To See Paris and Die

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Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.

Ernest Hemingway, a Moveable Feast

I’ve been told one of the most timeless skills you can acquire is a film education. Quite an obvious observation: it feels like our real lives are in the virtual world. But acquiring an understanding of film has been a process. I started with your vanilla action movies, comedies, and Sci-Fi. Now I’ve progressed onto foreign films, especially those by French directors. I’ve noticed Paris is one of those cities that seems to swallow its country whole; without Paris, France loses its identity. New York as well: remove the city and the state of New York becomes an empty shell.

Paris’ reputation has risen to untold heights simply through the media and just like any other city, it fails our own expectations. In Japanese, there is a word for Paris syndrome: afflicted Japanese faint when seeing Paris for the first time as it does not match up with their reality. It’s not heaven; it can stink; it can be loud and obnoxious and grotesque much like New York, Shanghai, or LA. People claim imperfections are where you find the untouched jewels of a city. The best burritos you’ll have in California will probably be in a hole in a wall that smells like horchata. Actually, the title of this post arises from a book documenting the Cambrian explosion of western culture in Soviet Russia.

Generally, I’m curious on what it would take to restore our major cities to greatness or to build new ones. Why is it that most major metropolitan cities haven’t escaped the trend of rising homeless populations, gentrification, and antiquated zoning laws preventing the creation of new housing a la NIMBY? Our cities are failing us at the exact moment when we’re all moving to urban areas in record numbers.

Given that our current city problems were exacerbated in years past, the rise of the city looks even more remarkable:

“Travellers arriving at New York City’s airports in June 1975 were greeted with possibly the strangest object ever handed out at the portal to a great city: pamphlets with a hooded death’s head on the cover, warning them, “Until things change, stay away from New York City if you possibly can.”

“Welcome to Fear City”
read the stark headline on these pamphlets, which were subtitled “A Survival Guide for Visitors to the City of New York”. Inside was a list of nine “guidelines” that might allow you to get out of the city alive, and with your personal property intact.”

Kevin Baker, The Guardian

The same story happened with London where its population plummeted and despite burgeoning crime, young people stayed in the city and found work. And it is true today: cities are predicted to hold most of the world’s jobs and populations moving forward.

The question is whether urban areas can modernize for the 21st century. Paris actually underwent reconstruction before in what is known as the Haussmann’s renovation of Paris. He thought of Paris as a system – demolishing medieval neighborhoods, creating waste management systems, and built new parks.

The contemporary version of this would be integrating technology into our cities. Sensors in new buildings to detect decay, smart lighting remove static streetlights, and more efficient waste disposal so we avoid the travesty of New York in the summer.

Barcelona is a contemporary example that exemplifies smart urban development. Like a software update, they’ve implemented fiber optics throughout their city – making free high-quality wifi a reality. The city has built over 19500 sensors that monitor energy efficiency and “smart” trash cans that assess the levels of garbage to optimize collection cycles.

From Forbes:

By integrating smart water, lighting and parking management, Barcelona saved €75 million of city funds and created 47,000 new jobs in the smart technology sector.

James Ellsmoor

Holistically, Barcelona’s additions have cut 30% off of total energy usage. What city on America’s west coast can say the same for any urban development they have pursued? Barcelona is just one example of an activist government that understands how technology is helping to do more with less. However, the answer is crystal clear: either we fix our abysmal cities or we’re going to see Skid Rows popping up all over the US.

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