This article was originally published by The City.
Even with all our prosperity and freedom, there is much that is amiss in the ways we live today—not only in our individual lives, but in the larger patterns of habitation that we have devised for ourselves. The built environment matters, not only for our bodies but for our souls, and the souls of our brothers and sisters and neighbors.
Somehow we all know this to be the case. And yet Christians, as Christians, seem to have had very little that is useful or insightful to say about these matters. This represents a serious failure on our part. It means we have fallen short in the fundamental Christian responsibility to attend to the careful and reverent stewardship of creation. It may mean that in our zeal to speak of final things we have forgotten first things—and one of the first things to know about Christianity is that it is an incarnational faith which celebrates the goodness of the created order, in which God became man, in which the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, in which the promised vision of the end of time is not a world of disembodied spirits, but of the flesh, resurrected and perfected. If you fully take in that thought, you will soon realize that, whatever else it may be, the physical world cannot be thought of as a mere moral obstacle course that we run on the way to eternity.
Even without such religious assumptions in our minds, we should be able to see that there are, as we say these days, feedback effects of our physical environments, ways in which the rooms and corridors and buildings and streets and landscapes and skyscapes through which we move have their effects upon us, and end up influencing us, often in very profound ways. Hence the choices we make about the places where we choose to situate ourselves—keeping always in mind that there are many things that we cannot choose about our lives—are of great moment.
Such choices have particular importance when they relate to the built environment. Winston Churchill gave a speech in October of 1943, in the midst of the still-raging Second World War, that expressed the matter perfectly, as he so often had a talent for doing. The German air force had destroyed the British House of Commons building in an air raid on May 10, 1941, and, after a period of time in which the Parliament had moved temporarily to the House of Lords, it was now possible to contemplate rebuilding the House of Commons. But how closely should the new structure follow the old lines? Or was it an appropriate moment to contemplate alterations and improvements? A larger, more spacious meeting chamber, for example? Churchill thought that any such change would be a matter of the utmost importance, hence he chose to weigh in forcefully on the matter, as Prime Minister and national leader.
Churchill did not have a professional's understanding of architecture. But he showed at the outset that he understood what was at stake better than a whole battalion of experts. "We shape our buildings," he said, "and afterwards our buildings shape us." He went on to explain, briefly but powerfully, why the Commons building should be rebuilt exactly as before, and on the same foundations. This was not merely a sentimental gesture, born of a desire to maintain aesthetic continuity with the past; or a patriotic one, meant to keep faith with the ancestors. It was meant to preserve functional continuity as well.
The preservation of the shape and size of the small oblong Chamber of the Commons might seem a matter of indifference. But Churchill insisted otherwise. Parliamentary government had flourished in Britain within precisely these structures, and partly because of these structures. The shape of the building crucially influenced the way that political factions organized themselves, and the manner in which debate was conducted. Churchill even argued that the Chamber should not be big enough to contain all its members at once, precisely so that occasions requiring momentous acts of deliberation would be attended by a proper “sense of crowd and urgency.” To alter the sense of place of that chamber, he argued, was to tinker with the most fundamental institutions of British government and society.
This is a beautiful statement of the feedback effect that links our souls to our built environments. But that is of course not the whole truth of the matter so far as orthodox Christianity is concerned. In the first place, Christianity is not deterministic, so that the environment may condition, but it does not dictate, the outcome of human affairs. Moreover, the Christian believes that things are out of joint, the natural order has been corrupted by sin and death, and the soul of man stands in disordered relationship to that already corrupted order. Hence, in our fallen state we often experience a tension between affirming the world's beauty and guarding against its temptations.
That tension is central to the Christian faith. Think how often, and how darkly, Jesus warned us about "the world," and pointedly insisted that His Kingdom is not of this world. Are we not called, in part, to overcome the world just as He did? And think of this: In a perfectly harmonious and commodious world, how could we ever learn the truth of the words, "greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world"? Isn't it a part of our calling, at times, and a part of our growth as spiritual beings, to find it in ourselves to transcend the world, to walk by faith rather than sight, by what is beyond and hoped for rather than what is present and tangible?
