Q&A: Daniel Brook

Daniel Brook talks about his fascinating new book entitled A History of Future Cities

The author and urbanist Daniel Brook has a fascinating new book out entitled A History of Future Cities. In it he examines three historic “instant” cities—Mumbai (Bombay), Shanghai, and St. Petersburg—along with that over-the-top 21st century newcomer, Dubai. He looks at the economics, culture, architecture, and political forces that formed these cities; all of them grew rapidly, exploding, seemingly overnight.  Brook’s smart take works on two levels—as a kind of cautionary tale for today’s world and a helpful reminder that this phenomenon is not entirely new. The author will speak at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. on April 15 and at the Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn on April 18th.  Recently I traded email questions with the New Orleans-based writer. An edited version of our conversation follows.

Martin C. Pedersen: How did the idea for the book evolve? Daniel Brook: The spark for the book came when I went to Mumbai for the first time, in 2005. It immediately reminded me of St. Petersburg, where I’d been previously, both in its architectural mimicry of Western Europe and in the overt attempt of its people to be Western-oriented cosmopolitans. The Shanghai piece came to me after a fortuitous conversation with the translator who guided me around a Southern California-themed gated community on the outskirts of Beijing, called Orange County. She told me she couldn’t understand why American readers would be interested in something as mundane as this suburban subdivision, so I told her, deadpan, that I thought American readers would be quite surprised to learn there’s a Southern California-themed gated community near the Beijing airport. “Yeah, that’s more of a Shanghai thing,” she replied. “They’ve been doing this down there for a hundred years.” Sure enough, when I read up on Shanghai, she was right. And when I got there, in 2009, I ended up visiting a subdivision called Columbia Circle that was built by an American real estate developer in the 1920s. It looked a lot like where I grew up on Long Island, which makes sense since that too was built by American real estate developers in the 1920s. I also wanted a new global city just beginning this process today, so I added Dubai, which is the most famous and dramatic of them.

MCP: Why pick these four cities? DB: I picked them because they’re very pure case studies. While many developing world cities have sections of them built to look like the West—Cairo and Istanbul, for example, both have nineteenth-century neighborhoods that were built to mimic Paris—the cities I chose all have dramatic origin stories, periods when they’re largely built whole overnight. Their relevance to the future of cities is not only that we have lots of these instant cities popping up in the developing world today—Dubai and Shenzhen are just the most famous among many—but that little snippets of the West are now getting dropped everywhere. In January,  in India, I happened upon the grand opening of the subcontinent’s first Krispy Kreme doughnut shop. Historically, that could only have happened in Bombay (now Mumbai), India’s historic gateway to the West, where global companies like Paramount Pictures, Thomas Cook, and Kodak all have had offices for almost as long as they’ve existed. But this Krispy Kreme was located in Bangalore, a city that wasn’t even a major Indian city until 1980 but is now one of the major cities of the planet (it just passed New York City in population). So now the people of Bangalore today have to reckon with American fast food in the same way the people of Bombay have had to reckon with Paramount Pictures for almost a century.

MCP: Had you been to any of these cities before? If so, how much had that city changed? DB: I’ve been to St. Petersburg three times. One of the responses to Soviet-era hostility to the West-facing city (then known as Leningrad) was a tremendous popular commitment to historic preservation, which helped preserve the historic core of the city. So not much has changed there in terms of demolitions. But from 2003 to 2010 the city went from being incredibly poor to incredibly rich on account of the global fossil fuel boom that has been so good to the Russian economy, and also because Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, is from St. Petersburg and loves to lavish resources on his hometown. In 2003, St. Petersburg had a kind of Blade Runner-feel to it. Gambling was legal and ubiquitous, with neon “zhakpot” signs blinking everywhere and this sense that you could get knee capped in an alley if you looked at the wrong Mafioso’s girlfriend the wrong way. By 2010, the city had been transformed, thoroughly cleaned up for tourists and the new corporate class. I’ve been to Mumbai three times as well. As the Indian economy has opened up to the West you now have, for example, Starbucks. But Western influence is nothing new in Mumbai; it’s central to the city’s history and identity. So that new Starbucks is right down the street from Paramount Pictures’ age-old office. Thankfully, you’re also seeing more historic preservation in Mumbai these days, which is less about preventing buildings from getting knocked down than keeping them in a state where they don’t fall in on themselves. In 2010, I snuck into the abandoned old Royal Opera House (ended up right on stage!). The very next day, The Times of India ran a headline along the lines of “Preservationists Warn Opera House in Imminent Danger of Collapse.” This visit, I was heartened to find the opera house was being restored.

