by David Rothenberg
The Comparison of Cities' Natures
Is it far in New York from the city to the woods, or is it a close ride up the treebound river? It's a shorter leap than in Chicago, where suburbia runs rampant into farmland across the flats. Los Angeles seems wild even at its most urbane. New York is most alive at the human scale, with people walking everywhere, able to shun the car, moving from neighborhood to neighborhood with a sense of pride, or destiny. Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard said New York had the best air of any city in the world. But then, he did die at fifty of lung disease.
Cultural studies maven Andrew Ross says New Yorkers are more ecologically sound than their suburban competitors because "they can walk everywhere instead of drive." But he forgets the vast areas of denuded and polluted land necesary to offer us New Yorkers fresh clementines and mangoes on every street corner. We are kept conveniently fed by virtue of the wastelands of the New Jersey swamps. And we pay for it.
The peculiarity of New York, how unusual it is that it has had so much influence on theory of the urban and the rural, while it may be the exception in American cities, and not the rule. Jane Jacobs, in her book Death and Life of Great American Cities, turned the world of urban planning on its head in 1961 bhy asserting that it was the chance encounters possible between people interacting on the walkways and meeting places of the city that make it a great place to live—not the grand visions of architects and other schemers to decide what people should do and where they should do it. Yet how many cities still have pedestrian downtowns where people are seen on the streets at all hours of the day or night? Most of our cities are now suburban enough to require a car to get around it. And chance encounters between cars end more often in lawsuits or death than they do enamor people of the road.
"Cities are," Jacobs writes, "full of strangers." The metropolis offers the strange. But does it give the authentically strange? Between 13th and 15th Streets on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan I could just as likely meet a Tibetan Lama I knew in Katmandu as I could the girl who wouldn't go with me to the senior prom. But neither has to be there. Neither is surprised that I am there. It is the city, a meeting place of worlds. They meet, and then they separate.
The chance encounter suggests a random, chaotic aspect to urban motions. Others speak of the prized anonymity the place can offer, where no one really knows what anyone else is up to. There is no need to know. People come to the city, and then go. Too hard to keep track of who is where.
To live and work and shop in the same place, all accessible on foot. How many parts of America remain this way? How many people value this choice in life beyond the want to have a piece of the Earth to call their own? These choices do not go together. One place won't have it all. Unless you move back and forth, flipflopping desires.
Abbey in Hoboken
The great monkeywrencher Edward Abbey loved Hoboken, just across the Hudson from New York, as much as he did the desert. He didn't care so much for Manhattan, to him a castle of commerce and indifference to the wilds of literature. But the rundown paddocks and hovels at the edge of the city, looking up at it in all its sublime technology, these places lured the desert rat in. He wrote of the wild places only on a typewriter, never on scraps of paper, more often than not confined in the walls of civilization.
Remembering the expanse of the desert, far across bridges, way past lights at the ends of tunnels.
The Bridge and Tunnel Crowd
The convenience of suburbia makes inroads in the city. The New York Times tells of the arrival of megastores in Manhattan. Bed, Bath, and Beyond! 82,000 square feet—it's five basketballs courts plus one football field. All the convenience of the mall, sans parking. How does it work? Station-wagon taxis prowl the entryway hungrily.
Is this the end of the charming neighborhood store, where loyalty among customers leads to friendship, advice, and service? Wal-Mart can only be planning its attack strategy next.
What is New York capital of? A whole magazine is devoted to the question. It suggests that New York must still remain the center of businesses that need to connect viat the instant buzz, the lightning fast rumostream of gossip and scene tracking. Publishing remains centered in the City; theater, music as well. But then this convocation of "chance encounter" businesses keeps some of the most interesting ideas, decentralized ones coming from the periphery, at bay. The Magazine asked everyone the question: What is New York the capital of? Wealth. Poverty. Complaint. Dancing schools?
European Expat Whining
A s the incipient members of what would later become the "Frankfurt School" of intellectuals, social critics, and artistic thinkers, the German exiles in WWII Los Angeles developed a studied melencholia, in part a response to the strange and elusive landscape in whihc they found themselves. According to Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz, "They comlpained bitterly about the absence of a European (or even Manhattan) civitas of public spaces, sophisticated crowds, historical auras. Los Angeles became increasingly symbolized as an 'anti-city,' a Gobi of suburbs."
Strange that expat Frankfurt school philosophers Horkheimer and Adorno believed that the problem with project housing is that it treats residents too much as individuals, sequestered as "a supposedly independent unity in a small hygienic dwelling," the better to beat him down with the "absolute power of capitalism." Others might represent this kind of domicile oppression as the transformation of an individual into a cog in the social machine. So it looks efficient but unhappy from whatever pole on the political spectrum you choose.
The Alternative is the Desert
The Gobi of Suburbia. The white desert under a yellow sky, where chance encounters between automobiles are more likely than a fortuitous meeting by possible collaborators in a social fabric. But who needs the streets to meet today? We can connect by chance on the invisible fabric of the data stream, surfing waves of information in the hopes that a link of value to us will appear.
