Does anyone here know how a brick is made?
You take a certain mix of mud, press it into moulds and fire it in a kiln at 900 degrees celcius. Lime
and ash are often added to speed the process.
Does anyone know how asphalt is turned out?
You distill it from petroleum in a vacuum, then heat the result to burn away the remaining impurities.
After that, it’s kept at 150 degrees celcius so it stays liquid until needed.
What about concrete? Aluminum? Steel? Mortar? The list is endless and most of us would be bored to
death learning how each one is made, but there are elaborate processes that make them all possible.
On a hot summer day like this it’s tempting to curse the asphalt and concrete jungle. The heat just
radiates like a oven. Yet after blessing the natural wonders of earth, air, and water in June, I’d like to
take a moment and bless that most human of wonders: the city.
Consider: to make a single modern brick, we would need to dredge up quality clay, create a mould,
construct a specific type of kiln, and get ahold of enough coal, propane or oil to heat said kiln to nine
times the boiling point of water. To create the walls of this building, we’d need to do that roughly
44,000 times. Even then, we’d still only have a shell. What about the plumbing? Wiring? Wooden and
metal supports? Drywall and floor? Again the list goes on and on.
There are roughly one thousand buildings in the half a square mile that is Over the Rhine. The city of
Cincinnati alone is 78 square miles.
The scale here is too huge for the human mind, so let me give you just one comparison: if you took
all the bricks from just OTR, you could create a building three times the height of the Empire State
And that’s just bricks.
Too often our familiarity with the city breeds apathy or contempt, but we live and work in an
ecosystem no less complex and AMAZING than the oceans or forests. And no less delicate. How
many human lives are dedicated to paving our roads, building our homes, pumping water and pushing
electricity? How many people does it take to raise and move the food for over two million hungry
bellies? And we do it all without any central plan, and very few people even thinking about the bigger
picture. Everyone else is just doing a job.
We need to open our eyes to the staggering immensity and intense beauty of a city just as much as we
would an ocean. We must rise above the day to day humdrum and tap into a municipal spirituality no
less intense and alien and awe-inspiring than the rustling forests or the teeming seas. Why should the
migration patterns of the day worker be any less fascinating than those of geese? Because the worker is
a human, and therefore less interesting?
If there’s a lesson that municipal meditation could teach us, it’s that we are surrounded by masses of
other people who are individually just as unique and alien as another species. It can foster in us a drive
to savor and value those differences among one another, if we break out of our little bubbles long
enough to see it.
Because that’s what people mean when they talk about feeling isolated in a big city: that there’s too
many other humans for them to be anything but faceless masses. But the fault there lies not in the city,
but in ourselves. Walking to get groceries, or stuck in traffic, we don’t want to or simply can’t wrap our
brains around the sea of lives we’re swimming in. The dramas, the insights, the follies and the wisdoms.
To encompass it all would be too much. We can’t live on that skyscraper/mountaintop, so we build little
mental walls within which only our friends, our thoughts, our feelings really exist. Then we bunker
down in this convenient solipsism and forget that it’s just a convenient lie.
We also struggle in the United States with the Puritanical outlook on our metropoli. We’re brought up
to think of them as decadent, corrupt, amoral and parasitic. They’re all just one step away from being
modern Sodoms. Hell, for a long time, New York City’s nickname was “Babylon on the Hudson”, just
waiting for God to strike it down. That’s even why a lot of people move to the big city. That’s what
most Americans would think of if we asked them to describe “big city living”. Humans are fallen
creatures, and cities are the work of human hand, so they must be tainted by sin too. Only by escaping
them for small towns dedicated wholly to Righteous Living can we hope to purify ourselves for
Heaven. This is what our Puritan ancestors have taught us.
By combining convenient solipsism and blind, moralistic disdain into one package, we degrade the city
as unworthy of awe or reverence. We can easily convince ourselves that nothing good comes out of
here: just crime, vice, pollution and arrogance. Only nature is pure and fruitful, productive in beautiful
and holy ways. Cities are the problem. Wide open, untrammeled spaces are the solution.
Make no mistake: a city IS the work of humanity. From downtown to suburbia, each one is a testament
to everything we ARE: social, creative tool-using creatures. Cities are spaces created by humans for
humans to inhabit and work in, period. And put like that, it’s kinda hard to see why we should admire
them. But the phrase is just as accurate, and just as much an understatement, as saying “forests are a
lot of trees put together with some animals chucked in”. In the construction of such a uniquely homo
sapien space, our creation became greater than the sum of its parts, an entity that is us writ large across
the canvas of geography.
