I Love Cities

My husband and I recently concluded a ten-day visit with our son who lives in Amsterdam. The visit prompted me to think about the elements that make for a great city, which Amsterdam indisputably is.

My preference for cities runs headlong into a long American tradition of extolling rural and agricultural life. Brittanica describes Thoreau’s movement at age 27 to Walden Pond, in almost poetic terms, rhapsodizing that he

began to chop down tall pines with which to build the foundations of his home on the shores of Walden Pond. From the outset the move gave him profound satisfaction. Once settled, he restricted his diet for the most part to the fruits and vegetables he found growing wild and the beans he planted. When not busy weeding his bean rows and trying to protect them from hungry groundhogs or occupied with fishing, swimming, or rowing, he spent long hours observing and recording the local flora and fauna, reading, and writing A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849). He also made entries in his journals, which he later polished and included in Walden. Much time, too, was spent in meditation.

Those who have adopted this idyllic version of rural life ignore the reality that most Americans residing in pastoral precincts lack both the means and the leisure time to read, write and meditate, even if they are so inclined.

Meanwhile, city life tends to get short shrift from poets and novelists, although not from sociologists and urbanists. Perhaps the best description of a city’s virtues can be found in books by Jane Jacobs, especially The Death and Life of Great American Cities. More recently, Richard Florida wrote about the “creative class:–city folks with creative occupations that facilitate and stimulate the development of new knowledge to solve problems and create value–but in a very real way, his “creative class” is a distillation of the virtues long exhibited by cities: they bring together a variety of people with a variety of backgrounds, skills and interests, sparking innovation and progress.

Those vibrant, cosmopolitan cultures also promote tolerance of difference, and that clearly offends the traditionalists and Christian Nationalists who disproportionately occupy rural America.

Although all cities of reasonable size will foster what we might call urban perspectives,  some cities are more vibrant and appealing than others. And that brings me back to Amsterdam. It’s a city with its share of urban problems–housing prices are astronomical, traffic can be congested, the constant infrastructure repairs are disruptive.

But it’s a truly great city.

Some of what makes Amsterdam so inviting is physical, of course: the canals that snake through the city core and the presence of historic architecture are elements impossible to replicate. But much of Amsterdam’s charm is the result of public policies and good governance. The city pays enormous attention to the maintenance and upkeep of its infrastructure. There are multiple public parks, and excellent public transportation. Some years ago, a decision was made to discourage automobile traffic in favor of bicycles; we saw no large parking lots taking up valuable city real estate.  (Bicycles, however, are everywhere, and– young or old– everyone rides them. In the Netherlands, there are 2 bikes for every person…Probably as a result, we saw very few fat people.)

It was interesting to see how many churches had been repurposed into museums and shops; unlike in the U.S.,I saw no evidence of Puritan religiosity.  Small parks had kiosks selling beer and wine, and of course, Amsterdam is famous for its red light district and its “coffee houses.” No one we met seemed to have any problem with the presence of either…

As we walked along the canals and residential areas, we were impressed with the amount of commercial activity: unlike in the U.S., where street-level commercial spaces are increasingly empty, retail shops and cafes lined the streets everywhere we walked.

It’s the mix of people who live in the city, however, that really gives Amsterdam its vitality. Our son’s friends come from all over the world, and on the streets you hear a variety of languages, although–interestingly– almost everyone speaks English. (In 2012, Amsterdam’s population was 49.5% Dutch and 50.5% foreign ancestry. The city also has a large and visible gay population.

Where we walked, we saw no “street people”–social housing is evidently widely available.

I was especially struck with the good-nature and courtesy of virtually everyone we encountered–there was a pronounced absence of the stress and short-temper that seems to characterize American life these days.

Urban tolerance. Varied perspectives leading to intriguing and instructive conversations.  A well-tended and thoughtfully-designed infrastructure.

Great cities are just good for the soul.

 

 

19 thoughts on “I Love Cities

  1. I agree wholeheartedly about Amsterdam. I travelled there by ferry from Newcastle and then on my bicycle through much of Western Europe MANY years ago. The Netherlands is the most bike-friendly country in the world. But the most amazing discovery I made is that in many cafes they put out little dishes of chocolate sprinkles on the tables to put on your toast at breakfast.

  2. Amsterdam is one of our favorite cities as well. The city has a unique charm unsurpassed by the world’s greatest historic cities. We would love to go back for another visit.

  3. Did you know Amsterdam has more canals than Venice? I loved it but the weather is awful most of winter with grey gloomy skies. Sounds like northern Indiana.

