Cartesia began as a perfect square of straight streets spaced at regular intervals, aligned north-south and east-west, meeting at right angles and running from one side of the city to the other without interruption or change of direction, the whole laid out on a level plain. Logically, all city blocks are equidistant and equilateral, and therefore equivocal. Obviously, they align not to the magnetic poles of the earth, which wander, but to the fixed rotational poles and the equator, as determined by astronomical observation. Therefore, it follows that each north-south street bears the name of a tree in alphabetical order—Aspen, Birch, Chestnut, and so on—and that each east-west street bears a number.
Since the plan of Cartesia embodies the conceit of perpendicular lines of the seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes, it is only fitting that the city bears his name. His statue stands in a place of honor, with this motto inscribed on the base: Cogito ergo sum. Quotations from his works are inscribed over doors to public buildings: the Palace of Justice, the Public Library, the Museum of Arts and Sciences, the Temple of Reason, the Gymnasium, and the Opera Olympia. Austere and erect, pen in hand, Descartes reigns over his city.
The rectilinear grid of streets, however, is much older. Archaeological remains have been found in Egypt, Sumeria, the Indus valley, and China from thousands of years before Christ. Hippodamus of Miletus, the ancient Greek architect, claimed to have perfected the grid. The ancient Romans employed it in army camps or castra, and veterans’ land grants or coloniae. Spain promulgated the Laws of the Indies from 1542 to govern the layout of towns in the New World. They must be grids with a plaza in the center. Examples are found from the twelfth century in southern France, new walled cities called bastides. Did the grid inspire Descartes to geometrical abstraction?
Another objection raises its head. Scholars unanimously affirm that the grid arose from religious scruples. Early surveyors, with one eye on the sky and the other on the ground, doubled as diviners. Their work had a magical purpose, to lay out places for human occupation to match the order of heaven. Streets ought to be ruled by the sun, a god itself or the outward sign of a god. Men and women in the course of daily movements ought to follow the true path. Impartial fate is hinted at, in that all lots are equal. So the question looms: was Cartesia laid out as the heavenly city or a simple solution to a practical problem?
The original square blocks and equal lots have altered over time. Alleys were inserted to subdivide a block. Lots were combined. Buildings were built at the rear of lots, so that some blocks acquired a complex internal organization. In other cases, a single massive building takes up a whole block with its cubical mass, threaded by corridors and stairwells. Then again, to improve the design of a college campus or a hospital, a street was suppressed, and two or more blocks were thrown together.
The result strikes some as an urban triumph, the mastery of space, while others see rampant exploitation, nature’s defeat. Street after street of monotonous rows of brick and stucco houses, with slight variations of stoop and fenestration, are certainly dull. A low-rent complex of bleak towers in a sterile park is a nightmare of efficient planning run amok. Yet the palatial apartment blocks that cluster at Elm Street and Fortieth Avenue, with their grand courtyards, rooftop promenades, and airy gazebos are the last word in civilized living.
Religious toleration includes all faiths, and none has official government status. Houses of worship occupy lots the same as any other. Indeed, there are no prominent sites, no focal points. Aside from the civic center, private gardens, and fenced parks shared by adjacent owners, Cartesia lacks open spaces. The common domain is the street.
Addresses are logical and easy to find. Public transit operates smoothly. Cartesians know where they stand, in what relation to each other, to the world at large, even to the sun, moon and stars. But the endless vista down every street can be unnerving. Daily commutes and retail sales suffer from anomie. Tedium leads to carelessness, as one set of geophysical coordinates seems much like another. People change address to a distant part of town and feel as though they have not moved at all.
The city grows by adding new blocks identical to those already existing. It covers the plain like a checkered tablecloth, a tabby weave with a ragged selvage. It extends in two dimensions until it meets some insuperable barrier—a mountainside, a dark chasm, the shore of the sea, or the edge of reason. To leap up the mountain, to bridge the chasm, to invade the sea on pilings and piers, that would be madness.
