Calvino’s hidden cities


…Also in Raissa, city of sadness, there runs an invisible thread that binds one living being to another for a moment, then unravels, then is stretched again between moving points as it draws new and rapid patterns so that at every second the unhappy city contains a happy city unaware of its own existence… (pg. 149)

…It also happens that, if you move along Marozia’s compact walls, when you least expect it, you see a crack open and a different city appear. Then, an instant later, it has already vanished. Perhaps everything lies in knowing what words to speak, what actions to perform, and in what order and rhythm; or else someone’s gaze, answer, gesture, is enough; it is enough for someone to do something for the sheer pleasure of doing it, and for his pleasure to become the pleasure of others: at that moment, all spaces change, all heights, distances; the city is transfigured, becomes crystalline, transparent as a dragonfly. But everything must happen as if by chance, without attaching too much importance to it, without insisting that you are performing a decisive operation, remembering clearly that any moment the old Morozia will return and solder its ceiling of stone, cobwebs, and mold over all heads… (pg. 155)

– From Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

Urban political ecologists often ask, is there something inherently emancipatory about urban spaces? When I’m walking through Vienna’s streets, head bowed, looking at the pavement, searching out the dates and makes of water main covers, I am am self-conscious about shaking up norms of sidewalk comportment in this formal, Baroque capital. But I am also aware that my kneeling on the sidewalk to dust off and make an imprint of these mundane pieces of infrastructure invites new urban interactions: neighborhood kids running over to see what I’m doing, college students asking how they can get up in the mix, and yes, sometimes also grumpy dog walkers sighing audibly as they step around my jumbo black crayons, dust rags, and paper portfolios. But for the most part, though I do not usually look, I imagine that passersby smile to themselves, wondering what other forms of mundane urban art they’ve not stopped to notice. Or not. Maybe they just ask themselves, why bother? But the possibility that my actions invite new interactions, and new “charming” engagements among urban dwellers and between residents and the stuff of the city drives me (Buck, 2015; see also Hawkins 2005; 2010; Bennett 2010).

I’m also aware that my privilege – my racialized whiteness, fluency in German, and sense of entitlement and belonging granted by my dual Austrian/U.S. citizenship – gives me confidence to intervene in the urban fabric in this way. Sitting on the sidewalk, while not banned in Vienna (as it is, perhaps ironically, in Berkeley, California – my home town – , and other “progressive” west coast cities by draconian “sit-lie ordinances”) is still assumed to be the domain of “Säufer,” “Zigeuner,” “Freakies,” and, more recently, migrants driven by violence and upheaval. I doubt my interventions do much to trouble these deeply-seated prejudices.

But I romantically hang on to the hope and idealism embedded in Calvino’s reflections, choosing to privilege possibility over inevitability, trying to enact and affect optimism through these small gestures and my perpetually finding beauty in these grimy iron grates.

Perhaps in a future post I will work through my conflicting thoughts around the extent to which my fascination and actions amount to a fetishization of this particular urban form (c.f. Millington 2013; Liboiron 2015), but today I want to let charm, beauty, and possibility rise to, and rest on, the surface.


  1. Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press.
  2. Buck, Holly Jean. 2015. “On the Possibilities of a Charming Anthropocene.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 105 (2): 369–77. doi:10.1080/00045608.2014.973005.
  3. Calvino, Italo. 1978. Invisible Cities. 1st Harvest/HBJ ed. A Harvest/HBJ Book. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
  4. Hawkins, Gay. 2005. The Ethics of Waste: How We Relate to Rubbish. Lanham Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
  5. Hawkins, Gay. 2010. “Plastic Materialities.” In Political Matter: Technoscience, Democracy, and Public Life, edited by Bruce Braun and Sarah Whatmore, 119–38. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  6. Liboiron, Max. 2015. “The Perils of Ruin Porn: Slow Violence and the Ethics of Representation.” Discard Studies. March 23.
  7. Millington, Nate. 2013. “Post-Industrial Imaginaries: Nature, Representation and Ruin in Detroit, Michigan.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 37 (1): 279–96. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2427.2012.01206.x.
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