In his new book Cities Under Siege, published just two weeks ago, geographer Stephen Graham explores "the extension of military ideas of tracking, identification and targeting into the quotidian spaces and circulations of everyday life," including "dramatic attempts to translate long-standing military dreams of high-tech omniscience and rationality into the governance of urban civil society." This is just part of a "deepening crossover between urbanism and militarism," one that will only become more pronounced, Graham fears, over time....
In any case, Graham's interest is in the city as target, both of military operations and of political demonization. In other words, cities themselves are portrayed "as intrinsically threatening or problematic places," Graham writes, and thus feared as sites of economic poverty, moral failure, sexual transgression, rampant criminality, and worse (something also addressed in detail by Steve Macek's book Urban Nightmares). All cities, we are meant to believe, already exist in a state of marginal ferality. I'm reminded here of Frank Lloyd Wright's oft-repeated remark that "the modern is a place for banking and prostitution and very little else." ...
On one level, these latter points are obvious: small infrastructural gestures, like public lighting, can transform alleyways from zones of impending crime to walkways safe for pedestrian use—and, in the process, expand political control and urban police presence into that terrain. But, as someone who does not want to be attacked in an alleyway any time soon, I find it very positive indeed when the cityscape around me becomes both safer by design and better policed. Equally obvious, though, when these sorts of interventions are scaled-up—from public lighting, say, to armed checkpoints in a militarized reorganization of the urban fabric—then something very drastic, and very wrong, is occurring in the city. Instead of a city simply with more cops (or fire departments), you begin a dark transition toward a "city under siege."
So, what follows is my far less measured response than Manaugh's review:
Uhm, really? Ever since Mike Davis’s brilliantly disturbing excavation of dystopic Los Angeles, critical geographers and urban studies scholars have painted a picture of the post-modern city as a site of unceasing surveillance, state-sanctioned violence, and an overbearing police presence. The books reviewed on BLDGBLOG.com, Joe Flood’s, The Fires, Mike Davis’s recent Planet of Slums, and Stephen Graham’s Cities Under Seige, continue this critique. What emerges in both impressionistic generality and some piercing qualitative detail, is a radical shortfall from the hopes and dreams of the urbanists of the 1960s-1990s, and the prophecy of a nightmarish future for urban dwellers the world over.
In fact, that might be giving Mike Davis too much credit. Film has long been fearful and critical of urban spaces: Fritz Lang's Metropolis, not to mention the more contemporary versions of it -- Blade Runner, Robocop, Police Academy (1-7), as well as Minority Report and Children of Men. In other words, we get it, cities suck.
With important caveats, however, I’m just not convinced.
First, I am less familiar with the current efforts to police the megaslums of the Global South, and my knowledge of these places comes only from personal travel. Dar es Salaam felt broken while Accra just seemed sprawling. Neither, however, felt too terribly "policed." But maybe these are too small to fit into the category that these books talk about. One wonders how many cities do make the cut? Or, how much of the world’s population currently resides there? Are the smaller urban areas necessarily going to “mature” into these dystopias of state-sponsored surveillance? Why the need for prophecy?
Second, I’m uncomfortable making any real claims here not just because I haven’t read this literature, but, more importantly, my critiques will probably collapse under their own contradictory weight given the criticism that I am going to make about such dystopic fantiasies when it comes to cities defined as “western” “modern” “first world” or in the “global north.”
Also, can we name a city in the United States other than Detroit where this is really the case? Poor fucking Detroit; it’s the Critical Urbanists’ whipping boy. It's so unanimously reviled, so consistently made the poster child of the supposed complete failure of cities (and the inevitability of all otehr cities to fail in the future) that my friends who recently moved to Ann Arbor (yes, she's an academic at Michigan), parade their love of Detroit like a badge on their sleeve, a fact which further brings to light the radical disjuncture between these nightmarish visions and at least some peoples’ lived reality (though, I'm sure the response here will be that Ann Arbor residents are simply slumming it).