Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

5. Sustaining democratic life in cities

Key terms: public space, public opinion, active citizenship, attitudes (caring and not remaining indifferent to life in cities)

The first step towards democracy is the willingness to talk in public about the problems any city faces. Public speech cannot be achieved merely by providing public spaces; there is a need to avoid saying one thing and meaning another as if the public needs not to know the full truth. If everything is based on public lie or ‘mendacity’ (Martin Jay), then spin doctors will have their say and society will no longer have the knowledge about what is going on. It would reduce citizens to semi-conscious subjects who are apparently only too willing to fall for rhetorical tricks rather than ask the hard questions.

Unfortunately history is full of examples of how citizens were persuaded to follow a certain course once decided upon. Since that governs as well the relationship of citizens to planning, the key question of how sustain democratic life in cities if these plans are usually presented as ‘fait accompli’ has to be answered as making precisely here through active participation a difference. It requires a bottom-up process on how to shape not public opinion, but how different voices in public forums can contribute to the overall process till a cultural consensus emerges as to what are the key priorities.

General principle

Not always will people accept or understand the wisdom of key decisions, and at times they will even revolt against them even if to their own disadvantages. This is because people have only something to gain if the entire city remains intact and free of violence.

Historical example: if the first advice is not good, seek a second one and give it the right interpretation if more favorable for a positive outcome

For instance, Athenians fearing a full attack by the Persians were at first not at all willing to follow their leadership under Themistocles. The latter had interpreted the oracle’s advice to hide behind wooden boards as meaning to abandon the city due to the approaching Persian army and instead seek rescue at sea behind the wooden planks of the ships. The citizens went even so far to denounce their own leaders as traitors and stoned in their rage their wives and children to death. But the political leadership under Themistocles acted decisively and convinced everyone that taking to the ships is not a sign of lack of patriotism towards the city. Always people expect standing up to the enemy is their utmost duty even if it is clear they will perish as the Persian army was known to have foot soldiers capable of shooting burning arrows. But finally they did agree. But in this case with everyone in safety on the boats, they could return to the city after the Persian army had left after having destroyed everything, but not the people themselves.

That lesson as what is to value more, the material aspect of a city, or its immaterial substance, namely the people themselves, is most important to be perceived. As Marx remarked what the Persians had not destroyed was the memories people had of their city, how it had been built. Once the Persians had left and the Athenians could return, it was an easy task to rebuild the city. If they had perished in the onslaught of the Persians, they could not have brought the city back to life!

Something to think about – other historical examples

There are naturally other examples when cities were threatened and some courageous citizens decided to take it upon themselves to hand over the key of the city to the invader before he could destroy everything.

Rodin’s sculpture of ‘Citizens of Calais’

This self sacrifice as exemplified by the sculpture ‘The citizens of Calais’ of Rodin did not work all the time. Sometimes it ended the illusion of having still some bargaining power with the new oppressors who would instead drive home even harder lessons and raze the city to the ground despite the willingness of its citizens to give up.

A white flag does not mean necessarily attainment of new rules, greater safety and an escape from hunger but can lead to more severe forms of punishment. It all depends on the nature of the invader and what he has against this specific city in the first place. To spare the life of its citizens after the city has been defeated, that was in history often an unusual, certainly not a common solution.

The fall of Constantinople

As the story by Stefan Zweig shows how Constantinople was taken, some small mistakes can lead to bigger disasters. In the case of Constantinople Turkish troops managed to stray into the inner city despite its nearly not to be penetrated thick walls because someone had forgotten to close the Kerka door. It was not the apparent strength of this small troop which made a difference. Rather the moment some spotted the troops, they initiated a shout which went throughout Constantinople, namely ‘the Turks have taken the city!’ It was a shout ringing in self-defeat.

The fall of Troy

Even more interesting is to cite another example of how a city was taken by apparently not following the advice of the Greek who served the rulers of Troy. The Greek advisor told Cassandra according to Christa Wolf’s novel that ‘if Trojans wish to defeat the Greeks, then they must become like them: treacherous, devious, and violent! Apparently Cassandra looked at the advisor with great astonishment and then asked him: “What do you think we are fighting for, if not to retain our character?

