“The Project of Our Time”: A Conversation with Author Daniel Brook

“The Project of Our Time”: A Conversation with Author Daniel Brook

A conversation about democracy, autocracy, globalization and urbanization in A History of Future Cities.

From a Shanghai urban planning exhibition. Credit: Flickr user larryncelia

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Following up my thoughts on A History of Future Cities, I arranged a conversation with author Daniel Brook about the themes and topics covered in his book, released last month by W. W. Norton & Company. In the following, we discuss everything from dictatorships to economics to fashion as it relates to the cities of Shanghai, Bombay, St. Petersburg and Dubai, but still barely get started with all the subjects Brook raises in his work.

On March 5, Brook will read from and talk about A History of Future Cities at Next City’s Storefront for Urban Innovation in Philadelphia. If you can’t make it, you can always talk with us on Twitter about this, or any other Book Club selection, using the hashtag #NextCityBooks.


Next City: When I got to the end of your book, I came away with the surprising feeling that all of these cities that had the promise of openness had kind of shut down, at least in terms of the degree to which authorities now welcome outside ideas. Do you think that’s just a historical moment for all of them, and it just so happens that the time you decided to write about them, they all had closed off?

Daniel Brook: I think that’s part of it. And I also think everyone, including myself, is subject to a bit of rose-tinted glasses when looking at the past. As I point out, a lot of what once looked like “knock-off buildings” is now “heritage architecture.” (For example, the University of Mumbai, which is a replica of the Doge’s palace in Venice.) That said, I don’t think it’s crucially important where these cities are at today. The point is that they always have the capacity to reinvent themselves — see the Bombay and Shanghai economic crises of the 1860s, or Dubai’s surprising recovery today. There is always the capacity for new cities to steal their fire and run with it. So the fact that none of the three historic cities I chronicle are firing on all cylinders now doesn’t mean they won’t ever again. Or soon.

NC: The St. Petersburg story was the one that surprised me the most. It has a reputation for being the Russian hotbed of creativity, but it seemed like you were saying that isn’t so much true anymore. Though you did close your coverage of St. Petersburg with a great image. I also loved the idea of t-shirts that said, “Politicians Never Lie” as a form of protest.

Brook: As in all of these cities, there’s a lot of poseur-ship. A lot of people play-acting the worldly sophisticate as a kind of conspicuous consumption, and less people who are truly grappling with the currents in our contemporary world. But to the extent you find these people in Russia, China, India and the Arab World, you find them in the highest concentrations in St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai and Dubai.


NC: A big theme of your book was the way the openness of these future cities ultimately played a key role in unraveling autocracies. It’s an ongoing irony I kept noting throughout: That these dictators wanted to imitate more productive societies, but it led to the (ever-so-slow) downfall of their regimes. Was that a story you wanted to tell or was that one you found?

Brook: That was a story I found. When I set out to write the book I was very hostile to this notion. It seemed to me one of the comforting lies we tell ourselves in the U.S., so we can keep making money in oppressive societies. I still think there are many of those lies we tell ourselves. But this very specific one isn’t one of them. As I researched the book, it became clear to me that these literate worldly cities bred people who thought for themselves, people who would be a problem for any autocrat.

NC: Continuing to follow this political question, my new favorite terms from your book were “Market Bolshevik” and “Authoritarian Capitalist.” There are a lot of different moments in the book where it appeared that dreamlands of libertarian experimentation arose in each of these cities. It didn’t last forever, but, for example, the period in Shanghai when all services were private. And a similar story in Mumbai now.

Brook: “Market Bolshevik” was a 1990s turn of phrase that I discovered reading up on that period. It’s pretty perfect. “Authoritarian Capitalist” is term first applied to places like Singapore that now fits China (an iron fist in a velvet glove).

NC: Then in St. Petersburg, where the IMF imposed a kind of grand libertarianism on the whole country. The libertarian period never seemed to work out that well for places.

