Cultural historian P.D. Smith, author of Doomsday Men, argues that the city is humanity’s greatest creation. After reading City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age, it’s easy to believe it’s true.
City is not a simple chronological history of urban areas from their first appearance in ancient Mesopotamia to modern megacities. Instead, Smith organizes his work around elements of city life that “have become part of our urban genetic code”: cemeteries, street protests, slums, suburbs, markets, street food, graffiti. He draws illuminating parallels and unexpected connections. The chapter titled “Where to Stay”, for example, begins with the growth, death and rebirth of downtown, looks at immigrant neighborhoods in nineteenth century America in the context of Jewish ghettos in Europe, makes a sharp turn to slum cities in the developing world, considers the allure of garden suburbs beginning in ancient Babylon, and ends with a brief history of the hotel.
The book is punctuated by sidebars that go off at right angles to the main text. A brief history of the parking meter accompanies the section on commuting. The hanging gardens of Babylon are discussed in the context of urban parks.
Smith’s range of material is breathtaking, but he wears his erudition lightly. The prose of City is smart and fast-paced, with a nice balance between big picture history and close-up details. The book is full of “aha” moments and occasional humor. This one’s a must read for history geeks.*
*I’ve sworn off using the phrase “must read” in reviews, tweets, blog posts… But in this case I’m sticking to my guns. Smith ranges so broadly in time and space that I can’t imagine a history fan who won’t find at least one section fascinating.
This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers