Justin recommended this book, a marvelously inventive collection of essays. The cover alone is spectacular: a black hardback with three staggered layers of paper slipcover. The largest, in tones of gold shows earth and stone and figures of cowboys and giants, dueling soldiers and ragged refugees. The next is a jungle in shades of green with, among others, Tarzan and an aviator climbing out of a crashed plane. The smallest shows frothy ocean waves with a giant squid and broken-masted ship. Similarly, each essay peels away layers of stories and references to lay bare what's at the heart of things.
Readers of Chabon will be familiar with some of these subjects, such as his passionate defense of genre literature and comics/graphic novels, his appreciation of Sherlock Holmes, the metaphor of the Golem of Prague. Where he takes these subjects may astonish you.
I particularly liked the title essay, which starts as a meditation on Chabon's childhood in Columbia, Maryland. Being a native, I watched this planned city grow from its first idealistic foundations to the city it is today. James Rouse, famous for developing festival marketplaces such as Faneuil Hall in Boston, Pioneer Place in Portland, and Harborplace in Baltimore, had experimented as well with building a small community—not just houses, but a real community—in Baltimore called the Village of Cross Keys. Taking his cue from the influential urban planner Jane Jacobs, Rouse believed that we need cities, not suburbs, and that our urban life is best served by a mixture of public and private spaces, by small clusters of homes, and a heterogeneous population.
The core of Cross Keys is a group of shops surrounding an open plaza, with office space on the second floor. Originally, the shops aimed to include everything you would need: a grocery store, cafe, hotel, clothing stores, a bookstore, and so on. Clusters of homes—some apartments, some rowhomes—are all within easy walking distance. Nowadays, the hotel is still there, but the shops are mostly upscale clothing stores. The grocery couldn't compete with the large chains nearby and the neighborhood grocery store that we had all been going to forever. Talk about everybody knowing your name. My sisters and I had to bus to another neighborhood to buy our feminine hygiene products.
Columbia started out as a large-scale version of Cross Keys. A central mall and office buildings were located by the man-made lake. The town was divided into villages, groups of homes for ten to fifteen thousand people, with a central gathering place and schools. Rouse insisted that a certain percentage of the homes in each village were to be priced for low-income families. He also insisted that Columbia would be racially integrated—no small thing for a town situated between the race-riot hotbeds of Baltimore and Washington in the late Sixties and early Seventies.
Chabon's essay is about the map, Rouse's Plan for Columbia and the other maps that inspired his childhood imaginings. What he found especially seductive were the unfinished parts, the empty spaces, the unexplored territory. It's fascinating to follow Chabon through permutations of this idea.
Columbia hasn't completely fulfilled Rouse's vision, its villages looking more like upscale suburbs, its mall grown to monstrous proportions. But there's time yet. This month, when we have seen dreams start to come true, it's good to remember Rouse and others who have dreamed big dreams.