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Suburbia and the Ruins Outside Philadelphia

Soon after emerging from its underground hideout at Penn Station, the train left behind Manhattan. The Empire State and one other building I could not identify (perhaps Liberty Tower) refused to disappear for much longer into the indistinct mass of blurring concrete.

But I kept looking back until even the tallest of the tall were gone. Perhaps the only reason I could not see them was my very narrow field of vision. Such a tight angle demanded impossible contortions. Still, I wondered at which point – from an open point of observation – New York would have disappeared in the horizon the farther we got from her.

Aristotle had already reasoned that Earth had to be round. That explained why the ships fell out view the farther they sailed from the shore. Knowing this, I was permanently mystified by the excessive credit Columbus was given at school for a hypothesis that predated him by at least nineteen centuries.

We were headed south. A cluster of glass and steel skyscrapers rose in the horizon, announcing the proximity of a big city. It was Philadelphia. By then, we had been passing for almost an hour by factory ruins, with unbreathing chimneys and broken glasses. We were cutting through the withered industrial heartland of Pennsylvania.

Some were big compounds, with intersecting wings and courtyards that were invisible but for their tall walls. Without an exception, they were all red brick or brownstone constructions. Dead as they were, their neatly arranged bricks and their shape appeared to respond to those canons of beauty that were ignored in the planning of American suburbia. That’s why even the ruins of the vanishing industrial landscape of the States were still pleasant to the eye. Our mind instinctively recognizes the harmony in their shape, even if understanding why would demand a more laborious analysis.

In contrast, as soon as we sped past the downtown of Philadelphia, the ugliness of the suburbs came into plain view. They were supposedly alive, but you would barely see any person. Certainly, there were pretty houses with shaded porches and cured lawns, but not a soul: nobody idling about. Perhaps that explained why these houses are only connected to each other only like an afterthought, by roads for the cars and little else, as if joined in an inorganic whole, almost against their will. For these were not streets, only a faint echo of them. Nobody would bother to walk in a space ruled by the motor vehicle. There was no breathing presence other than the trees.

Commercial zones contested any notions, intuitive and probably scientific too, that we may have about architecture: big boxes with signs in thick, sanserif typography and bright colors. These hangar-sized depots – they could be plants, stores, movie theaters – were the paroxysm of utilitarianism. Why bother with aesthetics if a gigantic cube will do? Indeed, why? Maybe Shakespeare has the answer. Ungrateful daughters Goneril and Regan asked King Lear why he wanted such a big and costly entourage if only one servant could provide for his needs. Yet the monarch that had given them all his possessions berated them:

If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st
Which scarcely keeps thee warm.

In plain language, that means we do not need fancy clothes to protect ourselves from the cold. Yet fashion exists because our eyes find reassurance and joy in beauty. And that is why the suburban sprawl of indistinguishable squares and monolithic buildings compared so poorly to New York, with its layered architecture, rich and diverse, from the Art Deco of the Chrysler building to the tackiness of Trump Tower, the microscopic falafel joints in the Village and the halal kebab stands on the sidewalks.

Precisely there, on the sidewalks, is the key to the vibrant energy of New York. Its streets are brimming with people from all over, talking loudly to prevail over the noises of traffic in the languages of Babel. But these suburbs of post-industrial Pennsylvania the train was running across were void. There was obviously some life, secluded behind walls. And secret as it was, this life was silent and probably boring to the point of existential angst, all fueled by loneliness.

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This is the fourth part of The Trans-American Railroad: New York to Los Angeles at the Speed of Iron, a travel diary. Please see the previous stories below:

The Trans-American Railroad: New York to Los Angeles at the Speed of Iron

The Trans-American Railroad (Part II)

Penn Station: The Journey Begins