Friday, August 3, 2012

Some of my thoughts about cities, circa 2001

The paragraphs below are the opening of an essay I wrote while a graduate student in 2001.  In reflection, it's interesting to note the problems I identify as being urban problems -- they seem from another era. Indeed they are from another era, and I am certain that any list I drew up today would look very different.  Note: The interconnection between urban space and urban politics has only grown more apparent to me in the intervening years:

The concept of “the city” has always fascinated me, in large part because cities are the cynosure of the social and physical extremes – wealth and poverty, the lofty skyscraper and the pastoral city park.  But I have come to realize that the understanding I had of cities was too limited.

My initial conception was that cities were political beings first and foremost.  I came to that conclusion because the majority of my work had been in political contexts, and I did what people often do – I generalized from my specific experience.   While not only being too constrained, this view of “city as politics” was also almost unavoidably pessimistic.  It meant that per force, I thought of cities in terms of their negatives: an amalgamation of the social problems that American cities are famous for – poverty, crime, and the economic and racial segregation that are typical of our big urban centers.  And the only solutions I could imagine were political. 

But I have begun to understand that a city is not only a grouping of negatives, nor is it only political.  A city is also physical, and it is an intricate weave of opportunities and constraints.  This addition layer of necessary information adds difficult complexity to understanding cities.  It increases the variables innumerably.  But it also gets at what I now consider to be a fundamental fact – that political aspects of a city are inextricably intertwined with the physical aspects of a city.  In other worlds, space matters – in a way that I did not foresee, nor in full candor, that I fully yet understand.