Category Archives: cities

Notre-Dame is eminently restorable

I’m sure others have made this point or are typing it this minute, but I will pile on …

Notre-Dame de Paris is a stunning building but not a well-preserved medieval one. It has been through a lot, including the 18th-century removal of the original stained glass in the nave, the smashing of statuary and most of the remaining glass during the French Revolution, and a profound reconstruction that began in 1844. Some of the most famous features of the cathedral are the work of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, a Romantic-era restorer who was comfortable redesigning medieval buildings in ways that are now obvious to us. The gargoyles, the spire that collapsed yesterday, portions of the interior architecture, and much of the stained glass is by Viollet-le-Duc, not by anonymous craftsmen of the 12th and 13th centuries. Many other Gothic buildings are much better preserved.

John Ruskin wrote in 1849 (not specifically about Notre-Dame but about the general approach to restoration in his time):

Neither the public, nor those who are responsible for the maintenance of public monuments, understand the true meaning of ‘restoration’. It signifies the most complete destruction that an edifice can suffer; a destruction from which not a single vestige can be recovered; a destruction that comes from the false description of the thing destroyed. It is impossible, as impossible as it is to bring the dead back to life, to restore whatever might have been grand or beautiful in architecture….the enterprise is a lie from the beginning to the end.

Notre-Dame is not a “lie,” but it is to a large degree a legacy of the French Romantic period, as much a creation of Victor Hugo and Viollet-le-Duc as of the first builders in 1160-1260. It is part of the city that we know today, which was profoundly influenced by Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809-1891), the flattener of ancient neighborhoods and planner of boulevards:

Old Paris is gone (no human heart

changes half so fast as a city’s face) …
There used to be a poultry market here,
and one cold morning … I saw

a swan that had broken out of its cage,
webbed feet clumsy on the cobblestones,
white feathers dragging through uneven ruts,
and obstinately pecking at the drains …

Paris changes … but in sadness like mine
nothing stirs—new buildings, old
neighbourhoods turn to allegory,

and memories weigh more than stone

From Richard Howard’s translation of Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal

It is not a criticism to place Notre-Dame in the 19th century. The years from 1848-1870 mark the apogee of a certain Parisian culture that is admirable and attractive. It was the age of boulevards and cafes, Seine embankments, and Impressionist cityscapes, all of which shape our view of Notre-Dame. The reason the history matters is that we can reconstruct late-19th-century buildings when they are well documented, as every stone of Notre-Dame is. In contrast, we would have neither the materials nor the craftsmanship to reconstruct the stained glass of the nearby Sainte-Chapelle if that were lost.

The fire is a tragedy; the crown jewel of 19th-century Paris will be badly damaged for some time. But in the long run, this will be a footnote.

See also: seeing Paris in chronological order; Paris from the moon; and Basilica of Notre-Dame, Montreal.

you can go home again

(Syracuse, NY) I’m in the city where I was born and raised but haven’t resided in 33 years. 

One result of this kind of visit is to make the intervening years fold away like a picture book put back on its shelf. When we travel to foreign places, I find that all the vivid new experiences stretch time. The journey feels long; regular life feels distant. But as soon as we’re in the airport on the way back home, the days of travel shrink to a finite memory, as if we’d had a few moments away.

The same can happen to decades. A third of a century seems rich and complex while you live it, but returning to where you began shrinks those years back to size.

Another result is a reminder of how little detail we retain. I once knew all kinds of information: What would you see if you turned that corner? Who lives in that house? What minor joy or sorrow once accompanied that building for me? It’s all flattened by the slow passage of years.

See also Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, and memories of Rust Belt adolescencethe Times’ poverty mapportrait of a librarymy home as described by Stephen Dunn; and three poems about the passage of time: nostalgia for nowechoes; and the hourglass.

changes in how we talk about cities

At a meeting at a community organization in Boston, we were using various terms to describe local issues and observing that those phrases would not be clear to the people we were talking about–especially new immigrants. That made me wonder about the history of our vocabulary, so I used Google’s Ngram tool to see the frequency of “urban poverty,” “inner city,” “gentrification,” “deindustrialization,” and “urban redevelopment” in published books. This graph shows trends since 1900.

