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VCL Fellows Posts

Each semester we ask Fellows in the Lab to write a short reflection on their experience.

Yiming Cai, Spring 2021

Before joining the VCL family, never did it occur to me that there could be so many fantastic ways to visualize, analyze and understand a city. It is here that I got the chance to match demographic distribution with urban planning by employing data-driven platforms such as R and Tableau, to visually chart the everchanging typology of the cities in the Global South, and to analyze the pros and cons of debatable urban policies.

Focusing on Cold War media for broader academic inquiries, I have always been curious about how cities were envisioned during the Cold War years and how state ideology factored into urban planning. At VCL, I was able to put my interest into practice. Teaming with two wonderful undergrad fellows—Christina and Deepthi, we started our workshop by brainstorming what Cold War cities could possibly look like. It was not long before we realized that the Korean peninsula—with its rich history, enduring political division, and contemporary resonation in popular culture such as Crash Landing on You—could be a case in point in the discussion on Cold War cities.

In specific, we took Pyongyang and Seoul as two case studies and probed into how state ideology was intertwined with the urban planning that shaped the two distinctive cities during the Cold War. Through literature reviews and comparative analyses, it dawned on us that during the Cold War era, socialism in North Korea, or Juche ideology, exerted its profound influences on how Pyongyang was visualized, as can be evidenced by the government-supported uniform residential buildings, omnipresent statues of the leader that towered into the sky, and futuristic stadiums where socialist ambition was staged. By comparison, urban planning in South Korea, which was more affiliated with the United States as a bulwark against North Korea during the Cold War, took on a different look. One of the defining characteristics of the Cold War architecture in Seoul was the establishment of churches, a sign of support of Christianity and defiance against state oppression of religion in North Korea. The stark contrast between the two states cannot only be discerned in the architecture constructed in the Cold War; the political and ideological division in the Korean Peninsula from within has had its lingering ramifications on contemporary urban visuality as well. Based upon the division and differences as such, in the workshop, we catalogued a list of images of architectures of various forms and functions. These images covered some of the most idiosyncratic examples from both North and South Korea. We then invited the participants to imagine themselves being the urban designer and choose the images that befitted the state policy. Thanks to the insightful comments by our lab fellows, the workshop garnered much discussion and encouraged us to wonder how we should re-approach the architectural legacies even if the Cold War is nominally over.

The weekly gathering with the faculty and other students is indeed lovely. Although we could only meet each other virtually, VCL provided us with a place where we could chat, air our thoughts and feel connected in the pandemic. Each Tuesday afternoon, I left Zoom, gratified with what I had learn and yearning for visiting the cities after the pandemic.


Christina Wang, Spring 2021

I learned about the Visualizing Cities Lab after my first semester at Duke. As a first-year student who was looking for research experience, the Visualizing Cities Lab seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to learn new skills and methodologies used in humanities research. Thus, I applied to be an undergraduate fellow with the lab. Prior to starting work in the lab, I knew I’d be required to step outside my comfort zone. As a political science major, I had never worked with anything related to art history, visual media, or urban studies before, and I was excited to dive into topics that I wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to study. I was also excited to get the chance to work on a research team with graduate and fellow undergraduate students. However, during the first lab meeting, I was surprised to learn that the lab would be entirely conducted in a workshop structure. I had never designed or led a workshop before, so I was a bit nervous about what the process would be like.

I worked in a group with a graduate student, Yiming, and another undergraduate student, Deepthi. The theme of our research was “Cold War Cities,” so we decided to investigate the cities of Pyongyang and Seoul. Our research was focused on how the architecture of each city helped realize the political ideology of North and South Korea following the division of Korea during the Cold War and in the present day. The process of conducting research and preparing for the workshop was actually much less daunting than I expected. There wasn’t any overly complex archival work or technical skills required as I had expected. Rather, it was much more like a dialogue between the three of us. Yiming would send articles or other materials that he found interesting, and Deepthi and I would review them and provide our own commentary and analysis in a reply, and sometimes we would send articles that we found during our own research. Prior to the workshop, we synthesized our analysis into a presentation format and devised an interactive component that allowed the workshop participants to apply overarching ideas from our analysis.

The process of conducting research and helping to lead a workshop within the lab was a fantastic experience. I especially appreciated the collaborative aspect, as Yiming, Deepthi, and I were in different locations and time zones, yet we still managed to craft a comprehensive and engaging workshop. It showed me that conversation and collaboration were still possible, even amidst the social distancing of the pandemic. And presenting the workshop was an exciting experience, especially as I was hearing the discussions of the workshop participants. They were engaging with our material at a depth that I was not anticipating, and it was incredibly rewarding to see that our research was interesting and thought-provoking. I deeply appreciate all aspects of my semester with the Visualizing Cities Lab, as I was able to develop an appreciation of the encompassing nature of politics, culture, and art. The three are deeply intertwined, and inseparable.

