How Are Cities Defined?
By Rasha Aly
How do you see Boston?
Do you see Boston as the small pub named Cheers where Sam Malone worked
alongside Woody Boyd to serve regulars such as Norm Peterson and Frasier Crane? Or, is it the Red Sox winning the World
Series in 2004 when the team, after 86 years, finally broke the Curse of the
Bambino (Babe Ruth)? Perhaps, it is the
racial struggle during the 1960s and 1970s busing crisis, where people still
fought for desegregation of schools, a century after the Civil War, in what was
a vibrant, multi-racial city?
Dr. Stanley Corkin, a professor with the departments of
history and English & comparative literatures, would say each of these
descriptions symbolizes Boston in a specific and different way. An expert at analyzing how different films
and television shows represent geographic areas and their changing identities,
Corkin has already written two books about the subject. The first, Starring New York: Filming the Grime and the Glamour of the Long 1970s
(Oxford University Press, 2011), examines a range of films and how those films
show the transformation of the Big Apple from a declining, industrial
metropolis to a “global” capital of finance.
His most recent book, Connecting
The Wire: Race, Space, and Postindustrial Baltimore, Corkin looks at how The Wire, the well-acclaimed, HBO drama
depicted the city of Baltimore.
For his fifth book, Imagining
the New, New Boston, 1970-2016: History and Mass Culture in the Neoliberal Age,
Corkin chose to focus upon the city of Boston.
It is no surprise Corkin, a native Bostonian, chose that city to be his
focal point in his third book in his three-book series. “I was interested in a second- or third-tier
U.S. city hat had thrived notably in the post-industrial era,” Corkin
said. “Boston made sense, because it had
converted its educational infrastructure into economic successes, as well as
employed that success to articulate a ‘brand’ through various media devices.”
Each of these three cities, New York, Baltimore, and Boston,
represented major urban areas that conjured many significant definitions and
images for people within society’s mass culture. Corkin said, “I have been long been concerned
with questions of history and mass culture, and I decided to investigate the
ways in which a mediated definition of ‘the urban’ had become an important
issue in the age of neoliberalism, which creates an attendant network of world
“New York’s ‘success’ during this regime seemed
notable. Similarly David Simon’s view of
Baltimore as a city left behind offers a complement to that success, a means of
filling in aspects of a larger picture.
Then Boston’s emergent status as a relative financial and technology
center provides a means of focusing on the ways in which material reality can
work synergistically with media projects to create a sense of place that is
attractive and saleable,” Corkin said.
The Big Apple
As the Moshulu, a four-masted, steel, enters the New York
City Harbor in 1901, the ship, which is carrying a group of Italian immigrant,
passes in front of the Statue of Liberty.
Inside Ellis Island, the intake officer calls for the next person in
line. “What is your name? Come on son,
What is your name?” A young 9-year-old
boy, in gray pants and buttoned-up shirt, wearing a Gatsby cap, looks up at the
officer and says nothing. The young,
Italian child does not know much English.
The translator asks in Italian, “What is your name,” and
then reads the tag on the young boy’s coat.
The tag reads, “VITO Andolini from Coreolone. Thus, the young boy is named Vito Corleone –
the same Vito Coreleone, who will later become the Mafia boss known as the
Godfather in the movie of the same name.
Coreleone works hard to become a successful “businessman” in the United
States, and as he does this, he becomes a force to be reckoned with in New York
City’s Little Italy.
In his third book, Corkin concentrates mainly on how
Hollywood connected to New York City by studying more than 20 films that were
set and shot within the city. As he
watched these films, Corkin uses these movies to show how these movies are
tools of urban discourse. These films
help show viewers the different factors that surrounded each of the Big Apple’s
major, urban transformations. To outline
his findings, Corkin had divided the book into six sections, and each of these
sections illustrate how a group of films related to certain urban themes along
with historical milestones.
The second section, which featured parts one and two of the Godfather trilogy, show how racialized
neighborhoods influenced the transformation of New York City. Corkin, who also added in an analysis of the movie, Mean Streets, gives an
in-depth breakdown of how ethnic and racialized geographies, such as Little
Italy and Harlem, influence New York City in chapters three and four of the
book. Other parts of the book examined
how the economic deterioration of
the cit1234 123412341234y, how urban crime connected to the emergence of
neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism within the city and the nation as a whole. For instance, Corkin detailed how movies,
such as The French Connection and the Prince of the City no longer saw New York
as a city limited to contact with only other American cities but more as a
worldly city with a number of international connections.
In the first scene, Snot Boogie, a small-time,
West-Baltimore druggie, lays on the street dead, as the police canvass the
area. On the sidewalk, next to the crime
scene, Detective James “Jimmy” McNulty is talking to a random guy about Snot
Boogie’s murder. Each week, Snot Boogie
played a craps game with other boys in an alley, and each week, Snot Boogie
runs off with pot of cash. The boys
would catch up with Snot Boogie and give him a beating, but they never killed
him – until that night.
