On Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities

Posted by Rashmi Sadana

On April 11, 2013, the Cities and Globalization group hosted a lecture by historian Carl H. Nightingale, who teaches in the Transnational Studies department at SUNY Buffalo. We invited Carl to George Mason because we had read his important new book, Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities (University of Chicago, 2012) and wanted to hear more from him.

Segregation: A Global History of Divided CitiesWhat makes Segregation so impressive is the way it skillfully moves from the grand scale (colonial-era racist ideologies) to the actual boundaries and barriers created by urban planners and architects (the world of bungalows, verandahs, and compounds, but also punkas, tatties, and bheesties) from one city to the next. It interweaves not one or two but dozens of narratives of cities across Europe, the Pacific Rim, South Asia, South Africa, South America, and the United States. It’s a theoretically informed history that details how sections of cities with different levels of access to everything from water and food to clean air and transport get demarcated and etched onto urban geographies all over the globe. Here, “global” is not a term but a rigorous form of inquiry. And did I mention it’s also a good read?

In his lecture, Carl detailed his method for writing the book and how he began by studying the “vast archive” of urban histories already out there. The book’s structure, he explained, was a “synthetic reading” of those case studies with “archival pot-holes” that he then filled in with his own research. Along the way, he identifies four “surges” in the history of segregated cities as he charts out contrasts, causalities, connections, and contingencies. The method allows him to make some definitive statements such as, “The vilification of the slum and the glorification of the exclusive suburb became the hallmark of modern segregation.” When thinking about the consequences of segregation today, with the growth of megacities and their divisions from the U.S. to Asia, it led him to assert during the Q&A: “We can’t live in segregated cities if we’re going to survive as a species.”

The book’s focus is “the long picture of segregation”, beginning before the late 19th-century term even came into existence. For this reason, Carl uses the term “city-splitting” to describe what is going on arguably from the beginning of urban history. In this regard, he describes the ancient city of Eridu (in today’s Iraq and regarded by archaeologists to be the world’s first city) with its divisions between “divine and mortal” as well as “urban and rural”; moving ahead to 1516 Venice, we see the city-splitting of locals versus strangers (merchants), leading to the formation of the infamous Jewish ghetto.

However, Carl’s own tale really begins in the age of empire, with the demarcation of Black Town and White Town in the British colonial city of Madras. Reading the book reminded me of a photo I took in the Georgetown area of Chennai (what was Black Town) a few years ago.

A present day photo of the still standing colonial-era stone column dividing Georgetown (formerly Black Town) from White Town (the esplanade) in Madras (Chennai). Dated 1st January 1773.

A present day photo of the still standing colonial-era stone column dividing Georgetown (formerly Black Town) from White Town (the esplanade) in Madras (Chennai). Dated 1st January 1773.

You can still find this stone column on one of the outer main roads alongside the smaller, denser lanes that begin just behind the column (where you see people walking). The Italian word, “esplanade”, by the way, is one of the traveling terms that help divide cities, a way to innocuously set apart the places where whites would stroll.

The most important argument I take from Carl’s work is that segregation succeeds so thoroughly precisely because cities were inter-connected. And, of course they still are.

In Carl’s lecture, “How U.S. Style Segregation Outlived Apartheid and Other Tales from a World History of Divided Cities,” he explained at one point how South Africans and Americans learned how to segregate their cities based on British class segregation in London and racial segregation in Madras, Calcutta, and Delhi. In Carl’s schema of the different “surges” of color segregation around the globe, the U.S. is an example of the fourth and last type: “archsegregation”, which is ongoing. It turns out that American urban segregation is extremely adaptable. In his response to Carl’s lecture, George Washington University sociologist Gregory Squires pointed to the rise of foreclosures in the U.S. as being the strongest predictor of segregation in cities today. Yet he also spoke of the idea of “spatial justice” and about the implementation of rules and regulations to guard against the targeting by financial institutions of vulnerable groups. “We know how to do this,” he said.

In the book, you see how segregation does rest on racist theories and ideologies that were developed, promoted, and engrained in societies around the world – a serious proliferation of them. However, it’s the shared practices that went along with the theories that made these urban forms work and persist.

It leads Carl to argue that segregation happens through three institutions: (1) Government (chiefly the British, French, American empires and the emergence of the question of who gets to be a citizen); (2) Intellectual exchange (between scientists, doctors, public health officials, and reformers to scholars, architects, and urban planners); and (3) Global real estate industry and land markets more generally.

On the question of real estate, the book draws convincing parallels between London’s East End (working classes) and West End (aristocrats) and Calcutta’s Black Town (natives) and White Town (Europeans) and also tells of how the Irish come to be described as the “darkest English.” The point is that everything starts to be seen in racial terms, as class and race (not to mention gender and race) become imbricated in new ways.

At the same time, it is not an airtight story. The book also dwells on moments of rupture, how for instance in British colonial cities, real estate in the white areas was sometimes bought by wealthy Indians (the bhadralok of Calcutta who would go on to shoo the British colonialists away to Delhi to set up their imperial capital) or bought up by wealthy Chinese merchants (in Hong Kong). In a classic case of British liberalism, colonial law couldn’t quite say that native elites didn’t have property rights, so instead there were “covenants” attached to buying property, such as one in colonial Hong Kong that didn’t allow houses in white areas to be built using local Chinese architectural styles. Sound familiar?

The global real estate market is the least written about of the three institutions, and during the lively Q&A after the lecture, Carl surmised that what we needed was an anthropologist who would become a real estate agent and study the practices and ideologies from the inside, including attending the National Association of Realtors conferences that are held from San Diego to Singapore. Any takers?