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Book Review: What A City Is For

Reading Time: 10 minutes

What A City Is For by Matt Hern is about one of the most important topics of our time: how to deal with housing people and making cities work for all the humans in them. Matt Hern is clearly an incredibly well read deep thinker on this topic with great ideas. And he has written an almost unreadable book that you probably shouldn’t bother with. There must be other authors who cover these topics in ways that are more accessible, clear and therefore useful. This guy seems like a good start (but I only know about him because of this book, so…).

The truth is that I haven’t finished this book, and I probably won’t, or if I do it will take a third renewal from the library. This might mean I can’t fairly review it, except that I’ve been trying to read this book for over a month, and my inability to read it is the core of this review. What A City Is For by Matt Hern, has a fantastic title and premise and is totally, completely, absolutely almost(?) unreadable.

Specifically, the first 130 (ish) pages are the worst (I read them so they can’t be literally unreadable). Somewhere around page 130 (ish) we start to learn about tools that might help with housing, and problems with existing theories about housing supply and foreign ownership. The writing is still convoluted and wasteful, but the arguments are insightful. It’s cool to learn things, but it is still heavy lifting. Mr. Hern seems to be right in his thinking. We all should probably be pushing for and doing the things he suggests. Unfortunately, the book is so hard to get through that it is unlikely to help get people on board… I mean, other than anthropologists (see below), who’s even going to read it? Probably not me and I’m trying to right now!

Not The Right Audience?

On the back of the book Arturo Escobar, Professor of Anthropology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill says (amongst other nice things) that What A City is For is “eminently readable”. Which is probably a bad sign, because anyone using the word “eminently” is probably reading different books than me. After reading the first half plus of this book I’d argue that calling this book is calling is, generously, a stretch. But I am not a professor who’s “approach… is largely informed by the poststructuralist and postcolonialist traditions” (eg. he is smarter than me).  

Maybe the intended audience is academics only (?); so maybe the problem is me (too simple of a fella). Regardless, this book could be made much more readable to all humans (assuming academics are also humans) and therefore more usable to a broad public who would benefit from its ideas with a solid re-write edit .

Premise of the Book

Based on the book jacket a paraphrased version of the book’s premise might be:

Did you know that Portland, the most livable of hip cities, is structurally and inherently racist? Matt Hern blows up the myth of Portland as he uses its true history to explore new ideas about how to organize cities, and what we can do to solve home ownership. Set against the backdrop of the displacement of indigenous, marginalized, and the otherwise under-housed and under served he imagines a path to a more inclusive, egalitarian future; a future where cities are for people, not for profit.

At least, that’s what I think it is about. I’m on page 126 156 170 of a dense 244 pages and it’s hard to say if the premise above is accurate, but I think that’s what I’m reading about.

(Note: as of page 148 this does seem to be mostly correct, thought looks like the stuff about Portland is just at the beginning of the book so maybe that was an oversell).

Okay captain complainy, specifically what makes the book so hard to read?

Mostly, the writing style. But also that the author is so hyper-aware of his too many privileges and a multiplicity (see below) of caveats that he tries to cover every base: white privilege, middle class privilege, settler privilege, that one person can’t have every good idea, that is is well referenced, that not every example extends to every situation, that there is no magic bullet, that there are a lot of different problems: small and big and medium and in between small and medium and even larger than large ones to potentially grapple with… you get the idea. Between the book’s incredibly inclusive awareness, academic style, and obtuse word choice (get it?) the narrative (if there is one) never gets anywhere. This starts on the book jacket.

Displacement and dispossessions are convulsing cities across the globe, becoming the dominant urban narratives of our time.

What A City Is For by Matt Hern (book jacket)

This is the most succinct part of the description from the book’s jacket and it leaves me wondering: what does this even mean to anyone outside of a small (huge?) group of anthropologists/activists/sociologists? I think it means that gentrification is displacing poor and other excluded groups across the globe, leaving them with no where to live and no systemic solutions… Yeah? Those are the civic convulsions?

Let’s check out a few more examples. These are not cherry picked. If they were I would have chosen one of the many paragraphs where the word “multiplicities” is used in stead of “a lot” or “a variety” or almost anything else. You can play a game where you flip open the book, choose a sentence, then re-write it so regular people can understand it. If you have the book play along!

