It took far too long, but I finally got around to reading Stephen Graham's Cities Under Siege. In the end, I'm not entirely sure it was worth it.
Grah...moreIt took far too long, but I finally got around to reading Stephen Graham's Cities Under Siege. In the end, I'm not entirely sure it was worth it.
Graham's book is sweeping in its generalizations, its implications, and its conclusions. It broadly traces the rise of the city in military and popular conception as a hotbed of vice and perversion, as a target for military operations, and as an increasingly oppressed environment for its citizens. Cities Under Siege is split into sections covering such phenomenon of urban militarization as the rise of the SUV ("Car Wars"), autonomous drones and robot warfare ("Robowar Dreams"), the destruction and replanning of cities ("Lessons in Urbicide"), recreated urban training centers ("Theme Park Archipelago") and the nexus of the "military-industrial-media-entertainment network." It's a mouthful, as is much of this book.
Cities Under Siege is extensively footnoted - one might say too extensively, as Graham's own thoughts and writings tend to disappear into the morass of impenetrable academic and philosophical gobbledy-gook. The entire book averages almost four footnotes a page (1,386 footnotes in 385 pages), but few are explanatory, and few back up original thought. Instead, he seems to need these references to provide him with the very phrasing of the book - and most of them don't deserve any reproduction. Why is this Chris Hedges sentence worth reprinting?
[The new wars] take the form of mediatized mechanisms and are ordered as massive intrusions into visual culture, which are conflated with, and substitute for, the actual materiality and practices of the public sphere.
Graham has a puzzling attachments to all the nonsense phrases that warn of an Orwellian future ahead - but one wonders if any of his sources have read "Politics and the English Language." Far more than is necessary, Graham draws on Foucault and the 'Manichaean Worlds' of American military thought to produce such tongue-twisting sentences as:
We must see to it that socialized infrastructure, housing, and urbanism once again become axiomatic within a resurgent conception of Keynesian state politics, organized through multiple scales of intervention to match the contexts of accelerating globalization.
And yet his next proscription is simply stated: "neoliberal economics must go - in toto" [emphasis his]. He can be concise and to the point when he wants, but unfortunately those moments are far and few between.
Obviously, the book has a political bent, and usually I don't mind these kinds of things. I agree with much of what he's saying even if I might disagree with some of the particulars on Israel-Palestine or stateside urban training centers. But when Graham's agenda starts to degrade his language to a point beyond all comprehension, clearly something has gone awry.
The other major objection I have is to the overwhelming focus on New York and London as representative of all cities. Virtually none of the other major cities are acknowledged - Paris, Moscow, and Tokyo get a handful of mentions, there are offhand references to the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, Madrid train bombings and the Olympic Games in Beijing, and Boston, Chicago, Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Seoul, and Toronto are all entirely and conspicuously absent from the index. New York and London are crucial, important, Alpha++ level world cities - but there are so many others important in their own rights and with developments of their own worth exploring in more depth. For countries as small as they are, the few cities in Israel-Palestine are paid huge amounts of attention, to the detriment of all others across the world.
These shortcomings (which are in reality quite superficial) are all the more problematic because Graham really drawing some fascinating conclusions. The securitization of the city, the surveillance infrastructure created for and left by major world events (Olympics, G20 and WTO meetings, etc.), the convergence of law enforcement and paramilitarization - these are all important, subtle, and hugely consequential developments in cities around the world. They're even more troubling when perpetrated against the citizenry that elected a ruling body, but sadly it is left to others like Geoff Manaugh to really unpack these concepts fully.
The sheer scale and number of urban training centers both in the United States and around the world came as a shock to me. But like many of the issues Graham raises, I don't necessarily find their existence cause for alarm. As Richard Norton says, cities will be the battlefields of the future - wouldn't it make sense to prepare for that? If anything, recent adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan - particularly Afghanistan - are a break from what would be considered a normal battlespace elsewhere in the world.
I was less concerned with what Graham considers the latent indoctrination of youths into a militaristic culture through video games and other media violence. It's a claim that's been tossed around for quite some time, but I still just don't buy it. The actual convergence of Playstation controllers and military hardware is more interesting to me; unlike Graham I'm not terrified by it (wary, perhaps). Then again, I like playing video games and watching violent television, so I'm coming to that issue with a bias. The nexus of news manufacturing, 'shady' agendas, corporate interests, and privatized military operations is nothing new, but Graham does trace their contours well, even if reading "military-industrial-media-entertainment network" gets tiresome very quickly.
