Category Archives: cities

Ukraine means borderland

This isn’t a travel blog, and my photos aren’t very good, but here are some images that hint at Ukraine’s history as a borderland (which is its very meaning).

For instance, a minbar (the staircase a preacher ascends in a mosque) is preserved inside the rococo church of St Nicholas in Kamyanets-Podilsky.

The same city’s cathedral preserves a minaret. The Ottomans had built towers all around this building, as at Aya Sofya in Istanbul. When the Poles regained the city, they removed the other minarets but had to retain this one for structural reasons. They surmounted it with a gold Madonna.

At Khoytn, the border is symbolized by a massive fortress, built and partially leveled in sequence by Christian, Muslim, Christian, and modern totalitarian armies.

In Chernivtsi, while it was still Austro-Hungarian Czernowitz, each “nation” had a handsome cultural house of its own: the Romanians, the Ukrainians, the Germans, the Poles, the Jews. The Ukrainian house made space for the first international Yiddish conference in 1908, because the city’s Jewish leadership favored German and Hebrew.

Today, the former Jewish People’s House still sports Atlas-type sculptural figures, two of whom are unusual in that they look upward.

In the old auditorium on the third floor, where the stair-rail still shows a Star of David, the stage was set with a cross when I wandered in. The building is understandably used for various community functions today, in a city that is overwhelmingly Christian. This sight was nevertheless a bit disconcerting. (I suspect the Nazis smashed the other Jewish symbols in this room.)

But downstairs is a fine museum celebrating and mourning the annihilated Bukovinian Jewish community, including this mass-produced Hebrew typewriter from the interwar period.

Here is a raffish Art Nouveau/Orientalist building called the “Sorbonne,” in the University area of Chernivisti. I saw it at dusk, when the sunflower’s face had sagged.

That could be an elegy for the faded elegance of Austria-Hungary. But the sunflower must have turned upward again the next morning, because there’s always a dawn. Half a century after the “Sorbonne” opened, Chernivtsi’s now-Soviet citizens could take off from their space-age airport under a frieze of Sputniks and ICBMs.

History didn’t stop then, either. Since I was last in Chernivtsi in 2015, a cheerful new 24/7 pharmacy has opened across the street from the “Sorbonne.”

Dubai, Uganda, and today’s global political economy

My family and I are just back from visiting our daughter, who works in Uganda, with a two-day stop in Dubai, where there’s a change of flights en route from Boston to Entebbe. We chose these destinations for family reasons. But it’s significant that Emirates Airlines flies direct from Dubai to Uganda. Even though the United Arab Emirates is small, and these two countries lie far apart, the UAE is Uganda’s 4th-largest source of imports. Dubai, an “Alpha+ Global City,” is a hub in a network of financial and human capital for a vast hinterland that includes Uganda, where 84% of the population still depends on subsistence agriculture.

There is much to like in both places—and reasons to hope that their futures will be brighter. However, if the worst aspects of each state predominate, and if the world increasingly resembles this pair of nations, then the human future will be dystopian.

Two centuries ago, both the Buganda Kingdom north of Lake Victoria and the Sheikdom of Dubai were independent monarchies. If we assume that today’s basket of most desired goods (life expectancies above 70, individual freedom, security, etc.) define human development—a contested assumption—than both societies were poorly developed. But they had rich and complex cultures and social structures.

The British made both kingdoms into dependencies and then subsumed Buganda within a full-fledged colony. The period of colonialism must have been experienced as traumatic in both countries. There were important differences. For instance, most Ugandans–but virtually no Emiratis–converted to Christianity. But they also shared some experiences, such as in-migration from South Asia. (Indians and Pakistanis now far outnumber Arabs in Dubai.) Police departments, accounting firms, factories, and many other innovations that we might label “modern” or “Western” arrived in both places with the British.

They gained independence within ten years of each other, but their economic trajectories have split. Dubai, a city-state entrepôt on one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, has become the 9th-wealthiest nation in the world, with a per capita GDP of nearly $70k. Uganda, a land-locked agricultural nation of 38 million, ranks 163 out of 188 countries on the Human Development Index and has a per capita annual GDP of $572 and a median individual income (my favorite summary statistic) of $2.50 per day. By definition, that means that half of Ugandans live on less than that much–at least as far as a cash economy is concerned–and one in five live below the poverty line of $1.90 per day.

