Machines for Living

photo-e1409339758299-200x267I am outspoken, and probably a little annoying, in my love for cities. And I just spent some time in two spectacular cities: Paris and London, and was reminded that cities are machines for living.  See the photo on the left?  That’s an entrance to the Gare du Nord station on the Metro in Paris.  Note the gorgeousness of the Beaux Arts ironwork on the sign and fences.  Note also the huge trash bins circling the entry.  Because as gorgeous as the Metro sign is, it doesn’t exist in a museum; it exists to serve a purpose, and other things that exist to serve a purpose impinge on its beauty. I know this, and yet I’m sometimes startled by it.

And here’s the train station itself.  The statues that run along the top represent various cities that trains in the station serve.  The statues on the tier below are for cities in France.  And all around this gorgeous building are–yes, more trash bins.  And taxis and people from everywhere, going everywhere.  Paris is made up of all the gorgeousness of the past, but it’s still a working place. Think of it this way and it’s rather humbling to a tourist.  You feel as if you ought to say “thank you for letting me interrupt your day-to-day functioning” to both the city and the citizens.  But if any citizens are used to it, I suppose the Parisians are.

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We took the train from Paris to London, which is a vast improvement on the boat-train of my impoverished youth (which required that you get on a train, get off at Calais and walk to the boat, get off the boat at Dover, go through Customs, get back on a train, and head to London–usually at three a.m., because my impoverished youth was, um, impoverished, and the night train was cheap).  Now you go through UK Customs at the Gare du Nord, get on the train, and a couple of hours later, hey presto! Another city in another country.

Even when I went to England the first time in that aforementioned youth, London was full of antiquity cheek by jowl with modernity.  But the modernity has gotten really modern, almost disconcertingly so, as at times it feels a little like you’re in the Disneyland version of England.  There’s a cable car over the Thames.  There’s the Eye, that nearly iconic ferris wheel opposite Westminster.  Seriously, London, WTF?  (Okay, not a fan of cable cars or ferris wheels because heights make my knees go splah.)

2014-08-13 13.23.30So maybe it’s my problem.)  I have a slightly proprietary feeling toward old London, what with my mucking about in the Regency as much as I do, so this new evidence of modernity boggled me just a bit at first.  But really, once I stopped my boggling the old London was right there, everywhere I looked, cheek by jowl with the newer bits.

So I took a deep breath and muttered my new mantra: machine for living.  South bank or north, east or west, the city changes and stays the same for the people who live and work there.

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After my family moved out of New York City when I was a teen, I’d go back sometimes and be vaguely offended: who said you could put that building up there?  What happened to my favorite candy store?  Who moved my cheese?  After a while it occurred to me that a big part of what I love about cities is the change, the vitality, the fact that they’re living organisms that change and shed skin and grow and contract and give you glimpses into the past.    If a city I love changes, it’s up to me to keep up.

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About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Machines for Living — 8 Comments

  1. My chief reaction toward driving down a road I vaguely remember from childhood is — wasn’t there a TREE there?

    Some buildings get the reaction, built or gone, but it’s the great towering trees that really get me.

  2. When I was a kid, and any book I was reading spoke of the boat train, I always imagined that the train went on a boat and was ferried across the Channel, and how ineffably cool was that…?

    The reality dawned as such a disappointment, deep in my inner heart I still believe in boat-trains. Train-boats.

  3. Change is part of the vibrancy of cities. But there is good change and bad change, and not all of it is simply my (or your) reaction to moving my favorite place.

    The restaurants and boutiques and food trucks and even the crowds along South Congress in Austin are a big improvement over the redneck bars I remember from my youth (and if there is still a bar or too, that’s even better). But the way Austin has sprawled in all directions, sprouting malls and tract houses and McMansions is much less charming.

    I resent it most in Austin, because I lived there when it really was weird. Also small. The fastest growing city in the US is bound to change, but too much change is driven by people who are only interested in making money out of the place, not in living there.

    As for New York: The upgrading of the seaport area at the end of Fulton Street in lower Manhattan brought needed improvements, but these days plastic chains are fast replacing the cafes and retail shops — and not just the junky ones. In D.C., I see pictures of the changes along H Street N.E., which badly needed some change, and wonder where the poor people went.

    I think your comments are the start of the discussion …

  4. I noticed this trip how tremendously London has gentrified. There is one heck of a lot of money sloshing around in that town, and most of it is from overseas.

    • The first time I went to London I lived in a hostel in Barkston Gardens, Earl’s Court, on the west side of the city–not the classy west side (at least not then), but the area where many immigrants and students and people who didn’t have much money lived and worked. I haven’t had the heart to go back on my last two trips, in part because some of what I liked about the area was how un-gentrified it was.

      Machines for living, Madeleine. Get over it.