Brook: That’s always a temptation for these cities because they’re conspicuously richer than their surrounding areas. But the historical record is not very kind to this type of urbanism and I find it objectionable from a political and ethical perspective as well. There is something barbaric about denying the poor in a rich city, say, clean drinking water. But I’m glad to report that even from a practical standpoint, it’s a bad idea. Then again, you go to a place like contemporary Mumbai where a tower selling $20 million apartments rises up at the end of a red-light district where women sell themselves for $1, and you wonder: Since it exists at all, maybe it can endure indefinitely.

NC: It struck me as a series of really great examples that showed that this libertarian notion that, given freedom, the market will just sort things out, doesn’t stand up that well.

Brook: I hope not.


NC: You wrote the book with a lot of sensitivity toward the working class, or even the wage-slave or flat-out serf class. Again and again there were stories in the books of rural peoples coming to these cities and not making enough to get anywhere. Their wages barely enabled them to pay for their beds in whatever form the worker dormitories took.

Brook: One of the commonalities in all of these cities is that they’re simultaneously richer and poorer than the cities of the developed world. In St. Petersburg in 1900, you have nobles giving each other gilded Easter eggs that cost more than a mansion in New York or Paris. Meanwhile, you have a working class that literally rents its beds in eight-hour shifts. I was particularly interested in this historical fact because it has such clear parallels to today, Dubai being the most obvious analog.

NC: The two most stunning images for me came from Russia. First, that Peter the Great — the same person who would go to Europe and pretend to be a shipmaker’s apprentice — wouldn’t even let the serfs use wheelbarrows. And bragged about how many had died building his city. Second, that Russia once had a state-sponsored union.

Brook: Peter the Great is a fascinating character. He exhibits all of the benefits and pitfalls of absolute power. You have to be in awe of his ambition to build a great city from scratch. And you have to be disturbed by the disregard he has for his own people who built it. On unions, there is a parallel with China: There’s a state-sponsored union in China today.

Peter the Great, tyrant/planner.

NC: So, with the exception of the Russian serfs, most of these folks seem to choose to come to these cities and accept these apalling conditions, yet it doesn’t seem like they are making enough to really save anything or better their lot. Was it material reasons for which they came? Or something else? False hopes? False promises? Or as bad as it was, was it still better than outside the city?

Brook: Why people migrate to developing-world cities is a complicated question both historically and today. Apologists for slums overemphasize the pull factors and underemphasize the push factors. A lot of people leave farms because the market has been liberalized and they can’t compete on price with mechanized agricultural products from abroad. And many people end up in worse material conditions in the city than they had in the country. But I also want to emphasize that there are liberating aspects to a move to the city, even for those who end up in slums. It’s not either/or.

The Future and Future Cities

NC: Did you have a reason for picking these specific four cities beyond the fact that they all had this similar origin story?

Brook: I wanted the purest examples. So for example, both Istanbul and Cairo have Western-style neighborhoods. But they’re very old cities in which this is just one level among many. I wanted that pure, dramatic origin story. I also wanted places that were pure from an East-West perspective. I bracketed off Latin America because those are a mix of immigrants and indigenous people where it’s hard to make any decisions about what’s local and what’s foreign. And I wanted to pick places that contemporary readers want/need to learn about. So that’s, for example, why China was more appealing than Japan, even though Japan went through an overt Westernization phase in the mid-1800s.

NC: Tell me if I have this at all right: Broadly speaking, it seemed like St. Petersburg and Dubai were mostly about power. The power of the state to decide the course for its nation and to demonstrate its power. Whereas Bombay and Shanghai were about money, trade, etc.

Brook: I agree in broad strokes with that breakdown. But all of these cities are a mix of politics and economics. For example, Dubai has a political, even psychological, role in the Arab World generally and for its Sheikh specifically. That said, it’s more an economic hub than anything. Bombay was built as a pure economic hub, but its success was meant to vindicate British rule in India — a political project. Shanghai was a pure trading port, but it birthed China’s first elected city council and the revolution that brought down the emperor. So it’s hard to make any hard-and-fast distinctions. Which I like, since it’s hard to make hard-and-fast distinctions between politics and economics in the modern world, period.

