I'm not talking about the dictionary definition: an adjective meaning "of the city," derived from Latin urbanus and ultimately urbs, "city." Because that doesn't explain what "urban" is doing in this phrase, reproduced verbatim from a report I heard recently on my local public-radio station:
No, of course not. "Urban cities" may seem redundant, but the reporter had something else in mind. Increasingly over the last few decades, "urban" has acquired a secondary meaning: "dominated by a racial minority, usually African-American."
Anything Urban = $$$$.
2. black people or other minority
3. city dwellers
4. downtown area
Ok, Coke lets focus on how we can reach the urban markets. Let's sell Coke with fried chicken!
advervitising [sic] speak for "black". often used by the same type of middle class wanker says "coloured" and thinks there [sic] being PC. " i dont want any urbans on my street, they all sell drugs anyway"
or "the urban music awards"
meaning "black" music.only they dont want to say it.because they're scared.
e.g. Man, that club is a little too urban for my country ass.
VP: Err don't you mean Urban customers?
CEO: Yeah yeah whatever
Notice that some of these reader submissions imply that "urban" is an invention of ad agencies or "corporate America." But my research indicates that "urban" to signify "African-American" in fact comes from within the African-American community.
The first official use of "urban" that was explicitly connected with African-Americans may have been the National Urban League (originally called the Committee on Urban Conditions Among Negroes), which was founded in 1910 by a white woman and an African-American man to address issues facing blacks who had moved from the rural South into northern cities. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s brought other, more radical organizations to the fore, but the equation of "urban" with African-Americans persisted.
In the mid-1970s, "urban" took its next leap. An African-American DJ, Frankie Crocker (1937-2000), coined "urban contemporary" to describe the music he was playing when he was program director at New York radio station WBLS. According to an entry in The Free Dictionary, Crocker "created an eclectic music mix of R&B, Disco and Gospel music, redefining the R&B format as Urban Contemporary. The station was an instant success, making it the most listened-to radio station in the country."
With the ascension of rap and hip-hop in the late 1970s and 1980s, the "urban" appellation expanded to include those genres. (See Urban Music Blog, Urban Music Daily, Urban Music Awards, etc.) It then spread from music to other cultural areas, giving rise to urban fiction, whose city settings are less relevant than the characters (mostly African-American or Latino), and to urban fashion.
I asked my friend Jennifer Lamers, a retail stock analyst in the Bay Area and my trusted source for deep dish about stores, malls, and clothing, to describe "urban fashion." Her reply:
She also told me about skurban: "used by some for a season or two while the urban kids played with skate brands."
As for Urban Outfitters, the U.S. clothing chain: definitely not "urban in the inner-city sense," according to Jennifer. And here's something to ponder: "We may be seeing a new 'look,' kind of based around American Apparel," Jennifer told me in an e-mail. "A name still hasn't stuck, but some of us call it metropolitan. It's city casual, but not 'urban.' It's inexpensive clothing, no obvious labels, but those in the know know where you bought it."
Metropolitan, as in the 1990 Whit Stillman movie featuring blasé rich white kids? Maybe.
("Inner city" is a whole 'nother story. It sounds like a geographical term, but it isn't: it just means "anywhere black and brown people tend to predominate" or, alternatively, "poor and black." By some reckonings, all of Oakland is "inner city.")
That leaves a few urban mysteries—urban legend, for one. Wikipedia informs us that "despite its name, a typical urban legend does not necessarily originate in an urban setting. The term is simply used to differentiate modern legend from traditional folklore in preindustrial times. For this reason, sociologists and folklorists prefer the term 'contemporary legend'." Please update your files accordingly.
Then there's urban beach (sometimes called urbeach)—"a space that includes an intellectually, artistically, or culturally sophisticated water feature that is also an aquatic play area, and is located within a culturally or artistically significant area of a city." Toronto, for example, has four urbeaches, one on the roof of the Existential Technology Research Center, which sounds cosmopolitan but not "urban."
And I'm not sure what to think about urban golf, which I'd never heard of until I started this research. It doesn't seem to be a sport that would be played in an "urban city," if you know what I'm saying.
UPDATE, October 2013: What does "urban" mean in brand names?