An Ode to an Imaginary City

The city, she waits for us – like a spouse waiting for their lover to return from war, the city waits for us to return to its once pulsating, now limp streets. The city waits for us to return so that she can once again embrace us, connect us, activate us, agitate us, create us and destroy us. Chew us up and spit us out and lure us back in with the promise of cocktails, opportunities, and adult life. The city is after all, inherently promiscuous. 

It is built on the idea of wanting or needing more, a thirst that is never really satisfied. We came back time and time again looking for love, work, highs, money, thrills, and to see if we can survive, or simply because we need to survive. If we can be ‘a somebody’ in the city. And no matter if this is delivered, we keep coming back because even the promise of more is enough. Despite the lows, we come back time and time again, and when the city is taken away from us – like in a global pandemic – we miss it. But we never miss the actual city, and its piss-soaked streets, rather only ever the fantasy of it. The assembly of buildings and streets exists in the physical realm of course, occupying land –  but the City? The City only really exists in our imaginations. And that is what makes it so truly promiscuous - the aphrodisiac effect is in the fantasy.

The fantasy of the city is built on the idea of never getting what you want, but trying and trying and trying again to acquire it. To become it. The city is merely a fantasy of ‘more’ - more money, more love, more opportunities, more food, more sex, more hope, more knowledge, more distraction, more art, more risk, more you – and you crave it, knowing (at least partially) that you can’t ever actually have it. This is why the city is such a tempting space in which to invent and define ourselves, because it holds a promise of our future self … but a promise we can’t ever actually reach as our future self is only an illusion in the city.

And it is this way that the city survived the pandemic lockdown. We continued to fantasise about something that doesn’t actually exist – that never actually existed beyond brick and mortar – and that we could not have in that moment, bound to our 5km and intimate partner bubbles, but there was a hope and desire that we could have it in the future. We mourned it, thinking about how the old girl is sitting there cold and empty waiting for us, missing us as much as we miss her. But she does not give two fucks about us – she knows we need her more than she needs us (despite what property lobby groups would have you believe) as we will continue to have temptation and a desire for more. In fact, not being able to deliver on the promise of ‘more’ in the current climate does not scare her, as she is only in the business of temptation and never sex, and absence brought on by lockdown only makes the heart grow fonder. She sits their limp but completely unbothered – knowing we will come back crawling. Regardless of whether she delivers on her promises. Forever.

But of course the city and its allure is not for everyone. Many, and increasingly so, have turned their back on the city, realizing that its promises and temptations are not actually real, or worth it, or simply not for them. They define their spatial life as anti-city. ‘We have made a tree change and are loving it. Did I tell you we’ve got ducks?’. But even these identities and geographies are often developed in binary contrast to the city. Like what post-modernism is to modernism, the fantasy of living out the idyllic country or coastal life in a regional town, exists so commonly as an anti- or post-city fantasy. And this rejection of the urban only stands to serve the city’s image, as it makes those who choose to persevere with city life feel like they need to work harder to build the case for why they are doing so, in face of the mass tree-change and digital nomad movement. To convince themselves on why they stay and why they lust for an illusion. ‘I love the country air, but I could just never leave, I am too much of a city kid I reckon. Also I love good coffee to much’.

But not everyone who is committed to the city of course is a city kid or coffee snob, often coming down to the desire for the city, verse the need for it. Some choose to stay, and others stay out of lack of alternative – in this way, the city not only tempts, but also enslaves.

I remember working a casual gig standing in front of a central station handing out flyers, trying to tempt office workers on their morning commute to see a comedy performance on their lunch break. A man came up to me looking flustered from his train journey, asking me if I knew where the Department of Immigration building was. As I located it on a map, he told me how much he hates coming ‘into downtown’, but he needed to get to the immigration office as soon as possible as his wife might soon be able to join him from their home country. As he speedily walked away, following my Google map directions closely, I watched him nearly get hit by a car jaywalking to cross the road as he was in that much of a hurry. After all, on the other side of the department walls was the promise of being reunited with his lover, and that promise is enough to rush through city traffic.