As millions of people swirl through its veins, our metropolis moves and grows. It consumes and
creates. As it ages, it acquires personality and history, something inclusive of, but separate from, the
people within it. It has passions and whims, fads and fashions. It is an archetype that speaks in the
voice of US. For good and for ill.
More than that, the city has shaped humanity as much as humanity has shaped it. Citizen, civility,
police, politic, policy, urbane… cities have quite literally civilized us. We’ll have to forgive them
for also giving us politicians. Cities invented the first systems of writing. They gave us roads and
commerce. Cities gave us democracy. Laws. Also lawyers, but we’ll forgive them that as well.
Without Athens there would have been no Socrates, no Plato, no Aristotle. Without Babylon,
Hammurabi would not have been a Lawgiver. Would Muhammad have been inspired without Mecca
and Medina? Would the Renaissance have been half so memorable and cherished without Leonardo da
Vinci? Michaelangelo? Machiavelli and Thomas More? Could it have existed at all without Florence
or Rome or Constantinople? Would Sir Isaac Newton have made such a big splash without the Royal
Society of London? Without Cambridge?
Stripped of our municipalities, put back in a “state of nature”, we would lose the greatest tool for
humanity to express its taxonomy: homo sapiens sapiens. “Man who thinks about thinking”. What is
thinking about thinking if not philosophy? Poetry? Art? Now plenty of brilliant people have come from
or retreated to nature for inspiration, but who would have known without cities to take in and spread
their work? Thoreau might have written Walden in splendid isolation, but how would we have read it
without the printers of Boston?
Cities have often been on the forefront of our advances in social and political equality, as well. Modern
democracy was the invention of a polis, made reality by the wealth and influence of urbanites, and
continually renewed by citizens every day. It was from cities that women first organized to demand the
right to vote. The first unions came from urban factory workers. Most of the focused drive behind the
abolitionists could be found there as well.
Certainly the LGBT rights movement we know today wouldn’t exist if not for its twin homelands of
New York City and San Francisco. In cities we broke free from our sense of isolation. We felt the
power in numbers for the first time. We saw through the propaganda and ignorance to understand
each other as whole, ethical, and mostly sane humans. And from cities we took the first steps towards
national and international equality.
The first lesson such a large collection of other people teaches us is toleration. Where but a city can
you look out your window and see so many people so very different from you? Where else can go
wander and hear languages that you can’t even guess at? Where else can you get good Thai food next to
a mosque at 3AM? All that difference requires courtesy and finesse we don’t even realize we’ve picked
up, because its as much a part of city living as learning how to deal with smog alert days. That’s not
to say toleration is a universal trait. Cities have riots and mobs, bigotry and discrimination. We can’t
forget that it was city living which gave us the ghetto. But I think xenophobia is harder to maintain
when you’re forced to deal with the Other day in and day out.
From there it’s just a short jump for some to active acceptance. We don’t merely deal with the new and
the strange in the street. We actively invite it into our homes. We seek it out and learn from it. Not
everyone does that, and certainly there’s plenty of acceptance to be found in the farms and small towns
of our world. But where else will you find the chance to experience SO MUCH diversity of thought, of
appearance, of tasty takeout cuisine?
As Margaret Mead said it, “A city is a place where there is no need to wait for next week to get the
answer to a question, to taste the food of any country, to find new voices to listen to and familiar
ones to listen to again”. Encoded in its DNA are millions of perspectives, trillions of lessons, and a
deep eagerness for even more. It is from the city that so many people have been able to stand on the
shoulders of giants and see the future… or see the past in new light. It is the crucible in which we
reinvent ourselves as individuals and as cultures.
I sing these praises with full awareness that the creature I describe is not always a gentle one to those
in its embrace, or the environment it rests in. The modern city is a sprawling beast, full of too much
pollution and grinding poverty. It consumes too much: space, lives, resources. It is often an obese and
ungainly figure, eating up portions of our Earth that cannot be sustained. Yet just as obesity is not a
direct product of being human, so is sprawl and pollution not a built-in factor of the city.
