"A City is a Universe"
On the Completeness of Incomplete Places
My former roommate, Cain Pence, spent most of our freshman year walking the streets of Washington, DC. “Russ, the best way to know a place is to walk it. Not drive it, or take the bus. Walk it.” He walked for hours most days that year. He walked all over – the National Mall, Foggy Bottom, Georgetown, Arlington, and Old Town Alexandria. He also sauntered to places less frequented by college kids, especially in those days – Capitol Hill (the residential area, beyond the few white, marble buildings), Anacostia, the H Street Corridor, the Navy Yard, Cardozo, Petworth, Congress Heights, and Benning. Through his walks, he came to apprehend our adopted home – and to love it.
A few months ago, I had a conversation with the artist Dani Trusca. I said something to the effect of, “Dani, I live in a very small city. Louisville is so small.” He replied, “But Russell, a city is a universe.”
I have pondered that sentence often. And Cain’s rambles.
Henry David Thoreau used to stare at a small section of Walden Pond for hours, minutely examining the teeming tadpoles, fingery fish and active insects. Surely we’ve all sat in silent wonder at a scene or a person or a landscape. For moments or minutes or perhaps even hours. Those moments contain clarity and philosophy and even beauty. When we have them, we should enjoy them.
Dani meant something else, though. We never discussed it directly, but as I have reflected on it, I think he meant: a city is complete unto itself, like a universe. It is a whole.
Yes, the analogy is not perfect. As far as we know, only one universe exists, built by a non-human force or person or God. And humanity has built thousands, perhaps millions, of cities across the ages. But while we live in this city, it is a wholeness of life for each of us. Even in its imperfections, a city echoes a universe. We wish Louisville had a pro sports team, a more vibrant downtown and an actual Benihana. We wish the universe did not have pain and suffering. We wish we could explore the universe more easily. The universe is no less the universe for our wishes. Our city is no less our city for its possibilities.
In my city, I have everything I need today. I have my family. I have my home. I have my dog. I have today’s lovely blue sky and warming weather. I have my morning observance with Louisville Tea Company leafy restorative. I have my library. I have a wholeness of life. This is my place. This is my city. And my universe.