Category Archives: From here to there

Speck on Walkable Cities — But Who Will Walk Them?

13538794Jeff Speck opens Walkable Cities with this:

This is not the next great book on American cities. That book is not needed… We’ve known for three decades how to make livable cities — after forgetting for four — yet we’ve somehow not been able to pull it off. (3)

He’s talking about Jane Jacobs there, The Death and Life of American Cities. This made me want to like this book, as did the following two sentences.

What works in the best cities is walkability.

Walkability is both an end and a means, as well as a measure. (4)

But really, there are three main points here: (1) walkability is good, primarily in the ways that it supports the real goal of planners — (2) to increase property values, while also (3) improving quality of life for those who are moving back to the city or currently live in the suburbs and are driving too much, i.e. white middle-class people.

There are two broad currents in planning, the first is planning for justice and equity, the second is planning for property values and quality of life for those who can afford it. This is in the second strand, which I rather hate with every fiber of my being

This is the kind of book that in its erasure of issues of equality and lack of any acknowledgment of the results of past patterns of unjust development, disinvestment, exploitation and discrimination becomes a manual for extending the privileges of one (white, middle-to-upper-class) group while erasing everyone else  (the poor and people of colour) from the city neighbourhoods they currently inhabit.

I walk cities, walkability is the most important city characteristic to me. Yet to make anything in this book useful to those who care about making neighbourhoods better for those who currently live there, to ensure that planning interventions do not increase displacement and segregation, an awful lot of the framing needs to be discarded. Every time Speck talks about the ways in which interventions to make a city more walkable improve property values, it is clear that issues of gentrification and displacement must be grappled with for those who do care about equity.

When it keeps to analysis of the actual physical streetscapes and built environment, much of this is useful:

Outdated zoning and building codes, often imported from the suburbs, have matched the uninviting streetscapes with equally antisocial private buildings, completing a public realm that is unsafe, uncomfortable, and just plain boring. (4)

Or looking at the four main conditions of walkability:

Each of these qualities is essential and none alone is sufficient. Useful means that most aspects of daily life are located close at hand and organized in a way that walking serves them well. Safe means that the street has been designed to give pedestrians a fighting chance against being hit by automobiles; they must not only be safe but feel safe… Comfortable means that buildings and landscape shape urban street into “outdoor living rooms,” in contrast to wide-open spaces… Interesting means that sidewalks are lined by unique buildings with friendly faces and that signs of humanity abound. (11)

It is in parsing out what these mean that the trouble lies — especially around ideas of safety and comfort as they are shaped by historic patterns of racism, sexism and discrimination. You won’t find any of those complexities here.

But guess what you will find? For Speck, walkability is marketable. He quotes Joe Cortwright’s ‘Walking the Walk: How Walkability Raises Home Values in U.S. Cities’, which I suppose would be useful to look at. Likewise William Frey, whom he quotes:

A new image of urban America is in the making. What used to be white flight to the suburbs is turning into ‘bright flight’ to cities that have become magnets for aspiring young adults who see access to knowledge-based jobs, public transportation and a new city ambiance as an attraction. (35)

Bright fucking Flight. This is the planning whose entire goal is to attract people back to the cities from the suburbs without a thought to issues of community participation, equity, social justice, eradicating poverty, improving people’s lives through improving the city they live in or even a thought to all the talent languishing in the city deprived of quality education and jobs and hope — all the things that brought me to planning in the first place. This is the planning that fills me with nausea. I am ignoring it to focus on what is useful.

As an outline, the steps to a walkable city are useful and it is definitely a good list — the white devil is in the details.

The 10 Steps to a Walkable City:

THE USEFUL WALK

1. Put cars in their place.

This was full of useful evidence to prove that cities have been built for cars, and that wide lanes, multi-lanes, enormous left-hand turn lanes and cutting down all the street trees actually make people drive faster and more dangerously. Speck also lays out the evidence for ‘induced demand’, if you build it, the cars will come and traffic will not improve. Common sense, or research pioneered over 30 years by Donald Appleyard among others, has yet to hit the Department of Transportation. If Speck’s book can help that process of realisation in such departments and city governments, I might be glad he wrote it.

I do love this quote of Bernard-Henry Lévy on our autocentric lifestyle:

a global, total obesity that spares no realm of life, public or private. An entire society that, from the top down, from one end to the other, seems prey to this obscure derangement that slowly causes an organism to swell, overflow, explode. (102, from American Vertigo)

2. Mix the uses.

I like mixed uses. But then Speck makes comments about how

city properties often come burdened with a whole range of utility issues, easements and access challenges, not to mention pesky neighbors. Local banks, until recently all too willing to finance condo clusters on the periphery, shy away from investing in new apartments downtown.

‘pesky neighbors’ has been code for poor people, immigrants and people of colour since the 1930s and 40s with the federal governments’ Home Owners Loan Corporation and Real Estate industry guidelines that gave rise to redlining back when deeding your house to be for Caucasians only was widespread and encouraged. Speck continues:

This contemporary version of redlining is a significant reason that downtown housing often cannot be built without municipal support. (107)

and then

…most American cities do not need more affordable housing in their downtowns. Most American cities have too much affordable housing downtown. Or, more accurately, too much of their downtown housing is affordable, since everyone but the poor was able to join the suburban exodus. (109)

He doesn’t mention that despite this ‘fact’, many cities are in an affordable housing crisis where affordable housing is needed by a majority of city residents including teachers and firefighters, that he conflates the poor with people of colour long discriminated against in any attempt to join the suburban exodus, that such redlining might have contributed greatly to generations of poverty, or that affordable housing is now being erased from all downtowns and nothing built to replace it. Millions of people currently homeless and with not even a fraction of the shelter in existence necessary to house them even for a night also go unmentioned.

