What We're Reading

March 2021

Juliane Borosch is reading “The ‘Indianized’ Landscape of Massachusetts” by Professor of the History and Theory of Architecture at MIT Mark Jarzombek in Places Journal. In the past month I have been working on contested urban memory through urban landmarks such as streets, monuments and squares. This article (to me) provides interesting contextual information about the settler colonial roots of many settlement and commemoration conflicts and the strategic narrativizations that went along with them: Next to insightful geographical and historical placements, the article highlights the “often violent relationships between past and place” and how their narrative framing (frequently long after the fact) by white (Anglo-) European settlers – notably also what is and is not mentioned – still problematically shapes public discourse and landscapes today. While this is an article about the treatment and commemoration of Native American tribes in what is now known as New England, the mechanisms at play are relevant for “already historicized landscapes” throughout the (North) American continent.

Maria Sulimma is reading Arundhati Roy’s most recent essay collection Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction. (2020). Taking its title from the Urdu word for freedom, the book’s nine essays approach political crisis from the perspective of a literary imagination and ask questions about the role of storytelling, translation, and language in these conflicts, as well as the role of the writer herself. It is this productive tension between fictional and seemingly factional, literature and politics, as well as the relationship of writer and reader, that resonates with our thinking about scripts and scripting. I especially recommend the chapters “In What Language Does Rain Fall over Tormented Cities?” and “The Pandemic Is a Portal.” The book’s publisher Haymarket organized a conversation with Roy on her book that can be accessed here.

Chris Katzenberg is reading Progressive Dystopia (2019) by the urban anthropologist Savannah Shange. The book is based on her field work at Robeson Justice Academy, an experimental public high school in a low-income San Francisco neighborhood that serves mostly youth of color with a "social justice" curriculum. Yet, in Shange's "abolitionist anthropology," this seemingly successful "anti-racist" project does not work out for Black youth: The school remains inescapably grounded in the "afterlife of slavery," functions as a "progressive dystopia" within the US as a "settler-slaver society." For Shange, American Antiblackness cannot be overcome through such "reconstructionist" projects, but requires "abolition," in and beyond the classroom. See Shange present part of her book here.

February 2021

Florian Deckers is reading Ornament and Order: Graffiti, Street Art and the Parergon (2014) by anthropologist and curator Rafael Schacter. In this book, Schacter examines the tension between what he describes as "agonistic" and "consensual" modes of public art. Through a close connection to the artists, Schacter can tease out the multifaceted nature of their creation, while simultaneously developing a vocabulary, which can be applied meaningfully in the further analysis of this fascinating cultural practice that constantly re-writes the appearance of our cities.

Katharina Wood is reading The Tiny House Movement: Challenging Our Consumer Culture (2018) by sociologist Tracey Harris. The tiny house movement challenges cultural practices of consumerism and uses of space. It brings forth alternative approaches to community living and highlights questions such as housing affordability and human’s relationship with nature. Harris brings forth a sociological analysis of the movement also touching upon critical perspectives.

Elisabeth Haefs is reading the essay “How Oregon’s Racist History Can Sharpen Our Sense of Justice Right Now” by Oregon-based writer and public scholar Walidah Imarisha. Her essay provides a much-needed overview of racism in the state of Oregon, which was, as she describes it, “founded on the notion of creating a racist white utopia.” Overall, Imarisha’s writing also provides the necessary background for a more thorough understanding of problematic urban planning in Portland, such as the “Albina Community Plan” (1993), which also forms part of my reading for February.

Johannes Krickl is reading Jedediah Purdy’s This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth (2020). To a considerable part, Purdy’s mix of a political essay and a pamphlet presses for an understanding that ecology is also always a question of social equity and civil equality. A crucial connection to ultimately ensure environmental and social justice, but which he sees largely ignored by environmental movements’ – almost aloof – teleological idealization of an untouched nature; very much the brainchild of a privileged class. Now as ever before, the city emerges as one space, where ecological matters must be tested against their social backdrops. In consequence, this calls for more integrative solutions other than to simply repeat headless calls for more sustainable cities. A New Commonwealth serves as the touchstone to Purdy’s argument. It aims at restoring social equity which decades of free market insatiability have eroded in the US. It follows that the success of ecological visions inevitably rests on the ensuring of social and civil justice. Sustainable, green cities – what’s their Commonwealth!?

Stefan Dierkes is reading Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral and Drive Major Economic Events (2019) by economist Robert J. Shiller. By comparing the fields of Economy and Epidemiology, the Nobel Laureate shows how stories sometimes act like viruses in that they can be spread and, in the field of Economics, affect individual and collective economic behavior. Especially the events surrounding the GameStop stock or Elon Musk's Twitter micro-scripts that single-handedly affect events on the stock market show that economic narratives are already part of a large cultural trends worth exploring. Robert J. Shiller and the concept of Narrative Economics help as an inciting starting point.

