Skip to content

Books on Cities: Joel Garreau, Edge City

The past decade has seen considerable growth in — and, subsequently, an almost-as-considerable contraction of — what I think of as the online “city media.” Compelled to keep the content mill turning in lean times as well as fat, most of these sites have resorted to the reliable form of the recommended-reading list. Certain titles tend to appear over and over again in these roundups of the ten, twenty, 50, 100 “best city books”: The Death and Life of Great American Cities, The City in History, Learning from Las Vegas, The Power Broker, City of Quartz. But one book strikes me as conspicuous by its absence: Joel Garreau’s Edge City, which I don’t think I’ve seen named even once. Yet when it was published just over thirty years ago, it seems to have made a considerable impact on the city-related discourse of the day. Why the apparent passage into irrelevance?

One potential explanation lies in the sheer unfashionableness of the places the book examines. Irvine, California; Tysons Corner, Virginia; King of Prussia, Pennsylvania: these are just a few of the eponymous “Edge Cities,” all consisting of relatively high concentrations of office and retail (and to a lesser extent, residential) space thrown up in America since the Second World War on formerly exurban or rural land. This isn’t to say that they were fashionable in the late nineteen-eighties, when Garreau was researching them, but they were as least newer than they are today. They were also, as Malcolm Gladwell might put it, “under-theorized,” which in combination with their novelty — not to mention their booming growth — would have made them an irresistible subject for a journalist of the right cast of mind. Garreau, a reporter and editor at the Washington Post with an interest in American demographics, was that journalist.

Read the whole thing at Substack.

New Yorker: J. M. Coetzee’s War Against Global English

It may come as a surprise to most of J. M. Coetzee’s readers that he published a new novel in August. “El Polaco,” which is set in Barcelona, is about a romantic entanglement between Witold, a concert pianist of about seventy known for his controversial interpretations of Chopin, and Beatriz, a music-loving Catalan woman in her forties who assists him during his stay in the city. Fired more by mind than body, the two attempt to conduct their affair using the kind of stilted, colorless “global English” to which international communication so often defaults. Apart from an initial carnal encounter, their romance takes place in large part by correspondence: Witold writes Beatriz poems, but, with English verse lying beyond his grasp, he does so in his native Polish. Beatriz engages a translator in order not just to understand but evaluate Witold’s poems, which she gives modest marks.

A short novel, restrained even by Coetzee’s standards, “El Polaco” is made up entirely of numbered paragraphs, some of which consist of a single sentence. The first: “La mujer es la primera en causarle problemas, seguida pronto por el hombre.” Witold is el hombre; Beatriz is la mujer. But occasional slips in the dissimulating, pseudo-objective voice of the text suggest that she’s also the narrator. Another sign of her role is the book’s language: though first written in English, “El Polaco” has so far only been published in a Spanish translation. The translator, Mariana Dimópulos, played an unusually active role in the novel’s creation: Coetzee has spoken of incorporating her suggestions about how a woman like Beatriz would think, speak, and act back into the original manuscript.

Read the whole thing at the New Yorker.

New Yorker: The case for listening to complete discographies

Earlier this year, the critic and historian Ted Gioia published an essay called “Is Old Music Killing New Music?” At first, this looks like a textbook case of Betteridge’s law, which states that “any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘no.’ ” Nevertheless, old music’s encroachment on the cultural space once occupied by new music has become difficult to ignore. Gioia marshals compelling evidence: from a music-industry analytics firm that found that old songs represented seventy per cent of the U.S. music market in 2021 to recent bidding wars over song catalogues by artists who are now septuagenarians, octogenarians, or dead.

