Bright Lights, Dark Spirits

All cities have spirits, and all spirits have an animal familiar. A brief history of the bear of Berlin, the crow of Tokyo, and the blind white alligator king of New York City.

Chris Michael is the deputy editor of the Cities desk at the Guardian, near the brain...

Illustrations by Sophia Foster-Dimino


Tokyo: Crow
More than any other city, Tokyo is dependent on electricity. And more than any other city, it is dominated by the crow. Like rats and pigeons, crows are what is known as “synanthropic” with humans: our cities are their ecosystem. Hundreds of thousands of them survive on the detritus of human society. They eat our trash; they build nests out of coat hangers and cut fibreoptic cables atop electricity poles. The nests have become so numerous that they have caused blackouts. In 2001, Tokyo declared war. Raw meat was placed inside trash bags filled with poison gas. The city killed more than 100,000 crows in this holocaust, as well as systematically destroying crow nests. In response, Tokyo’s crows have started building dummy nests. Evidence suggests they now also avoid trash sealed in bags. “Japanese react to crows because we fear them,” says Michio Matsuda of the Wild Bird Society of Japan, who has written several books about the birds. “We are not sure sometimes who is smarter, us or the crows.”

Cusco: Puma
The capital of the Inca empire was designed and built as an effigy to the puma, an animal that was sacred to them. The puma’s head was the fortress of Sacsahuaman, the body shaped by the rivers Tulumayo and Huatanay, and the tail at the river forks, Pumaq Chupan. The cat’s heart, meanwhile, lay at Huacapata, the holy square, containing the Coricancha—the Temple of the Sun. In 1533, Pizarro, invigorated from his execution of Atahualpa, descended on the capital. The Spanish plundered Cuzco of its gold and silver and turned the Temple of the Sun into a Christian church. Today Peru is often associated with its condors, which lend their name to everything from dodgy travel agencies to ersatz spiritual instrumental music. From their height, the condors are the only ones who can still make out the city’s feline shape.

London: Kraken
Many working Londoners identify their city’s spirit with foxes, those scrappy scavengers that emerge at night and have a history of being hunted for sport by toffs. But foxes are a relatively recent arrival to the city. In Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman evokes the Beast of London, originally a boar that a medieval family was fattening up for Christmas before it escaped, fled into the sewers, and grew huge in the bowels of London Below, bristling with the spears of all those who have failed to kill it. But London is older still than that. China Mieville identifies the darkest spirit of all: Kraken, the Cthulhuesque squid deity whose tentacles we might imagine reach along the lines of the London Underground and who feeds on the spiritual energy of the neo-gothic Architeuthis cult. Now that pedantic historians have unmasked Jack the Ripper, it is Kraken who becomes the city’s slavering, gibbering horror—a crustacean demon of greed, awakened, like the Balrog in Moria, by Crossrail tunnellers who dug too greedily, and too deep.

Bangkok: Elephant
The ivory trade has devastated Africa’s elephant population. From 26 million elephants in 1800, there are fewer than one million today. A worldwide ban on ivory sales in 1989 led to a rebound in the population, to about a million, although countries in Asia and southern Africa have pressured the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species to allow periodic sanctioned sales of ivory. Criminal networks are increasingly involved, especially in the trafficking of ivory from Africa to Asia, where ivory is prized. It’s easy (and probably right) to blame China for this, but it is tourist-friendly Thailand that arguably should know better. With what some suspect is the collusion of the city administration, gangs based in Bangkok run one of the world’s two most significant, illegal, in-country ivory markets. Somewhere between 17,000 and 25,000 elephants are killed illegally every year to supply it. After death, with gaping holes where their tusks once were, the elephants link trunk to tail and take up their slow, endless processional around the city.

Berlin: Bear
In 1380, a fire destroyed the founding documents that could have shed some light on Berlin’s enduring spiritual relationship with the bear. We can only speculate: was the animal chosen in homage to Albrecht I, known as Albrecht the Bear, founder of the Holy Roman Empire Margraviate of Brandenburg in 1157? Or to create a canting or “singing” arms, because of the phonetic similarity to the German word “Bär” (bear), though linguists protest that the words are etymologically unrelated? Berlin was also settled by Slavs, who caught fish in the Spree with rigid “berli” nets; bears fish in a similar manner. Whatever the connection, on Berlin’s 700th birthday, the city built the Bärenzwinger (“bear pit”) in Köllnischen Park as a gift to the people, making it one of the few cities with a thriving population of inner-city bears. And Berlin is indisputably bearish: sprawling and shaggy, less intimidating than it seems at first, and periodically forced into circuses by Russians.