McNulty asked this stranger, “If every time Snotboogie would
grab the money and run away, why’d you even let him in the game?”
The stranger replied, “Got to. This America, man.”
The stranger’s response showed that in America, people
believe that everyone should have the opportunity to “play the game.” However,
what is contradictory about the statement is that most of West Baltimore
residents, especially due to their environment and the opportunities that
surrounded them – do not have much opportunity at all. Instead, choose to seize
the limited opportunities available: they became involved in crime. The drama series’ plots are a
very-close-to-reality narrative of the experiences and space many West
Baltimore African Americans face – experiences where this community do whatever
they need to do to survive – including breaking the law. It is this emphasis on the specific
neighborhood of West Baltimore that Corkin finds interesting and elaborates
upon throughout his fourth monograph.
While his third book concentrated upon the entire city of New York, the
Wire focuses upon the same, inner-city, poor neighborhood. Corkin highlights the variety of factors that
continue to cause the residents of this geographic location to drown in crime
and poverty. Corkin writes in his newest
book that The Wire “opens a discussion substantially focused on how urban
despair is created and enabled by the institutional structures that articulate
the terms and limits of ghetto life.
Drugs are not so much the catalyst for misery as a symptom of the
extremes of inequality and social isolation” (p. 7). Throughout the five-season series, David
Simon, the show’s producer and a former Baltimore Sun reporter, provides
examples of structural factors that contribute to the inequality and social
isolation, and these factors include the unequal education the children, who
live in that neighborhood receive; the unemployment that permeates the
neighborhood; and the policies that contribute to the decline of jobs in the
neighborhood, among another of other factors.
Movies are not the only elements that help invoke images of
a city’s identities in today’s society.
Through his research, Corkin has realized there are other factors,
besides Hollywood, that contribute to a city’s public identity. In his latest book, he is using more than
just film and shows to study the different Boston identities in his most recent
book project. He is taking more of a
broader approach, by examining how other culture factors, such as sports and
media, represent these identities too, but Corkin is also still focusing on one
geographic space: Boston. “In the study,
I delve into the meanings of ‘Boston’ from 1970 to the present, an inquiry into
the realm of mass culture that explores the intersections of the city’s
post-industrial history and meanings – topics that are related but divergent,”
Corkin wrote in the proposal he submitted for the Center Fellowship.
In Boston, an example of another factor that influences
Boston’s image in society is the city’s sports teams. The Red Sox baseball team is intimately
linked with the city’s identity. Boston
residents would say you are not a true Bostonian unless you root for the Red
Sox. Even when the baseball team faced
the Bambino curse, the 86-year drought where the Reds never won a World Series
from 1918 to 2004, the fans still filled Fenway Boston Park. “We picked the Red Sox because they lose,”
late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon once said. “If you root for something that loses for 86
years, you’re a pretty good fan. You
don’t have to win everything to be a fan of something.”
Therefore, when the team accomplishes an amazing feat, like
breaking the Curse of the Bambino in 2004, the city of Boston conjures up
images linked with pride. In addition,
however, when Red Sox fans throw a barrage of racist insults at Orioles
All-Star baseball player Adam Jones, these actions surrounding the Red Sox
invoke thoughts that Boston is a racist city.
When a famous baseball player such as Barry Bonds, a seven-time National
League MVP award-winner who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the San
Francisco Giants, would say, “Boston is to racist for [him]. [He] couldn’t play there. That’s been going on ever since my dad
was playing baseball. I can’t play like
that. That’s not for me, brother.”
In his research, Corkin will look at how Boston sports
teams, such as the Red Sox, and how these teams have influenced Boston’s
portrayal in society. In addition, he
will look at how news, such as the Boston Marathon bombing, which happened on
April 15, 2013, and the Boston busing crisis in the 1960s and 1970s, has shaped
Boston’s identity as well. Along with
these factors, Corkin will continue exploring the Hollywood influence by
examining Boston-thematic movies such as The
Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), The
Brinks Job (1978), Good Will Hunting
(1997), The Departed (2006), and Gone, Baby, Gone (2007). He will also be analyzing Boston-themed
television shows, such as St. Elsewhere
and Ray Donovan, to contribute to his
One difference readers may see in his last book is more of a
focus on inequality. His NEW YORK- book
focused a lot more on the structures that caused inequality, because The Wire
focused on a specific neighborhood where most of the inhabitants lived in poverty. Corkin said he would like “to open up a more
analytical vision of the forces that animate contemporary relationships of
Corkin will be using his year as a Center Fellow to finish
his last book in the trilogy. He has
already drafted three of the six chapters that will form the body of his study.