Other indicators

It is an interesting indicator of something not going well, when, for example, a grocery man in Berlin says the following after having experienced in 1989 German re-unification and therefore Berlin re-united:

“He would never have thought that one day he would come to such a conclusion, but he is now contemplating to move away despite of him having been born here. It is in Berlin that he grew up and started out to make a business as grocery man now lasting well over 35 years!”

Indications as to certain basic tendencies can be deduced even from what a grocery man expresses. They are important if a city is to be contemplated in terms of what people are willing to put up with or else with what not. If they do not see any chance to affect possible changes within the city as they would like to, they will be inclined to go beyond mere passive behavior and activate themselves in a different direction by deciding first of all to leave the city.

Always Berlin West had been an interesting case of what makes a difference between those who came there but stayed for only a short time in order to make their career by returning again to West Germany and those who would stay on despite all the obvious and not so obvious difficulties but demonstrate thereby a certain affinity to the city. It was not merely a matter of having or not staying power. It required a special ability to survive under all kinds of difficulties and circumstances. Naturally it needs to be kept in mind that many problems did not come into existence with wall, but had to do with terrible historical ballast weighing upon the whole city. That made all the difference. Thus anyone living there had to develop a special cultural filter in order to sense and to anticipate who could be relied upon to stay, for that makes all the difference when investing in the future. The same applied but differently to those living in East Berlin. There they had to be careful not to trust too many; even an apparent friend could be working for the secret police, the Stasis. Equally the trusted person could be gone suddenly one day because he had filed an application to be let go free into the West, but not telling anyone about it. Since the waiting time for these permissions could take more than 4 years, a lot of deception was in play in order to convince each other to trust one another because all would be staying in the interest of working on a positive future. All that investment in the form of trust could be gone overnight once that person got suddenly the permission and disappeared into the West still that same day when the permission was issued.

Gaining distance to a city

There are many kinds of limitations in recognizing what is really going on in a city. Sometimes these things are only seen when too late and people unable to sustain any longer their lives in that specific city. To remind James Joyce left Dublin because he could not get any distance to the others if he would continue to stay only close up. Brendan Kennels describes Joyce as the one who managed in the end to perceive things in Dublin both from close-up and from a distance. It appeared through his writings as if at one and the same time he was sitting in the clouds above Dublin and yet could be close enough to observe small details like the rest of food between the teeth of the guy drinking beer at the bar. Gaining distance does not necessarily mean shutting people out, but letting them into one’s consciousness under different terms or rather sense of proportions. That life in a city has as many downsides as upsides is known, and therefore an usual expression to be heard at time is the need to get away, just for a while, in order to get a different perspective on things. It means altering levels of reflections as Foucault would say. By gaining through distance a different angle of perception, it is possible that everything till then boisterous can be appreciated again as a sign of life. To be peaceful and calm, beautiful and straight forward, the extremely ugly and violent just around the corner has to be overcome as a daily prospect and even certainty. To embrace a city there needs to be taken into account all the inherent contradictions and even more so a way to tackle all these problems. Gaining some distance for some time is not a bad idea. From James Joyce to Paula Meehan that can help since no one ever knows what awaits one around the next corner.

To leave or not a city, that is the question

Of course, it is of great interest to find out why people decide to leave a city. Moreover, that can happen while others make the choice to move precisely to that city. And then there are those who never leave, but decide to do that for various reasons. Some are so much rooted that they cannot image living somewhere else. Others do not have the means to move away while still those who may have the means have grown afraid of other worlds in which they would experience themselves as complete strangers, as someone not knowing the way and above all to be without any Rights since not recognized as a potential citizen with the same Rights even if only at first a complete stranger to the place.


