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For the Love of a City

People confess their love for cities all the time, everywhere: on t-shirts and caps, bumper stickers and water bottles. “I ♥ NY” is probably one of the most successful marketing campaigns geared toward promoting tourism ever.

But what does it mean to love a city? Do the lovers of a contemporary megalopolis, such as New York, feel affection for every one of its millions of inhabitants? For all the buildings, traffic-clogged streets, highways, and sewage systems that make up its infrastructure? Do they love the Big Apple as a whole? The seemingly infinite possibilities for entertainment it offers? The feeling of being in the right place at the right time: Time Square, New Year’s Eve?

When we shower our love onto a city, it is most likely an idealized image that we hold so dear. The shabby reality of everyday urban life is either overlooked or not registered altogether: few tourists visit the Bronx or Queens, those parallel worlds that are practically set apart from the glamor of Manhattan. To confess our love for a city is to conjure up a utopia, an object of affection that does not really exist.

That is how easily recognizable landmarks—Empire State Building, Brooklyn Bridge, and so on—acquire their bigger-than-life significance. These privileged parts of the city stand in for the whole in a substitution that makes the process of idealization possible. New York “is” Chrysler Building, and it “was” the Twin Towers. The magical feeling of being there is, in part, due to the enchantment of these parts that miraculously condense the whole, while hiding from sight the city’s messier facets. One knows that one is in New York so long as one catches glimpse of the imposing rooftops of Empire State and Chrysler Buildings. The rest does not matter.

For those who ♥ NY, the classical Christian distinction between the heavenly and the earthly cities no longer applies. Special sections of the megalopolis, stretching here below, are invested with the function of representing a secular heavenly ideal, which is coincidentally not all that different from what St. Augustine and others would have deemed to be “sin city.” There, all our wishes come true, as fiction and reality blend in a Hollywood-infused haze.

I wonder, however, if a different love of a city is conceivable. There is no doubt that the inhabitants do not appreciate their hometown in the same way as tourists do. But even then, many pass an entire lifetime without ever setting foot in some of their own city’s stigmatized neighborhoods.

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So, if living in a city is not sufficient for loving it otherwise—what is? –Nothing less than a concerted and conscious resistance in the face of a beclouding vision of the city as a picture-perfect ideal object. Only if you are not discouraged by direct contact with the dark undersides of the urban jungle, will you earn the honor of tough city love.

The hundreds of thousands who will gather in New York’s Time Square to watch the ball drop on December 31, 2012 will be drawn there by their love of the city with its promise of being at the center of the world. The few who will linger after the festivities are over will observe confetti- and garbage-filled streets, frantically cleaned by crews of workers, for whom the New Year’s is just another day on the job. Will these onlookers have the heart to proclaim, at that very moment, “I ♥ NY”?