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A short thought-detour out of the city.

I was signing up for office-hours meetings today, that sheet on the professor’s door.  It’s never easy to write vertically with a standard office pen, and everyone’s name looks uneven and scrawled across the time slot line.  Even so, each person’s handwriting was distinct in size, shape, angle of inflection, and all those points and curves a writing analyst might study.  Then I realized – I don’t really know anyone’s handwriting!

This isn’t a problem of not being observant.  Being left-handed, I tend to glance around and take note of who’s holding their pen in the “wrong” hand – there are never that many.  Most of my classmates still take their class notes on paper, so opportunities are there when you tend to have the same neighbors.  Yet at times I’m a little struck and surprised when confronted with a handwritten item from someone I know, realizing that this ingrained and distinct expression of that person is something totally banal, yet someone I rarely (if ever) see and even less often consciously think about.  Whose handwriting can you recognize?  Family?  Friends?  Co-workers?

Computers must be to blame. So much of what we communicate is text, but specifically electronic text – E-mails, Word documents, instant messages and texts.  Our digital writing may begin to more closely resemble our speech patterns as we type our conversations.  Our finished documents all look alike because they use the same fonts – even the most distinctive font cannot easily be “owned” by a particular individual.  We even give “digital signatures” in lieu of inked ones, consisting only of our name and perhaps a second piece of personal data.  The act and form of the written signature, itself a piece of personal data, becomes lost.

While handwriting is a commonplace and unconscious production of self-expression, it is not really commonplace anymore.  While so much of my day-to-day communication is done through the written word, almost none of it is written out by hand.  The distinctive handwriting of my most frequent associates or closest chat-buddies, rather than being the easiest to recognize, becomes strangely hidden and surprisingly intimate when revealed in a casual note or scrap of paper or on a professor’s office-hours schedule.  Whereas handwriting was perhaps once the most widely-distributed form of one’s self-expression, it is now reserved for closest connections (notes to roommates on the refrigerator, cards and letters, project collaborators trading drafts) but also the most mundane, throwaway items (grocery lists, signatures on credit card receipts, administrative forms).  Recognizing someone else’s handwriting therefore becomes a significant act.

What strikes me most about this thought is not that recognizing someone’s handwriting is somehow a mark of friendship or privilege – certainly there was no point in time where that ability was a perfect measure of a degree of relationship.  It is the increasing disconnect between communication and handwriting – that it is possible, indeed the norm, to communicate (in writing) with someone regularly, perhaps every day, and have no idea how they would actually write the same words with pen and paper.  That a small piece of ourselves remains so mundane yet so hidden from those around us makes the discovery of that small piece all the more interesting.

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“City” is a noun.

A noun is a person, place, thing, or idea.

Which is a city?

Is it all of the above?

Consider the following, moving from the intimate to the abstract and back again.

The city is a person. Those who love cities most, or a particular city, will speak fondly (or bitterly) of their relationship with it.  A familiar friend, an exciting object of desire, a partner in crime.  Or a constant pest, a worst enemy, a bully or a flirt.  Being in a new city therefore means becoming acquainted, learning who, not what, that city really is.  A desire to see the city in its brighest colors, from its best side, to mutually impress.

Of Chicago, Carl Sandburg wrote:  “Stormy, husky, brawling, / City of the Big Shoulders: / Come and show me another city with lifted head singing / so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.”  Chicago seems now to be that aging worker with an inferiority complex, “Second City,” second-best to its neighbor(s) to the East.

Of New York, the New York Times’ Christopher Solomon, on leaving the city, confessed “You are that red-haired girl who welcomed me here and then did not want me. And like her, I still love you, and even now I miss you.”  LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy sang “New York, I love you, but you’re bringing me down.”  New York is famous for its ego and vitality, and is loved fiercely.

Does a city have a gender?  What gender does your city have?  If you can answer that question, maybe your city is a person.

The city is a place. Leaving the realm of relationships, a city becomes a place.  A dot on a map, a place to call home, an environment in which to interact, a backdrop for life.  Landmarks, wayfinding, and distances become the important descriptors by which the city is understood:  origin, journey, destination.

Transit maps are especially good at placing a city:  where am I?  Where am I going?  What path do I take?  Bill Bryson wrote of the whimsical quality of the London Underground, including places like “Finster Bush” and “Swiss Cottage” which brought you to who knows what fairy-tale land.  The city becomes not one place but many, a network of discrete destinations that may be measured as much in time as in geography.

When you leave your own city, it becomes even more “place-ified” to you.  Answer the question:  “Where are you from?”  “I’m from here.”  Or “I’m from another place.”

The city is a thing. Zoom out once more from emotional groundedness – the city becomes a thing, an entity, a unit of analysis.  Social science research is especially good at this, poking and prodding at the city organism to study its systems, properties and functions from all angles.  Census data and infrastructure diagrams render it inert for a moment in time, under glass for further study.

Those frustrated by politics may also reify the city, forgetting its council is a collection of people and instead referring to The City as its own autonomous entity.  The City tows your car, raises your taxes, leaves you bus-less in the middle of the night.  It becomes an it, a faceless opponent, an Other.

Ask yourself:  it’s Christmas morning, the municipal offices are closed, and every single city official and employee is not coming in.  Is there still something in City Hall?

The city is an idea.  With this, we arrive at both the edge and the center:  what is more abstract than an idea?  Or more private?

Perhaps the city exists most of all in our own minds, our desperate attempt to make sense of its chaos and complexity.  Thought of a city we know can trigger nostalgia, love, fear, sadness, a particular good or bad memory.  T.S. Eliot wrote, of course, “And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”  We create the city in our own minds, or perhaps even a new one every time.

Even more abstract is the very idea of “city” itself.  How else would we know exactly what Petula Clark’s song “Downtown” means, and that Downtown could make us feel better?  The word City, with no geographical referent, conjures a concept web of diversity, density, crowding, anonymity, loneliness, activity, happiness, culture, violence, enterprise, wealth, poverty, history and future.

For those of us who love cities, they always elude definition because they are all of these things.