Some of us will hear this trend reflected in our listening habits. My own musical life in this decade offers an extreme example, dominated by the likes of the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. This resoundingly un-idiosyncratic list is the result not of an ossified musical incuriosity but of a deliberately undertaken project: whereas Gioia listens to two or three hours of new music every day, I’ve made a daily habit of listening to “old” music—music by artists who began their careers in the nineteen-sixties and have made the largest, most obvious marks on popular culture. Working my way through their entire studio discographies, I take one album per week and play it once every day, straight through. This method (which I used most recently to navigate the nearly half-century-long catalogue of David Bowie) requires both an obsessive streak and a certain degree of patience: the studio albums of Dylan alone, which number thirty-nine as of this writing, took up most of a year.

Just by chance, Dylan’s “Christmas in the Heart” happened to fall in mid-December, which enriched the experience of that spirited if bewildering holiday album. (For me, it will never again feel like Christmas without hearing Dylan croak “Adeste Fideles” in his surreal Latin.) Every discography adds another chronological-cultural layer atop the ordinary passage of time: the year 2020 yielded nobody’s idea of an ideal summer, but for me it was at least enlivened by earlier Beach Boys releases, from the 1964 hit “All Summer Long” and the 1966 critical-consensus masterpiece “Pet Sounds” to the 1973 ambitious conclusion to the band’s long heyday, “Holland.”

Read the whole thing at the New Yorker.

UnHerd: the internationalization of Korean pop culture

Lee Jung-jae is in many ways the epitome of South Korean soft power. He has won international fame — and an Emmy this week — with his starring role in the hit Netflix series Squid Game, the dystopian South Korean thriller binge-watched around the world last autumn. He’ll soon take that fame to new heights as a leading man in The Acolyte, the forthcoming Star Wars series from Disney+.

It’s no coincidence that Star Wars’ first prominent east Asian performer is Korean. Americans in particular have by now come to regard South Koreans as what I call “the Westerners of Easterners”, a people more culturally relatable than the Japanese and less geopolitically threatening than the Chinese. This distinction results in large part from the West’s years of exposure to Korean popular culture, thanks to the likes of the Billboard-chart dominating BTS, Bong Joon-ho’s Best Picture-winning Parasite, and of course Squid Game.

This pop-cultural “Korean wave” — or hallyu — began sweeping Asia around the turn of the millennium and reached Western shores in earnest a decade ago, with the surprise global phenomenon that was Psy’s Gangnam Style. A satire of the garish lifestyles led by Seoul’s nouveau riche, that song — and even more so its strenuously absurd music video — showed the Korean entertainment industry that, one way or the other, the West could be won over. Ten years on, it has nearly 4.5 billion views on YouTube and features in the Victoria and Albert museum’s “Hallyu! The Korean Wave” exhibition, which opens next week.

Read the whole thing at UnHerd.

Books on Cities: M. Nolan Gray, Arbitrary Lines

We all assume that zoning is good, but it’s actually bad. Before I go any further, perhaps that we needs clarification. It certainly doesn’t include me, nor does it include most of the urbanists now out there writing about cities in books, in publications, and on social media. In that particular sphere, we know full well that zoning is bad, and at all times stand ready to declare as much with the zeal of the recent convert. For, in more than a few cases, we really are recent converts, having only turned anti-zoning after approaching the technical aspects of cities through some more immediately interesting topic like architecture, infrastructure, or transit. For many in my own generation, raised in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, our fascination with cities and our misconceptions about zoning were instilled by the same experience: that of “a little game called SimCity.”

So writes M. Nolan Gray, opening the first chapter of Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It. “Throughout the game, zoning is the essential power in the player’s arsenal, granting them the ability to plop residential subdivisions here or industrial parks there, all while keeping incompatible uses separate,” he explains. “Pursuant to a grand, long-term vision, they can coordinate density to reflect the available infrastructure, keeping the city running like a well-oiled machine.” As I recall (at least from my edition of the game, 1993’s SimCity 2000), you have to designate separate residential, commercial, and industrial zones before you can do anything else. (At least if you didn’t follow my strategy of first using the terrain editor to raise a giant water-covered mountain to cover with hydroelectric power plants later.)

