Urban Life

Metropolis Rising

Reviewed by Gary Krist

Sunday, July 24, 2005; Page BW09


A Global History

Aerial map of London, ca. 1730
Aerial map of London, ca. 1730 (From "The City")

By Joel Kotkin

Modern Library. 218 pp. $21.95


Urban Experience and the Language of the Novel

By Robert Alter

Yale Univ. 175 pp. $27.50

Sometime within the next two years, we human beings will pass a demographic milestone as significant as any in our history. By the beginning of 2007 -- at least according to the calculations of Joel Kotkin in his new book, The City -- the world's burgeoning ranks of urban dwellers will for the first time constitute a majority of the planet's human population. Thanks largely to the recent swift growth of cities in Asia, Africa and Latin America, Homo sapiens , having traveled far from our roots as rural hunter-gatherers, will become a mostly metropolitan species.

While some people might regard this development as undesirable or even unnatural (Thomas Jefferson and the Unabomber spring to mind), Kotkin, a senior fellow of the New America Foundation, argues that it is actually the culmination of a long and perfectly logical evolution. Ever since the emergence of the first proto-cities in the Middle East more than five millennia ago, human beings have been congregating in progressively larger and more complex communities to carry out their daily business. And although this increasing urban concentration has created more than its share of problems, it has also served as a crucial spur to human creativity and accomplishment. "From the earliest beginnings," Kotkin points out, cities "have been the places that generated most of mankind's art, religion, culture, commerce, and technology."

Given the sheer variety of these byproducts of citification, one would expect the urban experience itself to be just as multiform. However, as Kotkin stresses in this short but audaciously comprehensive book, it is instead the universality of city life that has been its most notable characteristic through history. Whether the city under consideration is ancient Ur, medieval Constantinople or modern Singapore, Kotkin finds the essential patterns of urban existence remarkably consistent. Only when cities fail to support these common patterns -- specifically, by failing to provide the physical security, commercial opportunity and sense of sacred place and purpose that are the sine qua non of urban success -- do they begin to lose viability. "Where these factors are present," Kotkin writes, "urban culture flourishes. When these elements weaken, cities dissipate and eventually recede out of history."

Obviously, this is a rather sweeping argument, and in a 160-page book (excluding notes) it can be only so persuasive. But over the course of this breakneck survey of 5,000 years of urban history, Kotkin makes a credible case for his ideas. Key to his analysis are several thumbnail accounts of cities that, because they lost or never offered one of his three critical elements, proved unfit for long-term ascendancy. According to Kotkin, for instance, a metropolis like Carthage, despite being a commercial powerhouse, ultimately proved ephemeral because it lacked a coherent sense of higher purpose that would unify its population and so ensure its longevity. And why did no major cities arise in Europe during the Middle Ages? Because the prevailing authority at the time -- the Catholic Church -- could furnish a strong context for the sacred but had no real provision for the safety and commercial vigor of a large urban population.

With the emergence of the modern city after the Industrial Revolution, maintaining this delicate urban balance has only become more complicated. As cities have grown in size and complexity, new challenges have arisen, most notably those posed by environmental decay, technology-driven decentralization and, as recent events in London sadly confirm, the spread of worldwide terrorism. But while these forces do much to undermine the health of contemporary urban areas, the biggest threat of all may be something far less tangible -- what Kotkin regards as a kind of creeping anomie among urbanites in the developed world, evident in their devotion to "faddishness, stylistic issues, and the celebration of the individual over the family or stable community." As middle-class families retreat from the urban scene, a vital spirit of community mission is being lost in many places. And the result, as Kotkin sees it, is likely to be unpleasant. Without a shared civic identity, some of today's great cities may soon follow Carthage onto the dusty backlot of world history.

This fragmented, purposeless and often solipsistic turn in modern urban consciousness is the subject of Robert Alter's Imagined Cities . Like Kotkin, Alter is attuned to the disintegrative forces unleashed by the explosive growth of cities in the 19th and 20th centuries, and he attempts to register the resulting changes as they were perceived by a half-dozen seminal authors. Focusing on the language used by each writer to portray the new urban milieu, Alter, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at Berkeley, aims to adduce not the journalistically objective realities of the latter-day city but "the shifting pulse of experience felt by the individual, how the mind and the senses take in the world, construct it, or on occasion are confounded by it."

Writing with a precision that belies the stereotype of tumid academic prose, Alter plots the trajectory of what he calls "experiential realism" through six different authors writing about six different cities. Beginning with Flaubert, whose Paris is a chaotic whirl that can be perceived "only through the distorting medium of . . . private preoccupations," Alter documents the increasingly disjointed and subjective quality of the urban experience as depicted in Dickens, Kafka and the Russian author Andrei Bely. Granted, he does find a more sanguine view in the work of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, who depict urban fecundity as a source of exultation rather than disorientation. But for most of these writers, the modern metropolis is a disturbing, unmanageable place -- a clamorous human machine that breeds confusion, alienation and (especially for Kafka) malevolent personal nightmare.

In neither of these two very different books is the outlook for the city altogether bright. For Alter as for Kotkin, the loss of a strong communal ethic among urbanites seems to be a particularly worrisome sign for the future. But as each would be quick to confirm, there is no going back to a pre-urban or even a less urban model of existence. For better or worse, ours is now a world made of and by great cities, and it is their success or failure that will ultimately determine our own.

Gary Krist is the author of five books, including the urban novels "Extravagance" and "Chaos Theory."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company