The Magazine

Going Downtown

How cities prosper, and why they decline.

Jan 15, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 17 • By JAY WEISER
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The sacred character of cities, too, is treated inconsistently. At times Kotkin indicates that cities need a prominent civic religion, and at other points, that objects of civic pride like landmark skyscrapers can fill the function. Certainly something is needed for civic cohesion: In Making Democracy Work, Robert Putnam found that medieval northern Italian cities with a dense network of voluntary organizations (many of them religiously based) had more social cohesion and better-performing local economies in the 20th century than southern Italian cities that had thin networks in the Middle Ages. But there is no predictable relationship between civic religion and urban success.

Following in the footsteps of Max Weber's now-discredited Protestant Ethic thesis, Kotkin praises Calvinism as the backbone of Dutch 17th-century Golden Age economic achievement. But the hardcore Calvinists were actually the bitter enemies of the Amsterdam merchant class that drove the boom. Reheating the Protestant Ethic thesis for a new region, he trots out Singapore dictator Lee Kuan Yew's new model Confucianism, combining personal and family improvement, moral order and collective will, to somehow explain the success of late-20th-century cities in raucous East Asian democracies like Taiwan and South Korea. In any event, it's hard to make Confucianism into the secret of economic success since non-Japanese East Asian cities declined for 200 years before their recent boom.

Some of Kotkin's other historical examples of the impact of sacredness don't pan out. If Renaissance cynicism undermined the Italian city-states, then the Catholic Counter-Reformation, which revolutionized religious practice there, should have reinvigorated them. But they continued to decline as economic power shifted to the Atlantic world. Soviet cities lacked reverence for sacred places, Kotkin says. But while the Communists trashed traditional religion, they created cults of Stalin and the heroic worker as emotional and all-encompassing as anything in the Counter-Reformation. They even renamed St. Petersburg for Lenin, who got his own shrine in Moscow's Red Square. If Kotkin is right, the prosperous secularized cities of today's Western Europe should be suffering, while today's Islamic cities, many with spectacular mosques and pervasive religiosity, should be world leaders rather than basket cases.

Kotkin explains that many Islamic cities are backward because they lack cosmopolitanism--the openness to other cultures found in many famous cities over the centuries--which he views as a byproduct of commerce. The definitively noncosmopolitan cities of Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, however, had well-performing autarkic economies to go along with their evil political systems, at least for a while. Causation may run in the other direction, with a cosmopolitan culture encouraging an openness to commerce.

There are numerous factual errors--perhaps inevitable given the scale of Kotkin's project. The Ottomans did not rename Constantinople as Istanbul; the Turkish Republic changed the name (a Turkish corruption of the original) in 1930 as part of Kemal Atatürk's modernization movement. Brooklyn was Manhattan's suburban hinterland from the 1807 invention of the steamboat, not starting with the 1898 municipal merger that created Greater New York. Manhattan's 1902 Flatiron Building was not a "key breakthrough." It wasn't even the tallest building in New York at the time. The Dutch Republic was not addicted to short-term thinking, notwithstanding the aberrational Tulip Mania of 1636-37. The Dutch poured hundreds of billions of dollars (in modern equivalents) into municipal and national canal systems, with a payoff over generations. And Nikita Khrushchev did not boast of surpassing the West as late as 1970; he was deposed in 1964, and silenced thereafter.

Kotkin's discussion of the suburban boom of the second half of the 20th century is more successful. While it is fashionable to denounce suburbia and the spread cities of the Sunbelt as sprawl, Kotkin views them as the latest iteration of the city. With the rise of inexpensive cars and superhighways, lower densities became possible. People could live in a single-family house on a patch of lawn and still get to work. But in praising suburbia, Kotkin mysteriously drops two-thirds of his triad. Commerce is often zoned out, and the suburbs notably lack civic sacred space. Instead, the suburbs offer privatized space, whether megachurches, gated communities, or shopping malls, where the customer is welcomed and others are excluded. This is novel, although it has precedents in pre-modern European cities like the City of London, which were governed by municipal corporations controlled by merchants.