21 January 2007

In the City

I live in the city. I am also city born and bred. Albeit, currently a habitué of a mid-sized regional city, and therefore somewhat off the beaten path of the superhighway of global centres of influence, glamour, and squalour that characterise our understandings of the city, places like New York, Los Angeles, Mexico City, São Paulo, Tokyo, London, Paris, the glittering prizes that attract the hungry masses and beautiful things from the hinterlands and outer regions to toil for naught. But mid-sized cities share quite a lot in terms of ethos with their sisters in the upper constellations of urbanity, both in their literal physical expressions as well as the greater meanings of the metropolitan experience, although the deployment of these shared expressions can be uneven and strange.

The other night, in one of my classes, we got into a discussion about the city, and why the city was a threat to nativist themes of cultural singularity, precisely because it was a space of pollution, of unauthorised contact, of random and chance influences that corrupt and through that corruption transform. This conversation was apropos of the historical progression of North American societies, through immigration and internal migration, the emergence of racial and sexual identities as well as those of fashion and class. Some of my students, mostly from the central city, understood straight away and were lively in their discussion of this principle. Others, either from the hinterlands beyond the beltway that surrounds Cold City or living in far suburbs, were more cautious in their embrace of the principle. For these students, coming into the city for work or to attend class is an experience modulated by the ways in which contemporary North Americans contain the city: suburb, highway, car, parking lot, office block, mall, and fear.

These technological aspects of travel and spatial experience, combined with the paucity of a comprehensive regional public transportation system, effectively close Cold City off for those who partake in them, circumscribe it within private space, and short-circuits the corruption of the urban that has been the hallmark of the development of the city since the 19th century. These facets of life in North America, aside from making our cities decidedly less pleasant than their Continental counterparts, also demonstrate the fragility of the ideal of the urban, the tenuous balance of necessity and attraction that is needed to drive the city ideal. North Americans, on the whole, have attempted to destroy the city, either on a grand scale (urban redevelopment) or piecemeal (a thousand budget cuts). Yet, cities survive, perhaps raggedly, because of the needs they respond to, of New Americans or New Canadians, young people, sophisticates, LGBT communities fleeing the provincial, whomever.

North Americans remain, for the most part, squeamish about the city, a theme that runs through our literature. Sister Carrie certainly comes to mind, as one of the ultimate late nineteenth century cautionary tales of the corruption of the city (with its delicious twist), along with a host of other, less skilled examples. But recently, I have been thinking a lot of the artist Gustav Klimt, and the arts scene that emerged in Vienna at the turn of the last century, as an expression of some of the city’s glamour and, for its critics, its sinister nature. One of the reasons I have been pondering Klimt, the city, and corruption is that over the break Mr. Gordo and I had a lovely early dinner with La Antropóloga, Mr. Polemic, and El Babycito at Café Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie in New York. If you haven’t been, not only is the food divine (although the pretension is a bit much), but housed around the café (how’s that for a reversal?) is a museum focused around the arts of Vienna’s fin-de-siècle, including several outstanding Klimts.

Last summer, with New York dripping under a humid heat wave, I met Mrs. Dash for lunch at the Sabarsky and a visit to the galleries, where we admired the Klimts, Schieles, Kokoschkas, and Klees, among others. Ironically, I also went with Mrs. Dash, back when we were undergraduates, to the Vienna 1900 show at MOMA. The two poster themes on display in dorm rooms around Prestigious Eastern University in the fall of 1986 were either Vienna 1900 or the impressionist show at the Met, so much so that after awhile they became banal, in the ways such overcommercialisation always leads to, like Frida Kahlo earrings or some other such art world horrors. However, the exquisiteness of the displayed works at the Neue, along with a child-free admission policy, made the whole experience sublime. The design principles of the particular Viennese variant of modernism, and the specifically Jewish nature of the experience (both the designs and paintings on display, as well as the Neue as a venture, along with the infamous case of the returned Klimts), do speak to the cosmopolitan virtues of the city, and the energy the city creates between disparate groups of people and ideas, clashing in collaboration and conflict.

