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Gathered together in His name
3 February 2002
Those who study and attempt to understand and explain past cultures are called historians or sociologists or anthropologists. Those who try to do this for the culture in which they live are more often called poets or misfits. One needs rare genius, the passage of time, or both, in order to make sense of cultural trends.
Recently I was spellbound by the book Dream Street. It is a collection of 175 photographs and a few letters by photojournalist W Eugene Smith, taken in Pittsburgh from 1955 to 1957. Reading this book, looking at the remarkable photographs, and reading Smith's unremarkable prose, one gets the feeling that Smith understood that the concept of 'city', invented in prehistory and perfected in the late middle ages, was soon to become obsolete. He obsessively photographed Pittsburgh and Pittsburghers because he believed that Pittsburgh, as a city, was at its peak, and that in the decades and centuries that followed, it would fade into something different.
Smith was hired by historian Stefan Lorant, who was in turn hired by a Pittsburgh redevelopment agency to document the success of its urban-renewal project 'Pittsburgh Renaissance'. It seems to me that Smith got to Pittsburgh and, with his incredible ability to see into people's lives, saw an architectural success but a human failure and tried to document it. Smith never managed to make out of these photographs the exhibit or book that, burning inside him, drove him to make 17,000 photographs instead of the 100 he went there to produce, but 15 years after Smith's death, Sam Stephenson has distilled and focused Smith's haunted vision, producing this book and a companion museum exhibition.
I lived in Pittsburgh as a graduate student for much of the 1970s. I was fascinated by the city and tried hard to understand it. I had lived in suburbs all of my life until then. I never quite comprehended Pittsburgh while I lived there. I think that with the fateful juxtaposition of my discovery of Dream Street and the sudden death of my dear friend Matt Tracy, who I never actually met, I finally understand what I was looking at a quarter century ago. It's all about medieval villages and tombstones in churchyards with grass growing next to them.
The heavy industry that W Eugene Smith photographed and that I remember fondly is all gone now. The Homestead Works, the Jones and Laughlin Strip/Sheet mill. The Ambridge works. The steel industry is gone, and so are most of the industries that it supported, like coal mining and barge transport and beer brewing. You know all of this; the demise of heavy industry in America's 'rust belt' has been widely documented. But this essay isn't about steel mills, it's about religion, and I really am going to get to the point.
What I saw in Pittsburgh, and now understand, was that the very notion of a city as a community was fading, to be replaced not by some new kind of city but by new kinds of communities. If people talk and flirt and gossip in taverns and parks and markets, that tends to create traditional towns and cities, focused on physical industry. If the same people talk and flirt and gossip by electronic communication, that seems to create other kinds of communities, focused on common interests and ignoring geography. Obviously the species would not survive if people only communicated online: there are certain things that you simply cannot do unless you are in the same room as another person, but the quest for friendship and companionship and common interest has always been stronger than the quest for sex in people who are old enough.
I knew Matt Tracy for years and years in online communities; I talked to him on the phone a few times, but I have never seen or touched him. Yet his death hit me just as hard as the death of a next-door neighbour or a co-worker. Matt was part of my life, and he is gone now. This made me realise that a part of my life really is in an online community. This isn't the same as a public figure dying, because the communication between me and public figures was entirely one way. Matt talked and listened and argued and knew my name and my e-mail address and recognised my voice on the telephone.
In Wick, the Scottish village from which my ancestors emigrated, there are churchyards around town. The dead and their memorials were part of life. People could walk to see the tombs of those they loved and remembered, side by side with the tombs of those they never knew, who were now just names carved in stone. The dead were never very far from the living. Leaving church on Sunday it was hard not to notice the gravestones, and maybe every few months one would walk over to some grave, remember that person, and say a silent prayer. I can't do that; my people are buried in places that I don't normally frequent, and I have no memorials to them in the places where I gather. It's hard, and I want something better. The quest for closer bonds to my friends and family was what got me into the computer business in the first place, but now that my friends and family are starting to die and be buried, it's not working any more.
You and I are in a community that has no churches and no churchyards. There are no online memorials that will last. Maybe memorials have to be physical in order to last. Maybe there is nothing but a tombstone that will serve as a tombstone. When two or three of us are gathered here in God's name, He is among us. He promised us that in the Bible, and we feel it. But when I'm here by myself, thinking about my friend Matt, I would really love to be able to put flowers or a cigar on his tombstone, and there isn't one. Cities failed in their goal of improving upon villages, but people live in cities anyhow because that's where the jobs are. Two generations ago, city planners tried to save cities by redeveloping them. It didn't work. Maybe it will be possible to save cities by augmenting them with the kinds of community in which I knew Matt Tracy.
The ability to form and enjoy communities that are linked intimately in non-physical ways is important and meaningful. Your being part of such a community is why you are reading this. W Eugene Smith figured out in 1955 that ordinary cities, especially redeveloped ones, weren't going to be able to meet the spiritual needs of the villagers who had emigrated there, and many of us have felt that same need without being able to verbalise it. You and I and the people that we know here in this medium must figure out how to meet this very basic human need. God is among us; He kept His promise. So where's Matt?