The Psychology of Cities

Visiting East Hastings Street
On the Amtrak train from Seattle to Portland my mind was on American cities – orderly Seattle, mild in the dreamy rain, Portland with its bookshops, cycle lanes and sustainable housing – and I was reading about another kind of city, a cold, fantastical, intimidating metropolis: the world capital Germania, seat of power of the thousand year Reich.
Before World War Two, Hitler's architect, Albert Speer, designed for him the new Berlin. Germania was to embody the extraordinary power of a regime that had fulfilled its need for Lebensraum and would now rule the world. The design was monumental, gigantic and militaristic. In his book Speer, The Final Verdict, Joachim Fest describes Speer's plan for the new capital as "despotic architecture, that, for all its high aims, never got beyond demonstrating naked power...one cannot overlook the excessive rage of this architecture, nor the hysterical trait inherent to it."
Hitler's architectural ideology, as Fest describes, was "his emotions translated into stone: his desire for theatrical backdrops, his insatiable hunger for stunning symbolism, and his desire to intimidate." This is what cities are: our psyches translated into stone, our collective will shaped into the visible expression of ourselves. I thought of Auckland, the beloved shantytown at the bottom of the world, leaky, gently rotting from within, sun-struck, lashed by rain and what a local poet called "shipboard weather", overborne and outclassed by nature, frowning anxiously over a self-help manual called Unitary Plan. I began to think out a long piece about the psychology of buildings. In my latest novel, Soon, a character's state of mind is reflected in her dreams about houses. What does the monumental size of our Prime Minister's house say about his psyche? He grew up in a state house, but look at the shape of his dreams...

From Portland I flew to Vancouver, a city by the sea and in sight of snowy mountains, beautiful Vancouver with its aesthetic architecture, its brilliant knack for growing trees on top of high-rise buildings, its sustainability and leafy avenues and sense of civic pride. "So few homeless people," I said, strolling through an inner-city communal garden, past stern signs: Don't pick the flowers, restrain your dog." Pretty, sane Vancouver, a city with its mind in order, its unitary plan perfectly formed.

But just beyond picturesque Chinatown, a trashy tabloid headline in a window read: "Dying Queen quits. Evil Camilla tells Charles, "We've won!" It was like a clue glimpsed in a dream, a signal that the city might start to reveal something else, a world through the looking glass, another self. Finding Vancouver's dark heart was a process that went like this: rounding a corner, you encounter police arresting homeless people. You keep walking, and pass a crowd of people who are openly dealing drugs. You think, how interesting, pause for a covert look but sensibly don't hang around, and go further, thinking to get past this "trouble spot." But the drug dealing extends along the street. You increase your pace, still imagining you will "pass" this "cluster", and you are now some distance down a crowded street – think Broadway Newmarket on a busy Saturday morning – when you look across to the other side and realise that everyone in sight, without exception, is homeless, crazy, destitute, a prostitute, or a drug dealer. Look forward, back, up side streets, every single person is very sick, very ragged and looks as if he or she will kill you, or at least rob you, at any moment.
Added to a social disorder the totality of which you've never experienced in London, New York, Washington or any other first world city, is the perception that you are now being followed, and could potentially be set upon by the whole street. There is nothing to do but run to get out, and you can outrun the district's limping denizens, perhaps because, as subsequent research reveals, ninety percent of inhabitants of Vancouver's violent open air drug market, described by the UN as "a crisis" and "the worst piece of urban blight in North America," have hepatitis C, and fifty percent, HIV. Whatever has brought them to the East Hastings district – Vancouver's mild climate, legal injecting rooms, slum hotels run by drug lords, lax drug policing – they have turned it into Dante's Inferno.
We depend on the social outnumbering the antisocial. When everyone's antisocial and you can't find your way out, it's like a zombie movie. East Hastings could be called Vancouver's hidden shame or, for fans of The Wire, it could be its Hamsterdam: a liberal experiment in turning a blind eye. The way we arrange our urban centres tells a story about ourselves. This is the psychology of cities. Vancouver, that lovely, well-adjusted Canadian. Who knew it had a patch of bedlam hidden deep in its beautiful mind?