October 9, 2005

In retrospect, I realized that Rome has no skyscrapers (that I saw, anyway). I have become so used to the ubiquitous steel and glass building that defines even the smallest city that it took me a while to figure out that their absence.

Skyscrapers, which is a vastly ambitious term for most of the 20 odd story cookie cutter building in second and third tier American cities, are a profoundly American and vaguely phallic symbol of success. Banks build them to demonstrate a solid foundation for the safe-keeping of customers’ money. Insurance companies do essentially the same. Medium size corporations get to mount their name on high to indicate they are the leading light in Columbus, Nashville, Spokane, or Sacramento. Americans like the boxy boring sameness of the little “downtowns” scattered across the land. Add in a Gap, a Cheesecake Factory, and a Marriott and that is everything a city needs to provide weekday credibility and weekend wind buffers against the empty streets.

Rome had no skyscrapers. It has classic architecture, historic ruins, endless churches and a robust variety of luxury stores and street vendors. History has given the city credibility. It was once the center of the western world, the heart of an empire. In America, a city celebrates its 200th anniversary and is historic. In Rome, some structures were last renovated 200 years ago, after 1000 years of existence.

Rome has few beggars. Those it does have kneel quietly on the street, their head shrouded, a cup held out. The cup usually has a rosary hanging from it. The beggars are women, or at least all that I saw. It broke my heart to see a police officer move one away from the front entrance of a Catholic church. I could not even take a picture of one of these beggars, feeling that I would capture their pain and my own shame if I did.

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