Category Archives: City Unseen

Ashton-under-Lyne: Portland Basin Museum’s brilliant sign collection (and other things)

Portland Basin Museum is full of quite awesome things, Social History on one floor of the beautiful large warehouse, and Industrial History beneath. A series of rooms shows what life was once like, from the inside of worker’s cottages to shops and chippies and pubs…I love these sorts of things, from the collections of old artifacts to the figures placed there in an attempt to bring scenes to life. I’m not sure that it works, we found the recorded humming of the seamstress and  chip shop worker rather terrifying. And yet…

 Portland Basin Museum, Ashton-under-Lyne

Very cool. My favourite things though, the signs of yesteryear. This on the subject of women and drinking is my very favourite:

Portland Basin Museum, Ashton-under-Lyne

But they are all good…

Portland Basin Museum, Ashton-under-Lyne

Portland Basin Museum, Ashton-under-Lyne

Portland Basin Museum, Ashton-under-Lyne

Portland Basin Museum, Ashton-under-Lyne

Portland Basin Museum, Ashton-under-Lyne

The modern signs are pretty enjoyable as well:

Portland Basin Museum, Ashton-under-Lyne

And there is more awesomeness, like the bell rung to summon the Chartists of Hyde to meetings:

Portland Basin Museum, Ashton-under-Lyne

We came here to do some shopping, but I’m glad we wandered a bit, stared down streets with the moors rising up beyond them:

Ashton-under-Lyne

Wandered past the canals:

Ashton-under-Lyne

The shop is also full of brilliant local history publications…

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God I Enjoyed The Sellout by Paul Beatty

If only I enjoyed all prize-winning books a fraction as much as this one by Paul Beatty. I laughed out loud reading this on the long plane journey home, and I needed some laughter for that journey back to a wintry reality far from my family. Now this is the LA I love — complex, mixed up, full of chickens and kitchen gardens and farms too, hell of segregated, violent, funny, and pretty damn woke.

LA always hurt like hell too.

All that, and then there’s the language, oh the language.

When I was ten, I spent a long night burrowed under my comforter, cuddled up with Funshine Bear, who, filled with a foamy enigmatic sense of language and Bloomian dogmatism, was the most literary of the Care Bears and my harshest critic. In the musty darkness of that rayon bat cave, his stubby, all-but-immobile yellow arms struggled to hold the flashlight steady as together we tried to save the black race in eight words or less. (11)

That might just be my favourite passage, though tinged with jealousy because I always wanted a Care Bear and never did get one.

So later on he’s smoking up some homegrown (those names for his gardening genius elicited a lot of laughter I can tell you) in the Superior Court, amazing, and hello Clarence Thomas:

All I know is that the sour-faced Justice with the post-racial chronometer won’t stop looking at me. His beady eyes fixed in this unblinking and unforgiving stare, he’s angry that I’ve fucked up his political expediency…

There he is, Chamaeleo africanus tokenus hidden way in the back among all the shrubbery, his slimy feet gripped tightly around the judicial branch in a cool torpor silently gnawing on the leaves of injustice. “Out of sight, out of mind” is the black working-man’s motto, but now the entire country can see this one, our collective noses pressed to glass in amazement that he’s been able to camouflage his Alabama jet-black ass against the red, white, and blue of the American flag for so long. (20)

Oh shit, that is beautiful. Beautiful, and yet it gets even better (though maybe just because I’m obsessed with these lines, with the geographies of life, belief, language, opportunity):

You can assimilate the man, but not the blood pressure, and the vein pulsating angrily down the middle of his forehead gives him away. he’s giving me that crazy, red-eyed penetrating look that back home we call the Willowbrook Avenue Stare, Willowbrook Avenue being the four-lane river Styx that in 1960s Dickens separated white neighborhoods from black, but now, post-white, post-anybody-with-two-nickels-to-rub-together-flight, hell lies on both sides of the street. The riverbanks are dangerous, and while standing at the crosswalk waiting for the light to change, your life can change. Some drive-by homie, representing some color, clique, or any one of the five stages of grief, can stick his gauge out the passenger-side window of a two-tone coupe, give you the Negro Supreme Court Justice glare and ask, “Where you from, fool?” (22)

Damn, ‘the Negro Supreme Court Justice glare’? And ain’t that something about how these dividing lines stay with us, long after they’ve been rendered invisible by the flight of wealth and resources.