To make sure I’m not just pulling something out of context, below is a full paragraph from page 79. Unsurprisingly, the paragraph makes zero sense out of context. To be as fair as possible you should know that as we arrive at the randomly selected paragraph, he’s just been talking about how familiar we are with common property. The previous paragraph (preceding textual context?) is about libraries (ish) and how they are examples of common property (ish) and it ends with a quote about libraries. The library example is a great one. We all own, or don’t, the library. We understand this concept so deeply that we set up other kinds of libraries (ie. tool libraries and more). Because we all understand how to use and share in this common property it is a helpful reminder that we (society) already know how to make common property work (sometimes).

Cool. Now read this. What do you think he means?

Two key points can be added here. The first is that common property definitionally cannot be absorbed into profit-seeking rationalities. Privileging the principals of equitable access is the antipode of the advantages that institutions like corporations or pools of capital are created to accrue. The second and related note is that common property is equally foundational bound by agreements that do an endrun around the classical rationales for the accumulation of property, insisting that it is the only common accumulate.

What A City Is For by Matt Hern, page 79

I just copied this from the book and I don’t know what it means. I’m going to read it a couple more times… and maybe the bit before again too.

Okay, re-read. Here are my three beefs with this paragraph (they extend to the entire book):

  1. Lack of Clarity of Thought
    Two key points can be added here“. He is either a) adding key points to his own previous paragraph; or b) since the previous paragraph ends with a quotation so maybe he’s adding two key points to the quotation? Either way it’s unclear, and it’s his job as the writer to take the time to make it clear. If he is adding key points to the quotation, pull the quotation out of the above paragraph and make it clear what the fuck is going on ie. make this new paragraph about the quotation. If (worse) the answer is “a” and he just is disorganized in his thinking and can’t keep track of his main points, then screw off. You just wrote a full 16 line paragraph and didn’t include the key points? Why did I read it? What is even happening here?
    Since we’re nitpicking, let’s talk about “the second and related note” as a representation of the insane level of redundancy found throughout the book. If we are covering two key points about a topic doesn’t it follow that the second point is related inherently? If somehow the second key point is totally unrelated then a)why are we talking about it, and b)that’s probably worth calling out. This redundancy is just one of the many techniques that make the book needlessly more confusing (and it started at confusing) and longer (also unhelpful).
  2. Fake Accessibility
    Throughout the book he tosses in colloquial vernacular (see what I did there?) maybe to seem like this is all a super normal way of talking(?). In the example paragraph he casually writes “end-run” as if he’s writing like a regular guy having a conversation. Fuck off, this is like building a wheelchair accessible bathroom at the top of a flight of stairs. You are not allowed to use super common regular person language in a paragraph that includes the words: “pools of capital”, “classic rationals”, and, “antipode“. The writing is already as pretentious as fuck, either clean it up or don’t pretend it isn’t.
  3. Unnecessarily Academic .
    Academic jargon is best (ideally only) used when the terms have specific meanings that other words cannot quite capture. This helps academics share complex concepts with each other with out dumbing them down or writing extra explainy paragraphs. This isn’t that. All of this could be said without using “antipode” to mean opposite. If you didn’t click on the link, “antipode” is a geography term that means the opposite point on the earth from another point. When talking in geographic terms it is probably help to say antipode instead of writing out the whole definition. When you’re not writing about geography it is either a) pretentious, or b) a smart person’s lazy choice of words or c) a desperate attempt to signal how smart/academically seeped the writer is. A through C all suck as reasons to have used this word. While I’m ranting, “definitionally” is a jerk way of saying by definition. By definition is two words, but uses fewer characters (12 vs 14) and is actually readable. This is not the first or last time that he uses a fancy word to cause needless confusion, and make the book longer than it needs to be.

What A City Is For is full of these three types of mistakes, and honestly they just piss me off. Does anyone like feeling dumb? Does anyone like being talked down to? Who likes their time being wasted? Leave me alone book! Why you make me feel so dumb and confused?

Let’s see if there is a way to re-write this paragraph in a way that a regular person (me, you?) can understand and (🤞) read without getting frustrated. So you don’t have to scroll up here’s the paragraph again.

Two key points can be added here. The first is that common property definitionally cannot be absorbed into profit-seeking rationalities. Privileging the principals of equitable access is the antipode of the advantages that institutions like corporations or pools of capital are created to accrue. The second and related note is that common property is equally foundational bound by agreements that do an end-run around the classical rationales for the accumulation of property, insisting that it is the only common accumulate.

