Saturday, February 12, 2011

The City

What makes a city?
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).


The North Coast said...

Thank you for the link to a great blog. I have been a lover of dense, layered old cities with their wonderful architecture, quirky neighborhoods, cultural amenities, social and ethnic diversity, and incredible livability and convenience my entire life, including the time my family dwelled in the burbs of St. Louis at various times while I was growing up. We spent about a third of my childhood in an old neighborhood on the south side of St. Louis, and my fondest memories are seated there, not in the suburbs my parents were told were so much better for kids.

We aren't a civilization without our dense, layered, vibrant cities that built themselves over time, and I believe that the most destructive thing our policy makers, with the applause of an ignorant population, ever did was deliberately destroy our great American cities in favor of suburban expansion and a single-family crackerbox house for every family.

You don't know what you have until you've lost it, do you? We built some of the greatest cities the world has ever seen in less than 100 years, then turned them into ruins in less than 50 years. I am a native of St. Louis, which is still rich in built beauty but which has been so utterly decimated by the disinvestment of the post WW2 era that one British traveler remarked that it looks "like the victim of saturation bombing". My family goes way back there, to before the city was even an American- it was founded by French fur traders Laclede and Chouteau in 1764- and I asked my mother, could you stand at the corner of Union and Delmar in 1950 and IMAGINE what that neighborhood was going to look like 25 years hence? Could she have begun to visualize the destruction of this beautiful city?

I have lived in Chicago, which one British architectural critic I met, says has a larger variety of architectural styles than any city on Earth, for the past 25 years, and it astonishes me that people will choose to live 80 miles outside the city, in cul-de-sac suburbs that are so identical to their like outside every other American city, that if you woke up in one without knowing where you were, you could be in Hackensack NJ or Irvine, TX or Ballwin, MO- they are so much alike. And it's not like these places are really so great for kids, because they are all just subdivisions off 40mph collector roads that have no sidewalks and where a kid cannot meet kids from another subdivision without his parents setting up a "play date", because you can't WALK along these dangerous high speed roads with no sidewalks and no crossings or intersections for miles.

The automobile killed our cities here, and now that we will be forced to break our reliance upon cars, perhaps we'll rebuild our urban neighborhoods with their beautiful architecture, layers of history, and incredible convenience and ease of connecting with your neighbors.

Enbrethiliel said...


Elena, you've linked to a wonderful post! I've had related thoughts--though hardly in Le Tartout's league--about the idea of the city, and the whole post, both the substance and the style, really sings to me. Thanks for sharing it!

elena maria vidal said...

N.C., thank you for the thought-provoking reflections, a great addition to the original post!

Miss E., great to hear from you! Hope you are well!

Julygirl said...

East Coast cities are experiencing a slow renaissance, but the cost of housing is having a negative impact on the type of young people who would relish city life and in turn bring life to the city.

Anonymous said...

'tis funny to ponder but my present home town -Philly- is older (1701 charter) than my former-Karlsruhe- (1715) the third of the cities linked to in your post!

Wonderfully nostalgic to see it again after the span of 15 years. My son rode his bicycle past the Pyramid monument-tomb across the Schlosspark to school in the Europeschule north of the city near the football team's stadium, a marvelous place indeed, I miss it tremendously - we lived in an apartment near the zoo and across the street from the Baadischer Staatstheater where Austro-bohemian novelist
had her first and only performance of a work produced!

Thanks you for lighting up what been a dim Valentine's day (digesting more depressing Grand Jury revelations on the abuse scandal) now I shall be an a little better frame of mind when hubby comes home later -

God Bless
Clare Krishan