March 17, 2023
In his New York Times column for March 6, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, whom I have always admired, talks about the “15-minute city,” a concept that has been much in the news, partly because of being advocated by Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris (Krugman, City Life, Culture Wars, and Conspiracy Theories). A 15-minute city tries to ban or minimize car traffic by creating neighborhoods in which everything people need is within a 15-minute walk or cycle ride. In this context, my touchstone phrase about the imagination as the home of human life becomes quite literal. If you are needy, it may be any port in a storm, but most people have at least some freedom to choose a particular kind of home. And to choose a particular kind of home is to choose a lifestyle, a form of identity. Within my lifetime, the choices have been urban, suburban, or small town/rural. The first thing we notice is that these choices are ideological, not just locational. Urban voters tend to vote liberal, small town and rural voters conservative, and suburbanites are the “swing voters” who veer like weather vanes according to which way the political winds are blowing. Some people contend that “myth criticism” is a kind of bourgeois academic escapism removed from the realities of actual life. But scratch an ideology and you will find beneath it some mythical shape that is its vehicle. Ideologies are always kidnapped forms of the mythmaking imagination, which is why, for better or worse, they often have the power to move and manipulate people even when they are irrational, sometimes when they are quite evil. But sometimes also when they have the capacity to inspire both hope and hopeful action, having a power to move us beyond any kind of rational calculus.
In The Productions of Time I dealt with the mythical distinction between two forms of human life, the natural and the urban. According to the Bible, the original home of humanity was a paradisal garden, but after the fall into the wilderness, cities grew up, precisely as protections against the vicissitudes of the fallen world. Humanity cannot, like the animals, live directly in fallen nature, and has to develop civilization and culture—that is, material and imaginative ways respectively, of humanizing nature according to the universal needs that Northrop Frye calls primary concerns. By the end of the Bible, in the last chapter of the Book of Revelation, heaven itself is a city, the New Jerusalem. But in the center of it, like a park, is the original garden with the tree and the water of life, suggesting that the urban and the rural, the cultural and the natural modes of life, are what Blake called Contraries, opposites out of whose creative tension comes imaginative energy and creation. I am an unabashed utopian, but there are many valid ways of realizing utopia: it is not a coercive category as some people try to make it. However, all the truly valid ways would fulfill, however imperfectly, the demands of those two eternal Contraries. “Imperfectly,” because it is another falsehood that utopia is a dream of the perfect. No, as Wallace Stevens said, “The imperfect is our paradise.” Utopia is not a perfect way of life. It is just the dream—and possibly the blueprint—of a better life than the appalling mess we are stuck in right now.
Another allegation is that utopia is a power play, an attempt to coerce everyone to live according to a plan congenial to a few. Just live with the mess, however appalling, and resign yourself to the human condition rather than trying to engineer your way beyond it, it is said. But that itself is a power play, the attempt to impose a way of life by deeming it inevitable. We construct the human condition, even if there is something we call “reality” that resists our efforts. Saying that we have no choice, that human identity and human life are constructed by vast forces over which we have no control—material forces according to the Marxists, ideological forces according to the post-structuralists, predestination according to many Christians—is itself a choice, and one that I will never reconcile myself to. I am with Milton: the first fact of human nature is the freedom to choose, a truth that God taught us by setting up the multiple-choice test in Eden as a paradigm for what goes on in every human life, in every moment. We are always choosing, and our choice constructs a path, a “way,” one of the primary metaphors of the Bible, as Frye has shown. We are presently caught up in a moment of vast social change, and the fact that we have choices to make seems to have caught the public imagination. I think that is the deepest reason why Everything Everywhere All at Once just cleaned up at the Oscars, and why, more generally, popular imagination has been captivated by the myth of the multiverse.
But it is elsewhere as well. In my own particular favorite among the Oscar contenders, The Fabelmans, Steven Spielberg meditates upon the choices he made when very young, choices that led him to become what he is now, coming full circle (like Proust, like Wordsworth) to the moment in which he will decide to make a film about that process of choosing and becoming. The first film image to capture his childhood imagination was of a train wreck, an image of chaos. But the fateful moment is when the child realizes that, out of the train wreck of life, you can make the meaningful formal beauty of art. Almost the final scene of the film is a fictionalized version of the teenaged Spielberg’s two-minute meeting with the legendary director John Ford, played with wonderful over-the-top crankiness by, of all people, David Lynch. Ford’s lesson: a scene shot with the background above or below the foreground is imaginative; a scene shot with the background on the same level is “boring as shit.” In other words, he was teaching Blake’s lesson: “The eye altering alters all.” The artist’s task is not to record but to transform.
