday, January 26, 2005

a hindsight

I have thought about the urban culture on the way home this afternoon. While we were talking about the various elements of the urban culture from the four scholars, I think that tolerance and diversity are the most essential characteristics or values in the metropolitan because without those values, the urbanites couldn't have coexisted in this anonymous, compact space of city. I know that this idea may be derived from my ethnic background as a minority. However, if we try to understand the urban culture from this perspective, I think that the framework will be much more differentiated from the scholars.


Aaron said...

The need for tolerance and diversity does seem kind of self-evident, but after thinking about it for a little while, I'm not sure that's the case. Looking at it in the sort of historical way that Greg talked about yesterday (which is just about completely opposite of my normal way of thinking, so maybe I'm approaching it wrong), it strikes me that the notion of a diverse, tolerant urban area is a relatively new phenomenon. (And I should note that I'm reading "diversity" as meaning a mixture of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and "tolerance" as the willingness to accept same.)

Pre-modern American cities all seem to have shared a trait of self-segregation among the incoming immigrant populations -- the Greeks live in Greektown, the Italians live in Little Italy, etc. In some cases, the geophysical nature of the city forces these areas into direct adjacency (eg., Manhattan is a relatively small piece of land, and there's nothing you can really do to keep Chinatown and Little Italy from running into each other), in some cases the terrain allows a much wider spread (eg., the Greek and Arab population centers in the Detroit area, which are seperated by about 12 miles of industry). Depending on how we want to define "culture," these communities were able to remain culturally self-sustaining for decades, and some probably still do today. They were also able to practice the kind of overt discrimination that is all but vanquished in contemporary America (eg., keeping out blacks and Jews in the original incarnation of Greg's neighborhood). While they were united by a common city government and may have been highly reliant on that entity for public services, they didn't have to like the people three blocks over, nor did the population outside these communities have to like them. In these cases, we have "diversity" on the city level, but we lack the mixing of cultures that will give the city diverse characteristics and hopefully lead to tolerance among the population.

All that said, I do agree that diversity and relative tolerance are key characteristics of modern American cities, and I think it would be interesting to discuss how that came about and whether they are necessary conditions in future urban growth. My suspicion is that a number of events coincided in the 1960's to change attitudes, specifically the finalizing of the federal culture developed in the 30's, 40's and 50's, the civil rights movement, the rapid expansion of suburban metroplexes and the extension of the federal culture into the cold war culture.

Will W. said...

In tacking onto Aaron's comment, I see the extension of the self-segregating INtolerant dynamic he describes to the suburbs, where geographical features (including real estate values, transportation, schools, etc.) all lend themselves to homogenous communities.

In thinking about Yong Jun's comments, having visited a number of homogenous Asian and European cities (Seoul, Tokyo, Hongkong, Beijing, Manila, Madrid, Barcelona, Seville come to mind), what I find interesting is the *lack* of diversity and tolerance. Sometimes you have to peel away some very thick layers to discern the underlying dynamics that contribute to this. In Spain, for example, the cities have historically been the bastion of wealthier folk, who wouldn't deign to live outside with the "provincials." That country never really witnessed the growth of a gentrified, literate class that lived on the land it owned, as in the U.S. Nor was there ever any major immigration until the last two decades. Now the country grapples with an immigration "problem" as Morrocans move in. There have been a number of highly publicized frictions with this first wave, which calls into question whether diversity and tolerance are truly essential to urban life.