I was talking with my friend Debbie Humphrey, doing an about how writing fiction compares with writing a thesis on racism and struggle. An interesting question I’m still thinking about, probably will always be thinking about, but in trying to describe what this novel means to me…well. It does things academic work could never do, plays with possibilities and with feelings. Plays with how you might recover a community’s pride and identity through just drawing a line — and how that might be a positive thing, not a violent turf thing. Interesting question in LA because turf…I fucking hate so much how LA is full of lines, dividing up identity and the drug trade, our youth defending territory to the death. And so many of them die. They die in this novel.

I loved that awkward shaky paint line and that fake freeway sign reclaiming Dickens after white planners had erased it from the city’s official landscape.

It plays with that idea (and who hasn’t heard this idea?) that everything was actually better back in the day, when segregation kept all classes living close together. When segregation meant that everyone knew damn well they were all in it together, and kept them fighting for the race as a whole. Plays with the idea that something was lost when some of segregation’s walls came down, and everyone with a nickel fled. What it might look like if  some sleight of hand were to make it seem as though it were being recreated as it once was. A trick highlights segregation’s continued reality and shows that its existence requires clarity to inspire resistance. It asks hard questions (without actually asking questions, because, you know, this is fiction with a story to tell and a lot of satire along the way) about what so much struggle has actually won, and where we’re at now. Asks questions about the nature of change itself, what steps lead to liberation and what steps to a new form of old oppression.

It plays with the power of making a ubiquitous and politically correct racism visible again, naming it, showing it for what it is by insisting on a (faked and slightly half-assed) return to older, harsher forms whose clarity made it easy to know what you were fighting and have inspiration to fight. Slavery. Official white-only schools. Hominy (that name!) demanding he be considered a slave, demanding regular whipping — it embodies so many of the costs of racism, and shit, the Little Rascals? So vile and yet, this is where fame and money and work as an actor were to be found… The opposite side from the Nicholas Brothers of the damage done to artists through Jim Crow. Damage that continues in carefully colorblind language and tokenisation.

Yet the solution to this need to be whipped? Hilarious, and gives me some faith things are a bit better. Because, you know, there are places you can go for that, and no one will judge.

It plays with urban farming and self-reliance. With the trials of being raised by a political father. With the good and bad of philosophy, activism, struggle. It manages a lot of pain and knowledge, reflections on life and our heritage and our responsibility.

That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book–that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you. (115)

Amazing to manage all of that, and still…be full of laughter. There’s more I should say, so much more here, will be so much more waiting for me when I re-read it, but now I got some rewrites to do. One more blog and that will be me for a while.

Valletta’s Spaces of Stone

Valletta’s architecture is unified in its building material — as is all of Malta it seems, but here it is most striking how this unifies the old and the new. Renzo Piano’s fabulous new city gate rises up as you enter, it’s massive square forms work beautifully in this space, as modern as they are. I wish I had taken more pictures.

Valleta

Just as I wish I had more pictures of the opera house beyond (the columns visible just beyond), where they chose not to rebuild the massive building left in ruins by WWII bombs, but to leave its foundations and columns to embrace an outdoor performance space, which I also quite loved. Similar pictures of the ruins were shown several time through the Cities as Community Spaces conference, a symbol of the city’s resilience.

Valletta opera-house-8-april-1942Valletta is in fact surrounded by monumental space, this stairway rises up to the left as you enter, leading to Hastings gardens along the battlements that protect the city.

Valletta

I’ll come back to those because they are fascinating, but still what most captivated me were the narrow streets in this Renaissance city, originally named the most humble city of Valletta, after the Master of the Knights of Malta, Jean de Vallette, who had successfully led the defense of the island against the Ottoman Turks in 1565. This city on the isthmus was to solidify defenses — and you can tell. Built in 40 years by Italian architect Francesco Laparelli, student of Michelangelo, and finished by the Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar, I am curious to explore how it connects to other city planning from this time. Their auberges — grand renaissance building with a municipal feel that housed the langues and now house museums and government offices — are familiar, the churches also:

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These wonderful grand colonnaded spaces

Valletta

But the streets laid out in a perfect (then almost revolutionary) grid with these wonderful balconies — these are like nothing I had ever seen.

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

It is a city where the whole is beautiful to look upon, but the details are as well…

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

And just look at these balconies, the individuality they bring to each building front, and the craftsmanship of them, they all seem to have their individual touches amplified by the passing of time and the histories of their owners:

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Interesting, though, that so many of them are enclosed and hardly large enough to be used as extended living spaces. They seem used for laundry and plants. You could not squeeze a table and chairs outside as we saw so often in Paris, you cannot easily connect and talk to your neighbour next door or across the way, even with the windows wide open as they are above. It seems an opportunity missed, a reflection of a more enclosed society or perhaps an aspect of the city that helps create one. Nor are there stoops or enough space to extend living into the doorways and streets the way families do in say New York. Much of this seems concentrated in the squares, but still, I wonder at the impact on the everyday life and conviviality.