That, I suppose, is really the takeaway from Cities Under Siege. If you can stomach and muddle through the language, quote after quote, and at times sheer pompousness, you'll be able to glean some fascinating new insight into cultural attitudes towards the city. But I fear that for many, the book will prove too pretentious to finish. If you have a month to spare, dive right in.(less)
Joe Flood is perhaps the best possible name for the author of a book called The Fires. Or, more completely, The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ide...moreJoe Flood is perhaps the best possible name for the author of a book called The Fires. Or, more completely, The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of Cities. That title is a mouthful, but accurately reflects the amazing and diverse subtopics that Flood effortlessly moves back and forth across in explaining the rash of fires in 1970s New York and the decline of the Bronx.
Starting with the machine politics of Tammany Hall and the various city departments’ resistance to reform, Flood traces the ascent of Fire Chief John O’Hagan, a unbelievably intelligent, young reformer in the FDNY with ideas of quantitative analysis in his head. Flood explores the origins of systems analysis and operations research in World War II, and then follows the rise of the RAND Corporation through the early days of the Cold War, and the inexorable meetings between RAND, O’Hagan, and Mayor John Lindsay that led to a radical new firefighting regime citywide.
Sophisticated computer modeling directed the closure of many fire stations throughout the South Bronx, which (unbeknown to me) had been an upscale, classy developed area mostly inhabited by Italians and Jews escaping the slums and tenements of the Lower East Side. As fire after fire engulfed the Bronx, and the fire department proved woefully inadequate at fighting them, a massive phase of white flight began to accelerate. Coupled with Robert Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway and Lindsay’s repeal of a city law requiring municipal employees to reside within city limits, the number of whites in the outer boroughs dropped dramatically as they fled to suburban Westchester County and across the river to New Jersey.
Of course, there’s far more than even that to the story. Flood does an absolutely masterful job of weaving together all these disparate threads into a cohesive narrative. There’s Moses and his misguided plan for the Lower Manhattan Expressway (LoMEX), an eight-lane behemoth of an elevated highway that would have utterly destroyed Greenwich Village and much of the surrounding area. The Ford Motor Company and Robert McNamara make an appearance as early benefactors of RAND’s pioneering quantitative research. Flood also gives the rezoning of Manhattan that banished most industry and manufacturing a brief, if absolutely intriguing treatment. He excoriates the weak building codes that existed for much of the twentieth century, and the loophole of the World Trade Center’s construction by the Port Authority that allowed it to skirt New York City building codes.
It’s hard to do The Fires justice. It is so far-reaching – but never over-reaching – that to describe all the different components of its narrative would be impossible without actually writing the book again. But in that sense, hopefully this represents a new trend in historical writing, a truly interdisciplinary effort that never seems to bog down. From sociology to politics to urban planning to history to engineering, Joe Flood just bounces around without getting distracted, but while conveying the sheer complexity of a series of events like this. There’s no single explanation; there are six or seven. It’s an impressive feat.
While this book certainly is a “commercial” history (i.e. no footnotes), it has a wealth of information in the back anyways, using the page-number/quote-fragment system (on another note, does anyone know the actual term for this citation method). Much of Flood’s sourcing consists of personal interviews, giving him a truly first-hand perspective of the events he’s covering. The obscure documents he unearths in some instances also speak to his devotion to the subject. And I know that some of the random tangents he meanders down have given me ideas for a book of my own.
If it’s any kind of testament to the quality of The Fires, not only did I buy it for myself, but I got my father a copy for Christmas. I would buy pretty much everyone a copy of this if they don’t already have it. The Fires is unequivocally recommended by me to anybody who can read.(less)
Foundational. Phenomenal. This should be the bible of thinking about transit. Walker builds his definitions from the ground up, gradually layering in...moreFoundational. Phenomenal. This should be the bible of thinking about transit. Walker builds his definitions from the ground up, gradually layering in complexity until even the layman can grasp why his local transit is the way it is, and how it can best be improved.
For me, chapter 7 was the encapsulation of what I've long noticed to be the case: "frequency is freedom." No other service quality has the same liberating ability. To be on your way when you want and to be assured of boarding a vehicle in short order is what all transit should be, and is woefully underrecognized by transit agencies across the country.
A neat, lovely little story, but seemingly missing quite a bit. The bones are there, and the art is beautiful, but it felt as if half of the middle an...moreA neat, lovely little story, but seemingly missing quite a bit. The bones are there, and the art is beautiful, but it felt as if half of the middle and denouement had been extracted. It took me approximately 90 minutes to read cover to cover.
But, you know, fans of cities and New York especially will find this a nice diversion for a little while. And I hope to read more Soule on cities.(less)