Stop and See the Skyscrapers

*a class assignment to write about something that brings us joy

One clear Sunday afternoon in August 2010, my parents and I went out for lunch at my favorite Colombian café, nestled in uptown Dallas, and then for a drive past the famous city skyline. When the skyscrapers were close enough to be seen well but were far enough to fit into my camera lens, I lifted my digital point-and-shoot, previously reserved for making Myspace photos, to my back right window. Soon I saw the shot in my view finder: building after building nestled against a bed of baby blue, like metalwork meeting watercolor, busyness meeting beauty, man meeting nature. And with the click of a button, a hobby was formed.

Since that summer day I’ve captured the cities of Austin, Fort Worth, Richmond, and Philadelphia, with some failed attempts at Baltimore and Washington along the way. Each time, I’ve tried not only to capture the city’s image but the city’s essence. In Fort Worth, for instance, I stood atop a wooden footbridge in the Stockyards district in order to get a shot that balanced yellow-tinted barns in the foreground with blue-gray buildings in the background, bringing together the 19th-century Old West with the 21st-century high-rise. To represent Richmond, I stood on the shore of Belle Isle, which served as a prison for Union soldiers during the Civil War, snapped a shot, and immediately converted it into black-and-white, alluding to the city’s history of slave ownership and Civil War activity. In Philadelphia, I was reduced to frantically snapping a cell phone shot from the backseat of a car while crossing the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. But this too was fitting of Philly culture, and the picture that resulted depicts a slightly blurry spread of skyscrapers set against a purpling evening sky, with a bold orange billboard that reads in all caps “ENJOY MORE MADNESS” popping out in the mid-ground. It’s unclear what the billboard was advertising, so I like to think that it was advertising the madness of the city itself.

Capturing skylines like this gives me the goal of hunting down more and more skylines, hoping and planning to someday add to my collection New York City, Chicago, Seattle, London, Paris, and wherever else life takes me.

What’s more, it gives me a goal on the way to my goals, a journey on the way to my destinations. If I didn’t pay attention to skylines on the way to an airport or a museum, I would probably make small talk with passengers, complaining away about the weather or traffic. On a road trip, I would listen to the radio or play mad libs in an effort to tune out. But what if I want to tune in? Henry David Thoreau once quipped: “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity!” So, by capturing skylines, I try not to kill time but rather redeem it; I try not to injure eternity but rather make a moment eternal. I look beyond the confines of a car, of a day-to-day routine, and find the car’s surroundings far more aesthetic and important than even the coolest in-car gadget.

***


Many people report that they “see God in nature.” Whether Christian, Hindu, Unitarian-Universalist, agnostic, atheist, you name it, people have long associated spirituality with the natural world. There’s just something about reaching the top of a mountain or watching the sunrise over the Atlantic that makes us stand in awe of the jaw-dropping view and maybe even of that view’s Creator.

But I see God in cities.

Because God is said to have made humans “in His image” and cities are veritably teeming with humans, I see cities teeming with little images of God. And these little images, like their Creator, have had the vision and industriousness to build skylines. Architects and engineers have envisioned structures like the High Five, reunion tower, and the Ben Franklin Bridge, created them, looked upon them, and said, “It is good.” They have made ordered intersections out of chaotic crossroads. They have made taller, stronger, and sleeker structures out of seemingly small, weak, and bleak-looking materials.

Even if a city is a “lost cause” with graffiti on the walls, trash in the streets, and rates of crime, poverty, and unemployment that are even higher than the city’s tallest buildings, I believe the city and each of its citizens bear the image of God.

The city of Camden, NJ, for instance, was rated America’s “most violent city” in 2008. It’s full to bursting with the graffiti, trash, and saddening statistics. Yet one Monday afternoon, in a small gym in South Camden I saw hope literally dancing before my eyes in this “hopeless place.” Fifty children had scampered inside that day for a snack, a game, and some homework help at the after-school program I was volunteering with. Once the kids had all departed it was up to me and three high school students to clean up. At first, they were sweeping the floor just like anyone would. But, in a matter of minutes, sweeping turned to dancing – anything from laughter-filled imitations of Gene Kelly to skilled break dancing. A sixteen-year-old girl turned on the radio and a seventeen-year-old boy turned off the lights and switched on a strobe light, tucked away in the corner of the room. Heads bobbing, fists pumping, these high schoolers sang along with Rihanna’s hit song: “We found love in a hopeless place.” We did. We found love in a “hopeless place.”

Walt Whitman, who spent the last years of his life in Camden, also identified love in that “hopeless place,” penning these words:

“I dream’d in a dream, I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the
Whole rest of the earth;
I dreamed that was the new City of Friends,
Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust love, it led the rest,
It was seen in every hour in the actions of the men of that city,
And in all their looks and words.”

The line “in a dream, I saw a city invincible” now stands inscribed on the façade of Camden’s city hall, a testament to the citizens’ pride in their city’s rich history and “robust love.”

In Camden, I witnessed “robust love” take a broom and dance in a dirty room.

And whatever city I am in, I think love can take a camera and make beauty out of buildings.  


***

Highways are my mountains, buildings my pine trees. When such structures surround me, I believe I’m surrounded by people who God made and cares about, people who can live and dance and struggle side by side. So, instead of seeking solace by another Walden Pond, I pursue pleasure in cities. Instead of “stop and smell the roses,” I would recommend stopping to see the skyscrapers.

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