City Life—A Short Step from Concord to Confusion
By “Awake!” correspondent in Ireland
PEOPLE unaccustomed to city life often question the sanity of those who choose to live there. They are awed by these vast complexes of concrete, steel and glass. They stand aghast at the sheer bedlam of activity of the great masses of humanity herded together in these places.
Have you ever stopped to consider how and why these cities grew? If you pause in the center of any large city, especially at the peak of the rush hour, you cannot help but wonder from where it all came. Wearied pedestrians fight with vehicles that are pouring pollutants into streets jammed with traffic. The noise level becomes nearly intolerable.
Besides wondering from where cities came, one cannot help but consider: Just how real is the danger that city life may break down? With such masses of people living and working together in such congested spaces, there is, without a doubt, a tremendous need for great cooperation to keep things working smoothly. But just how short is the step from cooperation to confusion?
First, let us take a brief look at some of the factors that have contributed to the development of cities in different locations. A glimpse of the past can help us to appreciate just how different life is today.
What Accounts for the Cities?
Some cities have just “grown naturally” as a result of geographic and strategic factors. Others have been “forced along” to satisfy, say, industrial or political interests.
For instance, here in Ireland, Dublin just grew. Its history stretches back to the invasions by the Norsemen and beyond, while Belfast is a comparative newcomer to the city status.
Dublin’s growth came from its strategic position on the river Liffey. Succeeding conquerors of Ireland recognized the possibilities of the location and so the city expanded under the influence of the Norsemen, the Normans and the English. Each group left their mark on the city.
In contrast, Belfast is very much the result of modern-day industrial development. It was not until the close of the eighteenth century that it began to grow to its present stature. Up to that point it was, according to one historian, “still a small, dirty, crowded town on the west bank of the river Lagan.” Its growth from a small group of habitations to the densely populated industrial center it is today was almost entirely a result of the growth of the linen and shipbuilding industries in this area.
Around these industries evolved the commercial houses, the stately homes, the shops and offices, the accommodations for the vast working population that gravitated here, and all the other paraphernalia that goes to make up a modern city.
Thus these massive concentrations of buildings and people we call cities expanded, often in a way that produced many shades of grime rather than the beautiful results of the Creator’s handiwork seen in the rest of the country. In sheer complexity today they stagger the imagination.
Complexity of Cities Today
Just stop and consider what the developments of history have produced. Layers upon layers of interrelated avenues of human activities. Great networks of roads connect the diverse enterprises. Multitudes of hidden pipes, cables, tubes and conduits serve to bring the essential power to keep everything functioning and to carry away the incredible amount of waste produced.
Think of all the various services that must work together to maintain city life with any degree of harmony—power supplies, commodity supplies, transportation services, communication services, water supplies, sewage disposal, health services, roads, housing, and so on and so forth.
We are inclined to accept these things as facts of life, as if they had always been there. But not so long ago many of these things just did not exist.
It has taken an immense amount of labor to produce the cities of today, not to mention the planning and preparation of countless designers and farsighted authorities. But the very nature of these cities makes them susceptible to sabotage and chaotic breakdown.
This was demonstrated recently when certain sections of the community in Belfast withdrew their labor to give active protest against certain political developments. A look at what happened, quickly illustrates how easily a modern-day city can grind to a halt.
Breakdown of City Life
Wednesday, May 15, saw the beginning. After a long period of general unrest over political events, a general strike was declared. Very rapidly the industrial life of the city died.
One of the first actions by the strikers was a cutback of electricity supplies. They declared that only enough electricity would be generated to supply essential services, such as hospitals. A city without power supplies is like a body without life. So many modern-day conveniences depend absolutely on this power source. Now, instead of a regular electricity supply, consumers were getting three or four hours on and then being cut off for long periods, without warning or advance notice.
Those living in the ultramodern, recently developed housing estates often found themselves with absolutely no form of heating, lighting or cooking facilities. Invalids and sick persons were put at grave risk, not to mention those who had to climb what must have seemed like endless stairs to get to their homes in multistory flats!
Hospitals were placed in difficult circumstances as the power situation worsened. Often they had to rely on emergency generators. This was not the easiest of situations with which to cope in the middle of a delicate and possibly lifesaving operation. Even such things as maintaining an adequate supply of clean linen can present very real problems when laundry facilities are curtailed.
Traffic flow, always a headache to city planners and administrators, became chaotic. Traffic lights failed sporadically in various parts of the city.
The commercial life of the city was badly affected. Those who traveled to work each day in the city’s center found it increasingly difficult to get to work. Protesters set up road blocks, thus preventing freedom of movement throughout the city. City bus services were suspended after some of their vehicles had been hijacked and used to form barricades. Private vehicles were stopped and checked as protesters dissuaded from going to work any who might have wished to do so.
Those who did finally manage to make their way to work found conditions almost impossible. Offices were without power for all their equipment. Shops had only emergency lighting in the way of candles or bottled-gas lights. These conditions were a shoplifter’s delight.
Food supplies, of course, were considered “essential” by the protesters, but these also were affected as distribution was disrupted by the generally chaotic conditions. Milk supplies, for instance, were erratic for some time after several delivery vehicles were hijacked and robbed. Supplies of many fresh foods were limited as cargoes piled up at the docks.
Those retailers with refrigerated units found themselves in great difficulties as power supplies became increasingly undependable. Supermarkets were forced to sell much of their perishable goods at half price. Children in some areas were delighted to find that their local sweetshops were giving away melting ice-lollipops.
Of course, without power for home refrigerators, it was impossible to stock food there, unless one had a gas-powered refrigerator, in which case one was all right for the moment. This led to panic buying of canned and nonperishable goods, and this only added to the confusion.
Supplies of bottled gas very quickly dried up as householders tried to arrange some form of emergency cooking and lighting equipment. Candles became as scarce as rain in a drought-stricken land.
When, eventually, gas supplies also were cut off, troubles increased. Dropping gas pressure to homes also produced the danger of explosion because of the possibility of air and gas mixing in the pipes, producing a highly explosive mixture.
Petrol stations had to ration supplies and motorists were forced to line up for hours to fill their tanks. With devastating effect the strikers shut down the bulk of petrol retailers and began to issue passes for petrol to those whom they considered “essential” travelers. Slowly but surely, as existing supplies were used up, all traffic movement in the city ceased, to all intents and purposes.
Besides the ever-growing threat to health caused by the uncollected refuse from thousands of homes, a further danger arose. Workers threatened to cease pumping operations at the sewage-disposal works. With much of Belfast built on low-lying areas, this presented the prospect of untreated sewage backing up the drains and sewers onto the streets.
The overall effect of this strike proved too drastic for the authorities to cope with. After fourteen days of increasing chaos they gave in to the demands of the protesters.
Belfast was pulled back from the very brink of absolute disaster. One day it was a busy, industrious city; and then it took that short step toward becoming a stricken thing fighting for survival.