Nonfiction | March 01, 2002

The fancy apartment building near the shore, a gleaming white tower with black balconies, suddenly transforms into a pinched gray hulk scarred with graffiti. Single-family homes nearby start doing the same, their green lawns flickering into dusty lots. I glance at what was, a few moments ago, a water tower, but in its place stands a pile of brown rubble. This calls for fast action. I click on the utilities button and the demolition button, and my cursor changes into a tiny bulldozer that I aim at the rubble. Click: blam! I race back to utilities, click on “water structures” and choose “water tower.” I swing back to the site, click and watch as a new water tower appears.

I click on the underground view, verify that the new tower is hooked up to the water system; the parched areas of light brown gradually turn blue. When I return to the surface, the neighborhood is already starting to rebuild. To my relief I see that a new apartment building, this one in red brick with bay windows, has just popped into sight.

This is great fun, though not without the unease that comes from doing something that goes against the grain. For nearly twenty years, ever since buying a boxy Kaypro IV for my writing, I have steadfastly regarded computers as working tools, dismissing the gaming world as the proper turf of Gen-X slackers – no place, certainly, for an adult with work to do. It was only last year that I finally got a machine with a sound card and CD-ROM, mostly because it has become nearly impossible to find one without these things. The mania for multimedia has always puzzled me. Haven’t we always had natural multimedia, our eyes and ears ready to gratify us plenty at the appropriate time – that is, when the computer is off and we’re not working?

The animated city on my screen is proof that our deepest desires run counter to our deliberate choices. It’s not the rehearsed speech that reveals the soul but the Freudian slip. Not the firm handshake but the quavering voice and averted eyes. My superego might be gratified whenever I’m clattering away in WordPerfect, but my sullen, persistent id seems most at ease when no one is looking and a simulated city fills my screen. My Freudian cyberslip is SimCity 3000, and it is hardly a new vice. Despite my long-standing insistence that computer fun be rigorously subordinated to computer work, this weakness dates back to the Pleistocene days of SimCity Classic. Sound card or no sound card, SimCity has always been one computer game – the only computer game – that has seemed to me worth playing. Now I mark out a residential zone in green and watch, mesmerized, as tiny houses and yards pop into view. I can do this for hours, suspending my precious work in favor of the deep, hypnotic timelessness of barely conscious play.

What horrible truth lies beneath so blatant a betrayal of deliberate self-image and best intentions? If ancient Athens had developed multimedia computers, Socrates might have insisted – to everyone’s irritation – that the unexamined game is not worth playing. It’s probably true that all games should be examined, and closely. Psychologists and anthropologists tell us that play offers a telling key to our deepest natures, and who am I to argue? As I click a marina into place, it occurs to me that something must be going on here.

A middle-aged man’s addiction to SimCity is not, at first glance, terribly reassuring. Megalomania is a distinctly possible cause if you find yourself hooked on watching tiny people make their way through a city that is under your complete and exclusive control. Given that these tiny people depend on their “mayor” – on you – for their very existence, SimCity might seem an ideal pastime for a frustrated control freak, a small person playing a very big God. Indeed, the box copy for the latest version calls the game “The Ultimate Power Trip.” The documentation breezily invokes the underbelly of gamesmanship when it urges the user to “get creative and unlock that shady Machiavellian side of yourself that rarely gets to let loose.” Clearly the game is marketed as an adolescent fantasy, a sullen teen’s chance to reassert a measure of power in the face of an unjust grounding – or simply the injustice of living with loser parents in the heart of Dorkville, U.S.A. There’s even a special button (its icon a wicked smiley face) with which the player can deliberately subject a city to a host of disasters, including fires, earthquakes, locusts and UFO attacks. The potential for nasty revenge fantasies is unmistakable. Dad is a clueless doofus, and you’re so not going to that party tonight, but you can fire up the family Pentium and let loose a tornado on London. At least there’s that.

But even Machiavelli has to keep an eye on the polls. As the documentation warns you, the tiny people in your city – they’re called “Sims” – “can unelect you if they are unhappy with your mayoral decisions.” Playing the game successfully means pleasing those Sims. “If they are happy, your city will prosper.” That promise of an “ultimate power trip” may pull you in, but it’s the solicitude you develop toward those tiny people that will keep you playing. As I place a museum in a lackluster residential neighborhood and the Sims cheer, it occurs to me that having a sound card is not so bad after all. Those Sims really wanted that museum. I have made them happy; my city should prosper.