Ian Erickson-Kery, Spring 2021

Global Urban Studies as a Work in Translation

In her study of grassroots urbanism in contemporary Calcutta, Swati Chattopadhyay writes that “the central problem in theorizing cities today is a paucity of vocabulary.”[1] Urban studies, she argues, continues to rely excessively on terms tied to Euro-American typologies and historical trajectories, either assuming a direct translatability between global contexts or flattening cities outside the West into a “planet of slums” or “terrain ready for… aerial bombardment” (referring to studies by Mike Davis and Rem Koolhaas, respectively).[2] Esra Akcan similarly bemoans the equalizing tendencies of urbanist discourse vis-à-vis the modernist enterprise. At the same time, she cautions against a retreat into absolute particularism, asserting that “the belief in untranslatability may draw sharp and fixed borders around places.”[3] In opposition to the translation as domination she instead proposes “the aspiration for translatability from below.”[4]

The workshop “Building a Lexicon for Contemporary Global South Cities,” which I led with Ian Acriche and Ayesham Khan, attempted to begin such a task of translation with the use of text and multimedia objects from Guangzhou, Jerusalem, and São Paulo. The selection of these cities was not based on any pre-established connection or resonance; it was rather based on the languages—spoken, cultural, and intellectual—which each of us brought to the lab from our independent pursuits. These languages opened lines of inquiry that sometimes crossed, sometimes ran parallel to one another, and at other times operated on entirely separate planes. They shed light on translation as a means of political solidarity (the influence of the Black Panthers in Jerusalem, for example) and a way of understanding the local effects of global processes, such as the transformation of rural communities by urbanization. If in Brazil such shifts have historically taken the form of mass migration to the city, in China,  chéngzhōngcūn, or urban villages, exist as formally rural settlements subsumed by urban expansion.

Terms such as informal, designating urban space outside of formal planning, ran through our analysis, but proved to have vastly different connotations in different settings, including, during broader discussion, contexts such as the ancient Greek city and the Moroccan medina. The notion of a “Global South” proved perhaps the most challenging: intended to think beyond an engrained disciplinary eurocentrism, as well as the geopolitical categories of the Cold War, we encountered the term’s limits in an urbanized world shaped by fractal relationships distributed across so-called centers and peripheries. Inherited concepts of “the west” provide insufficient terms for understanding the globalized urban hubs in Asia, Africa, and Latin America; at the same time, these hubs are bound together, and to the historical “Western” centers, by immense flows of commerce and migration that shape the built environment in numerous ways.

In the end, our comparative exercise readily imparted a notion I have endeavored to convey to students in language classes: translation is never a matter of creating a one-to-one match between words, of mechanically processing one language into another. The same holds for images, despite their more immediate communicability, and the multi-dimensional flows and typologies that constitute urban spaces. Translation is rather a matter of establishing connections—whether direct or oblique, immediate or delayed—that allow readers, or perhaps visitors to a new city, to enter a space that otherwise would have been closed or illegible to them.

[1] Swati Chattopadhyay, Unlearning the City: Infrastructure in a New Optical Field (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), ix.

[2] Chattopadhyay, Unlearning the City, xiv, xv

[3] Esra Akcan, Architecture in Translation: Germany, Turkey, and the Modern House (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), 17.

[4] Akcan, Architecture in Translation, 14.

Deepthi Chandra, Spring 2021

How Architecture Changed My Perception of a Korean Drama

In the Visualizing Cities Lab, my team and I led a workshop about architecture in Pyongyang, North Korea and Seoul, South Korea. I convinced my team to focus on Korea because I was obsessed with the Korean drama Crash Landing on You at the time. For reference, the show is about a star-crossed love between a South Korean heiress and a North Korean elite/military captain. I wanted to use clips from the drama to show how life in Pyongyang and Seoul has many commonalities due to human nature; clearly, that is a must for the leads to relate to each other and fall in love.

During my team’s workshop, groups of participants role-played as urban planners from either Pyongyang or Seoul and decided on one of two structures to build in the following categories: skyline, arts institution, skyscraper, and science & technology. Even though incorporating clips from the K-drama did not work out (apparently, they were not reflective of Cold War ideologies), I learned a great deal: specifically, I discovered that my hypothesis was wrong. Even though human nature is similar for people in Pyongyang and Seoul, how architecture is used to influence human nature is quite different.

The main takeaway was that architecture is not simply about the appearance of buildings in place within cities. Physical structures are fundamentally tied to the power dynamics of who built them and why as well as their interactions with constituents’ emotions. Furthermore, no matter how strange a structure may appear, it is a part of a population’s “normal” with its effects intricately woven into how people act on their human nature every day.

Considering Crash Landing on You, the North Korean male lead’s “normal” would have been a utopia-like skyline of Soviet housing blocks painted with pastels—a futuristic reality constructed by the North Korean regime. Every day, he would have had his eyes subconsciously directed to a prominent statue of the regime’s rulers, the focal point of Pyongyang, and uniform streets pointing to an enormous though empty Ryugyong Hotel. That architecture embodying the Juche ideology of self-reliance and autonomy could have led to an array of emotions, including fear of the regime’s assertions of power, anxiety, indifference, a desire to shine through obedience, or even a leaning towards conformity.

On the other hand, the female lead would have had a completely different experience with “normal.” Seeing a skyscraper-laden skyline with lights, she would have likely developed a contrasting perception of “modern” as well as the success of democratic, capitalist societies. For instance, her values could have been shaped by seeing the open, transparent glass and precise, clean edges of structures like the Hyundai Motor Group Innovation Center, which is in stark contrast with the intimidating and secretive grandeur of Pyongyang’s premier nuclear facility.

The protagonists would have seen vastly dissimilar spaces during their daily commutes and even as they looked longingly out their bedroom windows; repeated every day, the interactions between space and emotions impact the very lens through which people see the world and themselves. In short, due to the dynamics of architecture and human nature, the lovers from Pyongyang and Seoul may be more star-crossed than we viewers initially thought.

