Defying The Endless City

Image: Brett Ian Balogh

This summer, at Dia: Beacon, the palisade of late Modern art born from the ruins of a Nabisco packaging plant along the Hudson River, I came across a pair of thick books put out by the Urban Age Projecton the “endless city.” The idea for the Project and the books was to pull together some of the world’s most incisive urban observers to deconstruct the mind-boggling global migration that has turned most human beings into city dwellers. And indeed, with places like Mumbai, Kinshasa, Dhaka, Delhi, and Lagos increasing in size by 40 or 50 people an hour, by 2050 75% of people will inhabit cities.

Does this leave us with the “infernal world” imagined in Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, in which “each city takes to resembling all cities, places exchange their form, order, distances, a shapeless dust cloud invades the continents?” This is one of the questions the Urban Age folks explore without dispassion but with a seemingly endless data set, on everything from carbon emissions to slum conditions. They pull apart and point up nine cities, including Istanbul, Mumbai, Mexico City, and New York. At heart of the endeavor is to help posit the ways in which cities can serve humankind, and in so doing, not become lost particles in a shapeless dust cloud, but particular nodes of human ambition, innovation, and endeavor.

This impulse, I believe, is what was behind John Gallery’s thinking in my piece in today’s Inquirer. Faced with a choice between emphasizing the historic character of the street or contemporary forms and spaces, he says, “it’s the question of what it is you think will make Philadelphia a distinctive city in the future.”

I hope we all can agree there’s no straightforward answer. In this regard, I think often about Istanbul, which for quite opposite reasons than Philadelphia, is forced to think about this question. In 1970, Philadelphia and Istanbul were the same size, about 2 million people. Since then, of course, Philadelphia shrunk considerably and Istanbul exploded, to about 13 million. Most Istanbullus live in placeless and formless (and endless) high density rings, far from the distinctive center. Like Philadelphia, Istanbul has done a poor (some say criminal) job preserving its considerable architectural heritage.

Now, then: how to make the Istanbul of the future distinct? The recent answer–possible when your city produces a quarter of the national GDP–has been to think big. A new canal to divert commercial shipping from the Bosphorous to free it up for pleasure craft; the adaptive reuse of the massive old electrical power station, Sentral, into a university-culture-innovation campus; Zaha Hadid’s plan for Kartal-Pendik, a new urban nucleus in an old warehouse district on the Asian side of the Bosphorous–these are signs that contemporary urban ideas and desires, and not just the inherited ones–the two in dialogue, in tension–can, as Calvino wished, help us see our way out of the inferno.

I’m not sure I like everything about the work of Hadid, one a handful of truly global starchitects, but I’m more than willing to listen. She will be here November 19 to receive the 2011 Collab Design Excellence Award at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Oh, how I’d like to drag her down to the Navy Yard, the Conrail coal transfer yard, to the Frankford Arsenal…

About the author

Nathaniel Popkin is co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and author of three books of non-fiction, including the forthcoming Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City (Temple Press) and a novel, Lion and Leopard (The Head and the Hand Press). He is the senior writer of the film documentary "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment."



Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

Recent Posts
The Marvelous Multiple Occupations Of The Midtown II

The Marvelous Multiple Occupations Of The Midtown II

December 11, 2017  |  The Shadow Knows

Last June, one of Center City's last classic diners, Midtown II at 11th and Sansom, closed its lunch counter for good. The high-profile property is now under development, although plans for the space remain elusive. The Shadow takes us behind the façade to reveal a lively list of tenants and a colorful history of reuse > more

Secrets! Romance! Scandal! The Hush-Hush Love Of Philly's Paint King And His Irish Lass

Secrets! Romance! Scandal! The Hush-Hush Love Of Philly’s Paint King And His Irish Lass

December 8, 2017  |  Harry K's Encyclopedia

Harry K. takes us to Old City where the flames of a secret affair scorched newspaper headlines in the early 1900s > more

Marc Lamont Hill Energizes Germantown Ave With New Bookstore Cafe

Marc Lamont Hill Energizes Germantown Ave With New Bookstore Cafe

December 6, 2017  |  Vantage

Academic, activist, and political commentator Marc Lamont Hill carries the tradition of the Black-owned bookstore into the 21st century with Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books. John Henry Scott has the details > more

Give $$$, Get a Cool Perk: 2017 Campaign

Give $$$, Get a Cool Perk: 2017 Campaign

December 4, 2017  |  Vantage

Hidden City's annual fund drive is in full swing on Generosity and we've got a brand new batch of perks celebrating Philadelphia available. Here's a look at this year's killer lineup > more

Three Historic Designation Removals Call Procedure Into Question

Three Historic Designation Removals Call Procedure Into Question

November 30, 2017  |  Vantage

Three historic properties on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places were abruptly stripped of legal protection last week. Contributor Starr Herr-Cardillo unpacks the details of each situation > more

Before Digital Sign Domination, A Giant Coffee Pot Reigned Supreme

Before Digital Sign Domination, A Giant Coffee Pot Reigned Supreme

November 29, 2017  |  The Shadow Knows

The Shadow pours us a steamy cup of Center City history with the story behind Ellis Coffee Company's ginormous percolator that once lorded over South 16th Street > more