These streets contain atmosphere, and the surprise lost through the absence of twists and turns is found instead in the variegated building surfaces and the faded palimpsests painted onto stone, the flaking remnants of the past .

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

I don’t have a picture of the old grafittied pictures of ships that was pointed out to me by someone from Valletta as we walked back from a panel through the streets — her friend had uncovered it as he was cleaning the stone. There is no telling how old it is, a deep ochre red and it looked like pictures of the galleys so prevalent in the Mediterranean I have seen in books. She told me too the use of statues of saints at the street corners instead of street signs — St Christopher easily recognisable embodied in stone for those unable to read the letters of his name. We laughed that no longer are we literate in that way. I had a thought to catalogue them, but it fell away, saints are not my favourite things, and these are many of them grand, not the humble saints dressed in hand-sewn clothing I am more used to. But I do love shrines.

Valletta

This on the other hand…on the grand masters palace on the edge of George’s Square. Perhaps this was explained on one of the tours or if I could hit upon the right search terms, I usually love grotesques but this man in European dress riding what seems to be a naked African woman? Telling, if rather horrible.

Valletta

I only really noticed it my last day, because always your eyes are drawn to the life in the square — though early on a Sunday as I headed to the airport is was more quiet than I ever saw it:

Valletta

There are fountains here which must be wonderful in summer, it was  always full of children, including two little girls swanning through delightedly on scooters. Tourists and townfolk and migrants alike make use of the many places to sit that ring the square, as did I the night I wandered here alone. It is a lovely space, especially at night when the cafes overflow and there is lively talk and the clink of glasses and the smell of food…

Funny that it almost never smells of the sea here. Yet the sea surrounds it, on the other side of these enormous fortifications. This is looking towards Sliema:

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Finding these fields tucked away made me so happy though, I can’t image football in this kind of setting! I was glad too, as many of the conference speakers mentioned the way they had played football in the streets as children — streets now very full of cars, and it’s true no children play there now.

Valletta

More views, this of Fort Manoel with the massive luxury build in Sliema behind it:

Valletta

Back over Valletta itself — in the foreground graffiti. Float like a butterfly sting like a bee, I was happy to find Mohammed Ali quoted here.

Valletta

Valletta at night — it is magical, I confess I wrote reams, though nothing coalesced quite into a story. My thoughts circled around Caravaggio for some reason, swaggering through the streets. It struck me that sober he wanted to be like the knights who were lords of all this, and that drunk he wanted to destroy them. It is easy to imagine him wandering through streets such as these, unlike England the modern almost never intrudes to break the atmosphere. Maybe the story will come, tinged with the recent car bombings, the old man wandering down the street with a bird in a tiny cage held reverently between his hands, chirping as he went. The undercurrents you can feel here, though I am ignorant of their precise nature.

Valletta

Valleta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Looking across from the other side of Valletta, towards the Forti Sant’ Anġl

Valletta

There are spaces underneath as well — I was lucky enough to visit the air raid shelter beneath the Crypt of St Augustine where the conference dinners were hosted. The crypt itself is a beautiful vaulted space where many lived during WWII, escaping down rickety stairs at the sirens. Boards covered the puddles of water at the bottom, we half-drunkenly explored the long passages and rooms and it was wonderful.

St Augustine's Bomb Shelter Valletta

St Augustine's Bomb Shelter Valletta

St Augustine's Bomb Shelter Valletta

I had to leave too soon. But luck brought me a window seat, and it is from the air that you can best appreciate how small Valletta is, and the position it holds within this much larger urban conglomeration. I loved the fields as well, these are small plots that can never become too mechanised or monocultured.

Valletta from the air

Valletta from the air

I think this was Gozo in fact, but you can see the stark lines of the towns and the terracing of the hillsides, even if you can’t quite see the wonderful blues of the sea itself.

Malta from the air

A wonderful place, I am so thankful for the luck and generosity of those I love that allowed me come here.

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Creatures of Valletta

In a city so beautiful — I know I have already waxed poetic about the stonework — I didn’t immediately focus on some of the details, like the wonderful door handles. Not since Prague have I seen such beauty bestowed on what is usually relegated to the mundane — as though all the artistry and craftsmanship establishing the sacredness and mystery of the doorway between spaces in prehistoric Malta have been transferred to the method of opening such a door.

