The last 10 years of publishing has seen the proliferation of writers writing about cities. While often informative, most of these blogs (sidewalk talk, strongtowns, streetsblog, even our own blog) or new subsections to existing papers (citylab, for example) function as boosterism for cities. They theorize and fetishize the city as an accomplishment in and of itself, rather than as a space in which people live–to good, bad, or neutral effect.
Where did all these publications come from, and why can’t they be more critical of their subject? Likely, the real estate industry plays a role. As one of the few areas in the economy where profit remains to be made, the industry is exercising both a direct and indirect effect on journalism (for a fairly obvious example, see Jared Kushner’s purchase of the New York Observer in an attempt to do damage control after the arrest of his father). Media is always deeply affected by the flavor of dominant-age capitalists. In an age when railroad and oil tycoons were the philanthropists behind journalism, it was anathema to speak badly of these industries–to bite the hand that feeds. Instead, reporters celebrated the rise of these technologies for their own sake, minimizing their bad effects and building narratives about their civilizing power. In the rise of the age of real estate, with a land developer president, the same will be done for cities. They are so great! They represent the pinnacle of human achievement! Yeh, yeh yeh.
No one is arguing that city boosterism for its own sake isn’t fun, in a convoluted, speculative kind of way. Let’s debate where the sidewalks should go, all day, and for hours! Let’s yell about NIMBYs and affordable housing! Let’s run puff pieces on neighborhood character and cultural preservation, without ever examining the narrow realm by which industry professionals currently define ‘culture’ (rich white people’s stuff). Let’s post dank transit memes on the NUMTOTS page, a facebook amalgam that, I’m convinced, is equal parts city enthusiasts and people that actually want to have sex with trains. In all cases, the fetishization of the city and the objects in it–particularly the fetishization of all manner of ‘infrastructure’ which is, according to engineer-writer Henry Petroski, a relatively new, fancy and catch-all term for the mostly concrete junk that provides basic services in our urban environment –is really nothing but a formalist critique. It’s about stuff, not people. It doesn’t deal in power and ethics, but in widgets and vision boards. And it’s enjoyable, but also narcissistic, and ultimately serves no one. Because at the end of the day, we’re all dead meat.
We live in trying times. We live in a period of mass extinction, the end of good jobs, and revised thinking about the previous two decades of factory jobs (and mass industrialization) that brought us into our present day crisis. We see the lose of inter-generational wealth, a growing income gap, and the increased hoarding of resources by the most privileged (illustrated by the number of bug-out bunkers being constructed and private jet pilots being hired by the megarich). We have no access to affordable healthcare, a deteriorating education system, and a rapidly warming climate that’s playing fast and loose with our grow zones and unleashing ancient bacterial pests from the dawn of time. We are all deeply fucked. And any ongoing publication about cities that is unwilling to address this regularly and often is probably doing a disservice to the people that live in them. If it’s not helping us survive the apocalypse, it’s distraction–however momentarily pleasing.
So the next time you hear or read an impassioned speech about cities, it’s worth remembering a few things: 1. Cities are old, are historical spaces of inequality, and the debate about them is long 2. Cities are not automatically made into more desirable ethical specimens through the deployment of new technology 3. All aspiring urbanists, even the most assured, confident urbanists–from the neighborhood Jane Jacobs-inspired community advocate type to the crusty Robert Moses master-planning psychopath-type–are all going to be dead urbanists if we don’t get our act together soon.