NEW YORK: Forest of Symbols

New York has an office space problem, a glut. It also has a retail store problem: empty units standing out like missing teeth. Those gaps are everywhere in town, especially in Manhattan, glaring cavities. Recently, I decided I wanted to photograph them, vowed to walk around everywhere to assess the extent of the required dental work. But soon I realized so much had gone that I’d be snapping away all day, and most of the night, doing so along every street (and avenue), in every neighborhood.

In many cases, empty stores are directly related to empty offices. Workers no longer in the workplace spell shuttered up coffee shops, dry cleaners, lunch restaurants and bars, even newsstands—those small businesses that once served commuting office workers. New York’s Comptroller’s Office reckons vacant commercial premises across Manhattan have seen a sharp hike; in some parts of midtown, one in three retail spaces now lie fallow (see “Fewer Workers Planning to Return, Hurting Manhattan’s Comeback,” The New York Times, April 12, 2022).

New York’s newly incumbent mayor, ex-NYPD cop Eric Adams, has been pushing for a recovery plan based on thousands of workers returning to midtown and lower Manhattan offices. The city’s 1.3 million private-sector office workforce, the mayor says, needs to get back to their desks. He wants crowds returning to central business districts, workers breakfasting, lunching, and dining there again, supporting small enterprises that will fast disappear without sustained patronage.

Adams’s mantra, though, is falling on deaf corporate ears. Some of the city’s biggest firms are urging employees otherwise. The management consultancy giant PwC told its 40,000-strong workforce it can now work remotely forever. Law firms and publishers like Penguin-Random House are following suit. Spotify has a 17-year lease on 16 floors of No.4 World Trade Center (at $2.8 million a month) but told its staff they can “live anywhere in the US.” Facebook voiced likewise to its thousands of NYC employees, throwing into question what’ll happen to their home at midtown’s James A. Farley Building. The insurance company TIAA, Verizon, as well as many other big techies (like Google), are all instigating hybrid working practices, insisting there’s no compulsion to get back into the office. JPMorgan Chase, New York largest private sector employer, said only half its 271,000 employees would return to the office five days a week. So despite the mayor’s pleas, in-person work presence looks like a blast from the past, not a glimmer of hope for the future.

The decline of Manhattan office workers is set to disrupt New York’s collective life. For one thing, it threatens to undermine the city’s real estate-reliant tax base. Overly reliant tax base, more like. Offices: can’t live with them, can’t live without them. Pre-COVID, office buildings in Manhattan supplied more than a quarter of New York’s property tax revenue—money used to fund public schools, the police, parks, and public infrastructure. With 19 percent of Manhattan’s office space available for lease, a near record high, the dark days of the seventies’ fiscal crisis loom. Downtown, 21 percent of offices have no tenant. And without a regular stream of commuters, the region’s mass transit systems will face even greater budget cuts, disproportionately harming those workers who still show up to work. Reduced funding means poorer service and crappier facilities. At the April 2022 Brooklyn subway shooting, recall that none of the station’s CCTV cameras functioned. Rising subway crime will also present real and imagined obstacles to sustained usage, persuading many New Yorkers to think otherwise, if they can, about the daily commute.

And yet, while office occupancy dips, the city’s residential property values and rents soar, somehow defying gravity. Large swaths of the city’s public life are destined soon to deteriorate, languish because of lack of funding; still, private sector rents rose 33 percent between January 2021 and January 2022; and in neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Manhattan’s Upper West Side, 40 percent gains have been reported. (Average sales prices for Manhattan apartments jumped 12 percent during the first quarter of 2022.) This seems inexplicable, even obscene, while so much of the city still reels from COVID.

