Poet issues a plea for beauty in the modern city

  • July 12, 2007

{mosimage}In recent years, the world has witnessed a remarkable upsurge of popular interest in cities. Architects, planners and myriad ordinary citizens are talking, as never before, about what makes cities work and what can be done to make them work better. The topics of this optimistic discussion are wide-ranging; they include sustainability and transportation, the problems and opportunities of suburban development and the enhancement of the public realm.

It’s worth noting that sophisticated Catholic voices, speaking from the standpoint of Catholic cultural values, have been largely absent in the debate. I find this curious. We are certainly not shy about speaking our mind when it comes to other serious subjects in contemporary life, from capital punishment to the problems of refugees. Yet only a few Catholic thinkers, so far, have engaged energetically and publicly in the battle for the soul of the city.

One rare Catholic who has done exactly that, however, is Pier Giorgio Di Cicco.

{sidebar id=2}Since becoming Toronto’s poet laureate in 2004, Fr. Di Cicco — priest and a regular contributor of poetry to these pages — has catapulted from his narrow official platform onto the national and international stage, speaking and writing to great acclaim about the tribulation and hope at work in the contemporary city. The very brief essays compiled in Municipal Mind: Manifestos for the Creative City (Mansfield Press , $16.95), Fr. Di Cicco’s most recent book, are eloquent distillations of his Christian urbanism, as it has developed over three years of vigourous public life. Urgent, practical, spare yet deeply passionate, these writings should be pondered by everyone who cares about the contemporary city and its future.

Fr. Di Cicco’s analysis of both the modern city and its conventional boosters — tourism people, economic development officers and so on — is stark: “The situation is drastic, and the truth startlingly rude. Cities are built by the market, and we stand around with notepads or sullen faces remarking on what could have been done better or might have been done worse.” The sharply different urbanism proposed by this book “prescribes an esthetic intuited in the heart of the citizen, the desire of the citizen for elements one no longer dares to ask for — conviviality, joy, delight in wonder, the shared forum of imagining and play, of unreserved laughter and serenity. . . without which the city becomes a place of business, or indentured servitude.” The book, the author reminds us at the outset, “is not about what can be done better, but what we cannot do without.”

The measure of things the city cannot do without is what ordinary humans need, and which are absent in the calculations of bean-counting bureaucrats — love above all. “A citizenry is incited to action by the eros of mutual care,” Fr. Di Cicco writes, “by having a common object of love — their city. A town that is not in love will cut corners; lose sight of the common good.” It loses sight of the beauty that is the root of the common good. This beauty is not that of architecture or the streetscape, he argues, but “what people have built in the spaces between each other — a reciprocity, an exchange of ideals and a shared vision.”

The texts here — all written for secular audiences — never name God, and invoke the “spiritual” very rarely. Yet always moving close to the surface of Fr. Di Cicco’s arguments is a deeply felt, fertile Christian humanism, romantic in the best sense. The creative city “lives in an ethos of responsiveness. The appetite for life has to be there, freed of the wastage of cynicism, freed of the constraints and caveats that a hyper-regulated metropolis offers. . . . The extent to which the city conditions the civic body to inhibition, is the measure to which a city extinguishes its passion. Such a city cannot hope to excite by an idea or civic design.”

In this forthright celebration of love, beauty and passion, Fr. Di Cicco lays out the essential outline of an urban spirituality rich in Christian wisdom and understanding. We can hope that Toronto and other cities will heed his enlivening words, and be jolted out of sleepiness by their clear call to creative engagement with the modern city.

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