Category Archives: cities

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.


I am stuck after nearly a week’s travel because the hurricane has canceled my flights homeward. But Cincinnati is a handsome and impressive place in which to be stranded. I am staying in the Netherland Plaza, an Art Deco extravaganza. It was built immediately after the stock market crash of ’29 with money that had been withdrawn from the market in the nick of time and could purchase vast quantities of cheap, skilled labor and exotic materials. The building was meant to be futuristic, with a garage that automatically parked your car and strange light fixtures that  glowed with decorative, transparent slides. (“Approach, earthlings. I am the one-eyed king of our planet.”)

picture by Virginia Berkel

Near the hotel is the mighty Ohio River, which made Cincinnati into America’s first important inland city in the 1800s, before railroads competed with rivers and westward expansion gave rise to new population centers well beyond the Ohio Valley. Cincinnati’s early development gave it an unusual base of important old buildings and institutions. For example, I enjoyed exploring the Mount Auburn neighborhood, a yuppie district perched castle-like on a high hill and almost surrounded by moat-like interstate highways. Quiet on a Sunday afternoon, Mount Auburn reminded me of side-streets in San Francisco.

seeing Paris in chronological order

Here is a plan for visiting major sites of Paris chronologically.

1. Roman Lutetia to the high Middle Ages

This itinerary can be completed entirely on foot. Start at les Arènes de Lutèce (a Roman amphitheater off rue Monge). Walk from there to the Cluny Museum, whose basement is in the old Roman baths and whose main floors were once a medieval monastery. Explore the collection, noting the development from Roman sculpture through barbarian jewelry to Romanesque sculpture to the moving and sophisticated unicorn tapestries, which evoke the late medieval ideals of chivalry and gentility.

Walk north to the church of Saint-Séverin, noting the medieval street plan in that vicinity. Visit the church’s interior, focusing on the forest of Gothic columns in the apse. View Notre Dame across the Seine. Cross the bridge and visit the Conciergerie, the medieval royal palace. (You are allowed to see the exhibitions having to do with the Revolution of 1789, even though this is out of order.) Then enter the Sainte-Chapelle, whose walls of stained glass make it one of the finest displays of Gothic civilization in Europe. Finally, visit the heavily restored interior of Notre Dame and climb to the towers, bearing in mind that most of what you are seeing here (such as the famous gargoyles) dates only to the 1800s.

2. The Renaissance

If convenient, start at the church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, which was constructed continuously while the prevailing style shifted from Gothic to Renaissance. Even though the architectural vocabulary is all mixed up, the colors and scale are consistent, making the church interior a harmonious and lovely space.

Then ride the metro to the Marais and start in the Place des Vosges, a grand late-Renaissance planned space. Visit Victor Hugo’s house, just so you can get into one of the buildings of the Place. Exit through the Hotel Sully and consider visiting either the Musée Carnavalet or the Musée Cognac-Jay, each inhabiting a palace built while the Marais was at the height of its popularity, in the early 1600s. This is the Paris of the three musketeers. Walk toward the Louvre, whose eastern portion represents the late Renaissance. Visit the Renaissance painting and sculpture collections inside.

3. Louis XIV to Napoleon

This would be a good day to go out to Versailles. If you don’t want to make that trip, here is an itinerary for Paris proper: Start at the Invalides to get a flavor of grandeur, Louis XIV style. Walk along the Seine embankment to the Place de la Concorde, originally the Place Louis XV, whose architecture epitomizes the mid-1700s. (It then became the site of the guillotine during the Terror). Explore the Palais-Royale, which played a crucial role in the Revolution. Cross the river and walk to the Panthéon by way of the Sorbonne. Three classical domes, three Baroque or neoclassical interiors, and a lot of grand vistas.

4. The Industrial Revolution to Postmodernism

Start at the Musee d’Orsay and enjoy both the building (formerly a great train station) and the art collection. Make a detour to the Eiffel Tower. You could get a sense of the Paris of Boulevards and the haute bourgeoisie by taking a bus to the Parc Monceau and the Musée Jacquemart-André. Next stop is the Orangerie, which houses Monet’s Water Lillies from 1918 (a bridge from impressionism to abstraction). End at the postmodern Pompidou Center. Ride the external escalators to the top for the view, and look at the permanent collection of modernist art.

learning from Las Vegas

Las Vegas–I am here for a gathering of the alumni of YouthBuild USA. More about that tomorrow. Meanwhile, unlike Boston, Milwaukee, or Atlanta, Las Vegas makes you ask: Is this the real America? Is this our distilled essence?

It is arbitrarily here. It has no historical roots other than what you might find in the Mob Museum. It is totally dependent on technology: the Hoover Dam, air-conditioning, and slot machines. It is relentlessly commercial, all of its landmarks basically advertisements. It makes nothing except opportunities to strike it rich by sheer luck. Its public spaces ring with the literal sound of money clinking: audiotaped money, not the real stuff. It is vulgar but inventive, often inventively vulgar. It is as subtle as its massive exploding desert fountains. It is profligate with water, carbon, alcohol, jumbo shrimp, and people. Its lumbering visitors care nothing for social rank but expect to be excluded from the blatant displays of wealth and power. Its shining towers of commerce are ringed–first by dusty slums, then by encampments of ranch houses, and finally by treeless mountains that look down in contempt.

“All America is Las Vegas” is the kind of thing that Jean Baudrillard would say. (Maybe he did say it: I haven’t searched.) I resist the formula. Why isn’t America equally reflected in some of the other places I have visited already in 2011, such as Gainesville, with its 65,000 wholesome and diverse youth filing to classes under Spanish moss? Or downtown Oakland, the place alleged to have “no there there,” which still proudly raises civic buildings across the bay from San Francisco’s glamor? Or the town greens of Middlesex County, whose cannons and puritan gravestones are lost deep under crusty snow? Finding our national essence in Las Vegas is like identifying the French with Brigitte Bardot’s Riviera or the English with a fox hunt: it is a hostile interpretation.

But it is worth worrying about.