Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Urbanist

Posted by Maximum Fun on 30th December 2012

Vital stats:
Format: on-location segments all over the world about “the people and ideas shaping our urban lives”
Episode duration: ~50m
Frequency: weekly

I know very few people without a conflicted relationship to Monocle magazine. My own began some five years ago, when I happened upon an early issue on a Barnes & Noble rack. Designed to the hilt, as interested in clothes as in coups, almost unnaturally calm but aggressively internationalist, taking full advantage (rather than desperately clinging to the legacy of) the print medium: here was a publication geared toward me, if almost too precisely. “Is This the Family of the Future? Meet Japan’s New Demographic,” “The Ascent of Brasília,” “Rebranding Britain,” “Generation Lusophonia”: all real Monocle cover stories, beyond which you’ll also find pieces on vintage bicycles, Swedish spas, cinemagoing in Bangkok, and the choicest brands of sneaker cleaner. Unable to bring myself to dislike any of this, l nevertheless sense that enjoying it too openly somehow exposes me, though to what I don’t know. Some disparage the magazine as “aspirational,” but no sooner do I agree than I wonder where, exactly, lies the problem with aspiring, especially if you harbor aspirations of such aesthetic immaculateness.

Seemingly always expanding beyond the core product, Monocle has founded an internet radio station, Monocle 24. As the host and producer of a podcast on “cultural creators, internationalists, and observers of the urban scene,” I now find myself dead center in another set of the operation’s crosshairs. In no possible universe could I resist The Urbanist [iTunes], its program on “the people and ideas shaping our urban lives.” I plundered the archive just as greedily as I devoured the pages of my first issue of the magazine: slick fifty-minute episodes on late-night neighborhoods, on pedestrianization, on train stations, on “great shopping experiences,” on Auguststraße. I heard pieces on the metropolises that intrigue me or have given me lasting memories: Vancouver, Tel Aviv, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Wellington. Yet I heard little about the metropolis that fascinates me more than any other in America, and the one I have for that reason made my home: Los Angeles.

Not that this surprises me; I bore with weary resignation the similarly glaring absence in Gary Hustwit’s otherwise almost-too-appealing documentary Urbanized (which gets a segment, appropriately, in The Urbanist’s very first episode). Both projects overlook the West Coast’s largest city for understandable reasons, though ones that suggest troubling blind spots. From the beginning, Monocle’s framework of place drew me in, making me realize that I’ve long conceived of the world not as a collection of countries or even cultures but as a matrix supporting cities. I still scan their Livable Cities Index, but at this point the concept of “livability” strikes me as having fallen somewhere between meaningless and perverse. It has, so far as I can tell, something to do with clean streets, steep prices, public transportation, and sheer blandness. The perpetually high placement of Zurich continues to confuse me, no matter how often they explain it, and to paraphrase something a friend once said, any list that ranks both Sydney and Melbourne in the top ten is a list bought and paid for by the powerful kangaroo lobby.

We might put the terms “livable” and “civilized” side by side. I daresay that Monocle, and by association The Urbanist, cares more about civilization than anything else. Many of those irked by the Monocle sensibility get irked by the yawning moral vacuum this opens before their eyes. Not to put it too millennially, but this media enterprise seems to have civilized itself into a post-moral universe, where discernment is the highest value. This can smack to some of complacency, but nothing about the actual production of the magazine or this show — their crispness, their organization, their, er, urbanity — suggests even the slightest laxness. Now, I count myself as a true fan of civilization, but whenever I spend good time in the Portlands, Aucklands, or Kyotos of the world, something inside me immediately longs for a certain nebulous, hard-to-rank quality, faint or absent in these “livable” cities but ever-present in the outwardly inhumane Los Angeles — let’s call it vitality. The Urbanist surely understands, sometimes prizes, and often circles around this vitality, but it can’t quite bring it into its calculus. This town draws its strengths from its third-world qualities, and at this point I can say that if Los Angeles is a third-world city, I don’t want to live in the first.

As a healthy counterbalance to Monocle, I read Apartamento, an equally print-embracing magazine dedicated to international urban life in a more makeshift, improvisational, even ramshackle mode. Yet to judge by the clothes I wear, the languages I study (though I have yet to join Generation Lusophonia), and the sneaker cleaner for which I shop, a Monocular creature I remain. The Urbanist thus has much to offer me and the rest of my city-living, non-car-owning, all-downloading, design-obsessing, non-reproducing, national boundary-disregarding generational cohort. We’ll no doubt always wonder how far the internationalism, diversity of interests, and exacting aesthetics of what we read, watch, and listen to run beneath their surfaces — indeed, how far they run beneath our own — but continue reading, watching, and listening we will. Not every extension of Monocle’s world works for me — I doubt I’ll ever return to their store in the Brentwood Country Market, a remote shopping center that brandishes all the wealthy Angeleno’s faux-casual grotesqueries — but I suppose I can’t help but sign onto the overall program. We’re all complacent about something, after all.

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[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes] and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]