“No matter how many valuable functions the city has furthered, it has also served, throughout most of its history, as a container of organized violence and a transmitter of war.”
With my graduate studies completed, I’m coming back to my little project here of posting something regularly in response to the chapter headings and content of Lewis Mumford’s The City in History.
Quite a bit has changed since I started these posts back in 2010. I’ve moved several times, from Seattle, from Greenwich, CT, from Upper East Side. Always departures, it seems. A sense of leaving without return.
Strange thing, a past that can be revisited – a fear that it can be reclaimed erasing the interim time. As it is, seeing an old friend, does it always seem that nothing has changed – and we depart from where we last departed.
Anxiety and the city. The unknown unknowns that somehow must factor in the equations. Imagination in service of security. Dreaming wildly for the institution of the safest methods. These are the concession stands in the theaters of anxiety: duty-free shops and battery charging stations. Deliver us from taxes and battery depletion.
I’m unfamiliar with these anxieties – those that drive up the sales of firearms after the slaughter of the children; those that support “extreme interrogation techniques” despite the dubious calculus and the sacrifice of enlightenment ideals; and those that perpetuate remote strikes by unmanned aircrafts despite the unknown affect of its trauma.
In an age of the intermodal shipping container, what does the container of organized violence look like? How does it take shape? Perhaps the city of walls was a container, a box where the parameters for authorized circulation of people and things clearly took place and regulated. Though New York City is a citadel secured by bridges, tunnels, and ports – the mind is the gate to the city. Children enter into citizenship through the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
A city of genius written by too many sacrifices and no fewer experiences of aggression – against and by the citizens. The form of many of these as impressive as the material requirements to build and maintain them. The 9/11 Memorial will by some accounts cost as much as Central Park to operate.
The war that has left the most visible trace upon the city to me, isn’t the War of 1812 or either of the World Wars or those to follow. Perhaps because so much growth took place in the city after the Civil War, it is its monuments and buildings that stand out to me. The mammoth armories built in those years after the war clearly speak to me of the immense impact that the loss of lives rendered unto the memory of the survivors.
Mumford describes the trauma of war upon the city, encoding itself in the urban fabric for the purpose of perpetuate itself. It “has remained in existence to warp the development of all subsequent societies: not least our own.” In this case, the militias and armories of New York City would play an important role in the suppression of labour uprisings in the years after the Civil War.
Yet, in the long run, do these armories sustain the pathology of war? The Park Slope Armory is now a YMCA gym and 70-bed shelter. It played a role in the Hurricane Sandy relief efforts, providing housing for the displaced. The Park Avenue Armory in the Upper East Side is now an arts venue. The language used to describe it all but erases the historical function: it is “Part palace, part industrial shed.” Its great hall reminds us not of war, but “19th-century European train stations.”
And so, war monuments are repurposed for everyday life. Hard to imagine this occur to our more recent memorials, but then the focal point within the city for organized aggression may shift again.