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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 city, as we imagine it, the soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate on maps, in statistics, in monographs on urban sociology and demography and architecture.
—Jonathan Raban

The city, as we imagine it, the soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate on maps, in statistics, in monographs on urban sociology and demography and architecture.

The Census Bureau counts 232,581,397 Americans, 82.6 percent of the population, living in the nation’s cities, but if our moralists and intelligence services are to be believed, they do so at no small risk to the safety of their persons and the security of their souls. If the city is a sewer of vice and a slough of despond, why do so many people choose to live there? On what toxic landfill does the city stand as the embodiment of its ennobling cognate, civilization? The questions bear asking because the future is urban, and the answers are what the new millennium is likely to make of its art and religion as well as of its government and working arrangement with nature.

I borrow the supposition from Oswald Spengler’s reading of world history as city history . He located in the city “the determinative form” of a culture or the spirit of an age (“Egypt is Thebes, the orbis terrarum is Rome, Islam is Baghdad, France is Paris”), and in 1917 he foresaw, “long after the year 2000,” the appearance of “cities laid out for ten to twenty million inhabitants,” lumpen and inorganic agglomerations with “notions of traffic and communications that we should regard as fantastic to the point of madness.” Match the contemporary scale of municipal infrastructure in Asia, Africa, and Latin America with the demographic estimates—nearly half the world’s population, at least 3.3 billion people, already live in cities—and we have before us what Spengler regarded, not cheerfully, as an artificial, mathematical, utterly land-alien product of pure intellectual satisfaction.” The description accords with satellite photographs of Shanghai or Lagos, the drawings of Frank Lloyd Wright, the designs of Blade Runner and Grand Theft Auto .

But if we can guess at the form of the city looming on the horizon of the twenty-first century, in whose name is it being built, and what gods does it serve? The way in which a city is seen or approached, by whom and from what vantage point, invests it with the moral and emotional roofing that Warren Breckman looks to find, as did Spengler, in the Roman forum and the Greek agora, the medieval cathedral and mosque, the modern skyscraper and slum. So too with every other text, illustration, and map in the following pages. Whether it is the light that Canaletto floats on the surface of a Venetian canal, Charles Baudelaire delighting in the spectacle of “fine carriages and proud horses...the sinuous gait of women,” or Stefan Zweig taking note of “the delicate and musical transitions” in the stonework of empire, the city is the reflection in the eye of the beholder. An act of the imagination, says Breckman, the seen as intimation—in brick or paint or word or marble—of the unseen.

The earliest cities mirrored what was thought to be the design of the cosmos, the builders of temples and ziggurats beholden to blueprints discovered in the movements of the stars and the changing of the seasons. Pericles conceived of ancient Athens as the expression of man’s humanity to man, the democratic freedoms awakened in the hearts of its citizens the reason “to fall in love with her.” Louis XIV intended the construction of Versailles and his refurbishing of seventeenth-century Paris to “mark the greatness of princes.” Revisiting New York City in 1904 after an absence of twenty years, Henry James was appalled by “the terrible town,” deafened by “the huge American rattle of gold.” Moved to a feeling of pity for the “caged and dishonored condition” of Trinity Church dwarfed by “steel-souled” office buildings, James portrayed the city as the realized ideal of a society abandoned, as was Sodom, to the worship of Mammon. The annihilating spirit of finance capitalism achieving its most perfect expression not only as architecture but also as a social order and a style of feeling—an “inconceivably bourgeois scheme of composition” with “new landmarks crushing the old quite as violent children stamp on snails and caterpillars.”

 
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