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by William H. Benson

March 22, 2012

     “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.” With that famous first line, Charles Dickens’ began his novel A Tale of Two Cities. The “two cities” were London and Paris, the “age” were those years between 1775 and 1794, the “foolishness” was the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, and the “wisdom” was that London did not succumb to a similar bloody revolution.                                                                                                                                

     One commentator said that Dickens’ “implication throughout the novel is that the great European capitals are twins sisters at the core and that the excesses of the French Revolution are not impossible to imagine happening on British soil.”

     London and Paris. Two cities, sisters and twins, juxtaposed, one ensconced on the continent and the other positioned on the British Isle, were for centuries tied together, struggling at times toward cooperative diplomatic relations and at other times locked in mortal combat, suspicious and wary of each other, jealous and anxious to vanquish the other. Most of Europe’s wars in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries were fought between between London and Paris.

     Cities often appear in pairs. To read ancient history one reads either of Jerusalem or of Athens. One reads either the Old Testament or the works of Plato and Aristotle, pays homage to either Moses or Socrates, and subscribes to either the Law or Philosophy.

     One can argue that people’s mindsets naturally fall into one of two categories: they are either citizens of Jerusalem—believers in a monotheistic religion and worshipers who follow prescribed forms of ritual; or they are Athenians—believers in the humanities, in art, music, literature, and philosophy and who read Socrates and Plato and Aristotle.

     Eventually, Rome conquered both Athens and Jerusalem. Rome’s military, its power, and its wealth swept aside Socrates and his Philosophy and Moses and his Law and instead insisted upon obedience to Roman law. “There went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” The New Testament is a tale of two cities, that of Jerusalem and of Rome.

     World War I was fought primarily between Paris and Berlin with trenches and a “no-man’s-land” marking the division point between the two warring cities. At the beginning of World War II, it was London vs. Berlin, with Churchill and Hitler glaring at each other, and Churchill refusing to surrender.

     The Cold War was another tale of two cities, that of Washington D.C. and of Moscow. In the world of global finance, it is New York City and London. In baseball and football, it is the World Series and the Super Bowl, perennial tales of two cities battling it out on the baseball diamond and the gridiron.

      Like a magnet, cities attract the world’s people. Each year the newest crop of high school graduates in the small towns spread across the countries of the world see the city’s bright lights, its opportunities, education, jobs, homes, and entertainment. They want to go, and who would dare stop them?

     This throng of people converging into a small geographical area gives rise to immense challenges that perpetually demand fresh solutions. There is traffic that clogs the streets and freeways and gives rise to multiple accidents. There are fire hazards, crime, medical needs, and a need for sufficient utilities, for water and electricity “with dramatically fewer resources and pollution.” “By 2050, roughly 75 percent of the world’s population is expected to live in cities.”

     In the March 4 edition of The New York Times, the columnist Thomas L. Friedman reported that fifteen years ago in Moscow there were 300,000 vehicles, but today there are now nearly 4,000,000, a multiple of thirteen times. He also reported that the biggest traffic jam ever occurred near Beijing in August of 2010. He wrote that it “stretched 60 miles, moved at a speed of 2 miles per day, took ten days to unsnarl and spawned its own local economy of noodle sellers.”

     In an attempt to alleviate one city’s challenges, an American company recently built and installed the first ever city-wide integrated operations center for Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro, combining “data from some 30 agencies, all under a single roof.” It is “a bold experiment that could shape the future of cities.”

     This summer the Olympics will reconvene. Once again, people across the globe will focus upon the nations’ athletes who will compete on the field, in the gym, and in the pool, participating in that Greek invention, that gift to humanity for which the world is still indebted. Athens today owes much, but those ancient Greeks gave much. Four years ago the Olympics were held in Beijing, eight years ago they were in Athens, and in 2016 they will be in Rio de Janeiro. This year it is London’s turn.

     This year it will be a time for a cup of tea, and in four years it will be a Carnaval.

      The Olympics are not so much a tale of two cities, but a tale of a succession of cities. With sufficient traffic and crowd control, the Olympics in London very well may be “the best of times.”