18 February 2009

Our City Is Babbling

"When you ask what message a city sends, you sometimes get surprising answers."

That quote is from a May, 2008 essay by Paul Graham. For those of you who believe in serendipity, this is another example, for not only did I launch a "Puerto Rico more like a U.S. city" metaphor in My last post, I was building this post to be about what kind of "city" Puerto Rico truly is. Then lo and behold, this gem of an essay flits onto My screen.

Let Me dismiss something outright. I don't see "city as a belittling label or metaphor for Puerto Rico. Labels are needed to define things and I am trying to define My argument that We should measure Ourselves by human resources rather than by land area. And for another, cities have long had a history of being not only legitimate bases for nationalistic pride, but have also been enormously influential, as anyone studying the history of Athens or Florence can attest. So, no, calling Puerto Rico a "city" is not a slur or damning with faint praise.

Back to Graham's essay: "Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder."

Graham says that New York sends the message of "make more money," while Los Angeles is "be famous," Boston (Cambridge) is "be smarter" and Silicon Valley (a multi-part "city") emits a message of "you should be more powerful" (as in causing deep and extensive positive change in your world.) He goes on to write: "So far the complete list of messages I've picked up from cities is: wealth, style, hipness, physical attractiveness, fame, political power, economic power, intelligence, social class, and quality of life."

Now if you look at that list, there's two that stand out (at least to Me) that Puerto Rico could have locked up long ago as its personal message that ends up bringing people here rather than driving them out: intelligence and quality of life.

There was a time (70s and 80s) when Puerto Rico led the U.S. in bilingual college graduates, an advantage We could have done more with in a country that stupidly prides itself on knowing and wanting to know only one language. And since intelligence is more than just a degree and grammar, the brain drain We've gone through for 40 years, with its subsequent national and global impact in medicine, education, sciences, journalism, politics and yes, sports and entertainment, is ample testimony that We had and have the widespread talent at a level that other regions and countries would like to produce.

Graham points out that Cambridge may be the intellectual center of the world despite its harsh weather. If you think cold and wet makes for intellectual growth, check out Athens or Florence, where weather is quite pleasant by their region's standards. Compared to the U.S. of part of A., Our weather is the stuff of vacation and honeymoon dreams, year-round. But climate is only one aspect of quality of life; in nearly every other factor you care to bring up, We have turned a near-paradise of an island into a chaotic mess.

Graham again: "Does anyone who wants to do great work have to live in a great city? No; all great cities inspire some sort of ambition, but they aren't the only places that do. For some kinds of work, all you need is a handful of talented colleagues...

...It's in fields like the arts or writing or technology that the larger environment matters. In these the best practitioners aren't conveniently collected in a few top university departments and research labs—partly because talent is harder to judge, and partly because people pay for these things, so one doesn't need to rely on teaching or research funding to support oneself. It's in these more chaotic fields that it helps most to be in a great city: you need the encouragement of feeling that people around you care about the kind of work you do, and since you have to find peers for yourself, you need the much larger intake mechanism of a great city."

If We had focused on quality of life, on admiring and holding up as exemplary the works of educators, scientists, entrepreneurs and technologists rather than the air-headed silicone prancings of fat-assed models, addle-pated street-thug rants and over-surgeried pageant meat, maybe then We could have created the environment of a great city, one where Our intelligence and talent could create instead of consume. So instead of having Our brightest minds forging a future in an atmosphere of growth, We let the street-level chaos generate opportunistic dropouts.

"A city speaks to you mostly by accident—in things you see through windows, in conversations you overhear. It's not something you have to seek out, but something you can't turn off." We--as a city--are not speaking. We are not conversing. We are either ranting or mute, slack-jawed observers of idiocies or fervent applauders of it, disingenuous babblers or demagogic babblers. In any case, We are not speaking Our message: We are babbling as time ticks away.

The Jenius Has Spoken.



The Insider said...

I sometimes think it's saying:

We've given up

Anonymous said...

Beautiful-Ugly post, Gil. I think a lot of your posts do this thing, a thing for which no word exists on planet Earth, except maybe in Basque ("dun" dun=grok, Heinlein would have been proud). Anyway, your posts conjure up for me the essence of "grok". Hate and love so deeply bound together that they are indistinguishable. You own it. You have it. It is yours. You already imbibed it, it's a part of you, impossible to cast aside.

I read a book a few years ago (I know, how amazing, huh?), "Native Stranger," a non-fiction work by a black man who traveled to Africa, hoping for some connection to his roots, his past. In one particular small town, he came upon a local doctor beset by lack of funds, disease, malnutrition, apathy of the local government, etc. etc. The book's author asked him why he continued on even in the face of the corruption of the local government and all these other problems. Why didn't he go somewhere where he could earn more money and the respect of being a doctor? Almost no one wanted him. He was a thorn in the sides of the petty bureaucrats, the poverty was overwhelming. He couldn't make much progress, and "the system" didn't want him to succeed. Why not just give up? He would never change anything anyway.

The doctor simply told the author he loved his country. He knows the deficiencies, the ache, the despair, the pettiness, corruption, and he hates all the troubles. "But I am compelled to stay, because I love it. I love my country. I hate it, but I love it. You would not understand," he said.

You grok Puerto Rico, its beauty, its ugliness, its pettiness/greatness, its cravenness/willingness to help, hospitality/shallowness, creativity/theft. Our country would be a whole lot better if even 10% loved it as much as you, Gil the Jenius.

GCSchmidt said...

Insider, I believe you're right, but I also know many who can't even begin to conceive of giving up.

James, I don't know what to say except "Thank you." I'm humbled and touched.


Wheeling [West Virginia] - a native name meaning Place Of The Skull; they had it right.