IMG_5077

The same kind of curve, the triton tail…I saw a number of these around the city, but this one was my favourite.

Then there were the seahorses.

Valletta

A kind of demon, I think of protective spirits but have no context to know what this means to those who live within — only that this is one of the few that is not immediately and obviously of the sea:

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Nor is this one perhaps, yet it has the feel of shipwreck and ancient sea waters.

Valletta

I know this isn’t a creature, but I just liked it, the shape of the kinght’s cross and it seemed possibly carved of bone. Or bakelite. But the second seems impossible.

Valletta

Fish:

Valletta

Possibly even cooler fish, and the cross of the knights:

Valletta

On the narrow stairway street where I was staying, this beautiful turtle:

Valletta

The creatures were not simply on the doors, I have already posted the picture of the cat who also lived on my stairs, who disappeared into its own private renaissance cat door, but cats were ubiquitous. Especially as I wandered at night. There was the well-fed and I believe well-housed cat of Ħaġar Qim. Wild, but also loved, this one (I know it is hard to see) sits on a rough box of recycled wood made to purpose as a home beside a dish of food.

Valleta

I often walked past handfuls of food, bowls of water in doorways. Only one allowed me to come near enough to touch it, and it wound itself around my legs for some way down the street. He did not desire a photo taken.

Dogs I only saw being walked by their owners (though like East London, avoiding dog shit required some intense concentration at times). Well-fed, well cared for. Until I stood at the edge of the city along the great defensive walls staring out towards Sliema. From the corner of my eye I saw a shadow, turned my head and found nothing. Until luck brought this little dog into view. Darting with quick movements it sought and sniffed for food, never have I met a dog so little interested in my existence. I rather loved it.

Valletta

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Bristol Wanderings, Autumn

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Georges Perec: Species of Space

Georges Perec Species of SpaceGeorge Perec is an author whose work fills me with delight, Species of Space and the other pieces found in this collection are wonderful. Insightful. Playful. Everyday. Extraordinary. Not least because he loves lists as much as I do, more perhaps. I read his piece on the  Place Sans-Sulpice, and meant to read this too before going to Paris. So now it calls me back.

I particularly love how Perec is obsessed with space, but approaches it completely differently than would a planner, an architect, an urbanist. He approaches it from multiple directions, but almost none of them overlap with such work. The whole of Species of Space is to be found in this compilation, and excerpts from a few other works. I am almost annoyed at this stolen peek at them, because I loved this so much I shall have to go back and read all the rest.

Species of Space

It opens with this:

Perec map of the oceanHurrah.

In short order you have a wonderful definition of our experience of space.

In short, spaces have multiplied, been broken up and have diversified. There are spaces today of every kind and every size, for every use and every function. To live is to pass from one space to another, while doing your very best not to bump yourself. (6)

There are poems from Paul Eluard, playful drippings of words and letters across the page, plenty of empty white space between black typography.

This is how space begins, with words only, signs traced on the blank page. To describe space: to name it, to trace it, like those portolano-makers who saturated the coastlines with the names of harbours…

Space as inventory, space as invention. Space begins with that model map in the old editions of the Petit Larousse Illustre, which used to represent something like 65 geographical terms in 60 sq, cm., miraculously brought together, deliberately abstract. (13)

I remember my own childhood pouring over something like the English equivalent of such a book, full of maps and descriptions and magic. A memory of being inordinately proud of a map of South America I drew. I feel as though that memory is housed in the trailer, which means I was not more than five.

Perec gives us this, a gift:

Sitting deep in thought at their tables, writers are forming lines of words.

An idealized scene. Space as reassurance. (15)

Is this partly what I love about writing?

From here he starts on the spaces of lived experience. He starts from the inside out so to speak, with the bed itself. An interesting choice, I feel a good one. Each thing he describes, he begins with the most banal and simple of descriptions, but it serves to take something familiar and make it suddenly unfamiliar — and because the time and space between us, what is familiar to Perec is in fact not always familiar to me.

4.
A few other banalities:

We spend more than a third of our lives in bed. (19)

Moves on to the bedroom, notes the curious fact that he can visually reconstruct every room he’s ever slept in. A few observations:

3.

What does it mean, to live in a room? Is to live in a place to take possession of it? …

4.
Placid small thought no 1

Any cat-owner will rightly tell you that cats inhabit houses much better than people do. Even in the most dreadfully square spaces, they know how to find favourable corners. (24)

That is honestly one of the most insightful things I have ever read … because of course cats do. The question is, how?

From there to the apartment.

