Sunday, April 26, 2009

The New and the Old

Don't you sometimes miss the "oldness" of Toronto? The architecture of the buildings?... Is everything "new" in Dubai?? Is anything "old"? - Slow Reader

Those are good questions, posed by Slow Reader in response to yesterday's post. I won't answer in full today, as I'd end up droning on far too long. But I will ramble a bit, and see where I get.

In reading the international coverage of Dubai recently, especially that coming out of the UK, it seems the most common criticism I hear of the city is it's newness, which is code for tackiness. Of course Dubai can't possibly escape that criticism, since it is a new city, relatively, and literally speaking. Up until about two decades ago, Dubai would barely have qualified as a city by the standards of most western nations, yet today it has emerged as a true metropolis, a cosmopolitan urban center. It's not much by the standards of large cities like Toronto, New York, London, or Tokyo, but Dubai is not small by any stretch of the imagination.

Regardless of straight comparisons of size and infrastructure, one way to look at Dubai is to examine how far it has developed, as a city, compared to North America's major urban metropolitan centers. Toronto and New York are both about three centuries old. That is, they've grown and developed over the course of three centuries. And where Dubai is today, in terms of infrastructure, would probably closely relate to New York of the 1920s and 1930s. In twenty years, this city has developed to a level that took New York over two centuries. By that standard, it's impressive.

That said, as much as I am impressed so very many things in Dubai, from the efficiency of the municipal offices (far, far better than their counterparts in Toronto) to the reliability of public utilities (in two years I have never lost power or water, which I can't say about Toronto), there are yet so many intangibles that also factor into the character of a city, and how one experiences it. For myself, it mostly comes down to the smallest, simplest things that people like myself had always taken for granted, until they weren't there any more. The first is greenery.

When I lived in Tokyo, the city was magnificently beautiful for about two weeks of the year, during Hanami, when the Sakura blossoms bloomed. And when I say "beautiful" I am talking about that ineffable ethereal beauty that latches onto your memory and never lets go. Unfortunately, outside of those two weeks, Tokyo became on of the ugliest, drabbest urban expanses on the planet. Sitting on the train, at work, and at home, I found myself aching for the sight of grass. I dreamed about lying down on a soft lawn, under a shady tree. But it wasn't until I was back home in Toronto that I got my wish.

Dubai is like that also, While not a monolithic expanse of drab gray extending beyond the horizon in every direction, the city is in a desert. Grass does grow, but only where recycled water can be routed, and laborers available to groom and cultivate it. Each week I play softball on one of two professional diamonds hand built by a group of American expats who couldn't abide not playing ball in a proper ball park. But keeping the grass fresh and well groomed costs a minor fortune and more than a few full time staff. Outside of that ball park, there is little grass to be found, and what grass there is, is often dry, brittle, and suffused with very aggressive, territorial ants. Thankfully, I still have Toronto.

To be honest, Toronto is not the greenest city in Canada. Not compared to Ottawa, or even Vancouver. But compared to cities like Tokyo and Dubai, it's an endless seas of verdant growth. Until I had been away from it, I had never known just how a part of my psyche the nearness to nature was. Not being near trees, grass, even bushes and scrub effected me in ways I never expected. Growing up going camping every summer, playing ball in the part, or just having a picnic by a pond, nature was always around me.

Now, instead of nature, and I find myself surrounded almost entirely by artifice. It's not bad, as a far as it goes, but there ain't no place like home.

No comments:

Post a Comment