Graphic by The Multimedia Desk/The Gazelle

Harvey Molotch: Consuming the City

Much of my research has been devoted to how cities form, sustain themselves and, at times, wither away. Another focus of my research has been ...

Dec 5, 2015

Graphic by The Multimedia Desk/The Gazelle
Much of my research has been devoted to how cities form, sustain themselves and, at times, wither away. Another focus of my research has been consumption: what comes to be made, distributed and wasted. Thanks to Abu Dhabi, and the UAE more generally, these two interests come together as a distinctive subject.
Consuming often has a bad name; it is treated as frivolous and unworthy of much serious analytic focus. The postwar United States was often described, by way of disparagement, as a “consumer society.” Today, the UAE is similarly framed. Through a jaundiced-eye view, people often ask, what is it with the showy malls, big cars and large villas?
I’m not on board with thinking of consumption as something light or as something people do only after they have managed the important aspects of their lives. I think it is central to people’s lives and relevant to all of history — and certainly worthy of scholarly focus.
Let’s take a Really Big Example. It was the search for gold and spice — items not of necessity, but of lifestyle polish — that drove the great explorations that transformed the earth with new patterns of exploitation, riches and death. The rulers of the great empires used some of the plunder to compete with one another to show off their power — with palaces, jewels and art. They were willing to turn things upside down in the process.
Now back to the UAE. This country came together through consumption. It is the source of the great wealth. Oil comes out of the ground as a raw material but is absorbed as fuel for automobiles and other vehicles. The timing was fortuitous. The country, the fuel and the car came together more or less at the same time. The first wells in the world, in Titusville, Pennsylvania, happened in the 1860s, but the mass demand came in the mid-20th century when automobiles and trucking became the transportation mainstay of the United States and much else of the world. This was also when exploration in what is now the UAE began in earnest.
Another aspect of good timing: The doctrine of national self-determination had taken hold. It meant that the natural resources found within the country’s borders would be of benefit to the local population, instead of a colonial exploiter. Furthering the consumption apparatus, the sheikdoms worked out systems of wealth sharing among citizens and between Emirates — it was not a system of “finder takes all.” With this, we have the basis for affluence beyond a single autocrat — contrary to what has happened in some other petro-states that have become victims of what is known as the resource curse.
Generalized affluence meets up with prior cultural and religious forms of life and legitimacy to shape the city and lifestyle of all its inhabitants, privileged and otherwise. Part of the social contract for this non-democratic but rich society is the beneficial distribution of gifts in kind, particularly land and housing. Citizens want single-family houses suitable for large families. They want walled-in enclosures appropriate for privacy.
The government provides such dwellings in neighborhoods specifically appropriate to the emerging local culture. The far-flung pattern of development also means private cars are the basic mode of transportation, facilitated through zero import duties and the subsidized pricing of petrol. Cars and not buses, which would risk social mixing — including across genders — are the favored tools. One way or the other, the government sees to it.
Besides jobs in construction, there is a huge demand for service workers, including people to clean houses, mind the children and maintain infrastructure. In keeping with the general geographic dispersal, worker camps are established on the periphery and workers are bused in. In ways that exceed what is found in other affluent parts of the world, much of the worker demand is not production-oriented but service-based consumption.
Then there are still larger, and unconventional, consumption arenas, of which this campus is a part. We don’t usually think of things like museums and campuses as consumer goods, but rather as benefactions or investments for future economic payoff. In this region, such developments do have these elements as a likely part of their origination. But they also are, in ways that I think are historically unique, items of consumption. Like shopping for a great product to wear, to drive and to use, people consume high-end institutions. The UAE will “have” a Louvre. And you can’t get much better than that. I believe that citizens take pride in having such grand goods.
There is the hope among sponsors that these goods will bring about the more usual type of payoffs. The museums will bring in visitors who will support a growing tourist sector. The new campuses will spin-off industries and cultural districts that will add to the overall investment climate.
So far, the challenges seem more evident than the realizations. The grandest of the region’s new museums, the spectacular I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, lacks impressive attendance. There is not a strong museum-support culture in this part of the world. The ambitious Masdar City zero-emission initiative, in conjunction with MIT, has fallen short of its goals as a technological break-through, although I understand it has resulted in fruitful graduate programs.
It is the malls that generate attendance. They also join the diverse populations together — under the shared experience of consumption. No small matter, the malls also provide air conditioning, another consumer item of the 20th century and more essential here than probably any other space on Earth. The mall intensifies the need for cars, about the only way to get to retail, to get to needed services and to haul stuff from store to home. The malls themselves are consumption items, places to go and find amazing and marvelous things like the products in the shops and indoor skiing.
I’m using my time in the UAE to learn more about this ever-amazing place. With my colleague Davide Ponzini from the Politecnico di Milano, I am organizing a series of workshops and lectures under the rubric “Learning from Gulf Cities,” in which scholars from across the region and beyond can trace out larger lessons relevant to urban development here and in other parts of the contemporary world. We want to help make NYU Abu Dhabi a place where such issues can be addressed, from a variety of perspectives and with fruitful results for scholarship far and wide.
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