Walls—real walls—are overrated. They crumble and leak and fall over; they get breached or ignored or avoided. They’re expensive to build and hard to maintain. Go look up the famous ones. They all come down, eventually.
But the imaginary ones, like the beautiful and impenetrable wall that so captivated and divided the American electorate in 2016, represent something more powerful—a line that can define who we are, and show us where something else begins.
These boundary zones can be magnetic places. Who doesn’t want to see if there’s something better, right over there?
That was certainly true in my border town, Buffalo, New York, where a weekend jaunt across the Niagara River to beautiful Fort Erie, Canada, was a fixture of adolescence. In those pre-9/11 days, the crossing between the two nations was a casual one. During the 1970s gas crises, we’d run the to the border for cheaper unleaded, or just for lunch (Fort Erie boasted a strip of mysteriously superlative Chinese food). As high schoolers during the mid-1980s, we made international beer runs, taking advantage of our northern neighbor’s more permissive alcohol laws and nightlife culture (locally known as “the Canadian Ballet”). We found life on the other side of the Peace Bridge familiar yet faintly exotic—Canadians had different accents, drove weirdo alternative-universe cars like the Pontiac Parisienne, and used the metric system. In their mildly foreign ways, I first learned what it felt to be American.
That, in part, is what borders do—offer a safe space from which to survey the wider world beyond. But lately an anxious strain of nationalism has emerged in North America and Europe, where state boundaries are being re-fortified against tides of refugees, and the rhetoric of wall-builders dominates. The borderless world promised by globalization has hit, well, a wall.
Throughout this week, CityLab will be venturing into this disputed territory. We’ll be talking about barriers, bulkheads, and boundaries of all kinds, and asking what draws so many of us to places on the edge. We’ll ponder the mysteries of the “border vacuums” that suck the life out of cities, see what kinds of fences are good fences, and fantasize about re-drawing the lines around cities, states, and nations of our own invention. We’ll also meet the people who are making art that crosses borders, and those still seeking common ground in a world that seems determined to remain divided.