Some of his biases can be seen in an uncritical passage on resistance to granny flats:

They are typically opposed by neighbors who are worried about property values. An old college friend of mine from Los Angeles put it succinctly: “We are afraid that nine illegals will move in.” (111)

Nothing could make more clear where Speck is coming from. In response Speck notes they will rather

introduce affordability in a dispersed rather than a concentrated way, avoiding the pathologies that sometimes arise from the latter. (111)

As if the pathologies lie in poor people rather than the forces which maintain their concentrated poverty. I suppose he simply joins a long tradition of blaming poor people for poverty here.

3. Get the parking right.

Ah, Donald Shoup from UCLA, stop subsidising things, raise the cost of everything. It makes some sense, until you start thinking about how this will impact people differently. Then questions of equity come to the fore and it is harder for me to support without a lot more thought on how equity will be addressed in a city so car-dependent as LA. I’ve sat through Shoup’s classes, so I know that he failed to impress me on that. Still, better transit, less parking.

4. Let transit work.

I agree. If only he had stopped there, but instead he waxes poetic on improving public transit:

In some of these locations, the bus is destined remain the “loser cruiser,” the mode of choice for those who have no choice: the elderly, the poor, and infirm. As such, it will always be underfunded and struggling for survival, like any social service.

If it is to become widely used, transit has to be ruthlessly reconceptualized as a convenience, not just a rescue vehicle. Or, more accurately, while certain rescue routes must remain — from the old-age home to the health center, for example — the system needs to focus on those rare opportunities where it can offer a superior experience to driving. Those few line should be earmarked for a higher level of service… (155)

The loser-cruiser? Yet this is in fact the current approach of transit experts, it’s why courts have found LA transit, for example, to be racist and discriminatory and put them under a decades long injunction to improve bus routes serving South Central.

In Europe public transit is seen as a right, as an essential part of a city for ALL of its residents. I think it might be better to start there. There is also, of course, a long tradition of work around environmental justice in the US around improving cities that begins there as well.

We return to planning for property value rather than public good. On Bus Rapid Transit versus trains:

… the biggest criticism of bus systems, that they lack rail’s permanence: how can you drive real estate investment around transit if transit might leave? (157)

I don’t even have words for that sentence, and the pathologies of development it describes.

THE SAFE WALK

5. Protect the pedestrian.

6. Welcome bikes.

I’m all for protecting pedestrians and welcoming bikes, but yet again, we see planning for profit:

In contrast to widened roads and other highway “improvements,” new bikeways actually increase the value of nearby real estate. (194)

THE COMFORTABLE WALK

7. Shape the spaces.

I did like this:

Traditional, walkable urbanism is grounded in figural space. It believes that the shape of the spaces between buildings is what matters, because this is the public realm — the place where civic life plays out. (216)

8. Plant trees.

THE INTERESTING WALK

9. Make friendly and unique faces.

Not faces of diversity and enjoyment of space, faces of buildings and parking structures. Again, back to profits, though I have no objection at all to less parking, and what parking exists to be hidden:

Enlightened developers…know that hidden parking boosts retail sales and property values. (238)

10. Pick your winners.

I like this list. My critique is really a critique of an entire point of view that makes improving property values the goal of planning. In that sense, this book did manage to give an outline of how to create a walkable city, but also highlighted very different ideas of who the city is for, and where the interventions will do most to push out and displace current residents without a larger vision and planning process around justice and equity.

For more on building social spaces and better cities…

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Cumbres & Toltec Railroad, Chama to Antonito

The Cumbres & Toltec Railroad is amazing, a narrow three-foot gauge railroad along which the steam engines of yore still ride…Built in 1880 by the Rio Grande to serve the silver mines in the San Juan mountains. As we all know, the Sherman Act of 1893 destroyed the silver industry for a good long time, but this train line kept slowly going until the 1960s. This piece of the track was saved by a handful of wonderful people working to preserve this awesomeness, it was secured in 1970 by New Mexico and Colorado working together, and is now run by a commission and a friend group.

Cumbres & Toltec Railroad

I love how trains inspire the utmost love and devotion, brings groups of people to selflessly work together to keep them going despite all odds. People also stood by the side of roads and RV parks to wave at the train, a couple of cars followed us down I-17. A number of cars pulled off the road to take pictures of the train.

For me, though, this particular train had a slightly different glamour. I am not a proper fan girl of many, but James Garner is one. James Garner as Maverick? Especially. For some reason I climbed up onto this train and suddenly felt myself close, very close. It didn’t even take that much imagination to ignore everyone else. I stood at the end staring at the mountains and wished I had a cigar. It was grand. I didn’t even mind the constant shower of grit.

Cumbres & Toltec Railroad

We climbed high up into the mountains, then back down to high-desert plateau. We saw deer, chipmunks, prairie dogs, antelope. Unbelievably beautiful.

Cumbres & Toltec Railroad

Cumbres & Toltec Railroad

Cumbres & Toltec Railroad

Cumbres & Toltec Railroad

Cumbres & Toltec Railroad

Cumbres & Toltec Railroad

We even spouted rainbows.

Cumbres & Toltec Railroad

Cumbres & Toltec Railroad

Even more special, is that me and mum first took this trip with my Dad and my Godmother Clare when I was about 2 years old.

(I have skipped a day, yesterday we drove through rainbows but I was just too tired to think and write, and there is more to write! But it will be made part of this history)

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From Mines to Market Gardens — The Tamar Valley

Sovereigns, Madams and Double Whites: Fruit and Flower Pioneers of the Tamar ValleySovereigns, Madams and Double Whites: Fruit and Flower Pioneers of the Tamar Valley is a wonderful book I found in the library here. It emerged from a 2001 project to uncover the market gardening landscape, and is full of oral histories and quite wonderful photographs. It is the story of the long-gone smallholdings up and down the Tamar valley. They were built up and down the steep south-facing hills for the earliest flowers and strawberries.

Almost all of them have now become grazing and farm land, or woods.

