Category Archives: cities

a welcome talk for college interns newly arrived in Washington

I’d like to welcome you to Washington. I’d also like to welcome you to DC.

To my ear, “Washington” means the official city, the nation’s capital, the seat of power. It’s also the destination for about 20 million visitors a year, because they come to see the sites of the official city: the National Mall, the museums, the monuments, and the great buildings that house our national government.

On the walls inside the Capitol, the courts, the executive agencies, and the Pentagon, there must hang 10,000 oil portraits of former office-holders. Sometimes under a portrait of an obscure ante-Bellum Senator, you’ll see unionized teachers shaking hands with their current, conservative US rep., or teenagers in a huddle trying to figure out where they need to go next. Official Washington is a magnet for all kinds of Americans.

To my ear, “DC” means a mid-Atlantic city of about 700,000 people, plus the inner-ring suburbs where many of the residents have roots in the city proper. DC’s population is just under half African-American, and many of the most deeply rooted DC families are Black.

It’s a city of brick row houses, fall leaves crunching underfoot on a hot and humid day, official buildings shimmering in the smog at the end of long vistas, knots of people in suits with government ID’s hanging from their necks, soldiers in desert fatigues, and the Metro coasting quietly between stations with–in the summertime–payloads of interns.

There are other cities here, too. The international city of embassies, the World Bank and IMF, the global press corps, and 10,000 diplomats. The military city of the Pentagon, the Naval Hospital, myriad defense contractors, and Andrews Air Force Base–with the Naval Academy just up the road. A tech-industry hub that pays relatively little attention to politics and government. A city of scholars and artists. These different cities come together–sometimes uneasily and coolly–in places like the Metro, Nationals Park, and a summer concert at the Zoo.

Washington is a youthful city that depends on talented 20-somethings who can go “all in” for their boss, whether on a political campaign, in a newsroom, or in a tech startup. DC is full of people who came here in their 20’s to do good and ended up doing well. Now they live in spacious houses on tree-lined streets in Cleveland Park or Georgetown, but their years of greatest impact were in their youth, and even today they could get nothing done without their 20-something staffers.

Every year, a new batch of idealists arrive who say, with Alexander Hamilton in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s version, “I’m past patiently waitin’. I’m passionately smashin’ every expectation, every action’s an act of creation! … And I am not throwing away my shot.”

Like Hamilton, you can be idealistic and ambitious, your ambition spurring you to make a better world and be known for it. You have a shot; don’t throw it away.

I’d encourage you to appreciate DC, the mid-Atlantic city, with its neighborhoods and restaurants, its distinctive accents and traditions. People sometimes say that DC is a transient city, but they are thinking about politicians, diplomats, generals, and staffers. DC is also an old and stable city of school teachers, bus drivers, food workers, busboys, and a few poets.

I’d also encourage you to appreciate Washington, the seat of the republic. I know that few Americans are fully inspired by it right now. Some see Washington as a sink for their hard-won salary money and the source of regulations that impinge their liberty. Others behold a militaristic, corporate power center dominating the world, a neoliberal death star. Just four percent of Americans say they have a great deal of confidence in Congress. Most Americans also say that they distrust their fellow citizens. Since Washington represents the whole country, we each see a city that answers to a lot of other people we don’t much like

I spent my own twenty years in this city trying to be a reformer, often with anger in my thoughts and even in my voice. I understand the critiques and share some of them. Yet I would urge you to be open to the grand narrative of the official city.

Take a walk, for instance, up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Look from there onto the National Mall. Chained people were brought there daily to be sold across from the Smithsonian Castle until 1850. The Capitol Dome, however, was completed during the Civil War, and the crowning statue of Freedom was erected there in the same year as the Battle of Gettysburg.

Inside the temple to Lincoln, take a moment to read the Second Inaugural carved into the walls. It’s just four paragraphs long. The third and by far the longest argues that slavery “was the cause of the war.” The speech ends, “let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

In 1963, 250,000 people stood before the Memorial at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, listening not only to Dr. King’s “Dream” but also to Bayard Rustin lead a tribute to “Negro Women Fighters for Freedom,” Mahalia Jackson sing “How I Got Over,” and the grizzled civil rights veteran John Lewis give a major speech at the ripe old age of 23. The program notes from that day, saved by my friend Harry Boyte, reminded everyone, “In a neighborhood dispute there may be stunts, rough words, and even hot insults. But when a whole people speaks to its government, the dialogue and the action must be on a level reflecting the worth of that people and the responsibility of that government.” I imagine the 250,000 women and men who stood there on that day as ghosts on the Mall, still reflecting the worth of our people and still speaking eloquently to their government, which is still our government. We can stand with them.

