Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Comparative Urbanism

Cambridge, September 10, 2013

"The Charles River, embraced by a body of light on either side, looked tame.  I couldn't help comparing it to the archaic Golden Horn, that was lake, river and sea all at once."  ("Many and Many a Year Ago" by Selçuk Altun, 2009)

The last time I was in Istanbul, one afternoon we arranged to meet with my friend Elizabeth Grossman in front of Robinson Crusoe, a wonderful bookstore on Istiklal Street.  When I got there (I'm afraid a little late as often,) Elizabeth greeted me with a benevolent smile and a book in her hand.  She said that the story in the novel went between Istanbul and Buenos Aires, and that she couldn't help buying it for me.  And yes, the book has wonderful comparisons between the two unlikely cities, like when Kemal, the narrator, is in "Once", a traditionally Jewish neighborhood of Buenos Aires and finds it remarkably similar to Istanbul's Balat, also a neighborhood with a strong Jewish history, both with "those miniature synagogues."

But there were other cities and more wonderful comparisons.  Toward the end of the novel, Kemal brings his fiancée to Boston for eye surgery, and from high up on a hotel room near MGH, he describes the Charles River in such a way made me feel less alone in my longstanding puzzlement over the strange urban geography of both the Charles and the Golden Horn.  Just look at the two aerials side by side!

(By the way, this also reinforces my "theory" that we only know one city, the one we are from, and we simply extrapolate when we try to understand all other cities.)

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