I don’t know, and don’t want to know, where functionality begins or ends. It seems to me, in any case, that in the ideal dividing-up of today’s apartments functionality functions in accordance with a procedure that is unequivocal, sequential and nycthemeral. (28)

The footnote? ‘This is the best phrase in the whole book!’

I might agree. I had to look up nycthemeral:

Adjective — Designating or characterized by a variation that occurs in a period of twenty-four hours, especially corresponding to the contrast between day and night. (Oxford Dictionary)

From here he proceeds to give an outline in three columns — time | activity | room. Again, the taken-for-granted of French housewife– working husband–child in school becomes estranged, and for me now so removed from such a life, really quite interesting.

The final section:

Staircases

We don’t think enough about staircases.

Nothing was more beautiful in old houses than the staircases. Nothing is uglier, colder, more hostile, meaner, in today’s apartment buildings.(38)

I suddenly thought what a difference it would make to give modern apartment buildings wonderful, beautiful staircases.

We move on to the apartment building. Then to the Street.

The buildings stand one beside the other. They form a straight line. They are expected to form a line, and it’s a serious defect in them when they don’t do so. They are then said to be ‘subject to alignment’, meaning that they can by rights be demolished, so as to be rebuilt in a straight line with the others. (46)

I can’t believe this is a thing everywhere, it definitely was in LA.

He looks at ‘practical exercises’ for understanding the street —

Carry on
Until the scene becomes improbable.
until you have the impression, for the briefest of moments, that you are in a strange town or, better still, until you can no longer understand what is happening or is not happening, until the whole place becomes strange, and you no longer even know that this is what is called a town, a street, buildings, pavement… (53)

Wonderful.

On to the neighbourhood.

Death of a Neighbourhood

What I miss above all is the neighbourhood cinema, with its ghastly advertisements for the dry cleaner’s on the corner. (58)

A curious question, a provoking question that immediately raises in me a great rushing of answers:

Why not set a higher value on dispersal? Instead of living in just one place, and trying in vain to gather yourself together there, why not have fix or six rooms dotted about Paris? (59)

On to the Town. On to the countryside.

I don’t have a lot to say concerning the country: the country doesn’t exist. It’s an illusion.

For most people of my kind, the country is a decorative space surrounding their second home…(68)

That I find rather hilarious. As I do the whole section on the ‘Village Utopia’ (70), where you know everyone, live happily, recognize all the birds. It kind of reminds me of the Stuart Lee sketch about the family who leave London for the country and start by praising the pony and end begging for him to visit and to bring cocaine. This is not nearly as obvious, however. The next section is on the ‘Nostalgic (and false) alternative’ (71) — between putting down roots or living completely rootless. They are interesting posed this way.

On to the country. Europe. Old Continent. New Continent. The World.

In getting to know a few square meters, Perec writes

And with these, the sense of the world’s concreteness, irreducible, immediate, tangible, of something clear and closer to us: of the world, no longer as a journey having constantly to be remade, not as a race without end, a challenge having constantly to be met, not as the one pretext for a despairing acquisitiveness, nor as the illusion of a conquest, but as the rediscovery of a meaning, the perceiving that the earth is a form of writing, a geography of which we had forgotten that we ourselves are the authors. (79)

And on to space. A quote from Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics. I don’t really like Italo Calvino, but I love Lawrence Stern’s Tristram Shandy, which Perec seems to love as much as I do and quotes from often and at length.

Then there is this extraordinary list, already pulled out and set in a blog alone because I treasure it, but repeated again in its context, where perhaps it sits a bit differently:

The Uninhabitable

The uninhabitable: Seas used as a dump, coastlines bristling with barbed wire, earth bare of vegetation, mass graves, piles of carcasses, boggy rivers, towns that smell bad

The uninhabitable: The architecture of contempt or display, the vainglorious mediocrity of tower blocks, thousands of rabbit hutches piled one above the other, the cutprice ostentation of company headquarters

The uninhabitable: the skimped, the airless, the small, the mean, the shrunken, the very precisely calculated

The uninhabitable: the confined, the out-of-bounds, the encaged, the bolted, walls jagged with broken glass, judas windows, reinforced doors

The uninhabitable: shanty towns, townships

The hostile, the grey, the anonymous, the ugly, the corridors of the Metro, public baths, hangars, car parks, marshalling yards, ticket windows, hotel bedrooms

factories, barracks, prisons, asylums, old people’s homes, lycees, law courts, school playgrounds (89-90)

Followed by another disquieting paragraph

Such places don’t exist, and it’s because they don’t exist that space becomes a question, ceases to be self-evident, ceases to be incorporated, ceases to be appropriated. Space is a doubt: I have constantly to mark it, to designate it. It’s never mine, never given to me, I have to conquer it. (91)

Species of Space closes with the best index I have ever seen.

