Gender and the City: Politics of Space in Contemporary New York Pop Culture

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2010

62 Pages


Table of Contents

1. Introduction: New York City Topographies in Contemporary Pop Culture

2. City as Text: From Baudrillard’s Graffiti Essay to current Trends in Urban Theory

3. City as Theme: From Babylon to New York City - Cultural History of the Metropolis

4. Money, Power, Respect: New Inscriptions of Femininity into the Urban Landscape in Candace Bushnell’s Lipstick Jungle and One Fifth Avenue

5. The Dark Side of the City: Psychology of the Female Mind and changing Topographies in Neil Jordan’s The Brave One

6. From the Streets of the Bronx to Mainstream Music: Short History of Rap
6.1. New York State of Mind: Topographic Narratives in Contemporary Hip Hop music [ Empire State of Mind (Jay Z featuring Alicia Keys), I love New York (Madonna) American Boy (Estelle featuring Kanye West), Pacifics (Digable Planets)]

7. City of Dreams: Old Visions and New Perspectives of the City in the Visual Arts [ Times Square (Knud Hoi), Skyway over Manhattan (Jacques Olivar), Legends (Gery Uger), New York City by Light (N. Cherikov), New York 02 (H.G. Esch)]

8. Conclusion

9. Bibliography

Gender and the City Introduction

1. Introduction

Yesterday I stole a bland buck eighty five piece of chicken and broccoli pizza from the hunter college cafeteria / doing my own part to combat capitalist corporations one slice at a time /

I waited for the cielo to open up and mami herself - from heaven - would smack me upside my cabeza with her merciless chancleta / but nothing happened…silencio...

Maria A. Bartomeo (The Olive Tree Review, spring 2004, # 37)

As Paris has been designated the metropolis of the 19th century, New York City has been assigned this status for the 20th century, which arguably has not changed until now, the first decade of the new millennium. Despite or perhaps even due to the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, New York City remains the ultimate urban center of social mayhem and cultural production, which creates an environmental influence that is reflected in contemporary popular culture narrating the city’s topographies. As the theorist Levebre recognized, the representations of the city’s space and its spaces of representations are also decisive elements of the city itself.[1] In a key essay on the urban art form of Graffiti, the philosopher Baudrillard first recognized this phenomenon on a semiotic level, by identifying the city as text[2], particularly as it relates to urban dynamics characteristic of post industrial conditions. However, the city as a theme was established much earlier in cultural history, going back to the notion of Babylon and the significance of Rome.[3] As opposed to the traditional mainstream in western literature, which romanticises non-urban settings - think Thoreau and Emerson - it is notable that there has always been a special vision of the urban north in African-American thought as deliverance from a traumatic history in the rural south. In this context, it seems legitimate to consider contemporary African-American production intertwined with NYC topographies, for instance, as to see what current interpretations of this vision exist.

Gender and the City Introduction

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Another aspect, which has been neglected in the context of a conservative canon, is the notion of gender: How are women’s experiences in the metropolis negotiated through space in contemporary culture? To what extent are new patterns of femininity inscribed into the metropolitan landscape that break from a view that has been predominantly filtered through a male lens in the modern era?

It is my assumption that a new dimension has been added to the urban space in contemporary popular forms, as they show off particular perspectives in terms of ethnicity and gender. Thus, the city will be read from the vantage point of the so called “other” as constituted by those terms in order to explore its current imagination, particularly minding the sustenance of its myth after 9/11. The strong connection between culture and commodity that characterizes contemporary thought will be taken into consideration during the process.