As we have continued our common story, we’ve added to Washington’s obelisk and Lincoln’s temple vast free public museums of history, art, and industry, monuments to the fallen in several wars and to peace itself, and buildings documenting the Holocaust, Native American history and culture, and African American history and culture.

Every nation-state is problematic. It sets boundaries, excludes people, and exercises power. But a nation-state is also a tool for making the world better and for accomplishing great things together. It becomes what we make it become.

What we have made of the United States so far is quite literally etched in the stone of Washington DC. We are still building it, whether we happen to be American citizens or not, literally and metaphorically.

Young people have always played a disproportionate role. Coming here to serve is a privilege. It’s a learning opportunity. It can be fun. It puts you into the story of tragedy, crime, sacrifice, and redemption that is this country.

Hamilton did more than any founder to found Washington, even though he’s the only one without a monument on the Mall. In the musical, he sums up his life. “I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me. America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me. You let me make a difference.”

You follow in his footsteps. Make a difference.

roots of crime

Since May, I have been able to spend time in two of the world’s biggest metropolises, Istanbul and Mexico City. They are similar in several ways beside their vastness. Each is the leading city of a substantial and proudly independent nation with a distinctive culture. In both, neighborhoods of poor, traditionally religious migrants from the countryside abut cosmopolitan secular districts.

One significant difference is the crime rate. Three people per 100,00 are murdered annually in Istanbul, versus 13.2 in Mexico City. This is a case where a quantitative difference becomes qualitative. In Turkey, crime is so low that I have seen—admittedly, in a smaller city than Istanbul—a whole shop’s worth of consumer goods left outdoors and unguarded overnight. In Mexico City, conversation quickly turns to avoiding violence. Is it safe to hail a cab? (Generally, the answer right now is: No.) Can you drive safely along a certain road?

According to Philip Mansel (in Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire), Istanbul was notably safe in the 1500s, when it was already one of the biggest—or perhaps the single most populous—city in the world. “Merchants could leave stalls unattended; pastry-sellers trusted members of the public to pay for the wares they left on a small round tray.” Mansel quotes Lord Charlemont’s report from the 1700s: “Housebreaking and street robbery, crimes so unfortunately common in our great towns as to render dwelling in them unpleasant and unsafe, never happen in the Turkish metropolis, and a man may walk its streets at all hours of the night with his pocket full of money, without the smallest fear of danger or molestation.”

Charlemont had an explanation: “the salutary rigour of frequent acts of execution.” It is hard to believe that executions were more frequent in Constantinople than in London or Paris, where a child who stole a roll would be hanged. And even if the Ottomans really used capital punishment more than the English or the French, I doubt the executions of those days can explain the safe streets now.

The “broken windows” hypothesis won’t explain the difference, because Mexico City and Istanbul are both rather chaotic and rife with violations such as illegal construction. Poverty is not a likely explanation, because Mexico City’s per capita GDP is twice as high as Istanbul’s, and its inequality index is not much worse. The proportion of residents under age 20 is virtually identical in both cities. Any explanation of the difference may have to be regional, because Mexico City shares similar crime rates with most other large cities in its region. (With Istanbul, it’s a little harder to say what the region is, and I cannot find crime statistics for possibly similar cities, such as Tehran.)

I’m sure there’s a large literature on this topic, but no persuasive explanation is well-known enough that it has reached me.

I suppose one possibility is that there is no root cause. Crime is part of a cycle: each act of violence begets more violence, puts strains on the state, and makes law-abiding behavior less rational for other people. Once you get into a high-crime pattern, it is hard to get out. But if you can avoid or stop the circle, you may be better off even five hundred years later.

Boston, recovering city

(On the train to NYC) It’s my sense that the second half of the 20th century was hard on America’s oldest city, but Boston is recovering from the wounds it sustained then.

Boston entered the 1900s as the hub of the first region in the United States to industrialize. It had its own factories, but mainly it provided the harbor and the financial and managerial center for a ring of manufacturing cities from Lowell to Fall River. Founded early and always prosperous, Boston had assembled cultural resources that made it a claimant to being America’s intellectual capital. Politically, it was a battleground between WASP Republicans and Catholic European working-class Democrats–not a pleasant struggle but sometimes a dynamic one. People of color were largely marginalized, but their communities had impressive assets. The city was especially attractive thanks to its architecture and its location at the mouth of the Charles. It had its own distinctive businesses that were points of civic pride, from Filene’s Department Store to the Red Sox.