While I am no expert in this area, scholars have told us for well over a century that cities arose as a result of the invention of agriculture, which entailed a settled way of life replacing the nomadic lifestyles of hunting and gathering or herding. Agricultural settlements grew from villages to towns to the first cities. The first fact about cities, then, is that they are a product of growth and expansion, a fact we will return to later. The second fact about cities is that, while they arose as an expression of the human need to build a protection against the fierceness of nature, symbolized in King Lear by the storm on the heath against which unprotected human nature is a bare, forked “poor Tom,” they become vehicles of a power drive, of the fierceness of another kind of nature. A city is not just a place to live and work. It is a nexus of power—political power in the case of nations and empires, economic power in the case of the institutions of capitalism, religious power in the case of various temple-cities throughout history, including Jerusalem in the present day. Mythologists like Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell show how cities, early and late, are often laid out on a mandala plan: within a temenos or boundary circle, two main, crossed streets meet in a center that is a mythical umbilicus, a sacred space. Campbell liked to point out how the structure that a culture places in that mythical center is a key to its values: a temple or cathedral in religious cultures, a palace in imperialist cultures, a skyscraper in capitalist cultures. The mandala is an archetype, signifying the union of Contraries, but archetypes are never wholly free of the attempt of the will to power to make them serve its bidding.
Cities, then, are the locus of a power elite, and, much as a progressive like me hates to admit it, there was originally some real basis for the conservative distrust of urban elites. Hillary Clinton made no attempt to disguise her neoliberal elitism, appealing to the urban donor class that formed the upper echelon of the Democratic party, and that was why she lost so crucially to a con artist pretending to be a populist who cared about the people outside the circles of educated power and privilege. However, Samuel R. Delany, one of the important writers of our time, has shown in both his science fiction and his realistic novels how cities always have margins, areas left at least somewhat free of the regimented respectability of the city proper. In his novel Triton (1976), which Delany called an “ambiguous heterotopia,” the protagonist lives in a future society that has an “unlicensed sector,” in which there are no official laws, although there are some unofficial ones. His monumental 800-page novel Dhalgren (1975) is set in a city that has collapsed due to the entropy that afflicts all modern cities and is in effect all margin. The margins become the locus of various kinds of diversity—ethnic and racial diversity, but also diversity of lifestyles, including unconventional sexual lifestyles. It is remarkable how consistently a city’s artistic and cultural institutions and activities are located on a kind of liminal threshold, on the margin of the margins, so to speak, just on the border, despite the risk that some of the more dangerous people lurking in the margins may drift over into the cultural area for the purposes of robbery, rape, and the like. It has been this way since Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre was located in the unlicensed sector of Southwark, across the Thames and outside the limits of the city of London, which was controlled by the middle-class Puritans, who regarded theatres as immoral. Performances at the Globe, which in a way all featured cross-dressing, since male actors took all the women’s parts, took place amidst the bear-baiting, prostitution, and other liminal activities of that hinterland.
Cleveland, of which my own North Royalton is a suburb, had as one of its margins the peripheral area of Cleveland Heights, which historically was one of what were called “streetcar suburbs,” which flourished before the newer culture of the automobile drove them to extinction. As the Wikipedia article about streetcar suburbs makes clear, they bore a clear resemblance to the 15-minute city concept:
Shops such as groceries, bakeries, and drug stores were usually built near the intersection of streetcar lines, or directly along more heavily traveled routes (otherwise, routes would simply be lined with houses similar to those found in the surrounding neighborhoods). These shops would sometimes be multi-story buildings, with apartments on the upper floors. These provided convenient shopping for household supplies for the surrounding neighborhoods, which could potentially be visited on one's way to or from work….Because stores were originally built along streetcar lines, a person could exit the transport near home, do some light shopping for dinner items, and continue by walking to his or her residence. These buildings also provided shopping for a non-employed spouse.
