In Part One of this series I discussed the ways in which the city and its inhabits interact to form the life of the city. In this second part, we look at how cities evolve over time and why that is critical for creating an environment that resonates with your reader.
If I say “George Lucas,” Wookies and Death Stars probably come to mind. While Lucas created a multi-billion dollar enterprise with Star Wars, his most profitable movie venture (as measured in terms of return on investment) involves neither lightsabers, nor wheezy hero-villains. It is, instead, a very personal story about growing up in America.
In 1973, George Lucas released American Graffiti to critical acclaim. Set in Modesto, California in 1962, the film helped launch the career not only of Lucas, but also of its luminescent cast.
The story has resonated deeply with Americans as the quintessential telling of what it means to come-of-age in small town America. It taps into a universal chord about the magic of passing from one phase of life to another.
Ironically, it succeeds at touching upon the universal by being so deeply personal. The story, to my mind, is the ultimate biography. Lucas divides different phases of his adolescent self up and parcels them out to be played by multiple characters in the film, even as the events of the story play out over a single summer night. This emphasis on the particular and the personal makes it resonate so broadly.
We must think about cities in the same way.
When we look at cities, we are likely to see a number of common features: streets, sidewalks, businesses, residential homes, civic buildings, parks, etc. Yet, in reality, these similarities are as much dividing lines as common ground. If we reduce them to a generic google map of Everytown U.S.A., then we create a setting that is dead on the page or the screen.
No two cities are exactly alike. The combined elements of time, geography, demographics and culture, interact in endless combinations to render each urban environment unique. While there are universal truths and experiences to urban life, you cannot make these resonate for your reader by painting in broad generic strokes. Every street, every tree, and every twig in every town has a story, just ask Bob Ross.
So how do we show the uniqueness of a city without getting lost in the act of creation? To start, let’s revisit the thought exercise offered in my last post. Think of your hometown and consider each of the following:
What are the streets like (wide or narrow, straight or crooked, well-maintained, or potholed)?
What is the geography like (flat, hilly, hot, cold, etc.)?
Is it different from or similar to the communities around it?
What does its heartbeat sound like?
Is it clean?
Is it safe?
Is it beautiful?
Is it alive?
Is it growing or shrinking?
Does it have a culture?
Does it have a feel?
Is it more rooted in the past, the present or the future?
Last time we looked at some of the subjective dimensions of this list. Today, let’s begin to look at how these thing came into being. We will start with the built landscape of the city.
There’s an urban legend that Boston’s famously nonlinear streets came about as old cow paths evolved into roads. It’s a fun legend, but not exactly true. Boston’s winding streetscape is largely a result of its natural evolution from a small colonial hamlet, to a major metropolis bound by rivers and decorated by hills. When a city grows organically and is bounded by geographic impediments in this way, its streets will tend to reflect the natural obstacles that were encountered in the process of expansion. A road curves as it skirts the edge of a dense wood or the base of hill. Later, as pressure builds, that same forest or hill is developed as well, and often the easiest routes up, over, and through, decide the path roads take.
Compare Boston with Palmanova in Northern Italy. Built in the 1500s, Palmanova from a bird’s-eye view lays across the land like a gigantic Nazca flower. It is one of the finest examples of a planned city.
Palmanova is a star fort. Star forts were invented in the age of gunpowder as means of creating a fortress or walled city both defensible against cannon attack, and capable of strategically projecting the power of cannons against attacking forces. Its starburst-like projections, low, thick walls, and many other innovations, served a specific defense objective.
Some cities grow very organically, as organically as the path a cow might trod on its way to water. Others are designed down to the brick to serve a particular purpose. Most cities are some combination of the two. For you as the writer, whether you’re writing about a city that is, was or will be, or a city born entirely of your imagination, it is worth giving some thought to this first dimension of organic growth verses purposeful design.
The structure of a city is important. If a city is built with a purpose, then bits of that original goal will likely influence (if slightly or subtly) the culture and governance of the city even centuries after. Likewise, a city that grows in a more organic fashion with a chaotic physical structure will struggle in efforts to “transform” the city, or give it a cohesive feel, approach or objective.
Boston, again, is a great example. Back in the 1970s the city began plans to bury the Central Artery highway. The concept was a good one: take an ugly elevated highway, put it under the ground, and suddenly a city that had been built out for centuries would free a huge swath of space that could be transformed into parks and new business developments, beautified and revitalized, and effectively remaking the city.
The project became known as the Big Dig. It struggled under the complexity of the project, which was compounded by the complexity of governance (who was in charge – the Turnpike Authority? The mayor? The governor? The legislature?) The project ran billions of dollars over budget, was plagued by waste, mismanagement, and corruption. Slated to be completed in 1997, it took another decade before the project was finished. It wasn’t until a ceiling collapse in 2006 took the life of a pregnant woman, that demands for the project to wrap up, and safely, finally forced an end to the project.
The Big Dig achieved its goals, but messily and at great cost. Many factors contributed to the bloated problems of the Big Dig, but not the least of which was trying to undertake a massive project in a centuries-old city as complex and chaotic as the streets that shape it.