City images in European newspapers

By Tessa Hauswedell

European cities are culturally unique in their own, but they are tied together through a dense linkage of transnational connections on all levels of public life: culturally and intellectually but also economically, financially and politically. Newspapers provide interesting insight how specific connotations and images of the city are formed. This article explores how German and British newspapers situate and portray the modern city quite differently as either a European concept or rather as singular entity.

Cities have long been an object of fascination and study for artists and writers alike. Iconic images of cities transmitted through painting, photography and films usually come first to mind when we think of representations of the city.

Figure 1: The Iconic Eiffel Tower. Source: Flickr, Creative Commons Images.
Figure 1: The Iconic Eiffel Tower. Source: Flickr, Creative Commons Images

Likewise, novelists have indelibly shaped our images of specific cities. Charles Dickens’s crime infested mid-nineteenth century London, the misery and splendour of Honoré de Balzac’s Paris, Christopher Isherwood’s evocation of decadent Berlin in Weimar Germany or Stefan Zweig’s chronicling of life in fin de siècle Vienna have all become famous novels because they seem to capture the spirit and atmosphere of European cities at a given moment in time. Newspapers, too, play a relevant role in shaping our perceptions of cities for several reasons. On a basic level, they serve practical purposes by providing information and coverage about events in cities for the readers, such as theatre listings and reviews, schedules of sporting events, discussions of planned infrastructure projects and developments, information about building works, notices of road closures and so. Because newspapers are typically produced in major cities and are tied to it through the editors, writers and journalists who chronicle its developments, they become an essential part of that city’s’ repository of self-representation. In newspaper articles about cities we often find certain phrases, metaphors and ideas which are repeated many times over until they shape how we as newspaper readers think of a city. Think of clichés such as ‘Paris, the city of love’, ‘Amsterdam, the city of tolerance’, as a way of providing newspaper readers with an idea, a connotation of that city. Even though we might not know the city well or have never visited it, it seems immediately more familiar. In order to understand how such images are formed we need to obtain a bigger picture, rather than only snapshots of specific moments. With digital archives and text mining tools, we can move from the minutiae of the singular newspaper article and instead consider an entire newspaper run, or select specific decades of special interest. In addition, using multilingual archives allows us to track not only whensome of these connotations around the European city emerge in the first place but also to compare how strongly they take hold in different cross-cultural and cross-linguistic contexts.

The metropolis

Consider the use of the term ‘metropolis’, a term that has a wide variety of associations and connotations attached to it. The term often conjures up images from the classic Fritz Lang film of the same name, which provides an unsettling, arguably dystopian account of life in the modern city.

Figure 2: Film Poster of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis Film from 1927. Source: Flickr, Creative Commons Images.
Figure 2: Film Poster of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, 1927. Source: Flickr, Creative Commons Images.

At the same time, the term also evokes a bygone era when the major European capitals of the nineteenth century were at the height of their cultural and social modernity. Paris was arguably the most iconic of all European metropoles especially in the wake of its redesign by the famous architect Baron Haussmann between 1853 and 1870. More than any other European city, Paris projected a sense of monumental grandeur and splendour that was the cause of much envy, admiration and emulation across the continent. London was arguably the more dominant metropolis in political and financial terms and through its position at the centre of a vast maritime empire, but by the beginning of the twentieth century, the influence of most European cities abroad began to wane.

Figure 3: Picture of Trafalgar Square, London 1846. Source: British Library, Flickr Images.
Figure 3: Picture of Trafalgar Square, London 1846. Source: British Library, Flickr Images

Especially in the wake of WWII, European cities had to cope with a further loss of influence and prestige, at a time when they had to focus on rebuilding their destroyed inner city areas, which had suffered extensive war damage. In recent decades, other terms have emerged to describe cities of a special cultural, financial and political significance, or those with a special role as global hubs of exchange, communication and capital flows, such as ‘global cities’ or ‘networked cities’. Yet, the ‘metropolis’ is still widely used in newspaper reporting. To find out how it is used, we can consider the examples of two national newspapers from Germany and Great Britain Die Zeit, and The Times in the period from 1945-2010. The two papers are roughly comparable in reach, stature and influence and both provide a broad mix of coverage on politics, culture, sports and economics and finance. That said they differ in their political outlook and while Die Zeit is widely regarded as a liberal publication, the Times sits within the more conservative spectrum. How have they used the term in the decades since 1945? Which cities are considered as important metropoles of today and what is being said about these cities? What mental images of the city come into play?

Knowing which cites are frequently described as metropoles is interesting because it tells us something about the perceived importance of certain cities as seen by the writers and editors of that newspaper. In Die Zeit, Berlin is most often mentioned as a metropolis in the period from 1945-2010, followed by Paris, New York and London. Berlin, of course, is mentioned more frequently than other cities for the simple reason that there is more coverage on national news rather than on international coverage. If we consider in more detail how Berlin is described as a metropolis over the years we find that the descriptions of the city read almost like a brochure from an advertising agency for the city because they are so overwhelmingly positive.

