Re-visible Cities: the invisible pandemic and urban challenges

Memes and dreams

Has COVID 19 changed our visual relationship to our cities (those of us who live in cities)? Some aspects of visuality certainly seem to have been enhanced. For example, Edward Hopper’s haunting images of alienation have offered themselves as icons of isolation. There have been the hilarious parodies of classical paintings that have sprung into being on the internet. Will we ever feel the same way about toilet paper?

Those are the interior images, what about images from outside?

We have seen the drone footage of great cities in shutdown; Rome, New York, Paris, Prague, even Sarajevo, devoid of traffic and people. We have rarely seen our cities like this; except in some film scene, shot at dawn before the cars and crowds start circulating.

A fairly bland observation, ‘like a film’; it seems to be the lazy, tastes-a-bit-like-chicken default setting of our visuality.  

It must also be said that for those who live at the latitude of, say, Oslo, Helsinki, or St. Petersburg, in June/July, a stroll home after a late drink can give one a view an empty city in full daylight, shared only with newspaper deliverers and taxi drivers. But that, in fairness, is not the experience of most people.  

We might also pause to note how goddamn ugly some famous sites are; Times Square empty of people is as unremarkable as an average shopping mall’s car park.

The clearing of air pollution has also made visible hinterland hills capes that had long been lost to sight. As with the Eyjafjallajökull flight disruption, skies have been devoid of planes, and of their linear white traces.

It has been commented that COVID has filled our heads full of strange dreams, even stranger than usual that is, they are now called Lockdown Dreams. There is a current project running at London’s LSE, 

“Films are dreams”, wrote novelist Anthony Burgess, “and dreams feed hungrily on films.” Yet, there have been less cinematic and more concrete precedents for the emptying of our cities.

Historical precedents for unpeopled spaces

In Bridget Kendall’s oral history of the Cold War, a young Czech woman, recalling the events of 1968 said, “Prague was empty of people after the invasion. I can tell you how dreadful that was” recalling how, prior to the invasion, she could not walk through the center of town without stopping to talk to endless acquaintances, “[but after the invasion] there was nobody, nobody.”

That most visually sharp of poets, Yannis Ritsos had described Regime of the Colonels (1967-74) in his native Greece as an emptying of the city;

The statues left first. A little later the trees, people, animals. The land became entirely deserted. The wind blew. Newspapers and thorns circled in the streets. At dusk, the lights went on by themselves.

There have been more recent events that made me curious. I wrote to ask a friend in Warsaw if the lockdown brought back memories of martial law? Most definitely, she said, although she was then only a child.

One particular event came to mind, especially after an ex-student shared drone images of an eerily empty Sarajevo. Did the invisible virus bring back traumatic memories of the invisible snipers and gunners of the siege? Damir Kapidzic of Sarajevo University replied “There were these comparisons in the early days of the shutdown, also in the form of panic buying (not toilet paper though). It was more like 10 kilos of sugar and 50 kilos of flour. The only comparisons made in public after the first days were by politicians as a way to remind people of their resilience.”

He continued; “Since not all of (Bosnia and Herzegovina) experienced a siege, and that most of this rhetoric came from top party leaders (who did not experience the worst of the siege) such analogies were not seen very favorably. Also, most people are aware that this is not a war and that they have to hunker down and not mobilize. So, no direct comparisons that gained traction.”

“Hunker down and not mobilize”. Noteworthy that while some politicians in the US/UK and elsewhere were loving their own manly war comparisons, in actual sites of recent warfare, politicians were most reluctant to take that low road. 

Changes and challenges

The images of creatures re-entering spaces left by humans have been uplifting. Is it a coincidence that the first (and fake as it turned out, such is our age) images of re-wilding came from Marco Polo’s home city? Even if the dolphin was not real, the footage of a medusa drifting through a Venetian canal was heart-warming. So too the sheep, deer, foxes, wild pigs, and penguins that have been recorded in various towns and cities around the globe.

In Invisible Cities, Calvino’s Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan, “With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed.”

Tracy Hadden Loh and Christopher Leinberger write that there are ‘three natural enemies of urbanism; crime, terrorism, and pandemics.’ All three spread fear, but they argue cogently how their city of examination, New York, adjusted two the former two – the third is now the challenge.

Writing from Australia, Tony Matthews has also asked how do we now react when the familiar has become sinister?  We will be forced to re-think our relationship to our cities.

“A city is a combination of many things: memory, desires…” wrote Calvino, commenting on his novel. “The desire of my Marco Polo is to find the hidden reasons that bring men to live in cities: reasons which remain valid over and above any crisis.” The present crisis included hopefully.

Brendan Humphreys is a researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki. He is a historian and anthropologist specializing in Eastern Europe. Among his varied research interests, he is currently working a cultural history of urbanicide.

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