The greatest city – and surely the nearest thing to a modern conception of a city – in the wide-ranging lands of The Lord of the Rings must be Minas Tirith. Certainly its many walls and gates and helmed guards ring medieval in our minds, but nevertheless it possesses many qualities also held by the contemporary urban center: tall towers and closely clumped together buildings, a relatively massive population in comparison to the surrounding fields and farmlands, feats of engineering and architecture that seem to be the world of giants or or magic. As with many cities, Minas Tirith consolidates powers and exudes culture. It is the embodiment of the achievement and accomplishment of man.
Yet Tolkien’s description of the hidden nature of Middle-earth would also aptly apply to many fair urban communities throughout the globe:
“It was in truth falling year by year into decay; and already it lacked half the men that could have dwelt at ease there. In every street they passed some great house or court over whose door and arched gates were carved many fair letters of strange and ancient shapes: names Pippin guessed of great men and kindreds that had once dwelt there; and yet now they were silent, and no footsteps rang on their wide pavements, nor voice was heard in their halls, nor any face looked out from door or empty window.”
From the small towns of middle America to the once-promising centers of the brain-drained developing world, how evident is seen the sad evidence of decay. Statues and plaques in memorial of the great deeds of past local sons and daughters are replaced by inescapable desires to depart from such backwater and unadventurous places. The guiding principles of aesthetic architectural beauty are replaced with economic and energy efficiency; the suburbs sprawl, distinctions between town and town dwindle, and many see very little promise of future revival or renewal compared with the potential of the past.
Even in the large cities, the metropolises, the epic urban “progressions” that continue to increase in population and scale do the subtle cracks of decay show. “There were always too few children in this city,” muses Beregond: there is both a physical and psychological reduction in children in our own. People’s minds turn inward, and think only of a limited and incomplete good, and the structures that govern promote division and the rule of lesser men. The city, ever held to be the manifest hope of man, on many fronts is now questions. Much of such criticism is right held.
Nevertheless, the cities we have and the people who live in them must change. It is not enough for a city to be strong or productive – it must also be fair and beautiful. We urban citizens must come to love of our cities for what they uniquely are and who they uniquely support, not merely for how they benefit us. If we are to turn back the tide of urban decay, we must heed the words of Chesterton, and remember, “Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.”
2015’s Reflection: “On Stewardship”