Focusing on this idea, a comparative method is employed as NYC topographies are considered across different media. Further, the investigation will be characterized by an associative manner of interpretation. The materials used for this aim are Candace Bushnell’s novel Lipstick Jungle as well as one of her other bestsellers One Fifth Avenue, both narrating women’s lives as members of an elite New York City social scene, utilizing space as a means to negotiate status and power relations. Neil Jordan’s movie The Brave One delivers a psychological perspective in that the main character, who is radio host of Street Walk, records sounds of the city that changes according to her state of mind, taking the viewer to its metaphorical dark side. Selected Hip Hop lyrics provide examples of the city’s construction from a genre, which has become very powerful since the nineties. Beforehand, a short history of rap gives some insight into its sub-cultural development. Also, various contemporary visual representations of the city are considered with a focus on Knud Hoi’s black & white print Times Square, which sheds new light on one of the most notorious parts of New York City. In supplementary fashion, a few poems will provide another syntagma of the city theme with the aim of completing the topographical paradigm. Last, an evaluation will take place by replay of the urban kaleidoscope as a whole and conclusions are finally drawn as to what extent the metropolitan cityscape can be considered

Gender and the City City as Text

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gendered in the light of art politics characterized by an inherent logic of consumer culture and whether or not that contributes to an understanding of post-modernity.

2. City as Text

The rise of the modern metropolis was probably the most vital change that nineteenth century capitalism brought about. Accordingly, a number of social theorists have been concerned with urban development, including big names like Marx, Engels, Simmel, Durkheim, Benjamin, Weber, Durkheim and Adorno. Important to mention in this context is also Foucault’s contemplation about the birth of the prison that represents a highlight in intellectual history dealing with space and legitimizes in essence the relevancy of considering urban topographies.

Das gebaute Räume aufgrund ihrer Disposition und Materialität generell Einfluss auf kulturelle Praktiken und soziale Körperordnungen haben, zeigte bereits Michel Foucault in seiner Studie Überwachen und Strafen von 1975 zur Justiz - und Strafrechtsreform im 18. Jahrhundert. An dem dort untersuchten Panoptikum von Jeremy Bentham wurde deutlich, dass Architektur eine Technik der Macht ist, mit der sich Körper im Raum anordnen und darüber beherrschen lassen. Damit wurden zwei zentrale kulturtheoretische Betrachtungen von Architektur [und damit dem konstitutiven Element der Stadt] ergänzt: erstens Architektur als einen räumlichen Rahmen des kollektiven Gedächtnisses zu begreifen, und zweitens als eine symbolische Form in der die Existenz einer sozialen Gruppe Gestalt annimmt.[4]

As a matter of fact, the most cutting-edge research in the field, the Chicago School - as well as most contemporary American mainstream urban theory, base a lot of their points on major aspects of those old school thinkers.[5] As a comprehensive summary of all those writings would definitely go beyond the scope of this paper, the following overview is limited to a few accounts roughly spanning a time period from the seventies to the present. The selection further excludes notions that are

Gender and the City City as Text

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primarily concerned with sociological problem matters and policy, but rather aims at filtering out the secondary literature taking into consideration space as a carrier of cultural meaning.

Legitimized by the popular forms focus of my investigation, the French theorist Baudrillard’s famous essay Kool Killer is considered as a basis, because it particularly identifies the trivial as explanatory and symbolic to metropolitan

conditions. The main theme of the essay is Graffiti as urban art that the author identifies as an authentic New York phenomenon in its particular form exercised primarily by ethnic minorities. In essence this is due to a change from an economic to a structural - linguistic value system in the city. Supposedly, the current matrix of the urbane consists no longer in the realisation of a power but in that of a difference, as illustrated by Graffiti codes. This in turn signifies an immense expansion of the economic value system and defines capitalist urban conditions.

Die historische Solidarität des Produktionsprozesses: die Solidarität der Fabrik, des Stadtviertels und der Klasse, ist verschwunden. Von nun an sind alle voneinander getrennt und gegeneinander indifferent im Zeichen des Fernsehens und des Autos, im Zeichen der der überall in die Medien und die Stadtpläne eingeschriebenen Verhaltensmodelle. Alle sind ausgerichtet auf ihren jeweiligen Wahn einer Identifikation mit Leitmodellen und bereitgestellten Simulationsmodellen. Alle sind austauschbar - wie diese Modelle selbst. Dies ist das Zeitalter der Individuen mit variabler Geometrie. Die Geometrie des Codes jedoch, sie bleibt fix und zentralisiert. Das Monopol dieses überall im urbanen Gewebe zerstreuten Codes ist die wirkliche Form des gesellschaftlichen Verhältnisses.[6]

Early on Baudrillard thus identifies the consequences coming along with the changing urban structure from the modernization period to post-industrial conditions and perceptively describes an atmosphere that surely still applies to the current metropolitan landscape from a perspective that includes sub-cultural signs. His observations tie right into the complex interaction of culture and commodity that is negotiated in many contemporary texts dealing with New York City and arguably may be viewed as characteristic of postmodern urban culture.

