late arrivals: thoughts on catch-up urbanism

I came to Shenzhen by way of Houston circa 1995. It was a time when the boom had fizzled and young developers were just rediscovering the downtown. The city I inhabited was proud to live like a suburb with its lamentable public transportation, its ethnic strip malls and its destination malls like the Galleria. For street life, most of us bypassed the Montrose area, choosing instead to drive to Austin or San Antonio, which were further along in their urban renewals.

Houston and Shenzhen are sister cities and they share a rugged individualism that thrives in boom towns. Both celebrate grit or the ability to eat bitterness, both accept dodgy business practices as business as usual, both value informal networks and aggressive masculinity, and both have produced civil societies that are unapologetically neo-liberal even as their nouveau riche have  imported high-priced art from elsewhere to announce their arrival on a scene that is staged in NYC and Hong Kong, respectively.

Houston boomed the 70s and 80s, while Shenzhen’s golden age was the 1980s and 1990s. During the 1980s, their fates were sutured, when Shenzhen became China’s window to the oil and logistics industries. Both comprise important borderlands between national hinterlands and maritime hegemonies that expand via the Gulf of Texas and South China Sea, respectively and both were latecomers to their national cosmographies. That said, their emergence provided also sorts of food for thoughts about the ordering of functions and forms worldwide.

What I’m noticing today is that the catch-up urbanism of both cities emphasizes the future in ways that are simultaneously enabling and down right ignorant.

On the one hand, both cities have embodied the dream of having the good life, exhorting newcomers to overcome their origins and take what’s theirs. This ability to put down our attachment to what we were and move forward has allowed migrants and immigrants to make themselves into Houstonians and Shenzheners even as they remake the city in the image of best life du jour. in this sense, my experience in both cities was one of radical possibility. Even when I felt compelled to make something of myself, in both cities I have also felt liberated to step outside, on top of and around boxes. Of course, the point in both cities is a bit more prosaic: make and sell the boxes, control the circulation of boxes, and while you’re at it, build bigger ports for the multimodal processing of boxes from all countries. But the point still stands: both Houston and Shenzhen have provided me with an environment that celebrated my efforts to change my fate.

On the other, the relentless call to catch-up has meant viewing the past as evidence of one’s previous insufficiency. What’s more, the emphasis on catching upand surpassing everybody else justifies all sorts of dodgy deals and corruption; success in both cities is self-justifying. Consequently, it is not simply that Houstonians and Shenzhers feel pride in the past as something that they have overcome, but also that remembering the past brings no joy, no satisfaction because that was when we did what we had to and what we had to do doesn’t speak well of who we claim to be today. It’s one thing to say I’ve come so far. It’s quite another to say I got here through prostitution, environmental contamination and a ruthless disregard for workers’ wellbeing.

In a recent article, Michael Kubo comments that in Houston he, “encountered a city that seemed to have little nostalgia not just for its architecture, but also for its own prior theorizations.” What surprises me about that comment was his surprise at Houston’s indifference to any aspect of its past except as means of moving forward. Houstonians, like Shenzheners don’t ask, “how did we get here?” Instead, they ask, “how do we get ahead?” And their architecture and theories were not produced in order to set some global standard, but rather to become the standard. Here’s the rub: once you catch up, once you become world class, the theories and histories of our making can be (and are easily) jettisoned for more useful narratives of becoming without any inkling of how we came to be.

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