Why the Urban Renaissance Surprised the Media
The competitors ? About fifty cars, a few food stalls, an FT columnist, taxi-scooters, Skytrain passengers getting off and one of those street cats who, spared by Western food, manage to keep their figure. The price? Space to move, or just to be. And it is one of the most airy junctions of Sukhumvit Road. The overhead railway track leaks rainwater that puts a square meter of sidewalk out of use, pressing us even closer together. My heart soars.
A long-injured surfer might seek out the biggest wave beach – Nazaré, Portugal, for example – once back in top gear. For an urban planner, starved of crowds by a pandemic, Bangkok is calling. Bangkok is sending the homing beacon. How nice to remind us that London and New York are like Bath and Ann Arbor on the Asian scale of energy.
Now is the perfect time to make a non-exhaustive list of things I read in 2020 that had little future. Night life. The handshake. Buildings tall enough to need elevators. Casual sex (ha ha). Ready to eat. The rat race. Business class seats. Airbnb. I’m not saying any of this to embarrass. If any prediction has aged badly, it’s that Covid would pass with few deaths. Nor do I expect a medal for saying the cities would roar. I got the timing wrong: although I didn’t think Dubai airport at 1am would look like a Black Friday shopping mall by August 2022. As for the only lasting hallmark of the pandemic – work at distance – I considered it a fad.
The goal is therefore not to taunt the merchants of healing nature. It’s about learning from their mistake. The first is that journalism has taken a neurotic turn over the past decade. It is there in the enthusiasm with which we speak of social diseases (the “epidemic of loneliness”). It is there, at the center of so much writing. It’s there in the fact that “burn out” now refers to what happens if you work from home and what happens if you move. Add to that contemporary fiction, which documents boredom, and often induces it, and the tendency of intellectual life towards a certain humidity becomes clearer.
Why this happens is no mystery. Printed matter in its various forms is experiencing commercial difficulties. The area attracts the downwardly mobile upper middle class (the reverse route, I can say, is more fun). These anxieties will naturally color his perception of everything else. But the result—a medium that cannot see the world straight—is still a problem to be understood. That 2019 was a Dickensian hell that people wouldn’t want to “go back to” was really a connoisseur article of faith until recently.
“A city in flux”, is the trope on Bangkok. Given the ferocity of its rebound, however, the place is also a case study in how little has changed. Was that Isan food vendor over there just going to stop trading his life? Was I going to stop loving her? Human nature is, if not immutable, then much more consistent than a journalist is likely to think.
Or prompted to think. If you write regularly, you should stress the importance of transient events. “This little episode won’t change much, read 1000 words on it”, isn’t a bad pitch. But it must be rationed. The rest of the time, all the will of the media is to attribute meaning to the ephemeral. Between 1997 and 2003, every other week was “Tony Blair’s worst week”. In 2020 – more forgivable, arguably – the same impulse has led to disastrous futurology.
Wartime rationing did not kill the love of food. A much shorter period of lockdown was never going to rewire the love of body contact, or the change of scenery that air travel brings or – that Bangkok specialty – the sound of life. I had a shamefully easy pandemic but even I shiver at the memory of medieval silence. It was clear even back when I would go once it was all over. A city louder than war: I come here to de-stress.
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