REVIEW OF “CITY POEMS & AMERICAN URBAN CRISIS: 1945 TO THE PRESENT" BY NATE MICKELSON

January 16, 2019

 

 

Nate Mickelson’s book “City Poems & American Urban Crisis” (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019) is based on the author’s PhD dissertation at the City University of New York.  It is a refreshing text which uses poetry about the city as an entry point to engage the imagination in understanding cities and also imagining what they could be.  It highlights the limitations of the rational planning approach and cuts a new channel to descend from the high tower and engage with the artful humanity of the city.

 

This book is about places as poetry. It is about cities as more than the built form; cities as reflected in the imagination of its dwellers, with each person building the city through their engagement with it.  And most importantly it is about the power of the imagination in transforming the city.  It posits that through collective imagination communities can radically change the cities they inhabit.  The city is a poem, the poem is art, and art is creation.  Author Nate Mickelson has created an inspiring text that can help empower readers and their communities.

 

UNDERSTANDING CITIES

 

“City Poems & American Urban Crisis” starts with an introduction to urban poetry as product of city life in the mid-twentieth century United States.  It opens with a poem by William Carlos Williams about the place of poetry in our lives—a perfect introduction to the two main themes of the book: poetry and the creation of place. It explores the interaction between poetry and place through several well-chosen poems that are analyzed in detail.

 

The reader is introduced to the work of Charles Olson, an important poet who influenced many leading poets of the 1950s and 1960s, including the Beat Poets and the San Francisco Renaissance. Mickelson says that Olson showed that “if he wants to understand American history he [the poet] should immerse himself in a particular place and track the relations between the place and ‘everything else’ that constituted its landscape. . . that poetry can serve as a ‘fundamental basis for facts and how one absorbs knowledge about the world, how one responds to the world’” (page 42-43).  In other words, poetry about a place is a gateway to understanding and engaging with that place.

 

The next two chapters explore Los Angeles and New York City at critical moments in the twentieth century. It is here that urban critical resistance is introduced through the lenses of social movements and the right to the city.  Social change and art are intertwined in the Los Angeles School of urban theorists and Edward Soja’s concept of the “thirdspace”, where conflicts between the processes of urbanization and resistance produce “lifeworlds that are radically open and openly radicalizable.”  Mickelson also cites Henri Lefebvre, who said “art can become praxis and poiesis on a social scale: the art of living in the city is a work of art.”

 

Mickelson invites us to see that the future of the city starts in our minds and can be enacted through artful living.  The chapter about New York opens with a poem by Nuyorican poet Pedro Pietri and explores the Nuyorican art movement and its relationship to the built and social environments as a catalyst for social change.  Parts of this chapter are tender and touching as windows open into the nuances of living a rich life in a rundown place. This shows us a reality that is both magical and attainable; where the city is pulsing with a cascade of living art and words are the creators of everything.  The heart of this book is that poetry, words, and art are inseparable from the city because it is our stories that propel us to build and engage with the city.

 

ADVOCACY PLANNING AND POETRY

 

The final section of the book is of special interest to urban planners.  Drawing on the urban poetry in earlier chapters, it shows how the concept of the urban commons became a central element in urban planning.  It begins by showing how planners largely neglect community knowledge because “it is often conveyed through emotional or sensual descriptions and uses personal experience rather than impersonal data.” Mickelson points out the disconnect this bred in New York, where neoliberal planning pushed people out to replace them with money.  A poetry of resistance arose alongside community planning and was the foundation for alternative planning practices centered around community advocacy.  Another hopeful illustration of what this planning model looks like is provided through the case the Los Angeles River.  The river was abandoned and neglected by development-driven planning and became a place of concrete and chain-link fencing. However, insurgent poetry was able to encapsulate an image of beauty and nature in this area bordering an immigrant community.  In this poetry, subtlety and potential are equally as important as the overt concrete reality.  The river is also a focal point for community groups working to achieve this futurist vision, making it a prime example of the overlapping features of beauty, art, and structured community organizing.  The river exemplifies how poetry can be a means to change reality by seeing what we believe a place can be and then working together to make it happen.

 

This book is a refreshing contribution to urban studies and urban planning.  Today’s dense critical theory would be more accessible and palatable if it started its analysis through the creative entryway forged by poetry.  Once in the room, visitors introduced by stimulating poetry will find the ideas, references, and insights to be fresh and understandable.

 

Even though the dense writing style and numerous academic references in this book often interrupt the free flow of ideas, Mickelson makes strong points about the way that rational planning overlooks moments of interconnected humanity, and about top-down structures that degrade street-level community building.  It would have been useful to see some examples of how communities have responded to rational planning to successful ends.  His central point is about the importance of poetry and while he does not disparage using this approach in conjunction with others, he also does not propose a means for each to strengthen the other.  The thesis of this book could have been strengthened if it had documented the ways that community organizing and critical urban theory, even when not poetic, can challenge urban inequalities.  Still, it is a worthwhile read for planners, poets, community activists and anyone wishing to be inspired to create the existing and future worlds in their mind.

 

Maya Amichai began their career in urban planning by moving from city to city throughout their 20’s, which stirred their analysis of cities from the vantage point of the streets.  They since earned a Master’s degree in Urban Planning from McGill University and are currently living in the Bay Area and working for The City of Vacaville.

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