I am paraphrasing something I read years ago: the best cities are those that can support the richest variety of narratives and memories. I suppose this is a kind of tony way of saying: “There are 8 million stories in the naked city…”
Perhaps the best example of this is Italo Calvino’s wonderful little book, “Invisible Cities,” in which merchant Marco Polo describes 100 fabulous cities to Emperor Kublai Khan, all derived from and versions of one place: Venice. Venice is a great city because Venice can inspire such a richness of memories and stories. There are so many different and yet real Venices for Polo to recall, and relate to the Emperor.
I am musing about this because yesterday Amy and I spent some time chatting with a fellow who is a bit older than we are, who grew up just a couple of blocks away. He told us stories of riding the streetcar, which used to run outside our front door, of going in awe to Union Station (a place that still instills awe, in my opinion), of shopping on the now dilapidated though reviving H Street, which was then one of DC’s most important retail streets. I realized that he was describing a city we don’t really know. And yet as he said, just a chance aroma will take him back to his favorite H Street bike shop, in the city in his memory that is real, though invisible to us.
His narratives of the city, and ours, are so very different. But when we carefully listen to all of these different stories a whole city begins to emerge. I can only imagine how many millions of Washingtons have piled one on another across time. The more we examine these layers of memory, and listen to each of these stories, the closer we come to the actual city.
When we moved to Washington a colleague here, historian Pam Scott, told us that if we really wanted to understand Capitol Hill, we needed to walk in the alleys. What she meant, I think, is that the alleys were a good place to gain access to the widest array of city stories - alley housing and segregation, waves of development, gentrification, horses becoming cars, workers next door to plutocrats. Here the mundane, the crass, the sad, the vivid, the messy, the outlandish are easiest to uncover.
So over the years we have strolled the alleys as instructed, and she is correct. They are so vividly different from the neat rows of facades along the streets. Capitol Hill’s alleys tell us an enormous variety of stories: architectural, social, cultural, historic. That’s why I started making paintings like these.
Perhaps these quiet alleys are not the best place to find the next city, but they are great places to gain access to a host of last cities, lost cities, and now not so invisible cities.