Owen on Quayson, 'Oxford Street, Accra: City Life and the Itineraries of Transnationalism'

Author: 
Ato Quayson
Reviewer: 
Caleb Owen

Ato Quayson. Oxford Street, Accra: City Life and the Itineraries of Transnationalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014. 312 pp. $25.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8223-5747-6; $94.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8223-5733-9.

Reviewed by Caleb Owen (Truman State University) Published on H-Africa (October, 2016) Commissioned by Faeeza Ballim

The Variegations of Globalization in the African City: Urbanism and Accra's Oxford Street

The title of Ato Quayson’s recent book Oxford Street, Accra is somewhat misleading; while the development of Oxford Street as a vibrant business district and cosmopolitan center certainly foregrounds the author’s analysis, his geographical scope is actually much wider. Quayson delineates the developmental trajectory of several enclaves and neighborhoods across the city and, in doing so, highlights overlapping processes of urban planning and demographic change, which transformed Accra from a mid-seventeenth-century settlement of mainly Gas-Adangme peoples into a vibrant global metropolis. Oxford Street represents a point of intersection in Accra where variegated planning processes shaping various districts, neighborhoods, and enclaves converged, creating overlapping points of reference for the negotiation and production of urban space. Accra is a city that has received both significant scholarly and popular attention as a major hub for tourism and study abroad programs for Western university students. Oxford Street, in addition to being one of the city’s major boulevards, has itself become a popular attraction within the city to both locals and foreign visitors.

A recent feature in the New York Times Style Magazine, for example, anointed Accra as Africa’s “Capital of Cool” for its thriving contemporary art and vibrant night life.[1] One of the most successful attributes of Quayson’s book is his endeavor to historicize Accra’s position as a global city. In his book Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History, historian Frederick Cooper stresses two main critiques of the term “globalization.” First, “the global,” he argues, implies a “single system of connection,” generally steered by the flow of commodities and capital from the West. Secondly, the “ization” implies that such processes are only “doing so now,” in the so-called global age. Cooper calls on scholars to evaluate the “historic depth of interconnections” and to “focus on just what the structures and limits of the connecting mechanisms are.”[2] While Oxford Street presents a cornucopia of billboards, fast food chains, and designer labels, Quayson compellingly underlines the interplay between these visible manifestations of globalization and the less apparent historical processes that made Accra a global cosmopolitan center well in advance of the late twentieth century.

The variability and simultaneity of processes of spatial production are integral to Quayson’s analysis, the stated aim of which is to “draw out the mediated relations between different aspects of a potential totality” (p. 31). Spatial theory has been integral to urban studies. Marxist urban theorists Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey viewed the production of urban space as connected to dynamics of capital and power, in their respective works Writings on Cities (1996) and Social Justice and the City (1973).[3] These narratives, however, have fallen short in explaining dynamics of urban space in Africa, where scholars have grappled with the tensions between formal and informal processes of planning. This has led scholars to view African cities as either “kaleidoscopic” or “elusive.”[4] Quayson’s introductory chapter provides an informative overview of urban literature of Africa, while persuasively using Accra as an extended case study to argue that the production of urban space took place beyond the often tidy binaries of formal planning and the grass roots. He contends, “Who owned the city were regularly defined along lines of autochthony, primogeniture, and first arrival, thus producing various hierarchical relations that were in turn exploited by the colonial administration” (p. 8).

Quayson organizes his book into two main sections. The first assesses the role of multiple formal and informal planning apparatuses of early Accra that shaped its trajectory as a cosmopolitan center from the seventeenth century. His first and third chapters describe the processes of assimilation and incorporation of two distinct cross racial communities: the Tabon, a group of Portuguese-speaking Afro-Brazilians, and the descendants of African and Danish relationships. The assimilation of these groups underline the tensions of multiculturalism, ethnicity, and race. The Tabon, for example, adopted several rituals of the Gas, the predominant cultural group in early Accra, while also maintaining their Brazilian names and eating foods with new world connections. Between these two chapters is a detailed overview of urban planning in Accra during the colonial era that examines the impact of ethnic segmentation, sanitation, and natural disaster management on the development of multiple neighborhoods and enclaves across the city. Quayson shows that the development of Oxford Street as a “buzzing business” district occurred through variegated processes of transnational migrations and demographic change (p. 125).