Diffuse, low-density, scattered over townships, counties, states, linguistic frontiers, and natural ecosystems, Peripheral City is more a notion than a city of brick and mortar. The built environment of wood frame, straw bale, rigid foam, and fabric tensile structure merges with farms and virgin forest. At the mathematical centroid of the generally agreed-on metropolitan area stand nothing more than a field of corn, a few apple trees, and a large white oak where inhabitants meet to swap and barter. The city produces all of its food, clothing, raw materials, energy consumed, and manufactured goods. It is self-sufficient to a startling degree, the envy of quaint industrial towns, which they call the paleotechnic model.
Footpaths, bike trails, narrow two-lane roads, radio beacons, and rooftop heliports tie the city loosely together. It dispenses with municipal services like sewers, trash collection, and natural gas. The distances would make construction of utility lines cost-prohibitive. Wind turbines and solar panels generate electricity. For water, residents rely on private wells, rain barrels, cisterns, and ponds stocked with fish. A pre-engineered, super-efficient graywater recycling tank, like a miniature waste disposal plant, is widely used. According to data from the Information Office and certified by the Green Consortium, the city lives completely off-grid. With no net imports, fossil-free, it lacks a carbon footprint.
Service companies, boutique factories, mobile repairs, and on-site consulting occupy much of the labor force. Any garage or basement may shelter a start-up business. When a child grows up and moves out of the house, the spare bedroom is pressed into service. Attics are used for bulk food storage or warehouse space for a mail-order firm. No family in Peripheral City accumulates junk. They have a horror of needless clutter.
It is wrong to describe them as citizens, except in a transcendental sense. Political life is fragmented among the jurisdictions. If you ask a resident where they vote, who represents them on the city council, what party box they check, or how they lean, they look at you wide-eyed, as if you proposed an unnatural act. They believe the taxes they pay should be spent on protection of personal liberty, not on dubious public works. They are staunch supporters of privacy and private enterprise. They believe in certain unalienable rights guaranteed by the Constitution. They work hard, and they expect friends and neighbors to work hard, too. They frequently sell their homes and move, so they owe no allegiance to a neighborhood. They belong to no parish. Some are unaware they live in a city.
With no public transit, people get around in golf carts, smart cars, unicycles, skateboards, pedal prams, scooters, hang gliders, jet packs, and other means of solo transportation. Oversize automobiles, which they call gas guzzlers, are frowned upon. Vans and sport utility vehicles, unless written off as a business expense, are severely fined. No one walks if they possibly can run. The winding roads, soft-surface trails, and greenways throng with people in exercise gear, plugged into portable news providers. They huff and puff their way to fitness and cardiovascular righteousness.
Each resident follows a strict diet. Everyone loves to compare statistics, by which they measure their personal health and compete for points. They are spiritual, not members of a church or temple. Organized religion is anathema to them. Sectarian division is proof of folly. They believe in home schooling, aromatizing, and full spectrum therapy.
An address can be difficult to find. Maps are inaccurate, and rights-of-way are implied rather than marked by signs. Directional navigation aids are a must.
Yet commerce is brisk in the pop-up shops and casual eateries that spring up at crossroads and vanish in a day. Yard sales, co-ops, and farm-to-table contracts account for a large proportion of trade. Conventional retail is so yesterday. Mark-ups are considered bad form, and middlemen are evil. Discount warehouse outlets are popular, as are buyer clubs, bonus cards, and orders in bulk. Paper cash is rare, and coins are banned within city limits. Embedded chips, automated swipes, and biometrics have taken over. Banks operate online, for the most part, with remote tellers and secure portals.
Young people use electronic devices to gather at some unlikely spot. Within seconds, a crowd congeals from thin air. They are racially versatile, culturally neutral, and sexually active. They dance to pre-recorded music, drink through flexible straws from disposable cups, and carry on in the way of youth the world over. The party disperses as quickly as it formed. Look away for a moment, and all you see is a trace of glitter.