After offering discounts, landlords are beginning to turn the screw again. For tenants who stayed during the pandemic, the goodwill is over; and for returnees, they’ll have to pay even more than they did before they left. Property owners say they’re trying to regain lost income and compensate for escalating costs of utilities and property taxes (“Rents are Roaring Back in New York City,” The New York Times, March 7, 2022). But hikes have only worsened the city’s chronic affordability problem. Some 45,000 people currently live in shelters; 5,000 make do—or not—on the streets. Homeless encampments across the city have been aggressively dismantled by NYPD’s Sanitation Department and Department of Homeless Services. The mayor is keen to highlight the “moral failings” of homelessness, clearing away the homeless for their own good.

Meanwhile, converting New York’s 700 underutilized hotels into affordable housing encounters legal and technical barriers. A new $100 million fund to motivate developers to convert empty hotels into residences wallows because of regulatory red tape. Here, as with flexible work models, city policymakers have been slow off the mark, hardly grappling with what all this portends for the Big Apple’s future. New York state has yet to relax zoning regulations, further hampering the conversation of office space into residential housing, including accommodation for low-income New Yorkers. So it goes.

***

I walked past Kurt Vonnegut’s old townhouse the other day, at East 48th Street, a narrow, white, three-story building, mid-block between Second and Third Avenues. I was thinking about the expression he’d made famous in Slaughterhouse 5: “so it goes.” Vonnegut said the Tralfamadorians uttered the phrase each time they encountered a dead person. So would he, Vonnegut said, in his novel. But I wasn’t thinking so much about corpses that day, about dead people, even though I could have easily been—Russian shells, after all, were raining on the Ukraine, circa 2022, much like Allied firebombs had destroyed Dresden, circa 1944. Instead, I was thinking about Vonnegut’s expression in conjunction with something I’d read in that morning’s New York Times, rolling my eyes, because of the awful familiarity of it: urban policy reverting to its old playbook of quack ideas. I’d been hearing this stuff for decades. So it goes.

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New York, like elsewhere in America—really like everywhere in the world—is handy at doling out huge amounts of public money to line the pockets of an already-immensely wealthy private sector. Thus The New York Times was reporting on how Albany was soon about to foot the bill for the Bills, for a new billion-dollar football stadium in Buffalo, even as the Bills lost four straight Super Bowls. Critics have damned this spectacular deal—costing New York state $600 million and Buffalo’s Erie County an additional $250 million—as an egregious case of corporate welfare; forking out huge sums of public, tax-payers money to subsidize a team owned by billionaires. It’s miraculous how the state finds ready money for private services after crying poverty for public services. So it goes. Even pro-capitalist economists wonder about the effects new mega-projects like this have on civic bottom lines. “Large subsidies commonly devoted to constructing professional sports venues,” they say, “aren’t justified as worthwhile public investments” (“Public Will Foot Most of $1.4 billion Cost for Stadium. Buffalo Fans Cheer,” The New York Times, April 17, 2022). Much the same can be said about other mega-projects.

Unquestionably, the biggest folly—the most egregious of egregious mega-projects—is New York City’s Hudson Yards. This 12-acre site, west of Penn Station and Madison square Garden, had once been gritty rail tracks and storage yards for Long Island Rail Road trains. Completion isn’t destined until 2024; yet much is already in place. Hooking up to the High Line and a revamped No. 7 subway station, Hudson Yards is meant to symbolize the pride and joy of a post 9/11 Big Apple, a celebration of Michael Bloomberg’s Mayoral years, his bleeding edge: New York, Inc.

Now, a $25 billion mega-plan brings shingled blue-glass skyscrapers, office space, deluxe condos, and high-end retailing galore, to say nothing of an eco-arts center and bizarre pedestrian walkway called “The Vessel.” Touted as Manhattan’s Eiffel Tower, designed by Brit Thomas Heatherwick, the Vessel is a $200 million 16-story stairway to nowhere, resembling a truncated giant honeycomb. Nearby, comes the “Shed,” a $500 million eco-friendly arts center and performance space, looking like an aircraft hangar wrapped in a gray down comforter. The structure is a movable feast, a shell that glides along rails, seating 1,200 people at any one time, “physically transforming itself,” the hype says, “to support artists’ most ambitious ideas.” In 2013, the City of New York handed over $50 million towards the project, to Related Companies and the Oxford Properties Group, representing the single biggest capital grant given in that year.