Georges PerecPenser / Classer (1985)

In ‘Notes on What I’m Looking For’, Perec describes four modes of his work, and this makes great sense of Species of Space and the other things I have read — and have yet to read. They are

‘sociological’: how to look at the everyday.

an autobiographical order (141)

The third is ludic and relates to my liking for constraints, for feats of skill, for ‘playing scales’….

the fictive, the liking for stories and adventures, the wish to write the sort of books that are devoured lying face down on your bed. (142)

Then there is ‘Notes Concerning the Objects that are on my Work Table’, a list, a thinking through of all the ways to arrange a desk (he has an ammonite in his desk!).  There is ‘Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books. The stacks of books to read, half read, to be shelved…the constant rearranging by theme, by author. It is such an intimate look at a life so like mine it is uncanny, a  friendship across years and miles.

A little later on you discover in ‘Reading: A Socio-physiological Outline’ that when Perec visits a friends house he raids their bookshelves for all the things he has long wanted to read, then retreats with a stack of them to his room to read through the night.

‘L’Infra-ordinaire’ (1989)

From ‘Approaches to What’, one of my very favourite quotes from the book, one that unexpectedly captures as well as Rob Nixon’s concept of ‘slow violence’ the difference between the spectacular and the everyday:

In our haste to measure the historic, significant and revelatory, let’s not leave aside the essential: the truly intolerable, the truly inadmissible. What is scandalous isn’t the pit explosion, it’s working in coalmines. ‘Social problems’ aren’t ‘a matter of concern’ when there’s a strike, they are intolerable twenty-four hours out of twenty-four, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. (209)

He perhaps captures even better at the level of the individual why these kind of problems are not better understood, better struggled against.

To question the habitual. But that’s just it, we’re habituated to it. We don’t question it, it doesn’t question us, it doesn’t seem to pose a problem, we live it without thinking, as if carried within neither questions nor answers … This is no longer even conditioning, it’s anaesthesia. We sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep. But where is our life? Where is our body? Where is our space? (210)

A final, brilliant admonition that shall remain with me forever in the daily rituals of life.

Question your tea spoons. (210)

He wrote an amazing piece on the Rue Vilin — where I am headed next time I am in Paris. The street his family lived on, where he lived until he was five. He returns and describes it shop by shop, building by building, sign by sign, at different times of day (all noted of course) in February 1969, June 1970, January 1971, November 1972, November 1974, November 1975. We witness the death of the street as it was. It is poignant, extraordinary, while it never rises above concrete description.

A collection of postcard messages rendered extraordinary by being grouped together. A puzzle, recurring styles, so many good meals and sunburns.

A list of everything Perec has ‘ingurgitated’ over the whole of 1974. What struck me most? He gives years for each of the wines.

All together, as I say, this was a book combining delight and insight. I also loved that this ended with some of Perec’s (impossible, also slightly problematic) word games constructed for his friends, and a few from the translator.

I will now go read everything else he has written. Except maybe the novel without the letter e.

[Perec, Georges (1997) Species of Space and Other Pieces, edited & translated by John Sturrock. London: Penguin Books.]

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Georges Perec on the Uninhabitable

Georges Perec Species of SpaceI just finished Georges Perec, Species of Space and Other Pieces, it is wonderful. What struck me most forcibly was this list he gives of the uninhabitable, as it has struck so many. It is one of the most moving things I have ever read, without quite being able to put my finger on why. It captures somehow capital’s destruction of the earth, its destruction of urban spaces and housing, its carceral geographies. The madness of this world we have somehow created for ourselves. It invokes the misshapen forms that inhabiting the uninhabitable has produced, but in their absence. All this in a list.

I have thus set it apart. To read. To re-read. To return to.