NC: Do any American cities fit this origin story? Perhaps, for example, Salt Lake City?

Brook: There are aspects to various American cities (Salt Lake City, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Chicago) that show commonalities with the various cities I’m writing about. But again, for reasons of genocide, it’s very hard to decide what’s “native” and “foreign” in an American city. This is a nation of immigrants. That said, part of what’s captivating about these Old World cities I write about is that they sociologically resemble New World cities in their polyglot immigrant populations. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that America’s jazz was all the rage in 1920s Bombay and Shanghai.

NC: One small part of A History of Future Cities that I wanted to show every leader of a Western city and state was the part about Bollywood. American states and cities love to provide tax incentives to moviemakers, which I think is all about regional ego. Meanwhile, Bollywood became the biggest filmmaking force in the world not only without any support from the state – moviemakers couldn’t even get lines of credit from the banks. American policymakers still like to try and pick winners.

Brook: Mumbai now has the highest entertainment tax in India. So there the government wants to take its cut even though it did nothing to support its birth. Meanwhile, most of the Bollywood award shows are held in Dubai.

NC: I confess that I’m one of those people who is a bit pessimistic about the West. I wonder if we haven’t about cashed out our potential. As I read the book, I found myself wondering when the day will come that people start talking about Westerners imitating Easterners.

Brook: “Gangnam Style.” I’m only half-joking.

PSY, pop star/harbinger of Western decline.

NC: True. And I found myself remembering other stories of Westerners imitating new levels of productivity found in the East, especially in Japan. Are we already at that moment where the winds of progress are blowing the other way?

Brook: I think there will be a lot more cultural influence flowing from East to West in the future. But I also think, and hope, it will feel less politicized and humiliating than it did when cultural influence flowed the other way during the Age of Imperialism. I just got back from India and brought a bunch of Indian clothes back because they fit the climate where I live, in New Orleans, better than European clothes do. There’s no reason we should still be wearing French clothes down here. It’s hot out. But I don’t feel any real sense of humiliation wearing Indian clothes. I imagine the Haitians who wear French clothes might feel differently.

NC: Which relates to another ongoing theme throughout the book, one of aesthetics. For example, the Russian instructions in how to “be social” in a Western way. “Haipai,” in China. The glitz and over-the-top nature of Dubai. And imitating the British speech and the British demeanor in Bombay. You see this sort of way of humiliating either individuals or groups of people as they change. It seems to relate to the “new rich” versus “old money.” Yet again and again, the group that gets mocked for not quite fitting into the group they are copying or imitating often ascends right past them. For instance, how much of Shanghai was built with a Western vision by local money, or, in more extreme cases, when a people overcomes a dictator, breaks free, etc.

Brook: I would say that this imitation is often a first step, not a final destination. And when you see it in that context, it becomes harder to laugh at.

NC: Is that a caution for the developed world? In that, if its denizens mock other folks who seem to modeling Western ways, much as old money mocks folks who are self-made, as a parallel, is that sign, once a group of people starts doing that, that even though your society is free, it has become closed off by its own ways and norms? So if, by extension, we would mock anyone seen to be imitating Easterners, would we in fact be mocking proven learning?

Brook: Yes, I think the little bit in the final section of the book about how the Romans copied the Greeks, but then went on to surpass them in so many fields should give us pause as we mock Dubai, for example.

NC: You wrote this book for a Western audience, I presume. Mainly. As you’re based here. Why do we need to understand these cities?

Brook: We need to understand them because they’re the places that matter today. I describe them as “dress rehearsals for the 21st century.” People used to be fascinated with them because they were so unusual. Now, we need to be fascinated with them because the project for which they stand — urbanization/modernization of less developed regions — is the project of our time.

For more, don’t miss Daniel Brook at Next City’s Storefront for Urban Innovation, 2711 W Girard Ave. in Philadelphia, at 5:30pm on March 5.

Brady Dale is a writer and podcaster living in Brooklyn. You can find him on Twitter.

Brady Dale is a writer and comedian based in Brooklyn. His reporting on technology appears regularly on Fortune and Technical.ly Brooklyn.

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