Their political trajectories have also split. Dubai has been a stable absolute monarchy within the federal structure of the United Arab Emirates. Political rights are nonexistent; there is no legitimate public sphere, in the sense of a zone where citizens freely form public opinion and influence the state. The Ruler may choose to consult, but he decides. Most residents are not citizens in any sense; about 90% percent are expatriates.

Albert O. Hirschman argued that two strategies are valuable when you don’t like how things are going: exit or voice. In Dubai, political voice is irrelevant or even illegal. But exit (along with entrance somewhere else) is prevalent. People shape Dubai by moving themselves and their assets there or away, whether they are construction or domestic workers from India or the Philippines or bankers or real estate developers from wealthy nations. With the exception of the most exploited workers, they can leave if they are dissatisfied. This means that Dubai has been created by its residents, not by the Ruler. It’s the residents who have thrust astounding numbers of postmodernist skyscrapers out of the desert or have withdrawn their capital when dissatisfied. But their influence is entirely individual and apolitical.

Uganda, meanwhile, has had a tumultuous history, with only three presidents (although four regimes) so far since independence, and still no peaceful transfer of power. We visited the underground cells behind Idi Amin’s former presidential palace where thousands were tortured and killed by electrocution; no one left those chambers alive. I don’t think I am naive about the limitations of the current democracy, as Yoweri Mouseveni spends his 31st year in the presidency. Yet Uganda is a democratic republic. The people govern through representative institutions, albeit with several dubious elections since 2001. The newspapers call Ugandans “citizens,” respecting them as the people who ultimately govern the republic and implicitly holding them responsible for doing so. (I think respect and responsibility are what define a republican form of government.)

Three democracy indices from V-Dem (not available for UAE)

The Ugandan press is vibrant and competitive. The standard journalistic style is a bit more stenographic than what we are accustomed to in the US. Many articles basically report what someone said, in the same order that he or she said it. But the perspectives captured in these stories are diverse and often sharply critical. There is a public sphere, even if the state is somewhat unresponsive to it.

If voice is more evident in Uganda than in Dubai, exit is rarer. Few Ugandans can afford to or want to leave, although remittances from emigrants are rapidly growing. The largest migration of people consists of refugees into the country from South Sudan; they lack both exit and voice.

In Dubai, the global consumer brands are pervasive, including the Trump brand, now attached to a huge new golf course. There is a preserved old quarter that represents traditional Emirati culture, but it is probably smaller than one Bulgari ad on the side of one high-rise office building. We saw at least four billboards for completely different products that used the same format: a White woman in fashionable Western clothes and an Emirati man in a traditional white dishdosh and headscarf are beaming at the same consumer good. Even though about 70% of the residents are Asians, rich Westerners and Arabs are the normative consumers.

In Uganda, despite a few ads for Coca-Cola and Pepsi, the global brands are rare. Almost all stores are one-story brick structures with a raised front wall that can display messages above the door. By my count, about 30% of the stores in the cities and along the paved intercity roads (but fewer on dirt back roads) display painted advertisements for a handful of local brands, mostly telecom service-providers, construction materials, and detergents. Another notable form of advertising consists of new mosques, ubiquitous next to the roads in this overwhelmingly Christian country, thanks to funding from Turkish and other Middle Eastern sources. Finally, one often sees the logos of aid agencies: national, multilateral, or nongovernmental. In one national park, a sign announced that the signage had been given by the “people of the United States” through USAID. Paying for the signs that carry our national logo seems a way to maximize the ratio of branding to actual benefit.

Language often offers insights into culture. I’m sure that individuals in each country have unique relationships to the languages they speak, but I’ll risk some generalizations about English in Uganda and in the UAE. Ugandan (or East African) English is a branch of the language, like the Queen’s English or my own. It is mutually intelligible with American English, yet highly distinctive, full of terms for local foods and activities, loan-words from Swahili, and idioms and rhythms that make it a vehicle for expressing a particular culture. You could learn to speak Ugandan English, and that would be a linguistic attainment, an addition to your repertoire.

