“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.

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