We cannot resolve this antinomy. But its chief import for us is this: that we take care not to lapse into utopianism when we think about our cities and how they might be made better. Yes, we shape our cities, and then our cities shape us; and there is much hope and potentiality in that realization. But it's also important to remember that we live in a fundamentally broken world. Christianity is not about perfecting this world. We can repair aspects of it, but we cannot restore it by our efforts. We should love our cities, but we have to know that, as in all our earthly loves, sometime that love must come in spite of a fundamental and uncorrectable brokenness.
Hence our efforts at reform must be balanced by our efforts at acceptance. We should take it as our first task to learn to be grateful for what we have, and respectful of it, and to do what we can to flourish where we are planted—in the families, marriages, communities, and nation in which we have been placed. Just as we should not strive to reinvent ourselves, so we should be modest about reinventing our worlds overnight by slashing away at the given order of things. Every change in the built environment involves unforeseeable changes in the texture of many other people's lives—and that statement is just as true for the most earnest and pure-intentioned reformers as it is for greedy developers and accredited planners.
The great cautionary example here is the urban-renewal movement of the postwar era, a well-intentioned but disastrous effort undertaken with all the arrogant blindness of which high-minded social engineers and visionaries are capable. They “knew” what was best for the urban poor, and in forcing it upon them, demolished countless acres of existing historically rooted neighborhoods in favor of grim and soulless housing projects. These “improvements” uprooted and decimated countless human lives, depriving them of nearly every vestige of what was familiar to them. We should not romanticize the difficult conditions of the slums they replaced. But the wanton erasure of memory wrought by “renewal” was perhaps the greatest indignity of all—by robbing the inhabitants of their sense of relationship to their own past, they robbed the city of a piece of its very soul.
Our reflections need to begin, then, with a consideration of what cities are, and are for, what they accomplish that can be accomplished no other way. Indeed, given the strong emphasis on the individual in our times, we would do well to begin with an even more fundamental question. Do we really need to dwell together?
That's easy: Yes, we do. It is a fundamental part of our nature. Aristotle argued that man is by nature a political animal, and that a man who lives outside of the city is either a beast or a god. For Christians, this emphasis on relationship is at the very foundation of things, because God Himself is, in the Trinitarian understanding, defined by relationship in His fundamental being. The Bible consistently relies upon our human and natural relations to explain God's nature to us: as Father and Son, for example. Or as in the act of marriage, as laid out rather mysteriously in the Letter to the Ephesians, which explains and is explained by Christ's relationship with His Church, which is also His body, or the body of which He is the head. For our purposes, what this means is that relationship with others is not something we do but something we are—we may shape our relationships, but we are more fundamentally shaped by the need for them, and we cannot understand ourselves without reference to them.
In short, we humans are made by, through, and for relationship with one another. The forms of these relationships are various—in marriage, in family, community, nations, the Kingdom of God. Each has a unique valence. Perhaps the most powerful of all Biblical insights into relationship is in the organismic model put forward in I Corinthians 12, in which the individuals comprising the Church are compared to the specialized organs and members of the body—powerful when they operate in concert, but useless in isolation.
But what about great cities, then, such as New York, Paris, London, Rome, Los Angeles? Are they not a very particular kind of relationship, one in which anonymity, impersonality and instrumentality are often the watchwords, and tend to replace fully human face-to-face personal relations as embodied in small-town life? Aren't the great cities of our age dehumanizing and mechanistic by their very nature, tending to produce people who have lost touch with the lived realities of nature?
Such has very often been the verdict that Americans have rendered about their own great cities. Indeed, the problem of the city may be more advanced here, precisely because we Americans have, for most of our history, lacked an urban ideal.
What I mean in saying this is that Americans in general have had a hard time reconciling what they think of as characteristically American aspirations with the actual life of modern American cities. It's a certain disharmony between the way we think and the way we live. Our fierce attachment to ideals of individualism, self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and closeness to nature do not always seem, for many Americans, to comport with the conditions of modern urban life. Perhaps that is because America, as historian Richard Hofstadter quipped, is a nation that “was born in the country and has moved to the city,” but has never entirely adapted the city’s mentality. Or to put it another way, altering a famous saying about the British Empire, we became an urban civilization in a fit of absence of mind, having never fully adjusted our ideas about ourselves to the conditions in which we find ourselves actually living.
