Cityscapes Wrap-up (AKA "why I am still so tired")

Last Thursday and Friday, I was co-organiser of a conference, "Cityscapes in History: Creating the Urban Experience". My colleague Heléna Tóth and I hosted 29 panelists plus 4 keynote speakers at the Center for Advanced Studies here in Munich. Having first had the idea for the conference last October, it has felt like a sprint to get everything organised, from the original CFP to the timing of the coffee breaks, and I'm still recovering!

We kicked off the event with a walking tour of the city last Wednesday afternoon, which we guided ourselves, and it was fun showing people around our new home, despite the rain.

The conference went better than I could have hoped, and our plans to generate interdisciplinary conversation seem to have succeeded. I learned a lot from all the presentations I saw, including Manan Ahmed (of Chapati Mystery) who spoke about digitising maps and retaining cultural information. So much was packed into the two days, I'm still marveling that we got so many great participants to come from all over the world. We even had the famous Lucy Inglis of Georgian London showing her work on where the different ethnic groups lived in the 1700s.

Our keynote speakers were very generous, Lizabeth Cohen spoke about being a historian who wanted to use architectural and landscape studies in her own work (which was particularly relevant and informative for me); Nicholas Temple spoke about religious space in all kinds of forms (with thought-provoking resonances); Richard Dennis captured the cultural relevance of modern urban life with the "architecture of hurry"; and Philip Ethington gave us a whirlwind history of Los Angeles, from megafauna to Richard Nixon, showing that perhaps some things do stay the same ;)

We are very grateful to Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität and the CAS for their funding and support. We were particularly spoiled with the catering, which included hot food for lunch and plum cake for afternoon tea!

Heléna and I will be editing a volume based on the conference, and I'll update here with how that progresses.


Cities and Nationalisms Conference

This conference will take place in London on 17-18 June 2010, and may be of interest to urban historians who are in the area.

“Cities have been intimately connected with nationalisms of many kinds. The architecture and spatial design of cities have commonly been intended to bolster national pride. So have the nationalist ceremonies that cities have staged. Yet cities have also been places of contending nationalisms or counter nationalisms in which urban territorial divides have helped shape and maintain competing or actively hostile group loyalties. Cities have also sometimes promoted themselves as cosmopolitan and hospitable to all nations. This conference aims to explore the nature and rich variety of connections between nationalisms and cities in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Cities explored include Alexandria, Belfast, Buenos Aires, Budapest, Cape Town, Cork, Cracow, Hong Kong, Kinshasa, Kirkuk, London, Montreal, Paris, Prague, Shanghai, Tel Aviv and Washington.

Speakers include: Robert Bickers (Bristol), Iain Black (Cambridge), Bill Freund (Kwa-Zulu Natal), Tim Harper (Cambridge), Paul-André Linteau (Québec) and Prashant Kidambi (Leicester)”

I will be there as a panel chair, so come and say hello!

More information here

Cityscapes in History Conference - 29-30 July 2010

I am co-organising a conference, Cityscapes in History: Creating the Urban Experience, in Munich at the end of July.
The program is here, and we have a variety of panels on urban history – registration will be free, if you would like to attend!
The Center for Advanced Studies

Trains and cities and observations

I am on the Coast Starlight, Amtrak’s service from Seattle to Los Angeles. This train features the Pacific Parlour Car (yes, that is PARLOUR with a U), a lounge car for sleeper passengers featuring a bar, some dining tables, and some cool swivel armchairs for looking out the windows. These carriages are originals from the 1950s, restored and brought back into service for just the Coast Starlight. There is also an afternoon wine and cheese tasting (which I hadn’t known about before boarding, so was pleasantly surprised. My previous Amtrak experience was short commuter journeys on the East Coast). This journey really puts European rail travel into true, crummy perspective. Even the so-called “First Class” on the Eurostar is nothing like this good (and the basic class Eurostar “dining car” - which involves being sold some microwave noodles – wouldn’t be so annoying if the tickets weren’t actually more than I paid for this trip, which includes a bed and all meals).

