En La Ciudad

Written and Photographed by Federico Mata

The following is a meditation on the effect of cities as simple, curios observer 

“What strange phenomena we find in a great city, all we need do is stroll about with our eyes open. Life swarms with innocent monsters.”
― Charles Baudelaire

I grew up in Los Angeles. With its many freeways, alleyways, hills and endless stream of cars,  this was the norm for me, and really knew nothing else. Cars dominate the area, they are ubiquitous with the landscape and quite frankly unavoidable. With such open spaces in southern California, it made sense, at least to me, that this was land primed for the automobile. It has allowed us the access to visit the many hundreds of miles of beaches, back mountain camp spots, go to Disneyland, and go anywhere else in the interconnected maze of interstate freeways. The central hub, of course, was downtown Los Angeles. Ubiquitous with cheap goods, with equally tacky looking stores, its known as a place of finding the best deals on almost anything. Clothing that disintegrates after a few washes, boot leg and counterfeit watches, toys, electronics and anything else you heart desires is here. In many ways, the L.A. downtown area is just like any other downtown found throughout the country, unless of course, you count in the homelessness rampant throughout the entire city. Los Angeles county has 58,000 homeless people, and according to the L.A Times, 1 in 10 are found in the downtown area known as Skid Row, an area 0.431 miles in size and home to 17,000 people. Add to the ongoing gentrification and continual building of expensive condos, and you have yourself a city on the verge of a cultural bubble. As has happened before, the continual influx of incoming and outgoing residents is changing the landscape once again.

 

A map of Skid Row, where the streets are littered with tents and the most in need of help. Source: Google Maps

This is to say that the city has no soul. According to the United Nations, 54 percent of the world’s population live in cities, with an expected rise to 66% in 2050. Cities are the places where cultures flourish, where thought and innovation spring forth to their most influential spheres, and the place where dreams are made into reality. Yet cities also show the ugliest of human impulses as well. Greed, excess, waste, power, inequality, acquisitiveness to name a few, litter the streets like the same trash that infest the city. Given the importance of cities to humans, it is imperative to take a closer look at the effects of being in cities, what it does to the psyche, and how man relates himself to it. As previously discussed in the article on Dasein, here we will explore the psyche to the structures, streets, and fauna of the streets of a certain city, Los Angeles.

Downtown Los Angeles will be our focal point.

Moving around the area of downtown L.A., you do not have to walk very far to be in opulence of multi-million dollar penthouses and lofts, to the extreme poverty of a tent city. As you exit on 9th street off the 110 freeway, numerous homeless encampments adorn the exit, giving a grim reminder of what the city is going through. Going east on 9th street, new condos are being built called the Metropolis that range in prices from $500,000 to $2 million. Visiting the website, the utopian living of Los Angeles is shown with the clean streets and safety of artist renditions of the ultimate form of success — a condo overlooking the city. Numerous of the new buildings often have sky bars with swimming pools, modern gyms, pet friendly, fiber internet, air conditioning, and a parking space. Life is good if you can afford it. Perhaps you make a high six-figure salary and maybe it can be yours. Also adorning the new buildings are armies of workers maintaining the phallic edifices in tip top shape. Busboys, janitors, maintenance crews, security, valet parking, ushers, and front desk employees all add to the growing economy of Los Angeles. Most of these jobs are done by the large immigrant population, and most recently, Los Angeles declared itself a sanctuary city which has been controversial. Yet the fact remains that in this bustling city, a diaspora of people making their lives adds to the overall character of this strange conglomerate of concrete and steel. A very human element is here, where straight lines try to impose on nature the will of their inhabitants the desire for order, strength, and meaning.

As imposing as these structures are, all the available space created in these beasts of steel are used in the corporate world. A world which is privy to the human potential of creating capital. The ebb and flow of these very human concepts allows for cities such as Los Angeles to be built and maintained for the creation of even larger capital. With this new capital other cities are benefited and more and more material wealth is created, leading humanity to higher potentials in all fields of progress. Or so it seems. Underneath these engineering marvels lies the arteries of a past city that championed itself as a traveling hub of without the need for automobiles, streetcars that were once efficient being dismantled by the need for profits and greater freedom of the automobile. Smog would ensue, and as traffic and population increased, the city gave out its old ways and into the new age of fossil fuels. As noted by the amount of street construction found in downtown, there seems to be an endless stream of road repair at any given time. From the early dirt roads of the city, it seems to be a never ending stream of CalTrans workers in manholes repairing one thing or another. The city needs constant maintenance in order to survive.

