The buddy-cop comedy by Seth Fried imagines a war over gentrification, and says something about the way we talk about urbanism.
“Density and dispersal. It’s a war we fight with our own lives everyday.” If there’s a thesis underpinning The Municipalists, the debut novel by Seth Fried, it’s this thought, offered early on by the protagonist, Henry. He’s the kind of guy you don’t hear much from in fiction: a somber, straitlaced urban planner who’s fond of cataloguing the many ways that cities outperform rural areas in terms of health outcomes, education, the environment, et cetera.
In The Municipalists, the war is a literal one. Henry and his reckless robot sidekick are bureaucrats for the fictional U.S. Municipal Survey, and they’re dispatched to Metropolis to resolve a spiraling mystery of physical and cyber attacks that have taken place. It becomes clear that the attacks came from influential terrorists who oppose the urban planning policies of the USMS, the Metropolis mayor, and others. The terrorists argue that the city’s planners are incentivizing displacement of longtime residents and local businesses.
In case you’re wondering, Fried sides mostly with the terrorists. “Everything but the bombing, pretty much,” he says. He holds a healthy appreciation for Jane Jacobs, which inspired the plot and even gave him an excuse to make it funny.
“If I could, I would just buy everyone a copy of Jane Jacobs,” Fried says. It’s just that The Death and Life of Great American Cities doesn’t have many jokes. “That would be my one criticism of Jacobs.”
Like its author, the narrator of The Municipalists likes to geek out over trains. Henry is, as Fried calls him, “a stick-in-the-mud,” but the book isn’t. It’s frequently hilarious, largely because of Henry’s partner at the USMS: OWEN. He’s a petulant, hard-drinking robot with inexplicable enthusiasms for watching people eat and dressing up as a dog.
Henry and OWEN have a familiar buddy-cop dynamic—the friendless hard worker and the flirtatious wild card. OWEN, however, is an artificial intelligence system (his name is an acronym for Object-Oriented Database and Working Ekistics Network). He’s essentially the most powerful virtual assistant a government agency could ask for, if not for his drinking habit. He can comb through millions of records within seconds, seamlessly translate languages, and even ward off thugs by creating projections of terrifying creatures. In this pairing, Henry is nominally the one making decisions, but OWEN is the one providing the data for those decisions.
“When I started writing this book, an alcoholic artificial intelligence was the most outlandish part of the book,” Fried says. “Now an ambitious, well-funded federal agency is what’s ridiculous.”
Fried grew up in Toledo, Ohio, and moved to New York City in his mid-20s. The contrast between the two planted the seed for writing about density and dispersal. He says he was seen as a weirdo in Toledo because he didn’t have a driver’s license, while seemingly everyone around him got everywhere by car. “I get the feeling that these people want to get away from each other,” he says, versus New York, where people “are more comfortable being closer to each other; they know that it’s a better result.”
Metropolis is a fictionalized version of New York, with the added elements of orderly transit systems from Chicago and Tokyo, plus the Brutalist design of D.C.’s Metro. Fried says he imagined the city as a “whistlestop tour of everything that I think cities do really well, but also things that could be done better.”
Metropolis’s big fault is a reflection on booming cities everywhere: It’s a hotbed of novel ways for excluding the poor. One of Fried’s bugbears is the rise of cashless restaurants, for instance. Another, shared with The Municipalists’ rogue ideologues, is the way that planning decisions can stoke gentrification. Metropolis’s mayor, for instance, has implemented the Commercial Incentive Program, which gives tax breaks to businesses that move into low-income neighborhoods. (Sound familiar?) The USMS chipped in federal money for the program as well.
The terrorists argue that this expensive program subsidizes the spread of large corporations, and is an inefficient way to generate jobs. In their anti-gentrification campaign, they bomb public buildings while delivering screeds about unsuccessful neighborhoods. One of them is a charismatic public intellectual who’s gone world-weary, a trait Fried says he adapted from his college professors, like that “one guy… whose knowledge of the subject had kind of turned them a little bitter.”
To that end, Fried’s terrorists represent a fatal flaw that seems to define so much of urbanist debates: a “dogmatic, overzealous belief in [their] own ideas.” Ultimately, The Municipalists is more critical of this dogmatic insistence than anything. Besides Jacobs, Fried drew on ideas from Ed Glaeser’s advocacy of balancing preservation with development and Richard Florida’s view that neither the urban optimists nor the urban pessimists are entirely right.
The apparently radical, humanist idea offered as a resolution to the war is that the people involved in it should listen to the people affected by it. That solution doesn’t come from the tub-thumpers, or from a person at all, but from OWEN.
“The buddy comedy is a really fun model. … It shows how we change each other,” Fried says, and it allowed him to show a fuller picture of his view on cities. “I wanted my unvarnished optimism and all my fears to be represented.”