City Beautiful

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In 1881, Mark Twain described Montreal as a city “where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window.” In 2016, we might describe Montreal as a city where you can’t throw a brick without hitting something beautiful. Seriously, you can’t even walk to the pharmacy, on a warm June night, to pick up some garbage bags, without being left speechless again and again and again. Oh, and let me be clear, the beauty of which I speak, the beauty of this great city, is not the natural and thus accidental beauty of BC or Banff. Vanity is a virtue here in Montreal, and the city’s beautiful because it wants to be.

Something wonderful is happening in this city. Despite corruption scandals that would make a Latin American dictator blush. Despite crumbling municipal infrastructure that’s made much of downtown look like the perfect place to shoot a post-apocalyptic disaster movie. Despite all of these things, and against all odds, there’s a buzz of creativity here right now unlike anything I’ve seen before in my lifetime.

What real city would be a real city without dreamy drifters and nomads possessed by a seemingly insatiable wanderlust? I love these people. They make delightful dinner guests and fascinating friends. Even so, you can’t build anything long-lasting or worthwhile with poetic people like this. Because they always leave. Sooner or later. To function well, cities need to have a critical number of people like Niccolò Machiavelli: people who can say: “I love my native city more than my own soul.”

Urban dwellers love to pride themselves on their open-mindedness, and yet I can’t help but notice that the sine qua non of any real city is a kind of closed-mindedness. All real cities (e.g., Paris, New York, Montreal) contain a critical number of chauvinistic citizens who simply cannot imagine living anywhere else, narrow-minded people who believe (wrongly, of course) that their city is the best city in the world. Much as sophisticated cosmopolitans love to disapprove of these people, a city really isn’t a city without them.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

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