After the Shock City: Urban Culture and the Making of Modern Citizenship

How can cities as large and dynamic as Manchester or Chicago, both home to many diverse communities, develop a sense of local belonging? In this exclusive article, Dr Tom Hulme explains the concept of the shock city and how his new book examines the development of identity and sense of belonging in such urban environments.

I’ve always been interested in how people relate to place. I grew up in a small town with a distinctive identity but left as soon as I could to move to the ‘big city’ – well, Leicester at least!  I’ve lived in several cities since: Manchester, Chicago, London and now Belfast. Each is different, but all share in common a legion of dedicated inhabitants who wouldn’t dream of living anywhere else. Where does that sense of belonging come from – who controls or shapes it, and do people resist as well as embrace?

My book, After the Shock City: Urban Culture and the Making of Modern Citizenship, is an attempt to think about that question historically, looking at the idea and experience of ‘urban citizenship’ from the late-19th to mid-20th century. Its title is a play-in-homage to the concept of the ‘shock city’ from the Asa Briggs classic Victorian Cities. Written in the 1960s, his work was foundational in the development of urban history as a subdiscipline. A shock city, according to him, was one that did the job of ‘forcing to the surface what seemed to be intractable problems of society and government’ – a time and place to consider or confront hopes and fears for the future. He picked out as archetypes, among others, Manchester in the 1840s and Chicago in the 1890s. About fifty years after Victorian Cities, the historian Harold Platt followed with his own book on Shock Cities, investigating The Environmental Transformation and Reform of Manchester and Chicago.

Manchester Town Hall (1877) and Extension (1938)
Night view, showing part of business district, Chicago (c. 1930s-40s)

I trod humbly in the footsteps of these two brilliant scholars by again returning to those two urban giants as case studies. But instead of concentrating on the period of the shock, I was more interested in what came after: how did the city, both its governors and its people, adapt and evolve in the decades that followed? How did they square their belonging to a place that had previously been seen as so shocking? Trying to answer this question, I begin my book by tracing the idea of urban citizenship and its articulation by philosophers, sociologists, critics and educators. But I then go on to look at how that idea was put into practice, whether in huge urban festivals that took the celebration of the city as their goal; youth clubs that encouraged the love of city as the glue to bond disparate groups and classes; or social housing projects that added a moralising edge to systems of local welfare.

Some of these initiatives were an attempt to get away from the results of the shock city – to replace the supposed moral degeneracy and physical dilapidation of the past with happy healthy people in shiny new homes. Yet not everything about ‘the modern’ was an attempt to forget and move on. I also found that the tale of the shock city gave people a way to think about the positive legacies of the past. Nowhere was this clearer than in the stories told by historical pageants, when literally thousands of local people came together to re-enact and remember the good and the bad of the place they called home.

‘Toffs and toughs’ – the opening of Manchester Civic Week (1926) – Manchester City Archives, Photographs of Port Canal activities, GB124.B10/3/2177
From ancient Africa to modern America on the cover of O, Sing a New Song (Chicago, 1934) – Chicago History Museum, ICHi-089150

Not everyone fell in line with this obsession with creating local belonging – and even some of those that did were still excluded. For African Americans in Chicago, the dream of belonging under one citywide banner was always in conflict with the reality of segregation and racism; for the working classes in Manchester, disparities in urban conditions and political power meant the tiered nature of society was more than obvious. Left behind or barred from the story, they shaped their own associations or events that looked beyond the city for their sense of citizenship. I’ve tried, as best I can, to include their stories as well as the image created by the more powerful. The end result, I hope, is a book that could be of use to anyone interested in the culture of cities, whether historians, sociologists, geographers – or even keen urbanites themselves.


This guest post was written by Tom Hulme, a lecturer in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics, Queen’s University Belfast.

After the Shock City: Urban Culture and the Making of Modern Citizenship
by Tom Hulme
Hardback / 9780861933495 / £37.50 or $67.50

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