Bryan Rusch, Spring 2021

When I first joined VCL last semester as a grad student team leader, I imagined myself using my digital background to quite literally make visualizations of cities. I thought I would be conceiving of models and georeferencing photographs, learning new coding languages, and making generative codes to develop non-existent vistas. The possibilities were endless. Yet as the past two semesters have gone by, I have grown further away from the conception of visualization which we feel most comfortable with.

Merriam-Webster defines visualization as: “the act or process of interpreting in visual terms or of putting into visible form.” It could be my foundation in Disability Studies, or my growing humanities focus, but the visual media which we usually define a city by has lost its universalist luster I once thought it had. No longer do I see a city by its walking paths and staircases. And technologic artifacts only define the city in their own moment. Simultaneously, data privacy and chamber pots are not mutually exclusive, both existing in the modern citizens mind. Where excrement was once thrown from windows, now hidden sensors carry out covert data-ops. Yet these digital cities are just as imaginary as those found in literature a thousand years ago. The city remains, and its only constant is the human mind which has created it out of nothing. It is that mind which seeks definition and conception through various means:

How does a city exist in memory? In law? In prayer? In nationalism?

How does a city persist? Decay? Grow violent? Grow peaceful?

The Visualizing Cities Lab has allowed me to explore these questions. And it has shown me that there truly are no answers. The VCL has created a freeform space where I can be a mentor to undergrads while they simultaneously teach me. The space’s only prescription has been ‘a deliverable’ and ‘a workshop.’ And with each in mind, I have forged ahead alongside students and faculty who are as eager for the intellectual play VCL offers as I am. Yet it has not just been the generative team sessions which have allowed my growth. Each week, workshops are presented on different methods of visualization. Some take on digital methods, while others have explored how an individual’s relationship to a city is coded through politics and law. My own exploration has been in the systems of knowledge production around cities, and the ways in which they reproduce their own inadequacies.

Just as confounding a paradox as a city can be, so has the Lab been due to its own historical moment. Existing exclusively via Zoom, it is neither a physical lab, nor in a city and it exists only in the barest minimum of visualization. Google Earth seems the most apt visualization for any city right now, giving further weight to the necessity of the conversations we are having. How do we know a city? How do we make a city? It can’t be the act of walking as Michel de Carteau would argue, for I think I have experienced a city without ever stepping foot in one. It can’t be the signifiers and sightlines which define a citizens viewshed, as Roland Barthes might say.

In this moment, I can only say – no, hope that a city is the relations of trust and collaboration which exist across space.


Vaneesha Patel, Spring 2021

Before the beginning of our weekly Visualizing Cities Lab meetings, I was apprehensive yet excited. I was happy to finally be surrounded by people who were excited by the same things as I was, but I was scared of learning things that were outside of my comfort zone. As a public policy major, I had little to no experience with any form of data visualization, let alone how data visualizations could be used to represent things pertaining to art history, such as cities.

During our first couple of meetings, my excitement eventually overpowered my nervousness. The graduate students gave pitches on their own projects and we would have the opportunity to be able to work with them. Each of their projects were unique, different, and interesting, and it was very cool to see just how many different approaches there were to looking at and studying cities.

I eventually was given the opportunity to work with a group on a workshop titled, “Making Maps in R”. I chose this group because I had experience in R, but only in relation to my statistics 101 class. I had no idea that R could be used as a way to make maps, and I was eager to learn more about how that could be done. Throughout the planning process of our workshop, I really appreciated the collaborative nature in which our team was able to work. I feel as though I have always viewed data visualization as an “individual” process. I saw it as something that was not conducive to multiple people sharing ideas and working together. However, I quickly learned that it was indeed collaborative and rather easy for multiple people to work together. I also learned just how powerful those that make the decisions for what exactly to visualize and represent are. Every decision reflects something larger. What you choose to omit, what you choose to include, what colors you use, the size of different items, and where you include things all has an impact on what it is you are visualizing and those that are perceiving it. It is important to be aware of the weight seemingly small decisions will have on your final product and its audience. I really appreciate this new level of awareness as I hope to make more data visualizations throughout my professional life.

My perspective on cities had also previously been rather short sighted. When I think of cities, I think of lots of people, lots of traffic and lots of things to do. I quickly learned that cities are much more than that. Cities represent and reflect the history, culture, religions, hardships and triumphs of its people and its geographical space and location. All of the different workshops showed me just how representative cities at large are of their own people. I think it is truly beautiful that cities have this ability, and I almost think of cities as pieces of art that are constantly being built and added upon. They are always being changed and updated to reflect the desires of those that inhabit it at the time while still retaining the mark of those that lived there not long ago. My experience with VCL has shown me that cities serve as a monument to what has passed and a canvas for what is yet to come.

Ninel Valderrama Negrón, Spring 2021

As a result of my involvement in the Visualizing Cities Lab (VCL) and the assistance of my team, I was able to deepen my research in a way that I otherwise might not have done in my dissertation. This provided me with avenues to refine my own arguments. Our workshop focused on the intersection between infrastructure visibility and race. Urban infrastructure contains a tremendous paradox: sometimes considered so common as to be unremarkable, infrastructure can also be the bearer of modernization, growth, and progress. But for certain populations, the infrastructure is always broken, perhaps it was never designed for them. It is therefore imperative to know when infrastructure becomes violent, for whom, under what conditions, and why. This task is crucial, as many colonial continuities persist today in postcolonial cities, albeit disguised behind the promise of urban improvement.