The English of the UAE sounds to me like what one learns in a second-language course in a business college. It is error-prone but functional, jargon-filled, strictly pragmatic. It might offer possibilities for creativity and insight—but I doubt it. I’m guessing that most residents experience cultural depth and aesthetic satisfaction in their native tongues. In Joseph O’Neill’s wonderful novel set in Dubai, The Dog, the narrator says, “I have a real soft spot for the habitual accent of Arab speakers of good English, in whose mouths the language, imbued with grave trills, can seem weighted with the sagacity of the East. (See Alec Guinness in Lawrence of Arabia.)” That may be true, but only 12% of the UAE’s residents are Emirati, and not all of those speak good English. Purely functional English–plus math–is the code of business, and business is the culture that counts in Dubai.

Looking toward the future, one can imagine that Dubai adds political liberties and public deliberation to its market freedoms, and Uganda not only honors the true spirit of its republican constitution but also develops sufficiently so that all its people attain the core human capabilities. That would be a better world. To be even more utopian, we might hope that the relationships among Uganda, Dubai, and the inevitable third corner of the triangle–the OECD nations–becomes genuinely just, not just in the sense that human circumstances converge but also that the people of Uganda can make real claims on the people of Dubai or New York.

One can also imagine that Dubai continues to prosper without political freedom, much as Shanghai also does today. Absolute monarchies seem quaint, but arguably the real players in Dubai are the big corporate investors, and corporations are not democracies. Their influence could grow, not only in Dubai but in all the Global Cities. Indeed, as the world gets hotter, dryer, more postmodern, higher-tech, more racially intermingled, yet more culturally homogeneous, one could imagine that all the cities that dominate the global economy will look like Dubai today. Already, the man whose portrait hangs in every federal office building in the USA also has his name on the huge billboards for Dubai’s newest golf course.

Meanwhile, Uganda faces rapid population growth, a median age of 15, a worsening climate, unstable neighbors in several directions, and the risk of political instability once Mouseveni finally retires. One could imagine that Uganda will look much as it does today, only poorer and more violent, and that many other nations will look more like it. That is the dystopian future that haunts us.

a welcome talk for college interns newly arrived in Washington

I’d like to welcome you to Washington. I’d also like to welcome you to DC.

To my ear, “Washington” means the official city, the nation’s capital, the seat of power. It’s also the destination for about 20 million visitors a year, because they come to see the sites of the official city: the National Mall, the museums, the monuments, and the great buildings that house our national government.

On the walls inside the Capitol, the courts, the executive agencies, and the Pentagon, there must hang 10,000 oil portraits of former office-holders. Sometimes under a portrait of an obscure ante-Bellum Senator, you’ll see unionized teachers shaking hands with their current, conservative US rep., or teenagers in a huddle trying to figure out where they need to go next. Official Washington is a magnet for all kinds of Americans.

To my ear, “DC” means a mid-Atlantic city of about 700,000 people, plus the inner-ring suburbs where many of the residents have roots in the city proper. DC’s population is just under half African-American, and many of the most deeply rooted DC families are Black.

It’s a city of brick row houses, fall leaves crunching underfoot on a hot and humid day, official buildings shimmering in the smog at the end of long vistas, knots of people in suits with government ID’s hanging from their necks, soldiers in desert fatigues, and the Metro coasting quietly between stations with–in the summertime–payloads of interns.

There are other cities here, too. The international city of embassies, the World Bank and IMF, the global press corps, and 10,000 diplomats. The military city of the Pentagon, the Naval Hospital, myriad defense contractors, and Andrews Air Force Base–with the Naval Academy just up the road. A tech-industry hub that pays relatively little attention to politics and government. A city of scholars and artists. These different cities come together–sometimes uneasily and coolly–in places like the Metro, Nationals Park, and a summer concert at the Zoo.

Washington is a youthful city that depends on talented 20-somethings who can go “all in” for their boss, whether on a political campaign, in a newsroom, or in a tech startup. DC is full of people who came here in their 20’s to do good and ended up doing well. Now they live in spacious houses on tree-lined streets in Cleveland Park or Georgetown, but their years of greatest impact were in their youth, and even today they could get nothing done without their 20-something staffers.

