the quartered city

I’m fascinated by the heterogeneity of the city.  The city is where we encounter difference and where identities come crashing up against each other.  My interest in urban quarters and ‘quartering’ arose from my PhD research and was particularly piqued by David Bell and Mark Jayne’s edited collection entitled City of Quarters.

When you enter the urban quarter you encounter a distinct cultural landscape: a world that is steps away from the ambient urbanities that surround it, but discursively differentiated.  The urban quarter is a space that is the locus for the symbolic framing of culture (to use Bell & Jayne’s definition), a space that offers possibilities for identity production and consumption, and a space that enables commodification of the urban experience.  The quarter offers utopian hope in the possibility of a differently-imaged future.  The quarter can act as a portal through time and space. It can take you back into history and it can propel you into the future. The quarter can transport you from the city to the ‘village’, and across borders of race, sexuality and socio-economics.  The quarter offers these transformative possibilities while the space itself is subject to constant change.  It’s a complicated and fascinating urban journey.

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Quartering the city in discourse and bricks: Articulating urban change in a South African enclave

VIS014My interest in quartering has been focused particularly on the urban enclave of De Waterkant in Cape Town. I have recently published an article in the journal Urban Forum that provides empirical evidence of quartering in the African context, but also attempts to theorise how quartering happens. The article is available from the Urban Forum website.  In the meantime, you can read the abstract below:

Focusing on the urban enclave in Cape Town known as De Waterkant, this paper examines the product and process of ‘quartering’ urban space—shaping urban space as the locus for the symbolic framing of culture. This paper advances recent studies of De Waterkant by applying the concept of quartering to understand urban change in an African context. Complicating existing research on De Waterkant, the findings show that the area has witnessed four distinct quartered identities including: an ethnic quartering which was dismantled under apartheid; a Bohemian quartering that changed racial dynamics and improved housing stock; a ‘gay village’ quartering that engaged sexual identity performance as a strategy for place-making; and most recently a consumer lifestyle quartering that exhibited new notions of citizenship and consumption. This paper advances theorization of how quartering as a process is articulated through the application of discursive and material tropes to the urban fabric of the city.

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Tourist quarterings and the Pink Map

I recently presented a paper at a conference on Tourism in the Global South in Lisbon, Portugal. One of the primary outcomes was a book of the same title, that features a chapter on my analysis of Cape Town’s Pink Map. For more information see

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gender and the quarter

Is the quarter gendered?  I began to ponder this question recently while reading Small City on a Big Couch a fascinating book by Karen Rodriguez.  In it, she situates the Mexican provincial city of Guanajuato through a gendered, pyschogeographical and psychoanalytical lens.  With my previous discussion of the quarter/la colonia prompted by my recent visit to the city, and through a close reading of her book, I ask myself if the quarter itself is a feminine urban form which is a soft curvy and unruly counterpoint to the phallic symbolism of the central business district (CBD) with its dominance through height and mass.  The CBD is the seat of power, the heart of the urban economy.  The quarter is where we adorn and fetishize the city.

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The media quarter

I have explored many types of quartering, but this one is new: media quarter. This new development, being built at-present within another quarter [De Waterkant, Cape Town] is meant to be a space for the framing of a professional sector–the ‘media’ broadly stated. Anchored by a popular local radio station in Cape Town, this development engages the attraction and essential aspects of ‘quartering’ to shape this new commercial space as THE place to situate and grow your media business.

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La colonia: quartering the city as a world heritage site

Guanajuato, Mexico offers a brilliant example of a city built on the extraction of mineral wealth in the 16th century that still retains the character of its colonial core.

Originally inhabited by the nomadic Chichimecas, Guanajuato was founded as a Spanish town in 1570–only later to be named as a ‘city’ in 1741 by King Felipe V of Spain. As a colonial Spanish city, it produced vast mineral wealth for the crown; becoming the world’s leading silver producer in the 18th century.

The city’s topography and its seemingly rhizomatic web of streets and subterranean passages and roadways are inextricably linked.  Both speak to its mining past and to the dance between the city’s hydrology–of which seasonal flooding required redirection of the river–its topography and the Baroque city that rises above it. The tangle of streets and seemingly chaotic Baroque urbanisation that produced the city we see today is a result of the wealth that emerged from the surrounding mines.

Much of that wealth can still be seen today. This may be partly due to the fact that the historic centre of the city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988.  The historic centre, called the Colonia Central in Spanish, is also quartered urban space.

During my time in Guanajuato I began to think about the relationship between the Mexican Spanish word for ‘quarter’ [colonia] and colonialism itself: is quartering simply an act of colonialism on a smaller scale?  Quartered urban spaces are differentiated similar to their colonial counterparts; they serve their colonial master–in the case of the urban quarter the broader city structure–in multiple ways; and as different and differentiated as they may be they remain subject to rules from power structures that are out of their direct control.  I also wondered about the relationship between patrimonio mundial [world heritage] status and the differentiation, control and promotion of such sites.  Does world heritage status also act as a type of quartering?

Whatever the case may be, the historic centre of Guanajuato offers a glimpse into the colonial Spanish golden-age, but it also provides an opportunity to understand a more modern urban condition.

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New Orleans – Franco/Creole/American quartered city

When you think of New Orleans, you think of the French Quarter.  This is the heart of ‘old’ New Orleans: settled by the French; contested by those who generations-old locals call ‘the Americans’–residents who are not of French or Creole descent; shaped by natural, political and social justice disasters; and enjoyed by revelers who seem to think it’s Fat Tuesday every day of the week on Bourbon Street.

The French Quarter was the original settlement, strategically located near the mouth of the Mississippi River.  It was distinguished–physically and otherwise–by ramparts that protected its inhabitants and focused the quartered image of the city inside.  It has been shaped by language, by identity (New Orleans is home to a fluid Creole culture), and by the carefree pleasures that can be found on Bourbon Street 24 hours a day.  Laissez les bon temps rouiller!

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A link between the physical and the social

Image from Phaidon Publishers: Living in the Endless City

A link between the physical and the social could be shorthand for one way of understanding the urban quarter.  It’s also how Professor Ricky Burdett and his co-editor Deyan Sudjic begin their continuing exploration of urban growth in Living in the Endless City, a follow-up to The Endless City.  Both will be part of my bookshelf soon, I hope.

Quartering is a topic that rests appropriately within the framework that Burdett and Sudjic use to explore the rapid growth of cities and the implications that has for all.  Quartering marries urban space (the physical) with culture and cultural framings (the social).  How those interactions are germinated and take root vary across time and space.  While most of the current literature on quartering references European and North American examples, we’ve got more than our share in Africa.  That’s an exploration for future posts.



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