The article cites Toronto, where I went to graduate school, as a modern city with streetcar suburbs utilizing actual streetcars. I remember them well.
Within Cleveland Heights is Coventry Village, once a center of the hippie and bohemian counterculture, sometimes compared to San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury and New York’s Greenwich Village. A city’s margins are not always a single area, but may form various pockets within or around the city proper. Another part of Cleveland’s margins is its extraordinary downtown theatre district known as Playhouse Square, consisting of as many as ten theatres and performing arts spaces, including the old Ohio Theatre, which burned and was nearly razed, but which was renovated into the Great Lakes Theatre, also known as the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, and the old Allen Theatre, at which I saw the Doors with Jim Morrison shortly before his death those many years ago. It was a remarkable experience to see the musical Hadestown at the Connor Palace of Playhouse Square two months ago. (George Burns and Gracie Allen were married on the stage of the Palace Theatre, as it was then called, in 1926). The theatres have been networked, along with the parking garage, so that people may pass safely from their cars to the theatres through a series of tunnels, protected from Cleveland weather and Cleveland muggers. Cleveland is a decaying city that lost more population last year than any other major U.S. city, but it is worth living in, provided one has a secure job, for the sake of its margins. Yet another marginal pocket is the area holding Severance Hall, home of the Cleveland Orchestra, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and the Cleveland Cinematheque.
The moral of this story is that while modern cities are a combination of elite power centers and decaying inner-city ghettoes, people are drawn to try to find a way of living in them for the sake of the “urban experience” of their margins. It is significant that the arts exist in the margins, sharing that context with various people who have been “marginalized” for their differences, who are not respectable by the standards of the city. The margins are an objective form of what in The Productions of Time I call the Otherworld, another reality on the opposite side of this one, whose subjective form is the unconscious, the place where all things go that have been repressed from the conventional world.
Krugman’s article on the 15-minute city clearly hit upon something, generating well over a thousand discussion board responses. A good number of those responses were critical. Krugman uses his own residence in the Upper West Side of Manhattan as his example, and he concedes ahead of time that it cannot become a general model because it is one of the most expensive neighborhoods anyone could possibly live in. Consequently, his version of the 15-minute city concept makes it sound like a gentrified version of the margins. From the 1950’s through the 1970’s, people fled from the crime and decay of the cities to the suburbs, but from the 1980’s there have been repeated attempts to return through the process of gentrifying certain neighborhoods. However, on the very day I write this newsletter, another New York Times article, by Thomas Edsall, declares that we are now witnessing a reversal of that trend, a new flight from the cities, where gentrification has made rents completely unaffordable unless you are rich. (Edsall, The Era of Urban Supremacy Is Over). The pandemic accelerated this flight by making work-from-home a permanent way of life, so that groups like tech workers may live in suburbs or exurbs and work at least partly from home, showing up at the downtown office only a couple of days a week. It is a vicious circle: the exodus of well-paid workers diminishes the tax base, leading to the return of urban decay and crime. Krugman denies the crime, saying that he can walk home safely from an event at 12:30 at night, but respondents scoffed at the idea of doing that outside of a very special enclave.
Edsall quotes Nicholas Bloom, an economist at Stanford, who contends that the current implosion will in the long run be the salvation of the cities. The end of gentrification will necessitate the lowering of rents and perhaps converting the huge amount of vacant office space into multi-family dwellings—essentially a return of the tenements and boarding houses of the big-city past:
I think this is mostly good for cities — younger, hipper and lower-income folks, essential service workers, in-person retail workers are all more able to afford city-center accommodation. Bankers, techies and other graduates drift out to the suburbs. This is making cities younger, more diverse and less gentrified.
Not everyone shares such optimism. Even leaving the question of unaffordable rents aside, I myself am uneasy at how many practical questions seem to be evaded in discussions of the 15-minute city. For example, the claim is that they will mean the return of the small family grocery store. Really? How would this work? I have to guess that it means shopping for a few groceries every day or every few days, because you will have to carry them for 15 minutes, which may not seem that long until you actually try to do it. The answer seems to be that we want to encourage physical fitness. What I suspect really happens is that a well-off population eats out a great deal of the time, thus reviving the faltering restaurant industry. Which is fine if you can afford it. And what of the weather? Carrying a bag of groceries a number of blocks in 85-degree heat is surely not a popular activity. What of old people who cannot do any of this? Do we assume they have enough money to have their groceries delivered? The same is even more true for winter weather, where it may be physically impossible to walk on sidewalks for weeks at a time if you live in a city like Cleveland. Krugman himself is not young, or I would assume that the whole thing is designed for young, fitness-minded urban professionals. One of the respondents says, “People who love dense urban areas seem to focus primarily on the possibilities for going out, for entertainment and socialization. I think some people I know in NYC view their dwellings pretty much as hotel rooms.”
