Rise or Fall?
As one new book predicts the decline of cities, another describes their revival.
By Alex Marshall
The City: A Global History
By Joel Kotkin
Modern Library, $21.95
Intown Living: A Different
By Ann Breen and Dick Rigby
Island Press, $24.95
To make a classic French veal glace de viande, the chef must boil down great amounts of liquid until only a few cups of concentrated flavor remain. Writer Joel Kotkin performs a similar yet far more prodigious feat in his new book: reducing the city, whose history stretches for 7,000 or so years over most of human civilization, into a slim 160 pages. The City: A Global History is the latest installment in the Modern Library Chronicles, a series of compact volumes about big subjects.
From the Sumerians at Ur in 3000 B.C. to the newly industrializing Chinese in Shanghai today, Kotkin synthesizes an astonishing range of materials into a story that moves across time, place, and culture. Who knew, for example, that World War II-era Japanese leaders attempted to set up English-style garden cities in the conquered territories of China, complete with regional greenbelts? Or that Baghdad was perhaps the world's largest city in the ninth century, with some 250,000 people?
Nevertheless, Kotkin's achievement ends up a bit dry and at times deficient. Although he tries to develop characters, he simply doesn't have the space, and the reader is often left with a blur of names and dates. His narrative is so condensed that he disposes of the sweeping transformation of 19th-century Paris by planner Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann in a mere two sentences.
Historically, Kotkin asserts, cities have provided security, a place for markets, and a place for sacred spaces. "Where these factors are present, urban culture flourishes," he writes. "When these elements weaken, cities dissipate and eventually recede out of history." I think Kotkin makes too much of the role of sacred spaces. Like museums and art galleries, churches and temples are found in most cities, but that doesn't mean that cities necessarily depend on them for their existence. In fact, the author himself notes several cities, past and present, lacking in sacred space, among them 20th-century New York.
What Kotkin misses in his trilogy is creativity. Cities have arguably endured and succeeded because they produce valuable schools of industry, art, and intellect based on the interactions of their residents. The renowned urban planner Sir Peter Hall explores this in a very different book published in 1998, the 1,200-page Cities in Civilization, in which he argues that unique urban epochs were essential to producing the philosophy of ancient Athens, the impressionist paintings of 19th-century Paris, and the computer chips of Silicon Valley. Kotkin seems to attribute such achievements to distinct national cultures instead.
Toward the end of The City, Kotkin spotlights a disturbing trend: Mexico City, Lagos (Nigeria's largest city), and other vast mega-cities of the poor keep on growing in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. "In many cases, this huge expansion of cities occurred without a corresponding increase in either wealth or power," writes Kotkin. "Such a development represents a tragic and fateful break in urban history." The urban theorist Mike Davis, an avowed Marxist, focuses on this trend in his soon-to-be-published Planet of Slums, and it seems significant that Kotkin—who often contributes to The Weekly Standard and other conservative publications—sees a similar reality.
Writing on the wealthier countries, Kotkin is faintly disapproving of cities that he labels "ephemeral"—cities like London, Montreal, and San Francisco that have "culturally-based" economies with extensive tourism sectors. These cities' once-struggling central districts now boast "loft developments, good restaurants, clubs, museums, and a sizable, visible gay and single population," factors that may lead to a revival but, Kotkin predicts, "hardly with anything remotely reminiscent of the past economic dynamism." Actually, "ephemeral cities" have produced much of the wealth of the past two decades because of their dominance of the computer industry, finance, and the media.
Given his views on such places, Kotkin might think it a waste of time to devote a whole book to them—which is essentially what Ann Breen and Dick Rigby do. Their volume, Intown Living: A Different American Dream, roughly the same length as Kotkin's, argues that vibrant, cultivated downtowns have helped revitalize cities as different as Houston, Portland, Ore., Atlanta, Vancouver, and Minneapolis.
In a series of case studies, Breen and Rigby set out the distinct history and typology of each center-city district. Their range is broad, from Houston's midtown—a small area of garden apartments set amid limitless sprawl—to Portland's Pearl district, just one of many vital neighborhoods within this paragon of American urbanism. The authors compare how the cities have navigated the shoals and trade winds of urban renewal, convention centers, mass transit, beltways, and freeways, all with varying degrees of success.
In The City, Kotkin cites the continued growth of the suburbs as proof that city centers will decline. Breen and Rigby signal a more likely path, that cities will become the glittering capstones atop large metropolitan areas, as vital and indispensable as the apex of a pyramid.