What A City Is For by Matt Hern, page 79 (82 words)

Maybe this could be:

Common property examples like libraries are reminders that, by definition, common property can’t be used to make money for any one corporation or individual. Spaces that are for the good of us all do an end-run around the idea that property is most useful as a way to accumulate wealth. It turns out that we already have models of collective ownership that we know, love and use every day.

What A City is For paragraph edit (70 words)

I think that might be what he means. If I’m right, then we’ve saved 12 words and written something that regular humans can read. Assuming we can do this through out the book, the book could be 15% shorter, (207 pages instead of 244) and readable wouldn’t that be great! If I’m wrong about what I wrote being readable, or if you’ve read the book and I’m wrong about what he means, email me or let me know in the comments section.

You get the drift. The beefs I have with the writing (lack of clarity of thought, fake accessibility, unnecessarily academic) are the main reasons you shouldn’t bother with this book. All of these failures come together to create a tone of victimhood depreciation the sense that the author suffers not only from the whims of “pools of capital”, “political thrusts”, and “speculative profiteering”, but also his own ability to control his own writing.

I want this chapter to gesture toward a city of generosity.

What A City Is For page 165

Again, what the fuck does this even mean? But getting beyond how a chapter might gesture. It’s the modifiers at the beginning of the sentence that make this even worse. “I want”. Cool. You want the chapter to do something specific? Well, good thing you’re the writer. How about:

This chapter gesturers toward a city of generosity.

re write

I mean I literally still don’t know what that sentence means, but at least it isn’t thrown out hoping that it just might maybe do it’s job. It still fails because there are all sorts of gestures and I don’t think chapters make them. What if the chapter is giving the middle finger to a generous city? Is that still within the meaning of this sentence I hope so.

In the next three pages there is another example of this lazy I’m not in control of my own thoughts (I mean to be fair after reading the book he clearly isn’t) that made me want to throw the book (didn’t), or at least rant on the internet (you’re reading it). There are actually, many examples of all three of the problems described above (“exhortative”, “the predicate of”, “critical, even essential” ). But this example of lazy, poor me, writing really got my goat (as it were, I don’t have a goat).

Policyt took are only effective in the context of an aggressive, creative, and flexible push -pull strategy…

What A City Is For page 165 (emphasize added)

And while it is right to argue for “an aggressive push-pull strategy” there is something about that phrase that rubs me the wrong way when I use it…

What A City Is For page 165

He writes a thing, then four fucking pages later he not only quotes himself (holy pretentious shit), but he also disagrees with himself? What is happening here? Why didn’t he figure out what he wanted to say before he wrote it? Why am I on this journey with him? If the book was framed, as us going on a journey of self discovery as he struggles through how to grapple with (insert academic sounding BS here). But it’s not. It’s a book about (literally) what cities are for, using Portland as an example we can all learn from. Or that’s what it says it is, as you can tell from this, it’s not. It’s not actually about anything because not even the author is in control of what is happening in this book. It is one long, academic, off-putting fail.

It really makes me wonder who the editor was. Are they friends? Enemies? The book was published by MIT, was the editor a computer? I just do not understand who was so busy looking up who’s asshole that the book was allowed to go to print in this current form.

This Book is Full of Really Good Ideas and We All Should Be Implementing the Policies and Actions Matt Hern Suggests

The worst part of this whole thing is that the book is that is full of very good ideas, but they are shared in such an inaccessible, unreadable, I can’t even bother to get through it, kind of a way that the good ideas don’t matter. Worse, they may even alienate people (like me) who are fundamentally onside. This book has taught me about some smart, important ideas. Things like a Land Value Tax and CLTs (what did that stand for again?) sound great! And after reading what I have of What A City Is For (170ish pages)I know they exist. The bummer is I’m probably not going to finish the book so who knows what other actionable gems I’m missing out on (it looks like he is about to list a series of things I could actually do, but I’m so over this that I’, not going to read them). Now I just need to find a book to explain the ones I have learned about (wikipedia seems like a good start).

I have learned some things, exercised my brain, been deeply frustrated, and with earned authority can tell everyone I know that Portland has a deeply racist history (like most places, but more so). That might have been worth it. I just wonder if I’ll ever finish the book. In the meantime I’ve picked up Arlo Finch and boy is this series terrific!

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