There’s a lot of history in that tiny, simulated cheer. A city is – has always been – a tangible embodiment of desire, an icon of the human propensity to want things. The ancient storytellers knew this. There was no desire in Eden and therefore no real people – only a couple of bipedal animals, blissful but essentially bovine, living in the antithesis of a city. When people started to become people – when they started to want things, like forbidden fruit – their presence in Eden was no longer possible. Expulsion from the garden was tantamount to being frog-marched into the city, where desire and remorse are locked in eternal struggle.

When human desire is inappropriate or unattainable, we call it tragedy. This notion, too, is inextricably bound up with the idea of the city. The oldest Bible stories originated when urban life was first getting established in the Fertile Crescent, and you’d think that storytellers along the Tigris and the Euphrates would be touting their new way of life, this latest thing. Instead, they see the city as a morally ambiguous innovation, a mixed blessing at best. Abel the shepherd is murdered by his bad brother, Cain the farmer. In places like the Fertile Crescent, agriculture requires irrigation, and irrigation requires a concentration of workers. Agriculture also demands a market, a concentration of eaters. To be fully human is to have blood on your hands and a mark on your head – to be a farmer who can no longer live in the middle of nowhere, a settled man, a city dweller. The storytellers cannot resist pressing the point. Banished to the land of Nod, Cain slinks off and commits that most human of deeds: in the archaic language of the King James Version, “he builded a city.”

Those “old” ways, the nomadic life of a shepherd, were already starting to seem better. If a lost garden and the world’s first range war (Abel’s last words could well have been “Don’t fence me in!”) failed to invoke a potent nostalgia for preurban days, the earliest SimCity scenario in Western tradition certainly drove it home. The Babylonian Sims decide to found a great city to “make us a name,” and chief among their wants is a tower that will “reach unto heaven.” The allseeing Gamester knows that what they really want is to escape human limitations. “Now nothing will be restrained from them,” he coolly observes, “which they have imagined to do.” Such rampant hubris calls for fast action: God clicks his mouse, the Babylonians discover that they can no longer talk to one another and the population is dispersed.

All subsequent urban history can be seen as an endless game of catch-up, a desperate attempt to correct Babel by building cities that would not evoke loss and regret. This hope of redemption-the possibility of a new or a renewed city as the best possible replacement for a lost garden – is deeply embedded in our psyches. The same impulse is also the origin of being civil, of getting along. Large-scale cooperation began with urban projects: the irrigation system, the city wall, the palace, the temple. The arts developed side by side with the impulse to create great cities. The specialization of labor that cities made possible was necessary for the very existence of builders, artists and craftspersons, who took their turns erecting the exemplary city, the city that would last. Memphis, Nineveh, Babylon, Athens, Alexandria, Rome, Constantinople – each made its contribution to the lexicon of urban dreams. Modern cities still illustrate this impulse toward the monumental, this desire to move some dirt or pile up some stones to “make us a name” and express civic pride. It’s not so big a leap, really, from the Hanging Gardens to Central Park, from the Parthenon to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The ideal city has never strayed far from human dreams. David captured Zion, and Solomon built it into Jerusalem, the Holy City. From the Holy City came St. John’s New Jerusalem, Augustine’s City of God, Bunyan’s Celestial City and Puritan Boston – all variations of the City on the Hill. In the secularization of the human imagination that has occurred since the Middle Ages, such urban fantasies have assumed an inevitable irony even as they retain something of their power. How many can negotiate L.A.’s freeways unmindful of a perverted dream – all these concrete ribbons scarring the City of Angels? Although you might feel far from the City of Brotherly Love as you vainly seek a place to park near Independence Hall, it will dawn on you that an old Quaker vision lies somewhere beneath the narrow streets and that huge cop telling you to move on. Thread your way through any downtown and you’re negotiating someone’s dream, even if the dream has disappeared or faded or eschewed the spiritually grandiose in favor of the down-to-earth considerations of topography and commerce. The Motor City, the Rubber City, the Mile-High City, the Steel City – America abounds with places where somebody’s dream remains embalmed in a name. Look upon us, all ye nations. You want cars, tires, thin air, pig iron? Well, you’ve come to the right place: this is the city for that.