There is so much here of England’s industrial and agricultural history that is long forgotten. It is so strange to think of this area as a centre of copper mining, much less arsenic refining, but so it was:

For a brief period of twenty years in the mid nineteenth century the Tamar Valley became the copper centre of England, the river crowded with shipping carrying ore to be smelted in South Wales. However by 1868 the largest mine, Devon Great Consols, was nearly exhausted and metal prices slumped putting hundreds of families out of work. Arsenic refining took over but in turn was abandoned. By the 1930s mining was dead leaving a strange and dramatic landscape of waste tips and ruinous buildings half hidden in lush woodland and intricately mixed with villages, farms, riverside quays and market gardens. (1)

Apart from copper, the Tamar Valley was known for cherry and apple orchards, and had the earliest strawberries in the country — that was where the money once was. Early strawberries and the famous Tamar Double Whites, a lovely fragrant daffodil planted here by the thousands and their remnants now left forgotten in hedgerows and bordering fields. But the market gardens along the slopes here reached their height in the 1950s, when they supported an industry of 8-10,000 people, more than the entire population today. Special tools to work the hillsides were invented (a special dibber!), and diggers to move soil up slopes.

It is amazing to think smallholdings could provide so much work, and that they once sent flowers and fruit all over the country. Somehow it pleases me greatly to imagine early daffodils from Devon arriving to bring joy in Birmingham.

Also fascinating is the role that changing transportation links played in this story. In many ways this agricultural revolution was due to the arrival of the Great Western Railway. It reached Plymouth in 1849 and bridged the Tamar to Saltash in 1859 — before this, the river Tavy had been the main way of transport. But the trains allowed a much faster movement of fruit — allowing it to be sold within 24 hours of picking. Because of the warm micro-climates here in Devon allowing the very early growing of fruit, the possibility of transport opened up new possibilities just after the waves of lay-offs from mining.

In the change to market gardening, many followed the pioneer James Lawry. On a visit to Crystal Palace in London in 1862 (I do so very much love accounts of Crystal Palace), he heard of Covent Garden market. Visiting it, he discovered their earliest strawberries arrived in June, while back home in Tamar Valley their crop was much earlier. Upon learning the  difference in price for Strawberries in London as opposed to Devon, there seemed little to lose. He started sending his fruit to a Mr. Israel in 1863.

Lawry helped establish not just strawberries, but also punnet-making, and thus began a thriving networks of smallholdings and associated employment for the whole family.

In 1966, Beaching’s cuts to train services and closure of multiple stations ended what was left of this industry as transportation costs became too high, fruit could no longer arrive to markets within 24 hours at a low enough price. I already felt like spitting whenever his name is mentioned. Of course, globalisation, and the flying in of fruit from countries around the world did not help either.

In 1971 there were still 250 viable holdings, by 1979 only 140 growers left, and the extreme slopes fell out of cultivation for the easier flats where mechanization could be brought in. Now they are all but gone.

We probably won’t be able to fly in strawberries forever, so perhaps this shall be full of smallholdings once again. Interesting thought.

The oral histories are short–a few paragraphs of key memories–but so interesting. Alan Rickard’s father had been to Canada to work in the mines there, then returned to work five acres growing cherries, dahlias, rhubarb, irises, strawberries and daffodils. This was apparently true of many families, John Snell’s father went to the mines first, then Ford’s Detroit plant and then returned home. Almost all of the gardens sold a similar variety, though most seemed to specialise in one or two. There are a few fishermen, who gardened on the side. Others seemed to be more gardeners who fished. A few German POWs who remained after the war. A number are still in the business, generally where their children and grandchildren have taken over — though in large modern greenhouses or polytunnels.

One of my favourite quotes from Alan Langsford:

When I was a little boy I wanted to be a Dutchman when I grew up. [The bulb-salesmen] all wore suits, drove nice cars and didn’t work outside on the land! (142)

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Mary Wollstonecraft and I arrive in Sweden

Travellers who require that every nation should resemble their native country, had better stay at home. It is, for example, absurd to blame a people for not having that degree of personal cleanliness and elegance of manners which only refinement of taste produces, and will produce everywhere in proportion as society attains a general polish.

Thus writes Mary Wollstonecraft in 1796, and she may not blame the Swedish (or the Norwegians) for a lack of many of these things, but her letters certainly describe them thus.

We have arrived in Sweden! But late in the evening. I will compare notes with Mary…

The hospitality she encountered? She arrived in rather unorthodox fashion (I think, what do I know?) on a desolate patch of the Swedish coast:

There was a solemn silence in this scene which made itself be felt. The sunbeams that played on the ocean, scarcely ruffled by the lightest breeze, contrasted with the huge dark rocks, that looked like the rude materials of creation forming the barrier of unwrought space, forcibly struck me, but I should not have been sorry if the cottage had not appeared equally tranquil. Approaching a retreat where strangers, especially women, so seldom appeared, I wondered that curiosity did not bring the beings who inhabited it to the windows or door. I did not immediately recollect that men who remain so near the brute creation, as only to exert themselves to find the food necessary to sustain life, have little or no imagination to call forth the curiosity necessary to fructify the faint glimmerings of mind which entitle them to rank as lords of the creation. Had they either they could not contentedly remain rooted in the clods they so indolently cultivate.

We flew into Arlanda airport, Stockholm. The flight was just over two hours, no turbulence. Utterly uneventful. The airport looked just as any other, though it advertised a skycity which was neither a city, nor in the sky.

She cast around for lights, for anyone who would welcome her, found a house…

Still nothing was so pleasing as the alacrity of hospitality–all that the house afforded was quickly spread on the whitest linen. Remember, I had just left the vessel, where, without being fastidious, I had continually been disgusted. Fish, milk, butter, and cheese, and, I am sorry to add, brandy, the bane of this country, were spread on the board. After we had dined hospitality made them, with some degree of mystery, bring us some excellent coffee. I did not then know that it was prohibited.

I love the shocking knowledge that at one time both coffee and brandy were prohibited. I love that they were served anyway.

We were never, at any time, offered brandy.

Still, travel was harder then. Just a little.

I expected to have found a tolerable inn, but was ushered into a most comfortless one; and, because it was about five o’clock, three or four hours after their dining hour, I could not prevail on them to give me anything warm to eat.

