The New City

shenzhen-old:newThe first thing you should know about the new city is that it was dreamed up by a little old man, locked up far away in his fortress. The old man was an important man and people listened to him when he spoke, even when all he had to discuss was his dreams. The old man told his associates about his dream of a new city. Day in and day out he’d pace around his fortress, developing his idea and imparting more details of his vision. The old man was charismatic, his enthusiasm infectious and gradually even the most sceptical of his associates began to agree that his dream of a new city had potential. What the old man neglected to mention was that he’d had the dream during a nightmare. Furthermore, all his associates had inhabited this nightmare, not one excluded. Now the associates all knew of the nightmares for the cries in the dead of night could not be ignored. But they never spoke of them and thus they were unable to make the connection between the new aspiration and the old vision, between the dream and the nightmare. The old man’s associates began to dream the same beautiful dream as his him, each night closing their eyes and envisioning their own interpretations of what the new city would be like. And gradually the dream began to take shape and form as the new city grew out of their collective desire. But a dream born within nightmare remains a curious and fragile concept indeed.

The next thing you should know of the new city is that it has no limits. It has no centre or focal point, no structure or symmetry. The new city reaches up into the clouds. It flattens mountains, reclaims seas, devours its neighbours, fills-in lakes and delves deep underground. The arms of the city grow in every direction, all at once and without reprieve. But within the city itself each dreamer dreams their own individual dream, their own vision of what the new city should become. Consequently the new city grows-up unplanned and uncoordinated. The result is a labyrinth of conflicting aspirations. Near a chaotic village of country migrants, someone envisioned an Eiffel Tower and thus it was constructed. Somebody else had the idea that what the city needed was a small Italian neighbourhood, complete with a church, pizzerias, fountains and swans. And so a portion of Italy came in to being. But most dreamers were concerned with high-tech grandeur and impatiently erected vast towers without quite knowing much about how vast towers should actually be built. With each new development styles changed and improvements were made but without consideration for the styles of the towers already in place. Eventually the city began to assume an inconsistent and incoherent appearance. It became a melange of fashions, ideas and building materials. The response from the dreamers and visionaries was simply to knock down the old (though nothing was yet old) and rebuild in newer and newer styles. But they did not foresee the newer builds were making the new builds unsightly, obsolete and ready for the wrecking-ball. And so the new city became caught in a vicious and inescapable cycle of construction and destruction without ever attaining the appearance of a complete or cohesive metropolis.

A dream that has somehow found its way into the physical world has to inhabit the dimension of space. But time is noticeably absent within the new city. Monday feels much like Saturday, morning is much the same as afternoon, night is as day. In fact it’s a commonly held belief in the new city that one can learn from the future in order to shape the past. The citizens themselves live within a perpetual present. Therefore the people of the new city behave differently from the people in cities where the past is a burden and the future is far away. The new city dwellers began life as the renegade children of an ancient empire. They all came to the new city in order to live out the promise of the old man’s dream. Here, without a past, they redefine themselves. Each new migrant adopts a nickname, an alter-ego and carefully cultivates a new persona. With their disguise in place they are liberated and softly grow wild. Without the watchful gaze of the family they drink and party, they spend and consume, and they build and destroy without restraint. For as long as the endless present persists the people retain the notion that they need not assume responsibility for their actions, assured by the fact that whatever happens, they’ll awake tomorrow to discover that it is still today.

In the cities of antiquity the palaces were reserved for the nobility and the ruling elite. They were secret places entirely out of reach of the general populace. Within the palaces untold luxuries were enjoyed by a fraction of the population who maintained their dominance over the masses. In the new city the people have done away with such archaic concepts of elitism and instead open their glistening new palaces for everyone to enjoy. Vast towers, marble flooring and state-of-the-art interior design. Within these palaces the people discover luxurious products, which they had been previously unaware that they needed. And so the new city dwellers collectively embarked on a dream of ownership. They bought cars to get them around the maze of construction and destruction. They bought condos in the newest builds and then worried their homes were becoming outdated and might soon be destroyed. They filled these condos with technological implements, extravagant furnishings and exotic rarities from foreign shores, in order to maintain a sense of security and give a good impression. And if they had money leftover, they’d enter one of the numerous pleasure domes of the new city, to celebrate their achievements with their fellow dreamers. It seemed it was no longer enough to live the dream. One had to own the dream.

For all the new city’s lofty aspirations it could not shake the curse of its conception. Born of a nightmare, the darkness had existed from the onset and slowly it spread to every corner of the metropolis. With the construction of every new tower, palace or pleasure dome there followed a new shadow. And in the shadows dark-deeds thrive. Some of the arrivals in the city dreamed cruel dreams of power and dominion. The new city lived in a realm between two diametrically opposed ideologies and without a core identity of its own; the city was vulnerable to the malevolence and hypocrisy of a corrupt minority. Some people began to use force, malice or influence to attain their portion of the dream. This created a culture of mistrust and apprehension. Family’s banded together and focused on survival above all else. Community, charity and humanity all folded under the banner of fear. An absurd game had begun with every citizen playing to maintain or improve their station. It was as if the city were a giant chess board with a million different pieces and every piece was playing the game for itself. To further complicate things, the rules of the game were malleable and open to interpretation, even by those employed to maintain fair play. This caused great anxiety for the citizens at large, all of whom were aware that the only real certainty in the game was that there could be no absolute winner. All people could do was keep playing and know they must never stop.

The old man died far away in his fortress and took his dreams with him. Soon the new city began to decay. The city had been built in a space so hot and damp and exposed to the elements that no amount of good intensions could prevent the rot from setting in. In the summer, the storms grew ever more frequent bombarding the new city as never before. And in the winter, the north winds choked the city with thick, black smog. The city dwellers had been so concerned with one another and their fortunes they had forgotten their responsibility to the Earth. They had neglected to maintain their dream and their metropolis had become unkempt and in need of repair. The affluent areas, where the most successful game players lived, mirrored a Hollywood set forged between large and unsightly warehouses, for beyond the hills the new city was as ugly as it was vast. This was because the city dwellers had gone into the business of making. They felt they were good at making things having already made their own city. So they made factories which in turn made things for the rest of the world to enjoy and the city grew rich from the profits. But the factories burned and spilled into the new city and the dreamers, playing their games in the palaces and pleasure domes, could not ignore this for ever. Decay does not belong in something as immaculate as a dream. The new city is now completely real, replete with past burdens and future aspirations. Whether the dreamers can live with reality will only be determined by the new history, one that they are presently unsure on exactly how to write.

*Originally published in Melting Plot literary zine.