At 11:17 PM, on July 25, 1963, Robert Moses might have been brushing his teeth before bed. He might have used a toothbrush and toothpaste he'd bought from a store a few minutes' drive from his Long Island home. He might have driven to the store on a road he'd built. He might have spit it out into his sink and turned on the water, never thinking about the drain or the sewer system or dentistry or why he brushed his teeth every night.
At that moment, in Skopje, Macedonia, buildings were falling down. People "thought it was a hydrogen bomb." The city had been destroyed by earthquakes in 518 and 1555, and it was again feeling the Skopje-Kustendil fault under its feet, awakening its people from their dreams.
The next morning, they counted bodies. The following morning, they started to rebuild. Moses might have read about it in the paper, and he might have thought the Macedonians should have learned their lesson after their second earthquake. He might have been thankful there's not much seismic activity in New York City.
The UN got involved, and recommended that Skopje be resurrected by a master planner. They hired the man who rebuilt Hiroshima.
Social Vulnerability to Natural Disasters: A Study of Skopje, Macedonia
In place of the old architecture, Communist-era towers went up, but only in some districts. The planners started a transit system that was never finished. They built the central post office like a petrified pill bug that died on its back. There were problems, but the city grew, and the plan was reluctantly labeled a success.
But the districts are still shaped by ethnic groups, and the majority Macedonians still clash with the ethnic Albanians almost a decade after the Albanians got representation in the national government. Another earthquake could still bring everything down again.
"Social Vulnerability to Natural Disasters: A Study of Skopje, Macedonia," is a masters thesis that establishes links between Skopje's ethnicities and districts, its people's faith in the government's disaster response, and the interesting metric of "fatalism." When I read it, all I could think of was Harlem.
The author's measurement of fatalism is based on an item from a questionnaire he distributed to citizens of Skopje: "Citizens can prepare for and reduce the risk from a natural disaster (Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Agree, Strongly Agree)." His findings included the following:
- "Ethnically, Macedonia’s majority and largest minority ethnic groups were equally prepared, while individuals from other ethnic groups were least prepared."
- "Most people who responded to the questionnaire do not feel prepared for disaster and feel that the the Macedonian government would not be able to properly provide emergency services in the event of a disaster."
When people don't think they can do anything about earthquakes, they don't keep emergency kits. They don't think the government can help; when the next earthquake hits, people won't have emergency kits, and the government won't be able to help, and people will get more fatalistic. Do people there hate earthquakes, or do they realize that doesn't make sense?
The government wants to do something about the fatalism, so they've decided to build statues.
The Skopje 2014 plan will build statues, landmarks, hotels and other tourist attractions, mostly around the city center of Skopje. A clip from the official video is here. Okno web portal user "Flavrsavr" pointed out its similarity to this video. The plan is getting a lot of criticism on the Internet, where ethnic Albanians complain that all the statues portray Macedonian heroes and urbanists complain that the designs are arbitrary and conservative. One commentator wondered about the planned Triumphal Arch: "This is absurd. Where did this idea come from? What is our triumph?"
City planners have come a long way since the 1960s, and now even Skopje's government seems to want to advertise the things urban design can do for local identity and healthy communities. The statues are supposed to unify the city's residents and the regional style. But the strange mixture of styles that sprung up after the earthquake has become part of the local identity, and most of the commentary in English sees through the plan to pave over the disorder with Triumphal Arcs. It might become like Disneyland, they worry; even if it looked "local" to the tourist, it might require more than a natural amount of upkeep to maintain the fantasy. The Mickeys and Minnies of the city would be people in disguise, who couldn't enjoy their local color because they were too busy maintaining it. The effort to cover up the symptoms of a struggling city would just show up elsewhere, as new symptoms. Scrolling through the comments, I thought again of Harlem, and its public works, and that vein that pops out of the ground at 125th Street. I hoped I hadn't done anything like that to myself.