We are returned to the idea that we are all utopians in the sense that we imagine an ideal way of life based on our temperament and personal values. I am an introvert, and do not like cities, not because of their problems but because of default features of the lifestyle they entail. Cities are people, people, people. Cities mean crowds. Now, humanity is a social species, and even a semi-recluse like me has occasional gregarious impulses. Traditionally, the need to mingle was satisfied by special places, such as markets, and special occasions, such as concerts, dramatic performances, concerts, and holiday celebrations. But to live in the midst of constant crowds is to me to live in Baudelaire’s fourmillante cité, a city swarming like an anthill. And constant crowds mean constant noise. Krugman maintains that once you get off the main streets his Upper West Side is relatively quiet. Some of his respondents beg to differ. One says, “But I had to laugh when he claimed that: ‘while the main north-south thoroughfares . . . are fairly noisy and have a lot of both vehicle and foot traffic, the side streets are much quieter than you probably imagine.’ Oh, come on. I've been to NYC many times, and I've lived in both Philadelphia and Chicago. None of these places are even remotely ‘quiet.’ Trust me, you don't know the meaning of quiet. Quiet is a wonderful, wonderful thing.” Another says, a little more, well, quietly, “People who were born in cities, grew up in cities, and still live in cities don’t understand what it’s like to not live in a city. They don’t realize they have a baseline level of constant stress from the noise, people, congestion etc. It’s just their life.”
In a city, the crowds are not just on the street but follow you indoors, so to speak. To house millions of people, communal living is necessary in the form of high-rise apartments, condos, and the like. There is always a neighbor on the other side of your wall. How congenial this arrangement is may depend on income level. In an upscale apartment complex or condo, applicants will be carefully screened and behavioral rules enforced. But the most common memories of apartment living from my younger years are of loud parties, screaming matches, attempts at burglary by the tenant next door, landlords who avoid repairing anything. In the other direction, it meant constantly worrying that I myself was playing music too loud. There is, in short, limited privacy.
And yet, there is something about such communalism that is readily mythologized. Will Eisner invented the graphic novel form with the Contract with God trilogy, a series of tales about a tenement on Dropsie Avenue in the Bronx during the 1930’s, drawing upon Eisner’s own experience growing up in a Jewish immigrant family living in such a tenement. A series of vignettes having little connection except that they transpire within the same building creates a wonderful gallery of eccentrics, a kind of urban counterpart of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, with a clear sense that it is the hardships and limitations of their lives, and especially their unfulfilled dreams, that has made them eccentric. In John Crowley’s great fantasy novel Little, Big, a man named George Mouse, who is a city mouse, contrasted with his country cousins, creates a kind of countercultural marginal community within New York City within an Old Law tenement, a type of dwelling built around a central shaft to satisfy a law that all apartments had to have at least one window opening upon the outside. George seals off the building, creating, as with Dropsie Avenue, the sense of a human microcosm, complete with goats running around the central yard. In the real world, Old Law tenements were built in large numbers to accommodate a large influx of immigrants.
Why pack people by the millions into cities? Modern cities are products of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution, great Molochs that swallowed millions of immigrants coming from abroad and, coming from the other direction, millions of impoverished rural people seeking jobs in the factories and businesses. From the novels of Dickens to Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1927), we see the result: overcrowding, debilitating and unsafe working conditions, the creation of a proletariat—a supply of cheap, expendable labor. And yet—the rural and small-town conservatives who shudder in horror at the crime and depravity of Sin City conveniently forget that just a few generations ago escaping to the city was for many Americans the great hope. It was certainly so for the African Americans who fled the segregationalist South in the Great Migration after World War II, drawn by the factory jobs of northern cities like Chicago. But it was true for a lot of farming and working class white folk of my parents’ generation as well. My dad grew up in the small town of Midvale, Ohio, where my grandfather was carpenter for a coal mine, but left for the city of Canton, where I grew up, in order to have a good job as lathe operator at the Timken Roller Bearing Company. My mother grew up on a farm without electricity or running water, and she was only too glad to leave behind the hard work, isolation, and poverty of the kind of “traditional values” lifestyle romanticized by the MAGA people nowadays. The city, and later the suburbs, was escape.
