Certainly, fancy writers like Jane Jacobs, Lewis Mumford, Donald Shoup, and David Owen are the bards of urbanism. But they only wrote/write non-fiction.
Publishing manifestos like The Death and Life of Great American Cities, The Culture of Cities, The High Cost of Free Parking, and Green Metropolis, these thinkers have written staid tomes about planning and buildings, highways and cars, streets, bikes, pedestrians, and medieval Europe. It's deep stuff. But accessible primers on urbanism are more widely found—though not widely recognized as such—in fiction and the other creative arts, like movies and music.
Urbanism, which appropriately enough has more in common with the energy of creative arts than it does with the pacing of academic tracts, is a political school of thought that promotes city values: diversity, mass transit, density, pedestrian culture, shared resources, networks, and sustainability. And just as political movements like feminism, Socialism, civil rights, LGBTQ rights, and environmentalism all have masterpieces that reflect their POVs ( Respect?, The Grapes of Wrath?, Dancin' in the Streets?, Hedwig & the Angry Inch?, Dune?), urbanism surely has masterpieces that make up a canon of its own. I'll call it the City Canon.
I've been thinking about this list forever. Back in March, 2014, as part of a Northwest Film Forum series on political movies, I gave a pseudo TEDTalk called "Urban Subversions" about my favorite Urbanist movies: The Blackboard Jungle (1955), Fight Club (1999), Masculin/Feminin (1966), Wadjda (2012), and the ultimate urbansit manifesto, Hackers (1995).
And way back in 2010, after being inspired by U.W. urbanism prof Daniel Friedman's lecture on city-themed literature, I came up with this tentative, definitive list that included a William Gibson novel (Idoru), Chess Records' early catalog featuring Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry, a B-52s club gig from 1978 (it's on YouTube), and a Barry Jenkins movie about San Francisco.
Now, making use of another key tenet of urbanism, networked collaboration, I've asked several local policy makers, activists, artists, writers, friends, and urbanists to help come up with the City Canon.
Here's a few entries just to kick things off.
A cast of slackers, hackers, dropouts, and drug-addicts get into love and trouble as they roam the complicated underbelly of King City in this epic comic. There are no smooth steel-and-glass condos here—alt comic writer Brandon Graham's King City is a dirty, filthy, confusing city, and I love it. Brandon Graham draws the mishmash of the city with surreal Where’s Waldo intricacy. In every panel, you can get lost looking at the linework of sci-fi bodegas, bizarre cafes, and neo-brutalist apartments. Just as the city is a steaming, seamy, beautifully textured pile of roads, buildings, billboards, and power lines, the humans all have to figure out how to get by with no one in charge to watch out for them. They exist on the margins of society, but the society is all margins—in this story, everyone has make their own way and the lines between “legal” and “illegal” are as nonexistent as the zoning laws. —Sarah Mirk
Mirk is the online Editor of
@BitchMedia, host of feminist podcast Popaganda, and the author of Sex from Scratch. Back in 2009, Mirk wrote PubliCola's NerdNerd column and our PubliComix column.
Mozart in the Jungle
The Amazon television series Mozart in the Jungle by Alex Timbers, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Paul Weitz captures the city lives of the artistic class—and the promise of urbanism where the line between life and art gets blurry. New York City has never shinned as brightly as it does through the eyes of Maestro Rodrigo De Souza—a conductor loosely based on conductor Gustavo Dudamel—riding his bicycle through the night streets or through the eyes of young oboist Hailey Rutledge who is being shaped by the city in magical ways.
It is a story of immigrants: a transplant from Mexico City in New York City. It is a story of finding one's place in a community, be it the New York Symphony Orchestra or be it the city itself. It is a story where the characters traverse pocket parks, perform in abandoned lots, and explore rare documents in city libraries. In a day and age where so much of urban planning conversations include concepts that art and design transform cities, Mozart in the Jungle is a charming reminder that great cities also transform great art. —Jamila Johnson
Johnson is a partner at Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt—a regional Pacific Northwest law firm. When she is not litigating constitutional or open government issues, she watches an uncomfortable amount of television. She sits on the Board of Directors for the ACLU of Washington, Washington Housing Alliance Action Fund, and Tabor 100.
Now it all makes sense. I recently learned that Iggy Pop's 1977 song "The Passenger" isn't about riding in a car, it's about riding mass transit, riding the Berlin U-Bahn, specifically.
This sexiest of all (punk rock) tunes isn't just a love song, it's a dose of urbanist poetry. So, in addition to exalting in the love song lyrics, it's time to channel the thrilling politics of the song too.
He see the stars come out tonight
He sees the city's ripped backsides
He sees the winding ocean drive
And everything was made for you and me
All of it was made for you and me
'Cause it just belongs to you and me
So let's take a ride and see what's mine
The song's allusion to Woody Guthrie's socialism—"This land was made for you and me"—makes it clear Iggy sees basic city features, such as networked infrastructure and shared resources, as part of a left wing program.
However, Woody Guthrie's agrarian romanticism looked backward—toward William Jennings Bryan's rural model. As Bryan put it in his famous 1896 Cross of Gold speech: "The great cities rest upon these broad and fertile prairies...Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again if by magic...But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country."
In contrast, with the electric guitar riff humming and channeling Guthrie's folk sentiment, Pop recasts camaraderie and socialism as city values, taking the updated urbanist point of view where cities—net contributors to the nation's resources, as opposed to net receiver rural towns—are the electric dynamos at the center of today's action.
And even more: By putting his urbanist manifesto in the context of a love song—"the stars come out tonight"—Iggy's pro-city message gets altogether sublime.
He sees the city asleep at night
He sees the stars are out tonight
And all of it is yours and mine
And all of it is yours and mine
Oh, let's ride and ride and ride and ride
Feit is politics editor at Seattle Met magazine and the founder and editor of PubliCola