What makes a city urban?
Those who live in the Western half of the country have to wonder sometimes. For Phoenix or Los Angeles — and most trans-Mississippi cities — are fundamentally different from the core cities of the East. The Western-model cities are sprawling suburbs, spread like a great tablecloth over the landscape.
It isn’t that they don’t have character. LA has enough character for a dozen smaller cities. And even Phoenix has its personality, although it is that of a raw, unformed, undisciplined adolescent.
But for anyone who grew up near New York, Philadelphia or Boston, there is something urgently missing out here that prevents the West from becoming authentically urban.
Purists may argue that any concentration of population must be considered urban. And they are technically correct. But walk the Loop in Chicago or by the row houses of Baltimore and you instantly sense the difference.
It is true that there are small bits of citiness in the West — a neighborhood in Denver, sections of Seattle or San Francisco. But these are fragments.
There is one place that has undiluted citiness in concentration.
On the banks of the Willamette River in Oregon is a true city. Portland has a downtown that could be a relocated Pittsburgh, bridges and all, and walking through its sinewed city center is a glory of chattering urban detail, all screaming out that this is a real city.
For it is the details that define the urban.
Portland is filled with the tiled floors, fireplugs, storm drains, eroded curbsides, overarching trees, root-buckled sidewalks and brownstone stoops that make a city feel urban.
It is all the more significant because the Portland downtown is so tiny. You can walk almost anywhere you need to go.
Yet in those 100 miniature city blocks — less than a square mile — you can discover all the urban detail, ornament and design that you need to serve as a madeleine to your Proustian nostalgia for a citiness.
Along the sidewalk, a checkerboard of frosted glass squares underfoot illuminates an old basement.
A brass fire-hose connection splits like a Brancusi torso.
A dull iron streetcar track in the cobblestones is wheel-shined.
An Art Deco 317 glows above the glass doors of the Loyalty Building.
The city is built of hard, durable metals and stone, yet all its edges are softened and weathered.
There is the steep ramp of the old brick parking garage.
The spear points topping the black iron fences.
The revolving clock-thermometer at the corner of the bank building.
The equestrian statue in the middle of the park, with its benches and chess players.
”Joy The Tailor” is written in mosaic on the sidewalk in front of an empty storefront. Who knows how many businesses have operated in that building since Joy left?
There is the neon ”pizza” sign in the window, a neon ”Western Union” and a neon ”color copies.”
In front of a blockwide pit being dug out by the steam shovel, men on their lunch hours gather in a crowd behind a fence to stand and stare. One of them is eating a Fig Newton.
The one thing all those details speak of is age. The rounded edges of the curbs, the worn writing on the manhole covers — these things come with maturity.
The younger cities of the West — or the cities such as LA that seek eternal adolescence — cannot achieve the respectable age of the Eastern cities. It is a miracle that Portland survives.
For in LA, as in Phoenix, any building older than our high-school years tends to be flattened and replaced with one of those brittle, obdurate, unweathered and machine-edged monoliths, too juvenile to know better, too inexperienced to have the wisdom time brings to sandstone and concrete.
In a real city, you see the scoops of accumulated footfalls on the marble museum steps, you see ailanthus trees growing in the unattended spaces between buildings and moss on the gutters.
A real city is a stage set for our lives. We eat at the lunch counters, recline in the grassy parks, live when we are young or very old in the plastered apartments above the storefronts, drink grappa at night in the jazz bars.
The urban city is a setting not only physically but also historically. Its worn details, visible at every turn, remind us that we live in history, too. The city was there before us and will be after us.
In a city of strident newness, such as Phoenix, we can forget the big picture and think we are all that matters. In a city full of its own past, you are always reminded of your grandparents and grandchildren.
And it is all in the details.