Spatial Effects: Cars, Cities, and Social Movements

In his essay, “Garcetti’s Bridge to Bicycle Nowhere,” LA writer Joseph Mailander (2014) describes the harrowing bike ride across the half-mile Hyperion-Glendale Bridge between “the lands the freeways forgot,” Los Feliz and Silver Lake. The traffic signals there currently afford a brief, semi-safe interval between the roaring cars and trucks on the road. “And how are they making this bridge safer?” asks Mailander. “By making the traffic even faster and daring the cyclists to mix with the motorists even more.”

Happy CityJust about everything I’ve read about urban development has faulted the car for the ills of the city. “A city can be friendly to people or it can be friendly to cars, but it can’t be both,” says Bogatá’s mayor Enrique Peñalosa while riding a bike through his city in 2007 (quoted in Montgomery, 2013, p. 7). “The most dynamic economies of the twentieth century produced the most miserable cities,” he says. “I’m talking about the US, of course—Atlanta, Phoenix, Miami, cities totally dominated by private cars” (p. 9). Bogatá and Peñalosa are the first case study in Charles Montgomery’s book Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2013). Montgomery writes that as systems, cities are susceptible to self-replicating. That is, a design is established, becomes codified in the plans, and spreads itself to other cities. For example, the car-based dispersion that characterizes our American cities is encoded in their DNA. “The dispersed city lives not only in the durability of buildings, parking lots, and highways,” he writes, “but also in the habits of the professionals who make our cities” (p. 75).

War of Streets and HousesA disturbing amount of these habits come from military practices. Sophie Yanow’s War of Streets and Houses (Uncivilized Books, 2014) briefly and beautifully tells a story of struggling with space, place, and the design of both through subtle comic panels and sparse text. Of this struggle, she tells Sarah Goodyear at The Atlantic Cities, “I sat in on an urban planning course once where the professor was talking about how we as a culture in North America have lost a certain ‘know-how’ when it comes to building and creating spaces. But even if we have the know-how to shape space the way we want to, authority always wants to defer to professionals, to urban planners or architects.” In War of Streets and Houses, she cites Foucault’s “disciplinary space” to describe the ways urban space is designed to control its inhabitants. Echoing urban theorist Jane Jacobs, Yanow continues, “…I think that in terms of building social movements, a walkable city is important. Places where people literally brush up against each other on the sidewalk, where they have to be in public together and don’t just see each other passing by in cars.” Urban space is such a different experience when you’re actually in it, on foot or on a bicycle and not in a car or a building. As Rebecca Solnit tells Jarrett Earnest at The Brooklyn Rail, “With cities I’m more interested in public spaces and streets, which have been important for my work on democracy and the way that democracy requires us to co-exist in public, so I’m more concerned with the space between the buildings than the buildings themselves.”

Having grown up in rural Northern California, Yanow first finds downtown Montreal an anonymous space, “Empty. Calm. As if it hid nothing and had nothing to hide” (p. 23). She quickly compares it to places along the coast or in the suburbs where “human scale things are quaint or unimaginable” (p. 20, 21). Democracy happens at human scale. That is why we occupy the streets and not the fields.

Rebel CitiesIn Rebel Cities (Verso, 2012), David Harvey traces the pedigree of urban-based class struggles back to the late eighteenth century. From Paris in 1789 through Paris in 1968, through Seattle in 1999, and the more recent Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park in New York City, Harvey situates the city as the center of capitalist and class struggle. Where others have criticized OWS is unorganized and ineffectual, Harvey praises the movement, writing, “It shows us that the collective power of bodies in public space is still the most effective instrument of opposition when all other means of access are blocked” (p. 161-162). There is less and less public space to fill with bodies as such. From Georges-Eugène Haussmann in Paris to Robert Moses in New York, changes in architecture and urban planning might be the most tangible and tenacious result of political unrest.

Our cities were redesigned to prevent political action and simultaneously they’ve been reconfigured to accommodate automobiles. Looking ahead we see more lanes of gridlocked traffic. Mailander (2014) adds, “Imagining the future as a cool and pristine place is code for saying things aren’t right right now. Some may like to try to fix things by inviting dreamers to dream bigger dreams. But we had better apply some math to these dreams too.” Cars drive capital. If we want them out of the city, it’s time to learn the algebra of alternatives.

References:

Earnest, Jarrett. (2014, March 4). The Poetic Politics of Space: Rebecca Solnit in Conversation with Jarrett Earnest. The Brooklyn Rail.