New York: Blind White Alligator King
The enduring urban myth of the gators lurking in the sewers of New York City is impervious to evidence. The legend found its stumpy legs in 1959 when a man who claimed to be sewer commissioner gave a sensational interview to The World Beneath the City author Robert Davey about his campaign to rid the city of its gators; the later revelation that the man was not, in fact, sewer commissioner did nothing to stop uncles scaring their nephews with it for the next 50 years. Indeed, this tale told to encourage children not to flush anything live down the toilet has taken on a life of its own, as if people would rather believe in it than in the very real homeless population who live in Manhattan’s underbelly. A bronze sculpture at 14th Street Station gives the alligator a Spitzeresque crusading bent: he is shown wearing a suit and climbing from a manhole to devour a businessman with a moneybag for a head. Decade after decade, periodic efforts to clean the sewers of vermin and fatbergs had never uncovered an alligator. And then, in 2010, they did: a 2-feet long baby alligator in Queens, who is obviously the wayward progeny of the original alligator, now grown massive, entirely blind and bled of all pigment. Pace Christopher Walken, he is the true King of New York. Whisper it to your nephews.

Mumbai: Leopard
“The greatest fear of the Bombayite is to end up on the footpath,” writes Suketa Mehta in Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. “Even as children in Bombay, we were constantly trying to claim space. The important thing was not to get crowded off the space you happened to possess at the moment. The moment you left, it was up for grabs.” The spirit animal of Bombay, too, must fight for space. As the Bollywood capital and commercial centre of India continues to grow, the city is straining against Sanjay Gandhi National Park, home to India’s highest concentration of leopards. The felines have killed at least half a dozen people since 2011 caught relieving themselves at the edge of the slums, and a hundred times as many dogs, goats, and pigs. Unaccompanied children are most at risk. Groups are now encouraging locals not to trap and relocate the leopards, fearing that this practice can “criminalise” the cats, traumatising them by removing them from their territory—where they know how to avoid humans—and releasing them into unfamiliar surroundings where a crazed leopard might have no choice but to attack a human suburb. Besides, whose city is it, really? “This is the habitat for the leopard,” park director Vikas Gupta has said. “We are encroaching as humans.”

Edinburgh: Skye Terrier
On 15 February 1858, tuberculosis claimed the life of John Gray, better known as Auld Jock, a night watchman with the Edinburgh city police and proud master of a Skye Terrier named Bobby. Bobby led his master’s funeral procession to the grave at Greyfriars Cemetery … and refused to leave. For 14 years, Bobby sat on Auld Jock’s grave. Each day, when the guns rang 1 o’clock from the castle, Bobby would scamper off to the pub (now called Bobby’s Bar) where he used to eat with Auld Jock, and after his meal would return to the grave. When he died in 1872 he was buried 75 yards from his masters grave, under a red granite headstone unveiled in 1981 by His Royal Highness The Duke of Gloucester. The inscription reads: “Let his loyalty and devotion be a lesson to us all.” In September, Scotland voted to remain in Britain. Lesson learned.

San Francisco: Sea Lion
At first, he was the only one, a young pup stroking his moustache on Pier 39, causing passersby to snigger. Then he was joined by another: equally strange, with an equally ridiculous moustache, but perhaps now less a laughingstock than a curiosity. Then another, and another … and overnight what initially seemed absurd became unignorable. They descended on Pier 39 in droves, and by that winter they’d taken over the area, much to the displeasure of the marina tenants who’d been there for years. Locals complained that the new arrivals spent all their time lounging about in the middle of the day, seemingly without needing to work, and that they drove up prices—a complaint that became more acute when guidebooks turned the pier into a tourist attraction. By November 2009, their numbers reached an all-time high of 1,701. Then, without warning, something ineffable became oversaturated, and as quickly as they’d arrived they fled, leaving behind only a few uncool stragglers to stroke their moustaches self-consciously and wonder what everyone else was up to that month.

Toronto: Sea Mink
Once upon a time, before Rob Ford was mayor, even before the Rogers Centre was SkyDome, Toronto had a waterfront. On this waterfront lived Neovison macrodon, the sea mink, a lithe and beautiful nocturnal creature that spent most of its time alone, frolicking by the muddy little town of what was then called York. Aptly enough for a Canadian mammal, the sea mink’s fur was coarser and redder than its American cousin’s. It was also larger, nearly a metre long, making its pelt particularly prized by trappers. They hunted it to extinction. Or did the giant frog squatting in SkyDome devour it? Whatever the case, the Toronto-based species of the sea mink is no more. Only the American mink remains. The fur market in Toronto, meanwhile, is bullish.


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