In our last Seattle home, Sharon and I lived downtown, on 2nd Avenue, between Pike and Pine, one block up from the deservedly famous Pike Place Market. I loved this home, this place, this city. A quick walk landed us at the door of The Market, The Art Museum, Benaroya Hall, scores of fabulous restaurants.

Perhaps most of all I loved getting up early to watch the sun spill out over the Sound, various ships arriving in the faint light from far across the sea, ferries from the islands sounding their opening rounds, the early sun glittering over the deeper blue waters, promising a sunny day. The early arrivers into the city walked briskly to their work or breakfast. It’s time to rise, the city signaled. Such vitality, such beauty, so restoring, so hopeful—the city at sunrise is a beautiful thing to behold.

As I watched the scenes the other night of an occupied Seattle, I spotted a street sign—11th Avenue and Pine—just nine blocks up from our home. The buildings are trashed, fences and barriers scattered about, graffiti announcing this cause and that, people milling about aimlessly. My heart grew profoundly sad. A city I love unraveling, wounded, scarred, uncertain of itself. And then there are the other cities I have known—New York, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Chicago, D.C., Los Angeles—parts of which are left smoldering in ruins.

As I watch in alarm, I ponder: Have we abandoned so soon the will to tackle a major health crisis assaulting the planet? Have we forgotten so quickly a righteous indignation for the racial pain so many of our friends feel? How can it be possible to look at these scenes in these great cities, shrug, and move on? These symbols of our collapsing cities gives me great worry whether we have the will, the heart, the character ever to recover.

Our cities are centers of human vitality, places where we learn to live closely, where most of the time we try to take care of each other, where kindness is preferred to rudeness. Living in Seattle through all those years, I was always amazed how history embeds itself in every nook and cranny. Our cities can be so beautiful. How can we allow yet one more rejection of beauty add to an age already grown ugly, one more refusal to understand how beauty nourishes our souls. We can’t destroy these beautiful places, can we?

This week I ran into another of the great William Wordsworth’s beautiful poems, “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802.” Here is Wordsworth, in London, waking to the beauty of a new day in the city:

Earth has not any thing to show more fair:

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty:

This City now doth, like a garment, wear

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,

Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;

Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:

Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;

And all that mighty heart is lying still!

“A mighty heart,” stirring alive to meet the day! The splendor touches us with a kind of “majesty.” How could we ever think we could desecrate this beauty without damaging something deep with us? What will take its place?

This raises then the most troubling of questions for me: Do we any longer have the strength of will to regroup, rebuild, and protect the beauty of our cities? Is it possible anymore to claim and cherish the gift our cities make to human flourishing? How we answer these questions is not a small matter.

Our answer will have something to do with depth of character, our ability as a people to come together, our ability to pull from our history what is worthy and valuable, our ability to reach down for the spiritual resources still lingering among us. As we ponder over these dark images of desecration, what will our answer be? Can we at least enter into this conversation, together, meaningfully? Once again, I say with no great pleasure, the jury is still out.

Photos: Seattle At Sunrise
Westminster Bridge, London