The City

 

Dictionaries tend to define a “city” as an inhabited place of greater size, population or importance than a town or village. While size is a factor, social scientists emphasize that a city represents the collective consciousness—beliefs, values, aspirations and visions—of the people who live and work in a center of commerce and culture. Reflecting on this image of the Cincinnati skyline, I see the city upside-down and observe that it evolved from the Ohio River up, so to speak.

Since the mid-forties I have witnessed both top-down and bottom-up development—wealthy individuals initiating major projects and major progress being made by small group initiatives. Across time and diverse cultures, monumental structures came into being as a result of charismatic and wealthy visionaries—pharaohs, kings and queens, religious leaders, captains of industry, philanthropists and business executives. Those at the top of the proverbial pyramid provided livelihood incentive and opportunities for those below. And they in turn, sufficiently motivated, realized their visions.

City skyscrapers may be monuments to commerce that reflect the dreams and aspirations of those at the top, but those buildings and the city streets below would be empty and would crumble were it not for the simpler and more fundamental values, aspirations and visions of the everyday workers who sustain them. We can recite the names of corporations, philanthropists and business people associated with grand structures, but it’s important to remember that without the legions of laborers, craftsperson, artisans and professionals who struggled to feed their families and advance through education and hard work, they would never have been built.

When I see the downtown areas of cities in crisis—abandoned office towers and stores, dilapidated housing, broken sidewalks and trashed neighborhoods—I have to remind myself that cities are dynamic living systems, that people congregate and care about a place when they catch the spirit of something appealing that’s happening there. When that spirit is gone, the buildings become empty shells. Revitalization initiatives often fail or fall short because the substantive challenge—beyond window dressing, attracting businesses and government loans—is the more difficult task of generating and vitalizing a new spirit for the place, one that gives people a reason to care and to be there.

The world around, ancient indigenous peoples vitalized a place by ensouling it with guardian spirits in many cases, and by continuously enacting rituals that brought people together. Respectful attention is how “sacred sites” came into being and were sustained. I’m reminded of an early morning photograph I took of a man sweeping the dirt in front of his little shop in Taxco, Mexico. This small act is a demonstration of respect for himself, his family store and those who  would come to browse. It makes me wonder what American town centers and neighborhoods would be like if more people and businesses cared for the property they own, manage or rent. Continuous and respectful attention to a place keeps its spirit alive. As a photographer, I observe that the slightest tasks such as cleaning a lens, editing images, signing prints, cutting mattes and entering metadata are acts of respect. They demonstrate caring for the whole by attending to each of the subsystems—like the Mexican man’s sidewalk—that constitute and determine the quality of the experience and its output.

Systemically, by attending to the integrity of the parts, the functionality of the whole is maintained and the dark shadow of entropy is averted. At least for a time. Conversely, the way to obliterate something, to hand it over to the forces of entropic dissipation and decay, is simply to deprive it of attention. “Give it no energy,” as the saying goes—neither positive nor negative thoughts or deeds. From this perspective the reflected Cincinnati skyline prompts me to see the city’s populous, our interaction and commerce as a consequence of collective, enduring and respectful attention payed to specific values, dreams and aspirations. And the help to define us. Personally, it encourages me to pay attention and offer respect to the aspects of city life—the people, places, institutions and events—that I find uplifting, educational, inspiring and empowering.

The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community. It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.

Lyndon B. Johnson

About This Image

Title: Cincinnati Skyline Reflection

I’d purchased a new, wide-angle lens for my view camera and went to the Kentucky side of the Ohio River to try it out. Windows and signs in the distance were especially good for testing the lens’s resolving power and area of coverage. I’d made the black & white exposures, and because the sky was clear and the river calm I got out the digital camera and took some color shots. This was one of them.

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