#6 Four cities
This week, I’d like to compliment Emma Balch, founder of The Story of Books, a dynamic working space ‘where stories are told, and books are made.’ Also, it’s a shop with a well-curated selection of excellent books with stunning covers. I bought Rootbound there, which I reviewed unfavorably in newsletter #5. A few days ago, I found a copy of Andrés Neuman’s Fracture in the mail. Thanks so much, Emma, I will read it with pleasure!
Like most people, I’m shocked and saddened by the terrible explosion in Beirut and wish I could do more than send money. Then, I was amazed by how quickly the news disappeared from the front page of the major news sites, only to resurface when Macron paid the city a visit and for an interview with the bride whose photoshoot unexpectedly became a global phenomenon.
Disasters like this take a long time to heal. It will be at least a decade before the physical infrastructure is restored and more time for the social infrastructure to recover. Twenty years ago, on the evening of the Eurovision Song Festival, a fireworks warehouse in Enschede in the east of The Netherlands exploded. A residential neighborhood was utterly destroyed, and 23 people lost their lives. I moved to Enschede that year to attend university and later lived in a home just outside the blast radius. Although a new neighborhood slowly developed where the old one had been, the community was utterly destroyed.
Ten years after the disaster in Enschede, director Astrid Bussink, whose house was destroyed in the event, created the profoundly moving documentary Mijn Enschede (My Enschede). She explores the loss, sadness, and anger that still exists in the rebuilt neighborhood. This year, journalist Tom Kleijn looked at the area two decades later in Na de klap (After the bang). Both documentaries show the need of survivors to understand and find meaning in what is in effect a random, meaningless disaster.
In Places Journal, Richard J. Williams writes about the enigma that is Manchester. According to Williams, once the world’s premier industrial city, Manchester’s collapse in the 20th century resembled Detroit. Unlike Detroit — or: differently from Detroit — Manchester is now making a loud and proud rebound at an unprecedented scale. In between, the decline of the city was managed and impressive. Williams, who spent the first 18 years of his life in Manchester, describes this beautifully:
“I will admit that the devastation was, in a way, spectacular; in those years we hadn’t learned to condemn such appreciation as ruin porn. There were sharp contrasts of scale and finish, a characteristic that continues to the present. Amidst the vast decay there would emerge the crisp outlines of the CIS Tower, completed in 1962 and as fresh as anything in postwar Chicago. In the center of downtown, there was the Royal Exchange Theatre, renovated in 1976, and possibly the most complete realization anywhere of the radical ideas of Archigram: a 750-seat theater resembling a lunar lander, perched in the middle of the former trading floor of the Edwardian cotton exchange that had been damaged during the Blitz and abandoned in the late ’60s. The prices on the closing day, December 31, 1968, remain visible on the display boards under the dome to this day.”
Still, in the mid-1990s, “Manchester looked like a city facing its own erasure.” Then, surprisingly rapidly, the city turned around, spurred by culture, football, the 1996 IRA bombing, and notably early 21st-century international capitalism. Now, the city is transformed. But, according to Williams, it hasn’t lost its character.
“But what Manchester offers most of all is the spectacle of city as process. The city has monuments yet little coherence; perhaps paradoxically, what feels most enduring is its fragmentary and provisional character.”
In three sittings, I finished Louise Callaghan’s Father of Lions about the struggle of a flamboyant family and a family of proud intellectuals to stay alive and help a cast of zoo animals stay alive in Mosul before, during and after Daesh’s occupation of the city. It’s a fantastic book. Honest, human, brutal, and full of hope.
Two years ago, I chaired a panel on cultural heritage in conflict areas. Mosul’s Old City, which is on the tentative world heritage list, had just been liberated and lay in ruins. The conversation about rebuilding the city focused mostly on bricks, though, and the difficulty of finding sufficient skilled craftspeople to complete the problematic reconstruction. Within the cultural heritage debate, I hardly heard mentions of the people living in the city and the need (and possibility) to rebuild their community and the city’s social infrastructure.
Whenever I read a book like Father of Lions or — also recently — Syria’s Secret Library, I’m amazed by the resilience and strength of ordinary people living through horrific events. It feels that their work and energy and — often — optimism can be a driver in the reconstruction of their cities.
I really hope that we, as a global community in the midst of a pandemic, can support the people of Lebanon to rebuild their city and society.
Thank you for signing up for my regular, irregular updates. I wrote this one during the weekend but got delayed because of a heatwave and an escape to one of Holland’s most beautiful islands.
I’m in the habit of giving books away once I’ve read them, so if you’re interested in any of the books I mention in these newsletters, do let me know. Happy to share!
I didn’t write about the beautiful book a dear friend wrote, music and peacebuilding, the island mentioned above, mailbox art, or the SDGs this week, but I may next time. Until then, stay safe!