April 3-5, 2003

For nearly a millennium of western history, cities have been seen as half of a city- country opposition, where urban centers were figured either as a sources of enlightenment and sophistication, or as havens for corruption and disease. More recently this dichotomy has been overshadowed by the metropolitan sprawl which houses the vast majority of citizens in America as well as those of other nations. This shift from country to city is complicated by the rapid change in economic function of cities in the years after WWII in the US and, again, at the end of the century. As trucks replaced railroads for transporting goods in the post-war period, a new type of urban space –the suburb- was born, leaving the outdated industrial centers to minorities and immigrants and to large-scale unemployment. Several decades later, yet another period of urban mutation followed upon the flight of the 1960’s as returning middle class populations and occupations reinvigorated the moribund metropolitan centers.

An increasing body of urban scholarship focuses on the suburbanization of American cities as a potentially beneficial cultural shift. In opposition to trends in urban planning that see suburbs as symptomatic of urban sprawl and industrial blight, some scholars now question whether we need cities at all. Suburbs, or “edge cities”, now provide housing, amenities and jobs to a large proportion of American city-dwellers. Can the suburb be understood as a new kind of city, one organized around streets, parking lots, malls and corporate campuses?

Other scholars argue that cities persist as the only continuing locus of social re-invention and vitality. Metropolitan centers most recently have provided new centers for global financial markets capable of wielding enormous influence over government at all levels and of mobilizing new wealth and occupations for new collectivities of workers. These global capital markets are also capable of supporting virtual networks which reinforce the economic hegemony of cities and thereby pose a challenge to the traditional functioning of liberal democracies.

This seminar brings together different voices from the forefront of contemporary urban studies. Speakers will examine the history of the European city, the role of religion and spirituality in urban communities, the relationship between globalization and urbanization, the effect of the internet on the city, and the role of the suburbs in our definition of urban space. Questions related to the changing role of cities will be at the forefront of the discussion: How do we define the city in the twenty-first century? Do we see the city as a source of cultural sophistication, or of strife and injustice? Are cities determined by their geo-cultural location, or are cities now much the same internationally? And, finally, do we need cities at all?

Speakers include sociologists, Terrence Clark, Omar McRoberts, Saskia Sassen, Richard Taub and historian Constantin Fasolt.

Pre-readings