Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Who are the enthusiasts for megapolises?

I was reading this by Dr. Rao, in which he shows his familiarity with NYC. EJK loves the city, as does Pete Takeshi and Fujian Gal. When asked whether I liked living in Boston or not, I generally tell people that I don't, with the explanation that I don't like big cities in general. But I usually don't hide my disdain for New York City and all its pretension--that is, what the rich and powerful in that city believe their city to be. (The cultural capital of America, its economic center, and so on.)

I wouldn't lump major European megapolises with American megapolises, as if European cities were just as bad--they are admittedly a bit more humane and many even retain a connection with their past. I believe Amsterdam is very bike-friendly, and pedestrians are not unwelcome in cities like Rome. And generally public transit is better in European cities than in American cities. Still, there are questions about how many of those European megapolises are sustainable.

I have posted the critique of megapolis by E. F. Schumacher before. Setting aside the negative impact of megapolises on the environment, the critique of megapolises at the political level could perhaps be summarized in this way: with the loss of human scale comes a loss of autarky and self-sufficiency, along with true republican government and a destruction of community and the opportunity for civic friendship.

(I note that Dr.
As far as autarky goes, I think that needs some qualification. Man naturally lives by exchange, which poses a problem for autarky. Aristotle was thinking primarily about defense, since the polis was a step up from--and a response to--Greek tribalism. Defense of the city was primary, and for defense one must not be dependent on potential rivals for food and other necessities (Smith makes these the exceptions to free trade.) I take "autarky" in the sense that one must be able to produce enough to pay for what one consumes, which condemns the American economy as it presently is.
No man can be 'independent' and obtain all of the goods he needs to flourish; the same is true of the family, and hence Aquinas and Aristotle both argue that some greater community is needed. The perfect community, which is self-sufficient with respect to the goods that it needs for human flourishing, is the political community, the polis or civitas. Exchange within a community is taken for granted. The question is what sort of trade should exist between political communities, and is it wise for a political community to be dependent upon trade for such necessities as food? Aristotle's and Aquinas's argument is recapitulated by Dr.
Why do people enjoy living in megapolises? It isn't because of the negative qualities of megapolises. If it there is any group that enjoys the night life provided by cities, it is the young. Those who are older may cite the availability of cultural events--theater, musicals, museum exhibitions, as well as a plethora of high-class restaurants and other services catering to those with more money. Even if we consider youths who enjoy flittering around from one hot spot to the next, they usually do so at least with a few friends, often in a large group. While they lack ties to the larger community as a whole, their immediate circle of friends and the interactions within a very small group is enough to satisfy their social nature. How much more true should this be of those who are relatively "settled" in life.

As one gets older, one looks for some measure of stability. The appeal of novelty begins to wear off, and as we "grow into our skins," we seek a more fixed identity. We are not wholly defined by the places we may frequent, but being creatures of habit and custom, we do seek to make a home where we live, even in an environment that can be so inhumane. In German there is a word, heimat. (I first encountered it in Fr. Gamber's Reform of the Roman Rite who discusses it in the context of the liturgy and liturgical spirituality.)

Identity is often tied to self-expression; rarely is it founded upon something that we have received, except ethnic background. But in the United States even ethnic background may not suffice to influence our sense of identity, since we must appropriate the culture and make it our own, if this is to be something more substantial in the face of assimilation. (Not that assimilation is a bad thing or wrong, but if our claim to belong to a certain culture is to be true, we must adopt that culture to one degree or another, no? Simply eating Chinese food is not enough to make me "Chinese" culturally.) Though there is the voluntary or declarative aspect of self-identification that must be acknowledge--if someone claims that they are Chinese rather than American, culturally or ethnically, who are we to argue with them even if we can produce evidence to the contrary? If this self-identification affects their priorities and allegiances and goals in life, it is real to that extent, even if it is not consistent with their everyday behavior.

Is it a mark of modernity that we create ourselves by the choices that we make? (Or is it tied to postmodernity and existentialism?) Regardless of whether this has any affinity with historical schools of thought, it seems to be a useful way to understanding human psychology and behavior, not universally, but of certain groups and cultures. And so an inhabitant of New York City may identify with New York City in the abstract to some extent, but he is more likely to identify with particular places and people in creating his sense of identity and establishing his heimat. Some activities and the places where those activities are done are more integral to that identity than others. A fitness center where the activity is valued only for its utility to some other end, and not as a means of meeting other people, may be seen as being interchangeable with any other fitness center and thus not a significant part of one's local identity. A favorite Italian restaurant, which one frequents with friends or family, is different. Rarely do people talk about a chain or franchise being a favorite spot, unless it's a Starbucks, or some other spot where people can hang out. Do we not try to find something more personalized, something that is set apart from the homogeneity we normally encounter? (Even if what sets it apart is the fact that we enjoy it, not it in itself.)

