Defining the identity of “Second Cities” — explicitly in opposition with global cities

Jerome Hodos, author of Second Cities: Globalization and Local Politics in Manchester and Philadelphia uses the example of Barcelona to define what a “Second City” is, and how they operate in the global world.

Second Cities compares how Philadelphia and Manchester have dealt with globalization over the past two centuries. An important question that people often have about the book is whether one can generalize from the experience of these two places to other cities. What does the book have to tell us about the rest of the world?

Let me pursue this by talking about Barcelona, where I happen to be this spring starting a new research project. It’s an exciting city to be in, about the same size as Philadelphia and with a stunning variety of museums, lectures, and concerts – not to mention FC Barcelona and the buildings of Antoni Gaudi. Moreover, Barcelona has been widely acclaimed as one of the most successful cities of the past thirty years – exemplified above all by the 1992 Olympics, which served as a sort of “coming out” party for Barcelona, and for Spain, in the wake of the country’s late-1970s democratic transition. 

Barcelona was the first Spanish city to industrialize, developing a large cotton textile sector from the early 19th century onward; the neighborhood of Poble Nou was even known as the “Catalan Manchester.” As was the case in both Manchester and Philadelphia, the city diversified into other industries, like machining, and also failed for most of its history to develop a significant financial sector. In the 1950s and 1960s, the city became home to a large automobile industry, and more recently has witnessed expansion of higher education, design, and tourism. Of course, the city has repeatedly invested in transport projects to support its economic growth. It had the first railway in Spain, opened in 1848, and is currently building a high-speed rail line to connect directly to the French TGV system. It systematically redeveloped the port and waterfront in the 1980s in preparation for the Olympics.

All the while the city absorbed a steady stream of migrants, particularly tens of thousands from the southern region of Andalusia. Because these migrants were from a region long considered different and didn’t speak Catalan, the local language, domestic migration to Barcelona took place across a language barrier that functioned similarly to the religious and racial differences between natives and domestic migrants in Philadelphia and Manchester. Today, the city’s population is about 20% foreign-born, including large numbers of Italians, Pakistanis, Dominicans, Ecuadorians, Bolivians, Japanese and Chinese.

Throughout its history, the city has cultivated an identity as European and cosmopolitan rather than Spanish, and has defined itself explicitly in opposition to Madrid, the national capital (just as Manchester and Philadelphia have done with respect to London and New York). It has displayed this identity in three gigantic international events that gave the city a world stage: the world expositions of 1888 and 1929, and the 1992 Olympics. This identity has relied on the city’s 800-year history as the center of a Catalan region that either was independent (and at one time ruled a vast Mediterranean empire stretching as far as Athens), or that chafed under Castilian domination. In fact, the city revolted at least three times against central power, in the 1640s, 1705-14, and the 1930s.

From the Renaixença of the 1860s forward, the city has nurtured several generations of literary nationalists, wedded to the idea that the Catalan culture and nation were distinctive and ought to be protected and promoted. Some of this cultural production was directed at “high culture” efforts, via the literary, architectural and artistic groups centered on the Jocs Florals and Els Quatre Gats, including Joan Miro and Pablo Picasso. But much of it focused squarely on the promotion of Catalan culture and identity, as in the work of Enric Prat de la Riba or Pompeu Fabra. This cultural nationalism was made concrete in a variety of attempts to bolster Barcelona’s autonomy. For example, in the 1890s, nationalist lawyers and writers formed the Lliga Regionalista political party. Today, there is even in Barcelona an official regional government “Institute for Autonomous Studies” that funds and publishes comparative investigations of political institutions in other countries that guarantee regional autonomy. Perhaps most important of all, these politicians and intellectuals codified the Catalan language and promoted it as the region’s mother tongue.

Barcelona, then, vividly exhibits the major characteristics of the second city.

There is of course no guarantee of how widely the characteristics defined in the book can be applied, but I would suggest that perhaps 150 cities around the world might exhibit this complex of features, from Bangalore to Lyon, Monterrey to Turin. Like Manchester, Philadelphia, and Barcelona, they are all diverse, thriving centers of large metropolitan regions with several million residents each. Though the book only focuses on two cities, it contains insights that can speak to many, many more.

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