This aspect of SimCity‘s design perpetuated a conception of zoning as fundamental to city-building, but it also reflected beliefs widely held for decades. Despite the increasing complexity and obscurity of its mechanics, zoning as a concept has been strangely well-known to the past few generations of the general American public, if not especially well understood by them. “My sense is that most people think that zoning and city planning are synonymous,” Gray writes. “Among the more informed lot, there might even be some vague sense that zoning is a catchall for how cities regulate land.” Imagining a city without zoning, their minds conjure terrible visions of chaotic Mad Max wastelands where leather-clad marauders do battle for gasoline amid industrial slagheaps — or, more often, of city dumps at the edges of backyards and rendering plants grinding noisomely away next to nursery schools.

Read the whole thing at Substack.

Books on Cities: Mike Davis, City of Quartz

Over the years, I’ve occasionally referred to Mike Davis’ City of Quartz as a paranoid classic of Los Angeles nonfiction. Editors usually cut out the word “paranoid,” and I never fight it when they do. But to my mind that descriptor does no serious injustice to the work, which in any case remains acknowledged as the closest-to-definitive single book yet written about Los Angeles. It’s held that spot if not since it came out in 1990, then at least since the city’s riots of thirty years ago. Davis acknowledges this in the preface to the 2006 edition: “The fate of City of Quartz was largely determined by events that followed its publication: the explosive notoriety of L.A.-based gangster rap, the Rodney King atrocity, and, finally, the apocalyptic uprising that followed the acquittal of his assailants.”

Davis’ use of the word “uprising” is characteristic. In the main text, he also applies it at least once to the August 1965 outbreak of violence and destruction — framed in retrospect as a preview of the larger conflagration to come 27 years later — that he more often calls the “Watts Rebellion.” On my latest reading of City of Quartz, this brought to mind the most memorable of several tours I took of Watts Towers, by far the neighborhood’s best-known landmark, while living in Los Angeles myself. A baseball-capped middle-aged attendee stammered his way into a question, working the words “Watts Uprising” into nearly every clause. Our guide, a native of Watts with childhood memories of reading Spider-Man comics amid the then-unfenced Towers, cut him off: “Hold on. I was there. That was a riot.”

I’d be lying if I said City of Quartz couldn’t use a few similarly peremptory interjections from that tour guide at Watts Towers. Yet Davis is also a straight talker, in his way, despite the book’s the preponderance of cumbersome political language seemingly picked up from the New Left Review. He called that publication (which he edited for a time) “an early influence on my writing” in an interview last month with the Los Angeles Times, “and in some ways a bad one.” This reflection is part of a squaring-up with mortality: he describes himself as in “the terminal stage of metastatic esophageal cancer,” a disease for which he recently chose to stop receiving treatment. That announcement has surely motivated more than a few students of Los Angeles to revisit Davis’ best-known book while he’s with us.

Read the whole thing at Substack.

New Yorker: the door opened by “Gangnam Style”

The capital of South Korea makes a good first impression, not least with its infrastructure. This May, Seoul’s ever-expanding subway system opened another addition, an extension of the Shinbundang Line that connects four existing stations. The northernmost, Sinsa, lies in an area popularly associated with South Korea’s world-renowned cosmetic-surgery industry. (In search of coffee there one morning, I passed up the three or four closest cafés, intimidated by their location inside the clinics themselves.) The southernmost, Gangnam, needs no introduction. On one platform wall, a large and somewhat amateurish mural pays homage to the pop star Park Jae-sang, better known as Psy, whose viral hit “Gangnam Style” introduced the eponymous section of Seoul to the world ten years ago.

