Cities and Memory

ChicagoThe anxeity of new places is overwhelming. The thought of ‘where do I go,’ ‘what should I do,’ and ‘where am I supposed to be’ gnaw at the stranger in new territory.

One of the primary ways we understand new places and experiences is through our past. What we know serves as an interface to what we have yet to know.

Walking through the narrow streets of The Ironbound I’m overwhelmed by the associations I make to places I’ve known before. The flow of Spanish coming from the fast mouths of pedestrians is the rhythm of central and eastern Los Angeles. The cactus pieces at the supermarket are the same as those from Union and 6th.

On the street, people are strewn about their stoops; waiting, it seems, for day to melt into night. Unmoved and relaxed upon the concrete steps, they enjoy the luxury of summer while it’s still here. I’ve seen them before on Kimball in Logan Square. There is the little boy on his new silver bike.

It is unfair to allow memories to color our new experiences. Every city is not the same. Each life is outstanding and unique. Is there a point, one I have not reached yet, where the memories do fade into the background, and the places that were new emerge as separate entities radiating a life of their own? Or are we always seeing the same places over and over again, just telling it with different words? Every place mallieable, and always coming into being?

Calvino explores it better than I do in Invisible Cities:

(Marco Polo begins)

“Sire, now I have told you about all the cities I know.”

Marco Polo bowed his head.

“Venice,” the Khan said.

Marco smiled. “What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?”

The emperor did not turn a hair. “And yet I have never heard you mention that name.”

And Polo said: “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.”

“When I ask you about other cities, I want to hear about them. And about Venice, when I ask you about Venice.”

“To distinguish the other cities’ qualities, I must speak of a first city that remains implicit. For me it is Venice.”

“You should then begin each tale of your travels from the departure, describing Venice as it is, all of it, not omitting anything you remember of it.”

“Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased,” Polo said. “Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.”

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~ by Em on August 24, 2009.

One Response to “Cities and Memory”

  1. listened to Lauryn Hill’s Every Ghetto Every City, and thought of your blog.

    “Every ghetto, every city and suburban place I’ve been makes me recall my days in the new Jerusalem”

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