Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Electricity and Ghosts, Part II

In yesterday’s posting, I started to talk about “Electricity and Ghosts”, John Foxx’s discussion of the origins of the album, “My Lost City.” I had mentioned 3 components of those notes that caught my attention, and talked about the first two yesterday. Today’s posting is about the 3rd component.

Foxx goes into wonderful detail about his experiences of parts of London (Shoreditch and Spitalfields in particular), New York, Rome, Tokyo. He notes the very European--very Roman--origins of many cities in the world, and muses about the universality of being part of the life of a city, of having parts of it "lost" to you. In thinking about Foxx's experience, I started to think about my own.

While London has been somewhat central to Foxx’s experience, New York has been central to mine. This is purely geographical—I was born and raised in New Jersey, and New York City was only 25 miles away.

I come from a family that you might call "provincial". My parents hardly travel at all, except to visit my sisters. They are not fond of having to travel, and having occasionally traveled with them, I can say they are not good at it. My mother grew up in Newark, New Jersey long before it became the city it is today (and if you want to talk about a shifting city, Newark is a perfect example--it's never the same from one day to the next, never mind one year to the next). It may have been her experience of losing her own mother when she was only 9, and ending up being largely responsible for her younger siblings--not the mention the poverty they lived in--that has made her so fearful of moving about, of losing the security of one safe place. Not only were we raised to be provincial, we were raised to be wary of the city, to stay away from it.

My brother moved to Manhattan in the early 1980s, and my first experiences of New York--Greenwich Village, the Twin Towers, Times Square, the subway system--was through my visits to the city with him. I enjoyed the time we spent in the city--it was so vastly different from the suburban home life that I had. However, when my brother died in 1989, it was portrayed as somehow being connected to the "badness" of the city, of its dangers, of being swallowed up--of just being a number and of no importance. I did spend time in New York while I was only a few miles away at Montclair State University, but it was always stressful. The city was overwhelming, and I always felt very insecure when I went there.

After September 11, 2001, I found my attitude towards the city had changed. Many Jerseyans stayed off “the Islands” after September 11. Initially this was with good reason—the air quality downtown was not only terrible, it was dangerous. But after a couple of months, I started to go there with some regularity. At first, it was like a ghost town—usually bustling places like Times Square were eerily devoid of activity. Gradually, things picked up again, but I don’t think New York was ever the same after that.

I used to feel that the city was highly impersonal and cold. Whether it is because of 9/11, or perhaps it is because I’ve gotten over my own prejudices about the city, I now find this to be untrue. I talk to people I don’t know all the time in New York City--on the subway, in Penn Station, walking through Union Square, or in Greenwich Village. I feel like I’ve discovered a current or flow to the city, and once I discovered that, I could go with it, rather than feel drained or overwhelmed by it. This is true of every major city I’ve visited, though the feeling of each city is very different.

Foxx talks about the way cities change over time, how things are built on top of older things, derelict areas are “sanitized”. Some places don’t seem to change over time, others are built up, torn down, and then eventually built up again. Cities have life cycles, just like everything else that lives. But some things, even though long past, don’t entirely go away. In modern physics, the idea of time is not so linear (interestingly, because of the discovery of the properties of electricity and magnetism). Time is not absolute in the relativistic view of the universe—the observe-ability of events is absolute. In Eastern thought, no time exists but the present—it is from that point that we interpret everything. It has been suggested that all events actually occur at the same time—it is only a matter of when and where we are tuning in. The apparent linearity of things can be transcended, and perhaps that is what Foxx is doing here.

In any case, food for thought here is endless, and I’ve probably rambled on long enough...

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