find yourself a city to live in
May 10, 2010, 12:45 am
Filed under: brave new world, departure lounge, the sweet life | Tags: , ,

Cities reflect all our ambitions and failures made plain for the world to see, says musician, artist, cyclist David Byrne.  I just picked up his book Bicycle Diaries and then listened to his song Cities – find yourself a city to live in, he sings.  So primal, and maybe essential, if you have the inclination and opportunity, to make your way around the world and find yourself a city to live in.  I haven’t found one yet.  Have you?

Right now I live, temporarily, in a city that’s not easy to get around in, unless you have a car.  It’s hard to get my shopping done and to go to town to meet friends, it’s long waits for the bus, and, added up, hours of walking.  It feels like a village, even though it is over 300 years old.  Weekends are dead.  People here live and die by their rowhouses; larger buildings and other ways of living are viewed with suspicion and maybe even a little hostility.  This city is building manor houses and even some suburban houses with vinyl siding and lawns in the downtown, if you can believe it!

I think David Byrne is right, the city reflects deep belief.  So what can I conclude about the city I am staying in now?  What can we make of the fact that we like town living rather than city living, with individual houses instead of apartment buildings?  And that we would rather drive our cars than share space in subways and buses, and need gas stations and a lot of street and garage parking?  Perhaps that we are antisocial and want to keep as far from our neighbors as possible?  That I’m not an American unless I own my little piece of grass and and a front door, an address that gives me identity and face?  That the suburb is still the place to aspire to, with its verdancy and illusion of convenience?

I had lunch with a friend last month who for personal reasons deflected the opportunity for  intimate conversation nudged our talk back to a passing comment I had made that I want to live in a liberal democracy.  -What do you mean by that? she wanted to know.  Street life, public life and discourse, good economy, basic freedoms.  Enjoyment.  I haven’t found a city yet that looks like this.  Have you?

Here is David Byrne:

Cities, it occurred to me, are physical manifestation of our deepest beliefs and our often unconscious thoughts, not so much as individuals, but as the social animals we are.  A cognitive scientist need only look at what we have made – the hives we have created – to know what we think and what we believe to be important, as well as how we structure those thoughts and beliefs.  It’s all there, in plain view, right out in the open; you don’t need CAT scans and cultural anthropologists to show you what’s going on inside the human mind; its inner workings are manifested in three dimensions, all around us.  Our values and hopes are sometimes awfully embarrassingly easy to read.  They’re right there – in the storefronts, museums, temples, shops, and office buildings and in how these structures interrelate, or sometimes don’t.  They say, in their unique visual language, “This is what we think matters, this is how we live and how we play.”  Riding a bike through all  this is like navigating the collective naural pathways of some vast global mind.  It really is a trip inside the collective psyche of a compacted group of people.  A Fantastic Voyage, but without the cheesy special effects.  One can sense the collective brain – happy, cruel, deceitful, and generous – at work and at play.  Endless variations on familiar themes repeat and recur:  triumphant or melancholic, hopeful or resigned, the permutations keep unfolding and multiplying.

-David Byrne, Bicycle Diaries, p2.


author:  David Byrne

book: Bicycle Diaries


a lot of the world left out
September 21, 2009, 5:23 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , ,

This is an excerpt from David Byrne’s book Bicycle Diaries in which he discusses how the Chinese in Hong Kong tend to destroy anything that has been designed and built for the public realm.  I grew up in India and have occasionally thought about returning there to set up life, but hesitate when I remember that India, like China it seems, lacks a commitment to the pleasures of public life.

Cafe culture and street life are good indicators of robust commitment to the good – public – life.  They barely exist in America – almost exclusively in New York – but thrive in Europe, the Mediterranean and large cities in Asia.

I was just in London and Paris – four days in each city:  the street culture exists in Paris but London is in the dark ages.  Why?  I think Byrne is exactly right:  the prevailing philosophy of any culture is made manifest in the building of its cities:  if all that matters is the king and the family, then public life will wither and die – or more likely be willfully destroyed.

I am reading Continental Philosophy by Simon Critchley who describes a sort of instrumentalist, get it done preponderance among 20th century English and American philosophers and contrasts this against the continental philosophers broader existential interest in what it means to live a fulfilled life.   If these are the – very different – preoccupations of the thinkers in the English and Continental traditions then I can see why their respective cities are so radically different.  And how the communist Chinese now running the British dependency Hong Kong, fall into step behind the instrumentalist Anglo world.

Here is David Byrne on Hong Kong:

I was recently in Hong Kong and a friend there commented that China doesn’t have a history of civic engagement.  Traditionally in China one had to accommodate two aspects of humanity — the emperor and his bureaucracy, and one’s own family.  And even though that family might be fairly extended it doesn’t include neighbors or coworkers, so a lot of the world is left out.  To hell with them.  As long as the emperor or his ministers aren’t after me and my family is okay then all’s right with the world.  I have been marveling at the rate of destruction of anything having to do with social pleasures and civic interaction in Hong Kong — funky markets, parks, waterfront promenades, bike lanes (of course) — I was amazed how anything designed for the common good is quickly bulldozed, privatized, or replaced by a condo or office tower.  According to my friend civic life is just not a part of the culture.  So in this case at least, the city is an accurate and physical reflection of how that culture views itself.  The city is a 3D manifestation of the social, and personal — and I’m suggesting that in turn, a city, its physical being, reinforces those ethics and recreates them in successive generations and in those who have immigrated to the city.  Cities self-perpetuate the mindset that made them.

-David Byrne, Bicycle Diaries, Viking 2009