An Urban Sunset


From an advertisement in a magazine called Art in Advertising, 1894.

Snow in the City


Published on 02/25/2011

A quick and heavy snowfall has a strangely magical effect on the city. Our little blizzard in Pittsburgh the other day brought everything to a halt. The streetcars kept rolling, but most of the buses gave up, and there were abandoned cars here and there on major highways. And when everything stopped—when people gave up trying to be anywhere but where they were—then came the silence.

It’s very hard to describe in words, this surreal acoustical change that comes over the city when the snow is thick on the ground and still falling. But everyone who has heard it remembers it. The absence of the usual urban background noise is what you notice first. But there’s more than silence: the sounds you do hear seem to come from another world, or from inside your own mind. The usual reverberation from paved streets and brick walls is gone; the snow absorbs every sound, so every sound you hear comes directly from its source. Conversations from far away are impossibly distinct; no echoes muddy them up, and no constant hum of traffic obscures them. They’re as frighteningly clear as voices in your head.

The morning after a heavy snow is a sneak preview of that new heaven and new earth we’ve been promised. Every ugliness and imperfection is covered in flawless beauty, freed from every stain and blot. But the greatest miracle happens as the human population of the city wakes up and starts to dig out. Now you see neighbors being neighbors—the strong pitching in to help the weak. This is the life of the New Jerusalem. The old heaven and earth have passed away.

Of course, in a few days it all melts, and then we’re back where we started.

The Contemplative Serenity of November

Published on 11/7/2010

There must be a thousand shades of brown in these November trees. October is the month of spectacular colors in the parks and hillsides of Pittsburgh, but November is more subtle. There’s a kind of pleasant melancholy hanging in the air, especially on one of those long rainy days when the wet leaves spiral downward one by one as if they had all the time in the world–and I watch them as if I had all the time in the world, which in fact I do. On a wet November day, you have all the time in the world. There are no grand excitements, no hurries. Everything is calm. Nothing interesting is happening.

On a rainy November day, the possibilities are endless. You can’t plant bulbs; you can’t rake leaves; the dog would rather not take a walk if it’s all the same with you. So there’s time for all the things you’ve always wanted to do, but never had the time for. You can read a book. You can write a book. You can teach yourself Russian. Or you can just sit, with a cup of good Darjeeling tea in one hand and absolutely nothing in the other. Just sitting is a sadly neglected art in the modern world, one we should all cultivate. Most of the evils of the world would disappear if people could teach themselves to enjoy just sitting.

But perhaps the best thing to do on a rainy November day is to grab a big black umbrella and go out into the world. It would be a glorious day to take the streetcar downtown and do some window-shopping. The rain comes straight down on these rainy November days; it keeps the crowds off the streets, but the umbrella is as good as a roof over your head.

Or what a perfect day to spend in the back stacks of the Carnegie Library, back in those endless rows of books that even the librarians seem to have forgotten about. Or the conservatory–it’s a perfect day for the conservatory. Phipps Conservatory is between shows right now; there won’t be many people there, and we could lose ourselves in the palm house for hours.

Even just a walk through the back streets of one of the city neighborhoods–that would be a perfect way to spend an afternoon under the umbrella. There’s plenty of time to stroll down the sidewalk, pausing to admire a well-restored Victorian house or a patch of stubbornly blooming snapdragons, watching the leaves spiral down one by one as if they had all the time in the world. Tomorrow the rain will stop, and we can get back to work. But today is our own.

Intellectual Immunity

Published on 09/27/2010

A news story making the rounds suggests that people whose ancestors have lived in cities for many generations may have superior immunity to leprosy and tuberculosis. The study in question concludes that frequent exposure to those diseases in crowded urban areas tended to select those individuals who had better immunity by killing off the rest.

This conclusion has little bearing on whether you or I should be living in the city: everything depends on where your ancestors lived, and the diseases studied are not the scourges they once were. But it suggests a closely parallel phenomenon in the intellectual world. The development of physical immunity is much like the development of intellectual tolerance.

