For five days the city had wilted under a hard sky, sweltering in a temperature that stayed fixed in the middle nineties. Even at night there was no relief from the heat. Pyjamas and nighties stuck clammily to damp skin. Half-clad, self-pitying figures rose, exasperated by insomnia, to stumble through darkened rooms in search of a cooler plot than their bed, hoping that, all accidentally, they might waken any gross sleeper the house contained. Cold water ran hot from the taps, and the roads turned to tar.
― Elizabeth Harrower, Down in the City
The sun, like a golden knife, was steadily paring away the edge of the shade beside the walls. The streets were enclosed between old, whitewashed walls. Everywhere were peace and stillness, as though all the elements were obeying the sacred law of calm and silence imposed by the blazing heat. It seemed as though mystery was everywhere and my lungs hardly dared to inhale the air.
―Sadegh Hedayat, The Blind Owl
Here there is buried legend after legend of youth and melancholy, of savage nights and mysterious bosoms dancing on the wet mirror of the pavement, of women chuckling softly as they scratch themselves, of wild sailors’ shouts, of long queues standing in front of the lobby, of boats brushing each other in the fog and tugs snorting furiously against the rush of tide while up on the Brooklyn Bridge a man is standing in agony, waiting to jump, or waiting to write a poem, or waiting for the blood to leave his vessels because if he advances another foot the pain of his love will kill him.
You are mad to be spending the summer in the country, where the days are too quiet and you have so much time to think. In the city you live on Broadway, where the noise is so thick your scary thoughts can’t get a word in edgewise. But here in the county, there is only space. On the stone bridge by the stream. On the mossy rock at the edge of the yard. Behind the abandoned trailer where Art, the old man with the glass eye, used to live. Space, space, space, and you can scare yourself into thinking your thoughts are more like voices.
―Lena Dunham, Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned”
Most of us navigate the world principally by our sense of sight. What if we expanded our sense of touch?
This remarkable video, directed by Wiland Pinsdorf, is an exploration of the Brazilian city of São Paulo, a concrete jungle teeming with people. We see the tall buildings sandwiched together, the cars threading their way between them, people in the maze of public transportation and walking the busy streets. We see the marks of urbanization, graffiti that challenges the status quo and cars mired in traffic. Our eyes tell us that life is cold and hard here and that people are trapped into the rat race of what is expected of them and what they can expect. A blind man walks alone down the street with his stick, picking his way calmly and safely through this metropolis.
Soon we meet our hero, Zico Corrêa, as he takes in the city around him and responds in a way that defies the vision of São Paulo as a maze or a rat trap. He begins to avoid the everyday path and careens off of lamp posts, walls and buildings to get where he is going. Corrêa practices parkour. Parkour is a training discipline that teaches how to get from point A to point B efficiently and quickly, using the body and the surrounding landmarks and structures to move the practitioner across the landscape. Developed from military training on obstacle courses, it seeks to maintain momentum while making intelligent and safe choices. The practitioner must understand his environment and his own body, never underestimating or overtaxing either to the point that he injures himself, which can happen very easily at any time should his concentration or execution waver. He must see and understand what awaits him at every bend, every jump, every alteration in course.
Corrêa must use not only his eyes, which may daunt and deceive him–look at the misleading reflections caused by water and glass and imagine the fear most of us feel when faced with a wall or exposed on heights–but his sense of touch. Like the blind man, he must be sensitive to surfaces and subtle changes that will determine his stride, his grip, and what type of motion he will employ. When negotiating a climb or descent he must break it down into small, manageable steps. He must know how to slow himself down or take advantage of his momentum by tumbling. Failure could easily result in death. Parkour isn’t something to be done on a whim, but requires strength and flexibility that require training as well as a great deal of planning.
Most of us won’t be practicing parkour any time soon, but we can appreciate it and the metaphors it gives us for life. It reminds me not to trust my eyes completely, but to test and feel my world through touch and experience. We are all cowed by the obstacles around us from time to time and can always use the reminder that there is more than one way to do something and that the path of another may not be suited to our combination of strength and flexibility. This journey of life is unique for each one of us and we must each negotiate our own ascents and descents.
People leave family farms and traditional local businesses to venture into the city every day, some excited by new technology and new possibilities, some simply trying to survive and provide for their families. The search for a better life has been one of the engines driving the United States for much of its history, drawing immigrants from all over the world. It is a wonderful thing to be able to start again in a new place, but there are dangers as well. Prejudice stalks from without and within. This video from BRZZVLL, Mind is a Jungle, is a wonderful illustration of the reality of displaced people all over the globe. BRZZVLL is a wonderful band from Antwerp, Belgium, with playful funk and jazz grooves that recall the 1970s. The track also features Anthony Joseph, a poet, musician and novelist from Trinidad. It’s a whimsical look at community life that challenges us to look deeper. Who are these people costumed and camouflaged in a way that hides their individuality? Do you feel threatened by their costuming and their actions?
When we feel homeless, we try to create familiar conditions, clinging to traditional behaviors and cultural norms that may no longer serve us. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t honor the past and the traditions we came from, but those traditions can make us blind to both the useful and the toxic in our own background, in the ideas of others, and in in progress itself. On the other side of the coin, people who don’t understand our background (and who does?) will make assumptions of us dependent upon their concept of our ethnicity, religion, and culture. As a result, communities become mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually segregated. How do we build empathy and break down these boundaries? It’s important to realize that this isn’t a third-world problem. All cities have dissatisfied souls, and at any given time we may find ourselves among them. From New York City to Beijing, London to Lagos, Sao Paulo to Sydney, people are finding that there isn’t as much room in the city as they hoped. This is true not only for immigrants, but for any resident. We may find ourselves too old, too young, too unskilled or just in the wrong place to be successful. Moving to a new place can give us a new start, but only if we allow ourselves to think new thoughts and achieve a relationship with our new surroundings.
Main Street, Florin, CA, 1942 Dorothea Lange
Maybe your mind isn’t a jungle. Maybe it’s a small town, a desert, a cotton farm, or even a busy city. The more you learn how to navigate your own thoughts, the more chance you have to navigate the world around you with empathy and sensitivity. The form that the cities of the future will take is dependent on the projections, dreams and prejudices of those of us who construct and inhabit them.
Cities were always like people, showing their varying personalities to the traveler. Depending on the city and on the traveler, there might begin a mutual love, or dislike, friendship, or enmity. Where one city will rise a certain individual to glory, it will destroy another who is not suited to its personality. Only through travel can we know where we belong or not, where we are loved and where we are rejected.
Fog and smog should not be confused and are easily separated by color. Fog is about the color of the insides of an old split wet summer cottage mattress; smog is the color and consistency of a wet potato chip soaked in a motorman’s glove.