Sunday, May 21, 2006


Cities Without Cities

I know I'm constantly banging the drum for The Village Voice (naturally) and The Stranger on this blog, but the two really have built some of the best alt-weekly book review sections around.

This week The Stranger has a long and very thoughtful review of Cities Without Cities, by the German urban historian Thomas Sieverts:

Our expectation that city neighborhoods are densely built, and suburban ones not, leaves us unprepared for the patchwork reality. In Washington State, Seattle is the only city with higher density than what we call suburbs: Mountlake Terrace, Des Moines, Edmonds, Kirkland, Burien, and Shoreline round out the state's top 10 city densities. (The much smaller cities of Mabton, Mattawa, and Toppenish, all less than 10,000 in population, are second, fifth, and sixth.) In Oregon, Portland is actually third in density, well behind neighboring "suburbs" Beaverton and Gresham.... the data simply shows how meaningless city boundaries have become in sorting out evolving patterns of urbanity.

Sieverts never casts this as a victory of the suburbs over the city. Rather, the old logic separating the two has failed. In the Zwischenstadt there are many intensifications, and no center; urban concentrations multiply like knots in an endless net.

Here's the thing: this translation of Seivert's book came out in the fall of 2003. The review is ostensibly of a new book (Robert Bruegmann's Sprawl), but it quickly places it in the context of Sieverts, and basically turns into a review of that book. Occasionally you'll get old & new books reviewed together this way in NYRB, and indeed this used to be a common practice in some journals in the 19th century. But finding a newspaper with the artistic latitude to review an old book... and do it at great length? It's almost a miracle.

Better read the whole review, too, since you probably won't be shelling out the $45 list price for the book in paperback...

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