“A culture, we all know, is made by cities,” Derek Walcott said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Walcott spent many years teaching at Boston University, so it would be nice to think that Boston was at least somewhere in the poet’s mind when he wrote those words, in 1992.
This city has changed enormously in the nearly three decades since — Big Dig, Seaport, the list goes on — but nothing like the changes that may await all cities as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cities have been at their least city-ish over the past year. Especially last spring, in the early days of the pandemic, they seemed emptied out, in some places even deserted (speaking of the Seaport). The reason for cities — what defines their existence and makes that existence such a marvel — is human density: so many people packed into a single place, the urban whole so much greater than the sum of all those individual presences. As the critic and urban theorist Lewis Mumford once wrote, a city is “a place where, in the least possible area, you have the greatest possible variety of choices — moral choices, commercial choices, cultural choices, social choices.”
Yet that combination of numerous choices and limited space means viral density as well as the human kind. “Contagious” denotes something very different epidemiologically from what it does culturally.
It’s worth noting that Walcott delivered his speech in Stockholm. Back here that “we all know” would have sounded ironic, at best, the United States having a long and hardy tradition of anti-urbanism. That tradition is as old as Thomas Jefferson. “When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe,” he wrote to James Madison in 1787, “we shall become corrupt as in Europe.” (Jefferson’s hypocrisy about cities was as great as his hypocrisy about race: He adored Paris.) It’s as sea-to-shining-sea as the interstate highway system. It’s as ongoing as the bias toward rural voters in Electoral College and Senate apportionment.
Still, cities are as much a part of society as rivers and mountains are part of the landscape — and as unavoidable. Culture inevitably reflects that. Even works that aren’t about cities, per se, are intrinsically urban. What’s the biggest movie right now? “Godzilla vs. Kong.” Where do they face-off? It’s Godzilla and Kong vs. Hong Kong. What Yosemite was for Ansel Adams — or mirrors for confessional poets — cities have been for architects, painters . . . and confessional poets (think of Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead”).
Over the past few months several works and websites have appeared that are intrinsically urban. Their very diversity (diversity itself being an echt-urban characteristic) speaks to the importance of cities and how unlikely that importance is to go away.
The one closest to home is Frederick Wiseman’s 43rd documentary, “City Hall,” which came out last fall and is currently streaming via the Coolidge Corner. The building in question is the one that sits in the middle of City Hall Plaza. Wiseman’s subject isn’t just that building but the city it belongs to — and belongs is the right word. The documentary, at its heart, is about urban citizenship. In that sense, it’s universal as well as Boston specific. Parking tickets, traffic problems, trash pickup, building inspections: instances of the working out of those choices Mumford spoke of. None of this is skyscraper-sexy the way cities can be, but that’s OK. It’s shared-life satisfying, the way cities can also be.
A 1930 photograph of the building that City Hall replaced is among the more than 8,000 images that the Boston Public Library uploaded in January to Wikimedia Commons. The images span more than a century and range from Belgium to Stratford-upon-Avon, Civil War cartes de visite, and 19th-century portraits of Native Americans. But the lion’s share are of Boston from the late 19th century through the first half of the 20th: Jamaica Plain, downtown, the construction of the BPL’s McKim Building. Striation, or layering, is another urban phenomenon. It’s like the Grand Canyon that way, only the layers have to do with chronology rather than geology.
Boston City Hall — the one in the Wiseman documentary — is among the buildings Arthur Drooker photographed for his book “City Hall.” “I selected fifteen city halls that best represent a range of styles, from Federal to modern,” he writes. Organized chronologically, the book begins with New York City Hall, which dates to 1812, and ends with the futuristic-looking Las Vegas City Hall.
The photographs are handsome, and the stories often surprising. Who knew that Milwaukee’s city hall has a stunning central atrium? Or that San Francisco City Hall’s dome is 42 feet higher than the US Capitol’s? Gardens atop Chicago City Hall opened in 2001 (the building dates to 1911), a reminder of how city halls evolve and change no less than cities themselves do.
When is a city not a city? Why, when it’s Los Angeles, of course. Except that’s unfair. Only people who’ve never been to LA — or, when there, just drove — think it’s not urban. To walk around downtown — and, yes, LA does have a downtown; and if you don’t mind steep hills, it very much repays walking — is to enjoy one of the great urban experiences. Slip inside the Bradbury Building and marvel at its five-story atrium (Milwaukee City Hall’s is eight). Squint at the Southern California light bursting off the silvery façade of Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall. Gape at the vaguely Mayan splendor of Bertram Goodhue’s Riordan Central Library. Or just under a mile away there’s the vaguely Mayan pyramid atop Los Angeles City Hall. Drooker reports that the building’s cornerstone was set with mortar mixed with sand from California’s 58 counties.
Mark Ruwedel’s “Seventy-Two and One Half Miles Across Los Angeles: From Westchester to San Bernardino” avoids downtown but is inspired by walking. A friend of Ruwedel’s made that west-to-east trip by foot over four days. The photographer spent two years following it with his camera (mostly by car, as he somewhat sheepishly admits).
The photographs are in black and white. Ruwedel shoots straight on, abjuring fanciness, as befits the low-slung, unfancy spaces he documents. Houses tend to be bungalows. Few people are to be seen. There are lots of cars (of course). The images are almost hypnotically uninflected. Cities generally revel in inflection — inflection is diversity in visual action — which lends these cityscapes a very suburban look. But that’s a reminder of how much cities can and do differ: Not just defined by diversity, they are themselves diverse.
An LA that’s both similar (cars!) and different is to be found at 12 Sunsets: Exploring Ed Ruscha’s Archive, an interactive website from the Getty Research Institute: 12sunsets.getty.edu. The site offers access to thousands of Ruscha’s photographs of that most LA of thoroughfares, Sunset Boulevard, taken between 1965 and 2007. Ruscha’s 1966 artist book “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” is an aesthetic hat trick: a landmark in photography, conceptual art, and urban studies (it’s easy to imagine Ruscha, himself a master of the uninflected, rolling his eyes at that last one). Here is the vast and long-lasting enterprise that gave rise to the book and issued from it. Be warned: For anyone interested in Ruscha, LA, and/or photography, 12 Sunsets is dangerously addictive, right down to the little magenta pickup truck icon.
Around the time Ruscha began photographing the Strip, he dated Eve Babitz. Uninflected Babitz is not, but in her essays and fiction she may be even more LA than Ruscha is. So that makes her all the more interesting as an observer of New York: where “there are no spaces between the words, it’s one of the charms of the place. Certain things don’t have to be thought about carefully because you’re always being pushed from behind.”
Being pushed from behind — and stood in front of — are what Martin Scorsese’s extremely entertaining “Pretend It’s a City” is largely about. The seven-part Netflix documentary series is a double love letter, sent to its star, the writer Fran Lebowitz, and New York. The title is something Lebowitz mutters at people who stand in the middle of the sidewalk. Imagining that something is a city now has an additional, grimmer meaning, thanks to the pandemic.
The series features a large-scale model of New York City at the Queens Museum. Scorsese loves to show Lebowitz looking at it, pondering it, even standing in the middle of it, wearing blue protective booties — to protect the model, of course. Looming over the city, she’s like a well-tailored, wisecracking Godzilla or Kong. Urban destruction is the last thing she has in mind, though. Like Walcott, Lebowitz knows that culture is made in cities. Dreams are, too, and a post-pandemic future.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.