The bourgeoisie tears away sentimental veils, Marx famously said in the Communist Manifesto, and puts in its stead “open, shameless, direct, bare exploitation.” In all this—in open, shameless, direct, bare exploitation—we are, at Hudson Yards, on familiar ground. So it goes. The New York Times architectural critic, Michael Kimmelman, called the development “a supersized suburban-style office park, with a shopping mall and a quasi-gated condo community targeted at the 0.1 percent.” It’s the largest private real estate venture in US history, and in the brazen world-leader of private real estate deals that’s saying a lot.

In office, Bloomberg pumped 75 million public dollars into the development, matching it with a similar sum from his own deep pockets. Meanwhile, BlackRock, a midtown investment company, managing a $6 trillion portfolio, wrote off $25 million in state tax credits, to buffer the move of its 700 workforce to Hudson Yards, less than a mile westward. Some estimates suggest the whole initiative has totaled as much as $6 billion in tax breaks and public finding. Socialism for billionaires is how the scam has been described—even as those self-same scammers wax lyrical about the virtues of the “free market.”

Still, one of the most startling of Hudson Yards’ scams, reputed to have amassed some $1.6 billion’s worth of financing, is even more insidious, only quite recently becoming public news (see Kriston Capps, “The Hidden Horror of Hudson Yards Is How It Was Financed,” CityLab, April 12, 2019). It centers on the controversial investor visa program called EB-5, part of George Bush senior’s immigration reform of the early 1990s. Bizarre as it may sound, the program lets immigrants secure visas in exchange for investment in the US economy. We’re talking here about super-rich foreigners, people who can pump between $500k and a million bucks into American real estate. That enables them—with no questions asked, no hoop-jumping—to gain fast-track visas, for work or study. (It has been something of a favorite in pre-COVID years amongst wealthy Chinese families.) The monies are supposed to go into federally-targeted areas, into poor and distressed neighborhoods across America, so-called TEAs—Targeted Employment Areas.

But the jurisdiction of TEAs—where its boundary lines are drawn—is rather loose, hence open to meddling and manipulation. And in New York, the Empire State Development, a public-private organization under New York state’s banner, is the arch-meddler and manipulator. Somehow, it managed to secure Hudson Yards TEA status, stretching its remit into poor census tracks of Harlem. As such, funds intended for real estate aid in poverty-stricken neighborhoods, like Harlem, were siphoned off and redirected into a super-luxury mega-development. “Think of it a form of creative financial gerrymandering,” is how Kriston Capps put it. That’s how developer Related Companies raked in around $380 million at Hudson Yards, bypassing distressed area scrutiny through a greedy audacity that beggar’s belief. Or perhaps not, in what was (is?) Trump’s America. (And, by the way, son-in-law Jared Kushner had been busily promoting Kushner Companies’ projects with EB-5 investors in China.) So it goes.

In our post-COVID workplace, though, this the notion of “bleeding edge” takes on a rather different significance. Vampires have sucked blood dry. There’s nothing left to bleed: empty offices and stores bereft of people characterize Hudson Yards, feeling a lot like the collapse of the dot.com sector in the noughties, highlighted in Thomas Pynchon’s own Bleeding Edge (2013). Depopulated officescapes, unused cubicles in open-plan ghost spaces, gather dust. “Eerily deserted,” said The New York Times (“How the Pandemic Left the $25 billion Hudson Yards Eerily Deserted,” February 2, 2021). Kohn Pederson Fox Associates’ 100-floor pinnacle office and residential building at 30 Hudson yards, taller than the Empire State Building, has around 500,000 square feet of unleased office space, casting a dark shadow across the shiny glitz. Hundreds of its condos remain unsold. With unpaid debts of more than $16 million, retail anchor tenant Neiman Marcus recently filed for bankruptcy, breaking its lease. At least four other upscale stores and several restaurants have likewise gone belly up.

