Looking at a City

From the rooftop, we can see the river, floating lazily down a small valley between banks. It is a shining ribbon, gray and murky, but still reflective of buildings rising on either side of it. On one side, the buildings are tall and made of glass. On the other, neighborhoods span grid-like. Tree-lined streets are spots of green, interspersed with black roofs. It is a different view from way up here, viewing the city as an architect or city planner, seeing it in its entirety.

“Crossing the Willamette” by Beth Kerschen

Seeing my world from way up here, I feel as though I am on one of my daily walks, traveling from street to street, always a different street, each path a different experience. It always amazes me how walking one block over can change my experience of place- new houses, new yards, to see, new porches to imagine sitting on, new gardens, new chicken coops. New sights, new smells, expanding my vision of my neighborhood and my city. The practice of walking on a different street every time bridges my understanding between map and reality, of bus route , bike route, running route and walking route becoming an interconnected fabric. The grid of our city is connected but sometimes this is hard to grasp if one takes the same streets every day in their journeys. If 35th Street is your normal route, 34th Street can seem like a foreign land upon its first walking.

a dandelion gone to seed on Thurman Street

I have seen many things on these walks. I have seen a cat peering into holes intently, tail twitching next to a little red wagon left in the middle of a sidewalk. I have seen tiny chipmunks darting into the road, pausing frantically as I brake quickly to avoid them. I notice in this brief moment that it is holding a nut in its mouth that is bigger than its head. I have seen dog walkers in the dark and quiet hush of 6:30 AM, melting into the shadows of street trees. I have seen tiny “Free” signs, propped up next to boxes of dilapidated  clothing and electronics, wet with dew. I have seen yards filled with kids toys, fire pits, abundant gardens, and bee hives. I peer over fences to see people’s possessions and creations. I stop to stretch while admiring a Japanese sand garden on someone’s front porch. I see a shopping cart, piled high with someone’s every possession, cords of electronics dangling between the metal. I will notice these things with rapt attention. In doing so, I get to know my neighborhood and its creatures, its characters, its buildings, and hidden pathways. I will notice these things with rapt attention, for those who won’t.

So for those who won’t, I peer out over the city. From the rooftop, it is a maze of asphalt streets, paved driveways, avenues of trees. A patchwork quilt of color and texture, beautiful, a portrait. But I know that in the seams of each patchwork piece lies a sidewalk, and in each seam of the sidewalk lies a crack, and in this crack is an ant, climbing up a blade of grass. And on this grass is a small bead of dew, fallen from a tree above. And on this tree sits a cat, twitching its tail, eying the chickens in the yard next door. And the owner of those chickens is sitting on his porch, fixing his bike and listening to jazz music. And it goes on, the fabric of a city, as it inhales and exhales. Breathing every minute, day after day.

photo of Portland by Rachel Sandwick

A city is alive, inexhaustible, in flux. Rebecca Solnit says, “no two people live in the same city.” We all perceive our ever changing landscape through a different lens- different emotions, different motivations, different passions, different interests. But somehow, we all live in the same geographic space, sometimes touching and parting ways, sometimes just seeing them through the window of a passing train. Alexander Hemon says that all the people we will never know are all around us, holding in their hands all the lives that we could live. Some stop us on the street and offer us these gifts. Some tap us on the shoulder and steal from behind our backs. But every person we brush arms with is someone special. A possible friendly face, someone to know. But few of these people we live with will actually see the beauty of our smiles or feel the reassuring squeeze of our comforting hands. They, and we, just go on with their lives, paddling down their own streams as we embark down ours.

So what came before? What came before these street trees, their roots pushing underground, some pushing up, causing the crack in the sidewalk? Who walked these streets; Who paved them? Who enjoyed watching the trees outside their window turn the fiery colors of fall? Who planted those trees? Who serves coffee down the street? Who ground that first bean in this city that sparked a fire of caffeine-induced obsession in this place? Who is that riding ahead of me on the bridge? Who helped build the bridge? Better yet, who drew the plans? Who are these people currently creating this city and do they know their brothers of the past? Do we know the brothers of our past? When will we meet the lovers of our future? Who will hold our hands and sip coffee with us by the light of a Sunday morning sunrise? These are all the questions we ask, their answers evading us until we are living them. All we can do meanwhile is view the patchwork of a place we love from a rooftop, and imagine where we will build our house.

Flood control near the Morrison Bridge in 1948. Source: City of Portland Archives via Vintage Portland


3 thoughts on “Looking at a City

  1. Pingback: In the time when Mountains were people «

  2. Pingback: After sunrise | in the midst

  3. Pingback: traversing The City | in the midst

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