From Los Angeles to Bed-Stuy: Why We Should Consider America ‘City by City’

Any summary I can muster of City by City: Dispatches From the American Metropolis — a new collection of essays from n+1 and FSG, edited by Keith Gessen and Stephen Squibb — might sound like a Whitman-esque catalogue. This is unfair: as a compendium of writing about American metropolises since the financial collapse, the book is a broad and deeply felt thing, one that is irreducible to a list of cities and writers, historical facts and new realities. “Like America itself,” someone might say. Well, not exactly.

One thing I admire about the collection is the way it displaces American nationalism — whether the conservative or American pragmatic variety — in favor of a more piecemeal, collective view. It seems more honest. When we talk to friends who live elsewhere, we talk about what has happened to our cities. And when we talk about what has happened to our cities, we’re often discussing the effects of the financial crisis. “In numerous books and articles, we had learned the view of the crisis from the office towers of Manhattan,” Gessen and Squibb write in the book’s introduction, “we wanted a view that was a little more from below.”

This view from below is indispensable, City by City proves, especially if we’d prefer to trade the financial collapse as our defining reality for something better — for something collectively determined. Over the course of more than 30 essays (and a few interviews), the writers in this collection observe their cities, or the cities they visit, with an unflagging docu-personal, autodidactic spirit, always with an eye for the unities and disunities of space, history, local economy — whatever makes a city. Nearly every piece demonstrates the sensibility that undergirds our best fiction, and I won’t be surprised to see the younger writers in this collection publish strong novels in the future.

CITYbyCITY_mechFINAL.inddThe cities explored run the gamut, from Las Vegas and Boise to Cleveland and Providence. The book is so vast, in other words, you’d almost need a functioning rail system to traverse it. And, again, it’s every bit as deep as it is wide. Dayna Tortorici’s essay on Los Angeles, for example, appears to mirror that city’s galactic structure, considering everything from its traffic to its representation in cinema. Ben Merriman’s “Lessons of the Arkansas,” possibly my favorite of the collection, both reflects my understanding of a geography I once knew and expands it, mostly by linking it to other regions by way of a bravura microhistory. Emily Witt’s “Miami Party Boom,” a story of Miami’s “road to hell” — as Gessen and Squibb put it — is among the funniest of all recent American essays.

If City by City suggests that we’re bound together by the shock of the crisis, it also points to a future resistance that begins with a greater awareness of other histories, other cities and regions. And, taken piece by piece, it advocates for what filmmaker Thom Andersen (mentioned in Tortorici’s essay) calls “militant nostalgia” — a willingness to intervene in the past in order to change it. Take Greg Afinogenov’s “Milwaukee’s Gilded Age and Aftermath,” which recovers part of that city’s Socialist history, or Moira Donegan’s reflection on the recent shock-doctrinaire invasion of New Orleans, which now hosts Katrina bus tourism.

I have serious doubts about whether this country knows itself in any meaningful sense. But I’m sure that without writing like this, collected and edited with care over many years, we cannot feel deeply or think clearly enough about the lives of other Americans to pressure against the maniac decisions of state legislatures, for example, or intervene in the tragedy that defines our border with Mexico. As part of n+1’s ongoing contribution to our political, intellectual, and literary scene, City by City — with its dispatches from unknown or under-known writers — could be the most substantial and urgent so far.