The Romantics were in love with ruins.
When painter Benjamin Haydon took John Keats to the British Museum to visit the newly unveiled statuary plundered from the Greek Parthenon by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, the young poet was struck dumb—not just by the artistic perfection of the marbles but by the bittersweet melancholy of their disintegration. Outstretched arms were broken into stumps, heads decapitated. The finely rendered wrinkles of robes now swathed mere torsos. Confronted by the fragility of such masterpieces rendered in stone, how could Keats help but ponder the ephemeral nature of his own work, penned and printed on flimsy paper? He felt overcome, he wrote, by “a most dizzy pain, / That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude / Wasting of old Time.” All modernity may be traceable to that mixed emotion—the wonderment at what humanity can achieve combined with the certainty of its eventual destruction, the nostalgia for an unknowable past mingled with the effacing and terrifying inevitability of our own oncoming anonymity.
And it’s no accident that such a feeling should arise from the industrial age. The spinning jenny, steam engine, and blast furnace brought an end to the artisanal era and gave birth to the notion of interchangeable parts— first material and eventually human. If broken statuary was all that remained of Grecian virtuosity, what evidence of individual genius would survive for the future to know us by? In London, the gentry retreated to country homes, which they regarded as places of health and respite— away from the choking open sewers and pollution produced by the city’s million residents. The poets regarded these moments of pastoral repose as the appropriate subject for poetry. Yet, departing one early morning in 1802, William Wordsworth, while crossing Westminster Bridge, was startled by
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare, Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie Open unto the fields, and to the sky; All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
And from that very moment forward, it seems, we have been collectively gripped by Wordsworth’s reverie of lost pastoral glimpsed before the city awakes. We have come to regard the city as a place of environmental, emotional, and moral wreckage and ruin. When we speak of the past, it is always with a longing for days when streets were less congested, the air was clearer, the skyline not so obscured.
Two hundred years later, however, people continue to flock to cities—for economic opportunity, for the health care and other services they offer, for the diversity and culture that makes them thrive. In 2007, the United Nations released a report announcing that, for the first time in human history, more people live in cities than rural areas, and the rate of urbanization is rapidly accelerating as the population whizzes past seven billion en route to a projected nine billion people by 2050. “This wave of urbanization is without precedent,” Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, executive director of the UN Population Fund, acknowledged on release of the report. But he also urged political and cultural leaders alike to let go of the Romantic view of cities as places of destruction and decay. “We must abandon a mindset that resists urbanization,” he said, “and act now to begin a concerted global effort to help cities unleash their potential to spur economic growth and solve social problems.”
In this issue, our authors and photographers travel to some of the world’s most ruined places in search of hope and ways toward a brighter future, but they also go with eyes open—aware that concerns about social justice and the environment are increasingly difficult to reconcile; aware that the challenges of each city and society are unique and resist cookie-cutter solutions; aware, most of all, that neither platitudes nor turning a blind eye will solve deep-seated problems.
Elliott D. Woods travels to Cairo, where a community of Coptic Christians, known to locals as the “garbage people,” collect the city’s waste in search of recyclables. The plastics they gather and grind into chips, the metals they collect and melt into ingots are sold to China— not only reducing the impact of making more of these products but also helping this religious minority to thrive. There are, Woods points out, garbage entrepreneurs who have turned recycling into good business and made Cairo into one of the most waste efficient cities in the world, but it also remains difficult for children to seek out an education and pursue interests beyond the garbage village.
Meera Subramanian ventures to Delhi and Mumbai, where the collapse of the vulture population on the entire Indian subcontinent— from fifty million to sixty thousand in less than two decades—has led to a crisis in the disposal of human and animal remains. Scientists worry that increased handling of dead livestock, among a culture that has traditionally had strict religious and cultural mores against it, could lead to the rapid spread of disease. The task of saving the vultures seems hopeless as their numbers continue to plummet, but stubborn researchers still work on captive breeding and ways of improving fertility.
Kwame Dawes and Andre Lambertson go to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where many former residents of the hillside slums are still living in tent cities and moving amid the rubble of last year’s catastrophic earthquake. Dawes and Lambertson seek out those who would seem to be the most desperate among Haitians—those who lost their families, those with HIV/AIDS. And yet, what comes through, time and again, in Dawes’s poems and Lambertson’s lush photographs are expressions of hope. “Sometimes I wonder why,” a young man born with HIV says in one poem; “sometimes I wonder if / my mother did this— then I grow / dark, the world swallows light / around me, then I cry—only / sometimes, I cry, and then I laugh, / just like that, in a few seconds, / I laugh and I cry and I dream again.”
This same resilience, but also crushing hardship, comes through in Chien-ming Chung’s photographs of Guiyu, China—known as the e-waste capital of the world. In Chung’s unflinching images, we see the needless wreckage of our own consumerism, and we are reminded that our wantonness is not excused by the microeconomies it creates. The era of growing our way out of problems must be coming to an end, because soon the environmental and human impact of that senseless growth will choke out our shared future. We must recognize that Chung’s photographs are not portraits of failure, but the shocking consequences of too much success.
It’s a lesson repeated for Erika Meitner and Ryan Spencer Reed in their fieldwork to Detroit. Meitner comes as an outsider fascinated by the urban ruins of the Rust Belt, but Jerry Herron, dean of the Irvin D. Reid Honors College at Wayne State University, insists, “Detroit is the single greatest American success story ever contrived by humans in this country. More people came here from all over the place, from the United States, from across the globe to build an industrial machine that created wealth faster, for more people than anything humans have ever put together on the surface of our planet.” But their relative wealth, Herron argues, combined with Romantic dreams of escaping the city, eventually led to the ghosting out of Detroit. The ruins do not represent a failure of American industry, residents insist, but of American leadership and vision.
Likewise, in Miami, Paul Reyes finds a market for high-rise condominiums undone by greed. Conceived from a desire to maximize profits by building and selling housing in bulk—as if homes were just another disposable item—the industry rose swiftly and collapsed just as fast. The recovery, by contrast, has been slow and gradual. Now some energetic developers are trying to accelerate the recovery, by turning the bulk market on its head. But whether this jump-starts a reborn economy or simply creates a new bubble will largely depend on the willingness of leaders to regulate growth and reinvest in infrastructure.
The political risks of failing to meet the needs of our swelling cities is especially apparent in the impromptu barrios and “invaded” high-rises of Caracas visited by Michael Eamonn Miller. The residents of these neighborhoods are the very people from whom Hugo Chávez draws his populist power, but as the city sprawls and opportunities and services diminish the people of Caracas grow increasingly restless. They live, on the one hand, in one of the richest oil nations of the world, but on the other find themselves in a city where it is more and more difficult to obtain clean water and basic electricity.
What we see in all of these cities is a great, pent-up energy and ingenuity. If it can be harnessed and developed, then all residents—and citizens of the world—stand to benefit. But if that change cannot be achieved peacefully, then leaders risk the kind of upheaval sweeping North Africa and the Middle East. In this way, the ruins of former greatness—nowhere more visible than the looming pyramids of Giza—can serve not only as a melancholy reminder of the grandeur that came before us but also a warning of what lies ahead if we are unwilling to change. We must let go of the nagging fear that our labors only serve to bring us ever closer to our collective undoing—the belief that all we build inevitably will be no more than, as Shelley wrote, a “colossal wreck,” around which “the lone and level sands stretch far away.” Perhaps no monument lasts forever, but if our true desire is to make our mark—to leave behind some record of ourselves—then perhaps we do best to lay a firm foundation upon which a better future may be built.