As part of our workshop, we examine the relationship between race and infrastructure through a case study. By combining the teams’ interests on a topic, we chose to map Havana’s health infrastructure and extent of the cholera epidemic in 1833. We were fortunate to be able to work with a collection located in the Rubenstein Library, which contained data on the cholera epidemic that could be analyzed in the time devoted to the project. We then employed the digital tool Tableau to analyze the statistical data of the disease based on the Rubenstein files.

Our workshop also consisted of developing Tableau’s basic skills so that the team could analyze the data collected. Digital infrastructure has an upgraded hiding capacity through technical processes such as algorithms; it is, therefore, imperative to understand how infrastructural projects work and to question claims of the post-racial character of technological progress. Critical digital humanities practices have engaged with these issues, and our use of them in this project implied redirecting these technologies to reveal what could otherwise be made invisible. Our final team’s reflection emphasizes that invisibility assigned sewers often makes them seem boring, dull, or unimportant, when, in fact, they reinforce the structural differences that define the social fabric within a city. Its poor sanitation infrastructure and designation of people of color as a dangerous population were a contributing factor to the cholera epidemic in Havana. The next stage of this project is the production of an academic paper with my team to further analyze the impact of the cholera epidemic on women of color in Havana in 1833 and ask ourselves if their lives changed with the inauguration of the aqueduct in 1835.

Belonging to the VCL was an enriching experience at a formative level and as a teacher and researcher because it helped to establish intellectual ties outside my department and to understand cities from different points of view. Also, this opportunity helped me to promote and develop my communication and mentoring skills at both the archival and digital levels. One of the best things about belonging to a lab is precisely to foster relationships between undergraduate and graduate students outside of a classroom.


Riya Mohan, Spring 2021

The biggest academic goal I had set for myself during the spring semester was to never work past nine o’clock at night. Yet, despite this promise to myself, I found myself intently staring at my computer at midnight on a Thursday night, completely engrossed in the words flashing across my screen. The paper I had been reading discussed the role infrastructure played in both influencing as well as recording changes in society and was recommended to me by my graduate mentor through the Visualizing Cities Lab. However, this was not the only time I became completely absorbed in my learning thanks to VCL because my entire experience with the lab served as a reminder of why I came to Duke in the first place—to push myself to innovate in extraordinary ways.

Of the many valuable lessons I learned throughout my experience with the Visualizing Cities Lab, the most important one is about the interdisciplinary nature of research. With my small research team, we investigated the link between health infrastructure and the spread of cholera in Havana during the 1800’s. As I completed this project, I learned how to incorporate information, skills, and lessons from fields as disparate as art history and data science. In terms of art historical knowledge, I analyzed historical documents, such as letters and catalogs. But, at the same time, I applied data and computer science skills by using visualization software, like ArcGIS and Tableau. Both of these disciplines may appear vastly different on the surface but, in reality, they synergized to help our group understand and identify the underlying societal factors that led to the distinct proliferation of cholera in Havana as well as generalize this information with overall trends.

Before participating in this project, I never imagined the possibilities that could arise from interdisciplinary research and education because participating in a VCL research project has opened my eyes to all the different ways in which one can draw skills from one discipline to apply in another in order to innovate and create a completely new concept or connection. In a larger context, the possibilities of cross-disciplinary education are nearly endless and would be vital if applied in a widespread manner in educational and research settings. For example, I’ve already seen applications of this phenomenon in my academic studies when I used art historical visual analysis methods to categorize and identify differences in animal skulls for a biology lab. Not only that, I’ve applied prior knowledge of governmental structures and public policy in my summer art history project as well.

I hope to continue expanding my interdisciplinary skill set as I move along on my academic journey at Duke, both within and outside of VCL. As I continue participating in various Visualizing Cities Lab projects and programs, I expect and welcome many late nights, like the one during my spring semester, where I hope to continue being engrossed in what I am learning and being reminded of why I love learning so much in the first place.

Ayesham Kahn, Spring 2021

I often dream of Jerusalem. I’ve wondered why that is. Towards the end of our workshop, we conjured up some words we thought were apt in describing this city– these words were: tentacular, intersectionality, lines, embedded, fossils, microworlds, and fragility. I colored the scene in my mind– Jerusalem as a clot of arterial streets, clumped together, throbbing with little tendrils extending all over the world. Some to Iraq and Morocco, from which hailed the Mizrahi Jews. Some to New York, which gave Jerusalem part of its Jewish population. I pictured one extending to me, tentacular and dynamic in its movement. My Pakistani passport states that it does not recognize the state of Israel, which means that it is unlikely I will ever have the opportunity to visit Jerusalem in my lifetime. My interest in Jerusalem stems not just from a place of academic opportunity, but something deeper yet: a yearning borne out of the global channels that link city to city and nation to nation, of borders that open and close like selectively permeable membranes.

