St. Petersburg was a Disneyland: An interview with Daniel Brook

By Nick Jenisch

Built as windows to the West, the cities of St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Dubai each represent the “instant city” of their region—created by the will of a few, yet wielding an outsized influence on the modern development of their countries. In his recently released book, A History of Future Cities, New Orleans-based author and journalist Daniel Brook examines in entertaining detail each city-as-iconoclast across time.

Through a historical scope and with the use of urban design and architecture concepts, Brook examines the birth and life of places modeled on the West yet firmly anchored in the East. His political observations and spatial descriptions allow the reader to casually hover over each city as if suspended in Google maps while being chatted up by a knowledgeable local. The book’s readability—despite its somewhat esoteric and specialized approach—belies a huge research effort and narrative ability on Brook’s part, facilitating deep understanding of the social and physical structures of each city.

Brook illuminates the overlaps between the cities’ stories, showing historic ties among their founding principles, the commonalities of their rises and falls, and the continued global role for these experiments in urban placemaking.

To consider the imposition of places so culturally distinct from the countries that surround them is to understand the temporality of such simplistic notions of urban intervention. Each city’s busts and booms—as well as their cultural repressions and freedoms—create physical layers and political structures that complicate the “true” identity of each place. World-weary travelers may stray from the beaten path in search of “the real India” or “the real China,” but for them Brook calls into question the idea of purity of place. The real China is both the ancient agricultural landscape and the architectural amalgam of Shanghai. It is their rejected history of imperialism and occupation, and the new norm of intense state control. It is cities both imposed from afar and created from within.

The book’s four case studies represent their countries’ neatest examples of experimentation with foreign influence—but they are not anomalies, and have parallels both abroad and at home. The real from the fake and the local from the foreign cannot always be sorted—as residents of New Orleans likely know. As globalization spreads and cultural influences trade naturally or are imported by decree, we learn that “just because the Romans copied the Greeks doesn’t mean all of history is copying.”  Each civilization adds its own stamp and shapes the future of these historic cities—or in Brook’s parlance, the history of these future cities.

Brook and I recently met to discuss his book over cups of nearly undrinkable coffee from a café in the Marigny I will leave unnamed.

Room 220: How did your prior work lead to your writing this book?

Daniel Brook: Just traveling and reporting, really. I think it’s common for Americans traveling internationally to be surprised and somewhat weirded out—sort of proud and uncomfortable at the same time—at the ubiquity of these snippets of American culture that are everywhere. I wanted to try to explore that, and using the lens of history and architecture allowed me to take a broad view and yet talk about very concrete things that you can still see in many cases.

In 1703, Tsar Peter the Great oversaw the construction of a new Russian capital, a “window on the West” carefully modeled on Amsterdam, that he believed would wrench Russia into the modern world. (photo: Mike Tomshinsky)

Rm220: How did you choose the four cities?

DB: I had been to St. Petersburg a long time ago. The first time I got to Mumbai, immediately I thought, “Oh my god, the similarities are spectacular!” Even though one is the coldest city on the planet and the other is the hottest, there’s the common idea of this city built overnight to look like somewhere else. The Shanghai component came in through some work outside of Beijing, where I was reporting on a suburban development called Orange County. At the end of the day, my translator opened up and said, “Daniel, I don’t understand why an American audience would be interested in a suburban development right off the highway outside of Beijing. I explained that I thought they’d be surprised to learn there’s a Southern California-themed suburban development on the outskirts of Beijing, to which she replied: “Oh, that’s more of a Shanghai thing. They’ve been doing it down there for 100 years,” which brought Shanghai into the mix.  Finally, with Dubai, everybody knows about Dubai. The idea in the book is that there are a lot of places that exemplify these trends, but in order to successfully compare them, it makes sense to choose cities that are household names.

Rm220: How did it help you to live in the cities and how did you choose where to live within them?

DB: Part of living there for a long time was the reality of doing this project on a shoestring budget. If I had money for fixers and translators, I could have done it all a lot faster. I used what social scientists call the snowball method—where you interview one person and, if they’re helpful, you ask them who else you can talk to. In St. Petersburg I stayed in a youth hostel. I think of it as a sign of the times that I have a college roommate who lives in Shanghai, and I stayed in his French Concession apartment. In Mumbai, the real estate is incredibly expensive—which is surprising since it’s such a basket-case of a city—so I stayed in a place for 15 or 20 dollars a night that was not up to code. You could not rent a place like it in a Western city. In Dubai, I was in something called the Golden Sands #3. There was one TV channel in Dubai—I loved it—where you could watch the airport departures.

Rm220: That’s what you do when it’s 130 degrees outside.

DB: Well, on purpose, I was in St. Petersburg for the white nights, so it was as pleasant as Russia gets, weather-wise, and I was in Dubai in January, so it was actually 70, sunny, and beautiful every day.

Rm220: Which city’s residents have been most successful at maintaining some of their traditional culture even as influences from the West seep in?

DB: I think Mumbai. India is unceasingly India, in a way that is sort of mysterious in the world. No matter who colonizes India, ultimately India gets them back. You can see that in looking at a Bollywood music video—if you compare it to what you might see on VH1 or MTV, it’s not a copy, whereas Chinese TV might feature a guy dressed like Michael Jackson doing a really good impersonation of Michael Jackson. There are questions about how copying is seen in different Asian cultures. But China has a lot of other issues at play, in that they had a major, violent, successful attempt to stamp out all knowledge of its traditional civilization. They’re at a bit of a different starting point.

