Towers of Babel and Urban Living
I recall a time in London when St. Paul’s Cathedral was the tallest building. Now of course it is dwarfed by cucumbers, shards, and herons. And upstart oil-drunk Middle Eastern tribes vie with Far Easterners for the glory of erecting the tallest buildings on earth. For a while Manhattan was the gold standard of skyscrapers. But others built taller ones and then it was traumatized by the barbaric assault on the Twin Towers and people no longer wanted offices in the sky attracting the attention of maniacal fanatics. But slowly it is recovering. Gary Barnett, a nice Orthodox Jewish boy, has built the tallest residential building. An even taller one is underway, and the mayor wants even more, to ensure New York regains its crown.
I visited New York in 1981 when my friend Howard Ronson was the rising star, the risk-taking genius of Manhattan real estate. He showed me a model of a huge skyscraper rising on stilts above St. Patrick’s Cathedral with whom he was negotiating air rights. His scheme was blocked because the of the preservation societies. Ironically, Howard left Manhattan for more flexible cities in Europe. Eventually he returned. But tragically, he died in 2007 just as he was about to galvanize New York again. He was a man with a vision (and a heart of gold). If he were alive now, he would be able to fulfill that dream, thanks to Bloomberg.
What is it about cities and their canyons of tall buildings that so fascinates us?
We read in the Bible about the Tower of Babel, of how in pursuit of “making a name”. Being united could be bad if it was in the pursuit of something destructive. Over time cities have become associated with corruption and evil. In Christian mythology the Whore of Babylon represents pure corruption, and decadent Rome’s destruction contrasted with Christian triumphalism.
Is it the city itself that is evil? Clearly not, for on Yom Kipur the Book of Jonah tells us that great cities like Nineveh can change and become good. Old rivalries such as Cain and Abel are painted as reflecting the conflict between healthy open spaces, nomads, and shepherds versus confining, competitive, dirty, unsanitary cities. Our patriarchs were shepherds. Moses escaped from urban Egypt to rural Midian and met God in Sinai. Indeed, deserts seemed to inspire the founders of monotheism more than urban centers. But objective reading shows that the Bible is just as supportive of cities. Jerusalem is the obvious example. Even exile in Babylon was remarkably curative and creative in its way. It is not the place. It’s the person.
I spent much of my life in the Oxfordshire countryside, living on the banks of the Thames in a rural idyll. But it can be isolating, alienating, and debilitating. Urban life is far more creative. Desmond Morris, the popular British zoologist and sociologist, argued in his book, The Human Zoo that just as animals and birds often need crowds to stimulate reproduction, so humans need the creative hothouses of people and ideas that cities provide to be innovative and productive. For all the delights of my rural upbringing, I am far more stimulated and intellectually active in Manhattan than I ever was in Wallingford.
Anyone who has read the cheap Rutshire novels of Jilly Cooper (I only read reviews, I promise) will be fully aware of the sexual shenanigans of the English country set. And financial corruption is as endemic amongst the rural aristocracy as cheddar cheese and roast beef. It is not just the upper classes. Country lads and wenches got up to all kinds of monkey business long before Chaucer documented them. Nowadays boredom in the rural USA leads to higher levels of drug abuse and sexual misdemeanors than urban centers. Nevertheless, cities do indeed provide much more opportunity for and a greater concentration of sin.
City living has powerful and contradictory attractions yet deficiencies. It is often said how lonely urban living can be. People live in top of each other but they close their front doors and neighbors rarely interact. Yesterday I met a couple in the elevator who have lived one floor below us for 12 years and we have never met before. Urban living is self-centered living.
In New York, (relying entirely in hearsay) unattached sexual partners are so plentiful and widespread that commitment becomes a serious problem. Why settle down to a relationship that requires give and take if all the time you can just take? But sexual liberty and avoiding commitment is a matter of personal morality and values not necessarily location. It is true it is much harder to be a good person or to say “no” if everyone else around you is saying “yes”. But taking moral stands is always a challenge wherever you live.
Did the men of Babel suddenly change when they were scattered? Would Nazis have been any less evil had they not gathered together at Nuremburg rallies? Was it the location of Germany or the people of Germany that produced such evil? Location offers convenience, perhaps, but the person who is animated by selfishness and self-indulgence is betraying a personal deficiency, not one of location. The struggle between the Evil Inclination and the Good is a universal one that transcends time and place.
We like to blame cities, anything outside or beyond ourselves for our own limitations. That is why the Talmud says we should choose a place of Torah to live, a place where we will be surrounded by others of positive values. The fact is that nowadays we often live in places where the atmosphere is so overwhelming it is hard to preserve one’s own values. That is why so many religious people choose to live in ghettos. But nowadays there is no escape from immorality and materialism unless one never ventures forth. To lead a good life is not a matter of where but of who!