The modern municipality is often a driver’s paradise: pushing people to choke the air with CO2 and
smog to get from their manicured and watered lawns to their jobs day in and day out. Even to get their
own groceries! It siphons energy from coal and oil powered electricity plant. It rests on the backs of
underpaid and under-cared-for poverty stricken people. These are the sins of the city.
But these sins are not unique nor confined to urban centers, merely noteworthy for the scale they
achieve in such places. We as a species use too much fossil fuel. We slaughter animals with excessive
cruelty for our own excessive hungers. We pollute rivers, land, air… we even pollute the night sky with
massively unnecessary lighting fixtures that block out the very stars. These are not civic crimes. They
are human crimes. And cities can rise above them as much as anywhere else, more easily than some.
Electricity can come from clean energy sources, and our individual demand for it can be lessened.
Cities can build efficient public transportation that require no polluting emissions to run. Slaughter
houses can be retooled to do their work without sadistic practices, and we can reduce our food waste to
lower the demand on other animals and the soil itself. We can dim city lights so that humans can revel
in and be awed by the splendor of the cosmos above once more.
Time and again the city has been the cause of, and solution to, countless human problems. The spread
of disease in urban areas led to the development of modern sanitation techniques. Fires decimating
tightly packed tenements created the first public fire departments. Crime and murder on London streets
gave us the modern police and forensic departments. We see a problem and we seek to rise above it.
Sometimes with spectacular, even gut-wrenching failure: the Cabrini Green housing projects were
spawned from good intentions but trapped too many in the cycle of poverty and violent death. Yet that
same cycle of trial, failure and success is as much the story of the city as it is of humanity as a whole.
The city is not a natural phenomenon. Nature has its own cycles and processes, similar to but separate
from those of urbanity. It checks and balances itself, often viciously. If a pack of wolves overhunt
caribou in the Arctic, the system will correct itself. Old and young members of the pack will starve and
die. Fewer mouths will mean fewer predators for the next generation of caribou to confront. It works. It
is necessary. But Nature is a stone-cold pragmatic bitch. And therein lies the difference between nature
and the city: wolves don’t start soup kitchens.
A city is not pragmatic. It is not self-correcting. It can go too far, consume so much that the systems
it relies on cannot recover. Nothing stops it from continuing on a destructive path except full-on
collapse or human intervention. To ignore that fact would be to blithely ignore the potential for massive
Yet the other side of the coin is also true: every city has forces within seeking to gentle or dissipate its
vicious tendencies. There are thousands upon thousands of humans in Cincinnati alone who seek to
lift those in poverty, educate those who are ignorant, embrace the cast-out, and clean what has been
polluted. They make no money, receive no direct benefit. What they do is not “natural” per se, but it
eases the pain of an otherwise cold and impersonal system. Our actions can soften the sharp edges
and improve the intensely human systems of metropolitan living. They can also unleash such misery
and waste that we turn our planet into a desolation. Just as cities are human creations, they are also
dependent upon human care and responsibility.
More so than any other facet of creation, we are parents and guardians to this growing child. By
our actions and our will, we determine the future shape and character of urban life. Will we help
channel the natural gifts cities have given us towards a brighter tomorrow? Or will we spurn such care
for “easy” choices today? Will we foster a golden child or a Frankenstein?
Ultimately it all starts with reflection and spirituality. We cannot hope to feel the worth and flaws of
a place we do not study. We must connect with the genius loci, the spirit of our city, and in so doing
transcend our normal myopic vision of what a municipality really is. We must each of us find a place
where we can stand and look with awe upon this life birthed by human ingenuity, sweat, and labor. Just
as a parent can stand in awe of what they too have created, for all the flaws and all the glories.
(Start video)
Look at the buildings and see the well-formed limbs to move the world, and the memories of a hundred
Feel the pulse of its cells, giving it life. Each one a tiny fragment. Each one a creative, spiritual creature
of God.
See how it embraces and enfolds us, this child of human dreams and human needs.
Hear how it invites us to rise above our daily concerns, if only we can pause long enough. It is not
something to be listened for above the sounds of the street, but within them.
Let us each rise to our skyscraper mountaintop and open our eyes to this world; make it another forest,
another ocean, another cathedral to transcendental awareness.
The city can heal us, teach us, touch our hearts and enrich our souls. All we need do is act as its
spiritual citizens.