Sunday, November 21, 2010

The City

In the middle of looking for and frustratingly not finding this week's issue of The Times Literary Supplement, at the local outlet of that big name bookstore, I stumbled upon another small miracle: Lapham's Quarterly, of which I never heard, and its current issue titled, "The City."

The urban environment is my native space; the distant sound of the city in the middle of the night; the yellow leaves on the trees in the park; the people walking busily, to and from their business, midmorning; the smell and cheerfulness of squares filled by the yearly Christmas market, with people lingering midday over mulled wine, home-made sweets or dried fish.

What makes a city? What does a city need? In which of its elements does it really subsist? Minneapolis is not a city, Baltimore is not a city (or large parts of it are not) - not anymore. Philadelphia is suffering; its downtown gave me the painful sensation of something wasted, something missed, something that was beautiful but is now unsafe, impersonal; a lost opportunity. (Its two-way boulevard leading from downtown to the Museum of Art was built for carriages and couples talking walks on autumn evenings; now its sidewalks are neglected by human beings, while the roads are lonely with automobiles.)

It is space, and it is the people. The beauty of the buildings and of their setting in Chicago; the Danube passing through the heart of Budapest, with pretty bridges adorning it; the neoclassical, tree-lined boulevards of Milano; the squares and the tram-lined streets of Strasbourg... but none could actually be imagined without the people walking along Michigan Ave., or the teeming life on the banks of the Danube, spilling unto the bridges in various forms (bike, car, pedestrian); and so on.

One could make a reference to Aristotle, who says that having a group of people live in the same place, under the same laws, does not yet a society make; a society requires constant, everyday, physical meetings between its members. The city is nothing without its people. Banal-sounding, perhaps, but it also means that the true form of the city is given by its members in constant interaction (or, by the constant interaction of its members?). This is why I could feel instantly comfortable, the moment I came out from the subway and unto the streets of lower Manhattan; because I  instinctively and immediately recognized the atmosphere, because I  knew right away how to behave on a street busy with people pursuing their own business - stepping into a deli for a sandwich, waiting for the light to change etc.; it was Novi Sad, it was Rome, it was Karlsruhe (just taller).

I think this is what makes the city my environment, my space. This lived space, of people interacting (verbally,  physically; sharing a space, sharing in each other's life) and inhabiting a place that was built not just for functionality, but for beauty, too (yet drab exteriors do become beautiful, their bricks and iron railings aged by the people living with them, for years, decades, entire lives).

Man is inherently social, and if your being has been defined... - well, if you came to know yourself through knowing the others whom you met every day - on the street, in the shop, on the tram, or just by playing outside; then it becomes very hard, almost an amputation of the self, to live without that.

This current issue of Lapham's Quarterly, then, titled The City, is a small miracle. It contains texts from writers ranging from Plutarch to Bulgakov, from Marco Polo to IrĂ©ne Nemirovski, from Rabelais to F. Scott Fitzgerald - about a given city, about the city.    


  1. Love this post. Will link this blog.

  2. Thank you, The North Coast - very glad to hear it. Indeed, Chicago is a city - very much the city.