Resistance to urban identity goes back to the very beginnings of American history. At the time of the Founding, and well into the early national years, the United States could well be described as a rural republic. At the turn of the eighteenth into the nineteenth century, there were only six places featuring populations of more than 10,000, a number that is hardly a city by most present-day standards, and the combined population of these six was 183,000 in a nation of five million. Agriculture was not only the predominant mode of economic activity, but the one held to be most exemplary, a sentiment most vividly expressed in these famous words of Thomas Jefferson: “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever He had a chosen people, whose breasts He has made His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.” Nor was Jefferson shy about extending the implications of this analysis to urban life: “The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.” His fellow Virginian George Washington agreed: “the tumultuous populace of large cities are ever to be dreaded.”
Such sentiments were not restricted to Virginians. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia civic leader, agreed on both counts, asserting that “farmers and tradesmen are the pillars of national happiness and prosperity,” while cities by contrast are rightly compared to “abscesses on the human body, viz., as reservoirs of all the impurities of a community.” It is safe to say, as historian Thomas Bender has put it, that Jefferson and his contemporaries believed that “if cities ever exerted a controlling influence upon American life, political morality would decline and the republican experiment would be doomed.”
Urbanism did not come immediately thereafter for America, but it was not long in arriving. Indeed, it descended in a rush, in tandem with a number of other wrenching changes: the massive waves of immigration, industrialization, mass production, mechanization, and so on, changes that transformed the “walking cities” of Jefferson’s time into the massive and intricately segmented metropolitan areas we know by that name today. Even the most exuberant celebrants of modern cities praise them for qualities that give one pause: as hubs of creative destruction, engines of mobility, oases of anonymity—activities about which no civilized person can be unqualifiedly enthusiastic.
Arguably, it was the problematic character of human relations in the city, more than any other single effect of modernization, which became the stimulus and the chief object of the new discipline of sociology. Georg Simmel and other sociologists were fascinated by the new modes of human consciousness and behavior that the modern city made possible, or necessary. The city was the place without roots for people without roots, the place where you came to reinvent yourself . Literary depictions of the city consistently cast it in just this way, as in American novels like Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, or Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, or in the more general “revolt against the village,” one of the persistent themes of early 20th-century American intellectual and literary life.
It is interesting, by way of contrast, to think of the gravamen of a mid-nineteeth-century work like Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, a work that is also about American self-making, but that goes about it in a strikingly different way. Walden proceeds by way of an isolation and stripping away of the effects of culture and history, in order to uncover and liberate the real and true self, free of the impediments of social life itself. This form of romanticism looks for freedom not to the teeming life of the city, but rather to the vibrant world of nature. The woods is where you go, not to reinvent yourself, but to rediscover what you already are, to get back in touch with the core of yourself. Hence the continuing vitality of the idea of the frontier, and hence the conclusion of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, arguably the greatest of American novels, in which Huck lights out for the wilderness, to get away from the corrupting effects of “sivilization.”
But American culture is nothing if not double-edged, and there are important exceptions to this rule. The poetry of Walt Whitman, for example, positively overflows with warm and passionate urban imagery, and finds a liberation of human possibility in the vast urban prospects. And there is the writing of Lewis Mumford, one of our most eloquent spokemen for the meaning of the city in human history. In his autobiography, Mumford describes at length the experience of growing up in New York City, and in one particularly vivid passage, he describes a moment in which the spectacle before him seemed to burst forth with larger meaning:
Yes: I loved the great bridges and walked back and forth over them, year after year. But as often happens with repeated experiences, one memory stands out above all others: a twilight hour in early spring— it was March, I think—when, starting from the Brooklyn end, I faced into the west wind sweeping over the rivers from New Jersey. The ragged, slate-blue cumulus clouds that gathered over the horizon left open patches for the light of the waning sun to shine through, and finally, as I reached the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge, the sunlight spread across the sky, forming a halo around the jagged mountain of skyscrapers, with the darkened loft buildings and warehouses huddling below in the foreground. The towers, topped by the golden pinnacles of the new Woolworth Building, still caught the light even as it began to ebb away. Three-quarters of the way across the Bridge I saw the skyscrapers in the deepening darkness become slowly honeycombed with lights until, before I reached the Manhattan end, these buildings piled up in a dazzling mass against the indigo sky.
