On a recent evening, I met some friends in the city for dinner…a frigid evening with the streets exhaling steam from grates and the curbs hidden under packed layers of ice. We circled a few times in search of parking and then walked a few blocks to the restaurant, navigating frozen sidewalks, peaks of slush-turned-ice, and intersections glazed with tire prints. We were on Passyunk Avenue in Philadelphia—a reborn neighborhood that evokes a communal feel of an evening’s entertainment: brightly lighted restaurants and bars, valet-parking stands, storefronts with frosted windows. When we entered the restaurant, I felt the impact of the décor and table settings, I was made hungrier by the rich scents from the kitchen…all human planning and execution. I realized that being in a city, any city, imposes intended experiences on me: all intended and designed by the hand of Man—man or woman. Despite the cold and ice, the city streets are a concentration of human planning, creation and expression: from the streets, sidewalks, and parks up to the sky-tops of buildings…and everything contained therein. On a smaller scale, I think of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, where every piece of the environment is designed as expression…cities, to me, are equally and always expressive of a human spirit.
When I’m in the city, I become a kind of “experience gatherer” who sees and senses and appreciates in a particular “audience” way—I’m attuned to and expectant of seeing things seeable, hearing things hearable, tasting things tasteable. In Philadelphia, people have turned many walls into gigantic murals; people have designed the city squares as urban islands; people have placed statues and architectural ornaments everywhere; and at the time of our evening out, people had decorated the streets for the holidays—greens and ornaments and lights. Look up or down, look ahead or behind…everywhere in the city is an intended experience, and as Peter Gabriel sings, “All of the buildings, all of the cars / Were once just a dream / In somebody's head.”
I can remember the same impact of being in cities very different from Philadelphia: DC, Miami, Houston, San Diego; or cities very similar to Philadelphia: Boston and New York; or very distant cities: Rome, Venice, Amsterdam, Prague…always the hand of Man has shaped the cities and thus shaped my experience. Who were the rulers, the architects, the artists, the builders, the public that created these cities and the aesthetics of these experiences? Cities, to me, are esoteric: intended to create specific impressions on people. I visit cities ready to appreciate the hand of Man: building facades impress me; museums draw me in; theaters and restaurants, squares and boulevards, bars and stores and neighborhoods and shopping districts all offer me their esoteric intentions and I am ready to appreciate them.
In contrast, when I sit in my garden in the suburbs or wander a state park, my impressions are entirely about the simplicities of existence…the plants, the birds, the animals, the sky. The rural and bucolic worlds are obviously the hand of God…I expect to grapple with things beyond my understanding and wonder at things wonderful.
But in a city, I am in my own element: among the dreams and intentions and designs of Man. Even if my understanding is incomplete or incorrect or if I don’t understand at all, even if I disagree with or condemn the intention, I am in my own element ready to appreciate what it says about us, what it says about and to me.