Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Book Review: The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster

This book review appeared on H-Asia in my mailbox today. Enjoy!


September 12, 2005

Book Review (orig. pub. on H-URBAN) by Andrew Herscher on Lawrence J.
Vale and Thomas J. Campanella, eds. _The Resilient City: How Modern
Cities Recover from Disaster_
(x-post H-Review)
Ed. note: The recent events on the American Gulf Coast in the aftermath
of the Hurricane Katrina have provided a fresh examples of how cities (and towns) must face the issues of recovery from disaster. I emphasize this plurality because most of our media are drawn, perhaps inevitably to New Orleans rather than neighboring localities. This review reflects the book which focusses primarily on non-Asian subjects, apart from Tokyo. Thus, it is a bit off our primary remit. At any rate, the topic should be of interest. FFC
From: H-Net Reviews

Published by H-Urban@h-net.msu.edu (June, 2005)

Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella, eds. _The Resilient City:
How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster_. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. xiv + 376 pp. Illustrations, notes, index. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 0-1951-7583-2.

Reviewed for H-Urban by Andrew Herscher, Program in Comparative and World Literature, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Disasters in Cities, Cities as Disasters, and the Dialectic of Urban
Resilience Though cities are always shaped by destruction as well as construction, the particular history, forms, and problems of urban reconstruction became exceptionally salient in the United States after September 11, 2001. The destruction of the World Trade Center--or, more precisely, the predominant narration of that destruction by U.S. politicians and the media outlets that reiterated them--yielded a newly-heightened interest in how cities respond to disaster in both popular culture and academia.

This book is one of several edited collections that have grappled with
postdisaster reconstruction in the wake of September 11. To varying
degrees, the historical moment of these books--that is, the aftermath
of September 11--has conditioned their enunciation of the history of
reconstruction. In the case of _The Resilient City: How Modern Cities
Recover from Disaster_, this conditioning is especially consequential.
the same time, however, through the depth of the essays collected
it, _The Resilient City_ far surpasses previous edited volumes on urban
reconstruction that have come out since September 11.[1] And perhaps
usefully, _The Resilient City_ contains a number of essays that
and extend their authors' previous book-length treatment of their
subjects: Edward T. Linenthal on Oklahoma City; Max Page on New York;
Brian Ladd on Berlin; Carola Hein on Tokyo; and Diane E. Davis on

The editors of _The Resilient City_, Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J.
Campanella, frame the book with a sweeping claim: that "although cities
have been destroyed throughout history--they have, in almost every
risen again like the mythic phoenix" (p. 3). This resilience is, so the
editors argue, a universal feature of urban phenomena; "it has become
increasingly rare," they write, "for a major city to be truly or
permanently lost" (p. 5). Equating "resilience" with postdisaster
"recovery," the book sets out to explore, then, the reconstructive
capacity of modern cities; how, the editors ask, "do modern cities
recover from disaster?" (p. 5).

The responses to this question are divided into three sections. The
section, "Narratives of Resilience," comprises three chapters that
examine accounts of disaster in U.S. cities: Chicago after the 1871
San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire; Oklahoma City after
bombing of the Murrah Building; and New York during two centuries of
capitalist "creative destruction." For Edward T. Linenthal, a narrative
of civic renewal after the Oklahoma City bombing and after September 11
in New York "signified the defiance of these wounded cities" (p. 61).
This narrative, Linenthal writes, "is a very real one, not merely a
rhetorical strategy to domesticate the horror of those events" (p. 65).
Linenthal also notes, however, that while narratives marked the
"resilience" of these cities after disaster, disasters in addition
as "commodities used in ongoing ideological battles" (p. 66). That
narratives of resilience are themselves ideological, however, is
out by Kevin Rozario in his essay on post-fire Chicago and
post-earthquake San Francisco. Rozario describes how the scripting of
disasters as "instruments of progress" allowed them to be recuperated
within pre-existing and hegemonic narratives of urban progress and
development. Rozario writes that "part of the attraction of disaster
narratives surely lies in their power to settle those who have
experienced the unsettling of their worlds" (p. 33), but he shows how
this reassurance necessarily invokes the ideologically-saturated hopes
and fears of the writers and readers of those narratives.

