Metropolis Now!: Urban Cultures in Global Cities
edited by Ramesh Kumar Biswas
published by SpringerWienNewYork
240 pages, 2001
Buy it online
Reviewed by Claude Lalumière
The metropolis, more than any other human artifact, encapsulates the Utopian promises of modernity: salvation and equality through science and progress; the victory of culture over nature; the shattering of premodern icons and hatreds and the establishment of a cosmopolitan melting pot of tolerant multiculturalism; consumerism as the path to the good life. In these days of global corporate hegemony and nihilistic postmodernism, those modern dreams seem hollow: deceitful or, at best, misguided. Despite (and because of) a relentless push for development at any cost, cities are in crisis: uncontrolled sprawl is endangering life-support systems; the chasm between rich and poor is growing ever wider; increasing municipal taxes (levied on the poor who stay inside city limits and not on the wealthy who escape to the suburbs while still exploiting and enjoying urban resources) can't keep up with infrastructure costs. And yet Ramesh Kumar Biswas is absolutely right when, in his introduction to Metropolis Now!, he writes: "For all its false promises, the metropolis is as seductive as ever."
Metropolis Now! is handsome and intelligent, as seductive as its subject. Ten scholarly writers present 15 of the world's most fascinating and vibrant metropolises: Shanghai, Tokyo, Bombay, London, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, Marseille, Kuala Lumpur, Istanbul, Soweto, Berlin, São Paulo, Moscow, Singapore and Vienna. If many of the usual suspects are missing (Paris, New York...), that is intentional: some absentees will appear in a subsequent volume. Biswas explains his selection: "The choice is, to a degree, personal. I am impressed by cities with enormous problems which, like Baron Munchhausen, grab their own pigtails and attempt to pull themselves out of the mire. I am fascinated by centres of conflict between times, cultures, generations, classes, minorities and systems; by laboratories for living in the future." Certainly, as pointedly outlined in this book, Las Vegas and Soweto are archetypal examples, respectively, of endemic environmental problems with urban development and the societal dynamics that perpetuate class inequities in urban settings.
Despite the scholarly backgrounds of its contributors, the chapters here are written in a looser, warmer, more journalistic style than the standard academic text. The result is an engaging blend of passion and knowledge. Each city is vividly brought to life in these prose portraits that combine firsthand experience, history, urbanism, politics and cultural theory. As suggested by the title, the book deals principally with these cities as they are now, but informed by the writers' extensive knowledge of local and global history. The book's style is unabashedly digressive, and that's ideal. A metropolis cannot be reduced to linear narratives.
These writers manifest the greatest kind of love for these cities. They are mercilessly critical, as only those who care profoundly can be. Their love does not leave them blind to the difficulties afflicting these global metropolises. Similarly, they look beyond these problems to experience and relate the beauty and wonder of urban life and culture. Each essay is bookended by black-and-white photos that evocatively hint at the complex charms of these 15 cities.
Metropolis Now! leaves readers wanting more: more photos, more text, more insights, more anecdotes, more cities. That's all right, though. The back of the book offers references for each city, for those who want to dig deeper. And there's a sequel in the works. But beyond all that, Metropolis Now! mimics the breathless pace of urban life, offering quick but dense glimpses into global urban cultures. It's a collection of love letters to 15 cosmopolitan cities, enjoining the objects of the authors' affections to shape up: to find a way to change their environmentally and socially unsustainable ways while, perhaps impossibly, not losing their seductive pull. | May 2001
Claude Lalumière is a January Magazine contributing editor and the comics columnist for Black Gate. He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.