“Dah-ling I love you but give me Park Avenue.”
Three months ago, I moved on a whim from Dumpy New England Town to Desert City. I left in a ’94 Toyota Corolla weighted down with Scottish woolen skirts and German dictionaries and cast-iron Dutch ovens, my cargo straining shocks and springs near to breaking. I lumbered out of New England, navigated the gentle inclines of New York and the steep grades of Pennsylvania. I stopped at a Love’s in Oil City and filled up under the hungry gaze of three truckers identical in red plaid oxfords and rigger boots, each with a Rolling Rock in hand. I shared a room with an extended family of fleas at a Motor Inn in Columbus, Ohio and napped fitfully in the open trunk of my car at a rest stop somewhere in the Texas panhandle. I smacked a construction barrel outside of Tucumcari, New Mexico, knocking my green Schwinn fixie — on which, during hoary New England nights, I envisioned myself coasting through a desert Shangri-la — off its rack and into the path of a WalMart semi. I motored my way past the Continental Divide, through the lava fields of Flagstaff. I stopped for holistic bottled water blessed by a UFO contactee in Sedona, and finally found myself in the vast stucco and concrete plains of Desert City, where I took a one-bedroom apartment nestled between two stridulantly coupling freeways.
And now I want to point my Toyota’s dented fender eastward and do the whole damn trip over again.
Don’t get me wrong. Life in Desert City is not without charm. Every morning I wake to a cloudless sky. I drink iced coffee, then go for a swim. My living room window has a view of the pool, and when the water grows wine dark from the waning afternoon sun I crack a bottle of Cabernet, sit on my patio, and watch the brake lights of the freeway’s cars describe fireflies’ flight in the murrey dusk. Every night I sleep on a black Japanese futon and wake warm and refreshed. I enjoy reptilian good health and almost lama-like peace of mind.
That is, until I leave my apartment. Then I feel like an interloper, a pitiable speck of flesh trapped in a grim industrial service-scape of freeway on-ramps, storage lockers, and gas stations. No pleasant locales of public gathering are within walking distance of my complex. No bustling cafes, or bookstores. No restaurants or public libraries. If I were so inclined, I could bolt across four lanes of traffic to Circle K, or I could scurry along a narrow ribbon of sidewalk for half a mile to a strip mall harboring a daycare and REI. I could even ride my bike along a desultory path which runs along the municipal water-supply canal past three trailer parks and a junkyard. But I don’t incline to adventures of this depressing sort. I realize now that I live in a city inimical to the most humble of human longings — the desire to engage in casual social activity without having to jump in a car and drive twenty miles.
Walkable cities radiate an organic vibrancy.
Walkable cities radiate an organic vibrancy. They have dense roots in neighborhoods of storied provenance, have complex zones of eclectic social and economic activity. City planners are beginning to see the virtues of these version–1.0 cities, metropolises that have more in common with the Paris of the Second Republic (minus the smog and the hordes of irredeemable poor) than the indifferent, anomic settlements of the American West. In Burnaby, a suburb of Vancouver, builders, a recent article reports , are one-third finished with UniverCity, a planned neighborhood “‘that’s borrowing some of the best traits of Vancouver’s planning successes.” UniverCity boasts narrow streets to “slow down traffic” and “beautifully designed walkways.” An article in Washington Monthly reports that high-density real estate can turn the economy around, because consumers want “homes in central cities and closer-in suburbs where one can walk to stores and mass transit.”
The trend to refashion cities into more variegated and pedestrian-friendly versions of themselves is also a bid to encourage the development of “knowable communities,” or municipalities whose small size encourages close-knit social relations between individuals. This social formation has typically been associated with smaller, more rural populations. Historian Raymond Williams writes,
There can be no doubt … that identity and community become more problematic, as a matter of perception and as a matter of valuation, as the scale and complexity of the characteristic social organisation increased…. The growth of towns and especially of cities and a metropolis; the increasing division and complexity of labour; the altered and critical relations between and within social classes: in changes like these any assumption of a knowable community — a whole community, wholly knowable — became harder and harder to sustain.
