What We're Reading

August 2021

Elisabeth Haefs is reading A Recipe for Gentrification: Food, Power, and Resistance in the City, edited by Alison Hope Alkon, Yuki Kato, and Joshua Sbicca (NYU Press 2020). This topical collection provides insights into the mechanisms of how urban food practices and their respective places – from grocery stores to hip restaurants, all the way to community gardens – can influence processes of gentrification. The authors also shed light on how activists try to push back against such developments. One specific contribution to this volume should be highlighted: In “The Cost of Low-Hanging Fruit? An Orchard, a Nonprofit, and Changing Community in Portland”, Emily Becker and Nathan McClintock offer a highly nuanced analysis of a community orchard in North Portland, Oregon, exploring the complicated relationship between gentrification, the ideal of community-building, and community gardening.

July 2021

Maria Sulimma is reading Nineteenth-Century Serial Narrative in Transnational Perspective, 1830s−1860s  (2019) edited by Daniel Stein and Lisanna Wiele. Following the unprecedented success of Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris, serialized in the newspaper Le Journal des Débats between 1842 and 1843, newspapers across Europe and the United States started publishing city mysteries. These serial fictions rightfully carry the city in their name: they utilize their various urban settings to sensationalize urban life in all its facets. The contributions to this collection explore some of the most popular city mysteries, their production and reception contexts. This reading helps me reconsider the ways that seriality is relevant for urban scripts and scripting, especially in the context of popular culture.

Chris Katzenberg is reading Unfinished Business: Michael Jackson, Detroit, and the Figural Economy of American Deindustrialization (2017) by the dance scholar Judith Hamera. Her award-winning book explores the connections between postindustrial change and race, dance performance and political economy. She considers the artistic work and public image of Michael Jackson alongside the fate and representations of (post-)industrial Detroit. Hamera treats both as deindustrial icons, indicative of wider trends in the political economy and affective climate of the United States in the transitional period from an industrial to a finacialized economy. To this end, she coins the concept of the "deindustrial, " which thinks together this ongoing "transitional period" and the "'historical sensorium,' representational repertoires and affects" its stark changes have brought with them (4). I find inspiring how Hamera manages to connect cultural representations and affects with (post-)industrial socioeconomic changes, exploring their shared "figural economies" (5).

Juliane Borosch is reading American Odyssey, a history of Detroit from colonial settlement in 1701 up to 1970 by journalist and historian Robert Conot. While already published in 1974, this study offers a detailed and especially for the time critical and progressive contextualization of the history and struggles of Detroit, and by proxy urban America. Coming out of the work on the Kerner Commission, that was meant to get to the roots of the racial uprisings and protests of the 1960s, was one of the first to diagnose white racism as the root of continued urban unrest, but was cut short for political reasons, Conot extended upon that research to write this history. It embeds the lives of individuals of different origin and standing into the history of their city and contextualizes it with national and global developments so far making for an interesting in-depth analysis from the perspective of pre-/mid-crisis Detroit and up to the 1970s.

June 2021

Elisabeth Haefs is reading Greening Cities, Growing Communities by Jeffrey Hou, Julie M. Johnson, and Laura J. Lawson. Originally an overview of Seattle's urban community gardens, this book provides valuable general insights concerning the functioning of community gardens in urban surroundings. The question of permanence in the form of sustaining urban community gardens is of central importance in the authors' approach, as is the web of relationships that influence a gardening community – from planning and design entities to the neighbourhood communities that carry out the physical part of gardening. This contribution to the vast amount of research on community gardens is slightly unusual in its delicately balanced approach: The authors neither praise community gardens as a universal remedy for urban ills, nor do they cynically denounce the very real potential of gardening together and creating new communities in the city – the "potential to promote individual and community activity, connection, expression, and health in the urban environment" (5).

