Other[ed] City: (Re)presentations of Muslim Identities in Contemporary Urban West

by Somayeh Chitchian (MDes ’13)

Working from the broad cultural context implicit in Critical Conservation, Somayeh Chitchian examines the question of cultural conservation in the setting of modern urbanism. As contemporary cities embark on an ambitious journey towards (re)creating themselves as high-tech, high culture, and globally connected metropolises, people from diverse ethnic backgrounds—outsiders from the dominant group—suffer from their otherness. In this context, membership in a religious group, even a marginal one, can be an important source of identity formation, offering a means of expression that lends meaning to one’s existence in a pluralistic society.

As Muslim immigrants arrived in the United States in the early twentieth century and settled in industrial cities such as Boston, varied sub-groups, each with differing values and expressions brought their own ideologies and aesthetic representations into the Western ground. Through their presence and activities and the way they inhabit social space, these immigrant communities—many of which were disadvantaged at the outset—expressed their own social agency in the way they challenged and in some instances subverted the customary use of social spaces. Life on the street, shops, public spaces, schools, religious buildings and etc. entail examples of how spaces have been converted to look familiar and in the process meet the purpose of place-making.

This research uses spatial analysis to investigate how—in a constant process of in/exclusion—changing urban landscapes become the locus of representational conflicts.  After exploring and mapping the city and suburbs of Boston, Chitchitan examines the processes through which diasporic people throughout history have reappropriated the urban realm and social space for the purpose of place-making and identity formation. These communities produce complex spatial overlays in which similarities and differences coexist. It is through the creation of expressive social signs that the urban dweller defines a new collective identity and in the process embodies the conservation of a culture as much as the conservation of architectural forms. Understanding how this process of meaning-making occurs, is essential to the study of urban places and culture, especially where the presence of the other group is concerned.