Mutandis is the city of tearing down and building up. Buildings vanish in a puff of smoke, and new construction sprouts overnight. Change runs wild in the streets. No sooner have you learned your way around and memorized a route, than detours force you away from the center, to wander among signs in foreign languages and people who stare. What became of the landmarks: the water tower, the gleaming spire, the civic square with its statues and fountain? How could a skyline alter in a week?
Whole blocks of dowdy but affordable housing fall to make way for high-rise offices in sleek towers, amid barren plazas and soulless parking decks. Commercial space transmogrifies to residential lofts, so trendy and hard to heat. Shops at street level flourish and wither like blooms in the desert. Churches abruptly switch denomination, from Catholic to Muslim, their stained glass shrouded, or they turn into theaters and avant-garde galleries. Mansions are chopped into modern apartments, while small living units, admittedly cramped, coalesce into open spaces painted stark white.
Rose-colored brick gives way to raw concrete. Classically ornamented stone melts like icing on a layer cake that crumbles, while bland panels of glass or some synthetic substance creep over a skeletal frame. Walls tumble down and the bright sky flashes where they once stood. Gabled roofs fly away in the wind, sloped planes flapping like giant wings. Solid ground gapes, and foundations are revealed. A vascular system of pipes and drains lies open like a body in surgery, while bales of straw sponge rainwater runoff stained blood-red. The earth vibrates, songbirds flee, and the air is full of pneumatic drills and hammers.
A few bits of tile scattered on the sidewalk are all that remain of the grand apartment block, the shelter of so many families and lives, the palace of the people. Was it only a dream? Plywood hoardings and chain link fences spring up like playing cards upended. They mark the perimeter of vacant lots, encroach on the roadway, and thwart pedestrians. They block your view of the thing they advertise, this new way to live and work and be happy.
By decree of the city council, an all-powerful clique as capricious and vain as the gods who loiter on Mount Olympus, one-way streets reverse direction, avenues are reduced to alleys planted with rows of drought-resistant trees, bicycle lanes are introduced, and swaths of fraying city fabric deemed historic are stitched into pedestrian zones. New arteries open by means of demolition as thorough as a bomb. Woe to the mortal who stands in the way of progress!
A clutch of residents, many with gray hair, stages a protest in a neighborhood park. Holding hand-lettered placards, they march on City Hall. The press mocks the few who mourn the old city as losers who cling to the past. The present is all that matters. The future arrives like a giant backhoe that crushes all in its path.
Fashions and fads race through Mutandis, where the masses want novelty and watch for the next new thing. They are easily distracted. They discard what was coveted yesterday, and they grab what tomorrow dangles in front of their noses. Literary taste abandons the novel in favor of flash fiction, the poem of one line, and the micro memoir. Music is up-tempo, and the drama scene is lively. Shows have short runs, and theaters are packed. Performers take on multiple roles. Casual workers in every field outnumber employees. Careers skyrocket and plummet back to earth. Even the language of the street is quick, a staccato patter laced with jargon that changes by the minute.
Critics may call these young people fickle, but the truth is more complex. Mutandisans recycle the past as retro style, nostalgia, and classics. They are clever at alterations. They know in their fingers how to reverse a garment, freshen up a room, make a faded color pop, and invigorate a dish that drags down a menu. They can reinvent the wheel like nobody else.
If you’ve seen and done it all, and you seek a destination for business or pleasure, a place no travel brochure or video can capture, a place that is different even from itself, where the sun never rises in the same sky twice, then you must pay a visit to the city of mutation, Mutandis.
Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, NY. He has worked as an architect in New York City and Charlottesville, VA. His short stories and essays appear in Bangalore Review, Fiction International, The Fiction Pool, Litro, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Short Fiction.