01 August 2003

the postmodern city

In his Against Christianity, Leithart quotes Graham Ward's book Cities of God where Ward describes the postmodern city:The staging of public spectacle (festivals for this and that, open-air concerts in central parks, etc.), the exaltation of kitsch, the glorification of the superficial, the enormous investment in sports and leisure centers, the new commodification of the city's past (manufacturing a nostalgia that substitutes for continuity and tradition), the inflationary suggestions of its state-of-the-art future, its 'under-construction' technicolour present (China towns, heritage centers, gay villages, theme bars, etc.)--these are the characteristics of the new city-myth.Leithart comments that this vision of the artificial postmodern city "perpetuates the modernist revolt against ritual. Spectacle is no substitute, manufactured spectacle especially. The postmodern city continues the modernist project--civic life without rituals or unifying festivals" (74-75).

I think this analysis is, to a large degree, correct. Still, having lived almost my whole life in Philadelphia, I sense that this city hasn't succumbed entirely to this de-ritualization of culture, the modernist tradition of living beyond all traditions. And that makes me wonder why this is so. This is not to say that Philadelphia doesn't, to some degree, fit Ward's description, but the city hasn't given itself over entirely to the new city-myth.

Several factors account for Philadelphia's resistance, I suspect.

First, we remain a city of organic neighborhoods, often fiercely ethnic in their identity and maintaining inter-generational continuity, but mostly without the kind of self-promotion and ironic self-branding that Ward intimates. The Italians occupy South Philly, the Irish keep a presence in various places, and elsewhere there remain long-standing communities of Poles, Slavs, African-Americans, and others. Even our relative newcomers--Latinos, Koreans, Ethiopians, and so on--have woven themselves into these larger patterns of neighborhood and ethnicity.

Second, Philadelphia is a largely Roman Catholic city. This translates, often enough, into local neighborhood festivals that remain still quite overtly ritual and religious in nature, celebrating the feast day of the parish's patron saint, complete with street processions, or ethnic feasts and parties that overflow out of parish church halls whether Ukranian Catholic or Korean Presbyterian. Thus there is a sense of ritual, rooted in faith and tradition and not yet entirely commodified, that still structures the patterns of festivity and public space of Philadelphia. One thinks also of the yearly new year's Mummers parade with its roots in European post-Christmas festivals, brigades often still receiving a blessing from the parish priest before they embark on their annual strut.

Third, as a city that was central in our nation's founding, Philadelphia's larger city-wide events are often national and patriotic in nature, calling upon significant symbols and rituals of American identity--the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the ritual tapping of the Liberty Bell, the writing of the Constitution, and the marking out of "sacred" sites such as Independence Hall or Betsy Ross's house. Every Fourth of July is marked by the grand center city fireworks display and its smaller analogues in local communities throughout the area, forging a sense of connectedness. These events are not the wholly artificial spectacles that Ward cites, but remain rooted in our common history and heritage, even if they remain merely civic in nature and gloss over the darker aspects of that history.

None of these aspects of Philadelphia are unambiguous or entirely outside the forces of (post)modernism that would seek to appropriate them to their own end. But a resistance remains and I am sure this is true of many other older cities. And such an already present resistance is a source of hope. In the context of that resistance, if our churches can begin to recognize themselves again as public space, then perhaps the church can recover sacramentality as constituting a new civic order and, flowing from that, give rise to and reform existing public festivals and patterns which might help our cities to better embody the fruit of the Gospel.