Both Linenthal and Rozario conclude their essays with reflections on
narrativization of September 11; the third essay in this section, by
Page, looks explicitly at discourse on New York's destruction both
and after September 11. The subject matter of each essay, then, is
emplotted more or less as a pre-history to September 11. Linenthal thus
posits the afterlife of the Oklahoma City bombing as "an appropriate
map" to the aftermath of September 11 (p. 58); Rozario sees the
"optimistic narrative script" of post-disaster Chicago and San
enduring in that aftermath (p. 46); and Page places September 11 in the
context of two centuries of visual and textual narratives of New York's
destruction. This rendering of history as September 11's prehistory
raises, however, two questions.

First, while each of these three authors addresses what we can learn
about September 11 from the narratives of previous disasters--both real
and imagined--in U.S. cities, the question of how September 11 itself
reframed our understanding of those narratives is left unasked. The
question is important because not only do past narratives of resilience
inform our understanding of September 11, but September 11 informs, if
not determines our understanding of these narratives. Previous American
urban disasters are now September 11's prehistory, a historical status
that both foregrounds certain understandings of these disasters and
represses other understandings, yet in these essays historical analysis
only flows from past to present, and not from present to past.

Second, the editors frame this section of the book as an examination of
"the ways that humans assemble stories to explain or inspire processes
recovery" (p. 15). According to the editors, the three essays in this
section, "demonstrate both the power and seeming ubiquity of resilience
narratives" (p. 16). These three chapters, however, are all devoted to
modern or contemporaneous U.S. cities, are all framed by September 11,
and are all focused on the specific predicament of post-September 11
York. The editors' framing of these chapters as universalized
of "humans" and as discussions with a cross-cultural and globalized
"ubiquity" thus reflexively positions September 11 as a model for the
urban disaster as such, leaving any and all other models completely
unexamined. Traces of this positioning occur throughout the book, and I
shall return to its consequences in the conclusion of this review.

The second section of _The Resilient City_ is entitled "The Symbolic
Dimensions of Trauma and Recovery." This section includes five essays,
but in a book explicitly devoted to "the modern city," the relevance of
two of these essays is somewhat unclear--one considers a series of
buildings in Jerusalem, most of which were built and/or destroyed from
hundreds to thousands of years ago, and the other focuses on the
reconstruction of Washington, D.C., after it was burned by the British
army in 1814. The other three essays in the section deal with the
and late-twentieth-century reconstruction of European cities:
Gernika/Guernica after the Spanish Civil War, and Berlin and Warsaw
the Second World War.

Each of these three essays suggests, in varying depth, the complex
relationship between "rebuilding" and "recovery." Jasper Goldman
describes how the ideological discourses and political projects of
Poland's newly ascendant Communist government shaped the post-war
reconstruction of Warsaw. Brian Ladd tells the even more complex story
Berlin's postwar reconstruction in its Eastern and Western halves.
describing the different notions of history, modernity, and recovery
framed reconstruction in East and West Berlin, Ladd also marks the
separation between ideological statement and conditions of production
both contexts; West Berlin's exposition of the free market economy in
reconstruction of the Hansa quarter was actually made possible by the
mass expropriation of private property, and the expense of East
model reconstruction, the _Stalinallee_, made it impossible to
While Ladd and Goldman discuss urban recovery primarily in
terms, Julie B. Kirschbaum and Desiree Sideroff describe how, in the
case of Gernika/Guernica, the city's physical reconstruction actually
intensified what the authors term the "emotional destruction" of its
surviving residents and their descendents. Because the city was rebuilt
by the same authority that ordered the city destroyed--Franco's fascist
government--the trauma of that destruction was further intensified.
dynamic leads Kirschbaum and Sideroff to ramify "resilience" into
distinct registers, which they term "physical," "emotional," and

