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Monthly Archives: August 2012

Places  §

© 2004 Aron Hsiao

As a personal exercise, I’ve decided to try to characterize some of the major cities I’ve experienced (note: not just visited, but either lived in or returned repeatedly for extended periods of time over the course of many years) and to compare their sensibilities, what hangs in their air around their citizens.

I start with New York City because though I don’t live there any longer, I suspect it will always represent “home” to me.

NYC—New York is a special place. Playful. Nonideological. Real. Matter-of-fact. Completely non-innocent, but without a hint of guilt or remorse. Honestly, rather than pretentiously, sophisticated and complex. And contrary to popular opinion and experience, not nearly as “fast” as is claimed. The city as a system moves at the speed of light, but its inhabitants each have a pace of their own, and there is a lane for every speed. New York welcomes all comers with open arms, but doesn’t suffer pretense lightly. But at the same time, nearly everything that would be pretentious anywhere else is not so in New York.

Chicago—People compare America’s “second city” to New York often enough, but often the comparisons miss something that runs very deep. Chicago has an intensity and a purity about it that New York could never have. It goes beyond sincerity and borders on romance. Mystery, even. Chicago is not playful. Even when Chicago tries to be playful, it merely ends up taking play very seriously. There is a hidden pathos to Chicago that I’ve not experienced elsewhere. Chicago lies on the edge of a conception of modernity that forever threatens to fall into ruin. It is the foreshadowing and fear of the loss of something that in its tremendous rationality became quite magical. Another way to put it: while New York gives us Blondie, Sonic Youth, and The Strokes, Chicago gives us Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill, and Plain White T.

Los Angeles—Pure ideology. Los Angeles is the quintessential simulacrum; the ideas precede the reality. That’s true for every building, for every street, even for its residents. They are fulfilling conceptions of themselves in relation to conceptions of others that those others are busy fulfilling. The entire place is a meditation on self-realization. That which presently exists is merely second-order reality in Los Angeles, to be repaired over time and fulfilled as the embodiment of the ideal in some far-off future that all are convinced is coming—and has been put off precisely by a failure of belief. Los Angeles is utterly, utterly humorless and devoid of play, though its residents don’t realize it.

San Francisco—Despite the objections of its residents, closer in nature to Los Angeles than is widely acknowledged. The difference is that in San Francisco, two currents of unseriousness—one a skillfully assembled pretense and the other quite real (what passes for “laid back”)—mute the “Los Angeles effect,” bury it much deeper in the collective psyche. Both of these forms of unseriousness (which continue to elude Los Angeles, despite the best attempts of its inhabitants) are direct reactions to the overpowering glare of self-construction that has caught Los Angeles out of time for so very long now.

Portland—The “port” has colonized the consciousness of the place. Its residents assume that they are a large population on the edge of social reality, intrinsic to the large-scale process of society but also removed from it and in a way, forgotten. They go about their business without expectation of anything more. While New York demands to be at the center of things, Chicago seeks transcendence or fruition, and the great California cities pursue the ideal under the guise of the real, Portland is satisfied to be and to continue to be, and finds a kind of pleasant satisfaction in its periphery.

Vancouver—In some ways similar to New York, and equally cosmopolitan, but with an innocence and simplicity that can’t be studied or performed, but is rather innate, perhaps by virtue of its being a Canadian city. For this reason, it can’t be said that Vancouver plays, since play and continued innocence are incompatible quantities (and since the density of interaction doesn’t reach the requisite level, as it does in New York). Instead, it might be said that Vancouver is an emergent quantity, much moreso than the others. In their less reflexive directness and diversity the inhabitants of Vancouver together realize a strange kind of much smaller alter-ego to New York. If New York is the worldly sister always either departing for another adventure or returning from one, Vancouver is the plain and obedient sister that likes to take walks through the forest in the rain.

Salt Lake City—This one is the most difficult to write about, since I grew up here and live here now, at this moment. If I try to place myself in New York or Chicago during one of the moments at which I’m reminiscing about Salt Lake City, I’d say it’s the opposite of Portland. A place unsatisfied merely to be, a place that desperately wants attention, centrality, importance—but that knows, deep down, that these will never be forthcoming and that sinks into a kind of despotism and despair as a result, even as it wears the brittle mask of Aesop’s fox, polished to a sheen and adorned with rare fruits and jewels. The deep schizophrenia that results is seen everywhere you look—culture, nature, policy, communities, even the everyday plans and speech patterns of its inhabitants. Los Angeles is far too much the “true believer” to be known as “The City that Forever Lies to Itself.” The latter title belongs distinctly to Salt Lake City.