As I look out my window in the early New Jersey morning I see nothing but beauty: sunny skies, leafy trees and a tall church bell tower built in the 19th century. I can hear birds chirping and the leaves rustling in the wind. That is as much good as can be reported these days, right?
We are in deep need of healing, and not just because of recent injustices. This has been a long process. The scars we are showing are not new and they seem to get larger by the minute.
Bonfires erupting here and there might be the catharsis we need after too many weeks of isolation and uncertainty and too many years of imbalances. The slow creep of anxiety, fear and depression because of lockdowns joins the historic ranks of disenchantment and hopelessness to craft a deadly cocktail.
Cities are the most fantastic achievement of our collective ingenuity and of our values as a civilization. But they are also the theater of our greatest failures. Art, literature, theater, science, religion and technology manifest on great streets we walk daily. Proud buildings are symbols of what we hold dear. Human-scaled, tree-lined, active and civic-minded places nurture us.
Racism, fear, greed and exclusion also shape streets and public spaces that we must go through daily. These forces toughen us and break the natural bonds that we would otherwise build with our neighbors.
Both sides tell stories about us. They tell the story of us.
And I don’t like the ending.
We have purposely rejected beauty. In favor of function, in favor of technology, in favor of politics and in favor of fear. Sadly, we have renounced having good cities in order to have safe, efficient cities. And they are neither safe, nor efficient and, tragically, they ceased to be beautiful as well.
Our cities have withered. They are broken. We have stubbornly invested our way to bankruptcy, both moral and financial. As I wrote the last paragraph I heard an echo of Old Ben Franklin telling us that those who would give up freedom to purchase a little temporary safety will have neither. Just like Freedom and Safety, Beauty and Place have an unbreakable bond.
Beauty is much more than just an expression or a manifestation of subjective values. Beauty becomes when there is meaning and attachment to Place and history and legend. And how can one feel anything but attachment, love and pride for Beacon Hill, Portsmouth, Elfreth’s Alley or Charleston’s King Street. Layers of history and craft recall stories of suffering and growth, but our stories after all.
Strange that, as an immigrant, I would say our stories. Some things are universal. The joy, awe and contemplation that one feels in the presence of beauty repeat whether your story hails from Africa, from Europe or, like in my case, from a mix of Mediterranean and Native American.
I believe beauty can heal the deep scars we’re showing. It has in the past because it is a universal value highly regarded throughout cultures and geographies. Its objectivity is confirmed as science progresses in finding ways of measuring it. As we reflect now on the process that has left our cities devoid of beauty, we see hope in the work of countless people that are painstakingly bringing it back and mending their communities with it.
This is my first piece for Proud Places and I cannot be happier to share the spotlight with a group of individuals with diverse opinions who are using the power of beauty to create films, open small businesses, rehabilitate historic structures, design great buildings and city brands that bring beauty back to their cities and towns. They contribute immensely to the pride and strength of their Places and I am honored to walk among them.
I am a fervent admirer of Japanese culture. Their subtle observations of life and how they express what they see in simple concepts teaches many life lessons. The practice of Kintsugi is notable. It is a technique for mending broken pottery using gold as lute. The results are strong, functional and beautiful pots that have stood the test of time.
G. K. Chesterton taught us that Rome was not loved because she was beautiful but she was beautiful because she was loved.
Just as the able hands of the Kintsugi master carefully clean and prime the broken pieces of pottery before melting the gold and pouring it to fix the pieces together, we can love a broken place and help beauty find its way to mend it. Kintsugi is a beautiful and timeless ritual. City building is timeless, too. And it has produced unparalleled works of art like Venice, Cordoba or Marrakech, and our own Savannah and Philadelphia.
Kintsugi pieces have weight from the stories attached to them. Their value is increased by the care with which they are handled and by the beauty of the mended object. The value of an old building, derelict and abandoned comes from the spark in the eyes of the developer who falls in love with the structure, its neighborhood and its community and heals all three by pouring their passion into the brick and mortar and wood and tile.
Be the gold that heals your community.