While all these discussions point to the complexity of postdisaster
reconstruction, the case studies that comprise this section are, as in
the previous section, remarkably similar. The editors frame the section
as an examination of "the extent to which urban disaster and recovery
driven and signaled by a succession of highly symbolic actions" (p.
If the section included case studies of cities outside of Europe and/or
devoid of international importance, however, the salience of "highly
symbolic actions" in disaster recovery would probably be mediated by
other sorts of actions, less symbolic and more instrumental. Again, it
appears as if post-September 11 New York has furnished a model for
historical interpretation, a model that radically transforms what it
putatively seeks to only describe.

It is in its third section, devoted to "The Politics of
that the promise of this book is delivered most thoroughly. The essays
this section cover a more diverse range of case studies, providing a
friction against the universalization of American and European case
studies. In addition, several essays comprise masterfully thick
descriptions of their urban objects of study, and one, by Diane E.
is also a brilliant theoretical meditation on the theme of urban
resilience itself.

In her essay on "Resilient Tokyo," for example, Carola Hein examines
Tokyo's reconstruction following a series of disasters induced both by
natural forces and by war. By constructing this broad historical
she is able to show that "societal changes more than disasters per se
key to understanding Japanese urban transformation" (p. 229). Hein's
account of reconstruction in Tokyo also allows her to contextualize,
rather than universalize European case studies. In Europe, she writes,
"disasters may provoke more transformation (or provoke even more regret
over what disappeared) than similar disasters in, for example,
Japan, where physical destruction of buildings occurred regularly, and
the intangible urban culture and power structures stayed the same" (p.
230). In her essay on Mexico City after the 1985 earthquake, Diane E.
Davis further expands on the relations between physical reconstruction,
urban culture and power structures, and in so doing decenters the
but typically unexamined meanings of urban resilience. Davis describes
how "the case of Mexico City shows that it was precisely the resilience
of some of the most corrupt and unjust people and institutions in the
capital that made the post-earthquake recovery and reconstruction
so dreadful" (p. 273): the police, the national army, and the ruling
party, the _Partido Revolucionario Institucional_. At the same time,
most important reconstruction efforts were conducted by citizen groups,
which were not so much "resilient" after the earthquake, but rather
spurred into existence by the government's failure to address the
earthquake's consequences.

Davis's essay throws into relief the assumptions that guide the
framing of this book and most of the book's component essays. Already
encoded in the book's title, which poses urban resilience against
disaster, the two key assumptions are that resiliencies themselves are
not disastrous and that disasters are not resilient. The pre-disaster
urban status quo, in other words, is normalized, and interruptions to
that status quo are assumed to be disordering, disturbing, and
disastrous. Politically, such assumptions are components of ideologies
legitimation. And historically, such assumptions support the hegemonic
understanding of September 11 as a singular act of violence
a global regime of peace and order, rather than as one moment in a
long-running historical structure of global violence and

The essays collected in this book thus only deal with punctual
such as earthquakes, fires, wartime destruction, and civil unrest. The
editors concede that the book only focuses on "sudden or episodic forms
of disruption," but argue that recovery from these disruptions involve
"socioeconomic consequences," a term which seems to stand in here for
structural forces (p. 7). Nevertheless, many types of urban disaster
in fact, structural: structural underdevelopment, institutionalized
corruption, neoliberal urban disinvestment, deindustrialization and so
on. These comprise "structural disasters" that are themselves
but by only including "sudden" disasters in the book, the editors are
able to present urban resilience as a simple and positive value.

