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Is the Myth of City Life More Significant Than the Real City Itself?

The city, as we imagine it -- myth, aspiration, nightmare -- is maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate on maps and statistics.

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The density of the immigrant swarm on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century, more than 2,600 people per acre, equaled in its misery but exceeded the crowding then prevalent in the slums of Bombay. In the years since, most of the alien labor has been sanitized or outsourced, but the comforts of the city’s rich still depend on the abundance of its poor, the municipal wealth and well-being as unevenly distributed as in the good old days of the Gilded Age. When seen at a height or a distance, from across the Hudson River or from the roof of Rockefeller Center, Manhattan meets the definitions of the sublime. At ground level Manhattan is a stockyard, the narrow streets littered with debris and laid out in the manner of cattle chutes, the tenements and storefronts uniformly fitted to fit the framework of a factory or a warehouse. The modus vivendi under the boot of the modus operandi. The commercial imperative comes with no apology. Like most other American cities, New York is a product of the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution, built on a standardized grid, conceived neither as a thing of beauty nor as an image of the cosmos, much less as an expression of man’s humanity to man, but as a shopping mall in which to perform the heroic feats of acquisition and consumption.

Baudelaire in nineteenth-century Paris marveled at the “turmoil of human freedom” as he watched “the river of life” flow past him in all its “splendor and majesty.” New York doesn’t afford either the luxury or the pleasure of such a marvel. No grand boulevards or baroque sculpture, no vistas with trees and fountains, no straying in midtown from the herd of hired hands anxious to keep to their schedule of milking the golden calf. The dismal sight calls to mind the first words in English that the International Harvester Company taught its Polish factory workers in 1912: “I hear the whistle. I must hurry.”

The perception of the city as the citadel of Satan arrived on the shores of Massachusetts Bay with the seventeenth-century Puritans, who imagined themselves making haste from the Gomorrah that was Jacobean London, “cruelty and blood” in the streets, nothing anywhere in sight except “murders, slaughters, incest, adultery, whoredom, drunkenness, oppression, and pride.” To their new Jerusalem in a wilderness they brought the notion that God’s grace is rural, best suited to planting in close association with the flowers, the apple orchards, the alewives, and the birds. John Winthrop’s envisioning of the City on a Hill is a promise of a safe return to Eden, more along the lines of a suburban real-estate development than an urban renewal project, nearer in spirit to the Shire in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings than to the dream of an architectural paradise regained cobbled together with the buildings of Christopher Wren.

The pastoral romance has been with us for almost four hundred years, the dominant narrative in much of the country’s literature and most of its political campaigning. On the charts marking the distribution of the country’s spiritual resources, the heavy deposits of the good, the true, and the beautiful are never far from a grain silo or a village green. Virtue doesn’t keep a house in town; it’s out there beyond the beltway, across the river and into the trees, going west with Horace Greeley or catching frogs in Walden Pond, on the road with Johnny Appleseed or Jack Kerouac, upstate and down home. The abiding sentiment is bipartisan, embraced by politicians on the liberal left and the conservative right, by John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Jimmy Carter, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt, by the members of both the Sierra Club and the National Rifle Association. The essayists and novelists in the service of the greater American good, among them Theodore Dreiser and Mike Davis look to the city as if to a dictionary of fear and loathing. The makers of Hollywood film noir populate the urban killing-ground with predators of every known species and description (painted whores and heartless bankers, shameless journalists, vile landlords, crooked politicians, dangerous black people) who roam the streets as do the beasts of prey drifting across the Serengeti Plain.

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