In the nineteenth century, Shanghai became the fastest-growing city on earth as it mushroomed into an English-speaking, Western-looking metropolis that just happened to be in the Far East.

Rm220: Where did you feel the strongest sense of Western influence in terms of architecture and urban character?

DB: In some ways Dubai may be the most Westernized. It’s certainly the most American. I started making a list of all the B-grade food chains that pop up in Dubai. In any of these cities, you’ll find McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, but Dubai has places like TGI Fridays, which is extra funny within the context of Muslim society—“Thank God Its Friday!”—and then Chili’s, Hardees, Arby’s. Although, India is rapidly catching up. I was at the grand opening of India’s first Krispy Kreme last month in Bangalore. It was a red-carpet event.

Rm220: New Orleans was shaped by many foreign influences, arguably in a manner more true to their traditional styles than in other American cities. Do you find any parallels between its development and the Western cities in Eastern lands you studied?

DB: There are definite analogies to Shanghai—though, there, the Britons, Americans, and French built their settlements contemporaneously in different parts of the city, whereas New Orleans is temporally layered:  it’s French, then it’s Spanish, briefly French again, then Anglo-American, and also African and Haitian in its own way. Part of why I, as an American, am interested in all of these cities is that they’re Old World cities as New World cities. Immigrants get jumbled together in a strange configuration and try to figure out what their culture is going to be. That’s the secret of why New Orleans jazz was such a hit in Bombay and Shanghai and even St. Petersburg, with the early communists never really deciding what their jazz policy was going to be—at one point, Khrushchev confiscated all saxophones in the Soviet Union. I think it’s important, as Westerners, to remember that India and China are more like Europe than they are like France or Italy. They are continent-sized countries where people don’t all speak the same language, have certain cultural commonalities and differences, varied climates. So a city like Shanghai, because they have people from all over their countries, is much more diverse than a city like Rome, in a much smaller country.

Rm220: Tell me about your research process:  what people, institutions, cultural observations, or otherwise were helpful in understanding the soul of these cities?

DB: In Shanghai, there’s a very committed preservation movement. It’s largely foreigners, because the regulations that govern NGOs are much looser for expatriates than they are for Chinese citizens. That was an amazing network. I spoke with a retired American embassy worker who took thousands of photos of Shanghai buildings, many of which no longer exist. I also ended up with a lot of contacts in the ethnic Chinese diaspora community who had returned—they had a sense of the history of Chinese culture, and were trying to be a part of its rebirth.

I try to write a lot about construction workers in the book, because they’re emblematic of a lot of what these cities have in common:  grand modern visions for development that are implemented in not particularly modern ways, both in terms of the actual construction materials and the labor conditions on the sites. It was difficult to simply walk into a worker dorm and chat with people, so I used a number of sources, including Human Rights Watch reports, to understand their dynamic.

Bombay, the cosmopolitan hub of the British Raj, morphed into a tropical London at the hands of imperialists.

Rm220: Urban citizens can learn and profit from close proximity to others, but as you point out it can also breed a “culture of lowest-common denominator kitsch.”  Which city felt the most real, in its own time and space, as opposed to an assemblage of parts from elsewhere?

DB: Part of what I wanted to get out of the book is the sense that the older cities look more real just because they’re old, but not because they’re actually more real. St. Petersburg was as much a Disneyland when it was built as Dubai is today. Based on the booms and busts of the cities, and the preservation movements, St. Petersburg, perhaps more than anywhere else, has maintained its historic core. It was growing out even before the revolution, so there is stuff from the 1700s in the middle, the 1800s further out, and the early 20th century even further. It feels like a complete organic space, and Petersburgers are very proud of it—which can become a kind of defensive crouch against modernity in its own weird way, as in, “Don’t screw with our 300 year old city, which was built to be the most futuristic city in the world.”  Shanghai still has snippets of its historic areas, though these are being cut away at the edges because at the end of the day, if the Party authorities want to knock something down, they’ll knock it down. Mumbai has the problem of its historic structures crumbling because the city is in such rough shape. It has real sections of preserved city that give you a sense of an organic whole, but in reality there’s nothing organic about it. These were, in their day, just modern schemes, and they happen to have been preserved. Dubai, of course, has none of this.

Rm220: Your cities often sought to be cultural nodes in addition to trading posts and industrial hubs. How do you view the culture-slinging of New Orleans through the lens of your studies?

DB: Initially, all these cities are business cities, and to some degree political cities. They all become cultural hubs, in some cases, because of a top-down decree—like when Catherine the Great decided to buy the world’s biggest art collection. This is happening more in Abu Dhabi than in Dubai: “We’re gonna buy a Guggenheim,” etc. Mumbai and Shanghai get their culture through business. In Mumbai, people were just trying to make money with movies, and some of them accidentally made art. Shanghai became a center of magazine publishing, and so the writers who flocked to those jobs would also write novels on the side, or just great reportage about the city. Similarly, New Orleans was a commercial city that brought people together and eventually had a market for culture, starting with the lowest common denominator—whorehouse entertainment—and then later, developing into fine art in some instances. The way the city uses culture today isn’t necessarily analogous to any of the cities in the book. New Orleans has never recovered from the Civil War embargo that launched Mumbai as the primary cotton exporter in the world. The virtuous cycle that went from shipping into banking in New York, San Francisco, pre-communist Shanghai, and Mumbai, didn’t happen here, and in no longer being a major world city, the culture being proffered here is perhaps of a different sort.

Now, the sheikh of Dubai has endeavored to transform his desert city into a Vegas-esque skyscraper-studded global hub.