Fictional Urbanism

The City Desk devotes its pages to a city that does not exist, profiling a citizenry that is entirely fabricated, following a ceaseless cast of characters in an ever-expanding urban narrative that has no basis in fact. Strangely enough, it’s not entirely inaccurate.

Showcasing what it describes as “fictional urbanism,” the City Desk features irregularly posted news stories on a vague location known simply as “the city,” a metropolis ripe with colorful politicians and ordinary citizens, and steeped in a history so deep that most of it remains obscured in the imaginations of the City Desk’s band of contributors.

What are most familiar, and most real, are the universal elements of the urban environment that flesh out the fantasy, all of which take root in the language of fictional newswriting. At times subtle, other times flat-out absurd, the humor found on The City Desk touches the basic levels of humanity, filtered and magnified through the lens of urban life.

The City Desk police blotter allows readers to experience disaster, paranoia, alarmism, and entertainment on the same level as its real-world equivalent. But with no real crimes being committed, there are no victims in this grand act of literary voyeurism. The blotter gives readers the scandalous and absurd stories they seek from the news, but scarcely receive, such as in a recent entry that captures the humor and relief of a false alarm:

9:37 pm. 200 block of Euclid Avenue: The girl calls again. A City Desk review of the 911 tape reveals the girl is hyperventilating while describing “a man with fangs and a black cape” at her front door. Police return, direct Dracula to the right address, post an officer in front of the house for the rest of the night, and take the girl into protective custody. According to the police report, she says her parents are at a Jimmy Buffet “Parrotheads” party.

Digging deeper, “The Last Will and Testament of Rory Sheehan” delineates the life of one of the city’s most prolific crime lords, partially uncovering a few more layers of the city’s history, mythos – even the names of its pubs, such as Grinning Kinsky’s, a nod to a state senator whose body was found with several prostitutes after a night in the red light district.

“The Permanence of Gillard’s Electric Typewriter Service” profiles a small business that has spent most of its decades-long existence in the red, reaching its pinnacle in the 1960s and 1970s when such machines were popular. Against all odds, Gillard’s remains open, though only Monday through Thursday from 11:00 am to 2:30 pm. In Gillard’s, readers recognize that same corner shop in their own neighborhood that, despite never seeming to be open, also never seems to be out of business.

What we can learn from this “fictional urbanism” are the same lessons learned from a boardwalk caricature or a skewering piece of satire. Although the specifics may not align exactly with reality, the residents of “the city” are no different than those of the real-world cities from which the site undoubtedly draws its inspiration. The roles played are the same, but the actors have different names. And the lives they lead follow well-worn paths down the same foggy, endless street that runs through every American city.

Through this parallel relationship, reading the City Desk becomes no different than a Saturday afternoon session of people watching on a Central Park bench. In both cases, fiction and subjectivism are the critical ingredients in the individual’s perception of the city. The City Desk merely spares its visitors the embarrassment and guilt felt when the subject makes eye contact with the audience, shattering that critical fourth wall of public anonymity. What separates the City Desk from the casual people-watcher may simply be that the writers have the creativity – and the spare time – to bring these false narratives to a higher synthesis.

Beneath the humor of this fabricated journalism, a certain level of honesty is achieved that perhaps only satire and fiction can accomplish. It is this honesty that elevates the City Desk beyond a workday distraction to an amusingly accurate portrait of urban life. Scroll through long enough and you just might find a reflection of yourself on there.

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Tags: philadelphia

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