I’ve seen ghost towns out west. Most were old mining towns, with houses and taverns and streets and jails and hotels and courthouses. But when the gold or silver ran dry, when the industry gave out, there wasn’t much reason to live there anymore. Everyone packed up at left. Without people, the town died. The bones of the buildings still stood, the roofs still kept the rain out. Some of the bedrooms still had beds. But every room was filled only with emptiness, silence, memories. The town became a ghost.
This happened many times. A lot of those places have been reclaimed as tourist destinations for people wanting to escape the clamor of these turbulent times. I remember a particularly fine restaurant in California where, in the basement, there was an entrance to a mineshaft that leads down and down and down toward the silent center of the Earth. I thought I could maybe hear voices coming up out of that stale, endless darkness. Yes, we have plenty of ghost towns but, in this day and age, we rarely have a ghost city.
I thought Detroit might become our first. Five, maybe six years ago, the band I was touring with passed through that city on our way to New York. We got lost and ended up in a lost part of that once-resplendent metropolis. We drove 20, 30 blocks, trying to rediscover the highway and for 30 blocks we saw not a soul. Only abandoned warehouses and factories with smashed out windows. 30 blocks is a lot of city, even in New York or London or Tokyo. It was as if civilization had fallen. It was a scene from Cormack McCarthy’s sad, brutal and inspiring book, “The Road.” A single feral cat dashed across the empty street and it was significant because it was the only moving, living thing. I was a little scared and the on-ramp to the great highway came as a relief.
[The photos above are from the jaw-dropping collection, “The Ruins of Detroit,” by French photographers Yves Marchand and Romaine Meffre.]
But Detroit is not a ghost city, not yet dead. The populace is going to extraordinary lengths to bring it back to life. Parts of the city are so vacant that it makes no sense to pay for street lights or police or fire department presence or even garbage service. They’re tearing down the dead parts of the city and artists are breathing life back into the biggest city in Michigan. Call it a near-death experience…
… Detroit exits its physical body of buildings and streets and infrastructure, looks down and sees politicians and artists and locals attempting to resuscitate the city. Detroit remembers every detail of its lifespan, sees the spiraling tunnel of angelic light and then, at the last moment, is sucked back into its pipes, its theaters, its households, its stadiums, its bars, its schools, its city hall, and every face of every person who lives there. The city of Detroit wakes up! Detroit is still alive…
But cities, all cities, are mortal. Each will pass from this plane Think Jericho. Think Babylon, the New York City of its time. Do you remember Vilcabamba? Do you remember Troy? Do you recall those days in Ubar or Machu Picchu or Helike? Remember what it was to walk down the streets in Bjarmaland? Can you still smell the flowers in Carthage or the steaming food in Nabta Playa or hear the sound of children laughing in Yamatai? Do you remember what your name was in Karakorum, the capital city? Do you remember what your name was in Otrar, Ani, Ninevah, Persepolis, Samaria, Kish, Teotihuacan, Pompeii, Cahokia, Bolokhiv, Avar Ring, Capel Celyn, Gobekli Tepe, Vijayanagar, Tanis, Leptis Magna or Timgad, which lived for 600 years and was covered in sand in the 7th century? No? Remember that joke you told me in Kuelap before the jungle took the city back? How could you forget that? Well, remember when you beat me in a foot race in Cypsela before the sea took the city back? Remember when we thought we’d get stabbed by that gang in the walled city of Kowloon? No? Do you recall when we drank to much vodka together in Chernobyl? Oh! You remember Chernobyl! For a moment I lost track of time! Of course you remember. But, like the rest of them, it’s a ghost city now.
These were some of the biggest cities in the world. Naturally, the people who inhabited them believed that they would last forever. After all, each city is so much bigger and more influential than any single citizen. A city will outlive most of its citizens and, like an ancient Giant Sequoia, will be worshipped for its longevity and size and complexity. It possibly contains centuries, millennia. We want to believe in something bigger than ourselves and a city at its zenith is the biggest collective work of art we’ve ever erected.
But this too shall pass.
It’s difficult to believe that New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Sydney, Mumbai, Sao Palo and Mexico City will crest like great waves, recede and pass almost entirely out of memory. It’s as difficult to believe that as it is to believe that we, ourselves, will die. Like our great cities, there will come a time in which not a soul on Earth remembers our names. I believe that this is natural and should not be feared.
A city is a record, a book of our collective experience and memory. It will be passed to the next generation and to the next and the next. It will live on, much like our distant ancestors, though we may have forgotten their names. The city of Troy is still in your heart.
A city has a history, a story, an ego, a character made of many contradictions, a personality, memories, dreams, hopes, ambitions, failures, songs, scandals and triumphs. A city is alive with our many lives and as mortal as the humans who inhabit it. There’s a possibility that a city has a soul. If that’s even half-plausible, it’s not out of the question to wonder if a city might have an afterlife.