A Small, Worldly City by Ana Gonçalves

Dylan Moore reviews a new book concerned with the cultural and social transformation of Cardiff

This book is compact, dynamic and multi-faceted, much like the city it describes. Its purpose is to trace the development of Cardiff – ‘a quintessential case of urban reinvention, cultural regeneration and social transformation’ – and use the city as a microcosmic prism through which to approach European and worldwide questions: urbanity; multiculturalism; how people navigate the interface between the global and the local. It is a hugely ambitious undertaking, and for the most part, Gonçalves delivers.


The author’s PhD is in Literary and Cultural Studies, however she is a senior lecturer at the Estoril Higher Institute for Tourism and Hotel Studies and a senior researcher at the Institute of Geography and Spatial Planning, University of Lisbon. This disciplinary hybridity lends the book a quirky sense of being truly groundbreaking. References run to 25 pages and a further five comprise an index where Rodney Berman bumps up against Walter Benjamin, Peter Finch rubs shoulders with Mabel Fitzhamon and Geraint Talfan Davies sits next to Rene Descartes. It’s that kind of book, constantly juxtaposing past and present, local and global, highbrow and pop culture in a bid to situate Cardiff in both physical and imagined geographies. The heterogeneity of Gonçalves’ research interests, her range of references and even writing styles make this a bracing reading experience.


The book opens by calling Cardiff as an ‘ordinary city’ that nevertheless epitomises ‘more liveable, inclusive and humanised cities’ that offer a counterweight to the idea that ‘only world and global cities foreground examples of extraordinary urban development’. Small is beautiful is basically the author’s argument, and it is clear throughout that she harbours a deep affection for the Welsh capital, which she believes – optimistically and perhaps a touch fancifully – offers hope for Bordieu’s idea of a ‘realistic utopia’.


Reinventing a Small, Worldly City is divided into three main sections, each of which has its own purpose and approach. ‘Small cities and cultures’ is an investigation of how cultural history, memory and identity play themselves out in the physical and socio-cultural fabric of small cities; it also happens to double as a virtuoso introduction to Cultural Studies for those readers who might be new to the kind of ideas that underpin Gonçalves’ theory. It’s a magnificent balancing act and an exemplar of how to do accessible academic writing.


The register shifts down a gear in the second section, ‘Cardiff: the making of a city’ and those familiar with the Cardiff story – from ‘coal metropolis’ to ‘waterfront revitalisation’ – may find themselves skipping stodgier passages. Others might feel there is an overemphasis on the – undoubtedly fascinating – multiethnic dockland communities at the expense of other districts whose histories have been overlooked. A problem with studies this brilliant at synthesising previous work is that dominant narratives get refined and streamlined. Perhaps this is not so much the story of Cardiff as the story Cardiff has repeatedly told to itself. Part of which, of course, is the whole point, because the final section focuses on precisely how the Welsh capital has reinvented itself in the face of the twentieth century’s deindustrialisation and accompanying economic decline. Culture, Gonçalves argues convincingly, has been the driver: venues, events, public art, tourism, civil society and the creative industries are all considered as part of the jigsaw that comprise Cardiff’s projection of itself on the world stage. But, she says, the city ‘lies at an uneasy crossroads between its cultural distinctiveness, its Welsh roots and the the small character that it has been struggling to preserve and promote, and the global demands of cultural homogeneity that are best visible in proliferation of world brands in the city’s shopping areas.’
It’s an admirably succinct summary and, hearteningly, the conclusive passages are focused on solutions and potential pathways forward, as well as simple description of what has happened. The next phase of its development as the dynamic hub for a Metro-driven city region is, slowly, becoming a reality, and despite the rapid changes of the last twenty years, we must be prepared for more rapid change still. After 200 pages of answering the question for the past and present, Gonçalves concludes by thinking about the future: ‘What kind of city is Cardiff?’ and ‘What kind of city does it (do its residents) want (it) to be?’ If Cardiff is to maintain its balance of ‘small’ and ‘worldly’, the answers should lie with its citizens rather than with the interests of global capital, she argues. Time will tell, but the time is now.



Dylan Moore is Editor of the welsh agenda

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