April 16, 2019

Monica L. Smith

On the history of cities, urban anxiety and the sustainability of takeout
Interview by

Monica L. Smith is an archaeologist and professor of anthropology at UCLA. Her fascinating new book, Cities, looks at the 6,000-year-old phenomenon of urbanism. She draws on her fieldwork at sites worldwide as well as on scholarship and contemporary observation to produce a thought-provoking look at cities. Naturally, we had some questions.

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Monica L. Smith is an archaeologist and professor of anthropology at UCLA. Her fascinating new book, Cities, looks at the 6,000-year-old phenomenon of urbanism. She draws on her fieldwork at archaeological sites worldwide as well as on scholarship and contemporary observation to produce a thought-provoking look at cities. Naturally, we had some questions.

You say that this book was a lot of fun for you to write. What are the top two or three things that made it so much fun?
First of all, writing the book was a chance to relive many exciting moments that I’ve experienced at the ancient (and modern) cities I have known and loved. And it was possible to go from one to the other in my mind and on the page in ways that wove together a story about continuities and similarities. Secondly, as an archaeologist I’m accustomed to solving puzzles in which there are a lot of missing pieces. Through a comparative approach, even if a piece is missing in any particular ancient city—some cities have historical documents but others don’t, and some cities have been thoroughly excavated while others have not—we can put together an urban picture by creatively examining the parts that are preserved. And searching for images was enjoyable, too, because I found some amazing things in my research like Juan de Solórzano Pereira’s drawing from 1653, in which he fancifully placed eyes on the city walls—300 years before the invention of CCTVs!

You write that your favorite place in Rome is not among the usual tourist sites but instead an ancient trash dump. Where’s the fun in that?
Archaeologists aren’t driven just by the romance of ruins but by the sheer thrill of putting together a story of the past through the bits and pieces that we find. The trash dump of Monte Testaccio is at first glance nothing particularly special, but then you look closely at the hill and realize that the whole thing is made up of potsherds. Just think of all of the wine and olive oil that was shipped and spilled there! There must have been lively chitchat 2,000 years ago about whether Falernian or Sardinian or Cilician wine was best (just like the conversations that you have in your local Trader Joe’s about the relative merits of vintages from France, Italy and Argentina). Another fun aspect is that Monte Testaccio is much less crowded than the usual tourist sites, where it’s sometimes hard to contemplate the past because there are so many people trying to get the perfect angle on a selfie.

You are a professor in UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. Yet in this book you more or less sing the praises of consumption and ancient takeout food. Aren’t consumption and sustainability at odds?
That’s a great question, and one that I’ve also been thinking about. As ecologically minded global citizens, our approach to consumption might be all wrong if we try to stop consumption rather than figuring out why we want to consume in the first place. For the past million years, our species has been focused on getting more stuff, which is not an impulse that we are going to be able to stop or turn around very easily. Having “stuff” is a marker of what it means to be human. (Even Marie Kondo isn’t trying to get us to give up all of our stuff but to focus on things that are meaningful and joyous!) As for takeout food, it’s probably more sustainable in terms of food waste than preparing meals at home. Just imagine that you want a kale salad for dinner: If you buy a whole head of kale and a jar of garlic dressing, much of it will go bad in between tonight and your next kale craving. But if a restaurant buys that head of kale, then it will be used up by a whole variety of consumers and thus not go to waste. And takeout food has a certain kind of social justice encoded in it, because of the jobs that enable a vast diversity of people to make a living.

You note that most ancient cities were not built in “paradisiacal locales.” In a nutshell, why do cities seem to prosper in challenging environments?
Most cities are really great for something (like being a trade port or a ski capital or a manufacturing place), but few cities are all-purpose, and some of them are downright illogical in their placement—like New Orleans because of floods or Tokyo because of earthquakes or ancient Rome because of malaria that was at the time endemic to the swampy lowlands of the Tiber. Yet their residents are happy to overlook a city’s deficiencies because other characteristics make it worthwhile to dig out from disaster, over and over again. And once you get a population in a densely occupied area like a city, there are opportunities for new kinds of jobs that keep people there. Richard E. Ocejo (Masters of Craft, Princeton 2018) has recently written about cities in the U.S. that were once manufacturing hubs but have evolved into centers for the knowledge economy (information management, finance and technology). Even though there are “growing pains” such as gentrification associated with those transformations, the cities themselves don’t lose populations and just keep right on going.