Gender and the City City as Text

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Since the late eighties then, the previously neglected notion of space has experienced a new recognition in the field of cultural studies at large that is referred to as spatial turn and is typically applied to the city. A key player in context of this development is another French theorist, Henri Levebre, who conceptualizes space as a social product in his work La production de l’espace.

Sein Interesse an Raumtheorie ist im Wesentlichen urbanistisch orientiert, wobei die Stadt als historisch-konkrete Konfiguration

von Zentralität zugleich als seine gelebte Praxis, als seine subversive Strategie, wie als ein lesbarer Text konzipiert wird.[7]

With the beginnings of globalization that can be roughly pinpointed to the late eighties, the trend of the spatial turn became even more distinct, as the end of the cold war and the resulting shift of borders called for a paradigm addressing the cultural consequences of geographical change. A crucial idea in this context is the compression of people’s spatial and temporal worlds through technological innovation as an inherent logic of capitalism that is imagined by David Harvey, a professor at the City University of New York in his work The Condition of Postmodernity (1989). His research forms the basis for an investigation of the so called Global City concerned with space of flows in London, Tokyo and New York by Saskia Sassen (1991) - introducing one of the female researchers in the field.

An important theoretical distinction needs to be made that consists in the notion of a topographical turn that is a differentiation of the term spatial turn and applies primarily to literature, media - and cultural studies rather than social theory. Further, there is a particular implication in reference to topographies in the American school of thought, as it concentrates on an ethnologically informed viewpoint that aims to make a distinction from a Eurocentric construction of geographical space. This is particularly relevant in investigating dynamics in a compressed multicultural urban society such as New York City and ties into the sub-focus of this paper. Arguably as a result of the rise of the hip hop nation, any topic pertaining to minority issues, particularly African-American inner city culture have become very popular in recent years and are discussed in an academic environment. For example, a dissertation in progress at the Center for Metropolitan

Gender and the City City as Theme

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Studies in Berlin is concerned with the theatrical aspect of street literature by examining the narrative strategies that frame the fictional ghetto.

Regardless, as the status of contemporary literature needs much clarification at this point in time anyway, particularly in terms of gender, methodological approaches cannot be presented with a high degree of systematise.

3. City as Theme

Since antiquity the city has been a complex phenomenon that has had major influence in literature. As a theme it functions on both levels, a carrier of symbolic meaning and as a motif of space. The former may refer to the progress of civilization, cultural - or architectural achievement. The latter may refer to topographical parts of the city, such as the street and its social meaning. In many accounts, the city takes on a life of its own and, since the industrial revolution has sometimes even been conceptualized as a threat to humanity. As whole, literary structures of the city reflect people’s ambivalence towards institutions created by them that comes about in two major aspects. First, it can be traced back to a comparison of Jerusalem with Babylon in Christian and Jewish mythology as the latter being an epithet for the sinful character of cities throughout cultural history and rooted in the collective consciousness as archetype of a whore dressed in purple velvet versus the former being an image of light infused godliness. As representative of Greek and Italian poets admiring magnitude and exuding power from the metropolitan landscape, Vergil praised the city of Rome as god’s will in the canonical work Aeneis, overshadowing its characteristic of sinful decay.

Rome is essential in the literary tradition, as its fate initially postulates both, the inevitable influence of historicity and the motif of the ruin as a major facet of the city theme.

