An extract from the introduction to Megacity, edited by Kathleen McCaul Moura and published in June 2020 by Boiler House Press
It was the megacity that taught me to hustle. In 2011 I arrived in São Paulo, pregnant, on the arm of a local who was neither rich nor poor. We needed to find some healthcare but, because I was already expecting, none of the insurance providers who cover the middle classes and a good part of the working class in Brazil would take us on. Filipe, my husband, did not panic. He simply found what locals in that extraordinary city of twenty million people call a jeitinho – a little way.
Working things out with a doctor friend of his, based at São Paulo’s only well-respected public hospital, he told me we needed to fake an emergency. I was to go to the hospital’s A and E, and tell them I was eight weeks pregnant and that I had been bleeding heavily. They would register me on the computer system; then, before I was seen, Filipe’s friend would collect me and sneak me onto the maternity services system a few floors above. Job done, free public healthcare for the next nine months. My husband leant back over the balcony of our tiny nineteenth-floor tower-block apartment smiling, pleased with his plan. I gawped back in horror. To do this seemed immoral, full of risk on so many levels. In the end, faced with no other choice, I said I would do it.
Things went wrong almost immediately. Our friend was held up with a real patient and, as a result, I ended up on an examining table with my legs apart and my feet in stirrups, a plastic-gloved hand coming towards me. It was too much. I jumped off the bed and started shouting, pretty hysterically, at my husband. The doctor was confused, worried, until Filipe explained what we were here to do. The doctor sent us up to the maternity unit himself. The matron on duty told us three other mothers had already been in with the same ruse that day so we should come back early the next morning. Megacities such as São Paulo are difficult places to navigate – geographically, psychologically and administratively – and no local, I realised, would be surprised by an individual making their way any which way they could.
My antenatal care involved hours leant up against raw concrete pillars, trying to avoid very sick patients left in public corridors, and throwing up into black plastic bin bags after particularly difficult blood tests. The doctors, however, were very good. My daughter and I survived and then flourished in São Paulo. Over the years, I came to see myself as a megacity local. I could navigate the opaque bus system with a buggy but learnt from experience never ever to take a baby into the rush-hour metro. I knew to avoid streets favoured by local crackheads on my way to the beautifully restored world famous concert hall, Sala São Paulo. I learnt that the best nights were not to be had on glamorous rooftops with endless glittering views, but in the squatted, graffitied nightclubs of crumbling, pockmarked downtown. The freshest sushi was not prepared by five-star hotels but in a small garage with no windows down in Japan-town. As a journalist, I interviewed world-famous architects in their own glass towers, favela poets performing at local bars stacked with beer and books on philosophy, wealthy art collectors, mutinous teenagers from the margins.
I mostly relished these experiences of the megacity’s diversity, until the night my husband and I had one of the most common São Paulo experiences. Clopping obliviously along at one in the morning, down a dark street on the way to a new club, I found a small gun pointed at my stomach. Two short, tubby men in football shirts and board shorts grinned at us and made us hand over our wallets and mobiles. They motioned for us to turn away from the bright lights of the bar where people were drinking and chatting just a few metres from us, back into the black street where we had carelessly parked our car. This was bad. I gave a small moan. One of the guys told us not to worry, they weren’t going to kidnap us or kill us, just take our car. We were lucky, said friends and family, shrugging; there were so many stories that ended differently, brutally. For days afterwards, gruesome tales were told to us with the lightest humour in an effort, I think, to make us feel better. Just like back in the hospital, I realised that locals here thought differently, accepting armed robbery as just another megacity hustle, just another guy trying to make their way.
I was never able to muster this nonchalance and we left São Paulo not long after the hold-up, ending up in the small English city of Norwich where I was to study creative writing at the University of East Anglia. But the megacity never really left me. I wrote about spaghetti highways thick with cars, thudding helicopters, sky-high towers, stolen guns, parties of champagne and blood. I wanted to get inside the megacity mindset, the matter-of-fact survival instinct, the nose for black humour that I never really achieved myself. All of this led me to embark upon a creative writing doctorate exploring the way in which the infrastructure and architecture of massive urban hubs affects the way we live, and the way we write. This anthology, which gathers brilliant new writing from megacities across the world, is a happy and gratifying product of that research.
Megacities are defined as cities with over ten million residents. In developing countries particularly, they operate differently to the cities which flourished in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Whereas the construction of the great European capitals was a triumph of ‘public planning’ and ‘co-ordinated public enterprise, the rising megacities of Asia, Africa and Latin America herald the collapse of these civic structures. These new megacities have grown rapidly and without apparent control, spreading outwards, often illegally, and with little thought given to the public space so valued by European urban planners of the nineteenth century. Contemporary megacities are vaster than any urban landscape previously imagined; the biggest have populations of over twenty million people – the estimated urban population of the whole world at the time of the French Revolution.
In many of the newer megacities, infrastructure has struggled to keep pace with sprawling immigrant peripheries and ambitious new building projects. Because of this, everyday life in Lagos, to take one example, is very different from that known to a Londoner. This is both obvious and the result of complex factors, as Kunlé Adeyemi makes clear in his introductory conversation with Dele Adeyemo, two megacity architects very much preoccupied with the questions of how these cities function:
‘…from a morphological point of view, one could argue that Lagos and London are similar cities as they are settled along water, however, the population of Lagos with an estimate of over twenty million people is actually more than twice of that of London. Ironically, the physical infrastructure supporting the city of London is staggeringly much larger than that of Lagos… Seeing how people have adapted to those conditions both socially and also politically is really fascinating – to see how the city survives through very, very difficult developmental times.’
