Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else. – Ítalo Calvino, Invisible Cities
I lived in a city for most of my life. When we go back to visit it, I ask the kids,
“What do you want to do in the city?”
Bubble tea, art, libraries, movies, and eating ramen. One wanted to wander the city on her own and sit in a different cafe every day to read and to watch. One loved riding the streetcars and the subway with a special hairdo to elicit reaction from humourless city dwellers. One wanted to buy supplies that depicted his current favourite muse – Totoro, a woodland spirit from a Miyazaki movie. One said, “I just enjoy knowing museums exist there.”
One could get lost in the city in its small quirky pockets. There are so many possibilities.
With my teenagers, we are looking at the Agricultural Revolution and the rise of cities. More people settling in one place led to more complex societies.
The celebration of life through the arts, literature, and religion were also important components of early cities. As people were freed from the daily grind of farming for existence, they sought ways to express their creativity and to celebrate their success. Art and architecture were expressions of that success. – journal entry from historian Anita Ravi
One of my all time favourite books that explore this “city and endless possibility” theme is Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. I have had trouble finding it. I once found it in the library and kept borrowing it for an entire year – re-reading it again and again – prose with a poetic touch.
About a month ago I found it in a small bookstore in the big city. I stumbled upon it only because I was intrigued by a particular book category on the shelf titled “Plotless Fiction.”
It’s a fictional account of a conversation between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo just as Khan senses the end of his empire. Marco Polo recounts his travels around the empire of all the cities he has seen. These cities are imaginary but contain a beautiful gem of truth or question in each.
Although “Octavia” is a spider-web city built over a void with catwalks and wooden ties. Its foundation is a “net which serves as passage and support.” This brief description of Octavia ends with this line:
Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will last only so long.
Some cities are ruled by gods and others are half cities with divides. Others are inaccessible like the city of “Baucis” where nothing of the city itself touches the earth. And Marco Polo offers some hypotheses:
…that they hate the earth; that they respect it so much they avoid all contact; that they love it as it was before they existed and with spyglasses and telescopes aimed downward they never tire of examining it, leaf by leaf, stone by stone, ant by ant, contemplating with fascination their own absence.
And some city profiles have a familiarity:
At Melania, every time you enter the square, you find yourself caught in a dialogue…you return to Melania after years and you find the same dialogue still going on…Melania’s population renews itself: the participants in the dialogue die one by one and meanwhile those who will take their places are born, some in one role, some in another. When one changes role or abandons the square forever or makes his first entrance into it, there is a series of changes, until all the roles have been reassigned…
Also in Raissa, city of sadness, there runs an invisible thread that binds one living being to another for a moment, then unravels, then is stretched again between moving points as it draws new and rapid patterns so that at every second the unhappy city contains a happy city unaware of its own existence.
As much as I love sitting in nature, listening to the deafening cicadas, connecting to a slower pace, there is something about the city that inspires in a different way, perhaps because it can be both enchanting and revolting simultaneously. Or because it plays its part as cautionary tale and wonder of the world and a reminder of the possibility of what we can build together: illusions of grandeur and castles in the sky.
- Copy the above Italo Calvino quote on cities.
- Imagine an ideal city. Write it. Draw it.
- Read some Jane Jacobs.
- Journal about a city experience.