Book reviews…Cities, roads, history, society…

I have as always been reading a lot on a broad range of topics. Here are three very worthwhile reads that have some things in common and might give you some interesting insight into society history, cities, transportation.

Metropolis: A History of the City, Humankind’s Greatest Invention Kindle Edition
by Ben Wilson

Saw this at Barnes and Nobles but bought the kindle edition. The physical book is nice but was not sure it was a real keeper. This is a good book, probably written before 2020 and Covid-19 raised questions about ‘the urban’ but I think either well thought out and thus an argument against the Anti-Urban angst right now, or edited well to address it without being too pointed.

This is an interesting read going back to pre history and even pre town/village to show that mankind was building monuments long before cities and that the typical early city surrounding religious/social centers was not an after thought but the genesis of the city. Also pointed out that when Mesopotamia was originally ‘urbanized’ it was more like Tenochtitlan, a wetland/jungle, not a desert as it is today. This actually points to a minor theme about natural climate change in this book and how it enabled then destroyed many early societies and their cities.

Dr. White works up from Uruk (probably oldest major city) through the more well known Mesopotamian city states to the coastal city states of the Mediterranean and Asia and how these cities lived and died by trade as much as by being centers of power. That usually the power came after economic power. Each city is put in its own context but that context extended to today. A city on the monsoon trade routs of the Middle Ages compared to modern Singapore. The trashing of Medieval Paris by Napoleon the II’s city planer (in the 1850’s) to build todays ‘city of lights’ is compared to the trashing of many other city centers in the name of modernity and the car.

But throughout the dynamism of the city, its inventiveness and its beating heart at the center of economic power is stressed. And above all that cities are human creations and habitats that are rebuilt and rehabilitated by the human spirits that enliven them. And despite wandering into and even making a strong case for the maleness and misogynistic tendencies of cities and the anti other tendencies Dr. White pulls back and strongly supports the case that cities are centers of diversity and new ways of living and new ways of empowering the downtrodden. While at the same time pointing out again and again that the elite urge to ‘clean up’ slums and old sections invariably destroys as much or more that is strong and beautiful as ‘helps.’ That the humans that give the city heart and power are the lower and middle classes not the elites and that elite re-planning is generally destructive of the human in the city. Again and again slums and ghettos are shown as a horror to the elites that is utterly at odds with the dynamic creativity that they hide in back alleys. Even in Mumbai and Lagos today the power of the slum is at odds with its image as presented by the largely ignorant elite.

The chapter on Warsaw in WWII is hard to read, but again and again points to the humanity of the urban core and its draw on the human soul for those it has become home to.

This book is an eye opening read and an excellent piece of work with a different view of the urban and the city. Not the least because it even deals with the suburbs and the suburban city (LA) and shows that it is in many ways just part of the continuum of development over something like ten thousand years.

I grew up in what I would call metro-suburbs of England and the Suburbs of the US and find that this book provides a much more solid base for thinking about the city than any article or techno dissection of the city vs suburbs vs rural…. Read the book, don’t miss some fascinating images and the use the author puts them to to explain times and places in some depth.

The effect of Covid-19 and the internet (one cannot be dealt with without the other) the coming impact of electric and autonomous cars and then personal air transport should be thought of AFTER you have read this book. It gives one pause and a new way to address what a city is and its draw to and repulse from the human spirit.

Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe Kindle Edition
by Judith Herrin

Ravenna on the Adriatic (the sea between Italy and the start of Eastern Europe is not a city one has heard of. Rome, Venice, Pisa, these cities of the Middle Ages and Renaissance are famous but a city that was for some hundreds of years the Capital of the Western Empire is simply not mentioned in most history books. Largely because its history started when Rome fell for the first time to the invaders and the Roman capital moved to what we call Constantinople. This was the start of the dark ages as first the barbarians and then Islam destroyed the Roman Empire. But that empire took a great deal of killing and our simple view of Rome the City = Rome the Empire, reinforced by Gibbons and others is simply false.

The city was important in Roman times, a city on an estuary that was much like we might imagine Venice a few hundred years later. The romans built/dredged a large harbor next to the city and it became the main sea link from Rome to the East, Anatolia, Greece, etc.

As Rome as Rome fell Ravenna became a center of gov’t and it also became a center of Christian faith, usually linked to the Abbot of Rome but also linking to the Eastern Faith, it was often at odds with the Abbot of Rome and or the Abbot (Patriarch) of Constantinople, where the later emperors tried to control the universal (Catholic) faith and failed.

Because of its link to the Eastern Church and Greece its Churches were richly decorated with mosaics, some of the most startling survivals of a period of history little remembered in the west.

Over the period of the barabarian invasions and later Empire the Emperors in Constantinople used Ravenna as their Western center of Government from where famous generals led army after army out to defend or recapture Roman lands. But in the end the powerful warrior tribes out of Germany, etc beat down the empire and took it as their own and Italy splintered into the city states that enliven the story of the Renaissance.

This history is rich and interesting, politics, religion, sociology, art, woven together. Dr Herrin uses a lot of first sources and actual peoples words to weave the story. Photographs of the wonderful mosaics makes one want to visit this historic city. The details of this ‘missing’ period are deeply interesting and helps explain the rise of Catholicism and the split with Orthodoxy. Another great read if you are interested in the history of Rome, Europe, the Middle Ages.

The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways Kindle Edition
by Earl Swift

Earl Swift’s The Big Roads starts at the beginning, in the nineteenth century with dirt tracks and cobbled lanes of the towns, cities and rural expanses and leads through their evolution over time. It is interesting that so much of the early work was more about associations building assets for commerce and the socialization of the automobile, prior to its becoming a power in its own right. And that the bicycle had a part to play before the automobile was big.

The story of the US routes, Route 66, Route 31, Route 71 etc etc and then the genesis of the interstate system are fascinating tales of time, place and actors.

A very human story interwoven with fascinating people and lacing in stories of places and times that you had heard elsewhere but never linked into the creation of the highways and now byways across the US.

As with the books above, particularly Metropolis this book talks about the hubris of the elites and of the blinders that technical leaders can have and the damage they can do while believing they are in the right and having the best interest of the people they are displacing at heart.

A fun book with fun side stories that especially resonate with me as I grew up as the Interstate system really came into its own and the knock on effects it had became visible, mostly for good but too often at a cost to various neighborhoods and towns.

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