July 19, 2006

Discerning the City

When I was at the FORGE intensive, you may recall that two days were spent with Urban Seed, an organization that works with their rather peculiar neighbors (an odd mix of the poor, drug addicts, and businessmen) in the city. While there, we were asked to take ten minutes and walk around the block, or at least, walk around in the general area outside the building, and "discern" the city. And we were to remain quiet the whole time.

I must confess, I had no idea what they were talking about.

How does one "discern" a city? It's not like discerning a situation, really, because that would involve information I could process. It was outside my comfort zone, to be sure. But as I walked around, I began to understand what they meant; discerning a city means seeing it as it is, how it exists right now. This is what I wrote when I got back to the room:

The city has a heartbeat. As I walk through the city, I feel drawn along with the people, like blood pulsing through an artery. But I know I'm not supposed to give into simply being pulled along, I am to observe, to discern; so I stop at the corner of two cross-walks. And I notice that the people simply flow around me. I feel the heartbeat, I feel the rhythm. And I notice how incredibly loud the city is; a cacophony of sound, almost numbing between the trams and people and giggling girls and cars and horns and bells. And then I notice that nobody looks at each other. Ever. So many people passing by each other, eyes glued to the pavement in front of them, or the buildings around them, or the advertisements, but nobody was looks at anybody else.

And it feels sad somehow.

When I finally allow myself to move again, I start moving back to the Urban Seed building. On the way, I notice the trees. It’s autumn here, and the leaves are falling from the trees in the city. Nature trying to reclaim the land of the city, but man simply sweeps the leaves into street sweepers and denies nature too much encroachment. The city is clean again.

As people move around me, it begins to dawn on me; as they aren’t looking at other people, so too are they avoiding any eye-contact with me. They do see me, but not as a person sees another person; rather, as a person sees a tree or a bench, something to be moved around; an object. I feel small, insignificant, pithy. The light I felt this city to have is a facade, covering a sadness.


Looking back, it's a bit odd how negative my experience was, especially since I love Melbourne so much. Ever since I got here, I've enjoyed the feel of the city, the food, the ethnic flavors, the buskers playing or drawing or juggling or singing along the sidewalks. During that walk, though, none of this came through to me; I saw the other side of the city, the darker side that it doesn't want to let out.

But I also heard another music in the city; cacophony is just another way of saying infinitely complex. Chaos may simply be order on a higher level than our minds are capable of dealing with. For example, a tree looks to be chaotic until we realize that the chaos is simply a lot of things working in tandem to make the tree live. So too is the city a dynamic organism, with both light and dark sides, which seem to coexist without noticing each other. Urban Seed, it seems to me now, exists to bring the two together, not to coexist, but so the dark can become light.


Anne said...

It seems to me that in the city (I too live in Melbourne) in the same way as leaves are swept away by the street sweeper, we sweep away people's lives - discounting those who don't fit into the culture (like leaves in the city)so that we don't have to see or touch them.

Chris said...

I've been told that by several people, though since I'm relatively new here, I couldn't say so for sure. But I do notice often enough that many - the poor especially, like the ones that busk along the streets like Swanston - are ignored by everybody (including me, which is awful).

Priscilla said...

It really sounds very typical of most cities...you could be describing Rochester, NY.

I think it's human nature not to "see" thing for what they really are. Pray that we would have the "eyes of Christ."