Lost in the Metropolis: City Culture in American Life
He could probably afford to live in the sprawling suburbs of Washington, D.C., but James rejected that idea a long time ago. Although it might sound attractive to many Americans, James doesn’t want to live in newly constructed apartment building, in a neighborhood made up of identical brick and aluminum siding, with people just like him living next door. He didn’t want to be conveniently located in a shopping center, or ideally located 15 minutes outside of the richest city in America. James wants to live in the city.
Image Courtesy : Thomas Hawk
At the age of twenty-two, James found Richmond, Virginia. Like many people his age, James told his parents a move to the city would provide career opportunities. However, his primary goal in Richmond was not to find a job. James has yet to find work, but remains in the city. One night at Joe’s Inn, a local bar here in Richmond, I asked James why he decided to move to a city. James replied, “I wanted to find myself.” His story is common among many youths my age who, in spite of a lack of jobs, have passed up career opportunities in suburbs to live in cities.
For a young family emerging from the turbulent 1960s and 70s, the suburbs seemed like the ideal place to settle. My parents avoided the city in order to keep their children safe, and give us a good education. Little did our parents realize that our good educations would only make us aware of the privilege, isolation and inefficiency that suburban life sustains. Young people want to experience something faster, and more dangerous. So, we move to cities.
Cities of course are not only made up of young people pursuing their dreams and rebelling against their parents. A city is filled with different people, dreams and reasons for being. Some would get out if they could, but most are there to build their future. The young professional, grocery store clerk, student, even the local drug dealer, we are all just chasing dreams. With each new experience, with every new job and every dollar bill, we get closer...to what? No one seems satisfied in an American city. Metropolitan Americans always seem to want more, no matter how much they may have. But alas, this is the American dream. Build, build, build upon the foundation of your dreams, until you are happy with the results.
Image Courtesy : Eric
The pursuit of happiness is elusive and impossible to define, and yet it remains at the center of every move Americans make. A part of me is put off by this constant push for success, and yet I thrive from the constant movement and growth found in American cities. I strive to keep up with the pace, but at this speed I know I will eventually self-destruct. When I walk down the streets of Richmond, I see struggles for success everywhere; struggles from the past and present. Victorian homes, Confederate graveyards, one way streets, abandoned buildings, local bars, the state capital...their significance to American culture runs deep. Both the decaying home in the ghetto and the twenty-story high-rise are physical manifestations of a failed and forgotten dream.
Cities embody the pursuit of happiness and wealth in my own country, as well as Europe, Asia and Latin America. It is where heroes are made and come to rule. In American culture, our heroes...the politicians, millionaires, socialites, movie stars, musical stars, fashionistas, philanthropists...live in cities. Cities are also the media centers of the modern world. Not only are the largest news and media companies headquartered in cities, it is also where most news stories take place, not to mention where most paparazzi pictures are taken. Cities capture our attention far more easily than rural America. Similarly, our popular culture promotes the cosmopolitan ideal around the world.
Flip through the channels on any television and you will find a reality TV show or sitcom featuring good-looking people exploring cities. As the cosmopolitan ideal gains global attention, the media in other countries like India are also narrowing their focus on city life. Magazines like Indian Vogue, Indian Cosmopolitan and Indian GQ often reference the idea of a “modern” India. These magazines sell the urban lifestyle to both developed and developing countries so that they can train generations of Indian consumers and sell products featured in advertisements. When I lived and studied in Mumbai, I could see the creeping presence of the urban American dream. Of course, it was an Indian dream, but with similar goals of wealth and success. An urban lifestyle, according to popular culture, is made up of material possessions, narcissism, and a constant pursuit of fame, fortune and success.
When I graduated from college, there was no doubt that I would move to a city. Cities are where writers, artists and poets form collectives and create masterpieces, or so my college education told me. Cities are where my heroes lived their dreams. A city is where I have to be, I thought. However, the more time I spend in cities, the more I understand that popular culture often washes over the important drawbacks of city life, such as poverty, inexcusable mass consumption, pollution, segregation and alienation. I intend to continue living in cities for years to come, but so many days I crave to be alone in peace among nature, where I can ignore the disgusting realities of my world. But I remain a city girl. My brain craves to understand the drawbacks and advantages to modern life, and how they coexist without much friction.
The idea of the city as a menacing and complicated space has faded from our popular culture. During the Industrial Revolution films, novels and art that critiqued modern life were regularly in the public eye. When I ponder cities, my mind turns to Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis. Metropolis, a silent film and one of the first to depict city life, showcases the complex ways in which modern art forms both embraced and critiqued modernity. This tension is apparent when one considers this movie is an industrial product of itself, using state-of-the-art technologies, such as the video camera – the tool of modern documentaries – alongside a scathing critique of industrial society. The images of machinery in the movie, such as Moloch the terrifying underground robot, are both a celebration and cautionary depiction of cities and more generally, modernity.
