by Matt Hern
“We thought of the place as a free city, like one of those pre-war nests of intrigue and licentiousness where exiles and lamsters and refugees found shelter in a tangle of improbable juxtapositions...but what happened is that Reagan was elected and the musk of profit once again scented the air.” -from Luc Sante’s “My Lost City” Kill All Your Darlings (2007)
Freud’s final book, Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), compares the complexity of the individual psyche to Rome, Eternal City of layers and layers of architecture, history and experience, a city whose “long and copious past [has created] an entity...in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest one.” This makes it difficult to trace what influences, crises, developments, made it what it is today and for whom. Each of a city’s inhabitants has his or her own set, or map, of memories, streets, arteries, markers, tribulations, traps and desires. A city is an urban eco-system we all contribute to, for better or worse. Returning from my first trip to Rome, with its labyrinthine streets, lush fountains and ancient ruins, I remember how dull, with its gridded street plan and brick houses, my city, Philly, seemed. Still, as always, I was glad to be home. I love Philly – its neighborhoods, backstreets, graffiti, food, music, parks, bars; its weather-work-wear n tear-driven blend of grumpiness and enthusiasm. I’ve ridden my bike around the city for 30 years, and it still feels new and exciting to me. But Philly has problems – one of the highest poverty rates of the country’s BIG cities, displacement, homelessness, gentrification, violence (“Killadelphia”), pollution, high unemployment rates, police brutality, and racial inequality, to name a few. Like most cities globally we are struggling for sustainability – human, economic, social, and environmental. What are the possibilities? Within the constructs of global capitalism, the push has been to recreate cities (consider New Orleans – see Mike Davis’ “Who is Killing New Orleans?” in The Nation, 10 April 2006) in terms of corporate profitability. Corporations court city governments and vice versa. Over and over again we’re told that’s how to sustain the city’s economy: make the city attractive to people with money: “If we build it, they will come.” Then what? Journalist Luc Sante and urban theorist Matt Hern, among others, describe what happened to Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 80’s and 90’s, the “‘shock treatment’ that began the steady displacement of community and flavor from the neighborhood in favor of gentrification. A market mentality, skyrocketing rents and a distinct loss of vibrancy.” Comcast? Casinos? Stadiums? Or, a city can value its people, natural and social environment, have ethics.
While bike riding is not in and of itself a revolutionary activity, recent conflicts in Philadelphia between bike, pedestrian and car culture and the intrusion of city government as a "regulator" force questions about the future of our city, the kind of city we want, who is allowed to use or navigate the city in ways they want and who gets to decide. City government responses to two recent pedestrian (allegedly biker perpetrated) deaths focused on punishing and regulating bikers, many of whom rely on bikes for livelihood, not on the problematics of road/sidewalk use in general. In the debates over safety and the growing use of bicycles, what is truly at stake is a different kind of city where more people from across the class spectrum can navigate urban space freely.