    As much as you love cities, and my spouse as well, I prefer country life. It’s so much quieter and greener. When we lived in town, fire truck and ambulance sirens woke us up at all hours. Sure, taking public transportation was available but on their schedule, not yours. The smells from the neighbors cooking, the construction noise and vehicles exhaust gave me headaches every day. Hearing my neighbors fight, including our own spats were upsetting. I don’t miss it at all. To each their own. I’m glad you’re back “home.”

  4. Some people thrive off the energy of densely populated cities, while others thrive off being alone in the country. And the truth is we need both.

    I’m not sure where this “either/or” concept has come from in the USA, but I suspect target marketing by media for political purposes has exasperated it.

    And speaking of Europe, the EU may see more breakups like Brexit if it continues siding with the United States, which itself isn’t united.

    The ‘Great Sort’ continues across the globe…

  5. The closest I’ve been to Amsterdam is the Holland Cruise lines, lol!

    As the captain said, welcome aboard one of our Dam ships, as all of their ships end with Dam🤔🤣. Corny? Yeah but I thought it was funny.

    The other cities, Rome, Paris, Berlin, London, all had a certain charm, and definitely everyone was polite! But, to me, there always seems to be an underlying edge! Just like every nook on this planet, self perceived notions eventually rise like cream to the top.

    A very pleasant surprise was Knoxville Tennessee which I hadn’t been to in quite a few years. Visiting family, or my wife’s family, is always wonderful because they are wonderful folks. But I would have to say I had not run across one issue egregious or otherwise when we were down there last week. At least half of the young couples there were interracial. You would see older white women pushing their little grandbabies around, who were obviously mixed! That right there changes a lot of mindsets.

    I enjoyed it so much, my wife’s family said that we should move down there! And, I think that would be an excellent idea. Knoxville is a city with a lot of Rurality in it. Met Dolly Parton there, and she was absolutely amazing in conversation.

    Really, if you don’t talk politics or religion, people really are not divided that much! Religion is not supposed to divide, it’s meant to enhance. Politics is supposed to be a uniting force but has been used for division.

    Those with agendas have weaponized two major societal elements that prevent people from being even remotely United. That affiliation, uses the axiom/adage “divide and conquer,” they always have.

    When Rodney King said can’t we all just get along? Obviously, as you can see, we cannot! If we could get along, we wouldn’t have constant war and turmoil. We wouldn’t have riots, drive by shootings, lynchings, or subversive activities!

    And of course, we have an endless list of prohibitions! And, what do we know about prohibiting anything? It just makes people want to do it or experience it or ingest it even more. It’s the stubborn portion or the contrarian portion of the human condition.

    If you tell your fellow man who has just as right to their Free Will as you do, that they cannot do something, well, they’re going to want to do it!

    There really is no panacea on this planet and the inevitability is presenting itself out in the open for everyone to see. Compassionate society is disappearing in the loudest toilet flush in history! Government giveth, and government absolutely with out a doubt taketh away! Why? There it is again, divide and conquer!

  6. I have been to Toronto, Canada, 2 or 3 times; a truly cosmopolitan city. Visited Nogales, Mexico, once; a vision of poverty and squalor between specialty shops obviously making mucho bucks from primarily American tourists.

    I loved Indianapolis when it WAS a city. It was losing business due to malls and big box stores so to overcome that loss of income Melvin Simon and Associates, along with Indianapolis City government, demolished and imploded much of downtown to put up their own mall, now anchored by the Indianapolis Star factory. Downtown Indy was never a paradise but it was a city; the lyrics of “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell fit here:

    “Don’t it always seem to go
    That you don’t know what you’ve got
    Till it’s gone
    They paved paradise
    And put up a parking lot.”

    I miss downtown Indianapolis when it WAS a city. Progress doesn’t always mean improvement.

  7. Higher taxes in Netherlands and other European countries buy their citizens a much better quality of life. They don’t have the massive wealth disparity between corporate C-suite members and their employees. Universal health insurance coverage is more equitable because, unlike our country, their employer does not get to decide whether they will have it or not at all.

  8. “How ya gonna keep em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?” I love cities, too. I’ve not spent much time in Amsterdam, but I have spent days wandering through Paris, Venice, Bonn, Antwerp, Palermo, Sorrento, and a few others, but I have also enjoyed wilderness areas, like the Everglades, small towns in the Rockies, the Appalachians, and the Sierra’s. I like to live near big cities to take advantage of the theaters, museums, and restaurants, but I will drive further into the country to eat at places like the Story Inn.

    I live smack in the middle of some of the reddest parts of Florida. I almost never talk politics with people here, but I do talk policy. There is a difference and there is a lot more agreement than you might imagine.

  9. I agree as to what makes a great city. But the world also desperately needs great agriculture, and it doesn’t help when urban lovers treat rural life as backward – where it’s backward it’s usually because of exploitation by city dwelling absentee landlords and agribusinesses that strip the land and people for profit. We need Regenerative Agriculture and Regenerative Economics for both cities and the rural areas that cities are utterly dependant on for sustenance to be healthy and mutually beneficial.