For Williams, the “country community” — the small village in the middle of nowhere — was the “epitome of direct relationships,” as he wrote, “of face-to-face contacts within which we can find and value the real substance of personal relationships.” In other words, the city’s brash bustle and alienating intricacy was inimical to getting to know your neighbors.
We like to think of the prodigious, time-grizzled metropolises as dispassionate places, where man’s inhumanity to man is showcased hourly. The media delights in running story after story on men and women breathing their last on grimy New York sidewalks as the crowds push indifferently past. But it could be argued that though the complexity of the great cities was making it harder to maintain the ties of the knowable community, it was at the same time encouraging the growth of unknowable communities; transient, organic outgrowths that are nourished by the briefest of human interactions, and that blossom and fade with the city’s internal rhythms.
Unknowable communities depend on the slow movement of a man or woman through the city. For slow movement encourages social interaction. Unknowable communities thrive on the flirtatious look you share with the barista at a neighborhood café; the small, cluttered bookstore you pop into on your walk home from work; the smile shared with a stranger in a crowd; the paths and nodes of signification visible only to you. These brief interactions create a delicate network of social relations, a meshwork of meaning that resists reification, or the objectification of social interactions.
This essential fluidity characteristic of unknowable metropolitan communities is perhaps what economist and urban theorist Richard Florida has in mind. In addition to “determin[ing] the income we earn, the people we meet, the friends we make, the partners we choose, and the options available to our friends and families,” Florida writes in his 2008 book Who’s Your City?, your situation in life, your place, “can be an island of stability in a sea of uncertainty and risk.” Life’s traumas, according to Florida, “are substantially worse if you happen to live somewhere with few options in the job market or the mating market.” Unknowable communities can be a constant source of renewal in this respect. They can exceed, even defy, your expectations when it comes to work, romance, or, indeed, just about anything. As such, they enjoy a richness of possibility you’re hard-pressed to find elsewhere.
Unknowable communities depend on the slow movement of a man or woman through the city.
In fact, they can be so surprising as to be downright revolutionary. History attests to the revolutionary potential of unknowable communities. On June 22, 1852 Napoleon III hired Baron von Haussmann to plow under Paris’s medieval assemblage of labyrinthine streets, sooty shops, and jumbled neighborhoods, and to replace them with wide, breezy boulevards that encouraged the bourgeoisie to flaunt their newly gotten wealth. The streets of Old Paris were too clandestine; they harbored would-be revolutionaries who could easily erect barricades, protecting entire neighborhoods from state intervention in times of political ferment.
Artists lamented the destruction of the Old Paris. Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère distills the sense of alienation and dislocation that afflicted the city’s residents after the completion of Haussmann’s project. But the Haussmannization of Paris shows us the revolutionary potential still latent in the world’s great and messy cities. Rather than encouraging man’s inhumanity to man, great, dense, complex metropolises like New York, Boston, or Montreal harbor the last few spaces where the human can thrive, where men and women can walk undaunted to places of social congress, can meet with friends without relying on gas-guzzling, prohibitively expensive consumer products, and can craft unique, if transient, networks of social relations in their neighborhood.
Maybe I’ll head back to Dumpy New England City, or perhaps I’ll press on to capitals more spirited. Wherever I end up, I know that instead of spending my days as I did before, reading back issues of Granta, stoking a fire kindled by invitations to parties and poetry readings, I’ll do more to actively enjoy the charms of my neighborhood. I’ll ferret out all its wondrous and evanescent idiosyncrasies. Because if the human is to be found anywhere nowadays, it is in all the riotous, colorful, and prodigiously disordered nooks and crannies of the city.
Ylajali would love to hear from you. Drop her a line at hansengenbub [at] gmail [dot] com.
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