Sometimes getting back to the land seems like the best dream of all. An old tradition, stretching back through Romantic celebrations of the Lake District and Virgil’s praise for gentleman farming in the Georgics all the way to Sodom and Gomorrah, sees the city as worse than Babel – a den of iniquity and a soulless fleshpot. This image, powerfully present when I was growing up in small-town Ohio, seemed confirmed when we read with horror about Kitty Genovese, beaten to death in New York City while her neighbors looked on. But the pastoral distrust of the city has always been a form of social commentary, a coded belief in the possibility of a good city. The national outcry at Genovese’s passive neighbors was not so much against the city as against the perverted city, the city gone bad. It was the city, after all, that gave rise to the very notion of heroism – a fact brought home with startling clarity after the World Trade Center attack. Contemporary popular culture might extol the rogue hero, the rootless Rambo who works alone, but some of the earliest heroes in Western myth were solid citizens. Indeed, their heroic stature was inseparable from their solicitude for their cities.

This fact suggests redemptive possibilities for a SimCity addict, particularly a middle-aged one who has not been grounded or stripped of the car keys on a Saturday night. The Sumerian Gilgamesh, strongman of Uruk, undertakes a humbling journey as penance for bullying its citizens and returns a better mayor. When Odysseus crawls back to Ithaca after the Trojan War and finds his Sims in a state of moral and social chaos, he makes a few quick clicks of the mouse, puts his city in order and resumes his rightful role as a responsible mayor. Oedipus and Thebes are inseparable, too, the hero’s past sins the cause of the city’s present plagues. The Theban Sims come to see Oedipus as a well-meaning but intemperate mayor, whose much-vaunted intelligence is compromised by pride and arrogance. He recovers something of his former dignity, however, by blinding and banishing himself for the good of his city. Pious Aeneas did everything for the good of his Sims, whether those Sims past in Troy or those Sims future in Rome. He even gave up the beautiful queen Dido, who let down her own Carthaginian Sims by falling for the big lug.

These are all, in one way or another, stories of urban boom and bust, ambition and regret. Uruk’s troubles ceased when Gilgamesh returned as a sadder but wiser mayor. Ithaca had fallen into mob rule as Penelope’s suitors ate her out of house and home, but Odysseus showed up and saved the game. When Oedipus stumbled offstage and took his curse with him, Thebes got a fresh start. Aeneas roused himself from Dido’s bed, and from that point on it was Carthage down, Rome up. In life, as in SimCity, no city can remain powerful or envied or exemplary forever because people are involved. The Holy City had the most auspicious start imaginable, but before long the northerners split off and set up their own capital, their own Holy City at Shechem, because that was what they wanted. When Christians began spreading their message, they saw the first Holy City as a site of unbelief and death, in dire need of a fresh start. God would surely establish a New Jerusalem, and it would be utterly different from the old one.

Like those whiny Sims, real people want their own cities – or, failing that, cities recast to reflect their own vision. To put it more simply, people want. For every Athens there’s a Sparta, eyeing its soft neighbor with wolf-like avarice. As if reacting against the disturbing urban mix of dream and nightmare, the Greeks tried to freeze the cycle by replacing real cities with ideal ones. Wherever Alexander’s army rolled through, a new city was staked out in a rectilinear grid, the Greek measure of truth and beauty, complete with gymnasium, theater and agora. The Romans tried to do the same, but like many a SimCity player, they overreached badly. It was on their watch that the great Mediterranean cities-Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, Rome itself – became unmanageable, too vast and unwieldy for the promotion of either life or liberty, let alone happiness. Those massive blocks of walk-up flats with shops on the ground floor that you still see in older American downtowns were a Roman invention-and a Roman regret. The golden age, as Ovid lined it out, predated the technology on which Roman cities were based.