 

In order for a city to survive its own weight, daily maintenance is required. It would be interesting to see this applied to the embodiment of self.

This had me wonder about the relationship of humans to our daily maintenance. That is to say, what type of regular maintenance do we allow ourselves to have for out greater good? Besides the regular diet and exercise,  the upkeep and health of our mental state is always at risk. Just like the city is a reflection of who we are, it tends to suffer from the same ailments that we have in our deepest reaches of consciousness. The trash on the streets, the homeless person looking for shelter, digging holes and paving roads, policing, sky high rents, partying, culture, music, the arts, bouts of schizophrenia, confusion, streets that have dead ends, closed roads, farmer markets, dirty shops, expensive shops, too much food, overfilled trash cans, broken windows… all add to the same problems of our mental states, metaphorically speaking.

A homeless man sleeps on a bus bench as car zip by. We all pass by that which needs the most attention.
Cars spend about 90% of their lifetimes parked according to some estimates. How much space does the unneeded take on our lives?

All the clutter in our minds tend to make confusion great and direction lost. So we tend to ask others for a general direction to take. We look for strangers in the cities to tell us the way. Not that life is any different, but given time, we can ask the right people where to go. It is of little wonder that Los Angeles has the largest mental health department in the United States. 1 in 6 people in the US is on one sort of psychiatric medication. Searching Google for psychologists in Los Angeles turned 259,000,000 hits. Where have we gone wrong? What turns do we take to really go where we want to go? The brilliant R.D. Laing in his monumental work, The Politics of Experience, says the following:

“The condition of alienation, of being asleep, of being unconscious, of being out of one’s mind, is the condition of the normal man. Society highly values its normal man. It educates children to lose themselves and to become absurd, and thus to be normal. Normal men have killed perhaps 100,000,000 of their fellow normal men in the last fifty years.”

He continues to ad:

“We all live under the constant threat of our own annihilation. Only by the most outrageous violation of ourselves have we achieved our capacity to live in relative adjustment to a civilization apparently driven to its own destruction.”
Our sanity has become normalized to the effect that it resembles all our society. Insanity on the other hand, a root of the word “sanitize,” is not seen as something normal, yet we witness it almost daily in any given city. The person mumbling and talking to himself as you drink coffee, the irreverent driving on the streets, noise of a mad city unable to sleep, are all symptoms of a place guided by the same principles that rule us — a search for meaning.
A passerby with an American flag walks out the Los Angeles Central Library as many more homeless are sleeping right on the stairs of the building.
The U.S. Bank Tower, a 73-story conglomerate of major law firms, rises to the sky as an ironic beacon in a city where laws tend to fail.

Are we to seek laws in order for us to feel safe and secure about our daily experiences? As Plato via Socrates noted 2,000 years ago, that good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly. Yet why do we insist on having so many laws and guidelines with ourselves? Is not having a moral compass necessary? How is modern day living changing all of this? We seek wisdom from many locations, a church seems to be on every corner in this town. Salvation is only a block away. The Central Library is repose compared to the mini-churches around the city, where the millions of volumes of information and true salvation await are left to the cobwebs for a single book. The strange dichotomy of the wealth of information that is available in a city and those that choose not to pursue it is staggering. Perhaps it is a human, all too human condition, as Nietzsche noted, that “one thinks he is speaking well of philosophy when he presents it as a substitute religion for the people.” Maybe the religion we all have, the search for meaning, leads us to dwell within ourselves to such a point as to render a city as a necessity. Could be toxic, could be beneficial, after all, a city is only a mirror of us.

The constant construction of the city should remind us to keep building ourselves to the highest levels. Just be careful that the higher the climb, the thinner the air.

 

“For those who are lost, there will always be cities that feel
like home.”  ― Simon Van Booy

Model: Mariana López

@marianasofialg

 

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