Tag Archives: all things urban

Shrinking City

After a fairly long absence on paternity leave, last weekend I went back to Porto. This is Portugal’s second city and metropolitan area, although no longer it’s second larger municipality in terms of population – a position now taken by suburb cities like Gaia and Amadora. They call it invincible or invicta.

PortoThis is a city where I lived for considerable parts of my life, and a city to which I usually commute to teach every week.

This is also the proud home of a World Heritage city center and a few prestigious institutions: Port wine; a football team, the oldest filmmaker alive who is still in activity, Manoel de Oliveira; an architect that ranks in between the world’s finest and its connected architecture school, Siza Vieira and the Oporto School; the Serralves Contemporary Museum; Rem Koolhaas’ Casa da Música…

Porto is a small city –like the Talking Heads ironically sung of London– and, on top of it, it is also a shrinking city.  Misquoting Paul Virilio, one could even say it is a city on the brink of disappearance – if not dangerously sinking into long-term cultural and economical insignificance.

What was once the symbolic center of the so-called economical motor of the country now appears as the shy capital of one of Portugal’s two poorest regions. As I’ve learned in shock this weekend, half of Porto’s population receives the Guaranteed Minimum Income, a social welfare measure for those who live below the line of poverty.

Indeed, my personal view is that Porto’s cultural and economical contraction is to be attributed not only to its mediocre political leadership over the last few years, but also to its blatant social inequality.

In what seems to be a sort of unspoken taboo, Porto’s society, like that of any Thirld Word country, is neatly divided in two: a rich bourgeoisie that inbreeds in the posh Western area of town and cruises the urban landscape only inside their black Mercedes, Audis and BMWs; and, on the other side, a poor population that still resembles that of a 19th century half-industrial, half-rural city.

While there are always exceptions, the elites themselves lack vision and civic spirit. And, contrary to Lisbon’s steadily rising middle classes, Porto’s lower middle class minorities totally lack expectations and opportunities.

As geographer and friend Álvaro Domingues was telling me, this is a centrifugal city. Although it has a renowned university, it doesn’t have the economical drive to keep the people it educates. And this also strongly reflects in the culture and identity of the city.

CasaMúsicaCasa da Música in context, via Plataforma Arquitectura

Samewise, cultural institutions in Porto are also almost neatly divided in two strata: the highbrow state-supported institutions, like Serralves and Casa da Música, and the radically alternative art, music and design scene, which, although vibrant and inspiring, faces the eternal dilemma of catering forever for the same small audience or simply give up. Given that there is no real funding for middle size local initiatives, there is also no bright future to look upon.

SerralvesThe art museum squats the inner city emptied-out buildings…

This is probably the main reason why, like so many before and after me, at a certain point –and more precisely after 2001, when the European Capital of Culture represented the city’s swan song rather than creating an expected cultural boom–  I have decided to live elsewhere.

Ultimately, Porto’s strong scenery and historical tradition seems to offer a place more interesting to (re)visit, than to create something in. Until the city comes to its senses again, people there permanently run the risk to emulate the incredible shrinking man’s coming out of the fog into an ever-smaller destiny.


On grand narratives

As against the gullibility with which one can flip through magazines, XL novels are a little bit more demanding on our contemporary rhythm. Even if sparing all the 5 minute units spent watching crappy music videos in the midst of TV zapping, who finds time today to read a very large book from cover to cover?

While I have for my motto Jorge Luis Borges asking why should we write 700 page books when we can sum up the essential ideas in seven pages – thus finding myself editing something like the Short Stories on the Post Contemporary – I do try to engage occasionally with that opulent, shocking pleasure of loosing myself within a fictional work for several weeks or months. Like Giacomo Leopardi would say, “il naufragar m’è dolce in questo mare.” Un vero lusso.

My last XL reads were Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which apparently faced some length problems with its 611-page English edition, and Jeffrey EugenidesMiddlesex, which bears both some powerful 529 pages and a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. And I must acknowledge to life-size books that they do leave an imprint in you, like friends you’ve spent a couple of summers with.

More recently I went through Marco d’Eramo’s “The Pig and the Skyscraper”, which, while it is not a novel, fortunately it reads like one. And that gives it a special quality that deserves some reflection, especially when we are talking about urban writing coming from a sociologist that has also a degree in physics and a career in journalism…


Like Murakami, its 480 pages read rather well because they contain not one bibbg, Like Murakami, its 480 pages read rather well because they contain not one big, mind-numbing story of Chicago, but many small thrilling ones. Like Eugenides, it lingers on because it has a magnificent breadth at depicting the urban scenery of the American Dream (and some of its nightmares too).

Each chapter of “The Pig and the Skyscraper” brings you one different fundamental aspect of Chicago’s history, from the rise and decay of slaughterhouses and the many businesses that made the city grow, down to continuing racial segregation and the economy of inner city gangs. And whereas each story reads like an autonomous piece, together they weave a larger critical vision portraying some lesser-known aspects of American history.

And this is what interests me as a model. Exquisite, reflexive storytelling, which in this book appears in almost journalistic manner, rather than statistics and analysis, is what can drive one to intimately engage with the issues that usually lay buried under the inescapable drive towards abstract planning.

Cities are made of criss-crossing social stories that economists, politicians and planners too easily tend to forget or reduce to abstract numbers. And this is why we need more histories made up of minute stories; this why we need more reflection imbedded into everyday tales, rather than long records filled with hollowed-out specialist grand narratives.