polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Book Review: The Spoken-Word Urbanism of AbdouMaliq Simone

by Alex Schafran

“The experiences I discuss here have been complicated, and clear and simple lessons are not easily packaged. The language of description will thus always be complicated at times. It will not always be clear just what is going on, as stories open up to other stories.”
- AbdouMaliq Simone, For the City Yet to Come, p.15

A quintessential urbanist for the 21st century, AbdouMaliq Simone has never shied away from the complicated or confusing, instead seeming to seek out urban environments far off the map of the flaneur set. His new book, City Life from Jakarta to Dakar is certainly “always complicated at times,” and vertically integrated coherence is certainly not the goal. In many other books, books that claim to be coherent but fail to achieve it, or who offer nothing if the endoskeleton falls apart, it is a critique that would resonate. But for Simone, this is not the point, for as cities are not coherent structures, the stories must “open up to other stories,” and the sense that one could read the book, or the paragraphs, out of order is seemingly part of the point.

This is not to argue that there is not a cohesiveness to City Life, to its intertwined emphasis on movement, intersection and circulation, in Maliq’s never-ending quest to treat cities of the South as places in their own right, or in his way of bouncing between the world of ideas, the movement of policies, capital, resources, etc. and actual stories from actual places.

But it is nice, at times, to be freed and even empowered to gather and pick and assemble your own set of findings from the text. Whether it is an unknown Spivak story about Harlem (262) or a brilliant quote about the relationship between race and class by a heretofore unknown (to me) Harry Chang (291), or an observation that a set of (urban) relationships may be functional without being egalitarian or just (93), one can glean what one chooses to use as one needs to, or pleases to, much as many of the actors in Simone’s stories are forced to do in actual space and place with both ideas and infrastructure. New twists are possible – the realization that in the global north, the discussion can not simply be about movements and frictions and “bouncing-off” (189), but about the dialectic relationship between movement and inertia, or that the one area where Simone delves into the United States – the subject of blackness – is a clue that it is one of the few remaining areas where American urbanism continues to hold relevance outside its narrow confines (I would argue suburbia is the other).

He almost forces you into the creation of a collage of your own making, an individualized reading that is both incomplete and a mixture of well- and misunderstood, and that this is quite all right. His writing, like his cities, are constructed at the overlapping intersections of multiple circulations of varying movements, and like his cities, can be alternatively brilliant and frustrating.

It would be a shame if everyone wrote like Simone, and even more of a shame if he didn’t.

Credits: Image of City Life book cover from flipkart.com.