The city as antagonist

In our city life, is the city the antagonist or citizens?

It’s hard to say.  Consider this passage from Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist (p. 234-5):

I am starting to view my past in a different way these days.  Strange to say under the circumstances, but I think now that I used to see my past as a book – a story with a beginning, middle, and end, all of which I knew by heart, and therefore had no reason to even crack the spine.  But now I am starting to see it as something more like a frontier – a landscape I have spent my life cultivating, fortifying against the random elements.  But the landscape is alive, is what I am realizing – is a thing unto itself – and if you’re brave enough to ever leave your house you start to see this.  In fact, the landscape consists of multiple things, multiple wills that shift and change and occasionally assert themselves in force. None of this, you eventually understand, belongs to you – not a rock or flower a broken branch – no matter how you work it, no matter how much scrub you clear.  The ground could decide to open up above your head.
The world is independent.  It moves, and moves on, with or without you.
Everything, that is, except that which you make die.  What you’ve killed is yours, forever – a trophy picked off from the landscape and hung up on your wall.
So you can greet one another each day.

The city, and city life, could be viewed as a story with a beginning, middle and an end.  It could be a story with all three of these elements know (or thought to be known) or it could be a story that has started and we just don’t know the end yet.  Just as the protagonist in The Antagonist, though, I too am starting to see city life as a frontier.  City life both cultivates random elements and fortifies against random elements.  City life is alive.

City live generates new conditions and problems to which we have to adjust.  It causes us random elements.  As the generation of new habitat causes us to adjust and innovate, this is the very skill we need to fortify against random elements.  And as we do this work, endlessly because the story doesn’t have an ending that we can grasp, if there is one.

Just as the protagonist above, our city life consists of multiple things, multiple lives, multiple forces that ‘shift and change and occasionally assert themselves in force.’  As much as the city belongs to us and is created by us, it is not created by me.  No matter how hard I work as an individual, ‘no matter how much scrub [i] clear,’ I do not have control over it.  We create it and we can shape it.  It may or may not work for me.  Whether I am alive or dead, the city will move on with or without me.

What is clear to me, is that while I am in relationship with my city (from within or from afar), I do have control over what I keep from having a full life in cities. While this may appear to be a negative thing, it is crucial. I can choose, with every interaction I have with others, to allow the full potential for cities and citizens to emerge.  I can help my city and citizens be fully alive, if they so choose.

Each of us have this decision –  make things die or create the conditions for things to thrive.

When the city challenges us, it feels like the antagonist.  This a crucial role, creating the challenges and tensions we need to grow.  When we choose to make things die, we are the antagonist, for we keep citizens and the city from reaching their full potential.

I recognize that I can be the kind of antagonist that provides constructive tension.  (Citizens create the very conditions that we have to respond to as a city!)  I also recognize that I can be a destructive antagonist.  When destructive, I aim to be conscious and see the trophy’s on my wall.  I aim to see them and get to know them so that I may learn to serve myself, my fellow citizens and my city well.

I embrace the city and its challenges as a constructive antagonist in my (our) life (lives).  The city creates the life conditions we and I need to grow and evolve.  City life puts us on the frontier.




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