Every year, a new batch of idealists arrive who say, with Alexander Hamilton in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s version, “I’m past patiently waitin’. I’m passionately smashin’ every expectation, every action’s an act of creation! … And I am not throwing away my shot.”

Like Hamilton, you can be idealistic and ambitious, your ambition spurring you to make a better world and be known for it. You have a shot; don’t throw it away.

I’d encourage you to appreciate DC, the mid-Atlantic city, with its neighborhoods and restaurants, its distinctive accents and traditions. People sometimes say that DC is a transient city, but they are thinking about politicians, diplomats, generals, and staffers. DC is also an old and stable city of school teachers, bus drivers, food workers, busboys, and a few poets.

I’d also encourage you to appreciate Washington, the seat of the republic. I know that few Americans are fully inspired by it right now. Some see Washington as a sink for their hard-won salary money and the source of regulations that impinge their liberty. Others behold a militaristic, corporate power center dominating the world, a neoliberal death star. Just four percent of Americans say they have a great deal of confidence in Congress. Most Americans also say that they distrust their fellow citizens. Since Washington represents the whole country, we each see a city that answers to a lot of other people we don’t much like

I spent my own twenty years in this city trying to be a reformer, often with anger in my thoughts and even in my voice. I understand the critiques and share some of them. Yet I would urge you to be open to the grand narrative of the official city.

Take a walk, for instance, up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Look from there onto the National Mall. Chained people were brought there daily to be sold across from the Smithsonian Castle until 1850. The Capitol Dome, however, was completed during the Civil War, and the crowning statue of Freedom was erected there in the same year as the Battle of Gettysburg.

Inside the temple to Lincoln, take a moment to read the Second Inaugural carved into the walls. It’s just four paragraphs long. The third and by far the longest argues that slavery “was the cause of the war.” The speech ends, “let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

In 1963, 250,000 people stood before the Memorial at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, listening not only to Dr. King’s “Dream” but also to Bayard Rustin lead a tribute to “Negro Women Fighters for Freedom,” Mahalia Jackson sing “How I Got Over,” and the grizzled civil rights veteran John Lewis give a major speech at the ripe old age of 23. The program notes from that day, saved by my friend Harry Boyte, reminded everyone, “In a neighborhood dispute there may be stunts, rough words, and even hot insults. But when a whole people speaks to its government, the dialogue and the action must be on a level reflecting the worth of that people and the responsibility of that government.” I imagine the 250,000 women and men who stood there on that day as ghosts on the Mall, still reflecting the worth of our people and still speaking eloquently to their government, which is still our government. We can stand with them.

As we have continued our common story, we’ve added to Washington’s obelisk and Lincoln’s temple vast free public museums of history, art, and industry, monuments to the fallen in several wars and to peace itself, and buildings documenting the Holocaust, Native American history and culture, and African American history and culture.

Every nation-state is problematic. It sets boundaries, excludes people, and exercises power. But a nation-state is also a tool for making the world better and for accomplishing great things together. It becomes what we make it become.

What we have made of the United States so far is quite literally etched in the stone of Washington DC. We are still building it, whether we happen to be American citizens or not, literally and metaphorically.

Young people have always played a disproportionate role. Coming here to serve is a privilege. It’s a learning opportunity. It can be fun. It puts you into the story of tragedy, crime, sacrifice, and redemption that is this country.

Hamilton did more than any founder to found Washington, even though he’s the only one without a monument on the Mall. In the musical, he sums up his life. “I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me. America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me. You let me make a difference.”

You follow in his footsteps. Make a difference.

roots of crime

Since May, I have been able to spend time in two of the world’s biggest metropolises, Istanbul and Mexico City. They are similar in several ways beside their vastness. Each is the leading city of a substantial and proudly independent nation with a distinctive culture. In both, neighborhoods of poor, traditionally religious migrants from the countryside abut cosmopolitan secular districts.

