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Constructing the urban imaginary: photography, decline and renaissance

Aelbrecht, Wes; (2018) Constructing the urban imaginary: photography, decline and renaissance. Doctoral thesis (Ph.D), UCL (University College London).

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This dissertation discusses the construction of three distinct urban imaginaries during two cycles of urban renewal (1940s–60s) and downtown renaissance (1970s–90s) in Chicago and Detroit. It uses a wide variety of images to do so: photographs, films, maps, graphs and murals. It explores how these images were initially used for research, education and promotion supposedly to save the city from obsolescence; and later for social and political activism to gather support for preservation of landmarks and communities. To study how urban imaginaries shape the rebuilding of the city, in other words, how visuals shape thoughts, actions and interactions that could justify one mode of city building over another, I focus primarily on the visual and material exchanges between images, the city and its citizens. During the period of urban renewal (1940s–60s), I investigate how voluntary citizens’ councils in both Detroit and Chicago used blighted images as “reform publicity” to rally private organizations, public institutions and individuals to support and help organize the clearance and selling of large tracts of land to private developers. By contrast, during the period of downtown renaissance (1970s–90s), I track how public-private partnerships produced images of iconic buildings, skylines and multicultural festivals to pave the way for efforts to revitalize both downtowns. But even as downtown renaissance booster campaigns attempted to create a community of believers (and eventually consumers), images of decline resurfaced, disseminated by individuals and groups who together constructed a powerful counter-imaginary in order to spur popular resistance to the wholesale destruction of buildings, neighbourhoods and communities. By studying how urban imaginaries develop and change in time vis-à-vis dominant modes of rebuilding and governing the city, this dissertation contributes to existing histories of postwar American cities in the following ways. First, it does so by assembling an archive of previously unknown visual documents and collecting the oral histories of amateur and professional documentary photographers, curators and preservationists. Second, by placing these primary materials at the centre of an account of how urban imaginaries are constructed, it extends recent scholarship that considers how controversial and often damaging policies of urban renewal and planning gained widespread political and popular support. In particular, it draws attention to the previously unappreciated role of voluntary citywide citizens’ groups in creating a positive political climate for urban renewal and the influence of booster campaigns and opposition projects in downtown renaissance.

Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Qualification: Ph.D
Title: Constructing the urban imaginary: photography, decline and renaissance
Event: UCL (University College London)
Language: English
UCL classification: UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL BEAMS
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL BEAMS > Faculty of the Built Environment
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL BEAMS > Faculty of the Built Environment > The Bartlett School of Architecture
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10046067
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