In rough order of when these phrases became popular…

  1. “Urban redevelopment” starts very soon after WWII but declines after 1970. It is a keyword of high-modernist urban planning from the era of big housing projects and highways blasted through downtowns.  It has been notably less popular (at least in books) since ca. 1980.
  2. “Urban poverty” rises in the 1960s and the 1990s, but has–interestingly–fallen in the 2000s.
  3. “Inner city” seems to have become rapidly popular during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, plateaued at a high level until about 2000, and then fallen off.
  4. “Gentrification” enters the lexicon in 1975. It plateaus in the 1990s and then rises rapidly in our century.
  5. “Deindustrialization” is a new term ca. 1980, describing a phenomenon that started in the 1970s. It peaks in the 1990s.

These changes seem to reflect objective circumstances–cities lose their industrial base but then sometimes attract yuppies who push up housing values–as well as shifts in intellectual fashions, such as the rise, and then fall, of high-modernist design.

Ukraine means borderland

This isn’t a travel blog, and my photos aren’t very good, but here are some images that hint at Ukraine’s history as a borderland (which is its very meaning).

For instance, a minbar (the staircase a preacher ascends in a mosque) is preserved inside the rococo church of St Nicholas in Kamyanets-Podilsky.

The same city’s cathedral preserves a minaret. The Ottomans had built towers all around this building, as at Aya Sofya in Istanbul. When the Poles regained the city, they removed the other minarets but had to retain this one for structural reasons. They surmounted it with a gold Madonna.

At Khoytn, the border is symbolized by a massive fortress, built and partially leveled in sequence by Christian, Muslim, Christian, and modern totalitarian armies.

In Chernivtsi, while it was still Austro-Hungarian Czernowitz, each “nation” had a handsome cultural house of its own: the Romanians, the Ukrainians, the Germans, the Poles, the Jews. The Ukrainian house made space for the first international Yiddish conference in 1908, because the city’s Jewish leadership favored German and Hebrew.

Today, the former Jewish People’s House still sports Atlas-type sculptural figures, two of whom are unusual in that they look upward.

In the old auditorium on the third floor, where the stair-rail still shows a Star of David, the stage was set with a cross when I wandered in. The building is understandably used for various community functions today, in a city that is overwhelmingly Christian. This sight was nevertheless a bit disconcerting. (I suspect the Nazis smashed the other Jewish symbols in this room.)

But downstairs is a fine museum celebrating and mourning the annihilated Bukovinian Jewish community, including this mass-produced Hebrew typewriter from the interwar period.

Here is a raffish Art Nouveau/Orientalist building called the “Sorbonne,” in the University area of Chernivisti. I saw it at dusk, when the sunflower’s face had sagged.

That could be an elegy for the faded elegance of Austria-Hungary. But the sunflower must have turned upward again the next morning, because there’s always a dawn. Half a century after the “Sorbonne” opened, Chernivtsi’s now-Soviet citizens could take off from their space-age airport under a frieze of Sputniks and ICBMs.

History didn’t stop then, either. Since I was last in Chernivtsi in 2015, a cheerful new 24/7 pharmacy has opened across the street from the “Sorbonne.”

Dubai, Uganda, and today’s global political economy

My family and I are just back from visiting our daughter, who works in Uganda, with a two-day stop in Dubai, where there’s a change of flights en route from Boston to Entebbe. We chose these destinations for family reasons. But it’s significant that Emirates Airlines flies direct from Dubai to Uganda. Even though the United Arab Emirates is small, and these two countries lie far apart, the UAE is Uganda’s 4th-largest source of imports. Dubai, an “Alpha+ Global City,” is a hub in a network of financial and human capital for a vast hinterland that includes Uganda, where 84% of the population still depends on subsistence agriculture.