The Neue Galerie and its patron benefactor, Ronald Lauder are covered in an interesting, if a bit dry, article in the January 15th issue of the New Yorker. Contrasted to Lauder’s enthusiasm for the Vienna secessionists and the seduction of Klimt, is a caution from Kirk Varnedoe, writing in the introduction to the Vienna 1900 catalogue, quoted in the article: “Klimt and Wagner and Loos thus become tablemates of Freud and Mahler and Wittgenstein at an imaginary coffeehouse for a shining moment in the city that was ‘the cradle of modernity’… [t]he deeper collaboration here thus may be between our unfulfilled longings and those of the Viennese artists we study.” Rebecca Mead, the journalist examining Lauder and his interest in Vienna’s fin-de-siècle, uses this quote to warn us against our presentism, or rather to reveal the extent to which our own (or in Mead’s case, Lauder’s) fantastical insertion into the narratives of sublimely beautiful pieces of art can obscure the material and political realities on the ground. Vienna at the turn of the century was already arguably in a process of entropy: rich, decadent, but remarkably toothless, Vienna had become a glittering symbol behind which there was relatively little substance. Of course, this interpretation is dependent on our knowing what would happen next— the catastrophe of the First World War, which would destroy the material bases for the fin-de-siècle (creation, at least in our world, generally needs money), and later, the Götterdämmerung of mid-century fascism, which attempted pathetically but in a remarkably efficient fashion, to destroy the socio-cultural bases of such artistic and creative expression through the destruction of European Jewry.

And of course, it is towards these disastrous ends that is the realisation of the fragility, as well as vitality, of the urban, the vision of the urban as a place that enables social, linguistic, and cultural expressions outside of Babbittry and bourgeois propriety, and in this escape from the force of provincial gravity does the city both live within its expression, as well as become a target. A fantastical relationship to Klimt notwithstanding, the conditions that augur the sustenance of such work in a time and place also speaks to the transitory nature of such conditions, the way they move and flow, from city to city and milieu to milieu. If we take it that mid-century fascism is not unique but rather just the most brutal expression of an anti-cosmopolitan sentiment of longer and permanent standing, then the material conditions for its reappearance turn it into a question of not if but when. The rise of various fundamentalisms of the Right (with bases in religious doctrine) and the Left (Chavismo, for example) are not an elaboration of the world, but a closing down of possibility, for the pallid truth of a singular knowledge. The city, grounded in the chaotic diversity of polyamorous opinions, chance encounters of the corporeal and intellectual, cannot but become a liability in such charades of thinking.

Doug Aitken’s Sleepwalkers attempts to present some of this urbane polyamory, in its representation of the interweaving narrative, in which the lives of a handful of urbanites meet, overlap, collide, and disperse again. Such encounters are by their very nature the quintessential urban experience, the lifeblood of the city, profoundly disturbing as well as remarkably refreshing. It is this chaos from which many North Americans have fled, into their banal suburbs and dreary shopping complexes and fear, transported around by muscular aggressive vehicles which say, quite frankly, “I don’t need you.” But in the city, one needs one another, no matter how in fact loathsome such a sentiment may be. Even on the frigid planes of Cold City, serendipity can bring delight to my eyes and ears.

Some moments of late—

A walk around my local ice rink in the heart of the city, filled with families and fags and boys and girls, skating round and round in their polar fleece, whilst in the warming house they imbibe hot cocoa.

Sitting in a gritty café with bad coffee right before class, enjoying a respite from the cold, and hearing Fool’s Gold being played on the sound system, which took me back to a party at Miss Truffles’s house while we were undergrads at Prestigious Eastern U. She always was so on the cutting edge. I am reminded a bit, through the song and how it has become an anthem for me this past week, of Iain Chamber's observations of the metropolitan experience as mediated through the Walkman, a personal soundtrack for the diverse range of images the city presents us with.

Walking to my supermarket and seeing, amazingly, a huge queue of nerds and geeks waiting outside a theatre at 10 at night in 4 degree temperatures for the premiere of
Pan’s Labyrinth
(to which, when reported to Mr. Gordo as I defrosted in a local bookstore, he cried, “Oh, it’s horrible, go warn them!”).

Teaching in classrooms full of the wild diversity of Cold City: neck-swiveling Latinas, old Americans, New Americans, chic head-scarfed Muslim women in mink coats, sisters in braids and dreads, mothers and fathers, civil servants and construction workers.

Venturing from the far suburbs with placards reading “Pray for an End to Abortion” into the city, negotiating parking on my narrow, crowded street with apartment buildings chock-a-block with homos and students and pensioners, the street crowded with cars full of lefty bumper stickers and pink-haired punkesses trying to start their jalopies in the cold, battery dead.

Discovering my local Target is a haven for the lesbian-couple set, walking hand in hand past the head-scarfed sales girls and Anglo teenaged checkers, who do not bat an eye. One, a former student, waves, and I feel surprised and happy.