Possible democratic maxims:

i. Keep all options open

It puts precisely the upholding of democracy in cities into this dilemma, if circumstances leave apparently no other choice, but to loose the democratic character by fighting in an undemocratic way or else to perish altogether. Thus it is a matter of keeping open all options and still link means and ends in such a way that the democratic character does prevail all the time.

ii. Endorse active citizenship

Periklis made in his famous funeral speech that important distinction that a city is best defended not by armies, but by active citizens willing to participate in civic life.

iii. Give a voice to citizens

Public speech needs to relate to both the needs of citizens and to the laws of the city.

iv. Comprehend conditions for public speech

There is a need of progress in reforms over time, in order to keep everyone so weak that no one can gain so much power so that it becomes possible to abuse this power by seeking advantages over others and do things without impunity even so existing laws are violated.

v. Continue democratic reforms

Ancient Greece came to democracy by ensuring participation by all to the benefit of all by going through many stages of reform. Above all these reforms cut the power of the more powerful ones before it was too late, that is before they could become too powerful and therefore could no longer be challenged in a democratic way.

vi. Act before it is too late

A challenge to democratic life can already be noticed when those with power start to abuse their power and thereby distort the meaning of justice by treating everyone else unfairly. If not checked in time, this challenge becomes a threat to democracy and in turn can lead to worse cases than merely oligarchy in Ancient Greece or to benevolent dictatorship as was possible even in the Renaissance city.

vii. Further city governance and participation in planning by letting everyone know the true state of affairs

Translated into modern terms of city governance, citizens’ participation in how a city is planned and shaped is very low, if not non existent, as much more politicians, experts and specific interests groups have a say.

The lack of criticism in the absence of public speech allows governance to be reduced to fake participatory activities. This includes everyone being involved in symbolic gestures, such as the mayor putting on the lights of the Christmas tree in the central square. It is done on behalf of everyone but the reduction of a collective image to such simplistic symbol means that the loss of true dialectical images (Adorno) linking every citizen to a consciousness for the city as a whole goes unchallenged.

viii. Promote a caring about life in cities by fostering positive attitudes to overcome indifference

How to maintain then high standards and quality of city life? Of interest is something Socrates Kabouropoulos pointed out, namely that visitors or non-residents to a city perceive the place sometimes with more love and take greater care than residents themselves. In their discussions it shows that visitors undertake a greater effort to discover the beauties to be found at this place, while permanent residents tend to generalize about persisting ugliness of the city. In the case of the latter much said and done reflects the fact that the city has become to them but an abusive place.

A similar comment has been made by Sofia Yannatou when she compared her attitude towards the city with that of Pedro Mateo, the Spaniard living as outsider in Athens and yet showing a greater affinity to the street he lives on than what she can come to terms with. Sofia Yannatou experiences nowadays a breakage between her childhood memories of Athens and what she experiences nowadays when walking through the streets of Athens.

Insofar as this would require a study of prevailing attitudes, even of those who develop themselves out of a love for this city, attention should be given as to what makes this girl growing up become with certainty a woman of London once grown up? If she would never walk home straight away, but converse with everyone along the way, whether fruit dealer, shoe maker, taxi driver etc. then her childhood would entail that rich understanding of the very people who make up that city. Such a love may be the same for a girl growing up in Barcelona or in Mexico City, but this love cannot be easily translated, never mind be transferred from one city to another.

Growing up in a certain place is really a process of maturing out of love for this place. This love is usually so strong and deep that it cannot be easily disturbed or put into flight through doubts. It is quite something else when someone goes to another city to experience him- or herself in a different context, and then decides to stay there as it seems to bring out the best till then slumbering only inside. In any case, people are full of stories about how they link their biographies to their home town or not. In America there tends to be a lot more fluctuation and movement, but not so much within the city as from one to the next. That leaves in retrospect a city landscape hardly to be recognized when returning to it a few years later.

Such attitudes developed over time, and especially by growing up in that city, they carry a much greater weight when it comes to caring about the city. A difference is made when such positive attitudes shape public life and therefore the true opinions about the city. It is also a far reaching sign if someone who grew up in that city wants to bring up the own children in the very same place.

ix. Don’t transform a city into an exporter of life but let poetic life in the city unfold

But this does mean to heed what Baptiste Marray said about a mistake Paris made as this city was still quite different in his childhood days, that is very much alive when compared to what it has become now, namely an ‘exporter of life’. Instead poetry should pick up from the streets that daily grammar used by the city to narrate life itself.


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