The Uninhabitable

The uninhabitable: Seas used as a dump, coastlines bristling with barbed wire, earth bare of vegetation, mass graves, piles of carcasses, boggy rivers, towns that smell bad

The uninhabitable: The architecture of contempt or display, the vainglorious mediocrity of tower blocks, thousands of rabbit hutches piled one above the other, the cutprice ostentation of company headquarters

The uninhabitable: the skimped, the airless, the small, the mean, the shrunken, the very precisely calculated

The uninhabitable: the confined, the out-of-bounds, the encaged, the bolted, walls jagged with broken glass, judas windows, reinforced doors

The uninhabitable: shanty towns, townships

The hostile, the grey, the anonymous, the ugly, the corridors of the Metro, public baths, hangars, car parks, marshalling yards, ticket windows, hotel bedrooms

factories, barracks, prisons, asylums, old people’s homes, lycees, law courts, school playgrounds

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Lyn Lofland on Antiurbanism

lyn-lofland-public-realmSo I do believe that this will be blog three of four (see one and two), combining Lofland’s descriptions of antiurban scholarship and feeling as found in  The Public Realm. I recognised more of the figures from these chapters, but she looks at them in interesting ways.

First, the ways that this sentiment emerges on both left and right — for example from David Harvey (1973) writing that:

the ultimate villain for the Left is the economic system and its operation, cities per se … become the “intervening villains” as in David Harvey’s assertion that “cities…are founded upon the exploitation of the many by the few. An urbanism founded upon exploitation is a legacy of history. A genuinely humanizing urbanism has yet to be brought into being.” (1973: 314) (111)

I never think of Harvey in this way really, but of course it makes sense that for him the city is the locus of exploitation. From the right it is more clearcut:

From the point of view of the Right, cities are simply blamed in a relatively straightforward manner … for the failings that might otherwise be attributed to the economic system. Thus the existence of a black underclass, poverty in general, and crime are all defined as urban problems and, as such, not worth “throwing money at.” (111)

She looks at huge amount of literature n the negative impacts of high-density living — things it will be good to follow up for the next piece I’m thinking of writing — Baldassare (1983), Cholding (1978) and Freedman (1975) give summations of these, though dated. Other scholars, I think she is thinking in particular of many of teh social movement scholarship, trace the city’s negative psychological impacts. For them the city is often seen as a variable causing protest, conflict and violence (and these are all greatly conflated and all bad). This was challenged by Tilly. Who I still haven’t read but need to.

Lofland departs from all this to look at what she believes to be the true source of antiurban feeling:

I do not believe we despise the city of any of these oft-mentioned reason. Rather, I would like to offer the hypothesis that we despise the city largely because it is the only settlement form that has a public realm. (113)

This is because we judge the public realm with the moral standards of the parochial and private realms. Interesting. Do we? Do I? Have I been until now?

Lofland starts with what she calls the ‘Direct Assaults’ or the kinds of open attacks that have been made on the public realm, arranging them thematically:

The Presence of the Unholy and the Unwashed (116) — Based on Victorian ideas of contamination (particularly in encouraging women to stay home), views of poverty, homelessness. God knows this is still far too alive today.

Mixing the unmixable (118) — this is a place where different categories of people mix together (oh no!), this is fear is broader than, but includes the fear of, the most poor. She doesn’t talk much about race, but this clearly includes the ‘Other’. She describes:

The idea that there is a social territory in which various types or categories of people whom a deity, nature, tradition, etc., had intended to remain forever separate are allowed to mingle provides the occasion for much agonized hand-wringing… (119)

The Sacrilegious Frivolity of Uncontrolled Play: (121) I rather love this one, as will situationists and performance artists everywhere.

In the public realm, the argument goes, the unquestioned virtues of sobriety, industry, rationality, diligence, and so forth are not only challenged, they are discarded. (121)

Political Anarchy: Oh yes…

… it will seem particularly attractive as a site for politics to those who cannot command significant private space… the unmonied — the outcasts, the dangerous classes, the unworthy poor, the mob, the unwashed masses, the proletariat, the underclass — in short, to all those urban folks who … inspire fear in the hearts of authorities everywhere. (124)

Then there are the ‘Indirect Assaults’,  where the target is another issue, but the public realm gets drawn in. ‘Preserving the Gentler Sex’ (128) and the appropriate conduct of women, ‘Leading Men Not Into Temptation’ (129) and the Victorian anti-prostitution movement, ‘Prohibiting Demon Rum’ (130) and the temperance movements, ‘Protecting Innocent Children and Corruptible Youth’ (131) are the examples she gives. It is clear that the city has been a something of a villain in all of those movements, this is making me remember Deborah Epstein Nord’s Walking the Victorian Streets among other works …

The focus to this point has been on larger antiurban social movements, in the next chapter, however, Lofland moves to individual feeling and the rise of value give to private space.

