Americans Don’t Know What Urban Collapse Really Looks LikeRoundup
tags: archaeology, urban history, catastrophe
ANNALEE NEWITZ is the author of Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age.
If you’ve ever seen a picture of a lost city—maybe in the pages of National Geographic or in the first Tomb Raider movie—you were probably looking at the crumbling temples and immense, empty canals of Angkor, the former capital of the Khmer empire in present-day Cambodia. Thick tree roots have wrapped themselves around massive blocks of stone in its legendary palaces. Flowers grow from cracks in hundreds of ornate towers carved with the Buddha’s serene face. A thousand years ago, Angkor was among the world’s largest cities, with nearly 1 million residents. Today its iconic ruins are as famous as the city itself once was, attracting millions of tourists to Cambodia every year.
Though Angkor has always been widely known in Asia, Europeans became obsessed with it after the French explorer Henri Mouhot claimed he discovered the place in 1860. Mouhot described Angkor as a lost city, its past a fairy tale with no connection to present-day Cambodia. His vision of Angkor captured the Western imagination and popularized a myth about urban life cycles, in which cities follow a linear progression from humble origins to spectacular heights—and then collapse into obscurity. This myth continues to shape public understanding of urbanism a century and a half later. It haunts news stories about “pandemic flight” from Manhattan and San Francisco, and it is the unspoken subtext of anxious questions about whether Detroit and New Orleans, cities battered by economic or ecological catastrophes, are at risk of dying.
Having witnessed a decline in U.S. cities’ fortunes over the past year, many American commentators are predicting the dissolution of entire communities too eagerly. Having spent the past several years researching a book about ancient abandoned cities, I’ve come to realize that urban collapse is a modern-day version of an apocalypse prophecy: It’s always lurking just around the corner, seductive and terrifying, but it never quite happens. Lost-city anxieties, like the ones aroused by the pandemic, result from a misunderstanding of what causes cities to decline. Pandemics, invasions, and other major calamities are not the usual culprits in urban abandonment. Instead, what kills cities is a long period in which their leaders fail to reckon honestly with ongoing, everyday problems—how workers are treated, whether infrastructure is repaired. Unsustainable, unresponsive governance in the face of long-term challenges may not look like a world-historical problem, but it’s the real threat that cities face.
In recent decades, archaeologists and geologists have reanalyzed the evidence about what happened at Angkor. What they found is the truth behind the lost-city myth: Great cities are rarely snuffed out in an instant, nor do they “collapse.” Instead, they transform.
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