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Underground Theater

Theorizing Mobility through Modern Subway Dramas

Sunny Stalter-Pace

This article begins from the premise that modern American drama provides a useful and understudied archive of representations of mobility. It focuses on plays set on the New York City subway, using the performance studies concept of “restored behavior” to understand the way that these plays repeat and heighten the experience of subway riding. Through their repetitions, they make visible the psychological consequences of ridership under the historical and cultural constraints of the interwar period. Elmer Rice's 1929 play The Subway is read as a particularly rich exploration of the consequences of female passenger's presumed passivity and sexualization in this era. The Subway and plays like it enable scholars of mobility to better understand the ways that theatrical texts intervene in cultural conversations about urban transportation.

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Harry Beck's London Underground Map

A Convex Lens for the Global City

John D. Schwetman

After Harry Beck designed his map of the London Underground, it became an icon of the city and a model for maps in other large transit networks around the world. The map allowed its readers to see themselves as components of the large, organized structure of the metropolis but also confronted them with the possibility of losing themselves to that structure. An analysis of the post-Beck subway map tradition shows it to be a battleground between the zeal for order and the latent chaos at the heart of the urban communities that the map represents and also situates this conflict in a larger context of the emergence of a global societal structure bound together by the control of capital and of the information that enables such control.

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The Subte as Looking Machine into the City

Moebius' Trajectory through Buenos Aires

Araceli Masterson-Algar

Moebius (1996) is the first cinematographic production of the “Universidad del Cine” of Buenos Aires. It is the collective project of forty-five film students under the general direction of Gustavo Mosquera. The film narrates the mysterious disappearance of a subway train along the last addition to its underground network: the “línea perimetral.” In search for answers, a topologist named Daniel Pratt initiates an allegorical journey into Moebius, a subway trajectory that is timeless but includes all times. This article explores the role of Moebius' subway as a metaphor to understand the urban. Drawing from Buenos Aires' urban history this filmic analysis ties the Subte to Buenos Aires' processes of capital accumulation and unveils the fissures of its modern spaces.

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Dhan Zunino Singh

Considering ‘urban mobility as an important everyday life practice that produces meaning and culture,’ the present review discusses underground railway history in cultural terms. Following Colin Divall and George Revill, culture is understood here as representations and practices, and the underground railway ‘as mediation between the imaginable and the material.’ This review does not cover the prolific literature about this topic, but gathers perspectives from within and beyond transport or mobility history to contribute to a historical and comparative assessment of spatial representations and practices related to the production and uses of this subterranean mode of transport. The sources of these perspectives are Benson Bobrick’s Labyrinths of Iron, Rosalind Williams’s Notes on the Underground, Michael Brooks’s Subway City, David Pike’s Subterranean Cities, and Andrew Jenks’s A Metro of the Mount.

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Andra B. Chastain

Nearly three decades ago, a French-trained urban planner remarked that “getting around any Latin American city is a true quotidian feat” for travelers contending with “the subways of Caracas, the packed lines of the Mexico metro, the Santiago journeys without any foreseeable destination, the crammed La Paz truffis [cars with fixed routes], the dangerous Lima micro[buses], and the ups-and-downs of central Quito.” While this description evokes the colorful spectrum of urban mobility in the region, it also sums up the anxieties of many postwar observers of Latin American cities: urban transportation seemed to be in crisis. With vehicle shortages, traffic congestion, air pollution, and sporadic social protests, public transportation tested Latin American metropolises since at least the postwar era.

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Reworking Appropriation

The Language of Paris Railways, 1870–1914

Peter Soppelsa

By tracking railway language through periodicals and poetry, this article examines the words and images used to make sense of Paris's new subway and streetcars between 1870 and 1914. It proposes a new threefold approach to understanding the appropriation of technology, which reworks its agents, sites, and chronologies. It maintains that appropriation takes both material and symbolic forms, and that appropriation processes transform both appropriated objects and their cultural contexts. Language anchors appropriation as it operates through circulating texts. For Paris, railways were both transportation technologies and versatile tools for making meaning. Railways set spaces, customs, identities, and images adrift, which traditionalists found threatening, progressives found promising, and avant-gardists found inspiring. Fitting Paris with railways required both reimagining and rebuilding the city, and reshaping what railways could be. The article concludes that appropriation is neither linear nor complete, but rather an ongoing and unfinished negotiation of the meaning of technologies.

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Sandra Swart

After the collapse of the former Soviet Union two decades ago, Russia’s new capitalists moved the industrial complexes from the city centres to the suburbs. These complexes had once provided lairs for Moscow’s free-ranging dogs, a large and shifting feral population that had excited comment from the mid-nineteenth century. Faced in the 1990s with an abruptly changing socio-economic urban topography, the dogs had to relocate their sleeping areas to the city outskirts— but their best scavenging grounds remained the urban hub. So the new running dogs of capitalism—both human and canine—were faced with the same mobility question: how to negotiate transport from domicile to place of employment and back again with maximum efficiency. Astonishingly, a few dogs learned how to jump on fixed subway routes to get to the centre in the morning. Once within the city, the dogs discovered how to use traffic lights to cross the road safely, crossing not with the colour—which they found hard to judge because of their dichromatic vision—but with the changing outline and position of the signal. Then, in the evenings, they became skilled at leaping onto the correct train home, just like their human counterparts. Observers note that these canine commuters sometimes fall asleep and have to get off at the wrong stop, just like weary human commuters.

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George Revill

As the articles in this special section show, railways mark out urban experience in very distinctive ways. In the introduction, Steven D. Spalding makes plain there is no clear relationship between railway development and the shape and size of cities. For many cities, suburban rail travel has been either substantially insignificant or a relative latecomer as a factor in urban growth and suburbanization. Walking, tramways and the omnibus may indeed have had a much greater impact on built form, yet the cultural impact of railways on the city life should not be minimized. Iconic city stations are both objects of civic pride and socially heterogeneous gateways to the promise of a better urban life. The physical presence of substantial tracts of infrastructure, viaducts, freight yards and warehousing, divide and segregate residential districts encouraging and reinforcing status differentials between communities. Subways, metros, and suburban railways open on to the often grubby quotidian underbelly of city life whilst marking out a psychic divide between work and domesticity, city and suburb. Railways not only produced new forms of personal mobility but by defining the contours, parameters, and possibilities of this experience, they have come to help shape how we think about ourselves as urbanized individuals and societies. The chapters in this special section mark out some of this territory in terms of, for example: suburbanization, landscape, and nationhood (Joyce); the abstractions of urban form implicit in the metro map (Schwetman); the underground as a metaphor for the topologically enfolded interconnections of urban process (Masterson-Algar); and the competing lay and professional interests freighting urban railway development (Soppelsa). In the introduction Spalding is right to stress both the multiple ways that railways shape urban experience and the complex processes that continuously shape and re-shape urban cultures as sites of contest and sometimes conflict. As Richter suggests, in the nineteenth century only rail travel demanded the constant and simultaneous negotiation of both urban social disorder and the systematic ordering associated with large technological systems and corporate business. Thus “the railroad stood squarely at the crossroad of the major social, business, cultural and technological changes remaking national life during the second half of the nineteenth century.”