04/24/2014

Shapeshifter City

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one: You’re in your car, on your way to your favorite hangout, and the urban landscape is almost alive, rife with the bright eyes of a hundred other vehicles’ headlights, the streets filled with an audience of lit windows. You’re crossing through the city, one cell in the vein of a breathing, hungry organism, pumping its components through its pathways. You’re headed down to either your favorite café, the steam of its machines filling its rooms, or your favorite bar, shaking with the buzz of distorted guitar chords, or the grand opening of a new gallery, its white walls reserved for things that truly, truly deserve to be seen.

And in these places, cultures flourish and grow. Little businesses thrive in the nooks and crannies only the street-smart would know about. Scenes cultivate and germinate, art and music seem to almost generate spontaneously, the graffiti on the walls of abandoned buildings speak in a language all its own. On nights like this, the city is yours, or at least it feels like it, even though the city doesn’t so much belong to you as you belong to it.

But in the morning, you’re on your way to school or work, and the sun seems to illuminate all the things you hate about the city—how inviting it seems to be for big business, how it splits the rich and poor into different zones, how heavy the traffic can be. A new building is being constructed, a new mall is being renovated for expansion. There’s the smoke, the noise, reenactments of the Old Testament’s exodus manifesting on the flyovers and overpasses, you and many others locked and briskly walking in a hamster wheel, all for the glory of the daily grind. Modernity is the game, and only the rich and powerful are winning, because when have they ever lost anything?

In the midst of these contradictions, the tangle of these pleasures and troubles, we still find room to romanticize the city. We are simultaneously free and constricted. We are encouraged to hope, but made to feel tired. We’re told to be who we are, to stay true to ourselves. But the city demands us to be many things, sometimes all at once. Artist, marketing officer, civil servant, branding specialist, networker, friend. Beauty in the breakdown.

Generation Y—whatever that means—is simultaneously the most analyzed and most analytical generation. Countless essays have been written in the tone of obsessive scrutiny about millennials, and the subjects are left feeling labelled, classified, and pigeonholed, and somehow no nearer towards clarity of identity than before. At the same time, our generation has grown critical and extremely self-aware, with eyes peeled open to the ways that popular culture shifts. We’re fed an absurd amount of information on social media on the regular, ten tabs open and queued for future reading in the hopes of feeling in touch with how the times are changing. We are like this not just because we are young, but because of how this day and age treats the young.

I remember a conversation I had with my parents, about the difference between our generations. My mom and dad grew up with a fixed path in front of them, raised to believe that the best thing is to focus on one thing, work towards the top of that thing, make money, and ultimately come to a state of safety and security. But we, blessed as we are, are given a vast array of options. There is no definite Point A, but a whole catalog of Point A’s, twisting and turning to different ends, with no definite goal in sight. And in the face of choice, in the face the city’s bright lights and dark corners like a million closed and open eyes, we feel paralyzed.

But why should we? It’s 2015, and our romantic ideas of the city hold a little truth. The city is where dreams become real, where love manifests on skin against a backdrop of stone and steel. For all its institutions and systems, we are proudly human and un-mechanical, the reason the city is alive in the first place.

In his book The Soft City, Jonathan Raban wrote, “The city goes soft; it awaits the imprint of an identity. For better or worse, it invites you to remake it, to consolidate it into a shape you can live in. You, too. Decide who you are, and the city will again assume a fixed form round you. Decide what it is, and your own identity will be revealed.” The city demands us to be many things, because we are. Multidimensional, code-switching, creative and calculative city-dwellers, we are. We make art, we close deals, we hold our cards close to our chairs and lay our hearts out for whoever’s willing to spare a glance.

We change the city, in the same way the city changes us. Our past and present and future selves, what we are and what we could be, converge and churn in each of our bodies, cutting through the urban jungle. Yes, there will always be high-rises getting in the way of sunsets, and factories billowing out whole skies of smoke, and traffic. Oh god, the traffic. But there will always be us, as hungry as the city we inhabit, hungry to change the way we live and the spaces we live in.

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