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Conversation #3:

Cities and Inequalities


Mariana Dantas <>

Michael Goebel <>

Emma Hart <>

Constanza Benavides-Castro 


Chafariz d’El-Rey ("The King's Fountain"), Lisbon:

"Globalization" and Urban Inequality ca. 1570. 

Pálacio da BacalhôaAzeitão, Portugal.

Inequality has been at the forefront of debates across the social sciences and humanities in recent years. Pushed by the publication of Thomas Piketty’s landmark book Capital, some scholars have even identified an “inequality industry.” From the rise of right-wing populism to vaccine hesitancy in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, an enormous array of political, social, and cultural phenomena has been attributed to various forms and kinds of inequality. Rural–urban as well as intra-urban societal dynamics have rightly held a prominent place in such debates: As economic powerhouses and lodestars of labor migration, cities and urbanization have long fed socio-economic inequality within countries through rural–urban divides. Indeed, the history of cities as very unequal places in themselves and generators of not only local but regional and even global social differentiation reaches centuries into the past. 


Historians have long examined questions of inequality within the geographic and thematic confines of their respective sub-fields. Urban historians, labor historians, gender historians, scholars of consumer and material culture, of the political history of empire, of race and ethnicity, have generated deep and rich discussions about human experiences with power, discrimination, and disparity in living conditions. With very few exceptions, though, such works tend to conform to the boundaries of national, or possibly imperial histories. Additionally, forays into comparative, transnational or trans-imperial, or global analyses tend to still seek a regional, societal, or cultural-specific anchor lest they be dismissed as too broad, overgeneralizing, or imprecise. It has fallen to social scientists, therefore, to propose bolder theories and analytical models that can help explain global phenomena of inequality and their local manifestations. 


As part of its Dream Conversations event series for 2021-22, the Global Urban History Project (GUHP) will facilitate similar discussions of inequality within the realm of history, by locating it within the urban space, while remaining attentive to global patterns, connections, forces, and processes. If cities are generators and manifestations of inequalities, we recognize that they were also sites of intersection of local and global dynamics. Investigating inequality within such spaces and in the historical context of urbanization and globalization -- whether in the pre, early, or modern eras -- affords us the opportunity to contribute theories and models as historians of the global urban.


Urban Inequality and Political Struggle: Socialism, Capitalism, and Global Cities in Transition

A GUHP Cities and Inequalities Dream Conversation Lightning Round Panel

Friday, January 28, 3-4:30pm EST (20:00 UTC)
(Watch on GUHP Videos)

This panel brought together urban historians working on cities in moments of political transition in twentieth-century Latin America, Asia, and Eastern Europe. It examined how transitions in political ideology are reflected in cities and urban space, with particular attention to questions of inequality.

The geographical breadth of the panel offered the exciting opportunity to collaborate across fields of study. The creative "lightning round" session format, with four 8-10-minute visual presentations modeled on the TED conference, ensured an engaging conversation with ample time for discussion and questions. 


Late Stalinist Inequalities on the Cityscape of Moscow” – Katherine Zubovich 


In the years after 1945, the Soviet state embarked on a large-scale building project in Moscow that ultimately saw the construction of seven high-rises in this city. Skyscraper construction in Moscow led to the displacement of large numbers of residents, yielding similar results to urban renewal projects undertaken in the U.S., the U.K., and elsewhere in this same period. This presentation examined how social differentiation was reflected and reinforced by Moscow’s redevelopment in the late-Stalin period. It explored, furthermore, the benefits and limitations of comparing “urban renewal” cases and urban inequalities across the socialist-capitalist divide.


Katherine Zubovich (University at Buffalo, SUNY) is the author of Moscow Monumental: Soviet Skyscrapers and Urban Life in Stalin’s Capital (Princeton University Press, 2020).



“Housing Inequality in Socialist China: State Building Projects and Residual Neighborhoods” – Kristin Stapleton

In the 1950s the People’s Republic of China set new standards for urban housing but imposed them in cities with a diverse landscape of existing buildings, some managed by the state sector, some by collectives, and some by private owners. Housing provision was far from equitable in socialist China. The Communist leadership’s emphasis on industrialization led to the creation of self-sufficient communities around factories. Older sections of Chinese cities constituted highly uneven social spaces, and the state’s attempts to transform them faced significant limitations. Deep-rooted patterns of life persisted among the inhabitants of housing left over from an ealier era.

Kristin Stapleton (University at Buffalo, SUNY) is the author of Civilizing Chengdu: Chinese Urban Reform, 1895-1937 (Harvard Asia Center, 2000) and Fact in Fiction: 1920s China and Ba Jin’s Family (Stanford, 2016). 


“Revolution, Corporatism, and Informality in 1940s Mexico City” – Emilio de Antuñano


This presentation centered on “proletarian neighborhoods” (colonias proletarias), an urban reform spearheaded by the Mexican government in the 1940s. Inspired by corporatist and revolutionary ideals, city officials envisioned proletarian neighborhoods as the building blocks for a working-class metropolis. Proletarian neighborhoods were also the outcome of organizing by urbanites demanding land and city services. Finally, they can be viewed as “informal” places, plagued by property conflicts and a selective application of the law. Proletarian neighborhoods, I propose, represented an arena where planners, developers, political brokers, and working-class families negotiated the opposition between planning and informality, political integration and city inequality.


Emilio de Antuñano (Trinity University) is currently working on a book entitled The Shape of a Megalopolis: Growth, Revolution, and Informality in 20th Century Mexico City.



“Unequal Infrastructure: Building the Santiago Metro Under Democracy and Dictatorship” – Andra Chastain

Santiago, Chile, boasts the largest subway network in South America. Initially proposed between the 1920s and 50s to serve the highest public transit needs along a north-south axis, the transit commission appointed in the 1960s prioritized the east-west axis, which included wealthy neighborhoods. Relieving car congestion, more than serving public transit needs, became the main premise of the metro plan well into the Allende socialist regime and during military rule, which reinforced patterns of inequality in the city. This case study shows that changes in political ideology can combine with existing urban inequality to shape long-term state infrastructure projects such as a metro system.

Andra Chastain (Washington State University, Vancouver) is the author of Chile Underground: The Santiago Metro and the Struggle for a Rational City (under contract with Yale University Press) and co-editor with Timothy Lorek of Itineraries of Expertise: Science, Technology, and the Environment in Latin America’s Long Cold War (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020).

 INAUGURAL EVENT in Dream Conversation #3 Cities and Inequalities

Roundtable on Cities and Inequalities 

Thursday October 28, 2021 3-4:30 PM EDT (7-8:30 UCT)


Event Co-Sponsored by the Urban History Association as part of Urban History Month 


Watch this event on GUHPVIDS, the YouTube Channel of the Global Urban History Project


Description and Participants:

The "Cities and Inequalities" roundtable is the inaugural event of the Global Urban History Project Dream Conversations initiative on the topic of inequalities. Roundtable participants Constanza Castro (Universidad de los Andes), David Huyssen (University of York), Hilary Jones (University of Kentucky), and Michael Vann (Sacramento State University) will kick off our year-long conversation by discussing the role inequality, examined through a global urban history perspective, has played in their research and writing. The discussion will be moderated by Zephyr Frank (Stanford University).