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The glorious potential of cities; or, How eight square blocks can change the world



"We need to figure out the city. Or we die."

Last fall, David Simon -- creator of acclaimed television shows The Wire and Treme -- delivered an incendiary talk (is there any other kind from Simon?) about the alarming rise of American inequality at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney, Australia.

The global news media loved it, of course. The Guardian cleverly headlined the transcript with click-worthy hyperbole: "My country is a horror show." It went viral. You could almost hear the collective glee around the world at such a wounding stab to American hubris from a decorated son. (Watch Simon's talk at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas here.)

Simon isn't a MacArthur "genius" grant recipient for no reason. Six years later, The Wire remains the undisputed best dramatic series of all time. His storytelling about life in West Baltimore and New Orleans captured the imagination of the urban-curious everywhere, revealing stark truths about what happens to people and places left behind.

Like many Detroiters (and surely many Model D readers), I am an avid fan of Simon. I revisit his words often -- especially now, as I sit in Tremé, the oldest black neighborhood in America, thinking about Detroit.
Treme, New OrleansRecently, I went back to re-watch this controversial talk and discovered something I missed before: a blunt but beautiful passage about the "glorious potential" of cities, embedded in his post-talk Q&A.

It blew me away.

In one unscripted monologue, he captures so much of how I feel about Detroit these days -- and what I wish more Americans understood about the power of cities and the great opportunity and responsibility of our interconnectivity.

In his own words:

David Simon"I was astonished when people started writing about The Wire and said, 'Man, Baltimore is messed up. Why don't they move? Why don't they leave?'

First of all, we thought we were being allegorical for America, as an urban people, and where we were headed. We thought what we were writing had relevance to other cities.

But more than that: We need to figure out the city. Or we die.

I enjoy nothing more than listening to the speeches at a Republican political convention, as you might guess. I find them enormously entertaining. And a couple cycles ago we were treated to a lot of talk about the 'real Americans' and representing the 'real Americans' and small town values.

If you think about that for a moment, and you move past the code -- the racial code -- that is offered there, it is an astonishingly absurd notion. Small town values are not going to get humanity out of the fix of the 21st century. They're not.

Karachi had 400,000 people at the end of World War II; it's got something like 25 million now. Mexico City….I can give you numbers. We're becoming increasingly compacted, increasingly urban, in areas that are multi-cultural, that are multi-religious -- where the smell coming down the hall from somebody else's dinner is from something your family never cooked, and the music coming down the hall the other way is something you never heard.

And we're either going to triumph in that context, or we're going to fail in that context. And America is no exception.

So to me, the city is something that has to be embraced and accepted as a given. And I was astonished at the reaction to The Wire -- there was almost this divorced-from-reality [response], like: "Wow, Baltimore's finished. Glad I live on the outskirts of Cleveland."

And so one of the things we wanted to say with Treme was not only is the city essential, but the American city -- the potential, the human potential there -- is glorious.

And nothing says that visually and aurally [better] than New Orleans. The party's in the street. And it's every day. And it's at the drop of a hat. New Orleans is a factory of skilled labor that manufactures moments. It's an astonishing place. It's very different from the rest of America, but at the same time very American.

So we wanted to talk about that place after the storm, and it was a place where all the institutional problems were the same as we depicted in Baltimore. It's one of the worst-run cities in America, one of the most corrupt cities, one of the most violent cities. But it has also given the world such gifts...African-American music...

If America disappears tomorrow, and people are arguing over its legacy, the thing that will win out, for sure, is African-American music. For sure. Something that couldn't have happened anywhere else in the world. It had to happen, as an accident of history, in my country. It's our greatest export, wherever you go in the world. It's on the jukebox -- from blues to jazz to hip-hop. It's gone the whole world round and it keeps regenerating itself. It's astonishing. And it happened in eight square blocks of New Orleans. It's where it's from.

So we wanted to deliver that [in Treme], and basically say: 'What are you talking about they gotta go somewhere else?'"


Detroit isn't mentioned by name, but you recognize her in this, yes?

As we all know (and the world is awakening to), Detroit, like New Orleans, is an astonishing place. It's very different from the rest of America, but at the same time quintessentially -- sometimes painfully, sometimes gloriously -- American.

And as many Detroiters know well, there is no "somewhere else." There is only here. We gotta figure it out. So that's exactly what we're doing -- we're figuring it out.

I can't wait for the rest of America to figure this out, too.

The city is essential. The potential is glorious. And eight square blocks can change the world.

Claire Nelson is the Director of Urban Innovation Exchange, currently practicing bi-urbanism in Detroit and New Orleans. Stay tuned @UIXDetroit for info about our exchange this Sept 24-26, 2014 in Detroit. You're invited.

The above excerpt was transcribed from David Simon's talk, "Some People Are More Equal Than Others" given at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas 2013. For more info about #FODI, visit their website and follow them on Twitter at @IdeasattheHouse. For more Simon musings, visit www.davidsimon.com.
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