We seem to be in the midst of a gigantic PR campaign for “the city,” to judge by the recent spate of books celebrating the idea of the city and selling particular kinds of cities (some of which are reviewed by Nicholas Lemann [behind pay wall]).
We’re being bombarded with Ed Glaeser’s free-market city, Elijah Anderson’s “cosmopolitan canopy,” Richard Florida’s “creative class,” John D. Kasard/Greg Lindsay’s “aerotropolis,” and many more.
All of these cities have a utopian dimension (and, in that sense, have a grain of truth, since they represent existing projects for making and remaking cities—but also lunacy, as in Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm’s proposal to reposition depressed factory towns like Flint and Lansing as “Cool Cities”). But, in many ways, they don’t look much like the cities I know.
Thus, they beg more questions than they answer. For example, which cities—and which parts of which cities—are they referring to? Are the favelas of Rio part of their cities? What about the banlieues of Paris? Or the vast slums of Cairo, Mumbai, and Mexico City? Or Toronto’s three cities, the ruins of Detroit, and Daley’s other Chicago?
And why this new selling of the city? Is it because of a growing disenchantment with suburbia, those areas that were once destinations of opportunity for quality schools, safe neighborhoods, and good jobs and are now suffering from growing poverty?
And, finally, there’s Lemann’s question about what kind of society might exist in these cities:
Masters of the new economy, social visionaries, and tongue-studded app developers figure large in the imagination of urban theorists these days, but most people are looking for something pretty mundane: a neighborhood, a patch of ground, a measure of peace and security, a family, status, dignity. In twentieth-century America, some people found those things in tightly packed neighborhoods. Far more found them in the suburbs. They tended their gardens, washed their cars, took their children to Little League games, went to PTA meetings and to religious services. It’s one thing to create a vast metropolis. It’s another to create a society, with a distinctive order and a set of embedded bargains regarding who gets how much of what. Twenty-first-century cities haven’t yet figured out that part.