Two books that will make you see cities in a whole new light

Unlock the origins and secrets of urban life with Monica L. Smith’s “Cities: The First 6,000 Years” and Mark Peterson’s “The City-State of Boston.”

Courtesy of Penguin Random House and Princeton University Press
“Cities: The First 6,000 Years” by Monica L. Smith, Viking, 304 pp; and “The City-State of Boston” by Mark Peterson, Princeton University Press, 784 pp.

There are certain attributes that make for an ideal city, as anthropology professor Monica L. Smith makes clear in her lively book “Cities: The First 6,000 Years.” A good harbor, fresh water, a navigable river, and nearby farmland on which to grow crops were each important. But as Smith points out, humans sometimes built cities in inconvenient places, with none of those amenities, because “in looking around them, people found that there was some aspect that seemed ‘just right.’” 

Cities can grow and thrive without those key elements, but as a human innovation in the last 6,000 years, cities added a crucial extra element to the mix: variety. “In urban settlements, unfamiliarity became the measure of human relations,” Smith writes. “People had to adapt to densely crowded neighborhoods full of people they had never seen before; they had to negotiate ritual and political relationships with other newcomers; and they had to accept the near-constant dissonance of interacting with people representing different cultures, languages, and customs.”

More than 50 percent of the world’s population now lives in cities, and that percentage is expected to increase sharply as the 21st century reaches its midpoint. In patient and smoothly readable chapters combining anthropology, archeology, and wonkish earnestness, Smith takes readers on a tour of how cities became the sweet spots of human habitation, tracing the organics of why cities are born, why they flourish, and why they fail. 

The most comprehensive case study of such a life cycle is surely Mark Peterson’s “The City-State of Boston: The Rise and Fall of an Atlantic Power, 1630-1865,” a sweeping history of Boston from 1630 to 1865, charting the development of the city from its earliest days when John Winthrop and the Massachusetts Bay Company in 1630 set up “a commonwealth remarkable for its autonomy, including an independent religious order free from the Church of England’s scrutiny.” 

In Peterson’s telling, by far the most important word in such a summary is “autonomy.” His mammoth account – over 700 pages of battles, controversies, revolts, and galvanizing personalities – turns on the central idea of a bedrock rivalry: not between Boston and New York or Philadelphia, as usually animates books of this kind, but between Boston and the United States. 

The city-state of Boston is perfectly suited for success. It nestles in a beautiful natural harbor; it sits next to a broad, navigable river; it fronts rich, arable land (Peterson calls it “hinterland”) and looks out on the limitless bounties of the sea. Boston was established by a royal charter and quickly became a busy hub of commerce and shipping, bustling and self-sufficient. As Peterson points out, the Massachusetts Bay Company from the beginning attracted a different kind of settler than other colonies: solid, knowledgeable farmers, artisans, and “other prosperous middling sorts” flocked to Boston and the surrounding towns, and they tended to be wealthier or more capable than the “poor and rootless people with few economic options” who emigrated to the other English colonies. 

For such a city-state, as formidable and vital as any of the famous city-states of the Italian Renaissance, the rise of a Federal government system in the new United States could scarcely help but be a mixed blessing. In this perspective, the ratification of the Constitution “turned out to be a fateful mistake.” The further the country moved on from the Revolution Boston had led, the further behind it left Boston: “[I]t became evident that the preponderance of [the federal government’s] power lay in the hands of people who no longer recalled the time when the cause of Boston was the cause of all America or that the union had been founded by the collective states to prevent the destruction of any single member.”

The rise of that federal government was the rise of a national state shaped in large part by the Southern power bloc, and “The City-State of Boston,” in the course of telling the most detailed and entertaining history of Boston that’s been written so far, watches the future darken as the American Civil War comes to a close and an old city faces a new and less autonomous future. But since the ensuing century would also be a time of great art, world-renowned higher learning, and successful progressive social programs, maybe Peterson should contemplate a sequel. As Monica Smith’s book clearly demonstrates, cities adapt.  

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