One significant difference is the crime rate. Three people per 100,00 are murdered annually in Istanbul, versus 13.2 in Mexico City. This is a case where a quantitative difference becomes qualitative. In Turkey, crime is so low that I have seen—admittedly, in a smaller city than Istanbul—a whole shop’s worth of consumer goods left outdoors and unguarded overnight. In Mexico City, conversation quickly turns to avoiding violence. Is it safe to hail a cab? (Generally, the answer right now is: No.) Can you drive safely along a certain road?

According to Philip Mansel (in Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire), Istanbul was notably safe in the 1500s, when it was already one of the biggest—or perhaps the single most populous—city in the world. “Merchants could leave stalls unattended; pastry-sellers trusted members of the public to pay for the wares they left on a small round tray.” Mansel quotes Lord Charlemont’s report from the 1700s: “Housebreaking and street robbery, crimes so unfortunately common in our great towns as to render dwelling in them unpleasant and unsafe, never happen in the Turkish metropolis, and a man may walk its streets at all hours of the night with his pocket full of money, without the smallest fear of danger or molestation.”

Charlemont had an explanation: “the salutary rigour of frequent acts of execution.” It is hard to believe that executions were more frequent in Constantinople than in London or Paris, where a child who stole a roll would be hanged. And even if the Ottomans really used capital punishment more than the English or the French, I doubt the executions of those days can explain the safe streets now.

The “broken windows” hypothesis won’t explain the difference, because Mexico City and Istanbul are both rather chaotic and rife with violations such as illegal construction. Poverty is not a likely explanation, because Mexico City’s per capita GDP is twice as high as Istanbul’s, and its inequality index is not much worse. The proportion of residents under age 20 is virtually identical in both cities. Any explanation of the difference may have to be regional, because Mexico City shares similar crime rates with most other large cities in its region. (With Istanbul, it’s a little harder to say what the region is, and I cannot find crime statistics for possibly similar cities, such as Tehran.)

I’m sure there’s a large literature on this topic, but no persuasive explanation is well-known enough that it has reached me.

I suppose one possibility is that there is no root cause. Crime is part of a cycle: each act of violence begets more violence, puts strains on the state, and makes law-abiding behavior less rational for other people. Once you get into a high-crime pattern, it is hard to get out. But if you can avoid or stop the circle, you may be better off even five hundred years later.

Boston, recovering city

(On the train to NYC) It’s my sense that the second half of the 20th century was hard on America’s oldest city, but Boston is recovering from the wounds it sustained then.

Boston entered the 1900s as the hub of the first region in the United States to industrialize. It had its own factories, but mainly it provided the harbor and the financial and managerial center for a ring of manufacturing cities from Lowell to Fall River. Founded early and always prosperous, Boston had assembled cultural resources that made it a claimant to being America’s intellectual capital. Politically, it was a battleground between WASP Republicans and Catholic European working-class Democrats–not a pleasant struggle but sometimes a dynamic one. People of color were largely marginalized, but their communities had impressive assets. The city was especially attractive thanks to its architecture and its location at the mouth of the Charles. It had its own distinctive businesses that were points of civic pride, from Filene’s Department Store to the Red Sox.

But the industrial base largely collapsed. The harbor lost most of its business and became notoriously polluted. That meant that the city lost its traditional face to the sea. I-93 was blasted through the central core, and a terrible brutalist City Hall also marred downtown. Because the city was relatively small, each bad large building was a blow to the whole. The department stores faltered and ultimately closed. As in other cities, white middle class residents moved out and left a declining post-industrial economy to African American migrants and new immigrants. In Boston, white resistance was especially explicit and violent. The rest of American grew two- or three-fold while Boston shrank as a proportion of the nation’s economy, cultural leadership, and population.

Although I liked Boston when I first encountered it in the mid-1980s, I think it was a wounded city then. Having lived in the metro area continuously since 2008, I would now describe it as recovering. The Big Dig buried I-93, and the city is stitching together over it. The harbor is clean and graced by some fine new buildings, private and public. Boston again has a face to the sea. Biotech is flourishing. Certain de-industrialized zones, such as east Cambridge, are now massive building sites. The metro area has become multiracial and multicultural. Racial injustice is certainly not resolved, but I sense positive momentum. Boston’s fifth century should be much better than its fourth (unless we sink under the seas because of polar melt).