Category Archives: cities


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 It was built immediately after the stock market crash of ’29 with money that had been withdrawn from the market in the nick of time and could purchase vast quantities of cheap, skilled labor and exotic materials.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.

trying to look at the Empire State Building

(Washington, DC) Over the weekend, I finished Mark Kingwell’s excellent book Nearest Thing to Heaven: The Empire State Building and American Dreams. By coincidence, I spent today in an office three blocks south of the actual Empire State Building. I saw it first from an airport taxi, got a good direct look at it from the window on 31st Street, walked by its front door, and then watched it vanish over Queens on my way to La Guardia.

Seeing it, however, is problematic–that is one of Kingwell’s themes. First of all, it is actually very big. If you are far enough away to see the whole thing, it becomes misleadingly small, unremarkable, dwarfed by routine buildings closer by, sometimes just an extra piece of equipment in the backdrop of a New Jersey auto dealership or a Brooklyn lot. If you come close enough to sense its scale, it veers away so sharply that you can’t really see anything. What you do glimpse is just the skin. It’s a three-dimensional structure; to experience it fully (if such a thing were possible) would require going inside: time and motion would be needed as well as vision.

The Empire State Building is also hard to “see” because you have seen it so many times before, in real life, in postcards and movies, inside snow globes, on tee-shirts, carved as chocolates or soaps. As a result of all that mechanical reproduction, you carry the wrong shape in your mind. In my memory, it had more stone and less steel, more shoulder and less head, than in my experience today.

And it’s a hard object to see because savvy New Yorkers don’t stare up at it, whether they’re walking down the street or in meetings on 31st Street. They are too busy, too blasé. Tourists were standing around the entrance on Fifth Avenue, and since I was also a tourist but didn’t want to seem one, I hurried past.

From the taxi, though, it was OK to stare. The building looked a little solitary, standing down there in the thirties. I recalled Kingwell’s idea that the Chrysler Building is its uptown girlfriend; they seemed a little distant. At first sight, on a grey day, the Empire State Building looked pixilated, like a stack of tiny cubes with angular edges all the way to the Deco dirigible dock at the top. A surprising dark stripe crossed its belly.

I wrote the above on the plane from New York to DC, without really reaching a conclusion before we had to put computers away for landing. We came in low over the Potomac, Georgetown lamps shimmering on the river, the Lincoln Memorial’s skylights glowing upward, and the obelisk standing in the middle of it all. It may have been a trick of the perspective–or something to do with my twenty years of past wrapped up in Washington–but it looked grander than the city we had left.

in praise of Glurns

We are back from an Alpine driving vacation. I don’t post travelogues on my blog, but I will mention a highlight to give a flavor of our trip. The little Italian town of Glurns is missing from many guidebooks but is amazingly appealing. Part of Austria until 1919, it is still German-speaking. It is at 900 meters and surrounded by much higher mountains. Six miles away is Switzerland, and over the border is a valley where the main language is Romansch.

Each of the three roads into Glurns passes through a gothic gate bearing the two-headed Hapsburg eagle. The city wall is mostly complete, and outside rushes a steep mountain stream.

In the middle of town, there’s a picture-perfect square with a fountain. The plan (with a forum at the center and radiating streets) presumably dates to Roman times, when Colurnus was a stop on the Roman road across the Alps.

The Laubengasse or Via dei Portici is completely lined with low porticoes on both sides, so that it’s possible to walk its whole length without facing the elements. Most of the buildings probably have long and complex histories of construction and reconstruction, but the dominant period for visible facades is the 16th century. The church towers bear onion domes.

Today’s population is less than 1,000. For backpackers, skiers, and climbers, there are magnificent Italian and Swiss national parks to the south: Alpine wilderness areas. For history buffs, there’s the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Convent of St. John in Müstair, Switzerland, just hiking distance away. We found the Convent itself to be rather modest, but it has been a continuous religious community for 1,230 years and it houses remarkable murals painted around 800–extraordinarily early examples of Christian art in what must have been wild country when Charlemagne passed through on his way to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Rome.