Walking a section of the High Line last night, on an evening straight out of central casting. The sense that autumn, long since booked for its annual three-month stay in Manhattan, is now en route and crossing some border north of the city. Taxis, their brake lights pulsing red-redder-red-redder. A couple sitting on a bench. She manages somehow to look straight ahead even as her every molecule is fixed on him, urging her toward him. He speaks low and urgent words into the flawless curve of her cheek.
I had an opportunity to marvel at what we can do.
We were brushing past the branches of trees that simply do not grow in cities. They certainly do not tend to hover 30 feet above the street. And yet there they were, preening for us passersby, their roots sharing tons upon tons of black soil with dozens of species of shrubs and forbs and grasses and perennials. Here’s a stand of magnolias: big leaf, umbrella, sweetbay, and Ashe’s. Sassafras trees, too. Redbuds (in cultivars with such wonderful names: Pauline Lily, Forest Pansy, Appalachian Red, Ace of Hearts).
We walked, moreover, in safety. We breathed air that smelled and tasted clean. We gazed across rooftops and past buildings to the brightly lit spires of buildings 50 and 70 stories tall. We eavesdropped on conversations in languages that we do not know and could not place. We looked on as some group of revelers chatted each other up, drank their fancy drinks, and celebrated something worth celebrating in some school that is adjacent to the High Line.
In a now classic article titled “Slums, Sanitation, and Mortality in the Ancient World,” Alex Scobie notes this about ancient cities (had your breakfast?):
“Almost every house at Pompeii had a latrine either in or partly separated from the kitchen, or in a separate, very small, doorless room, usually unlit and lacking adequate ventilation through an outside window. None of these latrines, with the possible exception of a large latrine in the House of the Silver Wedding, was flushed by water. All consisted of pits (sterquilinia) of varying depths dug into the porous lava-mass directly beneath or not far from the latrine itself. The porous rock allowed fluids to drain away, but solids would periodically have to be excavated from the cesspit, if the latrine was to remain in use …
“So far attention has been given to the nature of Roman public and private latrines. It would be appropriate at this point to ask how (and by whom) the human and animal wastes, which clearly must have fouled Rome’s streets, were removed. The cleanliness of the city’s streets was the responsibility of the aediles as part of their cura urbis. However, there was no official street cleaning service at Rome. Those who occupied properties with adjoining street fronts were responsible for keeping them clean. The overflow from public baths would have flushed only some of the filth from the streets, since there were not enough basins to provide sufficient water to wash down all road surfaces in the city. Dogs and carrion birds such as vultures must also have played a significant part in the disposal of assorted street refuse. Dogs were found in many Roman houses where they disposed of food scraps in dining rooms; they also consumed human excrement as Martial twice points out, as well as corpses which, despite the legal prohibitions, seem to have been dumped in the streets of Rome as they were at Antioch. Suetonius reports that while Vespasian [author note: Roman emperor 69-79 CE] was lunching a dog from the street brought a human hand into the dining room and deposited it beneath the table …
“It is clear that in Rome there was a very high risk of food and water contamination through direct or indirect contact with human or animal fecal matter which was inadequately dealt with by city authorities. Open cesspits in kitchens, a general lack of washing facilities in latrines, defecation and urination in the streets, the pollution of water basins with carrion and filth, lack of efficient fly control, and inadequate street cleaning do not provide a basis for health in an urban community, but do help to explain a very high mortality rate.”
Indeed. Not to mention severe overcrowding, the quality of air you’d expect from the fact that tens upon tens of thousands of cook fires were being lit every day, robbery so common that no person of means ventured out at night without bodyguards, the omnipresent threat of catastrophic fire and building collapse, an endless din unchecked by double-paned windows and Bose headphones, daily scenes of human deprivation and disfigurement, and more.
So, you know, we’ve come a long way in modern cities like New York.
That said, I peeked at the New York Times today through fingers I hold over my eyes, so that I do not tumble each morning into the pit of despair. Something about sending troops to help with the Ebola outbreak in Africa? Something about radicals lining up to fight with ISIS? Something about a report out today stating that though doing something about climate change will actually be cost-effective (because the costs of prioritizing sustainability and measures that penalize high-carbon development will be more than outweighed by benefits in economic growth and improvements in health care), there is pessimism among some that we will find the political will to take those comparatively simple steps?
“This would mean building more compact, connected, coordinated cities rather than continuing with unmanaged sprawl; restoring degraded land and making agriculture more productive rather than continuing deforestation; scaling up renewable energy sources rather than continued dependence on fossil fuels.
“A central insight of this report is that many of the policy and institutional reforms needed to revitalise growth and improve well-being over the next 15 years can also help reduce climate risk. In most economies, there are a range of market, government and policy failures that can be corrected, as well as new technologies, business models and other options that countries at various stages of development can use to improve economic performance and climate outcomes together.”
Is there a Latin maxim for “two steps forward, one step back”? (You’re thinking: why’s he looking at me? He’s the Latin dude.)