I have my favorite spots in NYC, like St. Mike's or Our Saviour. Dr. Pinto likes Payard. I never got a chance to go to Congee Village. I did walk by One Police Plaza, which is always being mentioned in Law and Order, with Pete Takeshi and his two buddies one night. (What does it look like on the inside?) I don't care much for Times Square, but Union Square is nice. (Photos.)

Dr. Rao laments the loss of unique, local, family-owned businesses in Greenwich Village:
A good number of the abandoned shops still remain vacant, giving some spots in the otherwise all too noisy "hood" an unusual Ghost Town pall. Those that have been reoccupied have been taken up either by businesses catering to appetites unrecognizable before 1960 or seemingly insatiable desires for pharmaceutical products, banking needs, fingernail care, tattooing, and painfully boring or hideously revolting t-shirts. Many of these establishments, already themselves part of ugly chains, are destined to be gobbled up by more Godzilla-like enterprises---all intent on joining indissolubly together in massive shopping-scrapers what both the well being as well as the simple entertainment of men and women out for a walk really meant to be kept forever asunder.

When, exactly, was it (the sight of all such endless CVSs and wannabe Walmarts makes me ask) that we stopped "making fun" of what we once considered a Soviet calamity---namely, the need to make all purchases at one, dull, monster store, like G.U.M. in Moscow---and began to praise visits to such lifeless Leviathans as the grandest achievement of God's own free market? Probably at the same moment that the flattening out of male and female into a single, indistinguishable, hermaphrodite drudge ceased to be viewed as an Orwellian totalitarian nightmare and metastasized into a laudable pluralist goal instead. But, once again, as Chris Ferrara and I have often noted, there is no surprise in all of this. Both Marxist and Capitalist materialism are but flip sides to the same Enlightenment coin, their Cold War quarrel itself having been, in Dr. Jeffrey Bond's words, merely "an 'in-house' battle" over who could reduce man to a lackluster, one-dimensional, producing and consuming animal most quickly and most successfully. Our side won this lugubrious contest. But an efficient G.U.M. by any other name is just as soul killing, and my Village, like the rest of the world, is paying the price---by watching the lights go off in all the little nooks and crannies unsuitable to global market analysis and hated by ideologues, tyrants, and dullards of every sort.

Have family-owned businesses been able to compete in megapolises like New York City? (SoHo has its own website; what about the rest of Manhattan? Who owns the clothing stores and boutiques on 5th Ave.?) The political economy of some areas is such that permanence for individual business, much less the community as a whole, is very rarely achieved. That lack of economic permanence creates the necessity for mobility; American mobility is not always chosen for its own sake, especially for those under a certain income range.

Do we create only an illusion of community for ourselves by patronizing our favorite businesses? The human spirit seeks to cope and make the best out of a bad situation. Those who can't will probably leave or seek alternate, less wholesome remedies. And yet, is this not a community more of our mind and choosing? And, hence, not a real community? (Similarly, how easy is it for us to acquire new friends and abandon old ones as we switch jobs, dwellings, or our boyfriend or girlfriend?)

Intentional communities only seem to work within a religious context, and even then not all of them. Those who seek to resettle to establish a new Christian community should do so prayerfully, if they are abandoning natural ties and obligations that arise in natural communities. There needs to be a serious reason for those natural obligations to be disregarded in favor of new obligations--the community that one is leaving is too degenerate and a danger to his salvation, for example.