But the industrial base largely collapsed. The harbor lost most of its business and became notoriously polluted. That meant that the city lost its traditional face to the sea. I-93 was blasted through the central core, and a terrible brutalist City Hall also marred downtown. Because the city was relatively small, each bad large building was a blow to the whole. The department stores faltered and ultimately closed. As in other cities, white middle class residents moved out and left a declining post-industrial economy to African American migrants and new immigrants. In Boston, white resistance was especially explicit and violent. The rest of American grew two- or three-fold while Boston shrank as a proportion of the nation’s economy, cultural leadership, and population.

Although I liked Boston when I first encountered it in the mid-1980s, I think it was a wounded city then. Having lived in the metro area continuously since 2008, I would now describe it as recovering. The Big Dig buried I-93, and the city is stitching together over it. The harbor is clean and graced by some fine new buildings, private and public. Boston again has a face to the sea. Biotech is flourishing. Certain de-industrialized zones, such as east Cambridge, are now massive building sites. The metro area has become multiracial and multicultural. Racial injustice is certainly not resolved, but I sense positive momentum. Boston’s fifth century should be much better than its fourth (unless we sink under the seas because of polar melt).

Detroit and the temptation of ruin

In Detroit, they call it “Ruin Porn”: images of a 35-acre abandoned automotive plant, the 18-story abandoned railway station (modeled, in turn, on ancient Roman baths), and other vast and decayed structures.

I can certainly understand why citizens of Detroit would object to the aestheticization of poverty and abandonment–to their city’s being used to produce marketable images of tragic grandeur. But the story of Detroit is tragic, in the Aristotelian sense. Recall the plot: the city rises from a few thousand residents to 1.8 million when hubristic men like Henry Ford invent forms of mass production that transform work itself. Black people migrate there from the South, face violent hostility, but manage to obtain political and cultural power. The city builds cars, weapons, and pop music that conquer the world. It becomes a model of modernity, vividly depicted by Diego Rivera on the walls of its world-class museum. And then Detroit collapses to 700,000 people who live amid the empty shells of its industrial past, while the nation looks away.

There is nothing new about treating a tragic fall as sublime. “Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.” Or: “It was at Rome, on the 15th of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefoot friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.”

In fact, because the Detroit Institute of Arts is an encyclopedic collection, one can find on its walls many images of ruin. For example, Jacob Isaaksz van Ruisdael paints the Jewish cemetery of 17th-century Amsterdam falling to pieces in a wild storm, as a momento mori. I don’t know why he picks Jewish graves, but perhaps because their dead are dead for good (in his view), not subject to resurrection.

van Ruisdeal, “The Jewish Cemetery” (ca. 1654)

The American Frederic Church imagines the coast of Syria as a kind of museum or theme park of ruins: Roman, Gothic, and Islamic piled almost on top of each other.

Frederic Edwin Church. “Syria by the Sea” (1873)

Anselm Kiefer paints a vast three dimensional canvass, parts of it literally burnt by the artist. He means to represent a particular brick factory in India (one that manufactures its own walls and sells the same walls, brick-by-brick, to consumers) and also the ovens of Auschwitz–which was another kind of Jewish cemetery.

Anselm Kiefer, “Das Gewiert” (1997)

The DIA even includes a whole Gothic side chapel moved to Detroit from a chateau in Lorraine–reconstructed there from a real Old World ruin. When you stand inside it, with its streaked and burnished stone and stained glass all around you, you are in a late-medieval building, inside a much larger structure patterned on the ruins of ancient Rome, near the center of a modern American city that is partly falling into ruin.

The DIA itself is hardly ruinous. On a Friday night, it is packed with visitors of all ages and backgrounds who stroll through its magnificent galleries, listen to live jazz, or play chess. But the collection, whose market value might reach $1 billion, will likely be sold to make a small dent in the bankrupt city’s pension obligations. In the best case, the purchasers will be a consortium of foundations whose wealth derived from Detroit and which have pledged to give the art back once they buy it. It’s a strange twist that some of the objects they may buy and return to the city from which their endowments came will be “ruin porn” of other times and places.

Israel, day 2

(Jerusalem) I am here on a political study tour; our main business is a large number of meetings with experts and representatives of various sectors of Israeli and Palestinian society. I won’t try to narrate the whole trip but will touch on selected themes.

