The Best & Worst Writing About Cities in 2010
Presenting The Best & Worst Writing About Cities in 2010, unfortunately not as a list or slideshow. Also without corporate sponsorship from the likes of IBM, BMW or Audi.
It would be hard to name a particular piece as the worst of urbanist writing given that for this category I’m more thinking about a certain type of piece: the list. You’ve come across it a million times, no doubt, and they all look the same: a general schema like “Top 10 Most Liveable Cities,” “30 Worst Cities to Raise Children.” Each entry on these lists usually warrants single line or two detailing a stereotype, vaguely contextualized statistic, or flimsy justification for the city’s inclusion. Here’s an example from a recent Forbes.com list “America’s 25 Best-Performing Cities,” which names El Paso, TX number two: “The single biggest beneficiary of the BRAC process also benefits from U.S.-Mexico trade. Many workers who make their living in Juarez, Mexico spend their paychecks in El Paso.”
I cite this particular entry because my favorite piece of journalism about cities from last year happened to be about El Paso, and was written in response to this kind of journalist hodgepde. Writing in Domus about the specific phenomena of El Paso boosterism Javier Arbona sifts through the ideologies of the mythologies of “the Texas Miracle” and strings together the under-reported underbelly of the story. In the process he points out that a huge portion of El Paso’s glorified economy is most likely illegal. For example, he cities investigations that have uncovered that rather than curtailing the rampant drug economy that funnels through the border, the Feds have actually in some cases fueled it, by trading weapons for information from cartels about other cartels (some of these weapons ended up killing members of border patrol (LINK). Aside from drugs and smuggling, the Texas resurgence has been fueled by the opening of massive military bases and one of the country’s largest privately-run incarceration facilities. In contrast to the beacon of free-marketism that conservatives hail El Paso as, Arbona finds what he calls a “transnational, narcopolitical” abstraction.
Arbona wonders where visiting public officials might be taken to witness this miraculous, but awkwardly illegal, economic machine at work. He helpfully proposes an itinerary worth quoting here at length:
I’d then continue with visits to pawn shops, which seem to be connected to a furtive network in the processing and distribution of weapons caches. From there, I would not want to miss the El Paso Intelligence Center, or EPIC. Yes, EPIC. This one-stop shop for federal agencies involved in drug and border “enforcement” was already identified as a bust in an internal audit even before the chaotic mission running guns across the border. While on this journey, there is also a Border Patrol museum to stop at, although it does not seem to lead tours to the unsanctioned border tunnels, which I’d be up for touring as well.
But if I were lucky, I might catch a glimpse of the one Predator unmanned aerial vehicle, that lonely drone operated by the Department of Homeland Security, assigned to patrol the border over the El Paso region. It’s one of three UAVs flying reconnaissance missions from San Diego to Corpus Christi. Governor Perry has suggested letting Air Force drone pilots practice over the border, not saying if he meant flying unarmed.
In concluding Arbona wonders aloud if “anyone understands the city better than the drone does?” We can here suggest that the drone is the only observer of El Paso who surveys without total bias, without the intent to create a utilizable narrative of the city for its own ends.
At the beginning of this post I offhandedly mentioned IBM, and their interest in sponsoring journalism about cities. As their “Smarter Cities” website reads, this interest stems from how IBM has a bunch of software that will enable your city too to be transformed from something dumb to something smart: ”With insight from more 2,000 smarter cities projects, IBM has developed the expertise and capabilities to help cities of all sizes become smarter.” Mika Savela had an excellent post that stepped back to question what it is we’re talking about when we invoke the phrase “smart city”:
One of the reasons I find it so hard to see cities as anything smart, is that I don’t see them having just some qualities. They have all of them. Actually, they are always more silly than they are smart. We also know that throughout urban history there have been efforts in restricting cities into simplified systems, which yet again in the grand scheme of things, have not changed things necessarily for the better, or made them simpler. Though, as for any policy-making or governing cities, there are of course ways of making things better by doing them in more advanced or simpler ways. These ways are advocated, lobbied and some of them are put to use. The real questions are: what is needed to enable and sustain the smart and how smart that really is?
Montrose Morris, continually writes excellent archiectural histories of buildings all over Brooklyn for the blog Brownstoner. These are great on their own, but are usurped in greatness by his excellent series such as the one about the borough’s great “Milk Wars” in the first half of the 20th century.
I want to compare Richard Holmes’s (one half of the blog mammoth) series about the Mississippi River to Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto,” despite that the former is about hydrology and landscape architecture and the later about technofuturism and historical constructions of gender. Like Haraway is for the human body, Holmes is interested in uncovering how the Mississippi River has been reconstructed in such as a way that it totally defies our traditional notions of “natural” and “unnatural” and is something altogether unique and unprecedented. His musing on the implications of this as well as minute and beautiful illustrating vis-a-vis satellite images makes this so compelling, as well as the novelty of such declarations as “I think the Army Corps [of Engineers] is […] probably the country’s most radically avant-garde landscape [architecture] practice.”
Unsuprisingly, a commonality between some of my favorite urbanism pieces from the last year is an interest in specificity, in look at one place or issue from a multitude of different angles. This is the kind of piece that focuses on a specific space or issue the the end of the piece has opened it up to something bigger than it was before (this seems to describe all kinds of good nonfiction writing). As I wrote in the beginning of the year, in response to a really sloppy NYT piece, cities are too complex and interesting things for us to have to stoop to making generalizations and writing dumb shit.