Anatomy of an Initiative: Exploring the Urban

Major Jackson. Photo by Erin Patrice O'BrienMajor Jackson. Photo by Erin Patrice O'Brien

Urbanism is a global phenomenon, presenting us with a range of pressing issues to consider—economic, political, and material, but most of all human. Our thematic year was designed to stimulate a broad-based discussion about “the urban” in the 21st century, a much more complicated concept than 19th- and 20th-century cities. The initiative centered on a partnership between the Radcliffe Institute and the Harvard-Mellon Urban Initiative. The joint effort culminated in the 2016–2017 academic year, although additional programming across the University began earlier, supported by a four-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Through lectures, conferences, exhibitions, performances, fellowships, seminars, and archival research, the initiative took a multidisciplinary and international approach to explore the challenges and tensions that people in urban communities face today.

The Flâneur Tends a Well-Liked Summer Cocktail


curbside on an Arp-like table. He’s alone
of course, in the arts district as it were, legs folded,
swaying a foot so that his body seems to summon
some deep immensity from all that surrounds:
dusk shadows inching near a late-thirtyish couple debating
the post-galactic abyss of sex with strangers,
tourists ambling by only to disappear into the street’s gloomy mouth,
a young Italian woman bending to retrieve
a dropped MetroCard, its black magnetic strip facing up,
a lone speckled brown pigeon breaking from a flock of rock
doves, then landing near a crushed fast-food wrapper
newly tossed by a bike messenger, the man chortling
after a sip of flaxen-colored beer, remembering
that, in the Gospel of John the body and glory converge
linked to incarnation and so, perhaps, we manifest each other,
a tiny shower of sparks erupting from the knife sharpener’s
truck who daily leans a blade into stone, a cloudscape reflected
in the rear windshield of a halted taxi where inside
a trans woman applies auburn lipstick, the warlike
insignia on the lapel jacket of a white-gloved
doorman who opening a glass door gets a whiff
of a dowager’s thick perfume and recalls baling timothy
hay as a boy in Albania, the woman distractedly watching
a mother debate Robert Colescott’s lurid appropriations
of modernist art over niçoise salad, suddenly frees her left breast
from its cup where awaits the blossoming mouth of an infant
wildly reaching for a galaxy of milk behind her dark areola,
the sharp coughs of a student carrying a yoga mat,
the day’s last light edging high-rises on the west side
so that they seem rimmed by fire just when the man says, And yet,
immense the wages we pay boarding the great carousel of flesh.

Copyright 2016, Major Jackson

Xaviera Simmons's Overlay was an immersive installation that layered sound, text, language, image, and texture. Photo by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff PhotographerXaviera Simmons's Overlay was an immersive installation that layered sound, text, language, image, and texture. Photo by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff Photographer


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