The Postcard City by Alexios Moore (illustrated by Hannah Chalew)
The city begins as an idea. For it to live, people must believe in the idea. Some are drawn to the idea while others must be coerced into becoming believers. This belief takes form in architecture, institutions, and iconography. Even as the city changes, the signs remain the same. When people stop believing in the signs, they stop believing in the city, and it begins to decay. Its borders withdraw. Belief must be sustained if a city is to survive and prosper.
I am driving through the outskirts of Flint, Michigan looking for a school. The blocks I pass were part of the city, but the borders have withdrawn, and with them the services promised by the city. Those who were on the inside now find themselves on the outside. Neighbors awake to find that the city no longer believes in them, even if they continue to believe in the city.
We build because we believe the future means expansion. There will always be more of us. We trust that the people will fill the spaces created for them. Development is progress and progress is evidence of the divine continuity of time. Cranes and scaffolding are “signs of progress.” They signal that things are improving, although we are often unclear on what those things are. Time continues to move forward. The city has plans for us, and we are reassured by these plans.
The promise of the future is a balm against the fear of the past. There is no returning to the past, but when the wilderness infiltrates the empty spaces, we are reminded that the city is impermanent—and that the future is as unpredictable as a sudden storm.
On a block that once was part of Flint, a one-room house hugs the corner. I glance inside the open door. An old man reclines in a battered easy chair. The glow of the television reveals patches of earth beneath the splintered wood floor. Feral cats gather tentatively on the threshold. Only the hum of electricity keeps the past at bay.
“The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets…”
– Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
We are both contained by the city and projected throughout its domain. Its borders are the boundaries of our belonging. We carry the city with us. To outsiders, we describe it with authority. We tell stories of how it has inspired or betrayed us. The outsiders nod. They have heard these stories before.
As we travel through the city we mark how it has changed. The once vibrant hotel is reduced to rubble. Someone has plans. Their belief in the future is measured in elevation—the higher the building, the brighter the future. Other spaces lay unclaimed. Like moles disturbing the continuity of skin, we study their irregularity, their rate of growth.
We pass a vacant lot ringed by corrugated tin: cat’s claw creeping between board and board—a wall shorn from a home. The intimate spaces exposed like a dollhouse. Avert your eyes. This is where the story stopped. This is where the shelter lost its stewards and the wilderness infiltrated the city. Possums sleep fitfully beneath the floorboards.
Architecture is the study of human spaces, and of resistance to nature. Where our designs fail, we have failed, and nature creeps back in. The vacant lot is the site of a lost battle. It is testament to the city’s failure.
Our belief in the city is predicated upon an imagined future whose characteristics correspond to our personal desires. If the city becomes what we imagine it might be, then perhaps we can become what we imagine we could be. When the city fails to change, we are disappointed. When the city changes too quickly, we are filled with anxiety.
Some of us confuse the city with ourselves. The city is our body, and our body is a vessel for the city. On Sundays, we decorate ourselves with its signs.
“Memory is redundant: it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist.”
– Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
What is the fleur-de-lis, but a flower that will never decay—the lily frozen in a forever blossom. It signifies the impermanence of the city. The sign of a sign, repeated to reassure the city that it exists, and will continue to flourish, to grow.
In New Orleans, my elderly neighbor, recently unemployed, hands me her newly minted business card: “For All Your Fleur-De-Lis Needs,” printed in gold text. What do I need? Myself, also recently unemployed—I need the city to claim my labor. I can’t afford the signs. And she continues on, selling the city, one fleur-de-lis coaster at a time.
The city generates from a set of cells, buildings replicate within the boundaries of the city’s body. Sometimes it grows out of control. It sprawls. Sometimes it decays. One organ prospers while another withers and dies away. Would a body still be recognizable without its finger, without a hand, without a leg? Is a city still itself without a neighborhood? Is a neighborhood still itself without a block? Is a family still a family without a home?
The mayor of New Orleans has a blight strategy. As if we can outsmart nature and turn the economic tides. We attack the symptoms as if language will empower us to erase the past and guarantee the future. These lots remind us that the city is just an idea, and that ideas are finite, temporary. A sudden storm could wash it all away.
The lot is not the absence of signs, or the loss of memory, but an assemblage of signs we would rather not read.
The raccoon does not recognize property lines. It takes shelter in what was once toolshed, now a pile of old boards and secondhand siding. A passerby photographs it and calls it art. The raccoon has no language for it, but what it is. The city continues apace, outside its range of consciousness, until the city comes to claim the space.
South of the city, channels slice through the marshes. The salty sea encroaches on the wetlands. Cypress trees die so that the fleur-de-lis might live, and so that we might prosper with it. As long as the fleur-de-lis propagates itself, the city is healthy, and our fears are reassured. Progress continues apace.
The city is an idea built in the wilderness of the imagination.
“If the traveler does not wish to disappoint the inhabitants, he must praise the postcard city and prefer it to the present one.”
– Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Some people say there are two New Orleans, the black and the white, the poor and the wealthy, the real and the imagined. Those peoples are mistaken. There are as many cities as there are people who live here.
As for the forgotten cities, the ones that lived in the minds of those who have passed—they are a mystery. We can only arrange the glyphs, examine the signs, and tell a story of the past that is really the story of the present.
We share the city with men standing on corners, or we are those men—sipping a daiquiri, sweet like the idea of childhood, but not childhood itself. Jabbing at the ice with a plastic straw. Outside this moment, the city grows and decays. Travelers share a seat on the streetcar, but watch different cities spill past them. Locals feed them myths and hurricanes, and they spit out silver coins.
If we show the travelers the same signs, and feed them the same stories, they will continue to spit silver coins into the palm of the city’s hands—our hands. Defend the postcard city and raze the lots!
But don’t despair. The city cannot fail. It survives despite loss, or because of loss. Razing the lots cannot change the signs, or protect us from the sudden storm. The city is just an idea.
The travelers consume stories and share them when they return home. They tell the stories they all tell, about the postcard city whose bloodshed and poverty are added flavor—salty to the sweet—the ocean in an oyster shell. The taste of something larger than ourselves.
Alexios Moore is an essayist and fiction writer interested in the relationship between identity, memory, and the construction of narrative. His work has been published in Post Road, Union Station, The Fiddleback, and H.O.W. Journal. Best American Essays 2011 named his essay “Field Studies: Roxbury, 1983” as one of fifty notable essays of the year. He currently lives in Joliet, Illinois and teaches at Columbia College Chicago.
Hannah Chalew is an artist from New Orleans. She works from direct observation to bring the experience of place to the viewer. Her work examines the tension and collaboration between nature and culture. She recently moved to Detroit, and is pursuing an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art.