#136: Bright Lights, Big City

The last newsletter I sent that wasn’t haunted by COVID-19 went out on February 21, a day I remember vividly. I went to a Knicks game that evening and then flew to Mexico City the next day, returning a week later to a milieu in which every conversation started with the virus, the entire United States was about to shut down, and the activities I just described would soon seem like an impossible dream. There was no “cities are over” narrative yet—that would lag the pandemic by at least a few weeks—but the newsletter I sent that day addressed the newly-opened, accidentally-prescient Countryside exhibition at the Guggenheim (which has been frozen in amber for the past six months and will await visitors intact when the museum reopens in October) and ventured a definition of “city” that seems to have become even more accurate since February: “Cities are where our culture locates activities that are supposed to be seen, because we’ve collectively decided those activities matter.” Right now, amid so much skepticism about cities’ future relevance, this pronouncement seems questionable, but it’s actually more true than ever, as I’ll explain.

In that same newsletter, I cited a 2016 Adam Curtis interview in which he describes the bleak cityscapes depicted in ‘80s films like Escape from New York and RoboCop, decaying urban centers full of “weird, mad people in post-goth outfits” where “everyone else has moved to the suburbs.” Curtis predicted that the internet, particularly social networks like Twitter, would devolve similarly, becoming post-apocalyptic wastelands where everyone sensible has left. What happened instead—immediately after I quoted this!—was that cities, not the internet, reverted to this state, or so the narrative goes. In fact, the internet continues gentrifying right now, and its metaphorical homeowners are doubling down on digital existence. I watched RoboCop in late March and unfortunately found its vision of the city more plausible than ever in that moment, but the outlook has since improved. New York right now is not the hellscape that Fox News and even the more moderate media want to portray—not even close—but it’s definitely different. A city historically defined by work and money has been forced to try on a new identity. Earlier this summer, Dean Kissick wrote, “Living in Manhattan felt like dying in Venice, now it feels like a holiday in Naples, or Marseilles, a Southern Mediterranean city where all of life spills out onto the sidewalk and everybody’s drunk, on-edge, ready to go off like a firework.” But cities will only remain fun in this way for so long (and only for certain people) without economic viability, and the RoboCop scenario still looms large.

Setting aside the inane-but-amusing debates between James Altucher and Jerry Seinfeld, cities do face an existential crisis right now, and did even before the pandemic, as my February newsletter attests. But like I said back then, cities still fulfill that visibility function more effectively than anything else, even if they’re just furnishing content for the internet. And this is true for all stakeholders, from corporations to protesters. In his book about Dubai, Ahmed Kanna writes, “Downtowns have become transformed from contexts primarily for functional centrality to centers of symbolic capital.” I can confirm that Manhattan’s skyline still looks great, even if no one is using the buildings. In the previous century, cities lost their role as manufacturing sites and became increasingly consumption-oriented; now, they appear to risk losing the consumption role as well. But no matter what happens, their symbolism remains, and nothing has demonstrated this as effectively as the Black Lives Matter protests that started in June and the various protests that continue now. Cities are not just where the police violence tends to happen but where it’s still possible to make a statement that can’t be ignored, and the suburbs are where you go when you can afford to be invisible. Describing the recent protests in Kenosha and Portland, John Robb writes, “Although our attention is on these street confrontations, this conflict will be won or lost online.” The attention still matters, the audience is just viewing through a different medium. Cities may be following the path of the New York Stock Exchange, which still maintains a trading floor for TV imagery even though the real NYSE now exists invisibly in New Jersey data centers. It’s easy to dismiss the former as artificial but who can say which is more real? Each serves its own purpose.

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