John Berger on the city that teaches a way to be


John Berger (God, I loved this book):

Only somebody who has lived in the streets of a city, suffering some kind of misery, can be aware of what the paving stones, the doorways, the bricks, the windows signify. At street level – outside a vehicle – all modern cities are violent and tragic. The violence of which the media and police reports speak so much, is partly a reflection of this more continuous but unregarded and older violence. The violence of the daily necessity of the streets – of which the traffic is a symbolic expression – to obliterate (run over) even the recent history of those who have lived and live in them.” (p.96)

“Initially [Ralph] Fasanella’s paintings of Manhattan do not appear in the least tragic. And this is the first way in which they are accurate. Because tragedy, too be felt aas such, requires a temporary exemption from daily life – a compassionate leave – which the modern city does not grant.Fasanella-New-York-City
His paintings are accurate in many ways. There’s the typical sky of New York, very high and distant and yet its light indistinguishable from that reflected off the waters from the Bay, [….] Or the specific way in which the density of the working population makes itself felt there. The island of Manhattan is a gigantic metaphoric model of the compression of an immigrant ship that has moored and [-p.97] never left.” (pp.96-97)

A modern city, however, is not only a place, it is also in itself, long before it is painted, a series of images, a circuit of messages. A city teaches and conditions by its appearances, its facades and its plan. No city more dramatically than New York which served for at least fifty years (1870-1924) as a unique landing-stage and breaking-in ground for millions of immigrants who had come from distant villages or ghettoes or small towns.
The city demonstrated to the newly arrived what they had [-p.98] to forget and what they had to learn. Nobody planned what New York taught. Its lessons were by example. In being what it was, it laid down its laws. At a profound level, Fasanella’s paintings are about some of the lessons which the look of the city taught as law.Old_Neighborhood” (pp.97-98)

“Objectively space exists in Manhattan. It is a scarce and enormously valuable commodity. Sometimes Fasanella puts up a hoarding which ironically announces: SPACE TO LET. Yet this commodity, this space, is not inhabitable, except in purely physical terms. What has evacuated it? What makes the family kitchen no more than a cupboard off the street?
The answers are not only those which first spring to mind: overcrowding, poverty, insecurity. These phenomena existed in the countryside, yet a peasant house could still remain an enclosure, a refuge. What destroyed, invaded, the interior of the tenement home were even more basic economic processes. The home was not a store: on the contrary, the store was where you had to purchase each day the wherewithal to live. The wherewithal was paid for by so many hours of wage-labour. The time of the city – the time of wage hours – dominated every home. There was no refuge from this time. The home never contained the fruits of labour, a surplus, of either goods or time. Home is no more than a lodging house.” (p.100)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) John Berger ‘Ralph Fasanella and the Experience of the City’ pp.96-102 of About Looking, but I didn’t record which edition!


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