Yet the social crises that cities face are remarkably consistent, country to country and town to town. Very little that is going on in New York, from plutocratic excess to outlying gentrification, is not also going on, with different emphases and origins, in London: the same tales of people who drink wine and lattes buying the property of those who drink whiskey and beer. At the same time, cities are local. Saying that Manhattan and central London share the same problems is like saying that a man dying of drink in London is like one doing the same in Manhattan. It’s true, but all the local conditions—what he’s drinking, where he drinks it, who takes him home, and what kind of home he goes to—are so different that a story about the drunk in either place becomes a story about the place. Cities are at once the most cosmopolitan and the most particular of subjects; they require, and rarely receive, a view sufficiently wide-eyed as to become effectively double.

    How much do the physical arrangements of cities—their alleys and streets, their transportation infrastructure—actually affect their character? The grid expresses something about a common New York ideal of busyness and intersection—mercantile capitalist order as a devouring Dionysian force—more than it enforces that ideal. The greatest celebrations of the grid are the émigré Piet Mondrian’s two New York paintings: “Broadway Boogie Woogie” and “Victory Boogie Woogie.” They are part of a forties-New York efflorescence, the blinking, stable, dynamic, and yet still rectilinear energy—an image of energy that breaks with the usual organic forms of ecstatic spirals and gyres. They show the grid as metaphor, and a metaphor, after all, is a cell with a view: the bars in the window bend, and you leave as, and when, you want to.

    What we need, obviously, and find hard to make, are stable pots and beautiful flowers, good plans producing open forms. We mourn the small stores lost and the neighborhood neutered, even as we recognize that cities depend for their future on new ways of selling and buying and living. Cities often produce whatever the next wave of social change is going to be, and then violently reject it for altering the nature of the city. The tech kids clustering in San Francisco depend on the special virtues of the old San Francisco—contiguity, character, charm—which they cannot help but diminish. The old city recoils, even as it is, inevitably, remade. As city people, we are our own pathogens and our own patients.

    Cities change. It is their nature. Those which stop changing stop being cities. Cities that change entirely, though, cease to be themselves. If there are sane grounds for hope, they lie in how resilient the social capital accumulated in cities turns out to be. Detroit today is, all agree who work there, a harsh place, haunted by the past, but one with real civic resources that are being called on for its renewal. The clashes between local people and new arrivals, in inner-city Detroit as elsewhere, are real, and a fit subject for a novel or a film or a real oral history; but they are not poisonous or intractable.

posted by demure: 1273 days ago