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"The City Beautiful"

     "This city is ugly."
     "Why do you stay, then?"
     "Mostly because you're here, and partly because I've been
here long enough myself to feel more rooted here than anywhere
else.  A transplant, I guess.  But the city is still ugly."
     "You wish it was green, like back east."
     "No, I don't.  In fact I think all those attempts to pretend
that grass grows here naturally are ridiculous, and not really
beautiful at all because they're so wasteful.  A lawn in the
desert is a stupid thing, if not immoral."
     "So what's so ugly?"
     "The signs.  The billboards.  The clutter and litter.  The
lack of any kind of plan.  The abandoned inner section.  The
     "Doesn't every city have all that?"
     The argument had no satisfactory result, but I was prodded
into thinking about it further.  Our own place is not ugly.  The
house is not a standard-brand cracker-box.  It is old enough,
carefully designed enough, and well-built enough to have quality
and character. 
     I spend quite a bit of energy helping things other than lawn
grass grow, in order to make the place more beautiful, although I
have learned over a span of years to quit forcing what "doesn't
want to grow."  I'm left with the flowers that thrived, reseeding
themselves on their own:  four o'clocks, gallardia, larkspur,
trumpet vines, cosmos, Chinese sunflowers.  "I add a little water
and they do well.  They want to be here."
     Simplicity was Sunshine's conscious goal for the interior,
and she has succeeded.  No one, especially not I, ever dreamed of
saying that our place was ugly.  Litter, dumped by passers-by on
foot or on wheels, is a constant problem, and so is noise, from
unmuffled vehicles, dogs, sirens and airplanes. 
     The argument passed out of my mind, and didn't return until
I was far away on a trip and noticed how ugly New York City was. 
The train station was worn out.  The streets were dirty.  Old and
not-so-old buildings needed paint and repair.  Subway cars were
covered with incomprehensible graffiti.  The people were
unfriendly, especially those from whom one had to ask directions.
     I visited a young couple in Jersey City.  That city did not
strike me as beautiful, either.  But my hosts took me to the
riverfront after dark under lowering sleet/rain clouds, and from
there I looked across the river and was stunned at the beauty of
New York City.  It created a physical ache, to see it.  It was
literally awesome.  I stood in the wet cold and stared.
     Underground, on the subway, which is how I travel in that
city, it is not at all beautiful, I thought.  The stress on the
faces of the people in the stations and on the trains is severe
and epidemic.  They appear to be doomed, and they appear to know
it.  Even if they have decided not to think about it, or to talk
about it to strangers like me, they know it.
     How can anything that ugly up close appear so beautiful at a
distance?  Too many people, crowded too close together, with not
enough room to breathe or live, not enough resources -- how can
that be beautiful?  Yet I wanted my camera.  I stared hard, to
fix a sharable image, camera or no, because it was so obviously
     Colored lights, the river, the monumental buildings, the
clouds coming down, as if promising something, or perhaps
threatening something.  They were already covering the tops of
some of the buildings.  Ice was forming on the boardwalk where we
were standing, making it treacherous because we were
concentrating on looking across at the beautiful ugly city.
     I returned to Duke City.  I looked again, more carefully. 
It really is ugly, up close, mostly, I decided.  It is covered
with a brown cloud of smog.  Those of us who can remember when
there was none of that, are not comforted by the word that smog
is worse in Denver and Los Angeles and Houston.  We have it, and it's
poisonous, and it's ugly.  Menaul Boulevard, even it is if named
for a Presbyterian missionary, could vie with any street in
Phoenix or Tucson as the ugliest in America, with billboards and
signs screaming for the shoppers' attention, hiding the mountain,
hiding the valley and the volcanoes beyond, with no thought for
beauty, symmetry or honesty.  Lomas Boulevard and Central Avenue
are hardly any less ugly.
     When the leaves and blossoms come out in the spring -- that
is beautiful.  The cottonwood forest in the river bottom is
beautiful, but it is also doomed -- it won't survive the twelve
bridges that are already planned, and it is even at this time not
reproducing itself.
     It's a lot like New York City, which is ugly up close, with
Central Park in the spring as the marvelous exception.  Both
cities contain doomed people.  Ours aren't in the subway system,
because we don't have one.  Ours are down on South Second Street,
where corporations will pay five dollars for a pint of blood from
the arm of the sick and the desperate.
     But from a distance, Duke City is beautiful.  At dusk on the
top of Nine Mile Hill you can see it all spread out before you
for ten miles up and down the river, all the way across the East
Mesa to the mountains and now partway up the mountains.  Colored
lights, large patterns, no unhappy individuals visible -- it is
beautiful.  Sunshine and I often take visitors from abroad to see
that sight, and they are always thrilled.
     The view from Sandia Crest, on a clear day, or in the
evening, shows off Duke City's strange beauty.  It's less
impressive on brown-cloud days.
     On the whole our people do seem friendlier, at least
compared to the strangers accosted in New York.  Visitors here
often comment on the openness, the quickness with a smile, the 
direct eye-contact that Duke City dwellers are ready to share
with anyone they meet.  Maybe more of our people are beautiful,
but yet the city itself is not.  And there's still South Second
Street, not to mention the nuclear weapons laboratories. 
     I tried to re-open the discussion with Sunshine.  "Both New
York City and Duke City are beautiful, from a distance.  But up
close they're not."
     "What do you mean 'up close'?"
     "Human suffering --"
     "I thought we were talking about beauty," she interrupted.
     "Well, it's not just a visual thing, is it?"
     "Isn't it?  Cities are full of humans, and humans are
suffering, by definition.  You started this by saying Duke City
was ugly.  What did you mean by that?  Every city is ugly, if you
mean human suffering.  Is that all you meant?"
     I was stumped again.  Rome, even the ruins in moonlight, is
not what I'm ready to call beautiful, because I keep dragging
slavery and gladiators into my perception of it.  New York City
is really not beautiful, because of slums and decay and misery. 
Duke City's beauty is spoiled by cynicism and mindlessness and
the underlying suspicion of what they might be doing at those
weapons laboratories.  "I can't keep them at a distance," I said
at last.  "I keep dragging non-visual elements into it.  Moral
elements, you could say.  And then I find ugliness, up close."
     "Sounds to me like you've got the problem," she replied.

                            *   *   *
Copyright © 2000 Harry Willson

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