Columnists > Voices

Seedlings in stone

Creative visionaries sow renewal and hope in the heart of the city

Issue: "Building a city," March 24, 2007

As a culture, we tend to think that any type of progress is good. Take the Anaconda factory in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., in the 1950s, dumping gallons and gallons of chemicals into the beautiful Hudson, calling the blackened river a sign of "progress." We pollute the cultural landscape with irresponsible expressions in the name of progress, and call them freedom of speech. Thus, our cultural landscape is increasingly uninhabitable.

Theologically speaking, we are all living in the ashes of Ground Zero, in our Wasteland. But we carry the dust of Eden in our DNA. We need to understand that our imaginative capacities do carry a responsibility to heal, every bit as much as they do to depict angst.

Instead of exerting the imagination to destructive, exploitive ends, we need, as in Vincent van Gogh's drawings, to sow the seeds of renewal and hope. This is the exilic land of Babylon, where Jeremiah exhorted the people of God to "seek the welfare of the city," where often "craftsmen and the metal workers" are taken into captivity (Jeremiah 29). We must recover the language of hope in exile, in the reconciliation between the city and nature. This view borrows heavily from the vision of a New Jerusalem. The true City of God is a city full of "shalom" trees, through which runs a shining River of Life, the true fulfillment of our creative ambitions.

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Recently, at a National Council on the Arts meeting, former Council member and philanthropist Philip Hanes exhorted us to be diligent in our work since, as he insisted, "The Information Age, for us, is over. China and India are well ahead of us already; we have entered the Creative Age."

The Creative Age will require, though, integration or the reconciliation of the heart of the city with the country's open air and spaces. That means children living in the dilapidated ghettos-the majority being immigrants-need engagement with open spaces of imagination and geography. Rafe Esquith, a teacher at Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles, demonstrated with his Shakespeare program for children who do not yet speak English that it is possible. Then-mayor Joseph Riley of Charleston helped to start the Mayors' Institute on City Design with the National Endowment for the Arts. Riley stated humbly in a National Council on the Arts meeting, "We [government officials] exhaust ourselves with lots of decisions-political, personnel, and budget. But 100 years from now, there will be no real evidence of how we made those decisions. In contrast, a decision about the physical design of a city will influence the city and its people for generations."

The Governors' Institute on Community Design, which takes this design dialogue to the state level, is co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Environmental Protection Agency. Strange bedfellows? No, it's smart to connect the two as an issue of stewardship. The best design is most efficient and friendly to the environment. The best design considers what the community needs first, and the needs of even her voiceless inhabitants. The best design brings beauty into our lives.

Agrarians see the city as the epitome of dysfunction: a dystopic vision of ideals gone awry. But as I jog the promenade of New York's Hudson River Park, I see the empty Ground Zero, now beckoning our imaginative engagement and healing. I see the Hudson, now closer to the beauty it once was thanks to a few courageous fishermen and a custodian at the Anaconda factory named Fred Danback, who fought the company in the 1960s with a ground-breaking suit and won-thereby ushering in decades of environmental recovery. So many families inhabit lower Manhattan largely because of a cleaner New York City.

At the Museum of Jewish Heritage, I can see Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy's installation of oak trees planted in crevices of rocks. We need more creative visionaries who would dare even to plant seedlings in stone that will mature into trees whose roots will crack open the rock as if it were a mere egg, spilling its shalom dirt into the heart of a city.

-Makoto Fujimura is a painter, member of the National Council on the Arts, founder and director of the International Arts Movement, and WORLD's 2005 Daniel of the Year


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