Given its dense concentration of poor forked creatures whose desires are doomed to clash, the city is also a macrocosm of the individual, rent by conflicting dreams and nagging ambivalence. We always want more, and sometimes we want opposites. An aggregate of us will want more in multiple, and in this sense, every city is a reenactment of Babel’s ambition and Babel’s shame. But the dream of the city persists. This year’s ballot contains a bond issue for a new convention center. Let’s join hands and reach for the skies, even though we’ll be at each other’s throats in a few months. Let’s “make us a name” and be as a shining example unto the nations, at least for a while.

Every SimCity is an ideal city, a site of pure subjectivity. The city you end up with will be a projection of nothing but you, your sublimity and goofiness included. Choose your terrain, alter the landscape in accordance with whatever inner vision satisfies you, select the basic architectural style you want and start zoning. Whatever happens will be the result of your choices. The game offers an odd mix of vulnerability and power, and it is deeply satisfying.

It also feels like a remembrance. When I was little, I knew that our small Ohio town was not a city. A city was a big place like Toledo, where you went to see something out of the ordinary, like the zoo or the art museum. I assumed that a city like Toledo was where most people went to live after they became grown-ups. For this reason it didn’t occur to me that Toledo had any children actually living in it. All those kids at the museum and the zoo seemed a lot like me, and I figured that they had been driven in from small towns like mine.

Convinced that I would be a city dweller when I grew up, I practiced living as one. The prototype of my SimCity addiction was the hours I spent building play cities on the uneven concrete floor of our basement, with streets neatly chalked in and scraps of two-by-fours for buildings. I raided my brother’s HO-scale train layout for the proudest structures in these towns: the “Plasticville” signal tower, ranch house and train station. Tootsietoy cars cruised the streets, got filled up at thimble gas pumps and sat in neat rows at the inevitable drive-in Cinerama on a propped-up baking sheet. I eventually outgrew that basement-floor city, but not the urban dream. In school I’d sneak pieces of graph paper out of my notebook and draw cities in isometric perspective, not unlike the images that appear on a SimCity screen. An especially boring class resulted in a margin-to-margin megalopolis of Babels, an overdeveloped monstrosity in which every square foot soared straight up, like Hong Kong.

Maps of real cities, geometries in yellow, red and blue, were equally appealing. By the time I was ten, I knew the general layout of every city with a major league baseball team, especially the location of the ballpark. These maps reinforced my sense of the city as a place where unusual things happened, where grown-ups gathered to experience life at its best. For a while I considered a major league team to be the sine qua non of any “real” city. Toledo – the Oz and Gotham of my earliest years-got demoted to a big town, replaced by those massive conglomerates of humanity where anything could happen and every desire, including major league baseball, could be met: Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Louis. When the Giants and Dodgers left for California, I thought New York had somehow lost two-thirds of its population. Chicago still had two teams, a sign of its unimaginable, Rome-like immensity.

When I was eleven and my father took me to an Indians game, Cleveland did not disappoint. We parked in the suburbs and took a bus into town, my first descent into a real urban canyon, where the orientation shifts from horizontal to vertical as buildings blot out the sky. I can still see, from the high ground, Cleveland spread out before us, vast and smoggy, as we rode in from Parma. There were other glimpses of urban greatness. Our family once drove south through Cincinnati on a camping trip to the Smokies, passing within sight of Crosley Field and funneling down between endless buildings under a shrinking sky, until we reached the Ohio River bridge and crossed into Kentucky, the huge city suddenly behind us. When we crept through Indianapolis in the days before interstates on our way to spend Thanksgiving with grandparents in Illinois, the scale was just as overwhelming. The city I got to know best as a child was Columbus, where my older brother went to college – and Columbus seemed plenty big, too. I soon got cured of my major league snobbery. Baseball or no baseball, Columbus and Indianapolis were surely two of those special places where anything could happen.

