In a captivating tour of cities famous and forgotten, acclaimed historian Ben Wilson tells the glorious, millennia-spanning story how urban living sparked humankind's greatest innovations.
“A towering achievement.... Reading this book is like visiting an exhilarating city for the first time—dazzling.” —The Wall Street Journal
During the two hundred millennia of humanity’s existence, nothing has shaped us more profoundly than the city. From their very beginnings, cities created such a flourishing of human endeavor—new professions, new forms of art, worship and trade—that they kick-started civilization. Guiding us through the centuries, Wilson reveals the innovations nurtured by the inimitable energy of human beings together: civics in the agora of Athens, global trade in ninth-century Baghdad, finance in the coffeehouses of London, domestic comforts in the heart of Amsterdam, peacocking in Belle Époque Paris. In the modern age, the skyscrapers of New York City inspired utopian visions of community design, while the trees of twenty-first-century Seattle and Shanghai point to a sustainable future in the age of climate change. Page-turning, irresistible, and rich with engrossing detail, Metropolis is a brilliant demonstration that the story of human civilization is the story of cities.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
Step into the bustling streets of history with this fascinating look at city life throughout time. Starting with ancient archaeological sites like the six-million-year-old Uruk and continuing through to sprawling present-day Lagos, British historian Ben Wilson finds the consistent benefits and drawbacks to bringing together such a diverse crush of humanity in one spot. Wilson leaves no cobblestone unturned, drawing incredible comparisons like the unexpected similarity between 1700s London and ancient Baghdad (hint: it’s the street food). Of course, his findings aren’t all rosy—the tales of industrialized Manchester and Chicago include details so horrid that even Dickens and Sinclair left them out. Despite these ugly realities, Wilson makes a great case that cities have routinely driven society’s evolution. Metropolis has a lot going on, and all of it is fascinating.
Historian Wilson (Empire of the Deep) offers a sweeping survey of how the rise of cities over the past 6,000 years has shaped human history. Before 1800, Wilson notes, no more than 5% of the world's population lived in "sizable urban areas," but demographers project that by 2050 cities will be home to two-thirds of humanity. To examine "the people who settled in cities and the ways they found to cope with and survive the pressure cooker of urban life," he profiles a diverse array of metropolises at critical moments in their history. Medieval Baghdad, for example, evokes the convergence of far-flung culinary traditions that has long been a trademark of large cities. The rush to build "bigger, better and more profitable" skyscrapers in early-20th-century New York City illustrates the powerful market forces at play in urban centers, while a portrait of post-WWII L.A. examines how white flight, the rise of suburbia, and globalization contributed to the modern-day phenomenon of the "supersized megacity." Wilson also describes the "Paris Syndrome," in which 19th-century tourists with romantic notions of the French capital were scandalized by the grime, overcrowding, and rudeness they encountered there. An amiable and well-informed tour guide, Wilson stuffs his account with intriguing arcana and analysis. Armchair travelers will be enlightened and entertained.