Smith (Doomsday Men: The Real Dr. Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon, 2007, etc.) composes a polyphonic paean to our urban past, present and future.
More than once in this ambitious text, the author declares that “cities are our greatest creation”—here he emerges as urbanology’s head cheerleader. Each section focuses on a specific aspect of urban life (hotels, skyscrapers, entertainment, etc.) and offers both a brisk history and a current assessment. Throughout this literary and culturally hip book, Smith distributes numerous sidebars, from the history of the parking meter (born in Oklahoma City) to red-light districts. He alludes to Melville (the first to use in print the word “down-town”), Dickens, Poe, Henry James (who didn’t like skyscrapers); he mentions films like Metropolis, Blade Runner and Dirty Harry. The long section about the possible effects of global warming on city life, especially in coastal areas, will probably not sit well with warming’s deniers—oh well. Although Smith often waxes lyrical about city life (he’s a lover in complete thrall), especially about such features as public parks, libraries, museums and street food, he does not neglect the dark side. One disgusting detail: the sewer lines clogged with fat that lie beneath areas featuring lots of fast-food restaurants. The author provides statistics when he needs them—about half of the world’s population now lives in cities (by 2050, he thinks it will be 75 percent)—and a section, both gloomy and upbeat, about urban ruins (e.g., Pompeii and Detroit). Smith writes sensitively about the best of places (Masdar City in Abu Dhabi—a planned community) and the worst (the Dharavi slum in Mumbai) and only neglects bridges and tunnels—a city book minus London and Brooklyn bridges!
As exciting, sprawling and multifarious as a shining city on a hill.