Raymond Williams (1973) demonstrated the overarching significance of the keywords “city” and “country,” establishing the simultaneously positive and negative inflections of urbanity and rurality. For urbanity, on the positive side were the values of learning, light, progress, civilization, cosmopolitanism, tolerance and civil liberties, excitement, and sophistication; on the negative lay the countervalues of sin, darkness and noise, corruption and devolution, danger and violence, irreligion, mob rule, and anomie—in short, urban modernity and its discontents.
As Williams noted, these city/country oppositions are always invoked in the service of political interests. Diverse social actors described European and, later, US urban life in ways that shifted and evolved with cities themselves. Troubadours, priests, ministers, and Romantic poets gave way to flaneurs and other urban observers, who then gave way to social statisticians, settlement-house workers, novelists, playwrights, journalists, photographers, and painters. The new social scientists and artists took cities and urban dwellers as their research objects, as problems to be solved, and as material to be dramatized. In this thrifty recycling of tropes, a set of symbolic associations arose linking the European and American urban poor to colonized others through their mutual need for instruction from their betters (di Leonardo 1998). The voluminous writings of missionaries, journalists, and reformers in Victorian Britain provided a template for later US constructions of “urban jungles” filled with the “near-savage” poor. Socialist novelist Jack London (1903, 288), in an account of life among East London’s homeless at the time of Edward’s coronation, declared passionately that it was “far better to be a people of the wilderness and desert, of the cave and the squatting-place, than to be a people of the machine and the Abyss.”
The long history of North American and US urban imaginaries include the Puritan vision of the blessed gathering of the elect as a “city on a hill”; the revolutionary republican associations attached to Boston and Philadelphia; the new nation’s classically planned capital of Washington, DC; and diverse nineteenth-century texts that American studies pioneer Leo Marx ( 2000) cataloged under the heading of the “machine in the garden,” a trope he used to link industrialization, urbanization, and pastoralism. The nineteenth century brought the westward expansion of the new republic and the rapid growth of New York and Boston, the legal end of slavery and the first “great migration” of freed men and women to northern cities, the rapid rise of capitalist industrialization and its associated second major wave of labor migration from Europe and Asia, the first wave of the women’s movement and of homegrown radicalisms hatched in urban environments, and US imperial actions in the Caribbean, Latin America, and the Pacific, all of which created bridges for future migration to US cities. These historical developments, along with many others, were connected to vast urban growth fueled by external and internal migration.
Dominant urban imaginaries reflected and interpreted these sea changes. The “Chicago school” social scientists, from the 1910s forward, tended to envision inevitable progress as repeated waves of migrants of every nationality first settled in center cities and then moved to outer and suburban rings as they experienced upward social mobility. This narrative credited poor and nonwhite urban dwellers with civility and the capacity for self-organization. Other scholars, journalists, and artists focused instead on the dirt, pollution, noise, and overcrowding of rapidly expanding US cities, though from contrasting political perspectives. Progressives such as Upton Sinclair ( 1988) described the capitalist exploitation of downtrodden urban dwellers and the corrupt urban machines (such as New York’s infamous Tammany Hall) that failed to ameliorate their lot. Their opponents, such as Madison Grant (1916), envisioned cities as cesspools harboring the genetically unfit and overly procreative, particularly Italians, Irish, Jews, and Slavs and other southeastern European immigrants. The associations of these new immigrants with poverty, crime, disease, and hyperfertility have been recycled across the decades to apply to populations now construed as “racial,” particularly blacks, Latinos, and in the Trump era, Muslims. Related associations of urban worlds and their racialized populations with sexual danger and “perversion” have obscured the role that cities have played in women’s emancipation and interracial and queer community building since at least the nineteenth century (Chauncey 1994; Mumford 1997; Delany 2001).
At the same time, mainstream social scientists continue to frame sexual and racial forms of capitalist exploitation as expressions of cultural difference and pathology. Counterempirical descriptions of a “culture of poverty” in the 1960s shifted in the 1980s into a contrast between the “urban underclass” and new “model minorities” (largely new Asian and select Latino migrants), even as urban renewal projects destroyed low-cost housing. “Asphalt jungles” gave way to “welfare queens” and journalistic hysteria over inner-city crime, drugs, and gangs. Replicating the oppositional structure of earlier figurations, the late twentieth century saw the rise of rap, hip-hop, and break dancing and the marketing of the virtues of urban “diversity,” even as gentrification was raising real estate values in minority neighborhood after neighborhood, thus pricing out those “diverse” populations.
The global neoliberal shift of the 1980s forward—the wholesale privatization of public goods and cutbacks in all social programs combined with an identity-based reading of human rights—and US imperial responses to global terrorism have further complicated urban representations and realities. Among the factors reconfiguring US urban life are the representation of cities as targets of terrorist attacks and the related stigmatization of Muslims/Arabs/Sikhs; the uncertainty occasioned by ongoing global economic volatility, sovereign debt crises, and continuous capitalist “creative destruction” (Harvey 2005); and the explosion of “urban contemporary” (black and Latino) music, dance, and fashion. The associated rise of social-media-based urban organizing has shaped responses to these developments, including demonstrations for “the right to the city” (Mitchell 2003) and against racist, xenophobic, and misogynist discrimination and violence such as those organized by Black Lives Matter and Ultraviolet. The hypergentrification of urban and suburban housing markets, the development of urban cores as tourist destinations, and the production of a touristified vision of urban functioning all contribute to what Matthew Ruben labels the “suburban optic” a way of seeing the city through suburbanized eyes (di Leonardo 2008; Ruben 2002; Zukin 2010). Simultaneously, the development of a network of “global cities”—New York, London, and Tokyo, among others—centralized the administration of finance capital (Sassen 1991).
The arrival of the Trump administration did not exactly initiate a new set of urban representations—all of its elements predated 2016—but under Trump, these tendencies have grown exponentially. For progressives, cities are now seen as sheltering and nurturing people of color; immigrants (“sanctuary cities”); lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) populations; feminist women and men; and resistance to racist, masculinist, and heterosexist visions of US democracy. For reactionaries, US cities now represent these “evil,” “immoral,” and specifically “un-American” populations—people who should be excised from the body politic to “make America great again.” As the twenty-first century proceeds, cities continue to serve as metonyms of both nations and their discontents.