The logic of commuting begins in defeat—an admission that the city cannot be livable, but only workable. We relocate to exurbia, finding our own private domain, fragmenting the parts of our lives. Some people prefer this, allowing themselves a chance to "get back to nature" while forgetting the tribulations of working life. It's a solution, an answer that money can bring. Buy a place to run away to, a guaranteed, waiting escape, that needed breath of fresh air.
This diverts the cost of attention from the solution of public problems to a private solution that only the few can afford.
The Impossibility of Travel
Sometimes the distance between the two places inspires the deepest of melancholia. Such a sadness about their impossibility for reconciliation. From looking out the window over the East River to the towers of Wall Street—glimpses of the technological sublime. And then yesterday, walking slowly in the silent, frosted forest, a great emptiness of human upset. The woods are crazily quiet, with no place for these worries, these dangers, these fears of a human culture so far from the processes of nature as to be unable to know how we can fit into such a place after we have used it for centuries and now decided to leave it alone.
The brown fields ahead seem to be moving. There is a gentle patter of wings and feet. A hundred wild turkeys are padding en masse through the trees, unruffled, unphased, together producing an amazing but barely visible slow motion through the staid forest. If I strain I can hear this sound—I could just as easily not know it's there. The flock soon strays away.
This beautiful sight saddens me. Do I miss the human buzz of the city, or do I wish I lived out here? I'm not sure. Both options will always be available. It is not the kind of anxiety I hear described by those friends of mine solidly convinced of the necessity of living indoors and in the city. They are troubled by the fact of the silence, and have a secret urge to bolt to somewhere noisier at first opportunity. Me, I despair being unable to connect to the silence, overwhelmed by the unstoppable surge of nothingness manifest as information coursing through my mind as I try to flush it clean for the purification of thoughts. I cannot do it, as much as I want to fit in. This place serves me, I can visit the wilderness and detox the system. But how can I stay? I am hooked on culture, or at least tied to my image of the impossible but right place to live.
The postmodern Eldorado, the personal mixture of all places past, present, and future, that make up what phenomenologist Alphonso Lingis calls "the community of those who have nothing in common."
I still feel the place I want is impossible, that America has no built landscape that relates to its surroundings in an honest way. We have civilization, on the one hand, with its progress toward "anywhere:" the same brand names, the same foods, the same Post Roads with bigger and bigger malls, parking lots, palces to buy things, one-stop shopping as the highest goal. Then there are places to live, based upon the American Dream of a house and a yard, a private domain for everyone. We hide from the public, we seek escape. We cannot all live together like this.
I will not let this impossibility get me down. In time, I and others both like and different from me will create such a place.
One Day Before the Car
Those parts of the country planned before the automobile have things a little easier. Some small towns survive, but more often as museums than as contained places of life integrated with commerce and environment. At least there is some consensus that the beautiful is in direct disagreement with the car. We can change the way we live! Still, how much can planning change the way people want to live? Technologies certainly change what we want. So can the urge to want things together, to improve a community beyond individual purchase and want.
A class of a hundred landscape architects challenge my urge to criticize their homeland! They demand in unison: "How dare you?"
I ask them, "What are you nostalgic for?"
"The malls," they say, "the malls of childhood." They're all gone now. All we have are bigger malls.
All across America, wandering downtowns. Emptiness, emptiness, nostalgia for the mall. A New Jersey state of mind. To live one place and to work another. Resignation. Excuse. Compromise.
What I Will See When I Get There
T here's a dream place I come to sometimes in the middle of the night, a village on one of the Champlain Islands of Vermont. There's a blinking light, an entrance to a subway bound for Manhattan, only a few hundred miles away. It's an F train, goes right to the Brooklyn Bridge. The lights announce the departing car, and I remember that once I heard that street cars ran all the way from New York to Boston, sometimes reaching speeds of 70 miles per hour. It's all dark now. I descend the underground.
Underground, the caverns light like secret ballrooms. Triplets of bulbs, strewn up and down the black arches. The 3 Line is closed, but visible for repair as we shunt down a neighboring track. The way is an illuminated underground cavern, like those civilized caves way out West, colors projected to enhance the presence of space. To dance through the dust, to waltz in the midst of fleeing rats. The zone is soon crossed, the subterranean hollows recede in the black.
I wonder why and where I'm going. It's a dream, so there will be no answer. In this dream the country and the city are connected by an imaginary line underground. Enter one, exit another. The poles of civilization choose a truce, and admit they can stay together. That's not the way it is.
It's all several years old, these memories of the city, these impossible train rides long and far into the wild hissing nights. I've escaped now. I live in a small town. There are small mountains around and waterfalls and ponds. The city is not far. The city has created this place, because it's filling up with those who flee but don't want to flee. We want to contain the mountains and the skyscrapers both inside our views. Each can be seen from the other. No one likes the middle ground but too many of us get stuck there. Stuck until we create new and astonishing places that encompass but do not file down the extremes.
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