Sunday, December 13, 2009

Die mythisch verloren stadt!

There's been a bit of a dust up in the past decade concerning one of the most American of themes- the mythical city of riches! The Ancient City of Z has been profiled again in recent years as new archeological efforts and methods, including aerial photography and satellite imagery, have revealed the existence of sophisticated urban cultures existing in the Amazon river basin for hundreds of years prior to European arrival.

These revelations have brought about the vindication of one Sir Percy Harrison Fawcett, a debonair adventurer extraordinaire from Victorian England. He spent his formative years at the turn of the 20th century studying the historical accounts of the Spanish Conquistadors and their search for the City of El Dorado. He pursued a popular idea of the time that claimed a mythical city of fabulous riches existed deep in the heart of the Amazon. In the prime of his life he took off into the jungle Aguirre-like with his son and some hired help and was never heard from again (apart from a few letters sent by dispatch). The jungle ate him and over time he was both lionized as a courageous hero and a crazy man who died running a fool's errand. As time went by and biological theories evolved the idea of an inhospitable Amazon fit nicely into theories of both biological and environmental determinism. The City of Z was rarely considered. Until it was found!

In the last 6 years or so, a number of discoveries prove that the Amazon did indeed support large populations of people living sedentary lives based on sophisticated methods of agriculture and aquaculture and the accompanying cultural and religious accoutrements (ritual, astronomy, engineering, virgin sacrifice- err, maybe not that one. whatever). Anthropologist Michael Heckenberger and others are now working feverishly to publish their work concerning the massive earthworks, mystical astronomical sites, and large scale farming which provide compelling evidence of pre-Colombian urbanism in the Americas. The raw material of a winning entry in the next sexy infrastructure competition can surely be found by googling "ancient. Amazon. civilization".

At any rate, I'm not particularly concerned with the City of Z, the Stonehenge of the Amazon, or the sophisticated farming techniques of the pre-Colombian Americans. I am intrigued by the larger pattern of mythical American cities- El Dorado, Tenochtitlan, City of Z, Denver, San Francisco, and New York. Interestingly, the most prominent writing on the work being done in the Amazon has not been by any anthropologists or geographers but rather by two writers, Charles Mann and David Grann. Both have even penned entire books on the subject before the scientists have cleared peer review. It is indicative of the power of myth in our collective conscious; the myths are more fundamental than the facts.

Mythical cities across the world hold an allure, be it Jerusalem or Paris or Mandalay. But in the Americas they are of a different nature. In the Americas they are not defined by religion and history, and iconic cultural figures as they tend to be elsewhere. This may be because the Americas are dominated immigrants; few indigenous people have a stake, and most of the current inhabitants are the not-too-distant descendants of an ambitious, hard-scrabble folk and their slaves. Regardless, mythical American cities tend to be defined by three things: bigness, riches, and autonomy. They are the manifestations of desperate dreams and prodigious successes built on the broken backs of the masses. But the masses had their chance too, at least in the mythology.

The late historian Gunther Barth has a whole chapter in Instant Cities titled "Reluctant Citizens".  His point was that the creation of city in the case of San Francisco and Denver was initially a side effect, that the city building was a process of amalgamation, a bunch of people in close proximity doing what they came to do. City-as-side effect is not an anomaly in of itself, (see Barth's chapter "Variations of a City Type" for his explanation on the city-as-emporium typology), but as a residue of the pursuit of riches, bigness, and autonomy it is an American phenomenon. In the post-Colombian history of the Americas the mythical American City- the place of riches, bigness, and autonomy- has been reborn in various locations.  First it was the golden cities of the sixteenth century, New York in the 1700's, San Francisco and the West in the 1800's, Los Angeles in the 20th century (it will likely be a Brazilian city soon).  It is this myth and its myriad variations and iterations that sucked conquistadors into the jungle, drew Europeans to New York, pushed Americans out west, drove Mexicans to the North (explored in the most troubling and twisted of ways by Bill Vollmann in his recent book).

The myths of a city serve a particular purpose, be it economic, political, social, or otherwise.  The can be affected from without or propagated from within. But these myths attract people, money, and power and the contribute to the settlement patterns and shaping of the environment.  The American City myth is a good one- it may never die.

I'm not sure of the influence of a city's mythology on the design of its public spaces.  The germane nature of mythology in the making of some cities suggests a close yet indeterminate relationship.  The most interesting waterfront park to open in New York in the recent boon is the above East River State Park.  Like most other waterfront parks in the city it is a former industrial site that was cleaned up a bit and surrounded with the ubiquitous New York City park fence.  Some of the industrial relics were preserved, in this case a concrete pad and some low muscular walls.  The designers' description states simply that "RGR used existing concrete walls and platforms as a starting point for the scheme. The plan included re-grading of the site to create graceful slopes of grasses and wildflowers."  I think the designers are being modest.  Three of the characters in the mythology of New York City- the skyline, the river, and the bridges- are very present and the designers showed great restraint in engaging them in a subtle and direct way.  It is totally devoid of ostentation.  It is not ecstatic, precious or over-programmed.  It is unique in the city.

Anyways, it is all well and good that the more robust and vital the mythology of a city, the more times it can reinvent and revive itself. Of course, if an immigrant wave arrives on its shores with a particular resistance to pathogens cultivated through living in filth, the city and its indigenous population might be in trouble. I myself have been drinking from East River, just so I don't meet the same fate as the people of the City of Z when New York reawakens and the new wave arrives.


  1. Even though you might not be interested in the city of Z dig this quote from Mike Heckenberger's webpage, from his 2008 article on these settlements and their land use patterns.

    These patterns constitute a "galactic" form of prehistoric urbanism, sharing features with small-scale urban polities in other areas.

  2. yes, i read a lot about his work down there and the few others that are trying to bring this evidence to the surface. heckenberger in particular seems to have some wonderfully outrageous claims that are being born out by facts to some extent.

    i think the City of Z is awesome. more appropriately, i think the idea of it is awesome, which i think is common (as evidenced by the two author's recent works) and indicative of our need for these myths more than the facts of what happened down there.

  3. Thank you for the introduction to East River State Park. From your description and the photos, I can't wait to visit it next time I'm in New York.

  4. there are good, free concerts there during the summer. it's a stunning setting for a concert.

    it's also beautiful and quiet in the evening. the sun sets behind manhattan. a sharp contrast with the developer-driven properties in the area.