- Circulation and the City: Essays on Urban Culture
In the promotional materials for Los Angeles County’s City of Industry, Mayor David Perez makes clear that his municipality’s major selling point is not the place itself, but the sprawling, interconnected transportation networks that link it to the rest of the state, nation, and the globe. This city where eighty-thousand people work, but less than eight hundred reside, is serviced by four major freeways, three large airports (Ontario International Airport, Los Angeles International, and John Wayne Airport), all with “excellent airfreight facilities,” two smaller airports primarily for private planes and jets, the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific transcontinental rail lines, a mainline switching yard which significantly reduces transit time, and a forty-one mile rail bypass that connects Industry with the two busiest seaports on the West Coast, Los Angeles Harbor and the Port of Long Beach. Additionally, fifty trucking companies are franchised to move cargo in and out of the zero-business-tax city, which as a Foreign Trade Zone is at once physically located within the United States [End Page 227] and “deemed to be outside the U.S. Customs territory.” If there is any city defined by circulation, it’s Industry. Curiously enough, City of Industry’s website has little to entice potential new human (as opposed to corporate) residents into relocating there, except to note the freeway driving time to other locations: twenty-five minutes to the Staples Center, thirty minutes to the Santa Anita Racetrack, forty-five without traffic to Universal Studios. The few residents, many of whom arrived before the city was incorporated and rezoned around them, drive to neighbouring Alhambra, California, for lunch. The local McDonald’s doesn’t serve food: it’s a set for commercials and films. Much like Thomas Pynchon’s fictional edge city, San Narciso, which is twenty minutes west on the 60, Industry is “less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts.”
Alexandra Boutros and Will Straw’s excellent Circulation and the City: Essays on Urban Culture takes the “analytic concept” of “circulation” as the binding agent for the collection’s eleven interdisciplinary and diverse essays that think through the ways peoples and cultures are defined in the contemporary city. Berlin, Buenos Aires, Dublin, Montreal, and Toronto are represented in the volume as nodal points where different social, legal, economic, and physical distribution systems connect in a swirl of bodies and commodities. Los Angeles is bypassed by the editors, perhaps because it has been amply and ably studied by many cultural geographers, including Reyner Banham, who admitted in 1971 that he “learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original,” and more recently by Edward Soja, Mike Davis, and Fredric Jameson who have understood it to be the most peculiar, prototypical, and apocalyptic of cities (5). Its absence is nevertheless notable in a book that promises to explore how the “city [can] be defined and understood in the face of a fluidity and mobility that always links it to places, both literal and conceptual, outside of itself” (10). For the collection’s scholars from sociology, communication studies, literary and film studies, and elsewhere, “circulation” is a key term that usefully makes possible new vectors of cultural analysis by shifting focus away from the “end points in the lives of cultural artifacts” at production or consumption and placing it instead on the movement of material objects, data, people, and ideas through information circuitry (wireless communications technology, electronic and print media, global flows of capital) and transportation infrastructures (metros, highways, sidewalks). When done properly, circulation analysis captures the logic of capitalist exchange, its revolutionary capacity to radically transform urban space and our experience of time by profoundly unsettling, uprooting, and setting in motion cultural practices, belief systems, and entire populations. [End Page 228]
Circulation and the City is divided into three sections that have a great deal of overlap between them: The Mobile City, City Traffic, and City Circuits. The first explores what Boutros and...