November 22nd, 2017 AAAA
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Our City



by Ágnes & Gábor Kapitány

Gordon Childe said that the "City revolution" happened in the Neolithic period. But we can safely say of our city that it was not a revolution that brought it into being. For revolution, you need crowds moving in one direction, and then some bravery too...The people here have never been too brave; neither the people nor their leaders - maybe that's why our schoolbooks and romantic literature brag so wildly about the limitless bravery of our forefathers - and when have they ever moved in one direction? No, this city just sort of came into being, on the sly, peeking carefully around, in the shoving of crowds of people suspicious of each other. (Those who were shoved aside were thoroughly shaken by the experience. You can see this at the fringes of the city where the gates and the gardens have fallen apart and are like that cluster of crates bobbing aimlessly in a disconnected knot on the surface of the sea following a shipwreck).
 
It is also said that cities are called into being by religious cults, power centers and/or the market. We have churches here, but they do not connect the city - not even the little bits. Maybe there was a time when they did, when the fire of the church illuminated the hearth of the home and the flame of the hearth warmed the church, but even then this city was not a city of Churches, like Jerusalem, Geneva, Mecca, or even Athens and Tenochtitlan. The flames of religious fanaticism never swept through the people, nor did the priests multiply into a guiding mass; and so though we too need a place to bow our heads before the Almighty, praying that he will caress them, and though we too need a place where we can feel that we are united to others by the better parts of our nature, if we are honest we will admit that the church no more plays this role than the kitchen or the hobbyshop (which serve different ends). That our city is the center of power? Oh please, what power? This city was never a "commune" of the self-assured citoyens (communism is something else altogether - the people who are doing it are not self-assured and the people they are doing it to are not citoyens - but even that fit the city like a pair of trousers fits a cow). And as for the gentlemen ruling the bourgeoisie, we had kings too, but no matter how great kings they were, they were never really great enough for the bourgeoisie to bow down before them, not great enough that the city could take strength from their strength, to make the city fully their own. The market. We have markets, more than one. Actually, that's the real point - we don't have one. This isn't the heart of the city either, that the blood constantly pumping in and out of it should imbue the people with the creative spirit and inspire them to multiply; rather, the markets are just there, around and about, presenting their wares, their money - they pervade and define our lives, but they are not really us.
 
"The most important function of the city", writes Mumford, "is to give power a shape, to transform energy into culture, inanimate materials into vital artistic symbols, and biological recreation into social creativity". This sounds nice, but we can't really do much with it. Power is strangled into shapelessness here; culture is born here not from energy but the lack of it, and artistic symbols are made not from inanimate material but from living ideas. Inanimate materials do not become artistic symbols, but stay what they were before, stone or dust or mud; biological recreation and social creativity are divorced from each other.
 
Our city is different from the ones they talk about in books. It is not the same as others. It doesn't give us warmth in the frozen wastes, like the cities of the North, it isn't cleansed with the new dawn by the sun and the sea, like the South; it doesn't run like clockwork, like the jewelboxes of the West, but it is nonetheless a city, not like the tent cities of the east. Ok, but then what is it that makes it a city?
 
We too can try, on the basis of our own experience, to create definitions.
 
The city is: arguments. The constant diatribe of people and communities symbolised by houses and objects, pot plants and cars, the perpetual not-seeing-eye-to-eye and misunderstanding. Man's argument with his fellow man. A building's argument with its environment. Man's argument with buildings. The argument of desires with the manias of whoever happens to be in power just now.
 
The city is: tradition. They say that villages are the true keepers of tradition. Yes, but, villages will every so often be swept away by history. Other times, they transform themselves and leave no traces of the old. Cities preserve their past even when everything in them has been transformed. Even when they are six feet under.
 
The city is: not a village. The city dweller is robbed of all that - good or bad - the village represents. They do not live in nature. Nature does not live in them. They are not absolved nor threatened by the friars. Their cradles are not rocked, their eyes are not closed by the women of the nation. City dwellers are not a herd, but a gang.
 
The city is: an inferiority complex. Even Babel was an inferiority complex, a reaction to the vast emporia of the sky, but our city does not aim for the clouds. It eyes other, bigger, greater, more dynamic cities, then casts an eye down along its own body, it pooh-poohs itself, then tries to stand on tiptoes.
 
The city is: hypocrisy. To look like a community. To look caring, kind, attentive. To look like an all-encompassing goddess. To look free, and easy. To look happy. To look modern. Postmodern. To look visible.
 
