Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Review: The New City

[John Lorinc. The New City: How the Crisis of Canada's Cities is Reshaping our Nation. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2008. (Original edition published 2006.)]

I'm not sure it really makes any sense for "cities" or "the city" to be the focus of affection, but it still manages to be one for me: I like cities.

I grew up in a small town, so for most of the year I had almost no experience of the urban that wasn't completely diluted by its mediation through the automobile. However, we would spend at least a month every summer at my grandparents' house in Glasgow and those early associations with urban living -- vacation, grandparental presence, being spoiled, and all the other good things those imply for a child -- may be the actual root of my current city-liking. Still, it took me years of living in Hamilton, Ontario, as a young adult to go from complete disconnection to serious affection, but that may have been more about how my life was organized as an undergraduate university student than anything else. And if my sentiment was indeed forged in visits to Scotland's grimy, poor, industrial and post-industrial urban heartland, it is an interesting coincidence that most of my adult life has been spent in the grimy, poor, industrial and post-industrial Ontario cities of Hamilton and Sudbury.

Regardless of where it came from, my newly flowering affection for Hamilton was partly responsible for the three years I spent producing and hosting a radio show that could variously have defined itself as being about municipal politics, local social movements, or local urban issues. Whichever angle my co-host and I were emphasizing at a particular moment, we were always assertively pro-city in our orientation. If this book hit the shelves during those three years, I'm sure I would've had an entire show devoted to interviewing John Lorinc, a mainstream journalist with a long history of covering urban issues in big Canadian newspapers. There is something about the enthusiasm Lorinc exhibits for cities, and for the best that the urban can offer, that really speaks to me. This is particularly true in my own current context of feeling regretfully under-citied -- I have a certain affection for Sudbury, but still wish I lived some place bigger.

I also appreciate the form and content of the book. It is extensively researched. The writing is not beautiful or brilliant, but it is clear and smooth. Lorinc packs in a lot of material and weaves together many sources in a seamless way, as good journalistic writing has to do. There is also evidence of concern for injustice and suffering. Certainly the book has moments of glorifying conspicuous urban consumption, but much of its focus is on key social issues such as homelessness, immigration, education, transit, the environment, and so on. In doing so, it generally advocates progressive positions, presents important aspects of problems, and often talks to sources that have clever things to say.

I hope I've managed to foreshadow that there might be a "but" coming along in this review, because it is a pretty big one. For all that this book manages to tweak that part of me that is sweet on cities, and for all that it brings under one cover lots and lots of the raw materials that a radical analysis of cities in northern Turtle Island would also require, The New City also smacks with a saddening thump into the limits of mainstream progressive Canadian politics in its first pages, and keeps on thumping into that wall throughout the book.

It would be pointless, I think, to try and provide a complete accounting of the political problems of this book -- they are all extremely predictable and it would soon become repetitive and shrill. But I suppose I have to at least give an overview, or some examples:

  • Gendered experiences of urban space never receive any attention. This is despite the fact that I know there are Canadian feminist academics and activists who have worked on this question.
  • He vastly underestimates the role of racism in shaping Canadian cities historically and Canadian urban experience today. He cheers on state multiculturalism without any awareness of the criticisms it has received from anti-racist academics and activists.
  • Despite being very supportive of the struggles of immigrants in some parts of the book, it is very hard to read the way he talks about immigration in other sections as anything other than instances of the tired but powerful immigrant-as-problem discourse.
  • He does the usual white progressive two-step around indigenous issues by urging a certain kind of support for Native people while completely completely blanking on what it would actually mean politically to take seriously indigenous claims about the past, the present, and the future.
  • He is very selective in what he targets with pro-ordinary-people skepticism. For example, he seems to completely accept that the "debt crisis" that was used to create the public panic that preceded the sharp ramping up in neoliberalism at the federal level in Paul Martin's 1995 budget as being a genuine crisis caused by foolhardy spending. But you don't have too look too hard, or even too far to the left, to find that myth taken apart and to see how it was mostly just made up as part of class warfare from above.
  • It uses the tired device of performing the virtues of Canada through selective comparison with the United States.
  • It explains its questionable narrative of Canadian cities once being the envy of everyone and now running into some problems basically by looking to decisions made by political parties. While it is nice that it is both nonpartisan and highly critical of the right, analyzing neoliberalism solely at this level means missing a lot -- including missing why the book's call for a more robust social democracy with an urban emphasis is simply not going to be on the menu without significant grassroots mobilization.
  • He largely ignores the ways in which so much "revitalization" of urban space in rich countries, even putatively progressive variants, ends up being an attack on poor people and poor communities.

So by all means read this book. It contains loads of useful information. Some of its discussion of specific policy problems, in the context of organizing for immediate reforms, are also quite useful. And definitely savour the moments when Lorinc shows his passion for vibrant cities. But not only take his writing as a detailed lesson in the real strengths and serious limitations of mainstream progressive politics in Canada, but also take some of the problems of this book as indications that maybe we should start to trouble some of the ways in which privileged lefties (such as yours truly) experience our own enjoyment of the urban.

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