Thursday, January 27, 2011

Mark Twain on the urban villages of London

The newly published autobiography of Mark Twain contains this gem of a description of London in 1896:

One little wee bunch of houses in London, one little wee spot, is the centre of the globe, the heart of the globe, and the machinery that moves the world is located there. It is called the City, and it, with a patch of its borderland, is a city. But the rest of London is not a city. It is fifty villages massed solidly together over a vast stretch of territory. Each village has its own name and its own government. Its ways are village ways, and the great body of its inhabitants are just villagers, and have the simple, honest, untraveled, unworldly look of villagers. Its shops are village shops; little cramped places where you can buy an anvil or paper of pins, or anything between; but you can’t buy two anvils, nor five papers of pins, nor seven white cravats, nor two hats of the same breed, because they do not keep such gross masses in stock. The shopman will not offer to get the things and send them to you, but will tell you where he thinks you may possibly find them. And he is not brusque and fussy and unpleasant, like a city person, but takes the simple and kindly interest of a villager in the matter, and will discuss it as long as you please. They have no hateful city ways, and indeed no ways that suggest that they have ever lived in a city.
       -- Mark Twain  (2010)  Autobiography of Mark Twain, volume 1. University of California Press, Berkeley, page 108.

The metaphor of "urban villages" has been common in urban studies for some time, from the classic Boston ethnography of Herbert Gans (1962) through some of the recent new urbanist planning literature (Neal 2003) to contemporary research on Chinese urbanization (Hao et al. 2011).Writers often seem surprised to find that neighborhoods in big cities are like villages, but that surprise derives from the sterotypical western view of the urban way of life (Wirth 1938). In fact, neighborhoods are one of the few universal features of cities (Smith 2010), and the social dynamics of urban neighborhoods often parallel the social dynamics of villages. Life is lived at a social and spatial scale much smaller than the entire city; people often know their neighbors and cooperate in various ways. Urban villagers may have rural-like customs and practices, or rural-like cultural values (as noted by Twain).

One reason for the existence of urban villages is the role of migration in the formation and maintenance of neighborhoods. Premodern cities were demographic sinks, with high mortality rates. Neighborhoods often formed, and were maintained, by migration from a particular rural area, giving them both a rural complexion and a social or cultural distinctiveness. And migrants often maintained social relations with their relatives in the countryside.

Of course modern inner-city neighborhoods often depart from the "urban village" model, as research by Robert Sampson and other sociologists shows. But it turns out that there is a remarkable continuity in the presence and locations of the poorest neighborhoods from Twain's London until the present. Charles Booth's social maps of London in 1898 are surprisingly similar to such maps compiled today. This figure, first published in The Economist (May 4, 2006) is reproduced from Sampson (2009). Perhaps London's poorer neighborhoods today are less like "villages" than they were in the days of Twain and Booth, but some of the basic neighborhood structure has endured for more than a century. I wonder what Mark Twain would make of modern London (or Hannibal, Missouri, for that matter).

Thanks to Seven Tomek for bringing the Mark Twain quote to my attention.

Gans, Herbert J.
1962    The Urban Villagers: Group and Class in the Life of Italian-Americans. The Free Press, New York.

Hao, Pu, Richard Sliuzas, and Stan Geertman
2011    The Development and Redevelopment of Urban Villages in Shenzhen. Habitat International. In Press, corrected proof available online.

Neal, Peter (editor)
2003    Urban Villages and the Making of Communities. Spon Press, London.

Sampson, Robert J.
2009    Disparity and Diversity in the Contemporary City: Social (Dis)Order Revisited. British Journal of Sociology 60:1-31.
Smith, Michael E.
2010    The Archaeological Study of Neighborhoods and Districts in Ancient Cities. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 29(2):137-154.

Wirth, Louis
1938    Urbanism as a Way of Life. American Journal of Sociology 44:1-24.

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