We ourselves landed at the airport, wheeled our carry-on luggage to the free shuttle, and within ten minutes were entering the Radisson Blu. This Radisson Blu, I confess, resembles all other Radissons, particularly in the existence of a restaurant (open until 11 pm), and a bar. This one is also well provided with mysteries and thrillers in both Swedish and English in a kind of library decor, and a scattering of chess boards.

I have observed no one playing chess.

More from Mary Wollstonecraft in 1796.

The inns are tolerable; but not liking the rye bread, I found it
necessary to furnish myself with some wheaten before I set out. The beds, too, were particularly disagreeable to me. It seemed to me that I was sinking into a grave when I entered them; for, immersed in down placed in a sort of box, I expected to be suffocated before morning. The sleeping between two down beds–they do so even in summer–must be very unwholesome during any season; and I cannot conceive how the people can bear it, especially as the summers are very warm. But warmth they seem not to feel; and, I should think, were afraid of the air, by always keeping their windows shut.

We have comfortable beds (two beds pushed together Scandinavian style. Also German. Curious, but the older I get, the more I think it makes sense.) They involve no feathers I think, though the duvets are nice. Everything is white. I have no fear of suffocation.

But shit, we have no wheat bread.

Mary writes:

Travelling in Sweden is very cheap, and even commodious, if you make but the proper arrangements. Here, as in other parts of the Continent, it is necessary to have your own carriage, and to have a servant who can speak the language, if you are unacquainted with it.

This is now become one of the most expensive places in all of Europe. I shudder to think of how much we are spending. Yet neither of us come from families who would ever have had their own carriages, or the servants who come with them. A curious inversion.

Another fairly damning indictment of older traditions of hospitality — this refers to Gothenberg, and surprisingly enough to Dublin as well back in the day:

Hospitality has, I think, been too much praised by travellers as a proof of goodness of heart, when, in my opinion, indiscriminate hospitality is rather a criterion by which you may form a tolerable estimate of the indolence or vacancy of a head; or, in other words, a fondness for social pleasures in which the mind not having its proportion of exercise, the bottle must be pushed about.

These remarks are equally applicable to Dublin, the most hospitable city I ever passed through. But I will try to confine my observations more particularly to Sweden.

I found much more of interest in her letters beyond such observations on the travails of travelers, but more on those later and I shall end here, as I am tired. Just one fascinating fact before goodnight.

The distance was three Norwegian miles, which are longer than the Swedish.

Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera

Dziga Vertov - The Man with A Movie Camera 1929Just saw Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera (1929) and had one of those moments where you realise just how splendid a film of the city can be. One of those moments where everything changes about how you see film.

(An aside: The first film I remember doing that was Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925) which my Uncle Milton showed me when I was 17 or 18, and the last film that I remember doing that was Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and that was seven or so years ago…

Funny that they’re all from around the same time.)

I haven’t seen the other city symphony films, have only vaguely heard of them (but always meant to track them down). Some say that this is the best, and I believe it — on a foggy Sunday afternoon when all too often I enjoy a little snooze, I sat entranced at scenes of Moscow, Kiev and Odessa seamlessly edited together.

But what I loved is that the cameraman (as courageous hero) and the woman editing the film itself (women fill this film, working everyday women) — as well as its initial audiences — are always present, reminding you of how reality is moderated, cut up and represented in film.

Dziga Vertov - Man With A Movie Camera

This is not neutral, the process is anything but seamless. There are many shots that go from still to moving pictures, playful and charming. It reminds you constantly how it is you see what you are seeing, that choices are being made. It takes you from the everyday into split screens, kaleidoscope effects, occasional stop-motion and surreal compositions of eyes and watchers and movement. Unlike many a black and white film I have seen using such effects, they improve the whole. They give a sense of the city as mediated by our own vision and the vision of others. It challenges us to think about not just what we are seeing, but how we are seeing it.

It does this with exuberance, not with pretension. In 1929. With the few avant garde films I have seen from the 1960s onwards, I find the lack of pretension amazing and most wonderful.

All this, and then oh…the life of the city that it shows. Cities as we shall never know them now, full of trams and horsecarts and early automobiles. Pedestrians everywhere. Life brimming over its streets not dominated by fast-moving traffic — that piece of my brain obsessed with transport adored this aspect of it, down to the woman pouring oil in the tram tracks in the very early morning.

Dziga Vertov - Man With A Movie Camera Dziga Vertov - Man With A Movie Camera

This is a film of movement and labour and social leisure — unsurprising in a film that of the soviet revolution just before Stalin’s crackdown. It shows people in these aspects of their lives — at work in factories and mines, a ceaseless flow of associative editing from beauty shop to laundry to automated spinning wheels to film editing to operators connecting calls to typewriters to beaches to babies being born and funerals and movements through the streets. Life filling these great boulevards, (but very little in homes, nuclear families, neighbourhoods, a telling political and social focus)…

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The factories were the not the most popular of screen grabs, but can I just say again how wonderful to see the screen full of women. A few of them of that beauty that usually finds it way to the movies, but most of the beauty that does not. Smiling, laughing, making cigarette boxes, walking and telling stories and working and bearing children.

Most wonderful. I shall enjoy seeing it again, and know I shall see much more.

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Romans & Socialists, Caerleon & Newport

We began our Sunday (not last Sunday either, but the Sunday before) in Newport. A bit grim, Newport. What is not permanently shut down is shut down for the Sunday…but there are burgeoning signs of life and it is the kind of place I like to imagine arriving at its possibilities of beauty and full employment and a bustling centre catering to the needs of its current residents. This probably will not happen under capitalism as we know it.

Newport

Cupcakes may be a good start, and this arcade could contribute to that start — it would certainly be a better one that the desultory big apartment box development of seemingly even shittier quality than London’s ‘luxury flats along the Thames’, though that seems hard to fathom.

Newport

We stood in front of this entance waiting for the bus that would take us to Caerleon, only £1 and 15 minutes away. It was beautiful, unexpected and beautiful.

