Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies
Gary Snyder wrote, “Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there.” Yet finding a special place may not be easy in a world seemingly covered in urban sprawl, strip malls and gated communities. Never fear: Alastair Bonnett has shared 47 remarkable locales in UNRULY PLACES.
With more than a nod to authors, philosophers, researchers and explorers who, in recent decades, have examined place as a physical, spiritual and psychological reality and, for many, as an “emergent anxiety” due to geographic, climate, social and economic changes, Bonnett aims to reveal “the range and power of the geographic imagination.” From inhabitable but ephemeral sandy islands to strips of land on the side of busy highways, UNRULY PLACES briefly considers geographies that challenge our notions of place, ownership, livability and home.
"UNRULY PLACES is a readable but thoughtful and even provocative work. Bonnett asks readers to think about place and space in new ways."
The “Lost Places” Bonnett describes include large cities like Leningrad and Mecca that have purposely changed identity or modified the cityscape. There is also the Aralqum Desert, which used to be the Aral Sea before it dried up to a shifting, sandy desert. The “Hidden Geographies” section reveals The Labyrinth discovered by urban explorers under Minneapolis-St. Paul. This is a fascinating story of found space, difficult to access but eventually contested. There are compelling underground spaces to be found in the Cappadocia region of eastern Turkey as well.
One of the most interesting hidden geographies is the North Cemetery in Manila, where up to 6,000 residents live among the tombs. Though the residents of the cemetery originally settled there due to poverty, they have created a small town complete with sub-neighborhoods, businesses and illegally cabled electricity. Cemetery towns, like the one in Manila, or the larger ones found in places like Cairo, speak to economic, socio-cultural and even political conditions of the nations in which they are found. They also speak to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the inhabitants.
In addition, there are sections describing what Bonnett calls “No Man's Lands,” like the 27-kilometer distance between the borders of Senegal and Guinea in West Africa and a 795-square-mile space between Sudan and Egypt that each country refuses to claim. The shifting border between El Salvador and Honduras has left the people there unsure of citizenship and with a confused national identity. Kangbashi and Wittenoom are just two examples of “Dead Cities,” abandoned due to danger, evacuated by the government, or, in the case of Kijong-dong, never inhabited in the first place.
Readers also will be enthralled by examples of “Floating Islands,” “Ephemeral Places,” “Spaces of Exception” and “Enclaves and Breakaway Nations.” Some of Bonnett's examples are captivating, like Sealand, an offshore rig housing one family that claimed sovereignty from England and named themselves royalty. Others are frightening, like the islands of floating trash that have formed in the oceans when circulating currents begin to accumulate debris. Not all are as powerful or compelling, but most do pose interesting and complicated questions.
UNRULY PLACES is a readable but thoughtful and even provocative work. Bonnett asks readers to think about place and space in new ways. Though there are a few dull spots, overall this is a book that will have readers looking at maps and globes, their own towns and cities, and the world around them with fresh eyes, as they re-think place on the planet and our responsibility for it.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on July 25, 2014