When I strolled around Hudson Yards one lovely spring afternoon, the High Line was packed with people basking in the sunshine. Yet they were voting with their feet. Because, on the inside, inside the shopping mall, those crowds thinned to a trickle. Listless shoppers aimlessly wandered a complex whose scale is so massively oversized. Everything felt alienating, unlived in and dehumanized. Even the giant Whole Foods Market felt processed, supersized, starkly empty of organic humankind. Passivity prevailed in Hudson Yards’ rarefied air, both inside and out. In the chilly open-air shade, a small group of overseas tourists gathered at the base of the Vessel. They looked bored, perhaps puzzled why the structure was “temporarily” off-limits to visitors. Maybe they didn’t know the Vessel’s true claim to fame?

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The Vessel first closed in January 2021 immediately after a 21-year-old man leapt to his death from its 150-foot spiral staircase. The previous December, a 24-year-old Brooklyn woman had similarly jumped, following the death of a 19-year-old New Jersey man, an inaugural suicide, in February 2019. Witnesses then said there had been prolonged screaming as onlookers realized in horror what had happened. And just two-months after the Vessel reopened, in May 2021, amid a fanfare about a design overhaul to lessen the risk of suicides, a 14-year-old boy plunged to his death. Inexplicably, the height of the railings around the walkways, barely chest-high, hadn’t not been altered. Police confirmed it as a fourth suicide. Initially “envisioned as a shared, immersive design experience,” the Vessel’s future now remains uncertain. It was meant to be Hudson Yards’ quirky centerpiece, the brainchild of billionaire real estate developer Stephen M. Ross of Related Companies; instead the Vessel may well be a tragic metaphor of our anxious age, when so many tendered-aged people have decided to end it all. And when so many people have become so disgustingly rich.

One can only shudder at the public money squandered there. Especially in a development so utterly banal, such a colossal white elephant. There’s nothing at Hudson Yards to satisfy even a five-minute attention span. There’s no intrigue, nothing that grips, no curiosity, no messy city life. In fact, here one finds the sort of banality and predictability only money can buy. Hudson Yards’ banality resides in the predictability of its form and function, in its predictable sleek glass and steel architecture, catering for a predictable array of financial and high-tech services, multinational corporations and accountancy firms, banks and management consultancies, high-end retail giants, each aimed at a predictable bunch of wealthy consumers. All real urban texturing and spontaneous novelty is expunged. I took a photo showing how the development jars with its surroundings, with real life nearby.

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I remember the spring prior to the first COVID lockdown, doing a big walk around Hudson Yards with my friend and former teacher, the urban theorist David Harvey. It had been a soaking wet afternoon, chilly and gray, and we both tried our utmost not to let the weather, nor the awfulness of this project, dampen our spirits. Wandering around, David and I spoke of something he’d written about over thirty years ago, in his book Consciousness and the Urban Experience: “the restless analyst.” It’s the mythical figure haunting The American Scene (1907), Henry James’s roving travelogue around fin-de-siècle America. James had been away from the US for twenty-five years, living in Europe. As a “returning absentee,” between 1904-05, he spent a year rediscovering his native land, indignant at much he saw; many changes, he said, became “a perpetual source of irritation.” “Charming places, charming objects,” James wrote, “languish all around the restless analyst, under designations that seem to leave the smudge of a great vulgar thumb.”

The gaze of James’s restless analyst was the gaze of “an inquiring stranger.” This character likely came to mind at Hudson Yards because we, too, felt like “inquiring strangers,” out of place and similarly indignant at much we saw. In Consciousness and the Urban Experience, David said he’d “long been impressed with this character the restless analyst. It seems to capture the only kind of intellectual stance possible in the face of a capitalism that reduces all aspects of social, cultural, and political (to say nothing of economic) life to the pure homogeneity and universality of money values and then transforms them according to the roving calculus of profit.” So it goes.