Caerleon, Wales

The two small, but quite wonderful museums of Roman life there were not unexpected. I knew this had been a centre for Roman troops, that a huge bath complex had existed here, villas, barracks, and an amphitheater. Nothing had quite prepared me for how cool, and empty, the amphitheater was.

Caerleon, Wales

Caerleon, Wales

Nor did I have any idea that Arthur Machen, Arthur Machen of A London Adventure, or the Art of Wandering as well as of The Imposters was born here, though he left when he was two for a village named Llanddewi Fach five miles away. Arthur Machen who I quite adore.

Caerleon, Wales

His house even has one of these, built since he lived there of course, but I imagine using the same cellars:

Caerleon, Wales

We didn’t get reservations at the restaurant in the nice and ancient priory next door, but did have a pint in the lovely Hanbury Inn, where, by the way, Tennyson began work on ‘Idylls of the King’:

Caerleon, Wales

There were chartists here too, of course, but the plaque mentioning them is more about the walls built to defend against them. Only a bit of that is still standing, thank god.

Caerleon, Wales

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We couldn’t dally, we walked back to Newport. A walk partially along the river, partially along the motorway, strong in contrasts and industrial grit but also some pigs. I like those walks if I’m honest.

Caerleon To Newport, Wales

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And then? Fish & chips, delicious fish & chips in the Harbour fish bar, and then to see friend Fox and Thee Faction, and my new music crush, Helen Love at a fundraising gig in Le Pub as part of the We Shall Overcome weekend — from Thee Faction’s website:

The weekend acknowledges two things. First, it acknowledges the horrendous dismantling of society that the Tories have been pursuing. We have never been so socially insecure since before 1945. There is no safety net we can reliably fall back on. Everything is precarious. So everyone is a failed pay cheque or two away from absolute destitution. And that means that an enormous number of us are already there. Secondly, it acknowledges that every night socially and politically conscious musicians are busy, in ones, twos, threes, fours, playing in pubs and clubs across the land, doing their bit and making a little bit of noise to a relatively small number of people.

Comrade Joe Solo has done phenomenal work to piece this whole thing together. There are well over 200 events happening, under one fist.

Cool to be a little piece of something like that.

Newport

Newport

Newport

I keep realising I leave it too long between gigs, great music, pints, awesome pubs like this one, and toilets that entertain.

Newport

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Cosmonauts at the Science Museum

Cosmonauts was an exhibit of utter wonder and delight — who has not dreamed of space? You go from room to room, mouth dropping open and eyes sparkling like a kid on Christmas day. I kid you not.

I am still sparkling just a little. I mean, space. Human beings in space. Amazing.

It opens with some of the early work, the early imaginings tied to the early tinkerings with rockets that led to the full space programme. I wish this section had been longer to be honest. There is work from architecture student Georgii Krutikov, his designs for a flying city from his thesis in 1928 (to read more see the awesome charnel house blog):

5c036834b65571057400a1d4e333e38c imagesEven better than Constant, how have I never seen them before? These were only a taste of the brilliant drawings, more of which can be found in his portfolio:

georgii-krutikov-vkhutemas-flying-city-diploma-project3Tsiolkovsky and Federov’s works and words, and the role of the cosmists (cosmopolitans, cosmopolity) appear too. From the Cosmonauts exhibition website:

Cosmopolity’s formation had been foreshadowed in the opening decades of the 20th century by the emergence of cosmism, a philosophy developed by Russian thinkers including Tsiolkovsky and Nikolai Fedorov that contributed to a notion that the Soviets were masters of the cosmos.

The members of Cosmopolity were sympathetic to cosmism’s goals of populating the universe and achieving eternal life, and shared its dream of distant planets populated by new societies. Eager to communicate their vision of the future to the wider world, they requisitioned a shop in Moscow and staged the first ever space travel exhibition.
Window diorama of the cosmists' 1927 'World's First Exhibition of Models of Interplanetary Apparatus, Mechanisms, Instruments, and Historical Materials' -- the words read 'Cosmopolitans invent the roads to new worlds'
Window diorama of the cosmists’ 1927 ‘World’s First Exhibition of Models of Interplanetary Apparatus, Mechanisms, Instruments, and Historical Materials’ — the words read ‘Cosmopolitans invent the roads to new worlds’

Konstantin Tsiolokovsky’s ‘Album of cosmic journeys’, mathematical equations and rocket models, these dreams and writings and experimentations would push forward space travel — so on to the model of Sputnik, launched in 1957, the craft of Yuri Gargarin, launched into space on 12 April, 1961 and the first man to orbit the earth in Vostok 1.

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Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman ‘to storm outer space’ in Vostok 6 in 1963.

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Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space, traveling in Voskhod 2 in 1965. The machinery of space travel, impossibly solid, and anything but futuristic or rocket shaped or even vaguely aerodynamic with its bits and pieces of receiving equipment sticking out, is breathtaking. The models are brilliant, but it strikes you with awe to see the awkward pods barely big enough to carry a human being, scorched and stained with travel distances more vast than I can really imagine.

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Up, pup and away

And then there are the dogs. This is the Science Museum’s puntastic heading, and finding it on their website made my day today. That, despite the fact that a number of dogs were killed as the next sentence informs you. But before Yuri Gargarin went into orbit, 48 dogs had already been there before him, 28 of whom survived. They had this:

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Film footage of a dog being released from this contraption and frolicking happily, pictures of dogs, stories of selections of dogs… Aw.

Space dog, Kozgawka, in training in a tailor-for-dogs helmet.
Space dog, Kozgawka, in training in a tailor-for-dogs helmet.

This is the first time I have really felt any desire to go back and see an exhibition again…but the book is fabulous and will be read with enthusiasm.You are drawn irresistibly to the great objects that carried dogs and humans into space and back again, first the ones that shine, and then the ones dulled by the intensity of re-entry into our atmosphere. But there was so much more to see here, to think about, to be inspired by. And the occasional complexities added by pictures of Stalin, Khrushchev, a background of the politics of the cold war. The fascinating life histories of these pioneers. The work put into not just surviving in space but living in space, and making the Mir space station possible.