Here was my city, immense, overpowering, flooded with energy and light; there below lay the river and the harbor, catching the last flakes of gold on their waters, with the black tugs, free from their barges, plodding dockward, the ferryboats lumbering from pier to pier, the tramp steamers slowly crawling toward the sea, the Statue of Liberty erectly standing, little curls of steam coming out of boat whistles or towered chimneys, while the rumbling elevated trains and trolley cars just below me on the Bridge moved in a relentless tide to carry tens of thousands homeward. And there was I, breasting the March wind, drinking in the city and the sky, both vast, yet both contained in me, transmitting through me the great mysterious will that had made them and the promise of the new day that was still to come.
…I have carried the sense of that occasion, along with two or three other similar moments, equally enveloping and pregnant, through my life: they remain, not as a constant presence, but as a momentary flash reminding me of heights approached and scaled, as a mountain climber might carry with him the memory of some daring ascent, never to be achieved again. Since then I have courted that moment more than once on the Brooklyn Bridge; but the exact conjunction of weather and light and mood and inner readiness has never come back. That experience remains alone: a fleeting glimpse of the utmost possibilities life may hold for man.
No one has better captured the unique feeling of exaltation induced by the modern city. There is surely an element here suggesting the great earthly city as a token of the New Jerusalem, the heavenly city at the end of time that transcends all earthly cities and fulfills all God’s final intentions for man. Perhaps Mumford even felt himself to have been offered a foretaste of heaven, never to be repeated, but leaving a lingering hint of eternity. But one can sense terrifying elements in this rapture, echoes of Babel, of hammers without masters and dynamos without Virgins, of force unleashed without an accompanying sense of guiding purposefulness. What, after all, was that "great mysterious will" he talking about? Was there not a profound and enduring reason why St. Augustine insisted upon the radical distinction between the City of Man and the City of God? Do we, in exalting our cities, risk falling into the error of mistaking the one for the other?
Mumford’s epiphanic portrait of the city is incomplete, precisely because it tends too much toward the city’s glamour, movement and abstraction, thereby missing some of urban life’s greatest virtues. And no one knew better than Mumford himself that cities are not only blast furnaces of change, but agents of conservation.
The very idea of conservatism itself, far from being intrinsically anti-urban, has in the West always been inextricably bound up in the history and experience of a particular succession of great cities. When Russell Kirk wrote his celebrated book on The Roots of American Order, he could have chosen to present that history strictly in terms of unfolding structures of ideas. But instead, he built it around the central cities of the history of the West: Athens, Jerusalem, Rome, London, and Philadelphia. Each city was taken to exemplify a foundational stage in the development of American liberty and American order. This was not merely a literary conceit, like a metonym. The clear message was that such developments could only occur in cities. The very civilization that conservatives wish to conserve is rooted in such cities. It is no accident that the Book of Revelation aims at the creation of the New Jerusalem, not the New Tara Plantation or the New Mayberry. We should think about why this is so.
We have been taught to think of our American cities as hothouses of “creative destruction” and holding pens for atomized and anonymous “mass men.” But our actual experience of cities tells us something different. For one thing, every great city is really a collection of strong neighborhoods, in each of which there is far less anomie than may appear to be the case to an outside observer. But the conservative, civilization-sustaining aspect of the city goes far beyond that. As Mumford writes in his book The Culture of Cities:
The city, as one finds it in history, is the point of maximum concentration for the power and culture of a community. It is the place where the diffused rays of many separate beams of life fall into focus, with gains in both social effectiveness and significance. The city is the form and symbol of an integrated social relationship: it is the seat of the temple, the market, the hall of justice, the academy of learning. Here in the city the goods of civilization are multiplied and manifolded; here is where human experience is transformed into viable signs, symbols, patterns of conduct, systems of order. Here is where the issues of civilization are focused: here, too, ritual passes on occasion into the active drama of a fully differentiated and self-conscious society.
In other words, cities constitute civilization, as the very word “civilization” implies. They are its chief transmission belt. Properly understood, a city is a profoundly conservative institution, particularly if one thinks of conservatism as an outlook that urges faithfulness to memory. As Robert Pogue Harrison has observed in his luminous book The Dominion of the Dead, civilization is ultimately built upon the awareness of our dead predecessors. “Only the dead can grant us legitimacy,” he writes. “Left to ourselves we are all bastards.” We bury the dead not to separate ourselves from them, but to join ourselves to them. By burying them in our midst, as Joseph Bottum has noted, we also humanize the grounds on which we ourselves live.