MCP: You lived in each city for a month—a period of time longer than a tourist but shorter than a resident. What can you learn about a city in a month? DB: One reason I felt a month was the right amount of time to spend was that my research method was what social scientists call the “snowball method.” You find a good source and then ask him or her to refer you to other sources. This takes weeks not days. Also, having a month in a city allows you to see it on unusual days as well as ordinary days. It was great that I got to walk down Nanjing Road, the main downtown shopping street in Shanghai, on the 60th anniversary of the founding of Communist China, a massive patriotic festival where all the little kids had these Cracker-Jack-style temporary tattoos of the Chinese flag on their cheeks. But it was also good to get to walk down the street on a regular day when hustlers kept approaching me, trying to sell me a fake Rolex and a “sexy massage.” We often assume the ordinary day shows the “real” city and the holidays are somehow fraudulent, but both are equally valid uses of urban space. With unlimited time and money, a full year in each city would be ideal.

MCP: Which of these four cities is best positioned for the 21st century? DB: From the perspective of city planning, Shanghai is a wonder to behold. The city didn’t even have a subway in 1989 and now it has a more extensive system than London or New York. It has more skyscrapers than Manhattan. The train in from the airport is the fastest in the world. And the people have this kind of capitalist work ethic, since all values that militate against overwork and overconsumption were cut out by the Cultural Revolution and replaced with Deng’s philosophy, “to get rich is glorious.” It makes for a very rich city but not necessarily a culturally interesting one. In some ways, you have to ask “best positioned” from which perspective? Economically, provided the authorities can keep the lid on—a big if—Shanghai and even Dubai are well positioned. But Mumbai, which from an infrastructural perspective is held together with tape, is poised to have the most influence on global culture. Strangely, Mumbai is both the most Anglophone of the four cities and the most in touch with the non-Western strands of its cultural roots. It wields tremendous “soft power”—even though the actual power goes out all the time.

MCP: Let's talk about Dubai. It grew, almost cartoonishly, overnight, and then sort of crashed and burned. Where is it now, and what are its prospects? DB: Part of what I find most interesting about Dubai’s antecedent cities is that they all experience tremendous booms and then horrific busts during which they were written off as finished. But reports of their deaths are always greatly exaggerated. In the nineteenth century, Shanghai went through a sovereign debt crisis just like Dubai’s in 2009. And Victorian-era Bombay even aborted a speculative real estate venture to reclaim land from the sea (though no, they didn’t plan to build it in the shape of a giant palm tree). Both these cities came back in the early twentieth century only to conk out again during the Cold War and then reemerge just recently. Even today, a humbler Dubai still has no major rivals as the financial hub of the Middle East. All the other options—Beirut? Tel Aviv? Riyadh?—are nonstarters.

MCP: A friend of mine went to India for the first time. When she returned, I asked her, "So, how was India?" "I'm not sure," she responded. "I'm still processing it." How was your experience there? DB: India’s the most captivating place I’ve ever been. On my last trip there, I got two parasites. Still, I can’t wait to go back! For a Westerner, India is an intriguing combination of being remarkably accessible through English, which is the lingua franca of Mumbai and to a large degree of urban India generally, and remarkably foreign culturally. And it’s mysterious—though not in the clichéd snake charmer Orientalist way. There are riddles: How can a country filled with so many brilliant people be so incompetent at accomplishing basics like simply keeping the lights on? How can a city exist, let alone endure, that hosts the most expensive house in the world—a $1 billion personal high-rise—walking distance from a red-light district where women sell themselves for $1? How does India so easily assimilate the foreign into the local in everything from fast food vegburgers to Bollywood music videos? I have no doubts I will revisit India many times in my life and never finish “processing it,” as your friend put it.

MCP: If you had to live in one of these cities for, say, two years, which one would you pick? DB: Mumbai—even though I know there’d be at least one moment every day of those two years when I’d question my decision. What can I say? I’m attracted to the dramatic rather than the sensible, which helps explain why I’m a 35-year-old bachelor.

MCP: What's the significance of the book's title, A History of Future Cities? DB: I call the three historic cities “future cities” because they were precociously modern, meaning they were modern before most of the rest of the world was modern. These places jumbled together people and products and ideas from all over the world long before that became the norm. So we can read these future cities’ histories as “dress-rehearsals for the twenty-first-century” and, in doing so, get our bearings in the world today. Since people all over the developing world are now migrating to cities and encountering the disembodied fragments of Western architecture and culture that migrants to St. Petersburg, Shanghai, and Mumbai have been for centuries, we can mine these cities’ pasts for clues about the cities of the future.


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