Urban Imaginaries (book review, 2008)

One of the little things that you can do to lengthen your c.v. when trying to get a tenure-track position is to write book reviews. I got several published before I left academia. My reviews were probably slightly unusual by academic journal standards, as my notion of what a review should be has been heavily influenced by George Orwell and Duncan Shepherd. This particular review, written while I was at Clarkson University in upstate New York (waaaay upstate), appeared in Contemporary Sociology 37(3):255-56.

Urban Imaginaries: Locating the Modern City. Çinar, Alev and Bender, Thomas, eds. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2007. 290pp. $25.00 paper. ISBN: 978-0816648023.

Urban sociology is a peculiar field: it is held together, on the inside, by a hierarchy of what research sites are most worth studying (like London and Chicago but not San Antonio or Dhaka) and, on the outside, by anxieties about inner cities (e.g., the job ads by departments, invariably those without an urbanist already, that naively use “urban” as a shorthand for expertise on poor minorities). Thus, an edited volume exploring what we mean by “urban” through case studies that ignore — save for Camilla Fojas’s chapter on politicized Latino films in Los Angeles and Margaret Cohen’s on the overlooked waterways of Haussman’s Paris — high-status cities in favor of the likes of Beirut and Indian steel towns is most welcome. And it delivers, though not in the ways it promises.

As an edited volume of urban sociology, its faults are predictable. Typical of the field, its discussions of research methods are so thin that readers can’t truly evaluate claims, and it would take a global-trotting war journalist to have the personal experience to judge more than a handful of the chapters. The result is that when an author, for instance, says, “While all of Amman’s inhabitants partake in the laments about the city…” it generates skepticism without providing a way of banishing it [italics added] (212).

Like in other collections, the chapters display an uneven commitment to the editors’ vision. The opening and closing chapters frame the volume as going beyond the city as a physically and culturally distinct unit (epitomized by the medieval wall). In the twentieth century, thanks to forces like globalization and sprawl, the concept of the city has grown blurry. Yet it has hardly faded. The case studies are then seen to “examine the ways in which the collective imagination [a blend of Benedict Arnold’s imagined communities and Kevin Lynch’s cognitive maps] takes place through a wide range of daily practices of urban dwellers” (xiv). This could be interpreted in two ways: as a narrow argument for which one can muster tight arguments and as an “anything goes” umbrella that would exclude little.

The more narrow approach is most evident in the run of solid case studies that make up the second half of the collection. These chapters take such a similar approach to the book’s theme that the volume could more accurately be entitled City Building as Nation Building: mostly on capital cities, the case studies show how governments have used urban development to make their nationalist visions concrete (quite literally). This allows for specific connections to be drawn between federal policies and imagined nations on one hand and the particulars of city development (down to street names) on the other. Indeed, if the nationalist chapters that form a book-within-a-book were supplemented with studies of cities like Brasilia, Washington, D.C., Canberra, and Peter the Great’s Petersburg, the resulting volume would be quite formidable. As is, anyone teaching a course in which nationalism figures prominently will find a compelling variety: city-building as promoting healing after a civil war (Beirut, by Maha Yahya), as colonialism (Jaffa-Tel Aviv, by Mark LeVine), as downplaying and co-opting rival ideologies that might compete for citizens’ hearts (Ankara, by Thomas Bender), and as economic development (Indian steel towns, by Srirupa Roy). A bittersweetness lingers in the air for all of these nationalist projects, a sense reinforced by Seteney Shami’s study of how Amman underscores the way Jordan has been buffeted by neighboring conflicts.

Anthony King’s analysis of the notion of “global” in the urban context helps make sense of the confusion in the use of the term “global city”. More often, when authors theorize, the volume loses momentum. Theory tends to take the form of conceptual tag. That is, the authors overestimate, for example, the significance of pinning the label “modern” on a city or of rejecting “urban” on another. (Although modernity can be used effectively, as when Çinar shows how it was a guiding principle in the birth of Turkish nation-state.)  Theory can lead to obscurity, a problem most evident in the under-edited piece on Douala, Cameroon, whose ambitious goal of describing life decaying under the threat of violence — a phenomenology of survival, if you will — is undercut by its writing. Ironically, though, that chapter by AbdouMaliq Simone has perhaps the most striking section in the book: the description of a one-day strike by motorbike drivers.

The tension between abstraction and vivid detail is played out in a more readable form in other chapters — more readable because the vividness wins out. This National Geographic quality, reaching a level of humaneness in Deniz Yükseker’s piece on small-time importers/exporters in Istanbul, ultimately is the theoretical contribution of this volume to urban sociology. Its response to the field’s myopic emphasis on grand metropolises calls to mind Hamlet’s admonishment of Horatio: there is more in heaven and earth than dreamt in your philosophy.