I saw him an hour later in front of the station, where I was still standing flogging some soggy flyers – he waved, elated, as he headed home from the city. He got the paperwork filed and the promise of his wife joining him soon was bringing life to his aged face. He, like many, didn’t enjoy the allure of city life, but the centralisation of key amenity and opportunity meant that city would continue to call him in – even if to visit the immigration office. Maybe a tree-change and an idyllic life on a hobby farm with ducks would be on the horizon for him and his wife, but in the meantime the city would have to be the holder of the promise of more. 

The city is filthy. Filthy with our secrets, desires, lost minds, lost dreams, debt, fortunes, scars of colonization and unfettered capitalism, the blood and spit from a fist fight, flyers for a one-women show, and filthy with promise. Yet we try and sanitize the city. Street sweepers come down early in the morning cleaning human excrement and the visible signs of life from the night before, police move on people sleeping on the street, planners, architects and policy makers define the physical spaces we can inhabit, developers cover walls with promotional material with nice type-set and pictures of shiny new apartments – a promise of a nice, urbanized lifestyle. The Immigration Office puts out retractable crowd-control barriers to help people line up in an orderly way to file their paperwork and peruse hope. But one can never truly clean the city of its filthy underbelly of desire and promise. Nothing ever can, because to desire is to be human. 

Perhaps though, I am conflating hope and desire with surviving in a neo-liberal world? Its trauma and ideology so deeply embedded in us now that we can no longer tell the difference between survival and desire? Both of course imply the absence of something: with the former implying the absence of something you need and the later, something you want – but the city offers neither. It is both the dangling carrot and the stick, perpetually. The city is only ever the promise of something and never the delivery. Because even survival, and the need for something, is a state that never really ends. It only at best, graduates to desire – and in this way the city continues to reign supreme. The city is of course in many ways divided into the ‘have’s’ and the ‘have’s nots’, the winners and the losers, and the experience of the city is vastly different between them, but ultimately this is a false dichotomy as common to all is the insatiable desire for more, and this is what the city promises.

Perhaps then the centuries old fetishization of the city transcends our current political and economic climate and speaks to something more fundamentally human? Something about the fact that we have chosen to assemble ourselves into cities for so long, and the fact that we mourned the city during a pandemic shutdown, highlights that whether you are surviving or desiring, or both, the city is always where we go for the promise of more. And so maybe what is common to us all surviving and desiring in the city is an illusion? An illusion of who we are, and who we could be, and an illusion of the city and its promise.  Wherever this desire is seeded though (be it something that is fundamentally human, or simply a by-product of our neo-liberal fever dream – dealers choice, really!), what does it say about us that we continue to turn to the city to satisfy this desire … even when we know, on some level, that this desire cannot be satisfied because both the city, our desire, and even ultimately our ability to satiate our desire, are an illusion?

To me, as strange as it may sound, it shows that we are hopeful – if not slightly perverted (although one could argue there is a fine line between perversion and hope). How about at the very least, we are hungry and lustful? Hopeful, perverted, hungry, lustful, take your pick – but common to all of them is the desire for more. And to me, desire in the context of a metropolis will always come down to hope. This is because on some level we know we will never get more – as this only exists in an imaged future moment, in an illusion – and we know the city has let us down in the past, but yet we continue to come back! Maybe that is what is so appealing – maybe the thrill of the chase is more exciting and addictive than the outcome, and we know the city is good for the chase and nothing else. We can keep going, keep re-inventing ourselves, trying, hoping, failing, and trying again, if we know we will never reach a destination – and there is possibly something intoxicating about this? We continue to desire, we continue to hope. We continue to miss the city. We continue to fantasise about it. We continue to see it as our ticket out. As a ticket to another, bigger, more intoxicating city, or a ticket to an idyllic post-city life in the country or suburbs.

And we continue to hope that she will deliver the version of ourselves that we crave (but don’t actually want). And to me that is a weird, twisted but addictive kind of hope …perhaps we can settle on a kind of… perverted hope? In any regard, I hope to one day get back into the tempting and intoxicating embrace of the city after the pandemic, to only be left hungry for more – and I hope too that the city will embrace you soon and continue to not deliver your desires, and that together we will continue to try, try and try again. The thrill of the chase to an imagined finish line. Dancing the perverted, hopeful dance in the cities illusionary, filthy streets.

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