Wednesday, November 18, 2015

I still believe in The City

At the Paix pour Paris vigil, Cedar Rapids
I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.

I've just finished Vivian Gornick's short, elegant The Odd Woman and the City (cited below). A cross between memoir and segmented essay, it describes her life in and relationship to New York City--Bronx in her youth, Manhattan as an adult. Her most soaring passages celebrate life in the city:

It's an evening in June and I am taking a turn through Washington Square. As I stroll, I see in the air before me, like an image behind a scrim, the square as it looked when I was young, standing right behind the square that I'm actually looking at.... With the street at my back and everything I know etched on my face, I look through the scrim directly into those old memories and I see that they no longer have authority over me. I see the square as it is--black, brown, young; swarming with drifters and junkies and lousy guitar players--and I feel myself as I am, the city as it is. I have lived out my conflicts not my fantasies, and so has New York. We are at one. (pp. 169-170)

Each day when I leave the house, I tell myself I'm going to walk up the East Side of town because the East Side is calmer, cleaner, more spacious. Yet I seem always to find myself on the crowded, filthy, volatile West Side. On the West Side life feels positively thematic. All that intelligence trapped inside all those smarts. It reminds me of why I walk. Why everyone walks. (pp. 94-95)

It's her life, of course, and it's her city, but at a general level it's the Life in the City that is the fondest promise of the urbanists. Not that she is by any means Pollyannish or sanguine about it--there appear frequently in her stories the jostling of crowds, the noise of construction equipment and amplified music, the danger of crime, and the frequent encounters with fragile people that can make city life less than pleasant. But the energy and promise of the city and its people--all of its people--more than make up for the annoyances. She identifies across three centuries with the British writer Samuel Johnson:

For Johnson the city was always the means of coming up from down under, the place that received his profound discomfort, his monumental unease. The street pulled him out of morose isolation, reunited him with humanity, revived in him his native generosity, gave him back the warmth of his own intellect. On the street Johnson made his enduring observations; here he found his wisdom. Late at night, when he went prowling for tavern conversation, he experienced the relief of seeing his own need mirrored in the company he found: those who drank and talked of Man and God till the light broke because none of them wanted to go home either. (p. 10)

It's a good thing, too, that cities have attractive qualities, because for innumerable environmental and financial reasons urban areas are going to need to contract and get denser in the coming century. We're going to have to get closer to each other. Urbanism can help with that, by promoting the design features that undo a lot of the damage we've done in the post-WW2 boom.

But design will get you only so far. There has to be a readiness of a large part of the American people to live with a large and diverse population close by, and to accept that the threat of crime that comes with concentrated population is not worse than the threats that come with dispersed population. We simply cannot build enough roads and infrastructure to get everyone as far away from everyone else as they might wish to be. The only viable path is to learn to live together.

I thought about this after a spate of gun violence in our town last summer. Then, suddenly, the past few days have seen a series of terror attacks around the world: in Beirut, Paris, Baghdad and just now Lagos. All are attributed to ISIS, the rogue band of Islamists that seems intent on provoking a worldwide religious war. The West has responded with a mix of fear, anger and courage. At our best we are the Parisians of the 11th arrondissement, sitting proudly and defiantly at outdoor cafes (Alderman). At our worst we are the Republican governors and presidential candidates--including Iowa governor Terry Branstad, after an early cautious response--who have opted to stoke the public fear by declaring their states off limits to refugees from the Syrian implosion (Healy and Bosman; compare to Inskeep). Or make overtly anti-Muslim statements (LoBianco). It must be hellishly awkward to be or look Arabic in France right now (Nossiter and Alderman).

Fear and anger are direct threats to our ability to live together. They are certainly understandable responses, natural under the circumstances. But they cannot be our only responses. Putting up walls and bellicose threats can't get us to the good life, or even a particularly secure life. The truly good life can only come collectively, which requires constructive solutions to the problems of our society--and even then, security can never be complete in this world. To try and live otherwise wastes money and corrupts our souls, and we miss out on all the fun different people can be. We can only live together, together.

The Odd Woman and the City

Liz Alderman, "French Crowd Cafes to Defy Terror With a Sip of Wine," New York Times, 18 November 2015, A12
Vivian Gornick, The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015)
Patrick Healy and Julie Bosman, "G.O.P. Governors Vow to Close Doors To Syrian Refugees," New York Times, 17 November 2015, A1, A10
Steve Inskeep, "Washington State Governor Says He Welcomes Syrian Refugees," The Two-Way: Breaking News from NPR, 18 November 2015,
Tom LoBianco, "Kasich: Create Agency to Promote Judeo-Christian Values," CNN, 17 November 2015,
Adam Nossiter and Liz Alderman, "Distrust, Even Fear, As Secular France Dims on Muslims," New York Times, 17 November 2015, A1, A8

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