There is much to admire in André Aciman’s Shadow Cities, a ‘classic’ New York Review of Books essay. For Radhika Jones, it is the way the writing evokes her own memories of New York. As for me, I like the concept of overlaying imagined cities and long-lost viewpoints:
New York is my home precisely because it is a place from where I can begin to be elsewhere—an analogue city, a surrogate city, a shadow city that allows me to naturalize and neutralize this terrifying, devastating, unlivable megalopolis by letting me think it is something else … Straus Park allowed me to place more than one film over the entire city of New York, the way certain guidebooks of Rome do. For each photograph of an ancient ruin comes a series of colored transparencies. When you place the transparency over the picture of a ruin the missing or fallen parts suddenly reappear, showing you how the Forum and the Coliseum must have looked in their heyday, or how Rome looked in the Middle Ages, and then in the late Renaissance, and so on. But when you lift all the plastic sheets, all you see are today’s ruins.
I didn’t want to see the real New York. I’d go backward in time and uncover an older New York, as though New York, like so many other cities on the Mediterranean, had an ancient side that was less menacing, that was not so difficult to restore, that had more past than present, and that corresponded to the old-fashioned world I think I come from. Hence, my obsession with things that are old and defunct and that seep through like ancient cobblestones and buried rails from under renewed coats of asphalt and tar. Sealed-off ancient firehouses, ancient stables turned into garages, ghost buildings awaiting demolition, old movie theaters converted into Baptist churches, old marketplaces that are now lost, subway stops that are ghost stations today … Going to Straus Park was like traveling elsewhere in time.
This is a marvellous evocation of why I enjoy much of the literature and imagery that I do. I have discussed the idea of overlaying of invisible worlds onto a physical space quite a lot on this blog.
To wit: The human ideas imposed onto China Mieville’s The City & The City, and the secret Londons described in Un Lun Dun and Kraken; The transnational societies in Cory Doctorow’s For The Win; the myriad wifi networks on Exmouth Market; my idea for a London Underground game, marvellously realised by Chromaroma; and overlaying a fantasy narrative onto Edinburgh in Ghost.
And finally, there is the fascination with the organic nature of cities: Buildings in a state of constant alteration and repurpose (the Free Word Centre where I now work is one such building); Medieval cities that persist in the twenty-first century, like Fes; The way buildings can take on a personality, when plugged in; the way a city can seem to be a jungle; and buildings that make you feel as though you are already a part of history, such is the weight of their (future) iconic status.