We saw it on Friday during the museum’s late night opening, a truly brilliant idea as too often in London, great exhibits are ruined by equally great crowds. As Cosmonauts was a truly brilliant exhibition.

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Parkland Walk — and the transformation of every unused track

Parkland Walk is an extraordinary thing to find in London — it removes you from the city and carries you through it at the same time. You catch glimpses of buildings through the trees, everywhere little paths join it, allowing people to enter and exit from their streets of concrete and brick and stone. Each such path or stairway stands as a tantalising road not taken.

Never do you lose the feeling you have somehow escaped the city for a while into a cathedral of green.

It carries you along with quite a number of other people.

Parkland Walk, London

Past these wonderful ruins of the old train platforms

Parkland Walk, London

Through tunnels of leaves

Parkland Walk, London

Through tunnels of stone and brick, covered with a generally higher quality of graffiti art than I am used to in this city

Parkland Walk, LondonParkland Walk, LondonParkland Walk, London

past alcoves with sprites [as we found out later, a spriggan] smiling down on you

Parkland Walk, Londonrounded towers and stairs Parkland Walk, LondonParkland Walk, LondonTrees intertwined with brick Parkland Walk, London

And nearing the end in Highgate, a meadow, with a dirt trail that invites you along

Parkland Walk, London

To find the bats:

Parkland Walk, London

Surely we can do this with all of our disused railway lines. A welcome breath of peace and beauty, a place for birds and wildlife, and a safe place to walk that many people can integrate into their daily routines, and the rest of us can enjoy from time to time.

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Mary Higgs: Glimpses Into the Abyss

Higgs1This is the first of three posts on Mary Higgs (1854-1937), a social reformer who beyond running a shelter in Oldham actually went on the tramp in the North of England (and tested the waters in London) to better understand the conditions suffered by the poor — and particularly women — moving from town to town. Her experiences were published in a series of articles, pamphlets and a book Glimpses Into the Abyss (1906).

This was an extraordinary thing for her to do.

She is a curious mix, Mary Higgs, a woman who actually did seem able to see the conditions of the poor with a great deal of empathy, and even to listen to them. She suffered to do so — to voluntarily submit oneself to the workhouse seems mad to me even now. She cannot quite escape her middle class judgments of how people manage their poverty or Christian judgments of how they manage their morality, but her actual descriptions are for the most part fairly kind. The amount of detail provides a brilliant window into the lives of women who have otherwise been lost to us.

They stand, then, in even greater contrast to the theoretical bombast she surrounds her narrative in. I know it was the common currency of reform of the time and I have seen it raise its ugly head before, but never quite so clearly laid out as this.

First though, from the introduction, more on her background (and poverty as social disease):

Securing a lodging where a destitute woman could be accommodated, and providing cleansing and dress, she has steadily taken in through a period of six years every case of complete destitution that came to her, willing to undergo remedial treatment. The work grew; accommodation for four was provided, with two paid helpers. The small cottage used acts as a social microscope, every case being personally investigated as to past life, history, and present need, and dealt with accordingly. The writer, as Secretary to the Ladies’ Committee of Oldham Workhouse, next became personally acquainted with the working of the Poor-law and studied it by means of books also. By degrees the Rescue work came to cover Police-court and Lodging-house work, and, as there was no other Shelter in Oldham, cases of all sorts came under her notice. She thus studied personally the microbes of social disorder.

Oldham Work House
Oldham Workhouse

By degrees she came to understand the existence of certain “classes” (classifying them much as observation led her to classify objects observed in physical studies). Also, she clearly perceived that causes were at work leading to rapid degeneration, and was led to pre-suppose currents working for social destruction.

This is particularly revealing perhaps:

She reflected that exploration was the method of science, and became herself an explorer of “Darkest England.”

I am fascinated by this constant reference to the middle and upper classes ‘exploring’ and ‘discovering’ working class life and neighbourhoods through Victorian slumming, just as they ‘explored and discovered’ the colonies they exploited, just as now the ‘pioneers’ discover and expand the frontiers of gentrification. And so often it seems, it is ‘Darkest’ Africa, England, Harlem… this has been much written about I know.

So on to Higgs herself, and how she tried to initially frame the results of her experiences and her policy recommendations. It’s fairly vile and everywhere the theoretical language insults, and I am thin-skinned and easily infuriated by such vileness, but in this case I feel called to defend her to the extent that she was open enough to the reality she encountered on her tramp that it almost reads as though written by someone else, and her recommendations at the end have moved much further to understanding the structural causes of labour’s movement and respect for those needing shelter.

Still. It is good to remember what many rich people once thought of us poor people, what we white people once thought of other races, what ‘pure’ women once thought of those who enjoyed a night down the pub. Sadly we haven’t come as far in destroying this as we might hope.

A very simple theory, which will be found to accord with Plato’s diagnosis of the degeneration of a State or an individual, with Meyer’s “Disintegrations of Personality,” and with James’ “Phenomena of Religious Experience,” therefore underlies this essay; but it is apart from its objects to do more than state it. It is enunciated more fully in an article in the Contemporary Review, now out, entitled “Mankind in the Making.” It is this:

(a) The psychology of the individual retraces the path of the psychology of the race.

(b)In any given individual the  whole path climbed by the foremost classes or races may not be retraced. Therefore numbers of individuals are permanently stranded on lower levels of evolution. Society can quicken evolution by right social arrangements, scientific in principle.

(c) Granted that any individual attains a certain psychical evolution in normal development, either evolution or devolution lies before him. Wrong social conditions lead to widespread devolution. The retrograde unit retraces downwards the upward path of the race, and can only be reclaimed along this path by wise social legislation, bringing steady pressure to bear along the lines of evolution, (barring extraordinary religious phenomena, which often reclaim individuals or communities).

