This Urban Life : Writing About The City for Multiple Media

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PUBLISHED (AuthorHouse Books, 2005, Available from AMAZON.COM) book is not intended to be an “academic” treatise, although it may have its uses in academic discourse about cities and urban life. It is a “personal” point of view of urbanism. But much of my personal observations about cities are, owing to my professional background, informed and expressed in terms that are part of academic discourse. While they do not comprise a “theory” about cities, they form a rather consistent and integrated perspective and prospect of urban life. Some are more “academic” in tone, even to the inclusion of notes and references, others are, for lack of a more appropriate term, “impressionistic,” speculative and even fanciful, ranging in their provenance from public radio essays and newspaper op-eds, to academic journal articles and reviews. Overall, this books attempts to demonstrate that the media of the arts and of popular culture are fitting avenues to learning more about the multiple dimensions of urban life, that insights into that life might come from a movie, a poem, or an op-ed polemic.

 

Preface

THE CITY AND URBAN LIFE: A BIRD’S-EYE OVERVIEW

From my window, nineteen floors up, I watch a dusky brown seahawk soar majestically on thermals composed of bus exhaust fumes, air conditioner heat, boiling pots of congee, roasting ducks, sun-baked pavements, and the human caloric seepage from a canyon composed of skyscrapers. This great symbol of nature circles above the open space created by a small city park and playground below, his keen eyes scanning for rats and mice that ply the little alleys in the early morning to feast on the detritus of the restaurants and dried seafood shops that abound here, and the tons of trash that daily spill down these tower blocks of flats. Despite his supreme confidence, he seems out of place in so urban a hunting ground. But, like everyone else here, he seems to have made his accommodation with the frantic and vertiginous urbanity of this place, this gritty old, teeming old quarter of Hong Kong called Sheung Wan.

I feel a kinship with this hawk that I would not likely have if we were together in some mountain valley. We humans, after all, are also relative newcomers to life in cities. The great part of our hundreds of thousands of years of evolution was spent in the wilds of nature, in caves and on savannahs, not in cities. Some scholars argue that we humans, and hawks I suppose, are not biologically fit for the urban environment, and claim that many of our diseases and disorders are a product of urban pressures and stresses. But I disagree.

The adaptability of our human species always awes me. The question of whether or not we belong in cities remains much debated, not only in scholarly journals, but also by people in cities every day. I am somewhat less amazed by the paradox that anti-urban sentiments remain unabated. Many urbanites yearn for a “return” to the non-urban rusticity of the countryside, and some actually migrate there, although they are vastly outnumbered by those who must settle for that compromise between the city and the country that we call, with double entendre, “sub-urbia.” For most, the circumstances of our place of birth, the exigencies of employment, and accessibility to urban opportunities, take precedence over naked preference. And the circumstance that most people find themselves in today, whether they regard it to be, for better or worse, is the City.

Indeed, as more and more people find themselves, by choice or circumstance, in the City the further humankind will be from the memory of when life was, for most, non-urban. In the Middle Ages the German phrase, stadt luft macht frei (city air makes one free),∗ meant that cities were places where people could begin to escape not only the travails, limitations and insecurities of rural life, but the rigidities of class systems and social status based upon blood lines rather than merit. This is, of course, a transformation that remains “in progress,” but it would be difficult to make the case that, for example, the condition and status of women, anywhere, is better in a society that is predominantly non-urban. The question, therefore, that people must ask themselves is not whether they “like” the City, but “compared to what?”

In the middle of the 1990s the World Health Organization announced that for the first time in the history of the world more than half of the world’s population could be defined as “urban.” The announcement went largely comment in the media, probably because most people likely already were under the impression that most people were urbanites, or city dwellers.

It is therefore easy these days to take the City for granted; to take its opportunities, its variety, its liberating institutions, as “givens.” But the City is a relative newcomer to human life and its affairs. Indeed, for all but a fraction of human history we have lived in camps or caves and did mostly two things: hunt and gather food and migrate to find it. Later, when we began to plant crops and domesticate animals, it became possible for a few of us to live in small semi-permanent settlements. But most of the world’s people for the great part of history did not even conceive of, much less live in, cities. Even today, when half the world is urbanized, China, a nation with at least three cities in the teens of millions in population, is almost eighty percent “rural.” Yet the allure of the City continues to exert its powerful magnetism. Today, in that same, mostly rural, China, millions are migrating from the countryside to cities, in search of economic opportunity. Cities offer the opportunities to be something other than a farmer, to receive a higher education, to become a participant in a vast commercial, industrial, institutional and civic enterprise. But in the vast and complex institutional structure of the City they will also find a vortex of forces that buffet and threaten their traditional institutional structures of family, religion and work. The new urbanite’s new “community” held together not by mutually dependent similarities, but by interdependent differences; that the very richness of opportunities will sunder the organic sense of community of the countryside. Requiring new forms of association and social control, the City is therefore more than a new place to live; it is a new way of life. This new urban life, or more accurately, this continually re-newing way of life is a relative novelty in human affairs. Hence we are still trying to figure out where the City is taking us, or—and this is a very important distinction—where we want to direct it take us. This make the City the most complex, influential, promising and perplexing, human invention and, for this writer, a source of enduring fascination.

That fascination probably began even before I decided, as a fresh BA in Economics, to embark upon as master in city and regional planning. What caught my interest in the university catalog was the word ‘City’. I knew that I liked the City, but not why. I was born in the middle of one, grew up there, went to school there, and rode buses, subways and trolleys, ventured in other neighborhoods where people were different than the Italian-American neighborhood I came from. My forays into the other parts of town were a precursor to my later, and allied, interest in foreign travel, when it would be my good fortune to visit hundreds of foreign cities in some sixty countries and to live in a few of them.