Travelling by train often involves seeing the oldest parts of a city, the historic core where the main station was built. Seattle’s King St station made me wonder – were there other big stations too at some point? (the name “King St” - as opposed to “Union Station” or even just “Seattle Station” suggests a need to differentiate it by location from other stations in the same city). The station itself is undergoing restoration, which is part-way through now. There is an opportunity to peek up where some ceiling panels have been removed and see the original ceiling, another 15’ or so above. This beautiful plaster moulded ceiling was covered in a 1967 “facelift” which involved a lower suspended ceiling and fluorescent lights. Fortunately the original was not erased, so it is possible for it to be brought back. It is a great shame – an urban tragedy – that the same could not be said for New York’s Penn Station, where a beautiful original was obliterated to build a concrete cavern with the soul and charm of a multistorey carpark in a bad neighbourhood.

I walk on gilded splinters

Since I moved to Munich, I’ve been exploring and trying to get a feel for the place. As an urban historian, I am fascinated by the different neighbourhoods and ways a city unfolds to the traveller. But ever since I first arrived, I have the strangest sensation: I’ll be walking along and it will suddenly feel like I’m in the US again. Like that sensation of first waking and expecting to see a different room.

It has been very disconcerting, and much like Swati Chattopadhyay described the colonial uncanny sensation for visitors to 19th century Calcutta. For me it is the unfamiliar seeming oddly familiar. Certainly there are buildings near my house that would not be out of place on the Upper West Side, and some other buildings with corner bay windows that for a second’s glance could be in San Francisco.
I still can’t put my finger on where this uncanny familiarity is coming from – perhaps years of watching Turner Classic Movies, as the wedding-cake plaster work on some of the buildings here is like those backlot sets depicting cities, both in the US and Europe (probably the same sets, in fact).

This familiarity, both comforting and jarring, makes me feel at home and yet dislocated.

CFP: Cityscapes in History Conference

Call for Papers:

"Cityscapes in History: Creating the Urban Experience," at the
Center for Advanced Studies, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich, Germany, 29th and 30th July, 2010.

The conference aims at bringing scholars from various disciplines together
to study the history of the urban experience. One of our main themes will be the performative and ritual aspects of urban life, and the built environment.

We invite proposals for individual (20 minute) papers or 3 paper panels.

Please submit a 300 word abstract per paper, for panel submissions an abstract for each paper plus a brief (<200 word) summary of the panel.

Submissions to

Katrina Gulliver  

Helena Toth

Deadline for submissions is Friday 22nd January; notifications will be sent of the acceptance of papers by Friday 12th February.

At the Anglo-American Conference!

I am at the Anglo-American conference, which is the annual conference at the Institute of Historical Research (which is where I work). The conference has been going since the 1920s, and it’s fun to look at the posters for the past years and see the big names giving the keynotes addresses.
This year the theme is cities! So there are urban historians everywhere. Swarming.
One interesting thing is that the conference has a twitter hashtag, #aac_2009, which is something I would like to see other history conferences adopt. The AHA, for instance... You can follow the feed, at

All sessions will also be recorded, and I believe the plan is to release them as podcasts.

Last weekend I was at the World History Association conference, which was fun! I enjoyed visiting the town, and the National Parks Service really stepped up providing guided tours and plenty of information about the local area.

There were some great papers (mine, of course ;) and opium and Jesuits came out as particular themes (not in the same paper though, at least not that I heard!). Marion Diamond gave a fascinating paper about the 18th century reception of Opium, on a panel with a paper from Frances Karttunen about the opium addicted women of Nantucket, and I loved the keynote address by Dane Morrison about Salem and the China trade, from the perspective of expatriate Salemite communities through East and Southeast Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Some elements could have been better organised, one comment I heard from a number of people (and with which I agreed) was the apparent lack of awareness of people coming from outside the US to attend (it’s called the WORLD history association, people!). The information on transport was limited, and distances were all given in times, e.g. “X is only five minutes away” - meaning the time it takes to travel there BY CAR. Nobody seemed to know the timetable for the shuttle bus, or how long it would take (I was given estimates anywhere from 10 minutes to 30 minutes), and not enough time was allowed to get between the conference sites at the Peabody Essex Museum and Salem State College by bus between panels.

Nonetheless, it was a fun experience, and I’m interested in the theme for next year’s WHA, ‘The Pacific in World History’.