***

For around thirty-years, I’ve regularly gone to sit on a bench in front of Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue. I’ve always thought it a rather marvelous painting, the product of Pollock’s tremendously productive year of 1950. Its black and white skeins and swirls, spirals and splatters, drips and dollops of paint, poured from Maxwell House coffee cans and spilt from wooden sticks, engulf this vast 17ft by 8ft brown canvas. (If you go up close, you can also see other colors, like teal blue.) Autumn Rhythm radiates an immense electrical charge, a kinetic energy that always seemed to me quintessentially urban, even though Pollock executed it on the floor of a small-town Long Island barn. The critic Clement Greenberg said this Pollock “action painting” represented “the crisis of the easel picture.” All bets in modern art, he meant, were now summarily off. Here was something volatile, original, without a traditional beginning, middle or end, breaking free of its borders, painted only because you could stand on it, and dance around it.

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For a long while, I’ve believed this canvas also represented the crisis of the classic framing of the city, wrenching us away from how, for instance, the Impressionists depicted Paris: with blurry, shifting brush-stroke movement, yet always with a movement bound by a certain coherence, by a certain pictorial ordering, by a certain perspective of where the city centered and where it ended. Whereas with Pollock, this linear ordering is obliterated. Instead, he’s letting us glimpse a deregulated sort of capitalism unleashed, whirring before you, with its spirals of capital sloshing around the globe, creating nodal points that gel as cities, as spaces like Hudson Yards, that flow into circuits of real estate development, into global money markets. Here, in short, is a graphic depiction of contemporary finance capitalism in motion.

A decade or so ago, when the Occupy movement was taking hold across the globe, I had another idea about Pollock’s imagery: that it was equally a representation of resistance, a pictorial depiction of the act of fusion, of people coming together, and that those great whirls and curves, puddles and dribbles, those wiggly threads of splattered black and white paint were actually points of convergence, nodal spaces that people occupied, that blazed new territories of possibility, all somehow connecting with one another. Indeed, Pollock was illustrating nothing less than a radical geography of mass encounter. In retrospect, the notion strikes as rather quaint, pre-Trump, before COVID, B.C.

Now, though, sitting in front of Autumn Rhythm, April 2022, I’ve something else in mind, another thought about what Pollock might mean, for cities and life, a quieter vision. (You had to hand it to the man for sparking impulses!) Like all his best art, it’s not so much what Pollock himself meant in his paintings, if he meant anything at all; it’s more what it means to you when you encounter his paintings, what it does for you, says to you: all metaphorical and inspirational potential resides firmly in the eye of the beholder, in the head of the restless analyst. Before me now, before Autumn Rhythm, after visiting Hudson Yards, I’m seeing something else, sensing something else. Maybe it has to do with autumn, which had never occurred to me until now. When somebody once asked Pollock how he represented nature in his paintings, he famously responded, “I am nature.” Maybe, now, we can grasp autumn as implicit in the picture, as subliminally there, autumn as a season when things fall from trees, when mushrooms appear, when nature dies off, rots, only to nourish the earth as mulch for future growth.

Lately, I’d been reading a memoir by the Canadian forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest (2021). Doubtless Simard has helped me re-envision Pollock, affected my re-visioning of him and of city life. Simard has been thrilled by British Columbia’s old-growth forests since she was a kid, when she foraged mushrooms and huckleberries, even taking to eating handfuls of dirt, too, relishing, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Rebeca from Hundred Years of Solitude, the taste of damp raw earth. This taste never went away. Now, as a sixty-something college professor, she has become an authority on the forest’s undergrowth. Decades back, Simard noticed how commercial logging hacked down diverse old forests and replaced them with homogeneous plantations, stripping the soil of its underbrush. The logic went that without competitors, and with more space for light and water, young saplings would thrive. But they didn’t. Frequently they withered and died, proving more vulnerable to disease and climatic stress than trees in entangled ancient forests.