Die Stadt ist schutzlos den historisch bedingten Einwirkungen ausgeliefert. Das Schicksal Roms, der einst stolzen, unbezwinglichen „Hauptstadt der Welt“, die in Asche und Staub fiel, droht auch der abendländischen Stadtkultur. Merciers populäre Tableaux sagten Paris, dem neuen Mittelpunkt der westlichen Zivilisation, dasselbe Los Gender and the City City as Theme

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voraus; Richard Jeffries prophezeit einhundert Jahre später in After London (1885) den Untergang der Stadt und die Flucht aufs Land, Ereignisse, die dann nach 1945 in Tatsachenberichten und Erzählungen vom Untergang Stalingrads, Hiroshimas, Breslaus, Dresdens und Berlins im Mittelpunkt des Geschehens stehen.[8]

It is also in the context of Rome - the so called eternal city - that the difference between urban living and a life in the country is made an issue for the first time as constituent of the second aspect of ambivalence inherent in the city theme. This remains up for discussion in contemporary popular culture and can be observed as a certain “disdain for country life”, particularly in TV shows shot with New York City as background drop. In the following the idea is elaborated upon further:

Das Stadt Motiv in der Dichtung bedeutet also von Beginn an eine Auseinandersetzung mit der kulturellen und zivilisatorischen Leistung des Menschen. Die durch das Motiv erstrebte stimmungshafte Wirkung reicht von Bewunderung bis zu Entsetzen von einer Art Stadtverliebtheit bis zu moralischer Entrüstung. Zu den konstitutiven Elementen des Stadt-Motivs gehören als Folie sowohl ein spöttisch herablassend gesehenes wie ein idealisiertes Bild des Landlebens und der Natur; Idyllik und Bukolik haben in Stadtabkehr ihre Wurzel. Für die pragmatischen Dichtungsgattungen bildet die Stadt einen häufig durch labyrinthische Züge gekennzeichneten Handlungsraum, der in der Epik eine bestimmende Funktion einnehmen kann.[9]

Continuing along the historical timeline, in the middle ages the big city stood for protection, security and closeness to other people amidst an otherwise scarcely populated and dangerous environment. On the one hand, life in the city was associated with social upward mobility and growing self-confidence in the individual. On the other hand, there are many depictions of the downfall of the city in the context of the thirty year war that often appear in the image of the loss of a loved one and once again connote the motif of the ruin. The Baroque period in turn brought about a renewal of the notion of moral decay and sinful destruction. In

Gender and the City City as Theme

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many accounts of the 17th century, metropolitan Paris is stylized as an allegory embodying these stigmata. Associations created in connection to the city in the 18th century include flanerie, the wanderer and the urban experience as an educational one, such as in Schiller’s Der Spaziergang (1795). Overall, this period strongly represents the city as an intellectual center.

Die Stadterfahrung, auch wenn die Eindrücke zur Kritik anregen, gehört immer zu den wichtigen Bildungserlebnissen in Texten, die die Entwicklungsthematiken gestalten. Die Idealstadt ist das Zentrum des Handels, des Wissens, der Künste und der menschlichen Geselligkeit. In zahlreichen Werken werden Städte zum Ausgangspunkt der Identitätssuche. Sie regen zur Reflexion über das Zeitgeschehen an. Die perspektivisch wiedergegebene Stadtwirklichkeit entspricht der schillernden Identität der Figuren.[10]

The first city novel of the 19th century is Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris (1831), which exemplifies both, a trend of making the connection between architecture and the masses as well as criticism of social conditions. Overall, the period is characterised by a detail oriented view of the city, capturing its magic atmosphere, shedding light on quiet street corners, statues, hidden alleys, and the life story of its inhabitants. In Honore de Balzac’s depiction of Paris society, La Comedie Humaine (1829-94), arguably the most important work of the period, the structure of different neighborhoods and interiors of residences provide further evidence of this trend, albeit predominantly against the backdrop of a bourgeois existence. Generally, it elicits thoughtful considerations and contrasts the depicted urbanity with past experiences of the characters. Furthermore, poverty, criminality and prostitution as a result of overpopulation, industrialization, housing problems and exploitation through early capitalism become an issue that is especially prevalent in British novels of the time - think Dickens and Barton. Particularly, the idea of the masses as an ocean and a typical moment of loneliness in it are introduced. The two major strands of the city theme, Babylon as well as the city

Gender and the City City as Theme

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versus country notion also surface again in this context. As already mentioned, the latter still exists in contemporary culture. On the other hand, there is also a development in 19th century novels that takes away from this contrast.