The Israeli Black Panthers are a potent example of this phenomenon. Made up primarily of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews hailing from North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia (often of Persian or Iraqi heritage), these activists borrowed their name from an American political movement in the interest of a local campaign for better housing and social conditions. Many of their members may be considered (and identified as) Black, being of North African origin. The existence of this group within the forgotten notes of Jerusalem’s history prompted us to reconsider how we saw Jewish identity and social hierarchy in the city– its Jewish community was not a monolith, and its neighborhoods fraught with divisions across multiple lines, crosscutting physical divisions made of concrete slabs. There is no singular Jerusalem, either. The Old City stands today as the site of legend, although some members of all three Abrahamic religions fiercely contest who out of them has the strongest claim to it. Neighborhoods such as Silwan, discussed in the workshop, are changing everyday, posing a constant struggle to its inhabitants. The issue of ownership is muddled when you mix ancient land claims and spiritual significance with property law. This complication asks a significant job of researchers; no one map can accomplish the task of visualizing Jerusalem.

In our workshop, we discussed Jerusalem from the point of view of housing policy, critical race theory as well as religious mythology, landing only on one quasi-conclusion: that cities must be understood as global spaces. The words chosen by the workshop participants tease this very idea. Cities are embedded within global networks, and are, in fact, scattered all over the world. Though their geographical borders are spatially limited, their imagined borders are limitless. Jerusalem’s tentacles stretch back in mythological time when King Solomon first learned to command his army of djinns, and forward in political time in a world where activists imagine a more equitable city free of eviction and settlement. Its tentacles spread in ink across ancient scriptures in Hebrew and Arabic, and farther as bundles of pixels and radio frequencies. As my mind tries to grapple with its form, I remind myself that Jerusalem spills over across space and time.


Keena Gao, Spring 2021

Sturdy, reliable, efficient. These words describe infrastructure: the invisible center of our society to most members of the general public. Yet, as a part of the Visualizing Cities Lab workshop called “Controlled Visibility: infrastructure, race, and digital tools,” I examined how visualizing infrastructure can better explain race, politics, and infrastructural production and realized the importance of dialogue surrounding conflicts of interest in infrastructure. I learned that something as mundane as cell towers can reflect values of aesthetics, public health, and property as “Not In My Backyard” citizen groups and national parks complained enough for them to be concealed to look like “real” trees with silly plastic ornamentation. My team also examined the literal meaning of “the other side of the tracks” with physically constructed barriers like railroads and highways dividing schools, parks, and affluent communities.

Our background research guided visualizations for our workshop where we studied the cholera breakout in Havana in the nineteenth century. After reading several articles, I learned that the economic and social marginalization of urban residents of color exacerbated the creation of segregated spaces to “avoid contagion.” I was particularly interested by the fact that although the neighborhood where cholera was first reported wasn’t the poorest or the most racially marginalized, the affluent cubans and the white elite condemned immigrants from the countryside and their poor and dirty lifestyles as causing the disease. Thus, I wanted to explore whether there were disparities in care for the different ethnicities of Havana and whether different hospitals were able to meet the demand of the different neighborhoods they served or whether they turned away some.

I used Tableau and two different datasets about cholera victims from the Rubenstein library to produce a visualization of ethnicities served within each hospital. I noted that there was a disproportionately high lack of hospital information for the black population in the dataset as compared to the other ethnic populations. This omission in health records prompts further questions about why this information is missing and emphasizes the need for further research into whether there was discrimination within the hospital based on race or socioeconomic status or whether the hospitals within different areas were at capacity. As I researched some of the names of the churches on record, I found that there may be personal doctors and churches providing services as well, making it hard for the data to accurately represent different socioeconomic statuses. In addition, I mapped out the different neighborhoods of patients and the hospitals they went to, however the amount of null data made this graph inconclusive. In the future, it would be interesting to map out the radiuses of patients these hospitals serve and understand how they intersect different neighborhoods using more data.

As an engineer interested in sustainable development and the future of cities, I hope to design technical solutions informed by context from the humanities. Analyzing space, resource allocation, and perspectives of race has helped me reflect upon the intersection of infrastructure and public interest throughout history and in the modern day.


Charlie Colasurdo, Spring 2021

I’ve been fascinated by our interactions with cities since my first trip to visit family living abroad in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam. The city’s chaos—a stark juxtaposition to my orderly suburban upbringing—proved intriguing, especially the dense network of alleys and endless stream of motor scooters crowding the streets. The city’s apparent functionality, along with vibrant street culture, drew me in to better understand how the built environment can shape human-scale interactions. This was followed by an extensive period living between Saigon and Bangkok during my gap year, where my work in tourism led me to explore cities with more detail, through the lens of cultural heritage preservation. Much of my focus was on street food, a ubiquitous and quintessential component of these Southeast Asian megacities. Street food culture is influenced by the natural and built environment, immigration and religion, and the economic systems of the cities it inhabits—and I was able to leverage my passion for food to document and better understand what the future holds for these emerging cities.

The Visualizing Cities Lab and its fellowship program have set the stage for expanding the way Duke engages with the study of cities. For me, it was the diversity of backgrounds from fellows and faculty that seeded the notion of urban studies at Duke becoming more than a weekly zoom call—and was a primary motivating factor for founding the Duke Initiative for Urban Studies. The pandemic’s silver lining of increasing digital collaboration and accessibility across continents and cultures further expanded the possibilities of the initiative and how we foresaw it engaging with Duke’s global network, particularly at the Duke Kunshan campus.

