Loving the city we can’t stand
June 4, 2013 2 Comments
Sometimes, I wonder at my fellow urbanists, especially those who can live wherever they like. They have chosen, for whatever reason, to live in certain places and write sometimes deeply critical things about those places. It seems incongruous. Why would someone choose to live somewhere frustrating? Why live under bad leaders with bad judgment? Or, to paraphrase something often heard from an opponent, if we dislike our home so much, why don’t we leave it?
Anthony Cardenas, who was arrested for painting a crosswalk in Vallejo last Thursday, reminded me that often it’s not a rational decision but a fundamentally, gloriously irrational decision. He and urbanists in other deeply dysfunctional cities love their places. And when you love a place, just as when you love a person, there’s nothing you won’t do to fight for their well-being.
G. K. Chesterton, a wonderful British author from the turn of the 20th Century, believed this love was vital to the health of a city. In Heretics, a collection of essays skewering the thinkers and authors of his day, Chesterton devotes a chapter to Rudyard Kipling. Kipling’s practical, rational love of England, he writes, is no love at all. It is appreciation. Kipling flirts with England, just as he flirts with China and Venice, but he has never married her.
In Orthodoxy, the follow-up to Heretics, Chesterton expands the value of loving a place and a city to which you belong.
My acceptance of the universe is not optimism, it is more like patriotism. It is a matter of primary loyalty. The world is not a lodging-house at Brighton, which we are to leave because it is miserable. It is the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret, and the more miserable it is the less we should leave it. The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more. All optimistic thoughts about England and all pessimistic thoughts about her are alike reasons for the English patriot. Similarly, optimism and pessimism are alike arguments for the cosmic patriot.
Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing—say Pimlico. [In Chesterton's day, the London neighborhood of Pimlico had fallen far from the glory of its construction and was in a state much like many of America's urban cores.] If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is THEIRS, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.
The activist in the place where they are constantly stymied, where the newspaper is nothing but bad news for their cause, remains because of love. The activist works and cries and paints crosswalks because she love her place. We’d all move to London or Rome if we just wanted a more comfortable place to live. Even I, in Washington, cannot help but love that marvelous county. Marin is in my bones, as much a part of me as my family. How could I not write?
Chesterton goes on to write about the nature of conflict over a place. There are the jingoists, who say everything’s fine in order to save their city’s honor; there are the pessimists, who love to criticize because they get a thrill out of it; and there are the rational optimists, who love a place for a specific reason, never letting go of that reason despite all facts.
And there are those opponents of ours who are no less irrationally in love with the place. We should not fight with any less conviction, but we should give respect. We are lovers of the same place; there ought to be a kinship that colors our fights.
Anthony Cardenas, I’m sure, is disheartened and angry at Vallejo and Caltrans for how he’s been treated. But he will probably stay because he loves his neighborhood and city. Perhaps, one day, West Vallejo will rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles because of people like him. Maybe, too, will Cleveland, and Detroit, and Stockton, and Fresno, and…