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Open To Thinking: The Idea of the City and Our Mayoral Election
A recurring column
by Nick Patricca
2014-12-03

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Our English word 'citizen' comes from the Latin word 'civitas' which means 'city.' A citizen, in Latin 'civis,' is someone who lives in a city. Such persons are said to be civil and civilized because they have evolved to a higher moral and cultural condition. Our word 'villain,' which has come to mean a lowlife, a crook, a 'baddie' in our modern English, derives from the Latin word 'villa' via old French 'villein' which simply means a peasant, usually a tenant on a feudal estate.

In part, tenant/peasants, no matter how rich and sophisticated some of them managed to become, were held in such unjust contempt because they had very few rights—most notably they lacked the right to participate in their own governance. Citizens, in contrast, had the duty to participate in the governing of their city—it was the defining mark of their identity.

Our word 'politics' comes from the Greek word 'polis' which means city. For the ancient Greeks, politics is the art of self-governance—the art of keeping the city and its citizens healthy and flourishing. This goal is the heart of all Greek drama whether tragic or comedic. The ancient Greeks believed that the human animal does not become a fully actualized person — enjoying the practice of free will and reason—except through participation in the life of the city.

Of course, there were always those who judged cities to be cesspools for the breeding of the worst qualities of human behavior and character. There is a deep strain of suspicion against cities in our American culture where we tend to idealize the independence and romanticize the purity of the denizens of the small town or of the rural farming community as people free of city-bred corruptions. I shall let Sherlock Holmes speak for me: "It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside." Doyle, Sherlock Holmes: Complete Novels and Stories, Vol I.

Our cities have changed greatly over several millennia of Western Civilization. In the 20th-century USA we experienced the rapid growth and equally rapid decay of many of our cities as they danced to the tunes of capricious economic forces. Nonetheless, cities and civilization continue to be vitally and essentially related ideas and projects of the human experiment.

Whether we like cities or not, cities are our future. According to the 2014 Population Report of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs: Fifty-four percent of the human population of our planet lives in cities and their urbanized surrounding areas; Latin America and North America are 80% urbanized; Europe, 73%; Asia, 48%; Africa, 40%. Tokyo is the world's largest urbanized area with 38 million residents; then Delhi with 25 million, followed by Shanghai, Mexico City, Mumbai, and Sao Paulo. These statistics represent the agglomerated populations of the city core combined with its surrounding co-dependent urbanized areas. By 2050 more than two thirds of all humans will reside in such megacities.

Cities are now and will continue to be the primary engines of economic and social development and change.

Not all cities increase their populations; not all cities prosper; not all cities generate constructive new economies and social systems. Many of our neighboring cities have failed — Detroit and Gary, just to mention two. Chicago is not immune to such failure.

This year for the first time since 1980 the population of Chicago has grown—by about 6,000 people since the last census count. Some pundits argue that this increase, as slight as it is, augurs good times ahead for Chicago.

The health of a city is not assessed principally by population growth; it is measured by the quality of the life of its citizens—by what its citizens create and contribute to their city, region, and nation and what they, in turn, receive for their labor and commitments.

Ideally, our upcoming mayoral election would be a prime time for us to think together about how we citizens of Chicago can build our best future, to decide on our own strategies for sustainable development for the health and welfare, and prosperity of our citizens.

I am still suffering from the gross bad manners and sheer stupidity of our gubernatorial election. So please, mayoral candidates: Show some respect for yourselves and for us, discuss the issues, give us all the information we need to make good decisions to keep our beloved Chicago vital and a good place to live and work.

© nicholas.patricca@gmail.com .

Nick Patricca is professor emeritus at Loyola University Chicago, president of Chicago Network and playwright emeritus at Victory Gardens Theater.

© nicholas.patricca@gmail.com


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