I suspect that each of us has a profound identification with one city or another, with a particular place that fits our notion not of what a city should be but of what it actually is. The city in our head reflects who we are, our potential and our limits. As a child of what later became the Rust Belt, I was captivated when I first saw San Francisco, even as I realized that something about its beauty was utterly foreign to me. I find, increasingly as I progress into middle age, that I’m pretty much a human embodiment of Cleveland, though I could also be Pittsburgh or Buffalo without too much trouble. I could not be Denver or Phoenix in a million years. Their unreal landscapes do not feel like places where people should naturally be. I am no Paris, nor was meant to be: in my brief time there, its elegance constantly made me feel large and clumsy. Chicago and Los Angeles and New York are definitely too vast, and multiple baseball teams are more than I can quite grasp. I live just outside Washington, D.C., but I can’t be Washington, either. It is simply not a Rust Belt kind of place – and besides, there’s no baseball team. Familiarity, however, lies less than an hour up the road: I think I could be Baltimore.

But that’s another thing about cities: they clarify what we are not. That aspect of a city that is not you is precisely what transfixes you when you’re there. In London, nearly every block south and east of the British Museum contains buildings far older than anything in the Midwest (except the gravel in the parking lots). During my time there, I kept stopping to ponder timeworn pavements and the uneven ripples in antique windows. How could a Cleveland sort of guy not marvel at such things? The one aspect of New York that feels most alien to me is the churning energy of its sidewalks, a tide of people so unrelenting and powerful that you are aware of only two choices: join in or disappear. Feeling myself being buoyed along by those crowds is, of course, what I most love about New York.

Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities may be high art, but its mesmerizing cavalcade of imagined, surreal cities touches on a dream common to us all. The old cities – the ones with centuries on them – invoke collective desires that continue to haunt us. The Jerusalem of the imagination remains the Holy City, a place where Babel reversed itself and God is said to have descended to earth. The imagined Alexandria is still the essence of cosmopolitanism, the Pharos blotting out the sky as Greek and Jew and Egyptian barter in a marketplace shaded by a great library brimming with the wisdom of three continents. Rome is still the Eternal City, seat of Caesar after Caesar and then pope after pope, a chain unbroken through the ages. Paris is still the City of Light, where a thousand painters, whether schmaltzy or sublime, try to capture that certain slant of light on the stonework of the Pont Neuf. For most Westerners, Beijing remains the Forbidden City, culturally and politically inscrutable. And for English speakers, London remains the city of heartbreakingly beautiful language, its streets still haunted by Chaucer and Milton and Shakespeare. These cities are as invisible as Calvino’s, and yet their power is palpable, as only the power of an idea can be.

If cities lull you into a kind of dream state, you might not be especially good at playing SimCity, despite the hours you spend at it. The fact is, this lifelong daydream of cities dooms my play to an impracticality that causes water pumps to go dry and power plants to blow up. Although I want to please my Sims, they usually end up leaving in droves, unhappy victims of my desires.

For one thing, my style of play is much too passive. A simulated city has to grow to survive: the documentation is quite clear on this. The Sims keep demanding more water, more housing, more jobs, better transportation – and the smart player gives them what they want. However, I prefer to watch rather than act. After zoning a city, I sit back and explore, zooming in to cruise the streets, follow the traffic and ponder new juxtapositions of this building and that one. Transfixed by shapes, colors and textures, I miss serious problems until there’s nothing to do but watch my city shrink into rubble.

Then, too, my cities always embody aesthetics rather than practicality. Despite – or maybe because of – my Rust Belt origins, I’ll zone as small an industrial area as possible. Those tiny, burgeoning factories are essential to city growth, but I just don’t like how they look. I’ll invariably load a city with expensive amenities appropriate to a vast, unrestricted Toledo – museums, libraries, marinas, zoos, ballparks, of course – long before the population and the budget can sustain them. SimCity also lets you include famous real-world landmarks, an irresistible feature. I cannot keep from endowing an embryonic city, modest tax base and all, with a Pharos of Alexandria standing bravely on its shore. I’ve watched many captivating cities, their leafy squares graced with Parthenons and Chicago Art Institutes, shrivel up before their time.