An Arab Christian Israeli Justice who can’t sing “Hatikvah”

One of the people whom we met today was Justice Salim Joubran of the Israeli Supreme Court, who (among his many other distinctions) is the only Arab member of the court. He has been criticized in some quarters for standing but not singing along with the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah,” whose words include: “As long as in the heart, within / A Jewish soul still yearns, / And … an eye still gazes toward Zion; /Our hope is not yet lost …/ To be a free people in our land.”

Earlier in the same day, we had visited the national Holocaust museum and memorial, Yad Vashem, where “Hatikvah” plays the following central role. Near the entrance, one sees footage of a group of Jewish children in Eastern Europe in the year 1930, singing that song. One then passes through a powerful chronological exhibition about the Shoah, in which all of those children were murdered. At the end of the exhibition, the light that has been visible in the distance turns out to be a view of Jerusalem itself, and “Hatikvah” is heard. The implications are left unstated, and any specific formulation would prove controversial even among Israelis, but it seems implied that the children’s hope was redeemed by the formation of the State of Israel. Or perhaps Israel is the redemption of their hopes.

But of course, their hope is not Justice Joubran’s, nor could it be. Twenty percent of the citizen population are not Jews. Mr. Joubran’s presence on the Israeli Supreme Court helps confer legitimacy on the Israeli justice system, especially because he is a passionate defender of that system. He insisted to us that Jews and Arabs not only live together in Israel, they enjoy living together.

Here are three ways of thinking about this:

  1. Jews were killed in Europe because there was no Jewish state to protect them. The state of Israel is and must be Jewish. That can be true if a few Muslims and Christians hold public office (which has been the case since 1948), but “Hatikvah” must express the national creed. An Arab Israeli official should at least stand in respect for the song (as Justice Joubran does), and perhaps a clear majority of voters and officials should always actually endorse its words.
  2. The Jews were killed because they were Jews. Who are Jews?–the people who hold the “hope of two thousand years”: a Jewish state in Zion. Thus Israel was a spiritual, redemptive response to the Holocaust. This is a different premise from #1 but it leads to a similar conclusion.
  3. Jews were killed in Europe because the institutions and norms that protect human rights failed. Liberal democratic states (and citizens committed to preserve those states) are needed to prevent human rights abuses. Israel is an answer to the Holocaust if and only if it is a liberal democratic state that treats all its citizens equally without respect to creed and ethnicity, where the leaders represent the population, and where everyone has unfettered freedom of conscience.

In what sense is Jerusalem an old city?

Today, I stepped into the space where Jesus is said to have been buried and then walked close to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. Those are old places. Everyone insists that Jerusalem is old, and that is true in some respects. Everywhere you look, important events happened (or are believed to have happened) long ago. Also, anywhere you dig, you’re going to find layer upon layer of human settlement.

But most of the actual buildings are new. The city expanded about seven-fold in the 1900s, necessitating much new construction. Almost all of the Christian churches and monasteries–very prominent features on the cityscape–were built after 1870 (which would make them relatively new in Boston). Even in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, founded by St. Helen in the 4th century, the walls are much newer and most of the furnishings and decorations were added after 1850.

This is because the city has been relentlessly flattened. I am reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem; A Portrait. I’m only up to the beginning of the Common Era, and already Jerusalem has been raised to the ground at least eight times. That process has never stopped; for example, the Jordanians raised the Jewish quarter of the Old City in 1948, and Israelis still knock down old buildings today. The result is a comparative lack of major old buildings compared to other Mediterranean cities that were capitals centuries ago.

The fact that the city has been flattened so many times is not by itself unusual. My guidebook says that the relatively little known town of Beit She’an sits on top of 18 previous cities, each ruined or abandoned. And the same could be said of many other places in Europe and Asia. But there is a difference. In Jerusalem, people care very deeply about the buildings that are gone. This started in the Babylonian captivity, when the Jews made a central metaphor of their lost city and destroyed Temple. That was really the beginning of Judaism. Their metaphor had at least four important features: the place was endowed with enormous significance, a destroyed structure was treated as supremely holy, its destruction was understood as punishment for sin, and the fact that another people now owned the place was viewed as sacrilege. That set the pattern for how Jews and the other Abrahamic faiths have always viewed this city.

In short, in Jerusalem, it’s not the physical structures that are old. It’s the ghosts of the former buildings that make the city ancient.