Die Zivilisation hat von der Landschaft Besitz ergriffen; sie ist vom Menschen geplant und in ihrer Substanz von seiner Gegenwart durchdrungen. Das ehemals gepriesene, einfache Landleben spiegelt die Probleme der Stadt, und selbst der Ausflug ins Freie zerstört die Illusion der unberührten Natur. […] Die moderne Gesellschaft der Großstädte und Industriesiedlungen verhindert die für die natürliche Gemeinschaft charakteristischen engen, persönlichen Beziehungen zum Mitmenschen.

Zwischenmenschliche Beziehungen in der Stadt sind gekennzeichnet durch Kontaktlosigkeit, Teilnahmslosigkeit, Argwohn und Neid. Auch die Arbeit bereitet keine Freude, da der Arbeiter dem von ihm erzeugten Produkt fremd gegenüber steht.[11]

This notion of fear and compulsion in the face of civilisation and its inhumanity remains prevalent in the 20th century period that Bert Brecht expressed early on in his depiction of Chicago in his work Im Dickicht der Städte (1923). The protagonist in Alfred Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), arguably one of the most quintessential urban epics because it essentially summarizes all of the metropolitan motives of German Literature, is basically a good person searching for happiness, but is overwhelmed by the power structure of the city. He is one of many in a collective that does not know an individual destiny, although he is also unaware of the possibility of a life outside of the urban enclave.

Der Schöpfer steht nicht nur der von ihm geschaffenen Stadt fremd gegenüber, sondern wird auch zum Spielball einer ihm unverständlichen Macht. [In diesem Zusammenhang] stützen sich thematische Entwicklungen der Stadtproblematik auf Bildfügungen, Metaphern, Motive und Symbole, die das Wesen der Stadt näher bestimmen. Untrennbar mit dem Thema verbunden sind folgende Merkmale: Die Hure von Babylon, […], die Stadt als Dynamo, der unerschöpfliche Energie verbraucht, […], das Motiv des brausenden Ozeans, […], Nebel- und Rauchmotive unterstreichen den Verfall und die Korruption der städtischen Sozialstruktur, […],

Gender and the City City as Theme

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ausführliche Detailbeschreibungen des Schmutzes, der Fäulnis und dumpfer Wohnungen beleuchten die individuelle Entartung und den allgemeinen Niedergang, […], Feuer, im Nebel rauchende Kamine und ständig vom Himmel fallende Asche schildern die Hoffnungslosigkeit des Lebens, […], Metaphern der Hölle oder des Satanischen erwecken den Eindruck zeitloser Leiden der Verdammten, […], die Motive der Kreisbewegung und des Labyrinths vergegenwärtigen die Ausweglosigkeit der Situation, […], Bilder und Motive der Begrenzung, des Käfigs, der Zelle [..] machen den Freiheitsverlust des Menschen sichtbar.[12]

The most important example of the depiction of metropolitan life in American Literature of the period is consensually Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer (1925), which is about the story of thirty characters, each representing particular parts of New York City. The narrative action takes place over the course of twenty-five years beginning at the end of the 19th century and concluding in the 1920’s. The rhetoric device of montage illustrates the city as a self-functioning mechanism that, although manmade, is somehow not made for people. It forces them to either conform or leave. Essential to mention is also James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) that is a stream of consciousness account of the protagonist’s Odyssey through his hometown Dublin and has significant stylistic influence on depictions of 20th century city literature. Likewise, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway captures the life in the streets of London as reflected in the minds of the acting figures in the novel. Another milestone of the period is arguably represented by Calvino’s Marcovaldo (1963), which also portrays the city in an expressionistic manner.

Autoren, die die Stadt zur Deutung historischer und ökonomischer Prozesse und der menschlichen Existenzbedingung heranzogen, mussten besondere kompositorische Aufgaben lösen. Sowohl die Ausdehnung des Stadtbildes und die vielseitigen Funktionen der Stadt als auch die von ihr ausgelösten widersprüchlichen Empfindungen verlangten äußerste Konzentration in der Gestaltung. Die unterschiedlichen Darstellungsweisen umfassen Experimente der panoramischen Ausdehnung, […], kurze, auch fragmentarische Belichtungen einzelner Ausschnitte, Szenen

Gender and the City City as Theme

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oder persönliche Eindrücke, […], Versuche, das Gefühl der simultanen Gegenwart aller Aspekte des Phänomens Stadt vermitteln.[13]

As opposed to its often demonic characterization, the city theme was reconnected with the motif of the ruin after the Second World War and honored as witness to cultural inheritance.

