What's a City Worth?

Cities hold riches of memory, but they are also wonders of forgetting.This paradox is key to their magic, the endless possibility they promise to those who seek it and to the democracies they push to evolve.

On July 1, 2018, I arrived in Warsaw for a month-long fellowship with Humanity in Action, co-sponsor (with the Bertelsmann Foundation) of the "How to Fix Democracy" interview series. The program brought together 24 young people from a handful of countries to a small hostel on historic Długa Street, barely a block away from the Polish supreme court building and the Warsaw Uprising Monument. Our purpose was to learn about human rights, pluralism and democracy. These are not abstract concepts in Poland, where two days after our arrival, the ruling Law and Justice party passed legislation severely limiting judicial independence, one of the guiding principles of liberal democracy.

Democracy can be a quiet, private matter…

Protests erupted, and thousands of Poles descended on Monument square to protest against the new law. After long days spent discussing the erosion of Polish democracy, we encountered a vivid, real-life demonstration of the people’s, and the city’s, response to that erosion. Some might have called it a classic example of democracy in action. Democracy can be a quiet, private matter: discreetly casting a ballot, writing polite letters to elected officials. But it is also the thunderous roar of thousands chanting the words “democracy” and “constitution” loud enough to be heard by an authoritarian president in his palace halfway across town. Democracy may afford us the peace and security to sleep at night, but as I learned during my month in Warsaw, it can also keep you awake.

But it is also the thunderous roar of thousands chanting the words “democracy” and “constitution” loud enough to be heard by an authoritarian president in his palace halfway across town.”

Inevitably, I joined the crowd. Some nights I was unable to force my way through the throng of protesters and reach the hostel, so I took up a spot and did my best to join in the chants. I managed to snag a poster that has since become a symbol of the fight for liberal democracy in Poland—a fight that has only become more urgent. The poster, illustrated by Luka Rayski, proclaims the word KONSTYTUCJA (“constitution”) in bold lettering. Within that word, two smaller ones are highlighted: ty and ja—you and I. The poster is a clear defense of the 1997 constitution, the foundation of contemporary Polish democracy. But it’s also an entreaty, an invitation. It reminds people of their duty to fellow citizens; it emphasizes that we are all in this together, for better or worse. Like Walt Whitman, who proclaimed in his poem “Song of Myself” that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”, the Polish protesters were sending a message of fellowship, recognition and profound belief in the human capacity for togetherness. The poster asks those who see it to join hands in the eternal human struggle for liberty and happiness.

Those two little words also encapsulate the central tension that exists in any democracy, and in any city. It’s no secret that you and I—people in general—don’t always get along. In all societies, disagreement is inevitable. Balancing individual freedom with the collective interest is one of the reasons we need democracy in the first place. Under the freedoms guaranteed by liberal democracy, my right to swing my fist ends at your face, and vice versa. It’s up to democracy to establish the laws, customs and institutions that, if they are successful, ensure no noses get broken in the course of the tumultuous business we call human civilization. But democracy works only if both you and I are allowed to participate fully and make our voices heard. One of the chief tests of any democracy is its ability to allow—indeed, to encourage—a wide range of perspectives, a whole host of voices speaking their own needs, desires and ideas.

In December 2021, the Bertelsmann Foundation and Humanity in Action published a book based on the "How to Fix Democracy" interview series, now in its fourth season. When crafting the book, we sought to embrace the messiness and beauty of the polyphony that is inherent in democracy, its cityscape of sonic potential. By bringing together a wide range of voices—economists, writers, professors, politicians, activists and others—we aimed to spark the thoughts, conversations and debates that will be essential to fixing our breaking and broken democracies. From a rich cornucopia of recorded interviews (all available online), we chose the most compelling snippets and arranged them in a way that, we hoped, would let them play with and against each other. Just like citizens of a democracy—or denizens of a bustling city—the interviewees quoted in the book sometimes agree. Perhaps more often, they do not. By crystallizing some of their most provocative and insightful words on the printed page, we hoped to stimulate similar moments of productive agreement and disagreement out in the world.

Now, as Russian President Vladimir Putin's war on Ukraine stretches into its tenth month, it would be easy to think our aim inconsequential, or even foolish. But I do not think that way. Any attempt at conversation and the happy embrace of friction—any attempt at memory—is worth it, especially when the moral strength of the metropolis seems uncertain. Cities have long been engines of democratic advancement, but it seems reasonable now to ask: Where is democracy, and where is the city?

“Cities hold riches of memory, but they are also wonders of forgetting. This paradox is key to their magic, the endless possibility they promise to those who seek it and to the democracies they push to evolve.”

Particiopating, in a small way, as an oustider in Warsaw's democratic struggle made me think hard about cities and their importance to democracy. Each morning, I traced a path along what, in not-too-distant memory, was the edge was the edge of the Warsaw Ghetto. I knew the significance of my steps, but it would’ve been easy to forget or not realize, given the way the city has built over and around its own history. Cities hold riches of memory, but they are also wonders of forgetting. This paradox is key to their magic, the endless possibility they promise to those who seek it and to the democracies they push to evolve.

