“Cities, like cats, reveal themselves at night.” Rupert Brooke
Today more than half the world’s population lives in cities. In some regions the percentage is much greater: about three quarters of Europeans, and over 80% of North Americans, live in urban areas.
The modern force powering the city has been of course the industrial revolution, yanking people off farms and herding them into conveniently dense groups. Over time cities have grown into super-organisms: their adminstrative centers, the brain; their subways and highways, the arteries; their stone and steel, the muscle.
And just what do these organisms accomplish? Perhaps the definitive answer was given by Lewis Mumford: “The chief function of the city is to convert power into form, energy into culture, dead matter into the living symbols of art, biological reproduction into social creativity.”
Although they have played an outsized role in our history, our prosperity, and our culture, cities are egregious to some, seen only as the wellsprings of anomie and depravity. But for many others the urban landscape has been a liberation, a welcomed release from small town constrictions. It is the freedom to be not just casually known, but also entirely unknown, that renders the city so appealing. A ceaseless stream of intriguing strangers.
Of all its incarnations, this group of strangers, the city, is perhaps most alluring at night. Transformed by darkness, the metropolis becomes spectacular. Viewed from many stories up, the sparkling cityscape ignites with incandescent spectacle, deep canyons twinkling with tiny, glowing jewels. Across the concrete ravines light shines from scattered windows, an arcade of showcases, dwellers caught in their nightly forms.
These silent movies pose unanswered questions. Take that brightly lit business suite on the tenth floor. A man and a woman, perhaps of middle age, talking across a table. The work day has ended, but they have stayed. Why? Problems with last quarter’s profits? An unplanned pregnancy from their brief affair? For the observer these questions, broadcast from afar, become a curious blend of distance and intimacy.
It becomes stunningly clear how the city is a palimpsest, rewritten from dusk to dawn, born, murdered, and resurrected, faint trails left by those who’ve moved on, unrepentant, never looking back.
Yet questions remain. For answers, one cannot stay in the tower. Eventually one must descend to the streets.
How one descends is pivotal. Merely scanning the city on a digital platform, fascinating as this might be, is also both inadequate and perverse. To be truly immersed you cannot remain in your chair. And driving the city at night, although a closer contact than tower views, is still distant, still insulated. Good for passing glances at the urban movie, but unsuited to intimacy, to engagement.
For these qualities we must walk. Walking puts you literally in touch with the landscape. And when walking you exercise a kind of immediate, detailed choice not available in driving: go in here but not there, come out then go right back in, cross the street, double back.
You enter a world much different than, say, a daytime walk in the woods. In the woods one might, with luck, channel Thoreau. But in the city at night a walker is more likely to channel Baudelaire’s flaneur—the leisurely urban stroller—who is both immersed in and yet detached from the boulevard, observing, imagining, judging the human comedy, following little mysteries, open to surprise. Some version of the flaneur has existed for centuries, and the allure continues. The city spectacle may have changed greatly over time, but I suspect the mindset of the spectator has not.
And of all the city’s attractions, the world of the sidewalk beckons most. Many have heard that call. Jane Jacobs, perhaps the most eloquent advocate for walkable cities, reminded us that “the ballet of a good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete new with new improvisations.” Just so.
Yet the sidewalk at night is also fraught. For humans darkness has always heralded danger. Every nighttime excursion partakes at least somewhat of this, although our subtle unease may be masked by excitement or anticipation. We interiorize the night, come closer to our frailties, our failings, our fictions. These enter into uneasy dialogue with the nighttime city.
But of course there is much more than darkness. Electricity is the life blood of the urban night. Transmuted into light, neon, incandescent, and LED, it spills out onto streets and store fronts, cloaking some details, revealing others, charging every surface with variable currents.
The lights of the city are the clearest expression of humanity’s effort to vanquish the dark. And to a great extent we have prevailed. As a consequence, most of us no longer see the stars, while nighttime cities are visible from space. Yet, ironically, the city at night also allows us to interrogate darkness, ducking into dimly lit alcoves and alleys as we choose, exploring them fully, then finally returning to the glare.
When we walk the city at night we pry open dark corners, force them to yield their secrets. You might discover a side entrance that, upon further advance, yields to a dimly lit stairway that, if you press further, opens into a crowded little jazz club. And there in the corner is someone who seems familiar, but you’re not sure why.
Back on the bust street, the nighttime city is consumed with commodification. You can’t walk far without being asked in some way, by someone or something, to spend. Not spending—just walking— invites suspicion. Simply strolling the city at night, with no apparent destination, can be threatening. After all, one might be lurking with bad intent. And so sometimes it’s necessary to avert the gaze, feign interest in something else. Perhaps those rowdy teens across the street . . .
Despite commodification, the city at night is still more concerned with play than production, with rest than with work. And on most streets other than the busiest thoroughfares, less people appear. The relative absence of people on most nighttime streets can be freeing, but also eerie. Sometimes loneliness seems to spread, every scene reminiscent of Hopper, the urban trees dotted with languid nighthawks.
The ubiquitous cell phone camera, well adapted to dim light and operated expertly by seemingly every night walker, adds a layer of collective self-consciousness to the sidewalk choreography. Yes, you might observe, but in the process you might well be observed. Then quickly transformed to pixels, and reincarnated on social media. And so your casual stroll becomes inadvertent performance art.
Other forms of observation accompany us as well. Notably, the panopticon of surveillance cameras, peering down from above nearly every structure, commercial or residential, capable of zooming, sharpening, recognizing your face. In truth, the legendary anonymity of the city long ago suffocated under the press of the surveillance state. To enjoy the evening, better not to think of it.
On foot things are much different than in the tower. The nighttime city seems to shrink. One's frame of reference shifts not only to ground level, but to personal space. Now you might notice how lights pour onto the sidewalk, creating little swirls of shadow, always shifting. How even passersby seem curiously more fluid beneath the flickering play of light. How the sidewalk has become spectral, a simulation of itself.
As if we needed any reminder, the importance of architecture becomes salient. The glass and steel minimalism of the modern metropolis, although impressive from a distance, seems like a loss close-up. Featureless, unresponsive. It induces nostalgia for the intimate irregularities of brick, the porous possibilities of an old neighborhood.
To any walker intent on some kind of meditation, the city at night—whether on bright and noisy boulevards or in darker and more hazardous recesses—presents a challenge. Mindful walking can be tricky. Depending on location, one can be pulled instead into a more constrained, self-preservative stance. Thus you might walk anxiously, avoiding the homeless huddled in doorways, the furtive press of dealers and hookers, the jangled assault of amplified sound.
On the other hand, a night walk almost always provides at least some respite from conceptual habit. It urges us beyond the ruts of our thinking. With legs in motion, the mind casts a wider net. Strolling along as participant-observers, new perspectives spring up, imagination blooms. The city becomes something we invent.
We move not only through the city, but through our own internal landscape. Wandering into quieter residential lanes, lingering in pools of darkness between streetlamps, peering up at the gracious old brownstones, we know the strangers inside.
Night walking is not sleep walking. But like those moments before sleep, when details of the day stream by, walking the city becomes life review, revealing its sundry tatters.
Sentiments crushed and lying flat. Intentions broken, strewn about.
But tonight these will not perish.Tonight these are collected in a shadow urn. Prepared for the rights of consecration. Blessed by grace of the evening spirits.
And offered to the care of a quarter moon.