Wednesday, February 17, 2016

What Makes Cities Lively?

Some cities are more lively than others. New York or Chicago seem much more full of life than Los Angeles or San Francisco. (Although San Fran is not too bad.) But what makes some cities more lively than others? Why is it so much fun to roam around in Manhattan even at late hours of the night while downtown LA starts turning into a deserted island at 7:30 PM?

What makes cities lively? When we think of cities that are fun we think of food carts, street performers, public spaces, public art and architecture. We think of late night things to do, events and jovial people out and about at odd hours of the day.

Cities, or at least their public facades are defined by the elites. There are broadly three groups of elites who run a city - State, Business and Academia. Each of these three have a very specific social contract with the citizens.

The State maintains a monopoly on physical and economic violence and provides social security for everyone. Business maintains monopoly on economic production and provides economic security. The Academia maintains monopoly on knowledge generation and in return provides sense making for the chaotic world around us.

Liveliness and revelry happen when these social contracts are suspended temporarily. Fun is the temporary suspension of normalcy. Normal is to eat at Chipotle and have a coffee at Starbucks. Food carts are the not-Normal. Thus, food carts are fun. By allowing food carts to function, Business temporarily suspends its social contract with us to allow us to perform our own economic activity. Much of this suspension can be illusory. The Halal Guys food carts in New York do millions of dollars worth of business each year and are by no means a small business. Yet, by being a food cart, they maintain the illusion of not being part of our social contract with Big Business. They feel familiar and intimate. An exciting, exotic thing for the stereotypical tourist.

Sometimes this illusion is largely rhetorical. If you visit the Rockefeller Center in NY, you will be told a heartening story of how the building embodies the spirit of New York and provided hope to it's denizens during the Great Depression. Even today, the building fosters connection to the public through the famous annual Christmas tree lighting and the seasonal ice-skating rink. Of course, you need to pay a hefty fees to go up to the top floor and be a part of all this 'public' history.

Similarly, the State might suspend it's social contract with us by not taxing us for certain things or going beyond providing mere necessities to providing luxuries. The US State Park system is a good example. But one thing that never ceases to amaze me is Central Park in New York. 843 acres of prime real estate in the middle of Manhattan just sitting there for us all to enjoy. What an amazing luxury!

Academia is the third pillar of this establishment. By opening up it's museums and science centers and observatories to us, it allows us inside the ivory tower and make sense of the world for ourselves. Standing inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there is no stern professor telling you what to think about these great works of art. You can make sense of the world in your own way.

This suspension of normalcy is also the foundational principle of carnivals and festivals. Carnivals and festivals allow us to momentarily drop social propriety and indulge in the not-Normal. A good example is the Hindu festival of holi where people can be rowdy and raunchy and it's all good fun - bura na mano holi hai.

Lively cities are cities where the elites are okay with these temporary suspensions of normalcy. Cities where they are not, tend to be dreary, too touristy or too commercial. This inability to drop normalcy, to have some levity and sense of humor about their authority also indicates a certain amount of insecurity on the part of the elites. It's no wonder then that Hollywood fails miserably at cultivating liveliness. It is, after all, the home of the most insecure of all elites. Wall Street, with it's deathly strong grip on the world economy, does much better.

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As a total aside, the three elites that I have talked about here are also the three Varnas formulated in Hindu social structures. These three elites are present in most cultures around the world. They are always in creative tension. Which one of them is more powerful at a given time defines what shape that society will take. These ideas will be explored in a later post.