I’m from the conservative suburbs of Dallas, Texas, where some people don’t much care for cities, whether Big D or New York City or Washington, DC, much less foreign cities such as London, Warsaw or Kyiv. And it isn’t just conservative suburbanites who doubt the wisdom and goodness of cities. Progressives see them, sometimes rightly, as hotbeds of inequality and neoliberalism. Thomas Jefferson favored an agrarian, rather than a cosmopolitan, vision of America. The COVID-19 pandemic weakened many cities and caused even lifelong residents to pack up and leave, perhaps never to return. What good is a city, these people might ask. What’s a city worth?

I would answer: an awful lot. City-states, most famously Athens, gave birth to democracy. As several interviewees, however, note in the book, Athens wasn’t the only place to do so, and its slave-based society was profoundly unequal. Several Native American peoples embraced democratic forms in a wildly more inclusive manner. We should also remember that Montesquieu considered small nations, and especially self-contained city-states, the most viable long-term platforms for democracy. He was wrong—the continued success of the United States, despite ongoing threats to its democratic stability, proves as much—but he was also on to something. Of course, cities don’t guarantee anything. Visitors to Majdanek can’t help but be shocked by the death camp’s proximity to Lublin. So much for the city’s civilizing effects. And wide-open space, agricultural potential, plenty of room for people to live how they choose are stabilizing elements worth, perhaps, as much to democracies as the potentially destabilizing yet socializing ferment of cities.

Cities bring you and me into intoclose, sometimes uncomfortably close, quarters—in the streets and subways, in bars and cafés, in apartment buildings, in parks, at protests. More than anything else, the democratic strength of cities is their ability to make cohabiting with perfect strangers seem, as if by magic, perfectly natural and even pleasant. To say "city" is to say "possibility", and perhaps even to say "love": the teeming and toiling, wearied and rejoicing city a beautiful mess of experiment, improvisation, friction, spark, jazz. Those of us who are drawn to cities know this thrill, which is at least as vital to a country’s democratic flourishing as the peace, quiet and security of open, agrarian space. At the least, democracy without the city would be slower to change (and democracy, by design, is slow to change anyway!), less tolerant and more suspicious of itself. It would also be boring, and bored people generally don’t make for happily democratic people.

In the January 3, 2022 and January 10, 2022 issues of The New Yorker, a poem by the Polish poet Tadeusz Dąbrowski shocked me with its loveliness and its striking yet unassuming political valence. “Bouquet” (translated by the stalwart Antonia Lloyd-Jones) is 13 lines: six unrhymed couplets and a final, singleton line. The poem is about a girl, “Paulina, the gardener’s daughter”, who “cares / about flowers doomed to die.” Caring Paulina receives a bouquet and “gently places it in the hospice / of a vase”. As the flowers wilt and weaken, she trims them, removes the dead ones and makes what seems like a new bouquet out of what remains. By the end of the poem, we are told that Paulina’s love for, and belief in, flowers is so strong that she “sees a bouquet in the vase / even when it’s not there anymore”.

I would humbly suggest that thinking, talking, writing about—chasing after, desperately grasping for!—democracy is an exercise in belief no less arduous, miraculous and perfectly natural than Paulina’s. Unlike Putin’s deranged and feeble autocracy, which like all autocracies depends on force and coercion, democracy depends on belief, even when it’s not there anymore. In a strange way, so does the strength and energy of cities. Witness the resilience of New York and other cities throughout the pandemic. People, like Paulina’s flowers, are doomed to die, but perhaps democracy, and the city, too, is not.

A dear friend in Kyiv tells me that now the fighting has shifted, and her beloved city (which she refused to leave all along, instead staying behind and organizing relief efforts for the elderly) has blossoming trees and flowers. Shops and cafes are reopening, and people are walking around and attempting something like normal life again. Through it all has been the belief of people like my friend that their democracy was still there, would always be there, and will always be worth fighting for. Where is democracy? In Kyiv, if anywhere—always, always in the great city. Belief seems like a simple thing, but it’s desperately hard to make it happen on a large scale. It’s difficult, but not impossible, for everyone at once to see a bouquet in the vase even when it’s not there anymore, not there yet.

For a long time, the possibility inherent in cities, the belief in their power to make things move in new and better ways, has found an especially strong foothold in the young—those who have always been drawn to the city by dreams of making their own way, doing their own thing and perhaps making their world a better place. Even as I write this, I am preparing to move to New York, the city of Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, Amy Clampitt and so many others, the city of rife inequality coupled with infinite, indeed somehow democratic, possibility.

Of course, youth has no monopoly on the revolutionary spirit that has always pushed democracy to evolve, the spirit that makes its most enduring and powerful home in cities around the world. During that summer of protest in Warsaw, the thousands of people in the crowd ranged from frustrated teenagers to equally frustrated grandfathers, from businesspeople carrying briefcases to mothers carrying newborns, the youngest generation who will one day, we can only hope, demand the dignity and freedom that democracy bestows on the people who are prepared to protect it.


Originally published
in Transponder Issue #3: Resilience
Dec 8, 2022

Kenny Martin