Psy was not an obvious pop-cultural ambassador. At the time of the release of “Gangnam Style,” he was a thirty-four-year-old Berklee College of Music dropout unknown outside Korea and censured more than once in Korea for both his musical content and personal conduct. The singer-rapper-jokester seemed to exist in a reality apart from K-pop, with its impeccably turned-out young performers, organized into boy bands and girl groups precision-engineered for international appeal. Yet it was he—not 2NE1, not SHINee, not Wonder Girls, not Big Bang—who finally cracked the West. (The global phenomenon that is BTS wouldn’t officially début until the following year.) Even more surprisingly, Psy did it with what amounted to a Korean inside joke: his big hit lampoons the garish and culturally incongruous pretensions of Seoul’s nouveau riche, a class in evidence nowhere more so than Gangnam.

Psy once likened Gangnam to “the Beverly Hills of Korea,” which conveys the area’s associations with wealth and fame but downplays its size. In the most literal sense, Gangnam constitutes half of Seoul: the word means “south of the river”—that is, the Han River that runs through the city in the manner of the Seine or the Thames. Below the Han is a ward of the city, called Gangnam, which is nearly three times the size of Beverly Hills. Korean television dramas make near-perpetual use of its high-society signifiers: skyscrapers, luxury boutiques, night clubs, streets full of imported cars. But, as recently as the early nineteen-seventies, the place was nothing but farmland. Gangnam’s urbanization rushed down lines laid out by South Korea’s military government in the late nineteen-sixties, a process that enriched the owners of the former agricultural expanse. “Gangnam Style” shows a keen awareness of the chonsereoum (a rustic dowdiness, literally “village likeness”) beneath the quasi-cosmopolitan flash.

Read the whole thing at the New Yorker.

Books on Cities: Juan Villoro, Horizontal Vertigo

It doesn’t hurt to keep in mind a list of the cities to which you could relocate should everything fall apart where you are. That list need not be expansive: mine has only two columns, the Asia one headed by Osaka and the America one by Mexico City. (It has no Europe column as yet, but I’m told I’d like Milan.) That I live in Korea makes Japan the geographically convenient choice. But I’m also an American, and Americans have a time-honored (if not generally honorable) tradition of heading south of the border in troubled times. Though I can’t claim intimate knowledge of country of Mexico, a few visits to its capital have made palpable to me the allure of the city of Mexico. Not having been in nearly a decade now, I picked up Juan Villoro’s Horizontal Vertigo: A City Called Mexico to refresh my impressions.

I’ve taken note of Villoro’s name ever ever since my first visit to Mexico City, which I made to record interviews for my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. This isn’t because I interviewed him but because I didn’t: my failure to make contact placed him in the hall of “the ones that got away.” The more I learn about him, the more unfortunate this seems, since I can hardly imagine an interviewee at once as well-suited to the show’s sensibility and as well-placed to speak about a city. Born and raised in Mexico City, he’s also in his six-and-a-half decades “lived for three years in Berlin, three in Barcelona, and two semesters at universities in the United States”: just enough experience of everyday life in outside lands, as I see it, to grant him an at least partially objective perception of everyday life in his hometown.

As much memoir as city book, Horizontal Vertigo reveals Villoro to be an even more “international” figure than he’d seemed. “I had no ingenuity, no gift for telling jokes, but I said strange things,” he writes of his childhood self. “That came from my miscellaneous cultural influences. My father was born in Barcelona and grew up in Belgium. He would say whirligig instead of top and staff instead of cane” (details rendered nearly meaningless, if perhaps necessarily so, by the English translation). The young Villoro went to the Alexander von Humboldt German School, with the result that “at the age of six, I knew how to read and write, but only in German” — an experience that “enabled me to understand my own language as an elusive free space that I had to treasure at all costs.”

Read the whole thing at Substack.

New Yorker: the cracked wisdom of Dril

Benjamin Franklin’s admirers have to acknowledge certain embarrassing truths about the man, not least that, were he alive in the twenty-first century, he would almost certainly be big on Twitter. As the dulcet narration of Ken Burns’s two-part documentary “Benjamin Franklin” explains, Franklin’s achievement of “such remarkable success” that would lead him to be “handed down for generations as the embodiment of the American Dream,” began with publishing a newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, at the age of twenty-three. Franklin included “crime stories, notices of fires and deaths, a moral advice column, funny tales he concocted that flirted with sexual innuendo, and letters from readers, including some he wrote himself, under tongue-in-cheek pseudonyms like Anthony Afterwit and Alice Addertongue,” creating a reading experience not entirely dissimilar to scrolling through one’s timeline.

