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I’ve been reading a lot about cities lately: Carlo Rotella’s excellent book The World Is Always Coming to an End: Pulling Together and Pulling Apart in a Chicago Neighborhood, for instance, but also a number of others that are variously maddening. Imagine writing an entire book about “How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City” (the 400 pages of Barrio America, from which I learned a lot) and hardly mentioning Christianity. (But a large image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is featured on the cover!)

This has set me to thinking about city writing more generally, and the way in which some of the vexations of the genre present certain recurring temptations that many writers have failed to resist. 

Here follow, for starters, some gems from Classic Essays on the Culture of Cities, edited by Richard Sennett (Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1969; Sennett was only in his mid-twenties when the book appeared). Max Weber (“The Nature of the City”): “Neither the ‘city,’ in the economic sense, nor the garrison, the inhabitants of which are accoutred with special political-administrative structures, necessarily constitute a ‘community.’ An urban ‘community,’ in the full meaning of the word, appears as a general phenomenon only in the Occident.” Oh, dear. Robert Park (“The City: Suggestions for the Investigation of Human Behavior in the Urban Environment”; savor that subtitle for a moment): “The old adage which describes the city as the natural environment of the free man still holds so far as the individual man finds in the chances, the diversity of interests and tasks, and in the vast un-conscious cooperation of city life the opportunity to choose his own vocation and develop his peculiar individual talents.” Louis Wirth (“Human Ecology”): “The studies showing significant differences in such phenomena as delinquency and mental disorders between different areas of the city are of the utmost importance for the advance of scientific knowledge.” But of course!

Cities invite hubris—not only outsized political ambitions (a là Boss Daley) but also intellectual ambitions. A big city is large enough and sufficiently complex to serve as a comprehensible surrogate for the whole world, a sort of laboratory of the human. And the overweening rhetoric of the generic “City” attaches itself even to projects that claim a mystique for particular cities. I have on my Kindle an e-galley that will be published by Viking this summer: Peter Lunenfeld’s City at the Edge of Forever: Los Angeles Reimagined. My nomination for The Worst Book of the Year in 2004 was Alex Kotlowitz’s Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago. (That title! Lead me to the vomitorium.)

In August 2001, I wrote a couple of pieces marking the fortieth anniversary of Jean Gottmann’s book Megalopolis: The Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States. Gottmann was a French geographer who lived in the U.S. for some years, and his book generated a great deal of attention; its title was, for a while, a concept to conjure with. Nowadays, as I wrote in 2001, 

the word is not forgotten, but it has long since lost its buzz. In common usage a megalopolis is often simply a very large city: London or Tokyo or Sao Paulo. But that is not what Gottmann meant. His book focused on the dense urban network stretching from Boston to Washington, D.C., with New York in the center: an axis along which 20 percent of the total American population, c. 1960, was concentrated. For Gottmann, a megalopolis was not merely a “mononuclear metropolitan agglomeration” but rather a vast “polynuclear urbanized system,” of which there were only six or seven examples to be found worldwide.
Ah, system. That was a notion to conjure with in the years of the postwar boom, which saw the rise of “systems thinking” in many fields. A city, no matter how large, is something on the age-old human scale. An “urbanized system” can't be visualized and held in the mind’s eye as New York or Chicago can. “The important thing to keep in mind,” Gottmann wrote in a 1976 essay, “is that megalopolis is not simply an overgrown metropolitan area. It is not only another step on the quantitative scale. It is a phenomenon of specific qualities of a different nature.”
What exactly would be offered by those “specific qualities” remained rather vague and unspecific, or else deadly bland (“the volume of transactions,” say), but it’s clear that Gottmann regarded the advent of the megalopolis as an evolutionary leap—not without difficulties, but ultimately leading to “a new and better world.” Perhaps that is why, for a while, the very notion of the megalopolis was in vogue.

I would love it if my friend Noah Toly and an interesting range of fellow urbanologists would convene to talk about the way “we” talk and think about cities and “the City” now. A conversation with Gottmann, so to speak, that might avoid the hubris that seems to attend so much thinking and writing about the city.

John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.

More on: Books, Cities, Public Life

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