There is much to like in both places—and reasons to hope that their futures will be brighter. However, if the worst aspects of each state predominate, and if the world increasingly resembles this pair of nations, then the human future will be dystopian.

Two centuries ago, both the Buganda Kingdom north of Lake Victoria and the Sheikdom of Dubai were independent monarchies. If we assume that today’s basket of most desired goods (life expectancies above 70, individual freedom, security, etc.) define human development—a contested assumption—than both societies were poorly developed. But they had rich and complex cultures and social structures.

The British made both kingdoms into dependencies and then subsumed Buganda within a full-fledged colony. The period of colonialism must have been experienced as traumatic in both countries. There were important differences. For instance, most Ugandans–but virtually no Emiratis–converted to Christianity. But they also shared some experiences, such as in-migration from South Asia. (Indians and Pakistanis now far outnumber Arabs in Dubai.) Police departments, accounting firms, factories, and many other innovations that we might label “modern” or “Western” arrived in both places with the British.

They gained independence within ten years of each other, but their economic trajectories have split. Dubai, a city-state entrepôt on one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, has become the 9th-wealthiest nation in the world, with a per capita GDP of nearly $70k. Uganda, a land-locked agricultural nation of 38 million, ranks 163 out of 188 countries on the Human Development Index and has a per capita annual GDP of $572 and a median individual income (my favorite summary statistic) of $2.50 per day. By definition, that means that half of Ugandans live on less than that much–at least as far as a cash economy is concerned–and one in five live below the poverty line of $1.90 per day.

Their political trajectories have also split. Dubai has been a stable absolute monarchy within the federal structure of the United Arab Emirates. Political rights are nonexistent; there is no legitimate public sphere, in the sense of a zone where citizens freely form public opinion and influence the state. The Ruler may choose to consult, but he decides. Most residents are not citizens in any sense; about 90% percent are expatriates.

Albert O. Hirschman argued that two strategies are valuable when you don’t like how things are going: exit or voice. In Dubai, political voice is irrelevant or even illegal. But exit (along with entrance somewhere else) is prevalent. People shape Dubai by moving themselves and their assets there or away, whether they are construction or domestic workers from India or the Philippines or bankers or real estate developers from wealthy nations. With the exception of the most exploited workers, they can leave if they are dissatisfied. This means that Dubai has been created by its residents, not by the Ruler. It’s the residents who have thrust astounding numbers of postmodernist skyscrapers out of the desert or have withdrawn their capital when dissatisfied. But their influence is entirely individual and apolitical.

Uganda, meanwhile, has had a tumultuous history, with only three presidents (although four regimes) so far since independence, and still no peaceful transfer of power. We visited the underground cells behind Idi Amin’s former presidential palace where thousands were tortured and killed by electrocution; no one left those chambers alive. I don’t think I am naive about the limitations of the current democracy, as Yoweri Mouseveni spends his 31st year in the presidency. Yet Uganda is a democratic republic. The people govern through representative institutions, albeit with several dubious elections since 2001. The newspapers call Ugandans “citizens,” respecting them as the people who ultimately govern the republic and implicitly holding them responsible for doing so. (I think respect and responsibility are what define a republican form of government.)

Three democracy indices from V-Dem (not available for UAE)

The Ugandan press is vibrant and competitive. The standard journalistic style is a bit more stenographic than what we are accustomed to in the US. Many articles basically report what someone said, in the same order that he or she said it. But the perspectives captured in these stories are diverse and often sharply critical. There is a public sphere, even if the state is somewhat unresponsive to it.

If voice is more evident in Uganda than in Dubai, exit is rarer. Few Ugandans can afford to or want to leave, although remittances from emigrants are rapidly growing. The largest migration of people consists of refugees into the country from South Sudan; they lack both exit and voice.