The book’s second half looks at the multiple milieus of discourse surrounding the space along Oxford Street and its various neighborhoods and the production of that space. Billboard advertisements evoked different forms of economic, gendered, ethnic, and racial identifications, as his fourth chapter highlights. In the fifth chapter, Quayson delineates the experience of a community of dedicated salsa enthusiasts (salseros) and their conflicts with ordinary bar patrons over access and entrance fees. The salseros represent a community construed through economic elitism, Western education, and a globalist ontology. The elitism of the salsero community stood in contrast to the proliferation of gyms that catered to the city’s unemployed and working-class men. These gyms provided their patrons with spaces to negotiate meanings of masculinity and professionalism, while establishing networks for community and support. These colorful, and often humorous, vignettes underline Oxford Street’s ability to support multiple avenues of identity formation, as both educated elites and working-class Ghanaians contribute to the boulevard’s cosmopolitan identity.

Quayson skillfully balances theory and colorful vignettes, providing a well-crafted demonstration of the methodological approach of reading the city as a text, first introduced by geographer James S. Duncan (2004). Through his evocative prose, readers can easily imagine themselves on the streets of Accra, absorbing the sights, sounds, and smells that made the area an epicenter of multiculturalism. His introductory and concluding evaluation of Rem Koolhaus and the Harvard Project, moreover, offers a proactive and thoughtful synthesis of relevant theory that will appeal to both scholars and students of urban studies.

Despite these qualities, Oxford Street, Accra does not demonstrate some of its more alluring claims. For example, Quayson tells us in his second chapter that he will explain the processes by which the Tabon became ethnically Gas both through the former group’s adoption of Gas rituals and through processes of colonial engineering. While the author’s point is to underline the limitations of ethnicization, the basis for viewing Tabon as a common ethnicity to the Gas, as opposed to a minority community successfully asserting a stake in Accra through the strategic adoption of preexisting cultural norms, is unclear. A lack of coherence between the book’s various sections and chapters, moreover, undermines Quayson’s ability to demonstrate how variegated and overlying processes of urban planning and demographic change came together. For example, the book’s first half focuses on the incorporation of various ethnic and racial groups into the urban space of Accra. These ethnic and cultural identities nearly vanish in the book’s second section, in which we find the class-related conflict of salseros competing with ordinary (non-dancing) bar patrons over access to night clubs. There is little reference to how these tensions were built or how they deviated from previous struggles. Janet Berry Hess, in a recent article, has described Kwame Nkrumah’s efforts to nationalize Accra throughout the 1950s and 1960s, through buildings, public spaces, and monuments.[5] Perhaps discussion of these endeavors would have clarified the sudden shift from ethnicity to class as the primary point of tension.

Some of my concerns are certainly attributable to the general fluidity of urban space, as multiple groups, interests, and constituencies claim a stake in the city. Such dynamism often makes cities hard to encapsulate in the coherent fashion that readers enjoy. Quayson’s Oxford Street, Accra, despite its flaws, is a work that is rewarding in its detail and its worthy endeavor to highlight linkages between processes of urban planning, demographic change, and globalization in both the past and the present. 

Notes

[1]. Alexander Lobrano, “Africa’s Capital of Cool,” New York Times Style Magazine, July 12, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/08/t-magazine/travel/accra-ghana-travel.html?_r=0.

[2]. Frederick Cooper, Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 91.

[3]. Henri Lefebvre’s long record of scholarship was compiled in Henri Lefebvre, Writings on Cities, ed. and trans. Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996).

[4]. Martin Murray, “The City in Fragments: Kaleidoscopic Johannesburg after Apartheid,” in The Spaces of the Modern City: Imaginaries, Politics, and Everyday Life, ed. Gyan Prakash and Kevin M. Kruse (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 144–177; and Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall, “Introduction: Afropolis,” in Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis, ed. Achille Mbembe (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 1–33.

[5]. Janet Berry Hess, “Imagining Architecture: The Structure of Nationalism in Accra, Ghana,” Africa Today 47, no. 2 (2000): 35–58.

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Citation: Caleb Owen. Review of Quayson, Ato, Oxford Street, Accra: City Life and the Itineraries of Transnationalism. H-Africa, H-Net Reviews. October, 2016. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=46090

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