Tolerance itself is often portrayed as the disease, an abandonment of the absolute moral standards that made our civilization civilized. But we confuse tolerance with indifference. The two are not at all alike. Indifference is not caring about right and wrong. Tolerance is that grand old Christian (and Buddhist, and Muslim, and Jewish, and Hindu) principle of holding ourselves to a higher standard than the one we demand of other people. It is granting others the right to be wrong, to have bad ideas that we could never allow ourselves to hold. The very word “tolerance” indicates, not approval of what we know is wrong, but acceptance of what we cannot change.

The city exposes us to wrong ideas as soon as we walk out into the street. A Puritan village in colonial New England would find a single Baptist impossible to live with, and would either toss him out or kill him—whichever seemed likely to be most effective in preventing the infection from spreading. The city of today exposes us to a hundred different Christian sects, Orthodox and Liberal Jews and every shade in between, atheists, Hindus, Jains, countless varieties of Muslims, neopagans, Scientologists, and people who just made up their own religion last week. They can’t all be right; most of them must be wrong. Yet we all sit together on the same streetcar and don’t think much about it.

The people who can’t tolerate all this tolerance flee to a colorless suburb where they never have to meet anyone challengingly different. So the city tends to become more tolerant as the suburbs become less tolerant. The tolerance of the city becomes another grievance the suburbs have against it: the city, where evil people peddle their wrong ideas and get away with it. The boundary between city and suburbs hardens into the boundary between tolerance and intolerance.

Once again, it’s important to remember that this urbane tolerance is different from indifference. It can lapse into indifference, but it actually takes quite a shove to push it in that direction. The city is full of churches and temples and mosques, not because its  people believe that one religion is as good as another, but because each citizen knows for a fact that his religion is the only true one. But the urban Puritan knows that you can’t just get rid of the Baptist down the street. He’ll always be there, and he makes a pretty good neighbor if you don’t get him started talking about baptism. Gradually, surrounded by the hordes of Baptists, our Puritan builds up an immunity to them. The Baptists can build huge, ostentatious churches, and it won’t make the Puritan any less of a Puritan. This is tolerance: knowing that your neighbors are wrong, but living with them as neighbors anyway.

It Takes a City

Published on 09/18/2010
The virtues of the village are much praised these days by people who consider themselves enlightened. And that is good and right. We have an urgent need of villages these days—small communities where neighbors recognize that the mythical nuclear family is not so self-sufficient as some of our moralists would have us believe. It really does take more than the family to rear a child, or even to keep a house in repair. In our modern world, we most often rely on paid help to take care of the things we can’t do ourselves. But how much better for our children—or for our houses—if we can leave them in the hands of neighbors who will have to live with them!

But the village is not everything. We need the village, but our world has an urgent need of cities, too. Not the soulless suburbs, which are neither city nor village. Most modern suburbs are designed to maintain the artificial isolation of the individual family; the very architecture of the suburban house—with its garage facing the front and its deck or patio facing the rear—emphasizes and reinforces that isolation. No, what we need are real cities, which encourage people to meet, and in fact demand that they meet.

What is the difference between a city and a village? The city is not just a village grown big. The difference is more than one of size. It’s a matter of culture. The easiest and baldest way to state it is this: the village rejects outsiders, but the city expects and welcomes them.

The city becomes a city precisely when it has room for outsiders. In the village, life can be peaceful and happy, but it must necessarily be homogeneous. Diversity is the mark of the city. Those outsiders bring with them their different cultures and languages, different ways of seeing the world—different possibilities, in other words.

The large number of people in a city, even without the influx of outsiders, encourages diversity. A village might support a blacksmith, but could it support an engraver or a tapestry-weaver? Arts like those are superflous in village life, and the village cannot support what is superfluous. Only in the city do they become not only possible but necessary. With the vast population of the city, the single citizen can become more than a villager. It is the city that gives us the chance to develop our minds and spirits.

It takes a village to raise a child. But it takes a city to make that child a really human adult.