Goodyear, Sarah. (2014, April 14). An Illustrated History of All the Ways Urban Environments Can Control Us: An Interview with Sophie Yanow. The Atlantic Cities.

Harvey, David. (2012). Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. New York: Verso.

Mailander, Joseph F. (2014). LA at Intermission: A City Mingling Towards Identity. Los Angeles: Nellcôte Press.

Montgomery, Charles. (2013). Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.

Yanow, Sophie. (2014). War of Streets and Houses. Minneapolis, MN: Uncivilized Books.

Grow Up? The Answer is Never

Growing old gracefully sounds and seems so dignified and appealing. I have no idea what that would look like for me. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve certainly gotten better at handling responsibility, being a student, meeting deadlines, dealing with adversity and change, and knowing what all of that means in a larger context. At the same time, I became a better skateboarder in my thirties than I ever was in my teens, I’m more into music than ever, I’m still riding little-boy bicycles, and I still don’t own a suit or a pair of dress shoes. As Fight Club‘s narrator famously puts it, “I’m a 30-year-old boy.” The phenomenon is what anthropologist Victor Turner calls “liminality” (1969) or the “betwixt and between” (1967): an interstitial state without status.

How can children grow up in a world in which adults idolize youthfulness? – Marshall McLuhan

Turner’s forebear, Arnold van Gennep (1960), defined what we think of as rites of passage, celebrations of transition from one stage of life to another. As these are mostly studied and most prevalent in other cultures, I have often wondered what makes an adult in the Western world. It seems that we can now pass the tentative tests—getting a driver’s license, graduating school, getting married, having sex, having babies—and still emerge as unscathed youth.

All his peoples moved on in life, he’s on the corners at night
with young dudes. It’s them he wanna be like
It’s sad, but it’s fun to him, right? He never grew up.
Thirty-one and can’t give his youth up.
He’s in his second childhood. – Nas, “2nd Childhood”

Ageing and Youth CulturesAgeing and Youth Cultures: Music, Style, and Identity (Bloomsbury Academic, 2012), edited by Andy Bennett and Paul Hodkinson, explores the second childhood between adolescence and adulthood predominantly as it pertains to pop culture. From straight-edgers, punks, and ravers to B-boys, B-girls, and feminists, so many of popular interests and causes are tied to youth. Using methods familiar to anthropologists, sociologists, and other social scientists (e.g., ethnography, interviews, etc.) the scholars in this book examine the conflicts between growing up, growing old, and staying true to ourselves that are more and more evident in 21st-century, Western culture. Our memories are fallible and ever-more mediated, yet they are important to study. “They tell us about the ways in which people construct the past,” writes Mary Fogerty in her study of ageing breakdancers, “and within this practice they reveal the value systems highlighted by different generations…” (p. 55). We construct and cling to pasts that our presents can never live up to.

Part of the problem is cognitive. Our brains’ ability to create and store new memories simply slows down, to a near-stop, therefore making our most cherished memories those of our youth. And when we remember those times, we reify them, making them stronger (Freud called the process “Nachtraglichkeit” meaning “retroactivity”). So, being stuck in the past is basically a somewhat natural state for our brains—and our technology lets it linger more than ever.

About the “betwixt and between,” Turner (1969) also writes of “the peculiar unity of the liminal: that which is neither this nor that, and yet is both” (p. 99). If I can be both grown up and not grown up, then I refuse to choose: I’ll take the good and bad of both. As James D. Watson puts it, “…there is no good reason ever to be on the downward slope of experience. Avoid it and you’ll still be enjoying life when you die” (p. 93). Never mind growing old gracefully or being age-appropriate. Let’s concentrate more on having fun now—and from now on.

References: 

Bennett, Andy & Hodkinson, Paul (Eds.). (2012). Ageing and Youth Cultures: Music, Style, and Identity. New York, Bloomsbury Academic.

Jones, Nasir. (2001). 2nd Childhood. On Stillmatic [LP]. New York: Columbia Records.

Marshall McLuhan & David Carson. (2003). The Book of Probes. Berkeley, CA: Ginkgo Press, p.138.

Milchan, A., Uhls, J., Linson, A., Chaffin, C., Bell, R. G. (Producers), & Fincher, D. (Director). (1999). Fight Club.  Beverly Hills, CA: Twentieth Century Fox.

Turner, Victor. (1967). The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Turner, Victor. (1969). The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

von Gennep, Arnold. (1960). The Rites of Passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Watson, James D. (2007) Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science. New York: Knopf.

Weyland, Jocko. (2002). The Answer is Never: A Skateboarder’s History of the World. New York: Grove Press.