He also engaged in a now common social-media practice by using the Gazette to promote other, more commercially viable projects, including, in 1732, the one that would make his name: “Poor Richard’s Almanack.” The yearly volumes, according to Burns’s documentary, were “ostensibly written by the hapless Richard Saunders, who claimed he was writing his almanac simply because his wife threatened to burn his books if he didn’t earn something from them.” It was in this fictional persona that Franklin composed the “Almanack,” the popularity of which brought him considerable wealth. Essentially an information-dense calendar, the Almanack was pitched not to the American book-buying class but the larger, less refined, more practical-minded public beyond, offering a mixture of useful (or at least fascinating) facts, generously seasoned with poems, recipes, and improving proverbs.

Or, as another, highly un-Burnsian telling puts it: “Poor Richard’s Almanack” was “filled to the brim with relatable Quotes, stuuff about the ocean tides, information on vinegar prices, and other good shit of that nature.” These words, and their typos, come from “The Get Rich and Become God Method,” the second book by the comic-absurdist Twitter personality known as Dril. He describes Franklin—calling him, with characteristic garbledness, “Ben Franken”—as “a fellow wise man and publisher of astute witticisms who I have often modeled my brand after.” Indeed, Dril continues, “if famous ‘Ben Franken’ were alive today he would read every page of the Get Rich and Become God Method, and say, ‘Yes, this is what I was ultimately setting out to accomplish all those years ago.’”

Read the whole thing at the New Yorker.

Los Angeles Review of Books: Ward Farnsworth’s guidebooks to English virtuosity and ancient philosophy

Fifteen years ago, The New York Times Book Review put out a call for readers’ favorite literary sentences of the past quarter-century, intending to print a pageful of the best examples. This was meant to correct the “blind spot” of the then-new edition of the Yale Book of Quotations (2006), with its seemingly inexplicable dearth of contributions from writers born after 1950. A month later, the Review’s editor Dwight Garner conceded defeat: “[M]ore than 400 people e-mailed us or posted lines on our Web site,” but “[m]any of the quotes weren’t from writers at all, or were from quite old (or quite dead) ones.” The few that qualified amounted to thin gruel indeed: from Jonathan Safran Foer: “Try to live so that you can always tell the truth”; from Irvine Welsh: “If things go a bit dodgy, ah jist cannae be bothered.”

This did not surprise Ward Farnsworth. “Current customs about rhetoric don’t encourage the creation of great and memorable sentences that lend themselves to the kind of display the Times proposed,” he writes in Farnsworth’s Classical English Style (2020). “Usually the apex of modern achievement is a sentence that sets new standards for informality.” That book was the third and latest in a series beginning with Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric (2010) and Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor (2006). In parallel, Farnsworth has also written two books on ancient philosophy, The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual (2018) and The Socratic Method: A Practitioner’s Handbook (2021). All were published over the past decade, the same length of time he’s held his formidable day job as dean of the University of Texas School of Law.

These titles may collectively suggest a rather old-fashioned authorial intelligence at work. In our time, we seldom look for guidance to the likes of Socrates or (despite a recent Silicon Valley–inflected revival, duly subject to bien-pensant sneering) the Stoics. Still less do we set great store by virtuosity in the English language, especially in the countries that speak it natively. Elsewhere, educational industries trade lucratively on the promise of competence in what their advertisements claim to be the unchallenged medium of global communication. But in the speech to be heard and writing to be read in, say, the United States of America, competence is the highest state to which many aspire. As Farnsworth writes in Classical English Style, “A large share of books about prose style are about how to avoid mistakes. They explain why bad writing sounds that way. This book is about stylistic virtue.”

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.