Simard discovered the reason why lay in mycorrhizal networks, the threadlike fungi that envelop and fuse with trees. Here, beneath ground, something amazing takes place. These fungi pass on to trees nutrients—phosphorous and nitrogen—and help extract the water required for photosynthesis. Around 90 percent of trees depend on these mysterious underground mycorrhizal networks—mykes is the Greek word for fungus and rhiza root—which link trees, even trees of different species, sharing life, knitting together the earth’s soils in a complex system of symbiosis. When we see mushrooms sprouting, this is just one part of the story, only the fruiting body of fungi, its blossom, the visible realm where spores are produced and transmitted. A lot more of the action is subterranean, occurs deep down. Carbon, water, and nutrients pass from tree to tree via underground circuits, shifting resources between the oldest and the biggest to the youngest and smallest, from strongest to weakest.

Mycorrhizal networks are delicate gossamer webs of tiny threads, which, if we could dig underground, we’d not only see them as tissue stitching together much life on earth—we’d also glimpse an intricate fractal patterning resembling Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm. We’d see the paint of his spirals and whirls, his nodes and synapses, as the constitutive ingredient of these mycorrhizal webs: the mystical and magical substance called mycelium. If you teased apart the mycelium found in a teaspoon of soil, it might stretch to over a mile of thread. Mycelium operates more as a process than a thing, possessing an innate directional memory that spreads outwards radially, forming a spidery circle of filaments in all directions—sound familiar?

Mycelium expands until it touches something, finds something to latch on to, to feed on and nourish, anything dead or alive, organic or inorganic, decaying and decomposing—not only tree roots and plants but old books and carpets, bits of wood and floorboards, trash and food waste, moldy wallpaper and even cigarette butts. (Check out a Pollock action canvas like Full Fathom Five (1947), which features assorted moldy objects, like cigarette butts, embedded in the paint.) Half-jokingly, Simard says these material filaments of mycelium constitute the “Wood Wide Web,” nature’s very own broadband, traversing humous subsoil everywhere. Channels for resource exchange and communication are here always open, without tariff or subscription. In this other-worldly kingdom, the “internet of things” is nothing new: “smart” forests have been around for thousands of years.

While Simard says conflict in a forest is undeniable, she knows, too, that life abounds there because of negotiation and reciprocity, because of widespread mutuality. Earlier in her career, these ideas were disparaged by her male “growth and yield” forest colleagues. Nowadays, Simard’s vision of a forest ecology based on cooperation and selflessness has seeped into the mainstream, even gotten written into college textbooks. Hers isn’t so much a critique of Darwin—who, remember, stressed contest and self-interest in the evolutionary process; it’s more a little caveat, a modest rejoinder. When we think about sustaining life on earth, fungi teach us that real resilience comes about through cooperation not die-hard competition.

Loggers replacing diverse forests with homogeneous plantations sounds uncannily like the dynamics of today’s urban environments, where developers similarly create homogeneous plantations out of messy old human woodland, hacking through the city’s old growth, disturbing well-established urban ecologies. Stripped bare of human undersoil, devoid of any selfless life, our cities likewise wither from frailty. Only the richest survive in privately managed enclaves that exhibit little biodiversity. In these new forest wildernesses, people are forced to compete with one another, compete in labor markets, pit themselves against each other in unaffordable housing markets. Our human mycorrhizal networks have been uprooted long ago. We’re all here in a state of root shock. Thus Simard’s fungal studies provoke us to re-evaluate the whole notion of cooperation in urban life, particularly pressing nowadays given that a pandemic has threatened that collective life.