I place parks and stadiums as if there’s no tomorrow – and as a result, there is no tomorrow. While I’m planting expensive trees like a frenzied Johnny Appleseed, filling every available space with greenery, the Sims can’t get to work because the streets are crumbling or the electricity runs out and there’s no money to replace the power plant. This is one beautiful city, I tell myself as I zoom in to observe a tiny St. Paul’s Cathedral from every possible angle. Oedipus, however, is not the only mayor who failed, disastrously, to see. Before long the water pipes burst from age, or unemployment soars because there aren’t enough factories to support the population. This was one beautiful city, but those damned Sims just kept wanting – and worse, they wanted the wrong things. A benevolent mayor like me will always disable the “random disasters” feature, but my cities die anyway. I darkly conclude that the Sims just didn’t know what was good for them. So what if they were jobless? They could have spent their idle afternoons in the art museum that I so graciously provided. Who needs electricity when the central square contains the Eiffel Tower?

Why would a middle-aged Luddite get hooked on a computer game? And why this computer game? Because we are born to die. We huddle in our cities and oscillate between pride and fear, going about our business with only fleeting premonitions of the fragility of it all. This fragility is what SimCity and its real-world counterparts can teach you. There will be pomp and arrogance if you’re lucky, but there will always be an end to things, too. When Carthage loses out to Rome in the struggle for supremacy on the Mediterranean, it winds up having salt poured on the site so that Cain the farmer will never again be able to feed a population there. The flow of the Euphrates shifts, and Babylon is left high and dry, the Hanging Gardens transformed into the Hanging Desert. The mouth of the Cayster River silts up, and Ephesus, proud home of Diana’s temple, loses its port and becomes an overgrown ruin. The demand for foreign cars skyrockets, and the Motor City loses an appalling percentage of its tax base. Synthetic rubber comes along, and Akron, the Rubber City, doesn’t make tires anymore. Galveston sinks a ton of oil money into improving its port, and Baltimore is forced to create a touristy Harborplace just to keep afloat. It’s the oldest of stories: Rome up, Carthage down. Or, if you prefer, Houston and Phoenix up, Cleveland and Buffalo down. Reliable weather, unsalted soil and money to burn will beat lake-effect snow and unemployment every time.

Although SimCity replicates what Jane Jacobs called the “death and life of American cities” to an extreme, my cities always follow the reverse order. My current city starts returning to the dust from which it came soon after the power plant blows. As always, entropy kicks in, owing to no particular disaster except my inept performance as mayor. The background music turns mournful: a violin keening the audio equivalent of urban decay and human regret. When I finally give up and click to exit, I opt not to save this game. Why save a blighted landscape that is forty thousand dollars-or “Simoleans,” as the game calls them-in debt? Little is left standing in the vast expanse of empty blocks but an art museum, a science center and the mayor’s house – three “special buildings” not subject to ordinary decay and thus fated to remain, Ozymandias – like monuments to a mayor’s impracticality.

There will be other cities, of course, bigger and better ones that will probably be saddled with even more cultural amenities for the Sims to cheer, if only briefly, as they await the inevitable downturn. There will be new landscapes, new street plans, new combinations of buildings and zones – new games for creating new places where anything might happen before change sets in. The Babylonians, forced to abandon that God-damned ziggurat, were scattered to the winds, but in another game they regrouped, marched west and conquered Jerusalem. In yet another game, the Persians roared out of Persepolis and trounced Babylon yet again. This in turn prompted the game in which Jerusalem got rebuilt, transforming itself from brown dirt and gray ruins into the Holy City that remains central to the Western mind.

Every historical city is a kind of simulation, a dream shared by a particular group of people who came together in a particular time and place. I say “is” because once a city inscribes its dream on the collective imagination, it never goes away. For this reason, when those overreaching Romans loaded the CD and began to play, the destruction of Jerusalem was both total and illusory. For this reason, too, the World Trade Center will always remain in the mind’s eye, twin towers of shadowy absence jutting proudly into the open sky. City dreams, like ghosts, have a way of sticking around, their presence proof that fragility and impermanence are prerequisite to that deeper continuity of the human spirit. The cities that we know will be transformed into – and joined by – other cities. The odd thing is the persistence with which we will remember them all, even the ones that no longer exist; they stand waiting to be recycled into templates for imagined futures. Deep down, aren’t we always expecting a new city – our ideal city – to lie just ahead, poised to break into view as the bus crests a hill on Cleveland’s south side or the taxi swings onto the Bay Bridge or we glimpse lower Manhattan through the smudgy window of a train that is moving too slowly to suit us?

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