Some of these experiences, in their banality, do not reveal the full extent to which they are sustained by the city. And, à la The Jungle, the transformations of the urban can become literal and figurative abattoirs where human dreams are slaughtered mercilessly. Such gore has always been part of the city’s mythology, but the new cities of the developing world risk taking even that horror to a new and devastating level. However, these moments do speak to the serendipitous nature of the city, the unusual and random collisions that bring together different people into a temporarily shared space. Does this in the end guarantee enlightenment? Of course not. Such a sentiment is foolish in its simplicity. However, they do offer the potential to enable it, in ways remarkably different from life down on the farm or marooned in a tract home on the outskirts of the city.

The swirling colours of a Klimt, the ingenious combination of unexpected materials on the canvas, the contrasting richness of texture and erotic theme, the possibility, speak to me deeply. The beautiful Adele Bloch-Bauer, two to four generations removed from emancipation, revealing the richness and diversity of Jewish experience before the Holocaust, in a particular place and time where the old rules were bent enough to allow the margins to come into relief. I cannot help, contra Varnedoe’s caveat, to draw the same conclusions that apparently Ronald Lauder has: the city provides the milieu for the revelation of the unseen, the formerly unknown, the rise of the lower echelons, a challenge to the rules whilst at the same time an enforcement of them. This has certainly been true for both Jews and lesbians and gay men and their experiences in the modern city, which has allowed us to become the fabulous and terrifying luminous creatures we are, effervescent and amorphous like Klimt's Mermaids. Although I am not under the misapprehension that I cannot live without the city, for these reasons I do have a decided preference.


Hilaire said...

What a beautiful post. I love the way you talk about the city as a space for the encounter with the other. This is what I feel is its most important feature. People ask me why I will mourn when I leave my big city, and I tell them it is that forced confrontation with and sometimes recognition of necessity of and even love for others. And I have spent this academic year knowing that I will leave my Home City, and already mourning. Every Thursday night at midnight, I glide into the city on the train from my half week in Uni City, and I watch the familiar streetscape and skyscrapers slide by, and I just feel so sad. To be leaving all these others, and moving to a place defined by its attempts to isolate people. Blech.

Thanks for this.

Professor Zero said...

Yeah. And I do not know why people say all cities are the same.

danny said...

As someone who oscillates between the city (for many of the reasons you mention) and the non-city (for a very specific relationship to the natural environment), I think it's important to contrast your comment about the Nth American squeamishness about the city to the Nth American squeamishness about the deeply historical and social relationship to the land that is exemplified by its indigenous inhabitants. Settler culture is surely trapped in a fantasy of colonial agribusiness as its mythological founding, and suburban modernity as its preferred present/future. However, it seems to me that the city is having a hard time negotiating water, food, environmental change, etc.; whatever its social niceties. The city's privilege is also its loss, and essentially I wonder about the class dynamics of urban cosmopolitanism I sense in this very beautiful paean, one that resonates with me in many ways.

JoannaO said...

Lovely writing, as usual! I just returned from a city with over 2000 years of recorded history to my midwestern city, just a baby by comparison, and yet already rich with stories. I'm enjoying the way each one helps me see the other anew. I just saw an exhibit done by a history class at my U about the oral and visual history of a neighborhood near campus, called "Dinkytown"--it was a great glimpse of the layers of city living that can be seen, if not always comprehended, when we're on foot in the city instead of in a car. Lately, I've been taking my camera along with because it makes me slow down and look instead of breezing past the buildings I normally don't reallys see. I've also been enjoying those sites that are maintained by people who do a photo (and usually a little story) a day--in Paris and all over the world.

Sfrajett said...

Love the snakey Klimt ladies! And the atmosphere of this post.

Bruce said...

Interesting post. The city is, precisly for the reasons you cite, dangerously frightening to rurals. The experience of cosmopolitan Vienna was deeply upsetting to the small town young man from Upper Austria, Adolph Schickelgruber and the catylist for the formation of his political position.

On the other hand, turn of the century and post WWI Vienna was a pretty dismal place for the have nots, generally farm boys forced off their land and desperate to eke out a living in the city. It was hardly a Holly Golightly experience. People used to LIVE in my storeroom in Vienna, which was too damp to keep anything for more than a week that was susceptible to milldew.

As for the contemporary scene, although I have chosen to live in Europe (Venice and Paris)for aesthetic and sentimental reasons (Italian partner), despite the city/ rural antagonism so prevalent in the US, I still find major US cities exemplifying more of what you are referring to than European cities. As the "Ed Koch" figure says in the amazing recent film "Shortbus," "New York is where we all come to be forgiven."

bg said...

Wow, fantastic piece! I have
posted a link.

Mr. Bonzo

Littlemilk said...

Great observations about the city. Commuting between the suburbs and the city has become a way of life for me and you caputured the attitudes of both sets of citizens perfectly.

"The City?" says the soccer mom.

"Central Jersey?" says the gay self made 50-something.