Song of the City: An Intimate History of the American Urban Landscape
Four Walls Eight Windows (Perseus—Basic Books), 2002
“The city in these pages is alive with personal experiences. My city, the city we can imagine to have a pulse, a body, soul, and seed, is replete with people from every corner. Many of them shared with me their own personal stories and family histories. They described their relationships with the city. They related moments of violence, sadness, struggle, and light. Mostly I listened, scribbling. I followed them on walks through special places. You will find those places in the pages that follow. In the stories, you will discover not only the vastness of the city’s landscape but also its people. My city is their stories. It is a powerful, reckless place. Let it shroud you with the crush of voices.” —from the book
Nathaniel Popkin set out to see his American city — its neighborhoods and its people. He went on foot, by subway and bus. He drank at bars, ate at restaurants and cafes. He sat on stoops and played softball in parks, he visited churches and schools and attended parties. He walked and walked and walked. As Popkin says, “At 135 square miles, to someone on foot, [Philadelphia] is endless.” As he walked, he met people. And he listened to their stories.
From this comes Song of the City, Popkin’s tribute to urban living. For those who thought the city was dead, Popkin says, look again: the city of Philadelphia — like many cities — is a living, breathing, thriving place.
Broken into four parts — Pulse, Body, Soul, and Seed — Song of the City is a vibrant portrait of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In Pulse, Popkin describes the rhythm of the city. It’s “an energy, constant motion, really the interplay between life and death, old and new.…” In Body, he dissects the city as if its buildings, streets, and avenues were the limbs of a living being. The Soul of the city is like the soul of a person. “The city’s soul connects us to each other and to generations past.” The Seeds in Popkin’s Song are the city’s future, the new generations, the literal flowers planted, the dreams that take our cities to new and as yet unimagined places.
In the spirit of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City, Song of the City shouts its praise for American city life and for the curbside democracy that enables Popkin’s “crush of voices” to coexist in the microcosm that is one city block.