In trying to understand this, she distinguishes privatism from privatization as the individual preference for private space. This shift is made possible by the changing technological innovations that have allowed a withdrawal from the public realm (and also the parochial realm) in ways impossible for all but the very wealthiest before — cars, a weekly shop at the grocery store rather than regular stops at  the local market, entertainment through radio and television to be enjoyed in the home, all of the things that work to create ‘cocoons of privacy’ (145). She also notes that this emerges from a:

social-psychological condition… the extremely high value modern Western humans in general, but Americans in particular, seem to place on intimate (read, “authentic”) relationships. … Richard Sennett has long argued not only that there is such a preference but that it leads to a dismissal of more impersonal public–and even parochial–relationships… (145)

This hierarchization of relationships — something that so fascinates me because I think I have been just as guilty without thinking about it — is key in making growing privatism possible. Lofland argues that it connects to consistent feelings of fear and loathing of streets and the way they are filled with strangers — and that this is what is driving the many attempts to control public space so visible in both our histories and in our present. While difficult to prove how this connection works, Lofland argues that there seems to be something connecting anti-urbanism and privatism, the built environment and people’s feelings.

This leads into a discussing of ‘Control by Design’ or the way architecture is used to control (or destroy) the public realm —  a lot of work has been done on this since she was writing, I think, but this is still so insightful, drawing on the already existing  wealth in literature (as of 1998) about how to control people and access to public spaces — particularly the poor and the ‘other’. Lofland describes 4 conditions that she believes must be met before

…genuine control of the public realm can be accomplished architecturally: First, a specific set of political, economic, and legal arrangements must be in place and accompanied by, second, cultural attitudes that support, third, a large number of construction projects that are, fourth, large in scale. (193)

All of these brought together could be able to control or purify the public realm. A lot. But they have come together in the dream of what Lofland calls the “private city” as described by Le Corbusier, visible in Brasilia, or the Barbican. Present in the massive building of suburbs in the US. Why did I never encounter this before in literature of the suburbs? She looks at the five critical deign elements:

Megamononeighborhoods (200) – specialized and segregated land use, sprawling suburbs that may have public spaces in them, but Lofland notes few qualify as public realm. Strangers have no reason to go there, and are actively discouraged

Autoresidences (201) – characteristic of the megamononeighborhood.

…the peculiar fact that a significant proportion of houses built since 1945 have as their dominant feature the prominence of the garage.

Autostreets (201) – made for cars, discourage walking, cycling

Antiparks (203) – the non-residential megamononeighborhood — industrial parks, business parks etc, landscapes without people

Megastructures (204) – interiors full of what Lofland calls counter-locales for control of people using the space, but in the larger city they work to ‘reduce, destroy or inhibit, the creation of street life outside its walls.’ (204)

Lofland uses this image — Sketch of ‘Radiant City’ from Le Corbusier (1929) to illustrate exactly what she means. I have always found Le Corbusier chilling…

radiant-city-le-corbusier

Lofland brings more concepts to the fore — what she calls ‘sanitary design’ and the counterlocale. Earlier she defined locales as bounded nonprivate space where people were likely not to know each other. I love her definition of counterlocale (though more terminology always makes me worry):

locales to which both entry and behavior are monitored and controlled so as to reduce the possibility for discomforting, annoying, or threatening interactions. … counterlocales are “purified” or “sanitized” locales. (209)

This is such a familiar kind of space. She continues

Again, it took the massive postwar building program in the United States to transform a weak and insignificant strategy for taming the public realm into a colossus. (209)

She then defines four principal mechanisms to ‘rehabilitate’ spaces (for evil), or make them counterlocales:

Privatization. Growth of megastructures has ensured ‘what was once permeable has become impermeable. Once inside the megastructure, the individual is fully in privately owned space…’ (210-211)

Shadow Privatization. (211) Through public-private partnerships, where public space given under some level of private control, or in return for some kind of subsidy, private spaces are opened to some degree to the public. BIDs an example of the first, privately owned plazas made semi-public an example of the second. Some of these made deliberately uninviting to discourage use.

The “Panopticon” Approach. The use of surveillance.

The “Hideaway” Approach. (214) Where ‘public’ plazas are tucked away and hidden, like in LA above the main streets, surrounded by imposing high rise offices.

Then there is camouflaged control — Disneyland kind of spaces, mall spaces.

All so familiar. All things I have studied, but wish I had found this earlier, as it is so helpful thinking about this historical context and the difference between public realm and public space, as well the role (and fear) of strangers.

To end, something that surprised me though it shouldn’t have, her discussion of just how many sociologists have fought the idea that space has any impact on society. Very curious indeed to me, but a wealth of citations. I think ‘the spatial turn’ has changed all that, but it seems worth remembering.

More on The Public Realm

and even more…

 

 

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