Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Wilmington Diary, Day 16: What's The Right Size for a City?

Since I started working in Wilmington, I've talked with a number of friends and acquaintances who either live or work in the city or its environs. Most of these conversations, however, have taken place at nightspots in Philadelphia, and the conversation invariably includes an exchange that goes roughly like this:

Me: It's a nice little city, very neat and orderly. But everyone clears out of town by 6.
Wilmingtonian: You got that right. There's nothing to do there at night.

Which, from the looks of things, is a slight overstatement. Downtown Wilmington offers performing arts in the form of the Delaware Theater Company, OperaDelaware and events at the Grand Opera House. Touring stage plays also stop by the Playhouse Theater in the Hotel DuPont. The state's historical museum is right on the main shopping street. It has several fine dining establishments, a smattering of nightclubs and more than a few bars. And in baseball season, the Wilmington Blue Rocks bring minor-league fans to the riverfront just below downtown, where they play in a splendid little ballpark.

Yet the whole is somehow less than the sum of its parts. For all these assets, downtown Wilmington still appears comatose at night.

Maybe it's because the city's too small. Which strikes me as a bit odd, for Wilmington's size is actually pretty close to optimal for a city. At least, it is if you subscribe to the viewpoint of the social critic Kirkpatrick Sale, who wrote a book titled Human Scale in the mid-1980s. In it, he followed the cardinal rule of the Enlightenment--"Man the measure of all things"--and applied it to the collective organizations we create. Every organism, Sale argued, has an optimal size beyond which it ought not grow. For a city, he said, that size is somewhere around 50,000 to 100,000 inhabitants--large enough to offer a full complement of urban amenities but not so large that it becomes difficult to run or chokes on its own traffic.

With roughly 90,000 residents, Wilmington fits his criteria. And it certainly does not appear to be seriously afflicted with the worst urban ills. Traffic flows well even at rush hour. Crime, while not low, is not alarming either. Because the city is carved up among four surrounding suburban school districts, integration and school quality isn't as thorny a problem as it is in other older cities--it is not necessary to leave Wilmington in order to access decent public schools. Abandoned and blighted properties are not pervasive, the way they are in a number of other small, old industrial cities in the region, such as Camden and Chester.

But if you're the sort of urbanite who likes to be where things are happening--well, then, you need to hop in your car and make the 40-minute drive to Philadelphia, just up I-95. There are almost as many people living in downtown Philadelphia--65,000--as there are in the entire city of Wilmington, and hundreds of thousands more live within easy reach of the city center via mass transit or freeway. Those 65,000 souls occupy a territory not that much bigger than downtown Wilmington, and that may account for the difference between the two. Central Philadelphia has enough density in the core to support a higher level of activity, while Wilmington is just spread out enough to keep its activities from feeding off one another.

So the problem, then, may not be that Wilmington is too small. It may be that, in the ways that count, it's not small enough.

The Right Way to Unlock "The Gates"

Christo and Jeanne-Claude's latest work of art-cum-landscape architecture-cum-media event is now dismantled; the bolts of orange fabric are probably on their way to be recycled into curtains, sheets, pillowcases, scarves, robes for Hare Krishnas and club wear as I write this; and all the art critics that matter have delivered their opinions on the project, most of them negative.

Ed Sozanski in The Philadelphia Inquirer pronounced "The Gates" out of scale with the Central Park walkways they straddled. And the high priest of High Modernism, Hilton Kramer, trashed them even worse in The New York Observer.

The problem with both of these critics' comments was that by focusing on the two-week-long physical installation, they failed to comment on the work as a whole.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude are as much performance artists as they are visual artists. The work of art begins not with the actual wrapping or installation of the fabric, but with the initial proposal to call our attention to a physical object or space by accessorizing or packaging it. With that, the public--and the local officials whose assent is usually necessary for the installation to proceed--become collaborators. By arguing over whether a Christo and Jeanne-Claude project is a thing of beauty or a defacement; by either embracing the artists and basking in the 15 minutes of fame they bring to the site they alter, or by throwing up roadblocks to their project on whatever grounds--as happened with "The Gates" for nearly two decades--we actually advance Christo's ultimate goal, which is to force us to take a good, hard look at the environment around us--whether natural or man-made--and, one hopes, see it for what it is, and perhaps even what it might become.

For a little while, at least, Christo and Jeanne-Claude ask us to stop taking for granted the objects that define the places where we live, work and play, and think about their significance. Whether the fabric they use as the stimulus for thought is "appropriate" for the site or not is actually somewhat beside the point, for the fabric is not the work of art--it's the thing it envelops and our reaction to seeing it in a different light.