Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Cityscapes: why a megalopolis is, by definition, not pretty

I feel vindicated.

I’m reading Michael C. Boxall’s latest thriller “The GreatFirewall.” The action is taking place in Shanghai when I read the following comment about subways: “[Shanghai’s] subway didn’t smell like [a heady blend of vanilla, balsam and ambergris]. But neither did it have the roachy fetor  of New York, [...]”

My first thought: Thank you!

Since I commented on my not-love for NY, people have been jumping about how is that even possible, eeeeeverybody loves NY, because NY is sooo great. Apparently not linking NY is akin to not liking Paris. A cultural faux pas.

My take on the whole issue? People don’t really look at famous places for what they are, but for what they represent.
So, NY is seen through the cultural lenses of Sinatra, Woody Allen, and every other creator who has sung or shown or written its praises, because, naturally, they loved the town they grew or lived in. Not because it’s a particularly pretty city.

My idea of a handsome US city is San Francisco or Chicago. Gorgeous, well-proportioned, good-looking cities. NY? Vibrant. Active. Exciting. Yes. Abundant nightlife. Definitely. A place to indulge your consumerism. No doubt about it. Great place from which to take cheap, direct flights everywhere. Lucky New Yorkers. Beautiful? Not so much. It just can't.

Not that big cities lack beautiful corners. You enter into the Japanese Garden in Buenos Aires and you feel you can again breathe and hear murmuring water and tree leaves. You veer from one of D.F.’s main arteries and step onto the cobblestone streets of Villa Coyoacán and you feel yourself becoming human again. NY is no exception: it also has a multiplicity of little sparks.

But that’s true even from every city. Even smaller ones and those universally considered as ugly have their attractive corners. Baltimore’s newly buffed Inner Harbor area not only pays tribute to the city’s position as one of the major US seaports, but is a tourist magnet and makes for a lovely stroll. Detroit’s opulent architecture decorated with Diego Rivera’s murals stands as testimony of a past of wealth and free-flowing culture and can keep you mesmerized for hours.

No lack of handsome nooks and vistas in NY. But as a whole, it suffers from the same affliction as other megalopolises: something about being beyond human grasp-ability makes them monstrous. Messy, amorphous, ever-expanding, overwhelming, oppressive, ruthless. Megalopolises are almost by definition, ugly. (By now, you should have noticed my bias. I’m sticking to 1.5 million-sized cities. Vancouver, Montevideo, Maputo).

While I’m reading about Shanghai, I’m guessing the city would fall into the category of supra-human monster. With salvageable aspects, such as the new-smelling metro Boxall describes. But I’ll be able to tell you more after I finish exploring the city – a Kindle-mediated exploration, from the comfort of my non-urban surroundings, full of fresh, eucalyptus-scented air and the sound of chirping birds.

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