ON READING DAVID HARVEY ON THE TARMAC IN TORONTO, LISTENING TO JESUS’ VISION
” The term “city” has an iconic and symbolic history that is deeply embedded in the pursuit of political meanings. The city of God, the city on a hill, the city as an object of utopian desire, … give it a political meaning that mobilizes a crucial political imaginary. [Lefebvre] saw … [urbanization] was “going global” and that under such conditions the question of the right to the city (construed as a distinctive thing or definable object) had to give way to some vaguer question of the right to urban life which later morphed in his thinking into the more general question of the right to The Production of Space (published in 1974).” – David Harvey, 2011.
Sitting on the tarmac at Toronto airport, reading David Harvey’s HENRI LEFEBVRE’S VISION OF THE RIGHT TO THE CITY, waiting for congestion at LaGuardia Airport to clear so we could take off. I had gotten the last seat on our flight, and was seated next to an elderly gentleman of dark skin and distinguished demeanor, with whom I had exchanged pleasantries waiting on line to get on. We were stuck, the pilot told us, for perhaps two hours, till the congestion at LaGuardia cleared enough for us to land there. I opened my laptop to read Harvey’s piece on the vision of the city.
My companion glanced over at what I was reading, and after a discreet silence asked, “Do you believe in Jesus?” Taken aback, I thought, better end this quickly, and simply said, but with a smile, not wanting to be rude: “No.” But he continued: “What do you believe in?” That took a bit longer to deal with, but, quick-wittedly, I said: “reason,” and hoped that would end the conversation and I could get back uninterrupted to Harvey’s tract, more in my atheist’s zone of comfort. It was not to be.
My seat mate pursued the issue., ”I asked because I saw you were reading about a Vision of the City on a Hill. I believe in Jesus because I had a vision when I was young…” That struck me as a conversation-stopper, and I ignored it, but then thought, well, why not, how often do I get to talk to a Jesus freak in a leisurely manner and on a friendly basis So I said, “no, it’s not that kind of vision he’s writing about. The city on a hill is meant symbolically, not in a religious sense, although I know the phrase comes from St. Augustine.” “”No, it doesn’t,” he said; “it comes from Matthew in the Bible, and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount,” which Jesus gave on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem..” “Oh,” I said, thinking this might actually get interesting. “And what did Jesus mean by it? Cities aren’t usually built on hills, they’re usually built in valleys.” “He,” my companion answered, capitalizing ‘He’ in tone, of course) “meant it symbolically, as a vision of the good, the desirable, perhaps the paradise of the future.” “Oh, all right, but why ‘city” in particular? [thinking to myself, what would Lefebvre say?] The mount of olives,” I continued, “is hardly in the more city part of Jerusalem [hardly an urban setting, , Lefebvre would have said.] ‘”No,” my companion said, “Jesus didn’t mean it that way. The Bible always speaks of “the city” this way, not of any particular city, not a city like Sodom and Gomorrah, for sure; the Bible says King David built the City of Zion on the top of Mount Zion.” “He did,?” I said, incredulously; that’s an odd place to build a city. “But he did,” he responded, “the Bible tells us so. The Bible means the city on the hill as the vision that men must pursue in this life, if they want to go to heaven in the next life.”
“Oh,” I said, “I’ll have to look that up.” “Do that, he said. “Jerusalem is the city of Zion, on a hill for all to see.” Then the conversation drifted into the after-life, the role of gospel churches, whether God had deliberately arranged the boarding of the plane so that I sat next to him, and arranged the congestion at LaGuardia so there would be plenty of time, and he could tell me about Jesus, and about other miracles he had seen. He did not believe in coincidences. I told him I didn’t believe in miracles.
When got up to deplane, I bent over to look for my reading glasses, which I thought I had dropped under seat when I first sat down. “Did you find them,” he asked? “No.” I said, I reached across, got my jacket out of the overhead compartment, and put it on. “Here they are,” he said, reaching over and taking them out of my jacket breast pocket and handing them to me. When he saw the surprised look on my face, he put on the biggest grin I had seen all day on his face.
And the congestion at LaGuardia was over.