Mega-projects alter the metabolism of city life and, directly or indirectly, kill off the city’s old-growth forest. That forest, for sure, probably required some sort of nourishment at the time; it was already likely getting contaminated by invasive forest management. But now it’s gone, the city has less undergrowth than before, less resilience, and is set to wither like the newly laid forests Simard witnessed in commercial “fast-food” forestry. Trees are dependent on their connection to the soil and to one another—just like buildings and humans. We, too, exist in a complex web of social relations between ourselves and surrounding objects. Demolishing and upscaling buildings severs this symbiosis, disrupts the organic balance between people and people, between people and buildings—between human space and physical space. In the social world, there are also mycorrhizal networks that help shape life. They offer support and cooperation, supply nutrients to people, especially to the weakest, and sustain the social structure of a shared soil. Fungi don’t discriminate between species. They channel nutrients to multiple tree species. Theirs is a wonderous society of mutual aid. It prevails in the natural world so why can’t it prevail in the human world as well? And why can’t it prevail between different races and different kinds of human beings?

Perhaps we need another narrative about urban forests, a city equivalent of Jean Giono’s brilliant tree narrative, The Man Who Planted Trees (1953), about the French shepherd who over four decades disseminated hundreds of acorns, turning a Provençale wilderness into a wooded Garden of Eden. If only our developers and planners thought this way. Giono’s account was so compelling that many people believed the selfless shepherd existed. Fictitious or otherwise, here was a man who cared about what surrounded him, a sort of public figure, whose environmental management became a nurturing labor of love. His was a peasant’s view of forest management and perhaps we need a peasant’s view of city management, too, like the peasant of Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant (1926).

This surrealist classic—a “modern mythology,” Aragon called it—gives us similar ideas about forestry management, but its thicket is a dense city. It’s a field-manual about how we might treasure and preserve what we have in this forest, before it’s too late—Aragon’s beloved arcade, Passage de l’Opéra, was then about to be demolished to make way for an access route to the Boulevard Haussmann. Aragon himself had many times sauntered through the Passage de l’Opéra, under its glass canopy, tapping some of its hidden mysteries and charms. He delighted in the outmoded, in what you could find in the city’s undergrowth. There, you could stumble upon all kinds of secret lairs and earths, nests and rabbit holes; “a dark kingdom,” Aragon said, “that the eyes of humans avoid because its landscape fails to flatter them.” The peasant’s Paris is a city of full of trees and mossy old-growth, constantly under assault—arracher, déchirer, tondre [uprooted, ripped up, mowed] are words that feature in Paris Peasant. The city’s “glowing woodland” [buisson ardent] is, he says, perennially getting supplanted by commercial forestry, destroying much quirky, eccentric shrub life nestled within it.

The peasant is born on the land, is of the land, lives off the land. Only in this case, it’s the urban land we’re talking about, how we might cultivate an urban garden, one belonging to the whole community; how we might collectively sustain this “enchanted forest” [forêt enchantée], how we might dig away at it, manage it, renew it, without destroying its enchantment. Aragon wants us to cultivate this garden like a poet might conceive a poem, an everyday poem, like an ordinary stroll down Main Street, humming to yourself. The life of Aragon’s peasant is hauntingly poetic, full of dreams. But while the peasant’s dream is poetic, it isn’t idealist. Nor is it abstractly philosophical. Peasants tend not to think in terms of abstractions. Their world is practical and concrete. They pragmatically labor the land, doggedly struggle for survival.

And that’s how we need to cultivate our urban policy, how we need to doggedly foster our mycorrhizal networks, our relationship between buildings and streets—the complex ecosystem that constitutes our public realm. This is our shared forest, the surroundings that form our habitat, the one we work on and work with, the one we make and frequently break. Maybe someday we’ll dream the peasant’s dream, the dream of a harvest moon, when cooperative roots push up and nourish the earth, and ripen into gorgeous fruits and crops. Over eons, through symbiosis and coevolution, our natural forests have grown tall. They were once small, puny, yet developed over time into a collective form of life that is mighty and magnanimous. Could we imagine our urban history rising to such luminous heights?

One thing is for sure: No peasant ever dreamt of towering office space.

About Andy Merrifield

Writer, Urbanist, Marxist, Educator
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