The editors have therefore secured their thesis on the inevitability
worth of urban resilience by omitting the many counterexamples of
terminal urban disaster. It is thus profoundly significant that the
mostly ignores the global south: no cities in Africa, Southeast Asia,
Southeast Europe, and South America are discussed here, cities in
as Abdoul Maliq Simone has written, "for many residents, life is
to a state of emergency."[3] Moreover, not only do these
of urban resilience force a re-evaluation of resilience's anodyne
character, but they are themselves enmeshed with the examples included
this book. The resilience of cities in the global north, that is, is at
least partly secured by the exportation of their destabilizing and
risk-intensifying infrastructure to the south: pollution, low-wage
and so on. Many cities in the global south are enduring massive
population explosions, largely in the form of new inhabitants of
immiserated and immiserating urban slums.[4] Yet, while the growth of
populations is simply a sign of urban resilience in _The Resilient
it is only such a sign in relatively prosperous and relatively stable
cities, the cities most often considered in this book.

This book, then, not only explicates "narratives of resilience," but
is just such a narrative itself, a narrative that offers specific
consolations in the post-September 11 United States. In the conclusion
his essay, Kevin Rozario points to this doubled status, writing that,
"this very book on the resilient city surely testifies to our ongoing
yearning for stories to help us come to terms with major disasters" (p.
46). Rozario points out that it is reassuring, in the wake of September
11, "to discover how well American cities have recovered from the
terrible calamities that have befallen them" (p. 46). Yet this
of resilience is far from benign, as the following question, which the
editors pose in the introduction to this book, makes clear: "Does
doubt that Kabul and Kandahar--or Baghdad and Basra--will also
once protracted fighting finally comes to a close?" (p. 4).

The question is not at all rhetorical, and it reveals the stakes of the
discussion undertaken here. Americans are currently presented with the
"protracted fighting" in cities in Afghanistan and Iraq as closely
connected to the resilience of U.S. cities, to the protection of
from future urban disasters. To assume that cities currently under
assault by U.S. forces will simply "reemerge" from this violence via
natural force of urban resilience is to refuse to see the dialectic of
resilience, the way in which the resilience of U.S. cities after
September 11 has been secured by rendering Kabul, Baghdad, Basra and a
still-expanding set of other cities anything but resilient. A few years
ago, as Mike Davis described, "American fighter pilots drop[ped]
bombs chalked with the names of dead Manhattan firefighters on the
of Kabul--a city infinitely more tragic than New York."[5] Kabul is a
tragic city, and a city, like others outside the scope of this book,
whose disaster has been perpetuated and intensified in the very name of
(American) urban resilience itself.

Walter Benjamin pointed out in his "Thesis on the Philosophy of
that "the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the state of
emergency in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must
attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this
insight."[6] The best essays in this book attain this conception, but
others, comprehending disaster as simply exceptional, as only an
interruption of urban resilience rather than as a predominant form of
that resilience, yield a history that demands further probing.


[1]. Joan Ockman, ed., _Out of Ground Zero: Case Studies in Urban
Reinvention_ (Munich: Prestel, 2002); Raymond W. Gastil and Zoe Ryan,
eds., _Information Exchange: How Cities Renew, Rebuild, and Remember_
(New York: Van Alen Institute, 2002).

[2]. Edward T. Linenthal, _The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in
American Memory_ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); Max Page,
Creative Destruction of Manhattan, 1900-1940_ (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1999); Brian Ladd, _The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting
German History in the German Landscape_ (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1997); Carola Hein, Jeffrey M. Diefendorf, and Ishida Yorifusa,
eds., _Rebuilding Urban Japan after 1945_ (New York: Palgrave
2003); Diane E. Davis, _Urban Leviathan: Mexico City in the Twentieth
Century_ (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994).

[3]. AbdoulMaliq Simone, _For the City Yet to Come_ (Durham: Duke
University Press, 2004), p. 4.

[4]. UN-Habitat, _The Challenge of the Slums: Global Report on Human
Settlements 2003_ (London: UN-Habitat, 2003).

[5]. Mike Davis, _Dead Cities_ (New York: New Press, 2002), p. 18.

[6]. Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," in
_Illuminations_, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1969), p. 259.

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