THE INCOMPLETE FUTURE
In his fascinating book of short essays, Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies, Alastair Bonnett wrote:
Modern places are made up of layers of incomplete visions of the future, and the result is a permanent state of impermanence.
He wrote this in the context of discussing Giarre, a small Sicilian city with such a history of unfinished, abandoned, and graffiti-ridden public works projects that it has become a subject of mockery, primarily from an artists' collective which has dubbed the ruins the Archaeological Park of Sicilian Incompletion in Giarre.
Lest you join in the mockery, he reminds the reader that all cities share such dubious remnants of past intentions, left unfinished because of lack of money, lack of will, public opposition, or changing needs.
His astute observation is a small slice of a bigger picture, beyond the scope of his book. Every city - shorthand for every form of human habitation - exists in an incomplete state. The city we see around us on any given day is a frozen moment of change. Buildings are being torn down, lots half leveled and cleared, concrete foundations and steel skeletons promise future wholes, signs announce upcoming projects. Some, normally most, of these elements of change will continue to completion. We can never tell which. Tens of thousands of houses, buildings, and stores were caught by the 2008 recession; many never emerged. The private sector is as easily caught by change as public works.
Cities boom and bust. The 1950 census provided a snapshot of urban America in the Northeast at its peak. Virtually every center city dropped in population by 1960 and most have continued falling, with Detroit simply the extreme example. The City of Rochester produced an official Comprehensive Plan in 1964 to handle the needs that would be placed on the city by its continued growth, making it obsolete on the day it was issued. When I started working for the city in 1980 it had already lost over a quarter of its population and every day was an exercise in keeping the gears running without the money to pay for them. The neighborhood I grew up in, the vast working class northeast quadrant which didn't even have the signifier of a name, is now a patchwork of open spaces from torn-down houses, a miniature Detroit. Will those empty lots ever be rebuilt? And if so, with what? Those questions are unanswerable today.
Their current emptiness is a reminder that, back in the 19th century before the neighborhood was created, these lots also stood bare of houses, possibly used as farm land or orchards or fields. The builders did not see the future of 2015 or even the future of 1915. Nor did they see themselves as part of the past. Every day for them, just as for us, was the newest, latest, most advanced day that had ever been on Earth.