Through special effects and cinematography, Lang is using the technological power of film to dramatically convey the equally impressive industrial technological power. The camera, like machines, can be used to create progressive change, but they are also easily able to oppress and destroy. Today documentary directors and news reporters use the best technology available to teach people about the detrimental effects of modernity on humans. However, the tool of the director, the camera, is a product of modern life. Similarly, I write this essay on a computer that was developed and designed in a city. Lang captures this crucial paradox in Metropolis.
Lang is not denouncing technology, and thereby contradicting himself by using technology. In the film, destroying machines is conveyed as a bad idea and counterproductive. Machines are powerful, yes, but it is the evil people behind machinery such as the factory manager in Metropolis, John Fredersen, that make the industrial world wicked. The workers of Metropolis want to destroy the machines in order to get back at Fredersen, a capitalist who exploits his workers with machines while he lounges in his beautiful office. Lang suggests the power of machinery can only be used to benefit society and this is only possible if people change. Modern life, as the film Metropolis shows, cannot be labeled good or evil.
Cities, the birthplace of modernity, are made up of intertwining progressive and destructive elements. The dialectic tension of modernity is as apparent today, as they were in Fritz Lang’s time, but today this conflict gets lost among shimmering city lights, fancy cars and other popular depictions of the glamour of city life. Modern life is not the ideal that mainstream culture promises. As I write this article, there is art, garbage, disease, love, starvation, innovation and gunshots outside my window. Faces on the Richmond’s streets laugh, cry, yell and spit. As Lang describes, it is not machines that make my city. Instead, it is the faces populating this space and how they choose to govern, live and work that will determine whether my city will rise to the occasion or collapse into a sea of wreckage, forgotten hope, and drowning cosmopolitans.
Some of the richest people in America live in cities. When I stroll in the more wealthy neighborhoods in Richmond, I notice two things: nice bars and fancy houses. On any given Friday night in Richmond, young women wear their nicest boots and high-heels, the centerpieces of a wardrobe they spent a third of their salary on. Young men stand in line to pack into the local yuppie bar. They look me up and down as I pass them. Their self-confidence is sickening. They are young, good-looking, rich and carefree. While yuppies get drunk in nice bars, America’s wealthiest aristocrats watch television and entertain guests in expensive houses. In the South they call it “old money.” In Richmond, old money is made from tobacco, cigarettes, and business, but families with inherited wealth exist everywhere.
Your typical wealthy city dweller, leads a life accompanied by a glorious relinquishment of responsibility towards the majority of people who live in the city, not to mention the environment. The occupations of young professionals, such as banking, advertising and city government, support a corrupted system. The money they make tends to go towards bars and electronic devices, instead of into community projects. These people might argue that shopping at Whole Foods helps the environment, but they must know that ultimately they are spending more for personal health, not community development. However, money makes areas less dangerous, it adds ascetic appeal, it brings more people to the city. Wealth adds to the chaos of cities that Americans love.
Some of the poorest people in America live in cities. When I stroll in the less wealthy neighborhoods in Richmond, I notice two things: vacant buildings and African Americans. In Richmond, segregation is alive. No, there are no signs that separate white from black. In the modern South, there doesn’t have to be. Of course, there is diversity throughout the city, but there is a definite divide between majority black and majority white sections of the city. Jackson Ward, Church Hill, South Side, East Broad Street, these are examples of areas where African Americans live. These parts of the city are often ignored by city and state government, which is made apparent by the lack of street upkeep, healthcare centers and grocery stores.
Housing is cheaper in these areas of town, so you will also find anarchists, punks and college age students, mostly white, who moved here to escape the more pretentious parts of Richmond, or because they have no other choice but to live in low-income housing. Oregon Hill is where poor white Americans and Hispanic Americans tend to live in Richmond. You can also find a lot of punks and anarchists occupying these areas. I personally live on Boulevard. It’s a decent neighborhood across the street from some construction near the Art Museum. This area is called “The Gay Ghetto,” because of the large number of homosexual men and women who live here. These different communities are disenfranchised by our society, and find solace in the city. They form communities, build support networks and develop sub-cultures to resist the mainstream culture that rejects them. Cities attract people who cannot afford, or cannot imagine living in the American suburbs. Poverty adds to the chaos of cities that Americans love.
Within all these groups exist glimpses of the promise of city life, as well as ghastly examples of human tendencies to isolate ourselves from neighbors, forget the importance of nature and dwell on mundane routines and personal success instead of community problems. It is not the city buildings, streets or institutions that will lift us out of the debris. It will be the diverse groups of people who live in cities that determine whether cities become symbols of progress or failure. Progress lies in the hands of government officials who research and invest in sustainable urban development, of young professionals who critique their employers and lifestyles, modern aristocrats who step understand that their wealth sustains poverty, and the young people, poor and discriminated who join together to demand rights. Cities can bring solutions for sustainable and equal living in America, but it will take time and effort. As Fritz Lang’s Metropolis eerily predicted, machines cannot destroy us, but the people who occupy today’s modern landscape have the power to all to easily destroy eachother and themselves.
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