What are cities made of? What is the essence of a city? We humans are funnily egocentric: we like to anthropomorphize everything. We talk about the “beat” of a city or it’s “soul”. In a way we evoke a primeval streak of animism when we claim to sense the essence of a city as if it were inhabited by a spirit.
Well, here is a bold thought: concrete, steel, asphalt, dust, dirt, glass, electricity. This is what for example New York City is made of. Perhaps you adore it, disagree, and claim NYC is made of buzz, life, ambition, and hope for the future. That the soul of a city is the people and human life.
The problem is, human life is transient and ever-changing. Without it, New York City would be a big pile of rust, concrete, and rats (rats are life, too!). And water. Apparently there used to be over 40 streams of water running across Manhattan, and the original land colonialized by Europeans was to a large extent swampland (around a few hills).
I wandered around NYC in early May, imagining from time to time what the city would look like stripped from all neon lights, cars, electronic billboards, and human life. A few months later I was given a book to read which presents scientific conclusions on what would actually happen to it should we people all disappear. Since the City is actively fighting back water in its subway systems, flooding would be the first, immediate effect. At some point the city would combust and burn, probably several times, due to all the faulty electricity and fuel sources available. The rats would probably have a feast. Then, slowly, trout and other fish would return to the river; with great difficulty over the few first generations, owing to the leaking nuclear power plant nearby. But they would come. And so would other animals.
Nature is the entropy humanity tries to fight against. The moment we stop, Nature conquers us. It has no rush as it knows it will always win in the end. Eventually. My claim is that a city is nothing but a container, a vessel, for life. And so, would it not be fair to say that the city is actually soul-less and an anomaly in the order of things? That what we mistake as the “beat” or the “soul” of the city is, in fact, our primeval collective pulse as a human community – and the city has nothing to do with it?(New York City, USA; May 2018)