a tale of two Nighthawks–recalling the indelible urban image anew

This year, both my law practice and writing have featured unforgettable images of urban issues and examples, using photographs, as visual supplements, to compare traditional organic urbanism with emergent perspectives.

I have framed many references with the camera’s “biography” of urban points in time.

But I’ve also been a religious reader of today’s urban pundits, and tried to contrast their verbiage on the power of the city-as-settlement with the imagery of urban moments and city places.

Traveling yesterday from big city to small, the contrast of words to photos was apparent while reading the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Katz in Time Magazine. Katz promotes our cities as America’s necessary investment future (also in video here)–places of ideas and economic engines to harness and take us forward–while leaving behind the romantic notion of small town America. According to Katz, economic incentives should be focused on large urban areas if we are to compete on the world stage.

Maybe true, I thought, but reductionist in a way that not only could subtract from the everyday, ordinary moments and interactive elements we wish to recreate in our cities, but also could rob us of the small-scale imagery, the pictures that can motivate us to ponder more than just broad-based words of economic might. And, as a footnote, perhaps Katz’s words are just a bit too bereft of emotion and compassion to reflect the recessionary years which have so affected us all.

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks (1942), via Wikipedia (fair use)

On cue, an indelible urban image which has been much critiqued and recreated for almost 70 years appeared anew. At a breakfast destination in a smaller city, still in early morning darkness, an apparition showed none other than the classic scene from another place in another time–Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks–his most famous painting, the 1942 New York late night rendition said to illustrate the loneliness and isolation of urban life.

However, this morning’s deja vu showed the start of the day in a university city, without the larger metropolitan potential for the booming synthesis called for by Katz, but nonetheless a place of ideas and stimulus for change–a place both urban and small town at once.

First glance evolved while experiencing the dawn version of Nighthawks today. Amid an upbeat small city crowd, there was resilience and interaction both additive to Katz and the opposite of Hopper.

After entering, interacting, listening and leaving, it became clear that new imagery, however similar to Hopper’s masterpiece, frames a new narrative. Today’s angular diner scene, and customers within, suggest that all cities with a future need not be lonely, metropolitan megalopolises, but rather places where the positive elements of human interaction can manifest the baseline for all of our urban potential.

This article also appeared on SustainableCitiesCollective, here, on November 4 and was adapted for seattlepi.com, here, on November 2.

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