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Naples – Academia

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 Naples: reading and learning from an ordinary city

by Nick Dines (University of Roma Tre)

While I may be loathe to using the term ‘unique’ in my writing on cities, I nevertheless still find myself encouraging people to visit Naples for this very reason. ‘Go to Naples: it’s like no other city!’ Of course, one could say the same about any urban setting, be it Tor Bella Monaca, Tufnell Park or the bus stop outside my front door.

However, beyond trying to raise the curiosity of potential visitors, the sense that Naples is extraordinary, and hence incommensurable, has often shaped public, political and academic perspectives on the city. Naples is invariably cast off conventional maps of European modernity. It is characterized by its deficit – the lack of a modern class structure, civic engagement, public space and so forth – but also by the surplus of its imperfect development: organized crime, ingenious survival strategies and that antonomasia of all anomalies, the lumpenproletariat. Today the city’s centro storico is one of the few large urban centres in Europe to be dominated by low-income residents. This is the classic lumpen core of Naples that has continually stymied the ethical claims of cultural regeneration and sent many would-be gentrifiers scuttling back to the post-war suburbs.

There are countless scholars who have examined Naples on its own terms and others, such as the neo-meridionalisti, who have challenged the idea of a static urban periphery. The important point is that the notion of exceptionality cannot simply be ignored or dismissed but needs to be directly addressed, precisely because it is an idea that continues to permeate images of Naples.

One possible ‘exit strategy’ is to reconsider Naples as an ordinary city[1]. It is in fact one of the starting premises of my book Tuff City in which I set out to examine the public discourses and everyday conflicts surrounding the transformation of the centro storico during the so-called Neapolitan Renaissance[2]. My use of ‘ordinary city’ draws on the post-colonial critique of urban theory by the South African geographer Jennifer Robinson[3]. Her argument is deceptively straightforward and although her main focus is the global South, it is highly suggestive, I believe, for thinking about Naples. According to Robinson, all cities across the world invent different ways of being modern and urban. All are reconfigured by global capitalism but are – I would add – also the sites where its alternatives are hatched. And yet over history only a minority of Western cities have defined paths of urban development.

‘Ordinary city’ does not mean removing or reforming the abject elements of a city so as to arrive at a level playing field. Nor does it insinuate some kind of über-relativism that wishes all cities to be seen as distinctively ordinary. And it is certainly not about turning a blind eye to the specific set of problems and asymmetric power relations that beset any city. Rather, it implies that all cities be brought within the same field of analysis so as to ensure that no group of cities predetermines the nature of cityness or the configuration of a particular process. It requires ethnographic precision and historically embedded analysis but also alertness to the politics of representation and to the limits of theoretical shortcuts elaborated elsewhere. Thus, examining contemporary urban change in Naples from the perspective of the ordinary city exposes certain (North Atlantic) truisms, such as ‘the erosion of public space’ or ‘the gentrification of inner cities’ to be parochial and incomplete. In the case of Tuff City, it has meant reconceiving the centro storico as one complex part of a city interconnected with other spaces and flows, rather seeing the centre, as some anthropologists saw it in the past, as a culturally unique environment purportedly detached from the course of urban modernity.


[1] Nick Dines (2012) ‘Beyond the aberrant city. Towards a critical ethnography of Naples’, lo Squaderno, no.24: 21–25. http://www.losquaderno.professionaldreamers.net/

[2] Nick Dines, Tuff City: Urban Change and Contested Space in Central Naples (New York: Berghahn, 2012).

[3] Jennifer Robinson, Ordinary Cities: Between Modernity and Development (London: Routledge, 2006)

Nick Dines teaches at John Cabot University in Rome and at the Università di Roma Tre. He has worked at Queen Mary University of London and Kings College London from 2004 to 2007. He is about to take up a research position in Sociology at Middlesex University. He is the author of Tuff City. Contested Space and Urban Change in Central Naples (Berghahn Books, 2012).

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This entry was posted on June 11, 2013 by in Academia.
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