The Los Angeles Times recently had an online article showing two photos of the same place in downtown LA 50 years apart. At first it’s hard to convince oneself they are the same scene, ironically the only parts which seem the same are roads – which are in constant motion! It is amazing that in quite a relatively short space of time such changes can occur, and this isn’t on the edges of a city in the process of being built.
It makes me think of what Levi-Strauss said of cities in the New World,
The cities of the New World have one characteristic in common: that they pass from first youth to decrepitude with no intermediary stage. One of my Brazilian girl-students returned in tears from her first visit to France: whiteness and cleanness were the criteria by which she judged a city, and Paris, with its blackened buildings, had seemed to her filthy and repugnant. But American cities never offer that holiday-state, outside of time, to which great monuments can transport us; nor do they transcend the primary urban function and become objects of contemplation and reflection. What struck me about New York, or Chicago, or their southerly counterpart Sao Paulo, was not the absence of ‘ancient remains’; this is, on the contrary, a positive element in their significance. So far from joining those European tourists who go into sulks because they cannot add another thirteenth-century cathedral to their collection, I am delighted to adapt myself to a system that has no backward dimension in time; and I enjoy having a different form of civilization to interpret. If I err, it is in the opposite sense: as these are new cities, and cities whose newness is their whole being and their justification, I find it difficult to forgive them for not staying new for ever. The older a European city is, the more highly we regard it; in America, every year brings with it an element of disgrace. For they are not merely ‘newly built’; they are built for renewal, and the sooner the better. When a new quarter is run up it doesn’t look like a city, as we understand the word; it’s too brilliant, too new, too high-spirited. It reminds us more of our fairgrounds and temporary international exhibitions. But these are buildings that stay up long after our exhibitions would have closed, and they don’t last well: facades begin to peel off, rain and soot leave their marks, the style goes out of fashion, and the original lay-out is undermined when someone loses patience and tears down the building next door. It is not a case of new dries contrasted with old, but rather of cities whose cycle of evolution is very rapid as against others whose cycle of evolution is slow. Certain European cities are dying off slowly and peacefully; the cities of the New World have a perpetual high temperature, a chronic illness which prevents them, for all their everlasting youthfulness, from ever being entirely well.
What astonished me in Sao Paulo in 1935, and in New York and Chicago in 1941, was not their newness, but the rapidity with which time’s ravages had set in. I knew that these cities had started ten centuries behind our own, but I had not realized, somehow, that large areas in them were already fifty years old and were not ashamed to let it be seen. For their only ornament was their youth, and youth is as fugitive for a city as for the people who live in it. Old ironwork, trams red as fire-engines, mahogany bars with balustrades of polished brass; brickyards in deserted alleys where the wind was the only street-cleaner; countrified parish churches next door to office buildings and stock exchanges built in the likeness of cathedrals; apartment-houses green with age that overhung canyons criss-crossed with fire-escapes, swing-bridges, and the like; a city that pushed continually upwards as new buildings were built on the ruins of their predecessors: such was Chicago, image of the Americas, and it isn’t surprising that the New World should cherish in Chicago the memory of the 188os, for this modest perspective, less than a century in extent, is all that antiquity can mean in those parts. To our millenary cities it would hardly serve even as a unit of judgement, but in Chicago, where people do not think in terms of time, it already offers scope for nostalgia.
Taken from Triste Tropiques (emphasis added) 1961. Available at http://www.archive.org/stream/tristestropiques000177mbp/tristestropiques000177mbp_djvu.txt