Find Your Urban Soul
Saints and Souls. The Feast of All Souls’ Day. err… Halloween. So many memories come flooding, not all particularly wholesome nor particularly haunting, but none of them according to the tradition of honoring those we’ve lost. I’ve never been called a saint, but I ain’t soulless neither.
It’s just hard to be somber when even words such as “feast” evoke the decadence of eating too much sugar, drinking too much booze, and showing too much skin. “All Souls” to me is the romance of running around in the dark at some sort of Master and the Margarita masked ball, kissing the devil. Out we go.
The most I can muster is the quiet of an old cemetery in the rain. The smell of wet earth and wet stone, the sounds of drops filtering through the trees. Maybe it’s here, at Montmartre, that we can be somber. Or maybe it’s the slopes of Washington Height’s Trinity Cemetery, seemingly sliding into the Hudson, where I used to wander and photograph.
These urban cemeteries are a place of respite from the feast of the city.
Though in an era before public parks and open space they did provide this relief, Harlem and Montmartre were not always in the center of urban areas, but once on the outskirts before the city grew around them. Turn-of-the-century City Beautiful visionaries such as Olmsted were inspired to create intentional green space by the cemeteries that served the purposes of the living – a bucolic medication to calm the working class rabble – giving them a green and healthy place to go. Even better than candy. Clear out the dead, clean up the city, and take a deep breath.
Beginning in the 1780s, Paris undertook a massive effort to close all its small urban neighborhood cemeteries and housed many of the remains in the catacombs. Dozens of cemeteries were closed, bones transported, and laid to rest in neat little piles under the city. During the early 19th century, new cemeteries were constructed outside the city: Montmartre in the north, Père Lachaise Cemetery in the east, Passy Cemetery in the west, and Montparnasse Cemetery in the south. Cities all over followed this model. Minus the underground tombs.
When I think of Halloween, I just think of a hangover. When I imagine the dead, there are no images of the wet gravestones of my Montmartre afternoon or the many sunshiny afternoons in Harlem’s hallowed haunts, and just maybe I think of wet bones in the damp catacombs hallways. But when I reflect on the Feast of All Souls, I remember the soul of a city, how its costume may change with its boundaries, but it still retains places where we find time for reflection.