The great flight
Returning recently from Maine, our car came within the outskirts of Hartford, Conn., at about the hour businesses were closing. The traffic pouring from the heart of the city, deploying itself along the highways and out into the country, was a spectacular and indeed a rather terrifying sight. Of course we all know that commuters head homeward at the end of the working day; but to a man coming down from Maine, where no one commutes at all, or travels only a few miles to his job, this hegira was, to say the least, impressive.
Everyone appeared to be moving at high speed, and where one could catch a glimpse of the driver's expression, there was an intensity of concentration, a ferocity of purpose, that would have done credit to a highwayman or an admiral. These people were evidently in flight. But flight from what? What evil spirit had scared or attacked them and sent them thus forth in a mass migration?
The answer, I suppose, is that the city itself had caused the expulsion. The city that had once been the home of man, the goal of his journeying, the focus of his civilization, had proved itself so abhorrent as to goad him nightly into an uncomfortable and dangerous exile. To escape it, once his work was done, he would endure traffic jams, stultifying gas fumes, and the possibility of having his automobile crushed in a collision.
On this occasion I was myself traveling toward New York, in many ways the most overwhelming of all cities. My mood grew somber as I asked myself whether I was wise to have left Maine in the first place. Was I headed, perchance, in the wrong direction? Hartford is, after all, a pleasant place, the home of an established culture, blessed with many urban amenities. Here is a great museum, one of the most delightful of city parks. Here, in the 1950s, the businessmen of the city concerted their efforts to create in Constitition Plaza a major pedestrian attraction with its gardens, sculptures, inviting spaces. Yet from all this a whole population seemed to be in flight.
It is not as if these people were going to romantic watering places or idyllic retreats. The average suburban house stands upon its small plot, in an environment that has been affected by many of the ills associated with city life - with insecurity, with crime, with pollution. Yet anything must have seemed better to these fleeing hordes than the inner city itself, even the relatively benign inner city of Hartford!
I recall once standing at the heart of ancient Amsterdam with the local city planner as my guide. In the great ages, he explained to me, the wealthy and powerful lived at the very center, close to the cathedral, to the town hall, to the market. The poorer people lived at the outskirts, just inside the city walls. It was they who had to make the long walk into midtown - they who had to endure the first cannon balls lobbed over the walls in time of war.
Now everything had been reversed, with the wealthy as far off as they could get from the center, and the poor huddled together in streets that had once been the scene of proud processions and opulent displays. Was this progress? my guide asked me.
I don't think this is progress. In the best of times and in the best of cities men and women appreciate the values of urbanity. They endure some hardships, perhaps some dangers, to secure them. In any case, I was myself on this particular day heading not only for New York but for a street where I have lived with my family for 35 years. It is not a very grand or stylish street, but one where the neighbors greet me as I pass, where several of the small shops have existed in this location as long as I have, and where I have close by the resources of art, of music, of books.
You won't find me fleeing from here at nightfall - at least not until the time comes for me to head once more for Maine!