Home Art & Culture Book Review: ‘Metropolis,’ by Ben Wilson

Book Review: ‘Metropolis,’ by Ben Wilson

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Wilson’s archetype for sociability is London in the 1700s, though its sociability was quickly eclipsed by exclusivity. Squalor is represented by Manchester, where immigrant workers from a British colony (Ireland) produced fabric with cotton grown and harvested by enslaved people in the American South. Friedrich Engels called Manchester’s poor neighborhood “Hell upon Earth.” Ideologues that came to be known as the Manchester School believed their free trade policies would lead to a world harmony that — spoiler alert! — has yet to arrive.

Wilson ends his tour in Lagos. Here is the metropolis of the future, in which cities have transformed from agoras into regions, gulping land and resources at an unfathomable rate. Inequality spreads, meanwhile, like a vast algal bloom.

“Metropolis” is a bold undertaking that makes for gripping reading, though, like most histories of cities, it puts Amerindians off to the side. Tenochtitlan, bigger than Paris in the 1500s, features mostly as a site of Spanish conquest. The racial geography at the heart of the European colonial enterprise is likewise underplayed. Crucial to Lisbon’s conquest of land and bodies were the papal bulls that granted Portugal the right to, in 1455, take slaves and then, in 1493, to “discover” land — lay claim, in other words, to territory inhabited by non-Christians. (Chief Justice John Marshall would cite this legal precedent in the 1820s and ’30s, when the United States was clearing away Native Americans, as would Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg more recently, in denying the Oneidas sovereignty over reservation land.)

Missing too from “Metropolis” is the history of 18th-century England’s financial engineering, the so-called deficit financing (pioneered by Robert Walpole, then fine-tuned by Alexander Hamilton) that is the crucial segue between British colonial conquests and U.S. empire building — though Wilson notes the ways the American war machine took domestic city planning into the nuclear age. The ranch houses promoted in postwar suburban development — “lily-white and segregated by class” — were part of a plan to spread out urban populations and thus “win” a nuclear war. Like the one-level home itself, venetian blinds, tested on blasted-out Paiute and Shoshone-Bannock land, were considered an attractive and effective defense against radiation.

Wilson’s swift prose makes its point in a chapter titled “Annihilation,” which compares Hitler’s destruction of Warsaw to the American bombing of Tokyo. In landscapes of horrific violence, the most damaged communities find creative ways to survive. It is a sad but brilliant way to underscore how much community means to our unspeakably violent species — and how traumatic actions can be countered by self-organized group responses. Tokyo experienced a kind of leaderless communal repair that brings to mind this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, in which tens of millions of people marched to highlight and heal their cities’ ripped-out connective tissue.

The future of cities as Wilson sees it is bleak: marshes filled in with money-laundering skyscrapers; robot-filled logistics centers supplying megacities with more cheaply produced goods; care workers with longer, more expensive commutes. The hope is that we start thinking of the city less as a technical invention and more in terms of that connective tissue, the intertwining of lives, experiences and bodies. We are already part of that tissue, whether we know it or not.

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