Oh Lord, I love cities. They inspire me. And dammit, I use the word “inspire” much too often, but of all the words one could use too often, I think I chose well. Cities thrill me, they fill my spirit with ideas and visions. Cities are full of culture, culture so concentrated they’re like a glass of extra pulpy orange juice. You get a whole lot more orange in that cup than you had expected, but you come to appreciate the texture and flavor of the pulp that you’d never noticed before.
When I say “city” I think what I really mean is the quaint downtown neighborhood areas. I don’t consider Manhattan, Capitol Hill, the National Mall, or Watertower Place when thinking about my love for cities. Now, of course, I love cities. And Manhattan and Watertower Place are parts of cities, so I do love them (or at least parts of them). What get my heart racing, however, are areas such as Dupont Circle of DC, Pittsburgh’s Mexican War Streets, Hillsboro Village of Nashville, and Roger’s Park of Chicago.
These areas, in my eyes, don’t have the commercialized and superficial gloss that covers other parts of cities. There are fewer narrow-minded business gurus brushing past your shoulders, fewer tourists, less of this sort of capitalistic desperation. I feel my heart jump when I see a cozy independent coffee shop (and two jumps if I see a cozy independent tea shop!) The rugged architecture leftover from decades, maybe even into centuries before, fills me with a sense of enchantment. Row houses with tiny gorgeous window gardens, thrift stores, buildings just high enough to feel like a city yet just low enough to let the air and sky and fresh breeze in. These I find in odd city corners, and these I desperately love.
Desperately love, indeed. Love to a degree that one (a protective mom, for example) might consider unhealthy. In the paragraphs above, I made a hearty attempt to sell you (the reader) on my favorite quaint downtowns. I pride myself in being honest, however, and must go forth to tell you about the not-so-glamorous aspects of these areas that some would call “the hoods.”
I woke up this morning in an uber cozy suite that I booked through Airbnb (excellent app, by the way). The lemony yellow walls were sweet to look at as I rubbed my eyes open. The quirky but comfortable furniture offered me many ways to sprawl out and relax—would I pick the pillow-covered sofa? The comfy old recliner? Sprawl out on the rug and stretch? Nope—I, of course, chose the un-cushioned wooden chair at a little wooden table that was placed in front of a window.
In case you haven’t caught on, I just love windows. I love people watching. I love the sunshine, and the rain. I love watching the birds, the squirrels, the smoke, whatever the wind might blow through the air. Maybe I am Holden Caulfield reincarnated…
So I was sitting, waking up by this window, just breathing and putting my sore muscles at ease. I heard some voices nearby, and I leaned in to get a look at the alley below me. The voices were of a few men and a young boy dressed in sweats. One man poured powder into the hands of the others, and they took turns snorting and smoking with a little silver pipe. “Watch people smoking crack in a shady alleyway in broad daylight” is now officially crossed off of my bucket list. So is, thanks to this same trip to Pittsburgh, “Stay in a small row house with a fellow traveler in the next-door room who enjoys staring brazenly at your ass,” and “Spend fifteen minutes in a dive bar with a crew of people you just met, only to have your entire body smell like unfiltered cigarettes for the next several hours.”
No, the city life is not what I would call glamorous. There is grit and dirt and danger, terrible odors and startling noises in the middle of the night. But I just cannot justify being scared away when the city windows from which I watched people do drugs is the same windows from which I watch locals biking under showers of fresh white petals. These white flecks that were falling and floating sporadically outside my window were petals from the Pyrus Calleryana trees (also known as Callery Pear) planted around the neighborhood. Delicious. And as I watched these petals drift, a small bird landed on a tangling of electrical wires a few feet from me, washing herself in the breeze and feeding my oh-so-desperate love.
How could one not be inspired in the city? I am perfectly aware of the grandeur of the countryside that famously inspires people of all kinds (take for example Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Ansel Adams, Aaron Copland.) Untamed fields of grass, babbling brooks, sand, clear skies—these all bring me great joy and plant in me seeds for future writing projects. But, oh, the city! The city is a microcosm of the world. It encapsulates a variety of cultures in every sense (economically, racially, ethnically, religiously, and so forth). History speaks through crumbling bricks and bronze monuments, as newness rings forth in glorious sleek buildings and sparkling innovations. Angry taxi horns sound an atonal melody while blocks away, Verdi’s “La Traviata” is revived in a large, ornate opera hall. Beggars don dusty blankets and bounce coins in plastic cups, while energetic young students bounce from boutique to boutique. And all of these differences, the clashing and the clanging of things foreign to each other, somehow, paradoxically, creates a cozy and refreshing sense of unity.