Drawing on the interdisciplinary nature of urban studies, including the art history component that VCL brought to my attention, we set to work on a plan for a cross-campus initiative that would fundamentally reshape Duke’s relationship to Durham, Kunshan, and the hundreds of cities around the world that it sends students and faculty for study and research. VCL’s problem-based workshops, including my team’s mock city planning meeting, run the spectrum of urban design, economics, history, policy, and more—and underscore the necessity of an expansive approach to urban studies. I’m excited by the level of demonstrated interest seen in the urban studies and our Initiative at Duke—included by the faculty we’ve met. In an institution as faculty-driven as Duke is, buy-in from professors is essential as we build the Urban Studies program into something that Duke embraces from a financial and strategic standpoint.

As the Initiative advances, I foresee integrating the VCL into our research division, where undergraduates can be exposed to cities through a fellowship that is flexible and interdisciplinary. Other modes of research will likely focus on thematic questions about Duke, including:

  • How has the presence of Duke impacted housing and community in Durham?
  • What is special about Durham as a city? (Past, present, future)
  • Urban trends that Durham faces, including gentrification and sprawl
  • What do you wish you knew about Durham or Duke-Durham when you moved here?
  • What do you want to know before you graduate and leave Durham?
  • What aspect of urban studies would be particularly pertinent to Duke and Durham?

Andrew Carr, Spring 2021

Although ARCGIS is still the most popular tool for students and teachers interested in creating maps from digital data, a number of open-source tools have come along in recent years that have expanded access to digital mapping technologies to a wider audience. Additionally, the digitization of geographic information and the increasing prevalence of geographic data on the internet have created new resources for creating digital maps. For instance, researchers interested in mapping the geographic distribution of culture can turn to Twitter, which offers a set of tools that allow users to query a random sample of the content that is created on this social media platform every day. Alternatively, someone interested in visualizing the geographic distribution of popular restaurants could use the data extraction tools provided by the restaurant review site Yelp.

For this semester of the Visualizing Cities Lab Fellowship, my group instead chose to utilize the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS), which provides users with access to several databases that contain demographic and social information obtained through national censuses. We focused in particular on one IPUM database, the National Historical Geographic Information System, which contains survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau, along with geographic boundaries data (shapefiles) associated with geographic levels – metropolitan areas, counties, tracts, and block, for instance – that are included in Census publications. NHGIS data can be used to create shaded maps that show differences in U.S. demographic and social characteristics. For example, someone interested in county-level differences in mean income levels could use NHGIS income data to create a choropleth map, where counties are shaded different colors along a color gradient depending on their mean income levels.

In a presentation to the Visualizing Cities Lab, my group walked lab members through the process of downloading NHGIS data, loading it into a data visualization platform, and creating a map to visualize tract-level differences in the demographic and social characteristics of Census tracts located in Durham county. We used the R programming language to create these visualizations. R is a free and increasingly popular alternative to ARCGIS for creating digital maps. Over the past several years, developers have created several tools for manipulating and creating visualizations from geographic data using R. Our Visualizing Cities Lab presentation included an interactive tutorial in which lab members created their own maps in R. This tutorial demonstrated the ease with which R can be used to create highly customizable maps of Census data.

The Visualizing Cities Lab provides researchers at Duke with an opportunity to work with people from other academic departments who are interested in digital mapping. Beyond allowing researchers to gain new insights into the theory behind mapping, these interdisciplinary experiences expose researchers to new mapping tools. My hope is that my work with the Visualizing Cities Lab has allowed researchers who may have had little experience in the past with IPUMS or R to learn about how these resources can be utilized to visualize social and demographic phenomena in new and interesting ways.


Brandon Li, Spring 2021

Brand-Building Singapore: A Silver Screen Story

From a fledgling colonial outpost to a symbol of modern multiculturalism, Singapore has made an incredibly remarkable transition in its journey and mission to become the best version of itself. Whilst holding true progressive ideals, key and central to its identity is a deep, ingrained sense of custom and tradition. Originally having been excited about a groundbreaking representation of the Asian/Chinese diaspora around the world, the decision to make Singapore the setting of Crazy Rich Asians was genius. The movie acts to pay homage to cultural institutions as well as works to capture defining aspects and elements of high society ultimately characterized by a delicate balance of continuity amidst change, mirroring side-by-side Singapore’s own story.

Though not necessarily identical to actual experience in its depictions of overseas life, the film does still manage to draw upon and inspire real-life questions. Most prominently, these include those regarding identity, representation, and the socioeconomic gap amongst other serious inequalities of which are not only big issues of our time but have been ever-present problems throughout the rest of history for Asian populations. And obviously, this is not at all unique to Singapore although it may be highlighted in the “Little Red Dot”. A cosmopolitan microcosm of convergent cultures, Singapore has experienced unprecedented change and transformation brought forth by a combination of outside influence and internal modulation ever since its conception. Important to a comprehensive understanding of Singapore is learning about its uniquely complex history, multifaceted social dynamics, and strategic geographic location connecting the East and West at the great crossroads of human civilization.

The public image of any country, for groups and organizations, or even those on the individual level are important considerations factored into the creation of others’ opinions. We must realize that it is human nature and our natural tendency to craft narratives as well as rely on stereotypes rather than closely examine and investigate before making conclusions. Perceptions are absolutely influenced by generalized attitudes and impressions but this is not to say anything in particular about Singapore. Instead, we can commend Singapore for being able to so effectively take advantage of and capitalize on this simple observation. Through careful craftsmanship of its image and “branding” to some degree, Singapore has certainly become much more widely recognized as an important player on the world stage, at least when compared to its previous standing as an orphaned backwater nation on the brink of collapse. By projecting influence, strength, and unity as well as marketing itself as a global leader in many highly competitive and cutting-edge areas ranging from finance to technology to education, Singapore has made a remarkable turnaround in just mere decades and now established itself as a truly convergent power.

