Paveletsky Rail Terminal, Moscow

Moscow, Place-full Global City

It’s 6AM in Moscow, I’m on the street near the Yugo-Zapadnaya metro station, the second to last stop on the southern end of the red line. Staying at Shaninka University for the duration of the Urban Studies mini-course on digital placemaking I was teaching meant getting up early to catch a cab to the Paveletsky Rail Terminal for an early flight home to NYC.

Few people are up at this time here in Moscow. It’s dark, dawn yet to purple the sky. The gratuitously wide streets are all but empty. Hailing a cab now seems like an ill-fated task.

I started to think I made a classic New Yorker travel mistake when weary, being so used to ready cab access. Minutes go by. Train time tables are fuzzily being recalled. Then I hear some chill house music grow louder from behind…

… A cabbie pulls up to the corner near me and asks where I’m going. “Paveletskiy vokzal” I say. 300 rubles extra he says. “Da!”

We’re cruising on what seems like freeway but may be designated an avenue. It’s about 30 minutes to the rail terminal. The house song’s chorus drives on “wide awake, so wide awake….”

The mellow beats feel just right for this moment. I look up how to say “this is a great song”. Which I fail in pronouncing. Over and over. It takes about 5 attempts all but ruining the simple thanks I wanted to give, but he finally hears me and laughs, shows me the app on his smartphone so I can see the track and turns up the music.

Which he then put on repeat, for the whole ride. (Try that while reading this post.) I did not mind one bit. Trance states can be good at times. Reflecting on who I’ve just met, got to know, and where I’ve been.

“Wide awake, so wide awake…”

So much of Moscow *is* Moscow. In our era of rabid neoliberal globalization, so many parts of cities are becoming placeless, filled with the architecture of non-places. Not so much in Moscow. This place-full quality is profoundly energizing to me in any city where its identity never dulls you to sleep.

What was this Colombian-Norwegian-American New Yorker doing enjoying some Moscow DJ remix of Dutch nu disco with ambient British vocals? He was saying goodbye to this power city. For now. Wide awake in the sense of what is useful in his practice, what matters to people here, how similar these needs are to people in any city, and what was unique. The main factor now so clear to me: the different definition people have about what “the government” means more so than what being a “citizen” means. The zest for deep inquiry and deep humor. That too. So refreshing in cultures with widely practiced values for intellectual inquiry. More of that needed. “I’m gonna live my life the way that I want it…”

Dawn. That creamy orange light filled the train as coffee was being carted around to everyone. Silver Birch trees are sailing by. Soon I wouldn’t be in this city with so much creative energy. My life. My experiences. My destiny colliding with other destinies. My second Moscow visit and time with urban designers, artists, civic change agents, and curious citizens only furthered my anthropological sense about the brewing generational shift and energy here. So much energy, here, in New York, in many cities, is trapped under the weight of elder regimes built on yesterday’s failed answers. “Nothing you can do will break me down again. So wide awake, I’m so wide awake.”

It’s intercultural exchange like this that fuels my hope and love for life, putting apathy at bay even if it’s always offering that tempting blue pill. The inspirations were so mutual. I continue to argue that some of the exciting new forms of positive post-capitalist/post-communist self-governance will emerge here in the Central and Eastern European context. My generational peers are observant. They see the collapsing paradigms all around but also feel the emerging global pulse, the one that is people-powered but locally grounded.
Since back in NYC I’ve been thinking often of Saskia Sassen’s power-provoking, humanizing, formulation of Global cities, which raise more questions than solutions. Great stuff does that. So I’ll leave her words to close this post.


“The emphasis on the transnational and hyper mobile character of capital has contributed to a sense of powerlessness among local actors… But an analysis that emphasizes place suggests that the new global grid of strategic sites is a terrain for politics and engagement.”

“Recovering place means recovering the multiplicity of presences in this landscape. The large city of today has emerged as a strategic site for a whole range of new types of operations––political, economic, “cultural,” subjective. It is one of the nexi where the formation of new claims, by both the powerful and the disadvantaged, materializes and assumes concrete forms.”

Saskia Sassen. “The Global City, Introducing a concept.” (2005)

Wide awake now?

(Image: Paveletsky Rail Terminal, Moscow)