Glamorous City/Fearsome Ghetto

"There's an original definition of the word glamour that I did not know about until I read fantasy novels. A glamour is a kind of magical spell, originally. To wear a glamour is to surround yourself with a kind of aura that causes people to see you in a different way, to see you as you are not--it's a disguise. And being on television, I've discovered, is sort of like wearing a disguise; one you didn't necessarily decide to put on, and only other people can actually see it."

So said John Hodgman in a recent piece on This American Life. Hodgeman was speaking about his own newfound celebrity, but what he was saying fit in nicely with a concept that I've been mulling for quite some time: the Glamorous City. Contemporary cities tend to be viewed in one of two ways: they are either dangerous, crime-ridden ghettoes or glittering hives of conspicuous consumption. Cities portrayed as healthy or attractive by the mainstream media (and, from what I can tell, popular opinion) tend to be those that have all of the amenities of the celebrity lifestyle. They are capitals of glamorous, high-tech industries and are rife with gentrification and urban chain stores. Austin, San Francisco, Seattle, and Miami -- these cities dazzle and delight the upper and upper-middle classes, who move into renovated lofts and edgy new condo towers and create a new influx of tax dollars that are supposed to benefit the host cities, but usually wind up providing increased police protection and granite flower planters in the areas from whence the new cash flows.

Now, there's nothing wrong with rich people living in nice neighborhoods. That's pretty much inevitable. What's troublesome about the Glamorous City is that it is a powerfully intoxicating concept that it fits perfectly into that quintessentially American ideal of moving to the city to "make it." But after making it, part two of the dream sequence is the move to a sprawling estate, or at least a house with a front and back yard, in the suburbs. The Glamorous City is a place that does not make room for children...its shimmering skyscrapers often (literally) cast shadows onto the other side of this painful dichotomy -- the Fearsome Ghetto.

The Glamorous City is a mirage. It is a transient place where only the richest of the rich stay put (often because they can afford to own a number of getaway homes elsewhere.) This impossibly attractive metropolis ignores what cities are about, advertising all of the perks of city life (fine dining, active arts communities, exciting nightlife) while not requiring residents to stick around long enough to need to care about dealing with all of the problems. The Glamorous City, then, creates the Fearsome Ghetto, as its sustainability (no green implications, for once) requires the parallel existence of an underclass, both to serve and to provide contrast. Glamorous Cities sparkle on our TV screens, promising luxury and privilege; meanwhile, those who live in the city (or have no choice but to), those who are a part of the actual urban community, don't see the mirage. They're left with the reality.

More on this throughout the week.

(Photo from Flickr user shadeofmelon.)

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