Singapore today is synonymous with order, opulence, and openness. It definitely deserves credit in building a society that upholds shared core moral values although it is sometimes regarded as being too strict or authoritative- think about their notorious chewing gum ban- in addition to widespread criticism of having double standards like those surrounding the general mistreatment of migrant workers, a topic which was so up front and personal during the COVID pandemic. Despite these challenges, Singapore has risen up again and again to the occasion and effectively tackled them head-on. In some ways, Singapore is run like a corporation having a fixed focus on its mission statement to improve itself socioeconomically by harnessing continuous growth and development. It conveys a unified message to the rest of the world by advertising itself like previously mentioned as a hub for innovation and hotspot for talent as well as forging straight ahead with its various forays into becoming, for example, a premier international travel and hospitality destination. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, Singapore portrays itself as diverse, multicultural, and accepting, achieving what on the surface may seem to be a very harmonious society with an embrace and appreciation for its historic underpinnings.


Anvita Budhraja, Alana Hyman and Elena Rivera, Spring 2021

Every city exists in innumerable versions as each person experiences it differently and each person imagines it differently. New Orleans is a city rich in history, legends, dreams, contradictions, and below are thoughts and insights gathered from our discussions on imagined versions of New Orleans. These versions draw from the city’s illustrious music and food, its atmospheric literature, and its particular iconography of death, mystery, and magic.



Imagining Death and Magic by Elena Rivera

New Orleans has been the constant receptacle for imaginations of death and magic. With feature films such as Princess and the Frog, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Dead One, and the hit TV show American Horror Story (AHS), NOLA has been the hot spot for mystery. Within the workshop, the fellows discussed and learned the many complexities and real histories that birthed these stories.

Through watching materials with their actual histories in mind, we all learned just how close the magic of NOLA is to reality. Voodoo queens, villains, and vampires we all discussed were just the manifestation of real people across years of storytelling. The people of local news and folklore carry legacies within the now, showing the power of being an icon. Local icons influence the imagination of a city throughout time, providing a character that embodies and imprints on the adjectives of the city. The magic of Marie Laveau leaches into the streets of New Orleans; the murderous and deadly nature of Madame La LaLaurie lurks in the corners of the French Quarter; and the local gossip of young women carrying a casket ingrained vampires within NOLA nights.

Furthermore, the histories of today impact the ways in which these icons are portrayed. With racial depictions changing over time and reclaiming of the black body, more and more the struggles of modern human beings are portrayed through each character’s eye. We thoroughly discussed the choices to show Marie Laveau resurrecting dead confederate soldiers to do her bidding. The intentional portrayal of a black woman having a soldier with a racist past fight for her is an explicit reclamation, which is a theme all throughout AHS as Marie LaLaurie also became a slave—resulting in a successful commentary on the race relations of the now.

Analyzing cities through moving images also shows how much visual aspects influence the ways in which a city is imagined. All of the scenes analyzed took place at night—furthering the darkness and mystery of the city, but also highlighting the liveliness of NOLA nightlife. With a city that comes alive after hours, the mystery of its imagination comes across even further through film. In fact, fellows noted how when they imagine NOLA, they too see it within the gaze of the night, highlighting just how powerful this form of image circulation can be. I can’t help but think how the subtle but consistent imagery emitted from Hollywood’s imagination of cities permeates my own thinking and I have to wonder what narratives are missing.


Imagining Creole Cuisine by Alana Hyman

This section discusses the historic influence of creole cuisine on how the city of New Orleans has been and currently is perceived. The term “Creole” describes the population of people in French colonial Louisiana which consisted of the descendants of the French and Spanish upper class, and over the years the term grew to include native-born slaves of African descent as well as those of mixed racial ancestry. The most well-known Creole staple dishes include gumbo, jambalaya, and étouffée. Creole peoples are not to be confused with Cajuns, an ethnic group of Acadian descent. Acadians were French and some Indigenous peoples who settled in Canada. They were eventually exiled and relocated to lower Louisiana in the late 1700s, where they would begin to be known as Cajuns.

The most well-known Creole staple dishes include gumbo, jambalaya, and étouffée, and they all hail from New Orleans. Creole food is a direct culmination of the cultural exchanges that NOLA was founded upon, as well as becoming an identity staple for the city. One key ingredient for Creole cuisine is Filé powder, a spicy herb made from the dried and ground leaves of the North American sassafras tree used to thicken dishes, which was sometimes substituted with okra in the summers (See recipe for Okra Shrimp Gumbo on Page 9 above). Filé can be traced back to the indigenous heritage of Creole culture, while okra was likely brought in by the West Africans. The holy trinity in Cajun cuisine and Louisiana Creole cuisine is the base for several dishes in the regional cuisines of Louisiana and consists of onions, bell peppers and celery. The preparation of Cajun/Creole dishes such as crawfish étouffée, gumbo, and jambalaya all start from this base.

The discussion group found it notable that this book included “household tips” for the white women who had to learn to cook Creole food themselves, rather than depending on the generational oral traditions of their Creole slaves, as well as the detailed description of the kitchen space and its relation to the rest of the household’s construction.

