Monday, September 29, 2008

The surprising hope of urban decay

This past weekend I was back in Philadelphia, helping my friend with his mom's house. I took the train down from Boston and, as usual, packed more than enough stuff to occupy me for the six hour ride. And, as usual, I spent most of the ride staring out the window watching the world pass by.

I've been taking this particular train route, the Amtrak Northeastern Corridor, for 25 years now. The landmarks have slowly changed, become more or less occupied, more developed with a greater density of graffiti. I am always mesmerized as I watch this panorama pass in front of me. That's how it feels - as though the world is moving and jostling me, not as though I'm moving through it.

As soon as we leave the Boston area, the ride becomes a coastal wonderland. Ocean, dunes, beach houses. It then moves into manufacturing cities, dense housing, old warehouses, urban landscapes and finally urban decay. As much as I love the long light of the ocean, the waves and rolling grasslands, I anticipate the collapsing warehouses. The splashes of graffiti. The tall canyons of the cities. The shoulder-to-shoulder streets and signage in languages I barely recognize.

And most of all I love the persistence of life in these places. For all that, on the surface, these landscapes may be dismal places (I know that living there can be a heart-crushing experience. I know the human cost there may be dear) the natural world is so determined to assert itself I can't help but feel cheered. This is in part, no doubt, because I am reading The World Without Us, a thought experiment about how the world would continue if humans simply vanished, but I have always loved the trees that grow up through the roofs of abandoned places. The flowers in the cracks of the sidewalk. The urban coyotes.

When I am on the train or walking through the city I see abundant evidence of life. It makes me smile, thinking of the silence and wind and bird calls. And of the stories that might arise for whatever follows us when they find the odd, rare artifact.

It gives me tremendous hope, remembering that the planet will survive us. It may take a long time to recover from us, but ultimately, no matter what we do, life will probably continue. The planet and life have survived tremendous calamities already; we are only one more. I know this may sound morbid, but we are all born with an expiration date, so I find it of great comfort to know that the planet, the world goes on without me. And without us, life goes on.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

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True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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