Dispatches from Whose City?
City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis, edited by Keith Gessen and Stephen Squibb. N + 1. 2015, 496pp, $18 (paper). Purchase here.
By Miriam Axel-Lute Posted on October 15, 2015
City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis, a collection of essays put out by editors at N+1 magazine, is billed as a post–Great Recession look at the places a new generation (Millenials, presumably) calls home, and the forces affecting those neighborhoods.
The essays range from the supremely personal, such as Michelle Tea’s account of her relationship with her mother and her husband and their poverty and failing health, to the drily academic, including an essay on the economics of office tower construction and one on the history of highways. But most are an interesting amalgam of both, combining first-person observation of a specific city with background on its history and current demographics. We learn about “local Boise,” about the dynamics of the border crossing at El Paso, Texas, over the decades, and the race and class dynamics of shifting neighborhood boundaries and names in Brooklyn. The opening essay on San Diego is organized around its north/south and east/west highway axes and pulls back the curtain on the militarization and immigration dynamics that are hidden yet make the whole region tick. The story of the drama of Syracuse’s Destiny Mall complex gives a mixed personal and journalistic look at the ups and downs of that mega project and the lake it’s on.
But as I read further and further into the book, I began to find myself thinking, “I’m guessing in a page or two I’ll have it confirmed that this writer is white, too, like the last one.” Usually I was right.
As best I can tell (not every writer noted their racial identity and you can’t always tell from pictures), only 7 out of 39 authors in the volume are people of color. Of those, three appear to be African-American, two Latino, and two Indian or other Asian. That’s less than 20 percent, from a generation that’s over 40 percent people of color—and a larger percentage in the urban areas that the book is mostly focused on.
It’s not like the essays ignore race. Quite a lot of them address it, including the fabulous essay on Cincinnati, which may have been my favorite. I’m glad to see white writers addressing race directly—that’s not the problem. But they are necessarily limited in what perspectives they can bring to it, and the editors should have noticed the imbalance and sought more diverse perspectives. The three stories from African-Americans (all men) were great, but they should not have to alone carry the weight of all the different things to be said about cities from non-white perspectives. Where were the stories about growing up middle class and black in Harlem, for example? Or the Latino or Asian or Native American experience, anywhere?
For one of many examples, “Five Jobs in Reading,” an essay from the perspective of a “suburban [white] kid negotiating urban conflict on the weekends,” left me wanting the next essay to give the perspective of the people living in the neighborhoods the author remembers passing over on bridges as a child whenever his family went downtown, or the customer whose likelihood of discharge from the army and addiction relapse the author ponders very much from the point of view of someone who does not feel himself in danger of those things.
This ties in with the other weird thing about the authors of these essays—though the jacket says it’s about the places they call home, almost none of them are writing about a city they currently live in. They are writing about places they grew up in and left, places they lived and partied in for a few years after college, places they observe from a distant suburb, or even places they visited just to write about. Those are all legitimate perspectives from which to write sometimes, but to say people are writing about home, and then leave out the perspective of people writing about their actual homes is strange. It makes for a book in which the American metropolis comes off as largely a place of discomfort, trapped in the past, mired in a faceless poverty, a place for others, or a source of wacky stories like a crazy ex.
I know people all over this country who love (in an open-eyed, honest, not boosterish kind of way) the cities in which they make their homes, including the struggling ones. I am one of them. Our stories would have painted a very different total picture, and it’s really too bad they weren’t included.
There is definite insight to be gained from reading City by City, which includes some very talented, observant, honest, and historically grounded writers. But it shouldn’t be mistaken for representative of today’s “American metropolis.”
Miriam Axel-Lute is editor of Shelterforce and associate director of the National Housing Institute. Her email is miriam at nhi dot org.