The Long View

March 21, 2012 |  by  |  Possible City  |  ,

 

Siracusa 734 concert | Photo: Cristina Vezzaro

Last Friday night in Siracusa, on the eastern edge of Sicily, where I was on an Arcadia University “preview” trip, the local orchestra performed a concert on the origins of that city, which was founded by Phoenicians in 734 BC. The concert took place on the grounds of the Temple of Apollo, in the heart of the city.

The theme of the course that brought us to Siracusa is global migration. During our visit we spent a lot of time thinking about the imprints of various waves of people, especially Arabs, who over the centuries had colonized the city (streets in Siracusa follow the design of Greek, Roman, Arab, and Norman origins). And yet, we were told, by reflex local tourism officials fall back on marketing the ancient history. Thus the grand concert in celebration of the year 734 BC.

Greek Theater, Siracusa | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

Nevertheless, it was the Arabs who made first Siracusa and then Palermo major cosmopolitan cities. In 1130 AD, after a reconquest, the Arabs moved their capital to Palermo (still Sicily’s capital), and Siracusa has plodded along since, 882 years in the shadows.

Palermo rose up, challenging Cordoba and Cairo for dominance–until Christian reconquest. By 1330, Palermo, once the largest city in Europe, had shrunk some 75% to 50,000. Nowadays, after a surge of growth at the turn of the 20th century (Sicilians who didn’t migrate to New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, or New Orleans apparently went to Palermo), the city has plateaued around 650,000.

All this is to say urban narratives of growth and decline carry across time and space. We therefore need a long view.

Well then, great cities shrink.

Immigrant fish vendor forced to sell his catch outside the main market, Siracusa | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

As I noted a couple of weeks ago, Manhattan is some 700,000 people off its peak (over-crowded) population. Indeed, says the libertarian web-site Demographia, “city population losses are the rule.” Paris population is off 25 percent from its 1920s peak. Inner London is off almost 2 million from its turn of the century 4.5 million population.

Most cities grow, says Demographia, by enlarging their boundaries, as Philadelphia did in 1854, and by waves of immigration. Unless we are to annex the suburbs–!–this leaves us one choice. New York City (all five boroughs) has regained its peak population because of massive immigration. If Philadelphia is to continue to grow, even slowly, it will have to be welcoming to global migrants.

Siracusa is not. Most of the immigrants we spoke to were desperate to leave Sicily all together. They aren’t welcomed, integrated, or valued (or given much work). And so the once capital of this parched island clings to its ancient history–clings and yet still imagines future glory.

About the author

Nathaniel Popkin is co-founder of the Hidden City Daily and author of three books of non-fiction, including Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City (with Peter Woodall and Joseph E.B. Elliott) and two novels, Everything is Borrowed and Lion and Leopard. He is co-editor of Who Will Speak for America, an anthology forthcoming in June 2018, and 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
King of The Rats: How One Female Scientist Colonized The Modern Lab

King of The Rats: How One Female Scientist Colonized The Modern Lab

July 16, 2018  |  Vantage

Mickey Herr takes a look at the Wistar Rat, a true Philly original, and the groundbreaking female biologist that helped standardize science > more

Two New Historic Districts And Grand Court Protected

Two New Historic Districts And Grand Court Protected

July 13, 2018  |  News

Historical Commission says "yes" to 17 new additions to the local register. Starr Herr-Cardillo has the news > more

Victorian-era Philly Bicycle Routes Now Available Online

Victorian-era Philly Bicycle Routes Now Available Online

July 11, 2018  |  News

Rutgers University Libraries releases maps and tour guides of old Philadelphia bicycle routes from the 1890s. Julie Still gives us the details > more

RePoint Targets Preservation Crisis With Political Action

RePoint Targets Preservation Crisis With Political Action

July 10, 2018  |  Vantage

Dana Rice takes a look at RePoint Philadelphia, a new historic preservation PAC that aims to battle weak policies and procedures with political sway > more

Summer Break

Summer Break

July 2, 2018  |  News

Hidden City Daily is taking a short summer vacation. We'll be back next Monday, July 9th. Have a great Fourth of July! > more

Historical Commission Inches Its Way Back To District Designations

Historical Commission Inches Its Way Back To District Designations

June 29, 2018  |  News

After a long, mysterious hiatus, historic district nominations are back on the City's agenda. Next stop: Wayne Junction. Starr Herr-Cardillo reports > more