In the morning the city
Spreads its wings
Making a song
In stone that sings.
In the evening the city
Goes to bed
About its head.
In two short lines, Langston Hughes captures the nature of a city. It is a living, breathing creature, a bird, rising from its nest each day and settling to rest each evening. I experience this nature when I walk through Center City Philadelphia, and, on a smaller scale, when I observe the daily activities of my urban neighborhood.
The song of the city is the energy of people who live, work, play, and worship. It is the energy expressed in the sounds of people singing and laughing, shouting and cursing. It is the constant movement that you can see and hear as the street sweepers and trash trucks make their rounds in the early morning, or when busy moms and dads rush by with little ones to get them to school. It’s the rhythm of the morning flow of traffic, a tango with the green-yellow-red of the traffic light. It is the bustle of merchants opening their doors, welcoming traffic of a different sort, and the hustle of commuters heading to their destinations.
This is the daytime nature of the city, thriving in a vertical landscape of tall buildings new and old. The architectural styles of centuries past contrast with those more recent. Some edifices are aesthetically pleasing, others are eyesores. Some reveal their history in the details of their façades, others hold on tightly to their secrets. And some display the thoughts, dreams, and memories of artists, friends, and neighbors in colorful mural art. Philadelphia has over 2,500 murals. (Explore City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program)
In The City, Hughes writes that the city “makes a song in stone that sings”. While the energy of people engaged in activity is the song, the structures that surround them is the stone that sings. The buildings sing of moments in history, human moments. And they provide a sounding board for the many voices and sounds that resonate in the activity of the day. It is easy to simply see the buildings as just being there, but they are integral and have purpose in the city.
When the city settles down at night, the traffic subsides and the commuters go home and the dwellers go indoors, and the city becomes quiet. When the weather is warm, folks tend to linger on their steps, conversing and laughing loudly. Their voices carry in the stillness, and bounce off the buildings to my open window. Sometimes I lay still and listen, trying to catch the dialogue. It is a lighter rhythm, but it too is part of the song of the city. Then I look outside my window, as nighttime is taking hold, and I spy one or two windows lit in warm yellow, or flickering blue because someone is watching television. I continue to look up and past the buildings, into the darkened sky to see the twinkle of distant stars, and the navigation lights of airplanes gliding silently overhead. I wonder if Langston Hughes saw the city this way, too.
Having traveled to various cities, there is one thing I know to be true: each city has its own rhythm, its unique song. New York is not Venice, just as Chicago is not Montreal, and San Francisco is not Rome. Each is as individual as the birds in the sky, flying at different paces and singing singular songs. That is what makes each city memorable and remarkable. That is what gives each city its character. That is the beauty to be found in a city.