Is the Myth of City Life More Significant Than the Real City Itself?
Continued from previous page
If it is in the nature of great cities to amass brutal concentrations of poverty and crime as well as of hypocrisy and wealth, so also it is in the nature of the inhabitants, accustomed to the breathing of bad air, to vote against the motions for divine vengeance put forward by the biblical prophets in the desert who would let loose upon the earth the redeeming flood and the purifying fire. The city stands willing to sell, at a steep discount and on an hour’s notice, last year’s priceless truth or next week’s incomparable celebrity, at the same time offering to buy, at fair market price, new lyrics for an old song. Where else but in a city does so much latent violence depart in peace? Where else is it as possible to publicly demand a revolution while enjoying the protection of the police? It is the country, not the city, that supplies the tabloids with tales of righteous massacre—thirty-two students slaughtered in Virginia, eight fellow workers murdered in Connecticut, three college biology professors executed in Alabama. The city instills the habit of forbearance, teaches the lessons of civility, encourages the practice of democracy, testifies to the truth of the proposition succinctly put by Publius Clodius Paetus Thrasea, a Roman senator remarking on the conduct and deportment of the Emperor Nero: “He who hates vice, hates humanity.”
Such at least was my view of Manhattan as I found it in the 1950s and 1960s, the establishing shot accompanied by Paul Desmond on alto saxophone, Charles Mingus on bass. The impression was as much a consequence of dumb luck as a question of optics. I never was set upon by thieves, struck by falling masonry, or mobbed by anything other than a gang of words. I couldn’t dispute the industrial-strength dehumanization of the terrible town that James had noticed in 1904, but I could counter the indictment with the thought that the cultural enterprise of the fourteenth-century Italian Renaissance was summoned into existence by the loud rattle of gold otherwise known as the Medici Bank. The flowering of such a thing as a civilization springs from the same soil that grows the exotic blooms of pride, lust, wrath, envy, and greed.
The paradox has no standing in the current climate of gentrified opinion. I’ve heard it said, by young historians and aging taxi drivers, that in the years between 1920 and 1980, Manhattan provided accommodation for both Mammon and Apollo, the center of the world in the century denominated as America’s own. I’m not inclined to doubt the claim, but I suspect that it’s no longer valid. During the 1980s the synonym for America’s wealth and power moved south to Washington, DC, which, like Los Angeles, possesses both the character and sensibility of an expensive suburb. As was true of their Puritan forbears in the New England wilderness, the nation’s ruling and explaining classes regard the urban temperament as the port of entry for all things foreign and obnoxious. Over the last thirty years the government bureaucracies have come to employ more people than lived in seventeenth-century England, planting the bulk of their intelligence operations in the Virginia countryside with the fruit trees and the birds; our larger corporations retreat to pastoral compounds bearing a postmodern resemblance to the manors in medieval France; artists and writers of note drift away to villages in Connecticut. The projectors of the urban future meanwhile define the Internet as the civilizing agent that replaces the need for the New York Stock Exchange and the Broadway theater, and the great, good American place, under the protection of the Department of Homeland Security and safe behind a gated perimeter, comes to be imagined, as was John Winthrop’s City on a Hill, as a refuge from the storm and wonder of the world rather than as the progenitor of its energy and the locus of its desire.