  10. Folks who idolize Thoreau should remember that he wasn’t quite the hermit he is sometimes cracked up to be. The land at Walden Pond was owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had introduced Thoreau to many New England intellectuals including Nathanial Hawthorn and the Bronson Alcott, father to Louisa May. I have heard stories that while he was living there his mother often did his laundry and Mrs. Emerson provided the occasional pie. He often worked at his family’s pencil factory, and when he left Walden after spending just over two years there he moved in to Emerson’s house.

    In many ways, Thoreau was living in the midst of the 19th century “creative class”.

  11. I have been on every continent except Antarctica but only the Nordic countries, Ireland, and north Germany in Europe. (I was once in Liverpool as a sailor immediately following WW II.) I have been in every state capitol and have lived for years in Florida, Michigan, Indiana, and seventeen years in Alaska, where I practiced law and my wife was a professor at the Main Campus of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. When looking for a retirement spot we considered Montpelier, Vermont, since we liked that state’s politics, its gold-domed capitol building, and the third of such criteria may seem a bit odd: We (at the time) liked Montpelier because it was the only state capitol without a McDonald’s (which we considered a blight and its absence a plus). After seventeen years of really cold weather in Fairbanks, Vermont would have been relatively comfy since we would be in Florida during the winters in any event. The foregoing is my contribution to today’s travelogue.

    I have heard that Amsterdam is a great city, as are some other such European cities, and Sheila’s description fortifies that understanding. I join Peggy in preferring to live near large urban areas with all their amenities but residing beyond their boundaries in my attempt to enjoy the best of both worlds. I currently reside near Bloomington, Indiana, where the amenities of Indiana University are nearby, though their enjoyment is slowed when the some 40,000 students are in town. On the plus side, our county (Monroe) is a blue dot in a sea of red. Thus there remains hope, even in this supermajority gerrymandered state, so perhaps someday. . .

  12. Amsterdam is a marvelous city. A few years ago, we got to sped 5 days there. I will have to say that the bicycles are silent killers. You had to look both ways to cross the street, but you had to look both ways twice to cross the bicycle lanes. I think dodging the bicycles made it as stressful as spending a week in NYC.

    But yes it is a marvelous city that works for the people actually living there in all of the ways you mention.

  13. Unfortunately for cities economies relocate under the forces of technology and consumerism and the human need for more comfortable lives while infrastructure remains behind firmly fastened to the ground. Now humans are adding climate change, which relocates weather and raises sea level and makes the variability of both more extreme and less compatible with where we located not only cities but also the farms and fields necessary to feed all of the people. We are adding these forces of nature around the time that demographers predict peak human population of 10-11B of us. The perfect storm.

    Just to make things more interesting all of these forces seem to have broken our political problem solving abilities. We are becoming a species of Putin’s.

    My biggest regret used to be having death interrupt the story so I could never reach the end of the book but perhaps now that’s a blessing.

  14. I grew up in New York City, in the Bronx, and Queens, enjoyed its energy, its varied neighborhoods, museums, jazz clubs, and the like; the
    way neighborhoods shift and change.
    Retired, now, I could not afford to live there.
    But, while I see the attraction of a bucolic lifestyle, I also see it as stultifying. Yes, I may have a biased perspective, but, I expect, having the
    focus of one’s life on running a farm, or ranch breeds a love, among other things, of consistency, sameness, with change seeming like a threat.
    With immigrants, people of difference, seeming like a threat, wanting things to be like they have been portrayed, although fallaciously, in the bible.
    So, I can appreciate the farmer, whose property was adjacent to the Woodstock Festival, of 1969, coming out with his shotgun, or rifle, to
    confront those of us in the long hair crowd, who were parking on his then fallow land.

  15. And underlying it all, in 2021, the national election was a setback for the Dutch MAGA party which had been growing in influence. There was 82.6% voter turnout – without any “president” running. Compare that to the “high turnout” 2020 US election, with President, 66.8%. This was the biggest turnout in a presidential election since 1992 (67.7%) and more than 5 points higher than the 2016 election. End of story….

  16. A prominent European, London, announced start up of the $23B, 73-mi extension to the Underground. Quality of life for Londoners will thereby benefit for decades.

    In contrast, the US Congress is considering $40B urgent military spending, which some say will be expended in months, and bypasses the people of Ukraine to go directly from the US Treasury to Raytheon and Lockeed Martin.

    As Dwight Eisenhower said April 16, 1953, “This is not a way of life at all in any sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

  17. Man! Sounds nice. Almost entices me to go out and mow the field! Yeah, naw!
    Think I’ll take a nap.

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