For me, going to a new city is like going to a bookstore. Consciously or not, I’m looking for a story—a coherent intellectual skeleton to hang my experiences on and give them some structure. Every city has its own range of stories, in all genres: comedy, tragedy, horror, SF, romance. Walking around and thinking about what I see is a means of trying out different narratives, the way readers leaf through several books before buying one. I’m not just reacting to what I see; I’m also figuring out whether I am more convinced by the story that the faces in the the architecture bespeak a deep humanism than the one where they’re unattainable abstractions, or the idea that the amount of makeup the women wear denotes pride rather than that they are judged by their appearance, or where streetcars are a sign of freedom instead of poverty.
Sometimes I only understand the story I’ve told myself about a city after years of living there. Sometimes I don’t identify it until long after I’ve left the place. But since our narratives not only give a coherent shape to our perceptions but filter them as well, I’m increasingly prone to consciously seeking them out, identifying them, and questioning their value.
One of the best tools for doing this is a camera. When I take pictures, I’m asking the lens to show me the story I’m telling myself about what I see. What is my eye drawn to? What themes and patterns emerge? What is essence and what is detail?
All of this is apropos of my recent business trip to Łódź, Poland1, where my team’s sister office is located. Although I spent a good deal of the two weeks there actually working, I did make some time for walking around and looking up2. And, very shortly, I began to be afraid.
You see, my life as a perpetual migrant3 is heavily dependent on my ability to find something wonderful, some sustaining joy, in every new place that I go. I’ve never been in Central Europe4 before, and my first impression was one of decay and loss. Łódź’s golden age was the century before the Second World War, and every aesthetic movement in that timespan is exuberantly displayed on its facades. But the buildings are crumbling and grubby, with peeling plaster and flaking ornamentation. Historic structures that would be the pride of another city stand gutted and abandoned, or worse yet, crumbling but still inhabited.
It was an awful few days. I didn’t want to see that narrative. Even my side-obsession of photographing the range of faces I was seeing on the buildings was no real comfort: they looked the sadder for the ruin they witnessed.
But then I noticed another persistent image, another feature that drew my lens. The buildings in central Łódź may vary in age and style, but most of their facades have one common characteristic: a central opening at street level, leading to a passageway into the back streets or open courtyards beyond. Many of them are gated, either at night or all of the time, but most are active thoroughfares. Each one is a glimpse into its own separate world5: garden spaces and industrial yards; restaurants and shops; places for children to play or cars to park.
I have no place in these worlds; I don’t speak the language or share the culture of the people who belong in them.
Still, unlike the bleak and ruined buildings, these are places I can understand people loving, quietly or passionately, the way Chesterton talks about such things:
The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it even more.
—Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton6
Seeing the place as lovable—even if I do not love it myself—gives me the closure I need for my narrative of the city. I can take this story home with me7.