The City

I lived in Minneapolis when I visited the office of a guy who taught urban planning at the University of Minnesota. I can’t remember his name or even why I was there. But he and I were looking at a map of Minneapolis and St. Paul and surroundings. It was a huge jumble of city. There were two downtowns, surrounded by old neighborhoods that had exploded into suburbs that were pushing in all directions into the prairies and the forests.

Where do you put the castle walls in a burg like this?

In the old days the burgers and the bauers lived in different places and they were members of different classes. Now the American city has blown away the walls of the town with suburbs, backyards and the desire to devour all that space.

The city stretches over a broad place that’s built to the scale of car travel. Farms used to be outside the fortress walls but now they are inside, and they take the form of backyards and abandoned lots. What am I talking about?

We need to make this city into something worthwhile, so we need to change our economics. If capitalism is telling us what’s the best use, and if it’s driving us to ruin the land and create hectic lives with huge commutes that imagine endless supplies of energy then we’ve got to change the equation. Does the government have to control the use of land to create better cities? Maybe not. Maybe you just have to make sure it’s not subsidizing the wrong things.

When did time become money? I remember a Garrison Keillor joke about Norwegian bachelor farmers who were told they should buy modern combines because they would harvest their fields faster. But (here comes the punch line) what’s the point in that?  It just means you have to wait longer at night before you go to bed.

Our economy runs on people buying stuff to keep them entertained when they have free time. They have free time because of labor-saving devices that they also have to buy to buoy the economy. So we don’t use our own labor. We hire Mexicans to mow the lawn and clean the house. We don’t do stuff. As a result, we get fat (unless we have the gym membership) and use more and more electricity and transportation fuel. Gyms with treadmills take our money, and all it means is that life gives you no exercise and you have to wait longer before you go to bed at night.

Mission Valley used to have dairy farms. They’re gone now and shopping centers stand in their place. It’s like the poster my father-in-law has up on his wall that shows a seamless artistic progression over four frames from a village to a hellish suburban scape. It isn’t called Mission Valley but it might as well be. In San Diego, it really happened.

What if those farms were still there? People would talk about incompatible uses, figuring the city dwellers would complain about the smell of cow shit. Duncan McFetridge would say that, and he’d think cows should be in the country and people in the city, and everything is fine if we all just stay in our places. Keep the city out of the country and the country out of the city. I think he’s got it wrong.

“A City of Villages” was the name of an urban plan somebody came up with in the San Diego planning department. What happened to it? I loved that! I don’t want to live in Manhattan. I want to live in one of a bunch of villages that are assembled in just about the same place. When you want to go to the next village you take the streetcar. That may take a while, but all that means is you don’t have quite as much time to park your ass on the sofa that evening.

I was in Cairo once, visiting Randa. She was a beautiful Palestinian girl who was my girlfriend in grad school. We didn’t get married but we stayed friends, and a year or two after she went back home, she found me a Cairo hotel to stay in. I had to leave the window open, since it was July, and I got eaten by mosquitoes until I got one of those plastic electric fry pans that cook some kind of chemical wafer and the fumes keep the bugs away. What are those things called?

Anyway, I would wake at sunrise when I heard the call to prayer and the roosters crowing. A huge city and they kept roosters! Isn’t that an incompatible use?

I’ve got chickens in the back yard in San Diego and we bought three more, a little while ago, but one of them turned out to be a rooster. He was a beautiful black-and-white bird with a brilliant red crest and a high tail to match his proud head. He started crowing in the morning and I didn’t think it was too loud. My wife insisted we get rid of him to preserve relations with the neighbors but I wish he was still there. Our chicken coop would be gender diverse and the rooster would have had a good old time with all those hens to choose from. One next door neighbor, Robert, grew up on a ranch in New Mexico and he was sorry to see the rooster go. The sun comes up. The rooster crows. Seems natural.

It would be the ultimate in the local food movement. Got your farm in the backyard. Got your small-town downtown. Got your village housing. But you’re still in a city, and you still got your big-screen TV, microwave, washer & drier, home computer with Wi-Fi connection, cuisinart, coffee maker and all that shit that splices and dices and really, really works. Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa. I mean it’s the American new urban utopia. And you just take the streetcar to get to the next town. When you get home, go to bed.

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