Friday, March 23, 2012
Chicago Thoughts: A City of Districts, A City of Adventure
Adventurers and travelers, from time of Araby to America, know it well; the greatest Cities of Fables were never just one town inside ones set of walls. Contained in any sprawling cityscape were many smaller neighborhoods, districts, zones, and towns. Cities within cities, to risk the ire of the meme generation. To be sure, not all towns earned this classification. Only the greatest, only the ones worth remembering. How tempting is it to reminisce on their spires and squalor? Universities and Bazaar at Baghdad, the skulldugerous wharves of London and Portobello Road, New York's boroughs, the pleasure and noble houses of Kyoto, and, of course, all of Constantinople and Istanbul. Neighborhoods each have their own singular flavor, character, and narrative. They are worth remembering in and of themselves, let alone part of the city. Yes, yes, as University of Chicago scholar, I would be remiss to romanticize too much. Just because old Jerusalem calls to all of us, that does not necessarily mean there is something magical in these cities.
No, but surely there is more to it than historical! Moderners in theater know what I speak of. Theater of all forms, whether grandly lit stage or dimly lit platform, computer game screen or roleplaying table top. The dramatists know, especially those who game. Writers too. Every fantastic city that we grew up in had a playbill of neighborhoods and inner communities. Athkatla or Neverwinter, Minas Tirith or Osgiliath, Cyrodiil's Imperial City, Clock Town, and Coruscant. Individual communities defined these metropolises. Individual districts with individual characters. On one side of a town, the docks might provide brew or brawl. Mere blocks away, priests congregate at crossroads to convert. Such local seasoning gives a city, and its residents, great character. In one city, one walled community, an adventure awaits around every corner. Wild personalities, both of area and inhabitants, foster the quest in all of us.
The spirit of adventure. That seems to lie at the core of it all. A city with many unique neighborhoods and districts, communities and boroughs, defies generalization. It defies standardization. Opportunity skulks in each alley, wonder hunched in every doorway. It is not necessarily a function of city size, but rather of city personality. We speak of humans with overpowering personality. A "Character," we might call them. They command a room on mere entrance, and a conversation with just a glance. That is where I arrive at this notion of "Districts". In those games and fantasies I most remembered, in the cities of history with the most romantic possibility and adventure hiding behind corners, districts built the entire municipality. That word, "Districts" must be resurrected. It connotes more than just community or neighborhood. It means character. It means history. It means possibility. A city of districts is a city in which every neighborhood has its own compelling presence. Just by entering the district, its spirit commands your attention and drives your action.
So how are we to consider all of this? Are there terms to tuck away for later use? "District" comes to mind. It is more than mere police district or alderman ward. It is not a technical boundary so much as a spiritual one. It is also more than just neighborhood name. Just because a side or part of town can claim a title, does not make it a true "district", in the sense of those fabled and magical cities. For a community area to be called a district, it must have a commanding character, and it must resist standardization. It must seethe opportunity, and it must defy government. Not in the post-anarchist New York City sense; it can have running water, pay taxes, enjoy police protection, hold municipal offices, and so on. Its direction, future, and residents, however, must be self-decided.
Minding that, here is then the ultimate test of district status. In turn, it is the metric by which a city is judged to be a city of Districts, not just an urban sprawl. Here is the test: Simply say its name. A true "District", not just a neighborhood, will demand that its name be said with suggestive inflection. You should feel and know the neighborhood just by speaking its title. History should course through you and all the possible paths of the future must trickle ahead. If you can say the neighborhood's name with respect, fear, a knowing chuckle, a garish laugh, a contented smile, or pure awe, then it is indeed a true district. A city with many such neighborhoods thus becomes a city of districts.
The next step in the essay is natural. What modern cities are there that contain such awing districts? I can consider a few, but I only care for one. And that is something to discuss next time.