(d) Society has now arrived at a point of development when these facts must be recognised, and the whole question of the organisation of humanity put on a scientific basis. It will then be possible to reduce the sciences of sociology and psychology to scientific order, and our national treatment of such questions as vagrancy will be no longer purely empirical.

Words fail me here, but I am glad we have almost overcome this insane vision of evolution and racial hierarchy.

There was an odd resonance with a quote in Horne’s A Savage War of Peace in relation to the French policy of erasing Algerian resistance by destroying family structures, and a commentary that all that was left was dust. Higgs says the same thing of the transition from feudalism to capitalism and from an agricultural society to an industrial one dependent on free (and willing) labour:

As early as Henry VIII., 1531, we find a second class, that of the “incapable,” those who could not work, who were “licensed to beg.”

The formation of this class was accelerated by the failure of the Church to provide for the assistance of the poor, by suppression of abbeys, etc., at the same time that the abolition of villeinage, which was still recent, threw off from organised society dependents very unfit to live a self-supporting life. (See Note 2.) Thus again the drying up of means of subsistence created as it were another layer of easily drifting dust.

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Since, therefore, a transition period leaves behind such a layer of social débris, it is only to be expected that we should find the third great change that has passed over society, which is still recent, namely, the change to the industrial epoch, to be productive of another layer of social débris or dust.

John A. Hobson points out (in “Problems of Poverty,” p. 24) that “the period from 1790 to 1840 was the most miserable epoch in the history of the English working classes.” It is doubtful indeed whether we have really recovered from the “sickness” of that period.

There are some familiar definitions of vagrancy, where like the poor there are the willing and the unwilling:

Vagrancy proper was the crime of individuals who dropped out of a settled, mainly agricultural, society into the wandering life. Vagrancy as induced by modern conditions may be no crime. It is not a crime for a man who cannot obtain work to migrate to find it, or for a man to return home on foot from a distance.

And here are some of the actual numbers:

So much is the tramp ward disliked, and so useless is it as a remedy for destitution, since at best it affords only a night’s shelter with poor food and hard labour, that numbers prefer to “sleep out.” The London County Council’s census of the homeless poor, Friday, 29th January, 1904, revealed 1,463 men, 116 women, 46 boys, and 4 girls walking the streets, and 100 males and 68 females sleeping in doorways, etc., a total of 1,797 homeless poor in a small area in London (from Hyde Park in the west, to the east end of Whitechapel Road, from High Holborn, Old Street and Bethnal Green, in the north, to the Thames, in the south). In the winter 1903-4, no fewer than 300 people were known to be sleeping out every night in Manchester.

And we come to the results — the terminology is cringeworthy and in itself worthy of further reflection on the way that both the processes and the discourses of industrialisation dehumanised workers. In the following posts you will be able to see just how human some (not all) of these ‘inefficients’ became to Mrs Higgs, so where then does this discourse come from? It points to the deeply problematic underpinnings of social reform, underscores where my own traditionally deep distrust of theory comes from.

VIII. SUMMARY OF RESULTS OF INVESTIGATION.

We may summarise results as follows:

1. There exists at the bottom of society the hereditary vagabond or “tramp” proper. He is the remains of a vagrant class squeezed out of society and preying upon it…

2. There exists also a class of “incapables,” i.e. those infirm, old, blind, lame, epileptic, etc. These are supposed to be provided for by our Poor-law system, and should be inside workhouses. But numbers of them are allowed to wander in penury and beggary.

3. There exists a large class of “inefficients,” the special product of the Industrial revolution. It is not probable that they will disappear as a factor in social evolution, save by means of wise social
arrangements, because:

(1) They are continually renewed from the lower levels of the population, who breed quickly.

(2) The standard of industrial requirements rises, and leaves many behind stranded.

(3) Employment after middle age is difficult to obtain.

(4) The shifting of industries and changes in employment leave units unprovided for.

It is evident therefore that the whole legislation of our country must be remodelled, for it is on the social organism as a whole that social provision now devolves.

Up next — a glimpse of women’s actual lives on the tramp in shelters and workhouses, and then boarding house as brothel. Poor Mary Higgs had her horizons opened up in a hurry…

Part 2 | Part 3

The Dickensian City Limits, and the People Who Crossed Them

Dickens - Oliver TwistLondon was so much smaller in 1838 when Dickens published Oliver Twist. What struck me, apart from the rank sentimentalism and the vile descriptions of Jews (on which I shall write more later) was mostly how everyone below a certain income level walks.

They walk everywhere.

Country folk come walking to London to make their fortunes. And from London, thieves walk to the country to steal theirs.

Oliver walks from the town of his birth (originally named as Mudfog, about 70 miles north of London) and tired and hungry arrives finally at the city where he is taken in by the Artful Dodger. This same journey is made by the coffin-maker’s apprentice who has run off with his servant, Claypole and Charlotte.

They describe the arrival at Highgate as it once was, with London still a good way before them (also exemplifying the need for feminism):

they passed through Highgate archway; when the foremost traveller stopped and called impatiently to his companion,

‘Come on, can’t yer? What a lazybones yer are, Charlotte.’

‘It’s a heavy load, I can tell you,’ said the female, coming up, almost breathless with fatigue.

‘Heavy! What are yer talking about? What are yer made for?’ rejoined the male traveller, changing his own little bundle as he spoke, to the other shoulder. ‘Oh, there yer are, resting again! Well, if yer ain’t enough to tire anybody’s patience out, I don’t know what is!’

‘Is it much farther?’ asked the woman, resting herself against a bank, and looking up with the perspiration streaming from her face.

‘Much farther! Yer as good as there,’ said the long-legged tramper, pointing out before him. ‘Look there! Those are the lights of London.’

‘They’re a good two mile off, at least,’ said the woman despondingly.

‘Never mind whether they’re two mile off, or twenty,’ said Noah
Claypole; for he it was; ‘but get up and come on, or I’ll kick yer, and so I give yer notice.’