The group was also asked to identify elements of this photo that stood out to them after reading an essay from Tulane University discussing the work. The conversation, in conjunction with viewing of other representations of Creole women throughout history (See Tante Zoe and Annie from Popeyes) led to a greater understanding of how idealized archetypes and caricatures of Creole women have become as a result of the popularization of Creole food, it’s identification with NOLA, and the inherent racism in Louisiana’s history.


Imagining the French Quarter by Anvita Budhraja

Louis Armstrong’s take on the classic jazz song Bourbon Street Parade elicited several different responses—“energetic,” “gets you in the mood,” and perhaps the most evocative, “feels like walking and dancing down a street with people you don’t quite know.” The marching bands and second line parades that are so characteristic of New Orleans take the action right to the streets of this city. An entire community is built through music and dance not so much inside the city’s establishments (although they have their denizens too) but outside, on the streets, where people are drawn in and the crowd swells with bass and bonhomie.

The streets of New Orleans are as iconic as the cafes of Paris—a cultural monument that have come to define how the city is imagined. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the historic neighborhood, the French Quarter, conjured up through Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire and William Faulkner’s New Orleans Sketches. Streets with recognizable names like Canal, Decatur, Chartres, Royal, and of course, Bourbon and Desire, become the center of activity, observation, and life, making up the lattice upon which these two literary works build their versions of the French Quarter. It is remarkable that even though the Mississippi river forms such a distinctive part of the history and the landscape of the city in general and of the French Quarter in particular, it is perhaps overshadowed by the New Orleans streets themselves.

Williams’ French Quarter is simultaneously mystical and gritty, with little drops of magic and fantasy accentuating the notes of the blues piano that play throughout. Faulkner’s French Quarter emphasizes the wanderers and those perhaps not quite settled on their journeys through life. Both texts, however, evoke a feeling, an atmosphere through distinctive characters and snippets of their lives. How is a feeling to be visualized or, rather, how is a city or a place to be visualized through a feeling? This is not a question a study of literature of a place seeks to answer. Rather, in the moments when the French Quarter escapes concrete visualization, readers of Williams and Faulkner find a glimpse of New Orleans, which is only fitting in a city that has a physical place, a street, named Desire.


Ian Acriche, Spring 2021

In this blog, I aim to analyze the mission of my group, Building a Lexicon for Contemporary Global South Cities. For our team, unpacking informality meant understanding not only the term itself but its usage in different contexts, especially within the cities we were studying. Informality is a loaded term that has cultural, social, and political significance. Understanding informality within the framework of the Global North and South for me meant figuring out how to analyze the role informal settlements have as a result of the transactional relationship between the global halves.

Our readings leading up to our presentation explained the Global North and South through an economic lens, positing it as a “political and economical term that refers to the long-term goal of pursuing world economic changes that mutually benefit countries in the Global South and lead to greater solidarity among the disadvantaged in the world system” (Gray & Gills, South-South cooperation and the rise of the Global South). However, discussing the Global South and North without the context of colonialism, economic injustice, and racism that has occurred in the past and takes place today is a failure to fully understand how the north interacts with the south and the history between the two. This is significant when discussing informality in Guangzhou, whose informality is partially caused by laborers needing cheap and easy access to centrally located jobs where many factories and industrial manufacturing centers are located. Cities across the Global South have expanded dramatically in the past few decades as the world becomes increasingly more interconnected. This rise of the Global South has led to global economic gains that are drastically disparate. It has also formed an urban underclass that occupies the formal city’s informal city, a series of informal neighborhoods whose tenuous relationship with urban government complicates their very existence.

Visualizing Guangzhou through digital means enabled me to present its spatial development through the alleys of its informal neighborhoods. Through the use of photos, maps, and videos, I presented Guangzhou’s informal settlements from an aerial perspective to a pedestrian-level lens as I moved through my presentation. It was this perspective that I believe its informality could be best understood. From an aerial perspective, using interactive maps was helpful to show the spaces informal settlements occupy within Guangzhou. Asking questions such as: Where are these informal settlements located to job centers? How do their locations impact the way the city treats them? Are their futures threatened? are important in conceptualizing the niche they occupy. From a satellite perspective, I highlighted the contrast between the stark Chinese planning of formal towers to the scattered, impromptu-looking developments of informal neighborhoods. Showing small clips of the video was also useful in offering personal accounts of those living in these spaces and how they see themselves within the city. For Guangzhou, informal settlements have a precarious future as government threats could easily turn into action, as many already have. Its this very uncertainty that I believe highlights the complicated past, present, and future of informality in cities like Guangzhou.

How We Think About Cities

VCL is a newly formed group of faculty, students, and staff—art historians, visual artists, and digital humanists—working to develop a common and dynamic approach to studying world cities. Drawing on years of expertise with specific city scholarship and teaching, we are engaged in a collective dialogue on this methodological topic, embedding the collaborative approach as a broader part of our curriculum, and connecting distinct parts of our program such as studio art and art history in new ways. We are exploring the myriad dynamic ways of analyzing the culture and history of a city.

VCL is based in the Department of Art, Art History & Visual studies and funded by the Mellon Humanities Unbounded Grant. It offers the opportunity to transform our curriculum and address equality and social justice directly as outlined in the department’s published “Statement in Support of Black Lives.”

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