Florian Deckers is currently reading Street Art – Legenden zur Strasse (2009) edited by Katrin Klitzke and Christian Schmidt. In this volume, that is beautifully supplemented with numerous pictures of street art in Berlin, scholars and authors from various fields such as art history, sociology, geography, or anthropology offer their perspectives on the urban phenomenon of street art. Annika Lorenz, for example, in her contribution traces the history of street art back to prior art forms on the basis of, on the one hand, methods and medium and, on the other hand, what could be described as intertextual references or “aesthetic quotes” (34) she identified in works of street artists. She thus creates a strong argument that street art is not only entering a reciprocal relationship with its space, but that it also needs to be understood historically.

May 2021

Maria Sulimma is reading Narrating Space / Spatializing Narrative: Where Narrative Theory and Geography Meet (2016) by Marie-Laure Ryan, Kenneth Foote, and Maoz Azaryahu. Whereas the first part of the monograph focuses on space in narrative (different functions, emotional or strategic relations, universal and particular features in plot), the second part develops analytical tools to explore how texts in “real-world” environments may tell stories. Among the case studies discussed are street names, historical and heritage sites, or museum displays and exhibitions. The authors argue that “organizing stories in such places involves issues of spatial form that are different from those involved in using books, e-books, or even computer screens for storytelling” (5). For instance, they highlight the need to distinguish spatial texts that possess narrativity but should not be understood as narratives. Their approach is particularly helpful to specify the notion of narrative (and scripts), especially since the much-proclaimed “narrative turn” has led to the widespread use of the term across a variety of disciplines.

Hanna Rodewald is reading an article by Kurt Wettengl, the former director and curator of Dortmund’s Museum Ostwall and honorary professor of Art History at TU Dortmund University, titled “Das Museum Ostwall als Kraftwerk” (2010). It is an essay which, along the ideas of Alexander Dorner, re-positions the function of the museum from a rather passive collector and conserver of cultural artifacts to an active institution within the cityscape. Wettengl critically argues that the museum should be understood as a “Kraftwerk” (powerhouse). This analogy aims to express the social and creative energies that are generated by the museum space through the multifaceted interaction with art. The article seeks the museum to be understood as a place of exchange of ideas which are created on a daily basis by all members of society. The Museum Ostwall therefore aims to be an institution which is highly participatory, educational and essentially democratic. Besides its traditional duties it works towards becoming a space of future-oriented negotiation between its visitors, artworks and society at large.

Chris Katzenberg is watching talks on "Pursuing Educational Equity in Uncertain Times" delivered at the Fall 2020 conference of the Race, Inequality and Language in Education program (RILE) at Stanford University. The five-day event brought together important scholars from education, sociology, critical race studies and beyond to discuss connections between COVID and many of the most pressing diversity and equity issues in US education today. Themes ranged from indigenous perspectives on COVID to this moment of crisis as a long-overdue opportunity to fundamentally re-imagine American education. You can find the conference program and recordings of the talks here. I recommend Friday's program in particular, with papers by the anthropologists Savannah Shange (see also: March readings) and Gloria Ladson-Billings.

April 2021

Elisabeth Haefs is reading selected chapters from Damien M. Sojoyner's First Strike: Educational Enclosures in Black Los Angeles (2016). Rather than depicting the trope of the "school-to-prison pipeline", which he critiques, Sojoyner's differentiated analysis shows how the U.S. educational system - in this case, public schools in California - creates "enclosures" that heavily influence and fatally limit male African American youth. Although his topic is fairly removed from my own research, Sojoyner's approach to the concept of "enclosure" offers a very important perspective regarding my spatial and metaphorical take on the same word in relation to the social implications connected to community gardening in urban planning.

Florian Deckers is reading “‘Slangin’ Rocks . . . Palestinian Style’ Dispatches from the Occupied Zones of North America” by Robin D.G. Kelley, which was published in 2000 in an anthology by Jill Nelson titled Police Brutality. In his insightful essay, Kelley shares some of his own experiences with violent policing in California. In accordance with his discipline, the historian goes on and traces systematic violence of the state back to the colonial era. In the context of working on an article about the Black Lives Matter movement and some of the creative forms of dissent applied by its supporters, I re-read this article. It appears to have lost none of its relevance more than twenty years after it was written and urgently shows how violence towards people of color has been a fundamental problem of the on-going project that is the United States of America since its beginning. 

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.