Hence burial has a certain civilizational priority, in that what we make of the dead creates the foundation for what we make of ourselves. After all, as Harrison neatly puts it, “human beings housed their dead before they housed themselves.” Prehistoric nomads established permanent habitations of the dead, such as caverns, mounds, barrows, which were the chief settled landmarks and points of return, often also serving as shrines and sacred places with particular access to the spirit world. Only later did such men exchange their mobility for settled habitations, cities of the living built amid reminders of the dead. Which is why Mumford was right to proclaim that “The city of the dead antedates the city of the living” and is “the forerunner, almost the core, of every living city.”
Even today, when we think of our great cities as having even more dynamic, even frenzied, aspects that those that Mumford described in his epiphany, this profound cultural function of carrying forward the past is still very much present, undergirding all else. For all its constant hubbub and upheaval, a great city is much more likely to carry forward the material vestiges of the past, and the memories those vestiges hold, than is most any American suburb or small town.
Permit me to draw on my own experience for confirmation of this. I grew up in a very pleasant and agreeable suburb of Baltimore, and would not have traded it for Mumford’s Manhattan. But I have to admit that my very earliest memories are of urban scenes: toddling across a busy Cincinnati intersection while clutching the hand of my big sister, or gawking at the glorious lobby of the Palmer House in Chicago, or my first glimpses of the Lincoln Memorial and the National Gallery in Washington, or of what is still the most majestic tall building in the world, the incomparable Empire State. These are all scenes that I can revisit and experience and enjoy today, along with the memories, both personal and collective, that flood back when I see them. (Even absences, such as the still-fresh absence in our minds of the Twin Towers in the New York skyline, are sources of memory in the great city.) But my beloved hometown, and even the house that I grew up in, have been transformed beyond recognition since I lived there. Which setting, one may ask, is more conducive to a sense of continuity, or faithfulness to the past?
These thoughts preoccupied me ten years ago, when I took up a post as a Fulbright professor at the University of Rome. In the Eternal City, the achievements of humankind over twenty-five centuries have been accumulated and recorded as a largely haphazard and undifferentiated collection riddled with serendipities and self-contradictions—which is to say, just as the past appears to us. Its physical and political history is so deep and rich that no one could ever fully control the meaning of any architectural addition to the city. Rome does not tell one story, or five, or even a hundred, but an infinitude, and it is up to you to jump in if you ever hope to sort them out. Yet the potential rewards in doing so are immense. “In Rome,” wrote George Santayana, “I feel nearer to my own past, and to the whole past and future of the world, than I should in any cemetery or in any museum of relics.”
An observer lacking lengthy experience with Rome can never be sure whether he is seeing something with a fresh eye, or merely seeing the obvious, what a hundred thousand others before have seen and expressed. Yet Rome is, even more than most great cities, always the same and yet always changing, since it is a place where material reality is always enveloped in the web of consciousness, particularly historical consciousness. Hence even the past changes, simply by virtue of having been "the past" for so long, and having passed through the new lights of so many passing presents. If a city is like a text, this particular text, the text of Rome, utterly defeats the idea of authorial intentions.
We have to work at extracting what the city knows, and remembers. The Italian writer Italo Calvino explains this wonderfully well in a passage from his book, Invisible Cities, speaking of an imaginary city called Zaira.
A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira's past. The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the pols of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.
That is why even the ruins of a city are important, as is vividly shown in the famous Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church of Berlin, whose ruined structure was preserved as remembrance of war and a symbol of peace. Or in something as commonplace as the faded and peeling painted advertisements one still sometimes sees on the side of older brick buildings in American cities, ghostly reminders of vanished products—soaps, tobaccos, elixirs—sold to equally vanished consumers. We are not only talking about the places that are seen as consciously memorializing the past. We are talking about everything, down to the names of streets and buildings and bridges and airports and neighborhood landmarks. These mark the places where many thousands of people who came before us have walked, and fallen in love, and grieved, and died, and gone about the ordinary and pluriform business of life.
Sometimes in the natural course of things, objects have to be torn down, and reconstructed, or remodeled, or so on. The same is the case with our individual memory. Life cannot be lived in a museum or memory bank, and it must make room for what is new, else it ceases to be life. But we try to preserve as much as we can, partly because human life is lived best when it honors the memory of what came before it. This is part of living with a high regard for the future too. As Edmund Burke put it, "People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors." That is yet another reason why cities must be understood both as vehicles of preservation and as vehicles of anticipation.
