23 May 2015


This morning the news programs in the US were all excitedly reporting on the opening of the new observation deck atop the 1 World Trade Center tower, and some of the visual technologies on the way up appear to be quite impressive. But the claim some made about new and unique vistas is simply untrue. Perhaps they weren’t around when the first World Trade Center stood there, because the view is essentially the same as that of the original. I still can’t relate to this one because I recall too much of what is missing. 

From a pier in Brooklyn I watched the twin towers rising downtown and when they were completed, spent a lot of time there over the years either in offices, the concourse, or the Windows on the World restaurant and the bar at the opposite side. All are now gone, along with the church next to the towers where I was married, and unforgettably, the thousands of innocent souls who perished in that terrible attack. 

Yet the city rebounded  with renewed enthusiasm and real estate continues to rise, but nothing goes up indefinitely, and can easily head in the other direction. For it was not that long ago that a majority of the people living here said they would move somewhere else if they could, at a time when the path towards decay and decline then seemed inevitable. But these days people again think that New York is the greatest city in the world, and to the west and south there are only provincial places, but that in itself is also a kind of parochial  viewpoint. It is also seen as the center of the world, especially for those who have come here from somewhere else. 

What is true is that if you came back to NYC after a decade or so, you would find things different due to the constant building and rebuilding going on, and it is in large measure sustained by that constant reinvention and renewal. But there are other places, such as Detroit or Baltimore, that no longer seem to have a purpose, and could be headed towards the same fate as some of the ancient city ruins I recently visited. But neither applies to Venice, which was finished long ago, and remains intact even after many years of decline. It is a place you could revisit after decades and find nothing changed, not to mention settings that appear as they would have centuries in the past. It was once a republic that lasted over a thousand years, but today it is basically a dead city, a museum, that exists almost entirely for tourists. Nothing else happens there anymore. The population is only 60,000 and falling as well as aging, so that it is projected that no Venetians will be left by 2030, when in any case it may be flooded by rising seas. 

Other cities, like Athens and Rome, have existed for thousands of years, undergoing periods of sharp decline, but then rebounding, because although they contain ancient ruins, they are still living cities with people engaged in a wide range of activities. From ancient times onwards cities have been sacked, populations slaughtered, and temples destroyed, but often they would rebound and build a new temple, and sometimes the ruins we see today are the second or even third incarnation of what was there originally.  

Other times cities would be totally and deliberately obliterated, like Carthage, with little left to suggest they ever existed.  Some simply fade away for other reasons. I recently visited the ancient Greek cities of Ephesus and Miletus on the coast of what is now Turkey. It was there that philosophy began and rational thought was applied to explain natural phenomena previously attributed to divinities and spirits, thus providing the foundation for science. They were once important cities, with commercial harbors, but as rivers silted up over time they were left in an inland location, resulting in the loss of economic vitality and depopulation. The same thing happened in other places, such as Pisa in Italy. 

We can never know what the long term fate of our cities will be. Will they decline beyond recovery, will they transform into something else, or will they still remain vibrant? In any event we cannot assume that the world we live in now will be the same a few hundred years from now, any more than we resemble the world of a few hundred years past. But whatever record we do leave will likely only be found in cities or what remains of them. 

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