The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster

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  • The Resilient City: HowModernCities Recover fromDisaster

    Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella.New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    This is an optimistic book. Its thesis is thatcities, like people, show their deepest characterafter terrifying events. Throughout history, citieshave been sacked, burned, torched, bombed,flooded, besieged, leveledyet they almost al-ways rise from the ashes, stronger than ever.

    A fine example is Jerusalem, the greatest site ofphysical destruction and renewal in history. Forover three millennia, it has suffered wars, earth-quakes, fires, sieges, reconstructions, transitionsfrom one religious faith to another. Time andagain, it has regenerated itself, and still Jerusalemthe Golden, rich in history, scripture, and myth,endures.

    Nor do we have to leave our own shores todocument the resilient essence of urbanism. TheBritish invasion of Washington in 1814 left it inruins. Today, our capital is the seat of the worldsonly superpower.

    Many other examples come to mind. In 1871,Chicago was almost entirely destroyed by theGreat Fire. San Francisco lay in smoldering ruinsafter the catastrophic earthquake of 1906. Look atthese cities today! Now switch to the world scene.Between 1100 and 1800, cities such as Baghdad,Moscow, Aleppo, Mexico City, and Budapest lostbetween 60 percent and 90 percent of theirpopulations. Yet they were rebuilt and eventuallyrebounded.

    Lines from one of Rudyard Kiplings famouspoems provide the leit motif for the book:

    Cities and Thrones and PowersStand in Times eye,But, as new buds put forthTo glad new men,Out of the spent and unconsidered EarthThe Cities rise again.

    Sometimes even lost cities, such as RomesPompeii or Algerias Timgad, are found and thrive

    on tourism, education, remembrance, or evenmyth. Saddam Hussein recreated Babylon, un-deterred by scant archeological remains.

    Following a twenty-page introduction by theauthors, the book is divided into three parts:Narratives of Resilience, the Symbolic Dimensionsof Trauma and Recovery, and the Politics ofReconstruction. Each of the fourteen chapters iswritten by a different author, two by joint authors.They are all held together by this goal: Bystudying historical examples, we can learn thepressing questions that have been asked in the pastas cities and their residents struggled to rebuild (9).

    In an attempt to summarize a complicatedsubject and the essays in the book, the twoauthors offer Twelve Axioms of Resilience.Because they are provocative and challenging, Ilist them here: Narratives of resilience are apolitical necessity. Disasters reveal the resilienceof government. Narratives of resistance are al-ways contested. Local resilience is linked tonational resilience. Resilience is underwritten byoutsiders. Urban rebuilding always symbolizeshuman resilience. Remembrance drives resilience.Resilience benefits from the inertia of priorinvestment. Resilience exploits the power ofplace. Resilience casts opportunism as opportu-nity. Resilience, like disaster, is site-specific.Resilience entails more than rebuilding. Otherfactors intervene. Industrial Detroit, an extremeexample, has lost nearly a million people since1950.

    Like their subject, the authors too are resilientand farsighted. In an era when those traits are inshort supply, their well-researched and documen-ted account is welcome. The Resilient City offersa deeply informative and unsentimental tribute tothe dogged persistence of the city, and indeed ofthe human spirit. City officials and planners andstudents at home and abroad will find this bookindispensable.

    Marshall W. FishwickVirginia Tech

    456 The Journal of American Culture Volume 28, Number 4 December 2005