So I learned early that urbanites might share the same City, and the same appellation, in calling themselves, New Yorkers, Romans, Berliners, Bejingese, and even such strange names like Glaswegians, Malaguenos, and Fezzis, but that within their various cities, they created often vastly different social worlds. A city can be a vast universe unto itself.

However, my first travels to other cities were by way of the movie theater. As a young boy I went with my grandfather to see movies like Dead End, the first movie to feature those young adventurers in the city, the Bowery Boys. Even Kong Kong was a city movie, and I never forgot the scene of the great ape atop a New York skyscraper. Later there were films like Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause, about teenagers like myself adjusting (not always with ease) to the realities of American city life. Since then, movies set in or about cities had a special attraction for me, whether they were by Scorsese, Fellini, Billy Wilder, Willie Wyler, or Frank Capra.

My developing “urban sensitivity” didn’t stop at movies. Books also fed my interest in cities, particularly Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, Upton’s Sinclair’s The Jungle, and the works of Dickens and Victor Hugo. I continue to find their descriptions about city life were far more “alive” and “truthful” than the theories propounded by earnest academicians.

When I visited art museums it was always the cityscapes, what the Italians called vedute, painting that arrested my eye. Canaletto’s realistic views of 18th Century Venice, or Monet’s “impressions” of Paris, Hogarth’s etchings of raucous London streets, and the gritty scenes of New York by the painters of the Ash Can School, convinced me that a brush stroke might say as much, or more, about city life as a statistical datum.

After years as a professional urban planner and more years as a professor or urban planning I was able to indulge and expand my interests in exploring and expressing my views about cities through other media than teaching and academic publication, although I did not regard these as separate or contradictory pursuits.

Alongside my university teaching I pursued little careers in film and television documentary projects with the late Academy Award winning director, Denis Sanders, and with Jack Ofield, Film-maker in Residence at San Diego State University; three years of writing, producing and broadcasting commentaries and programs for KPBS-FM, the San Diego Public Broadcasting System local affiliate; writing op-eds and features for newspapers, and serving as an escorting professor for educational travel programs. I also lived, for various periods of time in London, Paris, and Hong Kong, doing research with the national government in the former, and as an invited visiting professor at the University of Paris, and a Fulbright Scholar in Hong Kong. The subjects and focus of all of these activities was the City and urban life, comparatively, historically, and through the arts and communication media. These professional activities made me not only a City person, an urbanite, but also an urbanist, one who is an active “student” of cities and urban life. For over three decades cities have been an endless source of discovery, both of them and, as some of the essays in this book attest, myself. This book is a compilation of a portion of that experience that will hopefully connect not only with other lovers of cities, but also those who wish to learn more about dimensions of urban life. It attempts to demonstrate that the appreciation and study of urban life can and should be approached through a variety of media, not solely those designed for and confined to the rigors of academic analysis.

Therefore this book is not intended to be an “academic” treatise, although it may have its uses in academic discourse about cities and urban life. It is a “personal” point of view of urbanism. But much of my personal observations about cities are, owing to my professional background, informed and expressed in terms that are part of academic discourse. While they do not comprise a “theory” about cities, they form a rather consistent and integrated perspective and prospect of urban life. Some are more “academic” in tone, even to the inclusion of notes and references, others are, for lack of a more appropriate term, “impressionistic,” speculative and even fanciful, ranging in their provenance from public radio essays and newspaper op-eds, to academic journal articles and reviews.

Overall, this books attempts to demonstrate that the media of the arts and of popular culture are fitting avenues to learning more about the multiple dimensions of urban life, that insights into that life might come from a movie, a poem, or an op-ed polemic – or even the circling of a sea hawk high above the streets of a city.

 

 I:   Perspectives on Urban Life

  Introduction

1:   The City, A Quotational Perspective

2:   The Roots of Anti-Urbanism

3:   New Town Dreams: From the Banks of the Nile to Pacific Shore

4:   X Marks the Spot: The Problems of the Erogenous Zone in the American City

 

II:   Arts and the City :

Introduction

Arts and Money

1:   The City Adorned

2:   The Arts and Urban Economics

Film: Features

3:   An Urban Medium

4:   Odessa in Reel Time

5:   Falling Down

 Film: Documentary

6:   Americans Abroad

7:   Florence in the Time of Lorenzo

 Literature

8:   Shylock’s Ghetto

9:   Take My City . . . Please!

10: Ovid at Tomi

  Painting:

11: Painting the Town

  Photography:

  1.    Poster essay

 

III:   Aspects, Prospects and Problems

Introduction

Facets of Urban Life:

1:   Can “Neo-Traditionalism Teach Us to Love Suburbia

2:   City Women

3:   Get A Horse!

4:   A Parisian Terpsichore

5:   Devilish Novembers in FLorence

6:   San Francisco: The Persistence of Place

7:   The Myth of the Small Town

8:   Streets of Revolution

9:   Urban Graffitti

10:   Toklahoma City

11:   Streets:   What’s in a Name

12:   Welcome to Bugsyland

13:   Three Hills in Nagasaki

 

IV:   Other People’s Cities

Introduction

London:

  1. Once a Yank
  2. Running in Hyde Park
  3. An American Language Abroad

Paris:

  1. The Ladies of Paris (abridged)
  2.   American in Paris

Hong Kong:

  1. Searching for Suzie
  2. Mash Transit
  3. Invasion of the Soulsnatchers

 

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