Still, for some of us, the urban experience has its problems. One is the sheer ugliness of the city. Even if you are just passing through on your way to somewhere else, it is impossible in a city like Cleveland to avoid driving through or past decayed and sometimes derelict industrial areas, run-down neighborhoods, and sometimes broken-windowed ghost buildings, warehouses abandoned years ago. The contrast with the natural setting of North Royalton from which I have just come makes the ugliness the more jarring. Perhaps I am too thin skinned, but Victorian critics like Ruskin and William Morris already regarded the ugliness of the modern city as the outward sign of an inward spiritual ugliness. A gentrified solution to this is simply isolation from the unsightliness within a special enclave. The class structure of the city is mythologized as a version of the vertical axis mundi that shows up so often in this newsletter. The elite live in a penthouse, the billionaire version of Mt. Olympus; the underclass may live in tenements, but sometimes are associated with a form of the margins that is literally under, the famous example being the sewers of Paris in The Phantom of the Opera. It is not for nothing that we refer to the criminal element as the underworld.
Mythologically, the city has a horizontal as well as a vertical axis. We said that cities came into being as a result of a process of growth and expansion, and the fact that we are now supposed to be post-industrial has not prevented that growth from metastasizing. The cancer metaphor is apt: what is killing both cities and suburbs is sprawl. Science fiction writers have been pointing to this for some time. In his Three Californias Trilogy of the late 80’s, Kim Stanley Robinson represents three possible alternate-history futures for the Orange County, southern California area where he grew up. The first is a post-nuclear holocaust society; the third is a utopia. But the second, The Gold Coast (1988), is in the science fictional tradition that Robert Heinlein called “if this goes on.” The entire area is shown to be engulfed by what Los Angeles had by that time become: endless freeways, strip malls, condos, many of the characters connected in one way or another with the vast and corrupt bureaucracy of the defense industry. There is no longer a difference between city and suburbs: there is only the sprawl.
At the same time, William Gibson published a trilogy, beginning with Neuromancer (1984), the novel that created cyberpunk, set in “the Sprawl,” otherwise known as BAMA. the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis. All the cities of the entire east coast, including New York, have been swallowed up into one continuous sprawl, dominated by multinational corporations. This is not a new extrapolation. In The Decline of the West (1918), Oswald Spengler coined the term “megalopolis” for the cities of the late capitalist phase of Western civilization, cities he thought would eventually collapse from their sheer size. The term and the concept were picked up by Lewis Mumford in such famous books as The Culture of Cities (1938) and The City in History (1961). This is the “Unreal City” of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922): “Falling towers / Jerusalem Athens Alexandria/ Vienna London / Unreal.” Isaac Asimov, who grew up in New York, showed the ultimate extent of the sprawl: the city of Trantor in the Foundation Trilogy is at once a city and a planet.
Yet the city remains an enduring archetype. The sprawl is a symbolic parody of what an ideal city represents, which is true community, free of the ugliness, crowding, and social exploitation that so often make actual cities seem more like demonic cities such as Dante’s Dis and Milton’s Pandemonium. On the profoundest level, recreating the city would entail finding a fruitful relation between the power, organization, and wealth of the city proper and all that has been repressed into its margins—instead of trying, like so many “urban renewal” projects, to eliminate those margins, which amounts to trying to eliminate the city’s collective Jungian shadow. In addition, an ideal city, to come full circle, would have some kind of yin-yang relationship to its Blakean Contrary, the paradisal garden, in other words to a lifestyle that included a close relationship with nature. As the city symbolizes the extraverted need for community, the garden symbolizes the introverted need for privacy and more individualized relationships, including ones based on solitude. These are needs that suburban and small town/rural lifestyles have attempted to fulfill, and we will look at those ways of life in next week’s newsletter.