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Urban/Legends

I am a happily self-conscious urban chauvinist, and that’s a fact.  I just love cities.  As much as I love nature and the pastoral, I just feel very tapped into the same primal instinct that led to the construction of Uruk, back in the day—people like people, and the bustle and the anonymity and the economic possibilities and all the other stuff that has been drawing people to cities since time nearly immemorial.

People, it should be noted for the record, who included a massive part of the world’s Jewry.  Certainly not all (and for more fascinating reading on the rural/urban split for Jews, read this), but there’s no denying that cities have helped define the Jewish experience in most of the world and throughout much of history.  I’m deep into Yiddish poetry right now, and all of the poets we’ve been reading lived and worked in the same neighborhood where I remember buying bialys as a kid—a single anecdote in service of the point that we’re uniquely situated to appreciate cities as Jews.  (Eventually, I’d like to argue that the urban experience had a heady influence on feminism and women’s rights, but I’m behind in my research on that one, so give me a few weeks.)

But I’m starting to fear for cities—mine included—in a big way.  Not just in the little ways that a slowly failing transit can make you paranoid—we’re talking about one of those
skyrocketing-rents-failing-economy-and-watching-too-many-episodes-of-The Wire kind of fears.  Fears that, even though cities have served as cultural, intellectual and financial springboards for our predecessors (indeed, very smart people claim that they still are), we’re going to manage to commodify them right into something else, something more stratified and foundationally shaky than what’s around now.  Urban sprawl, gentrification, decrepit infrastructures—these are real problems, and we—as citizens as well as residents—haven’t always done the best job in working to understand how cities work and what makes them healthier, not just more profitable for a few.

Although it’s certainly contrary to the trope and propagandistic norms, I think of cities as having the same sort of vitality that I’d want in a country—and in a world.  I may  sometimes mock the earnestness of local people dedicated to a neighborhood community or sense of borough solidarity, but that’s my own unfortunately sense of ironic “I’m too cool for that,” which is gross.  Cities stand for our ability to live together, so let’s strengthen them if only as a mnemonic of the larger potential they represent.

I know we have people checking in from all around the globe, so I won’t list too many local ways to help your cities (although if you live in New York and are looking for somewhere to start, I can make some suggestions).  I do invite you, however, to leave comments discussing problems and pleasures of your cities.  Feel free to leave links.

–Mel Weiss