It seems to me that the little customs that we create serve as a coping mechanism, and enable us to ignore the bleakness around us when we reflect upon our lives. (Just like those denizens of the megapolises who wear mp3 players or other audio devices are constantly listening to them.) Is it any wonder that those of us caught up in our own world find it so easy at times to ignore the poor and the homeless on our streets? They're unpleasant reminders of reality. It's better to just keep walking and to look straight, focused on whatever we are doing or wherever we are going, so we can continue living in our own universe and pretend that everything is all right. James Howard Kunstler writes about 9/11 and the public's reaction to the administration's justification for the second Iraq war:

For my money, the "we were lied to" chorus only represents the obdurately self-righteous cluelessness in every band of the American political spectrum. We lied to ourselves. We continue to lie to ourselves every day. The US public barely understands the first thing about the energy predicament we're in, and what it means for how we live in this country -- or how we get along with the rest of the world -- and the news media tragically reflects that ignorance. We fantasize about being "energy independent" and still being able to drive to the mall three times a day to eat caesar salads grown on the other side of North America. Get this: we deserve exactly what is happening to us. We might as well keep on lying to ourselves to pretend that we are not descending into a dark phase of our own history. After all, the true basis of American life these days is to feel good about yourself no matter what you do.
A similar mindset takes hold when we try to find a solution to the problems that plague our locality--we seek quick answers and are prone to put blame upon our leadership, while ignoring how much of our lifestyle is to blame of those problems. The comfort that we seek can thus become a way of denying reality, while one is engrossed in the city. While we may seek to establish some links with others, even if they are weak, unstable relationships, how often do we fail to satisfy our desire for human contact by not following through on it, either out of habit or lack of consideration, or other [less valuable] priorities? We may be able to temporarily ignore the dark side of the city until there is some emergency or personal tragedy, when we feel t e loneliness, solitude, and lack of support such a megapolis creates. Despite the hustle and bustle and the flashy appearances, life in NYC is not very vibrant or enriching, and we have the witness of the poor and of their children in its public schools to testify to this, despite the protestations of those who have money and have access to endless diversion. (Singles with well-paying jobs, and couples who do not wish to have children or are seeking to postpone childbearing, for the sake of maintaining their way of life.)

Even if we live properly as Christians in a megapolis, engaging in spiritual and corporal works of mercy for those in need, is it possible for us to find some sort of natural heimat in such a place?
Our professional, civic, and personal relationships are open to too much flux. Is the situation in a contemporary megapolis worse than, say, urban Rome? Many Catholics have a solid foundation in religion and acts of sacrifice, either as individuals or in families. But what is lacking today are strong, tight-knit parishes, communities of agape. Because of fragmentation and mobility, we lack a strong "base of operations," within which we can live in charity and give witness and then expand outward. The ecclesial movements do what they can to compensate for this loss, but I don't think that the new evangelization must sooner or later confront the loss of the parish; otherwise Catholic Christianity in urban areas will die out, along with the urban society in which they are found. (The possible exceptions being those parishes that remain "ethnic," particularly those that are gathering places for Latin Americans and Latinos.)

That said, I do admit that I have an attachment to Hong Kong and Macau, in addition to some European cities; would I feel the same away about E. Asian cities like Seoul or Tokyo? I know I don't like Beijing--the pollution there is a major reason. Hong Kong and Macau would be more comfortable than Seoul or Tokyo because of Cantonese and the culture. It's also because of family ties to both cities as well...

Although I've never ridden on the buses, NYC does seem to have a good public transportation system and is pedestrian-friendly, like Hong Kong. Nonetheless, the New Urbanists and Classicists nonetheless would make a critique about the size of the buildings. What of our
'subjective' reaction to skyscrapers? More on that in another post.

New Urbanism is the Old Green.
Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design with Nature, by Douglas Farr
Farr Associates - sustainable urbanism and architecture
Urban Land Institute | ULI Austin - YLG: Meet the Speaker with ...
Doug Farr Defining Green Design AIA
The Good City - Books & Culture

Philip Bess: What is a city for?
Philip Bess: Cities shaped by love « the good city
New Urbanism and “The Good City” « Creation Project
Faculty - Our Community - School of Architecture - University of ...

Veritas et Venustas: Slow Food & New Urbanism

CNU XII: Chicago | Congress for the New Urbanism
Learn About New Urbanism | Congress for the New Urbanism
Building the New Urbanism
Next American City » Magazine » Respect for the Human Scale
City Mayors: New Urbanism
Three Paradigms: New Ubanism, Everyday Urbanism, Post Urbanism
Kirkpatrick Sale: At What Size Secession?

via EB:
Let's fix the cities now? (Ecocities review)
Jan Lundberg, Culture Change
This report contains the author's address at the Ecocity World Summit, April 25, 2008 in San Francisco. Richard Register, the Summit's co-convener and Ecocity Builders founder, responds to this report at the end.

1 comment:

Steve Hayes said...

Did you ever read Doxiadis's book Ekistics -- the study of human settlements? You might find it interesting.