The city that sleeps too much

Emil_Barbarini_Wiener_Straßenszene_mit_Blumenverkäuferin

There is a city that sleeps too much. It has a name. I call it my city, and that’s about as much of a name for it you are going to get out of me. My name? It’s Joe Smote, you can wear it out if you want to. Makes no difference to me, I share the name with so many others, most people would be hard pressed to know it’s my version of it you are making threadbare. That’s an advantage in my line of work – the possession of a name commonly spoken by many. It’s either free advertising or convenient camouflage, depending on which way you want to look at it. My profession? I prefer to think of myself as a private investigator, others prefer to think of me in different ways. But I don’t want to talk about myself too much. I want to talk to you about my city; sort of give you a sense of it, sans its map designation. That’s the thing about names for places, once you know what they are, those names can hide the truth of what a place is really like. That probably holds true for people too.

The exact size of my city is a constant negotiation. I’m sure that somewhere, on some decayed parchment, in some mouldy basement, there are numbers that tell you exactly how many square miles or kilometers it takes up. At least, how much of the sprawl officially counts as the city for administrative convenience. But the true size of it is more commonly a matter of shifting perspectives held by its sundry citizens. There are places out near the city’s borderlands, for instance, that believe they are not part of the city at all. Instead, they claim to be towns in their own right, with different traditions and founders that had no connection to those that broke ground on the monster metropolis that has oozed itself over their boundaries. There has been a long history of violence in those places, some of it symbolic, some of it less so. In the end, it hasn’t ever made that much of a difference. Those towns have all been swallowed anyway. Sometimes it happens that the city, after a shift in political fashion, decides to vomit one or another of the ingested once-were-border-towns back out again, only to re-ingest them at a later date. Which just goes to show, even a city has its moods.

It’s not just at the edges where city membership is wormy with disputes. It bubbles away like a wizard’s cauldron right at the heart of the urban mass. There, it is more violent, with more acrimony, and more pointing fingers than you can shake a fist at. I should know, I grew up in the middle of that foment. I drank of it deeply, but only because there was little choice. Few who live here have much in the way of options, only the illusion of them. To be fair, the illusion of choice is one of the city’s great tricks of egalitarianism, although the variously-washed masses hardly ever recognize that they have become the dupes of the metropolis in that way. How could they? Most of the time they are too busy claiming that this or that ‘class-of-person’ isn’t really a member of the city at all. It takes a lot of energy and mental focus to figure out which individuals, or groups of them, don’t properly count as population. Not much time left after the continuous siftings-of-worthies is done to reflect on how it all might turn out to be just so much shit-of-the-cow. As I said, it’s one of the city’s great tricks, aided in no small measure by how its original footprint encourages such reflections. Oh yes, it was planned that way. A plan formulated almost two centuries ago when the city was founded. Those old-bearded-geezers really knew what they were doing alright.

Most of us like to think of the past as a simpler time. It wasn’t. Only complicated in different ways. Sure, nations can kill a lot more people all at once now, but that’s only because there are a lot more of us around, and our fascination for it has meant that we’ve put a lot of our intellectual energy into developing technologies to better sate that interest. It’s also the reason that we love murder mysteries so much. The men who founded my city understood both of these things well. Now, their ideas might seem like so much witchcraft to us contemporary folks, but that’s what future generations will probably think of us, too. However weird the founders’ ideas were, there is no doubt that their central concern took root and still controls the hearts of their descendants today. What was that idea? To create a city that all its citizens would believe was the greatest city in the world, a city they could never leave, or would pull them back if they ever did. Obviously, if they created a city that didn’t provide enough distraction for its residents, most would figure out that there might be better places to live and take matters into their own hands. So, those wily old suits developed what may be one of the earliest social engineering projects… ever. They would use all of that complication and love of conflict to create ‘the city that sleeps too much’.

I can’t pretend to understand how all the threads knotted together to create this immense, sonorous dream of the city fathers. I don’t have any of the fancy bits of paper that would allow me to claim a thorough comprehension of the works of self-proclaimed great men. I only really grasp the profile of it. What I do know is this: they understood that to get the right balance of complication and conflict you’d need to attract different classes of people. You’d also need to make them feel invested in the city you planned to create. Not just that, each class would have to feel that they were responsible for the city’s creation to the exclusion of the others. For this, they would also need to find the right kind of geography.

It took them awhile, but they did find exactly the kind of geography they were looking for. At that time, it was a large open expanse of plains, framed by foothills and one mountain to the West, with swamplands stretching from the plains towards the ocean in the East. As an added bonus, it already had people living in it; people that could be displaced and demonized by the incoming city ‘builders’. We don’t tend to think about those people anymore, but they were useful in the beginning as the first people that didn’t count, and therefore did not exist. Sort of like a dry run of what the city would eventually achieve distraction-wise with its imported population and their descendants. As I think I mentioned, those old bearded men were wiley.

While it is true that the founders wanted to attract different classes of people to the nascent city, it is also true that they pretty much only needed two types: the class that would build it, and the class that would fund it. But they needed to keep them separate enough that they wouldn’t get any real sense of being engaged in some sort of common enterprise. That was easy enough. All they did was divide the whole thing in half: East and West. All the workers – the people that would grow all the food, build all the housing and drain all the swamps – they put on the East side of the map. They moved these ones in first, partly so that the wealthy whose homes would crawl up the the Western slopes of the foothills would actually have homes to move into when they arrived, and partly so that the workers could feel like they were more important to the city than the fat-dogs of the yet to be built commercial districts. Being well monied and business minded themselves, the founders knew that there would be no problem at all for the wealthy of the Western suburbs feeling superior to their Eastern counterparts. After all, the Westerners were paying for everything.

And that’s how it began, this city that sleeps too much. With one group looking down on the other, and that other looking back up at them. Both believing that the other was not really part of the city at all, with ever increasing rationalizations – based in history – for why that is true. The more time that passed, the more the city seemed a great achievement of one or another ancestor. In even more time, the greater the city itself seemed, and those that were born there could not think of abandoning it for other cities. Especially if it meant leaving it in the hands of of a population whose ancestors had done nothing to create it, no matter how many bronze statues they had, or swamps they had drained. I too am guilty of this. How could I not be? After all, I still live here. Anyway, surely a city that sleeps too much by design has to be the greatest city in the world? Although, maybe if it weren’t for those bastards on the hill, I might go somewhere else.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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