But for all that, the city is very real. Our city, for example, is our city. The city is where there are more walls than courtyards where we used to play football as children, and where those walls around our little clay-covered yard keep the memory of our goals and the pain of suppressed tears longer than we ourselves do. The city doesn't care about us, and yet is still girds us with the festive smell of oak and jasmine, as we walk along its street-spines in the joyous discovery of love, our heels clicking. The city reminds us even at the moment of our death that it stays on and remains the same, the same as before, and we can stay on, too, in death, because the city is ours and we are the city's - even if it isn't Rome, or London, Paris, or New York (especially New York) it still maintains its promise of faithfulness, even if when we forget, because it was the Place that we happened to live.
 
Our city doesn't have a castle - perhaps it once did, but then Great Powers twisted the borders around it here and there and convinced it that it has no need of such a thing; city walls only encourage armies to violence, battering rams and cannon. It's easier if we signal a friendly welcome with bread and salt, the keys to the city (keys without a gate of course, because we don't have a city wall to put a gate in, as we said), and a few rapeable virgins and wives.
 
Our city too has a Hall, just as the country has a parliament, although it is somewhat smaller. Everything is smaller here, the passions flying at each other, the plans those flying at each other are flying at each other over, the amount of money slipping into their pockets, and it somehow seems that the people themselves are smaller, and only grow when they move to a larger city; to Budapest, or from Budapest to Vienna, Vienna to Berlin or Paris, Paris to New York and so on. But of course this isn't entirely true either. Because it may be that the money's better over there and the horizons are broader, but if we look at those conflicting passions, this is where the action is, even if the hands holding the handles of the swords being crossed here are in Budapest or Vienna, Paris or New York. You'll have to pardon me, but 20th century here or there, our city expresses itself romantically.
 
Our city, so they say, is more and more urban. This is as it should be, cities should be as urban as possible, more people in higher buildings. More televisions and more cars on the street; more little shops and big supermarkets. More adverts and more road signs, more junk food and more muggings, more banks and more whores. More people who live on politics, more people who are homeless, addiction and more multiculturalism. A faster stream of information, ever better services and the inexorable buildup of stress. Our city too is urbanising. But is this being a city? What happens when all those things we think make a city, isn't really urbanisation but just the side effects of massing people together? The results of ever larger numbers of the city's inhabitants becoming an un-urban crowd. What happens if true urbanisation is nothing but the exchange of birth communities for chosen communities (but not for once and for all, as Tönnies thinks, rather in such a way that these chosen communities become the birth communities for the next generation and so on ad infinitum); what happens if true urbanisation is nothing but an opportunity for the direct exchange of various occupations and self-expressions, if the point of the city is the freedom of thoughts, and that freedom that allows people to adjust their environment, to themselves and these free thoughts? What if by these criteria, our city is more urban than New York or London? Because then all that "higher" and "better" and "faster" and "more sophisticated" is not urbanisation, only vulgarisation and in that case - however cowardly and unenergetic and hypocritical and unsure of ourselves we are - maybe we should be the ones teaching New York and London (something they used to know, but have forgotten), what a real city is like.
 
City air, of course, does not "set you free". This is another half-truth. The city is the daily growing possibility for freedom and the daily renewed attack on freedom. But this much is for certain, that is has a purpose. Ferenc Erdei defines the city by saying that the territories surrounding it, of which it is the focus, are part of its meaning. How much a city is a city, how far freedom has progressed within it, is not best measured through the inhabitants of the city itself, but in the areas around it. It doesn't matter if a city is civilised, cultured and fashionable if it is all these things only in comparison to the non-city surrounding it. The city is only as developed, as educated and as advanced as the areas surrounding it. This is still under development. The villages around our city are now beginning to lose their village-ness. There's plenty of arguments already, but those real, village-type arguments; traditional village pseudo-sanctity has been replaced by urban hypocrisy and - why should it be missing? - the urban inferiority complex has also arrived. This isn't really a bad thing, because together with these things come others; like, for example, the indestructible tradition of the city. Or that urban freedom that raises heads high. There is ever more freedom in the villages, and ever more attacks on freedom. Yes, perhaps, we are not only vulgarising, but urbanising too.
 
This is no revolution, either. And as to whether we will truly become freer in the end, there's no-one who can tell us. An old lady on the village street, a man on the city tram - both have mobile phones. They're talking to each other. In the metre-high graffiti on the bottom of a four-storey council estate, among the 'Q's and lightning-bolt 'S's, there peeks the watchword of Paris of '68: "power to no-one", "we're borrowing the earth from our children", and "stop the world - I want to get off!". And a Coca Cola advert.

© 2006–2017, International Visegrad Fund.
   
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