Comment is interested in cities. Last year we did an issue called “The Other Side of the City,” which looked at the underside of cities—the parts that don’t make it into the tourism brochures. Today we’re lucky to have two scholars and experts on urbanism, and I wanted to start with something that you would not necessarily expect: the pope.
In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis has this little line about cities that I found fascinating. He says,
We cannot ignore the fact that in cities human trafficking, the narcotics trade, the abuse and exploitation of minors, the abandonment of the elderly and infirmed and various forms of corruption and criminal activity take place. At the same time, what could be significant places of encounter and solidarity, often become places of isolation and mutual distrust. Houses and neighborhoods are more often built to isolate and protect than to connect and integrate.
He opens with the “other side of the city,” almost as if he’s saying that the bad side of cities is to be expected from sinful human beings in a world where evil is in play, but he goes one step further and highlights the possibility that this “other side” is an opportunity for solidarity, where we can see one another face-to-face in unique ways that we couldn’t in a more spread-out environment. Yet we build to isolate and protect rather than to connect or encounter.
Do you think this is true? Do we build our cities to isolate and protect? If so, why?
Noah: What first comes to mind for me is a quote from Janet Abu-Lughod, who is one of the foremost urban sociologists of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries and a top urban historian as well. She writes that Chicago has an elegant façade and a deeply shadowed backstage, and that it always has. I think this is true of many cities.
What is interesting about that metaphor is it’s drawn from theatre, and not many people see its depth at first. They think this means Chicago has its fancy parts and its less fancy areas. But in theatre there are people who get attention, who receive acclaim, who seem to be the center of activity, and then there are people who are behind the scenes making sure that all the work happens so that the show can go on. And that’s what we don’t often see.
I think the quote that you read from Francis actually does help us to understand something true about cities, which is that we build them in ways that separate people but that these separations often go unnoticed. Even when we see the separation, we often don’t see the integration of the work that’s going on in the city—that what goes on behind the scenes in the places we don’t see or the places that make us uncomfortable is often essential to the work of the city. It’s often essential even to what’s going on in the elegant façade.