January 2021

Maria Sulimma is reading the science fiction novel Black Sun (2020) by Rebecca Roanhorse. Science fiction and fantasy are genres that have much to offer for urban scholars and planners. Roanhourse's compelling novel is inspired by the pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas, and, it is about three cities: the commercial capital Cuecola, the military city Huecha, and the religious city Tova. Even though I am aware of criticism of Roanhorse (also worth reading), I very much enjoy her urban worldbuilding, inclusion of native themes, and queer characters.

Chris Katzenberg is reading Manufacturing Decline (2019) by the urban geographer Jason Hackworth. The book proposes that the downfall of Rust Belt cities like Detroit since the 1970s was not just the effect of global economic shifts, but has in fact been a process of "managed decline" driven by the American conservative movement that strategically harnessed anti-Black "racial resentment." Hackworth demonstrates how this politics has made urban decline a process of uneven development in the Rust Belt, disproportionately affecting the ability of Black-majority neighborhoods, cities and Black city governments to achieve a positive postindustrial transformation. Hear him discuss his book here.

Juliane Borosch is reading the short feature "Folgeschäden des Bergbaus – O Ewigkeit du Donnerwort!" (translated from German: follow up costs of coal mining – eternity, you thunderous word!") about the environmental legacy of coal mining. Next to a concise integration of the end of German hard coal mining into the sustainability context, it presents an almost philosophical pondering on the durability of this process and thus the classification 'eternal'. It is a seasonal reminder of the consequences of human activity that in topic and detailed attention to wording speaks to my study of sustainability in the Ruhr area and beyond.

December 2020

Elisabeth Haefs is reading Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest (2017) by Zeynep Tufekci. This book offers the interesting perspective of a computer programmer who is also a sociologist. Tufekci’s analysis of modern protest is an enlightening read which assesses the influence of social media on social movements. It serves as a valuable background to better understand the dynamics of, for instance, the ongoing protests that are taking place in Portland, Oregon.

Florian Deckers is currently reading Abstract Barrios: The Crisis of Latinx Visibility in Cities (2020) by Johana Londoño. Her insightful exploration of the aesthetics of the barrio and the way in which they are brokered to mainstream America from coast to coast, inspires me in my work on East Harlem's Latinx murals and their evolving functions. Londoño illuminates how, for example, brightly colored buildings not only created a sense of belonging in the Latinx community, but also fulfilled an important function in the recuperation of the inner city.

Katharina Wood is reading the article “Expand the Frontiers of Urban Sustainability” by David Wachsmuth, Daniel A. Cohen and Hillary Angelo published in Nature. The article explores how in urban sustainability plans there is often a lack of effort to include social equity into the equation. Urban sustainability should amount to more than solely environmental measures and promote social concerns as well through a more holistic systems approach to sustainability that focuses on urban regions and global networks.

Johannes Maria Krickl is reading Stadt der Städte: Das Ruhrgebiet und seine Umbrüche, edited by M. Farrenkopf et al. (2019) and Zeit-Räume Ruhr: Erinnerungsorte des Ruhrgebiets, edited by S. Berger et al. (2019) to investigate topoi of the Ruhrgebiet, which find ambivalent application in both narrative practices of mnemonic glorification and unseaming renunciation for the imagination of a post-industrial future. 

November 2020

Juliane Borosch is reading the article “In Detroit, a Hallowed Ground for Auto Workers Finally Gets Its Due” by Namrata Kolachalam on CityLab. The article sheds light on a forgotten labor protest by Ford workers of the River Rouge factory that is being memorialized in a new city park. The article relates past struggles to current topics of sustainability and social justice. It is not only relevant for the topics we study, but offers some historical depth to workers’ and civil rights efforts during this pandemic and protest movements.



Chris Katzenberg


is reading the fascinating work of the Detroit poet Jamaal May for an upcoming article. May’s recent collections Hum (2013) and The Big Book of Exit Strategies (2016) inspire my thinking about the possibilities of identity construction in present-day, postindustrial Detroit. You can learn more about Jamaal May and sample some of his wonderful poetry at the Poetry Foundation, and I recommend the poem “Shift” (2015).

Maria Sulimma is reading Coffeeland: A History (2020) by Augustine Sedgewick. For my project on literary representations of coffee drinking and cafés, I have already read several international histories of coffee (coffee drinking, coffee growing, coffee trade). This may be my favorite one. Historian Sedgewick expands from the coffee production in El-Salvador, includes a decolonial perspective, and is interested in discourses surrounding energy and coffee as a ‘work drug’ that are very compatible with my research on coffee drinking and industrialism in the 19th century.