I walked along the edge of one of the most beautiful public spaces in the world, illuminated by the moon and Christmas lights. Snow was falling on the desolate square, three virtually abandoned buildings framed its southern edge and I knew that somewhere thousands of people were clamoring for more shaped and processed corn sweetener at a mall food court. There are millions, perhaps billions, who live their lives with a faint hope only of glimpsing man made beauty, they live in squalor, they die in squalor, and in between their lives are nasty, brutish, and short, but here beauty could envelop us.
We live in a place where the height of prosperity was reached in an epoch in which, over a span of one hundred years, the United States reached its architectural apex. Here the poor hunker down in Victorian houses, and huddle in mansard brownstones. We carry out the business of dismantling our legacy, consuming our seed corn, in temples fit for Athena. The homeless use public toilets as private baths in libraries the architectural perfection of which would make a florentine prince envious, our schools, our oldest schools, have built in bookcases and drawers crafted from old growth hardwoods and auditoriums as grand as royal theaters.
Beautiful churches, real churches with rough hewn granite, magnificent towers, and stone statuary are abandoned, and people attend services in spaces meant for small scale commerce. Ease of parking shifts the routine of our daily lives out of a place where the vernacular and the classical mix and match and interplay into an asphalt-scaped nowhere in which the backlit sign at the street and the cartoon figures hovering over the doorway signal to the consumer the nature of the products to be gorged upon within.
All over the city classical arches frame neighborhoods where people flee over Beaux Arts bridges to places where disposable drywall, acoustic ceiling tiles, and linoleum floors frame every aspect of life. America’s immersive ugliness, the impoverishment of its public spaces, is not universal and is by no means obligatory. In Madrid, and in Paris, and in Lisbon there are neighborhoods with little or no artfulness in their construction and their design, there are slapdash streets and artless sidewalks, but the people who live there have been consigned to that place, they know that there is another which is better and, while they may not live in it, they may visit it, see it, appreciate it, and learn from it. Perhaps they even gain a little humanity from it.
Here the people whose lives extend beyond the bottom rungs of humanity’s hierarchy of needs never choose to witness The City Beautiful, and those engaged in nothing but struggle cannot look up to contemplate their surroundings. If our society does not change course this virtual forest of architectural splendor will come crashing to the ground having made not a single sound.