In Dubai, the global consumer brands are pervasive, including the Trump brand, now attached to a huge new golf course. There is a preserved old quarter that represents traditional Emirati culture, but it is probably smaller than one Bulgari ad on the side of one high-rise office building. We saw at least four billboards for completely different products that used the same format: a White woman in fashionable Western clothes and an Emirati man in a traditional white dishdosh and headscarf are beaming at the same consumer good. Even though about 70% of the residents are Asians, rich Westerners and Arabs are the normative consumers.

In Uganda, despite a few ads for Coca-Cola and Pepsi, the global brands are rare. Almost all stores are one-story brick structures with a raised front wall that can display messages above the door. By my count, about 30% of the stores in the cities and along the paved intercity roads (but fewer on dirt back roads) display painted advertisements for a handful of local brands, mostly telecom service-providers, construction materials, and detergents. Another notable form of advertising consists of new mosques, ubiquitous next to the roads in this overwhelmingly Christian country, thanks to funding from Turkish and other Middle Eastern sources. Finally, one often sees the logos of aid agencies: national, multilateral, or nongovernmental. In one national park, a sign announced that the signage had been given by the “people of the United States” through USAID. Paying for the signs that carry our national logo seems a way to maximize the ratio of branding to actual benefit.

Language often offers insights into culture. I’m sure that individuals in each country have unique relationships to the languages they speak, but I’ll risk some generalizations about English in Uganda and in the UAE. Ugandan (or East African) English is a branch of the language, like the Queen’s English or my own. It is mutually intelligible with American English, yet highly distinctive, full of terms for local foods and activities, loan-words from Swahili, and idioms and rhythms that make it a vehicle for expressing a particular culture. You could learn to speak Ugandan English, and that would be a linguistic attainment, an addition to your repertoire.

The English of the UAE sounds to me like what one learns in a second-language course in a business college. It is error-prone but functional, jargon-filled, strictly pragmatic. It might offer possibilities for creativity and insight—but I doubt it. I’m guessing that most residents experience cultural depth and aesthetic satisfaction in their native tongues. In Joseph O’Neill’s wonderful novel set in Dubai, The Dog, the narrator says, “I have a real soft spot for the habitual accent of Arab speakers of good English, in whose mouths the language, imbued with grave trills, can seem weighted with the sagacity of the East. (See Alec Guinness in Lawrence of Arabia.)” That may be true, but only 12% of the UAE’s residents are Emirati, and not all of those speak good English. Purely functional English–plus math–is the code of business, and business is the culture that counts in Dubai.

Looking toward the future, one can imagine that Dubai adds political liberties and public deliberation to its market freedoms, and Uganda not only honors the true spirit of its republican constitution but also develops sufficiently so that all its people attain the core human capabilities. That would be a better world. To be even more utopian, we might hope that the relationships among Uganda, Dubai, and the inevitable third corner of the triangle–the OECD nations–becomes genuinely just, not just in the sense that human circumstances converge but also that the people of Uganda can make real claims on the people of Dubai or New York.

One can also imagine that Dubai continues to prosper without political freedom, much as Shanghai also does today. Absolute monarchies seem quaint, but arguably the real players in Dubai are the big corporate investors, and corporations are not democracies. Their influence could grow, not only in Dubai but in all the Global Cities. Indeed, as the world gets hotter, dryer, more postmodern, higher-tech, more racially intermingled, yet more culturally homogeneous, one could imagine that all the cities that dominate the global economy will look like Dubai today. Already, the man whose portrait hangs in every federal office building in the USA also has his name on the huge billboards for Dubai’s newest golf course.

Meanwhile, Uganda faces rapid population growth, a median age of 15, a worsening climate, unstable neighbors in several directions, and the risk of political instability once Mouseveni finally retires. One could imagine that Uganda will look much as it does today, only poorer and more violent, and that many other nations will look more like it. That is the dystopian future that haunts us.