Our memories are essential, but they play tricks on us, and they are full of idiosyncrasy. That is why we so profoundly need landmarks, for the tangible and visible things that we measure ourselves against, for permanence. Cities do this well, and for many, many people. Not that we measure all aspects of our lives against such public landmarks; that would be both ghastly and inappropriate. In our private lives we have other and better ways to remember, ones more suitable to the untranslatable particularities and intimacies of our own worlds. Such associations are triggered by contact with the backyard apple tree, the porch swing, the worn wooden pew, the albums of photos and boxes of keepsakes, by homecomings and holidays with family, by religious services, by comings-together for births, marriages, funerals, and other transitions. We find ways to mark those things for future remembrance. The best and least conflict-ridden of all secular American holidays, Thanksgiving, is a moment in which all our private and idiosyncratic markers receive a rare kind of public visibility and endorsement.
But the landmarks of cities do something different and something unique, for they serve to unite the experience of all of us. They lift us out of our idiosyncracy and individuality into a world of common experience. They are a visible token of how individual experience is woven into the larger fabric of reality itself, and as such, are not implausibly seen as an anticipation of the Kingdom of Heaven. As Burke implies, preservation is a necessary component of anticipation. The party of memory is also the party of hope—understanding what Christ meant in promising to make all things new.
This is not newness in obliteration of the past, but newness of redemption and resurrection in which nothing of value is ever lost. Consider: when do we feel most keenly aware of the world to come? Is it not when we contemplate the deaths of those who have left us, and begin to reflect on the meaning of “the communion of saints,” that state of unity that brings together all that is worthy and beautiful at the end of time? Preserving the memory of what we have lost turns out to be an essential prod to our anticipation of what is come.
And both preservation and anticipation are at odds with the other way of understanding the city, as raw material in the hands of well-meaning but arrogant planners and technocrats who would wipe away every mistake of the past, and use their ingenuity to comprehensively refashion every feature of our collective lives into something new and better. Against this impulse, we should be on our guard.
I am not counseling complacency. On the contrary, I am suggesting that we remember that there is a significant difference between improving our world incrementally and setting out to perfect it. And that in undertaking improvements, we need to remember not only that we can change the world, but that there is much to be grateful for in what we have already. To fail to see that, to fail in gratitude, is also a failure of stewardship.
To leave you with a better sense of exactly what I mean, let me ask your indulgence, and quote one last time from Lewis Mumford, once again from his autobiography. He is here describing the house that he and his wife Sophia purchased and lived in for many decades in Amenia, New York—a tiny village far away, one may note with amused interest, from the urban locales of which he wrote so beautifully. That irony is an insight into the complexity of the man, just as Thomas Jefferson’s ecstatic descriptions of Paris throw his own agrarianism into a more complex light. But such ironies need not detain us here, because the core of what Mumford is saying applies across the board, to all habitations and all human affairs:
We took possession of our property in the autumn of 1929, though I it would be more correct to say that our land gradually took possession of us. The house itself was in a state of utter disrepair: the trappers had hung their pelts on big nails that broke what plaster still remained on walls and ceilings. There was a small weedy patch outside the kitchen on the south side that indicated there might once have been a vegetable garden there, and there was a clump of peony bushes and a few old-fashioned roses; but the remaining land was bare of almost everything but burdock and plantain.
But we gradually fell in love with our shabby house as a young man might fall in love with a homely girl whose voice and smile were irresistible. As with faces—Abe Lincoln bears witness—character is more ingratiating and enduring than mere good looks. No rise in our income has ever tempted us to look elsewhere for another house, still less to build a more commodious or fashionable one. In no sense was this the house of our dreams. But over our lifetime it has slowly turned into something better, the house of our realities. In all its year-by-year changes, under the batterings of age and the bludgeonings of chance, this dear house has enfolded and remodeled our family character—exposing our limitations as well as our virtues.
So let us be similarly attentive to the houses, and cities, of our realities. Let us appreciate them and preserve what we can of them, to keep that which can be kept—even as we live in anticipation of a reality toward which these realities can only point, the light that glimmers through the darkened glass.