You write of humans as migratory beings and of the vibrancy of cities being in part due to their mixture of people and cultures. In what way, if at all, does that shape your opinion of our contemporary debates on refugees and “illegal” immigrants?
Cities are intricately bound up in national discussions of migration and ethnicity around the world. We know that when immigrants can choose their destinations, they tend to head toward cities to maximize their employment and continuing-education opportunities. (Remember that immigrants include professionals as well as manual laborers.) In the U.S., programs of refugee resettlement target cities as places that are already diverse. So we shouldn’t be surprised that cities are front and center for discussions about all types of migration.

At one point, you write that we need an archaeology of the disenfranchised. What would that look like and mean?
Most archaeologists have focused on elite residences, tombs and temples, which makes it appear as though ancient societies were somehow richer or more prosperous than ours. Low-income people and slum dwellers are part and parcel of every urban center in the modern world, and increasing amounts of archaeological research show that they were omnipresent in ancient societies as well. We can study these low-income populations by digging in areas on the “backsides” of fancy houses to find servant quarters and makeshift housing, and by looking at the health and well-being of the whole population as archaeologists in Rome and Mesopotamia have started to do. That research can make us a little uncomfortable with our assumptions about ancient behavior, because mortality profiles and habitual violence as revealed by skeletal evidence show that urban life has always come with haves and have-nots. If we want to combat that trend in our own cities, we have to recognize that we need to work harder on equalizing urban opportunities instead of assuming that everyone will do well on their own.

Most of your current fieldwork is in India. What are you discovering?
Along with my Indian colleague Rabindra Kumar Mohanty and our many faculty collaborators and students, we have been digging at both a large urban center and smaller village sites in eastern India. The village sites are particularly interesting to study because they are quite modest: there are very few consumer goods, and the housing was made of perishable materials like bamboo and thatch. Once the city was started, it seems that people—especially young people!—ran away to the “bright lights” of urbanism where they could experience things that seem very mundane to us now but that would have been new and exciting to them: brick and stone buildings, formal marketplaces where they could get ready-made food, new types of construction work on projects like the mighty city wall and the opportunity to spend their earnings on cheap but stylish trinkets like beads and terracotta ornaments.

You cast many of your descriptions of ancient cities and activities within those cities in surprisingly contemporary terms. Why did you decide to write about the long-ago past in this way?
Actually, it’s the data from the past that provide a compelling first-person realization that people in ancient cities had the same experiences and perspectives that we do. When you read in 2,000-year old poetry from India that “bejewelled dames in sky-high mansions live, whose fine clothes wave about their waists,” you can’t help but think about Beverly Hills. When you read a text from ancient Mesopotamia about 350,000 goats and sheep, you can’t help but think about the Chicago Board of Trade. And when you read about Juvenal complaining that he can’t walk in the street without being bumped by some clumsy guy with a barrel, you can’t help but think about the way that you dodge delivery people on the sidewalk whether you’re in Manhattan, Mumbai or Mombasa.

I’m curious about your observation that “the excess of anxiety is not a flaw of urbanism but a design feature.” How is something unpleasant like anxiety helpful to city life?
Most of the anxiety that we face in cities isn’t necessarily debilitating or unpleasant but simply a result of calculating the benefits of the increased choices of food, work and goods that we have in an urban setting compared to rural places. When we have an examination or a job interview or are simply buying a new appliance or trying out something different for lunch, what we are really doing is engaging in a process of risk and reward as we try to have something “better,” even if we are not quite sure how it is going to work out. In cities our choices are amazingly varied, and at every scale: what neighborhood to live in and what school for your kids, but also, “If I buy those cool shoes, will I finally start running again?” And on a serious note, when we do face significant and debilitating anxieties, there are more facilities and experts to treat them in cities than in the countryside. (Many studies have observed that the suicide rate in rural areas is higher than in cities.)

With our largely interconnected planet today, isn’t almost every person a city-dweller, even if they live in the sticks?
Well, there’s still a difference between being affected by cities (which practically everyone in the world is) and actually living in one. One telling example is the way in which tech companies such as Google and Facebook are sticking with the urban form even though they have to pay much higher prices for office space. If they were being logical about costs, they would locate themselves “in the sticks,” as you say. (They are digital corporations after all!) But instead they are going right into the heart of cities because they want to attract the kinds of workers who thrive on the amenities and diversity that only cities can offer.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Cities.

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By Monica L. Smith
ISBN 9780735223677

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