Figure 4: A wordcloud of the most frequent adjectives used together with 'Berlin metropolis'. Source: Generated by Voyant Tools from Die Zeit Corpus, 1945-2010.
Figure 4: A wordcloud of the most frequent adjectives used together with ‘Berlin metropolis’. Source: Die Zeit Archive. Wordcloud generated by Wordle.

Berlin is described above all as an europäische (European) city, and is also characterised as weltoffen (tolerant) , kreativ (creative), kosmopolitisch (cosmopolitan) and zurückgelehnt (laid-back). Above everything else, Berlin is most often described as a European metropolis, and all the other terms suggest that it is associated with a liberal, progressive mentality.
What about the other metropoles in Die Zeit? We find that the ‘classic’ cities of Paris, New York and London which appear most frequently are mostly mentioned not in isolation but appear often listed together. For examples, many articles about urban issues such as crime, housing, transport and so on mention ‘metropoles’ in the plural, and then provide Paris, New York and London as examples in the same sentence. By naming these cities together, it is suggested to the reader that these cities are of equal prominence and are in the same league because they inhabit shared problems, challenges and horizons of experience. However, other European capitals such as Madrid and Rome, Budapest or Warsaw are described as metropoles much less often. Rather, it seems, the metropolis is reserved for the cities, which are supposedly exceptional in cultural and historical significance.

That said, when we look at more specific variations of the metropolis, which exist in the German use of the term, such as Finanzmetropole (finance metropolis) or Wirtschaftsmetropole (economic metropolis) quite different cities feature. In a list that otherwise includes mostly Asian cities, notably Mumbai, Bombay, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Karachi, but also Lagos, and Sao Paolo, Frankfurt and London are the only European entries. It seems that when the term is used in a specific economic and financial dimension, it applies to global cities mainly outside of Europe, but in a general sense it is used in a specific culturalcontext and applied to European cities and the iconic city of New York. This becomes clearer when we look how the European metropolis is described in Die Zeit corpus from 1945 onwards.

Figure 5: Wordcloud of the most frequent collocations for the term European metropolis. Source: Die Zeit Corpus, 1945-2010.
Figure 5: Wordcloud of the most frequent collocations for the term European metropolis. Source: Die Zeit Archive. Wordcloud generated by Wordle.

The word cloud shows a selection of the most frequent adjectives that are used together with the European metropolis. The list is topped by the term moderne (modern), which implies that the term is still used to connote modernity, novelty and innovation. Another frequent term is westlich (western), further specifying the metropolis as a Western concept. We also find that references to kulturelle (cultural) metropolis occur much more often than the connection between politisch (political) and metropolis, which suggests that the term is used less in relation to political events than to cultural ones. And finally, the metropolis is frequently described as a pulsierend (pulsating) and glitzernd (radiant) place. As the descriptions of Berlin have already indicated, life in the metropolis seems to be largely positive experience, and the city a source of positive stimulation and excitement. Do we find similar connotations also in the Times newspaper? Consider the following image, which shows some of the most frequent association and topics, which are ranked here by colour from red to green.

Source: The Times Digital Archive, accessed via Gale Artemis Primary Sources
Source: The Times Digital Archive

London is the only city that features prominently as a metropolis and we find a reference to the financial centre of Frankfurt, but other European cities, or even the mention of the word ‘European’ that feature so prominently in Die Zeit, are notable by absence. Instead, most references refer to financial and economic themes: management issues, property prices, money or the police. But the sense that the metropolis is a center of a specific European or Western modernity does not feature at all in the Times. We find some cultural references in relation to the Metropolis film and to its director, but the metropolis overridingly refers to economic and financial matters in order to discuss concrete, day to day issues in relation to London. In the German use, however, the metropolis is frequently defined as a place of cultural modernity, in a way that reminiscent of the original nineteenth century meaning of the term. The specific European dimension of these cities which is emphasized very strongly in the German corpus, is completely absent in the Times. Even the term ‘European metropolis’ is mentioned nowhere in the articles, and only appears in a classified ad for trips to the Italian city of Milan which is promoted as a ‘European metropolis’.

Figure 7: Image of an advertisement from The Times March 30, 1963, Issue 55663, p.11. Source: The Times Digital Archive
Figure 7: Image of an advertisement from The Times March 30, 1963, Issue 55663, p.11.
Source: The Times Digital Archive

Newspapers, we began by saying, can help us understand how urban life is presented to us and how cities are set into context with each other. On a larger scale, they might also tell us something about the attitudes and mindsets of the people who write them, and about the dominant prism through which they perceive life in the city. In the German use, the emphasis of the metropolis as a European concept seems to be of overriding dominance, but in the British example, it does not feature as a significant frame to discuss and write about life in the city. It is at least noteworthy and perhaps even illustrative of general attitude and mindsets towards notions of Europeanness within the two countries that these newspapers seem to harbor quite divergent ideas about the metropolis.