Very difficult, but really fascinating. This could be said to encapsulate the attitude towards megacities for a whole generation of urbanists, geographers and economists who have been studying these urban hubs for years. Megacities emerged as a hot topic of conversation amongst architects at the turn of the millennium and that interest is now enjoying a powerful second wave, not only amongst researchers such as Dele Adeyemo but also in the popular imagination, in part as a result of the growing and related issues of climate change, global migration, population explosions and rising inequality.
Have writers and readers kept pace with the swell of interest in megacities? Whether mega or not, big cities provide more than impressive statistics and research opportunities. They have been, and remain, a source of inspiration to writers across the world, the place to go to symbolise and explore the complexities of contemporary life. In this tradition, the work of Baudelaire is of central importance. Marshall Bermann argues that Baudelaire’s reaction to the reconstruction of Paris in the mid-nineteenth century crystalised the idea that the city was integral to the experience of modernity – ‘the intimate unity of the modern self and the modern environment’.
Baudelaire was inspired by Baron Hausmann’s redevelopment of the city centre between 1853–1870. The construction of wide avenues allowed public life to flourish and for Baudelaire himself to explore the full tableau of Parisian life. The ‘poetic prose, musical without rhythm and without rhyme, supple enough and rugged enough to adapt itself’ came, according to Baudelaire, mostly from ‘the exploration of enormous cities’ and was central to the development of the poet’s style. The changing city provided not only a modern voice for the poet but also concrete subject matter. The demolition of central slums, which allowed rich and poor to take a good look at one another for the first time, inspired ‘Eyes of the Poor’. The introduction of macadam – meaning faster, more treacherous, roads running through the centre of the city – brought with it a new a sense of speed, movement and danger, captured in ‘Loss of Halo’. Walter Benjamin wrote that the introduction of covered arcades, gas-lights, and boulevards and squares, made Paris an inviting, safe place in which to wander at any time of day or night; it was an urban landscape that gave rise to the flâneur, a character such as Baudelaire who made it his occupation simply to walk and observe the city around him.
The influence of Baudelaire – and the figure of the flâneur – continues to be felt. The narrator of Teju Cole’s excellent 2011 novel Open City is a typical urban wanderer in this tradition. The action has been transferred to twenty-first century New York, but the title of the novel gives a clue to reading the setting in much the same way as Baudelaire read nineteenth-century Paris: an open landscape which invites exploration. A feminist reading of Baudelaire’s flâneur inspired one of 2016’s most lauded and exciting books on the city – Flaneuse. Author Laura Elkin reclaims the flâneur for women while describing ‘the creative potential of the city, and the liberating possibilities of a good walk.’
The writer in many of today’s megacities, however, often faces a different urban landscape to that of Hausmann’s Paris, or even the streets of contemporary Paris and New York described by Elkin and Cole. In many of the newer megacities a good walk is virtually impossible. São Paulo, for example, has an increasing number of neighbourhoods without any pavements at all. The infamous shopping mall, Daslu, could only be entered by car or by helicopter, a form of transport so popular in the city that Uber now have their very own helicopter fleet. Where it is possible to walk, security concerns and the increasing privatisation of public space makes the idea of a stroll in the contemporary megacity far less appealing, less ‘creative’ and certainly less ‘open.’ Teresa P. R. Caldeira notes:
‘How could the experience of walking on the streets not be transformed if one’s environment consists of high fences, armed guards, closed streets and video cameras instead of gardens and yards, neighbours talking, and the possibility of glancing some family scene through the windows? The idea of going for a walk, of naturally passing among strangers… are all compromised in a city of walls.’
In the light of the megacity, the modern landscape of Baudelaire’s poems can begin to appear somewhat dated. The slums which were destroyed by Hausmann, scattering the disadvantaged amongst wealthier citizens, are back with a vengeance. Almost one billion people, around thirty-two percent of the world’s population, now live in urban poverty. In ‘Eyes of the Poor’, Baudelaire is enjoying a drink with his lover in a new boulevard café when he is confronted by a staring, ragged family. Whilst the narrator is drawn to the plight of these desperate souls, embarrassed by his own fortune, his companion is irritated and wants the waiter to turn the family away. The narrator exclaims that he hates his lover that day. Tensions between rich and poor, strong feelings of guilt, fear and envy, exist in the contemporary megacity, but if Baudelaire were having the same drink today, in Mexico City perhaps, it is unlikely this encounter would have taken place. These days, the megacity poor mostly occupy periphery neighbourhoods, far from the glitzy bars, which are protected by security and often housed in air-conditioned malls instead of on the street. The smooth and speedy rides through central neighbourhoods depicted in ‘Loss of a Halo’ are also a thing of the past. Population explosions, increasing car ownership and failing infrastructure mean that a ride through the centre of almost all megacities means hours stuck in gridlocked traffic. In São Paulo, traffic jams are an everyday conversation topic and there are those who believe in the ‘imminent total collapse’ of the city because of the intensity of the traffic problem.
These significant changes to urban life and landscape are happening across the world. In 1975 there were only three megacities; the UN predicts that by 2030 there will be forty-three. By 2050, two out of three people will live in a city setting. It seems ironic that, just as an understanding of cities is becoming ever more essential to our sense of what it means to be modern, one of the most timeless and enjoyable ways of knowing our cities – by strolling their streets and taking the time to stop and look, practiced not only by Baudelaire, but by many of the great city writers – Walter Benjamin, TS Eliot, Jane Jacobs to name just a few – is becoming impossible. This does not mean, however, that flânerie is dead. The writers gathered here all prove, in different ways, that the essence of flânerie – of observing the city and digesting its fruits – is very much alive and being practiced with creativity and verve in megacities around the world.