Since the modern era, there has been little evidence in the secondary literature as to how the city theme has been conceptualized. To a certain extent, this paper aims to fill this gap. Part of the underlying premise in the endeavour is strongly informed by an assumption of the persistence of the notion of Babylon as it applies to questions of gender and sexuality. The following poem inspires this belief.

Dress so tight if I had

A pimple on my ass you’d see it

Shoes so high I’m

Walking tip toe

Black eyeliner, red lipstick pout

One glance in the mirror

I’m out pumps pumpin’

Pavement keep time

With the rhythm of

My hips swing with

The new york city street

Hot in the summer air

Almost as hot outside

As I am inside for

In me burns a fire

Impatience that can

Not be labelled or defined

That’s just like

My red hair bounces

Swaying as I step

Down the sidewalk looking

For a party, an invitation,

Maybe a situation




Gender and the City City as Theme

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To burn off some of

This heat strut past

The catcallers, snickerers, jealous

Skinny perfectly plain

Girls who get nothing

On my hips who

Wished they had my

Lips or a chance to

See the world for just

one night through

my catty eyes, oh

the things they’d see

would curl their toes

leave them wanting more

these placid timid girls

haven’t got the nerve to

put themselves on

to ask for what they want

fearing the shadow

voices of their mothers

and their mother’s mothers

looking on in disapproval

silence passing sentence on

feeling like a woman

alive with sensation

every waking moment

every nerve ending open

like a flower holding out

her petals to feel the

breeze at slides across

her skin a pulse

to the beat of to the heat of

the night city lights

boom boxes trip hop

swoosh of passing cars

bar people peek out

to gauge the atmosphere

hold me in their sights

as I glide past

onto intoout to

who knows where

I see you glimmer

The moon light catches

Your muscles

Fresh meat ready for the kill

(Alaina LaTourette, the Olive Tree Review, Spring 2004, # 37)


[1] Compare to: Stephan Günzel: „Spatial Turn. Vorbegriff (Henri Levebre).“ In Ders.: Raum. Ein interdisziplinäres Handbuch. Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler 2005, S. 91.

[2] Compare to: Jean Baudrillard: Kool Killer oder der Aufstand der Zeichen. Berlin: Merve Verlag 1978, S. 19.

[3] Compare to: Elisabeth Frenzel: Motive der Weltliteratur. Ein Lexikon Dichtungsgeschichtlicher

Längsschnitte. Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner Verlag 1992, S. 654.

[4] Stephan Günzel: „Topographical Turn.” In Ders.: Raum. Ein interdisziplinäres Handbuch. Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler 2005, S. 100.

[5] Compare to: Harold Chorney: City of Dreams. Social Theory and the Urban Experience. Ontario: International Thomson Limited 1999. The book traces a history of thought on modern urbanization.

[6] Baudrillard (1978): Kool Killer, S. 23

[7] Günzel (2005): Topographical Turn, S. 91.

[8] Frenzel (1992): Motive der Weltliteratur, S. 655

[9] Ingrid G. und Horst S.: Themen und Motive in der Literatur. Ein Handbuch. Basel: Francke 1995, S. 333.

[10] G. und S. (1995): Themen und Motive in der Literatur, S. 335.

[11] G. und S. (1995): Themen und Motive in der Literatur, S. 334

[12] G. und S. (1995): Themen und Motive in der Literatur, S. 336

[13] G. und S. (1995): Themen und Motive in der Literatur, S. 336

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Gender and the City: Politics of Space in Contemporary New York Pop Culture
Free University of Berlin
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gender politics, urban space, popular culture
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Irene Fowlkes (Author), 2010, Gender and the City: Politics of Space in Contemporary New York Pop Culture, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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