Finally they get to the Angel at Islington:

In pursuance of this cautious plan, Mr. Claypole went on, without halting, until he arrived at the Angel at Islington, where he wisely judged, from the crowd of passengers and numbers of vehicles, that London began in earnest. Just pausing to observe which appeared the most crowded streets, and consequently the most to be avoided, he crossed into Saint John’s Road, and was soon deep in the obscurity of the intricate and dirty ways, which, lying between Gray’s Inn Lane and Smithfield, render that part of the town one of the lowest and worst that improvement has left in the midst of London.

It is hard, now, to imagine London beginning in earnest at the Angel. It is impossible, now, to imagine British people trudging seventy miles carrying all of their worldly possessions. Sadly I can still imagine the woman being asked to carry the heavier burden.

I think of getting to the country now in terms of recreation, of space. It was certainly far less of a walk back then to get out of the city, into the fresh air of the country. Hampton, for example, has now been well swallowed up by London to become a suburb. But once upon a time:

They turned round to the left, a short way past the public-house; and then, taking a right-hand road, walked on for a long time: passing many large gardens and gentlemen’s houses on both sides of the way, and stopping for nothing but a little beer, until they reached a town. Here against the wall of a house, Oliver saw written up in pretty large letters, ‘Hampton.’ They lingered about, in the fields, for some hours. At length they came back into the town; and, turning into an old public-house with a defaced sign-board, ordered some dinner by the kitchen fire.

The kitchen was an old, low-roofed room; with a great beam across the middle of the ceiling, and benches, with high backs to them, by the fire; on which were seated several rough men in smock-frocks, drinking and smoking. They took no notice of Oliver; and very little of Sikes; and, as Sikes took very little notice of them, he and his young comrade sat in a corner by themselves, without being much troubled by their company.

I do not yet know Hampton, but here it is a world away from the slums of Holborn, through countryside and ‘gentlemen’s houses’.  A walkable world away, and yet… not a pleasant day trip for those on foot and without business here.

This is still a world where easy movement between town and country for pleasure is still the province of the wealthy. Where trips tend to be one-way for the poor — seventy miles walk is no small journey. As we escape the underworld with Oliver, swept up in carriages belonging to the good, the kind and the beautiful we also find the ability to more easily escape the city. It is still for longer periods of time, one season spent in London, the summer in a large house in the countryside.

It is only the thieves that move easily and regularly between the two.

It is also the thieves and the outcast that fill the edges of the city. There are some amazing descriptions of Rotherhithe in here. Concentrations of poverty form another kind of limit in a way, rather like the slums around Field Lane. Yet the South Bank of the river was always seen as different, somehow outside — and for a long time formally outside many of the restrictive laws belonging to London proper.

Near to that part of the Thames on which the church at Rotherhithe abuts, where the buildings on the banks are dirtiest and the vessels on the river blackest with the dust of colliers and the smoke of close-built low-roofed houses, there exists the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London, wholly unknown, even by name, to the great mass of its inhabitants.

To reach this place, the visitor has to penetrate through a maze of close, narrow, and muddy streets, thronged by the roughest and poorest of waterside people, and devoted to the traffic they may be supposed to occasion. The cheapest and least delicate provisions are heaped in the shops; the coarsest and commonest articles of wearing apparel dangle at the salesman’s door, and stream from the house-parapet and windows. Jostling with unemployed labourers of the lowest class, ballast-heavers, coal-whippers, brazen women, ragged children, and the raff and refuse of the river, he makes his way with difficulty along, assailed by offensive sights and smells from the narrow alleys which branch off on the right and left, and deafened by the clash of ponderous waggons that bear great piles of merchandise from the stacks of warehouses that rise from every corner. Arriving, at length, in streets remoter and less-frequented than those through which he has passed, he walks beneath tottering house-fronts projecting over the pavement, dismantled walls that seem to totter as he passes, chimneys half crushed half hesitating to fall, windows guarded by rusty iron bars that time and dirt have almost eaten away, every imaginable sign of desolation and neglect.

In such a neighborhood, beyond Dockhead in the Borough of Southwark, stands Jacob’s Island, surrounded by a muddy ditch, six or eight feet deep and fifteen or twenty wide when the tide is in, once called Mill Pond, but known in the days of this story as Folly Ditch. It is a creek or inlet from the Thames, and can always be filled at high water by opening the sluices at the Lead Mills from which it took its old name. At such times, a stranger, looking from one of the wooden bridges thrown across it at Mill Lane, will see the inhabitants of the houses on either side lowering from their back doors and windows, buckets, pails, domestic utensils of all kinds, in which to haul the water up; and when his eye is turned from these operations to the houses themselves, his utmost astonishment will be excited by the scene before him. Crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half a dozen houses, with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud, and threatening to fall into it–as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations; every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage; all these ornament the banks of Folly Ditch.

In Jacob’s Island, the warehouses are roofless and empty; the walls are crumbling down; the windows are windows no more; the doors are falling into the streets; the chimneys are blackened, but they yield no smoke. Thirty or forty years ago, before losses and chancery suits came upon it, it was a thriving place; but now it is a desolate island indeed. The houses have no owners; they are broken open, and entered upon by those who have the courage; and there they live, and there they die. They must have powerful motives for a secret residence, or be reduced to a destitute condition indeed, who seek a refuge in Jacob’s Island.

These long, weary journeys on foot, these marginal spaces where the poor crowd together and struggle to survive are also well documented in the accounts of reformers and early social scientists. Margaret Harkness describes wandering through the city looking for work, Maude Pember Reeves too notes a number of men who regularly walk distances of many miles to their employment and back.

Mary Higgs herself goes ‘on the tramp’ to study the conditions that women faced on the road, particularly when it came to finding shelter. The absence of provision for the thousands of people criss-crossing England’s countryside — cut loose from traditional employment by enclosure and industrialisation and desperately seeking work — is appalling.

Dickens obviously walked these ways himself — perhaps not the seventy miles from ‘Mudfog’ to London — but he certainly tramped the city from one end to the other and his marvelous descriptions of it  bring to life what is now long past.

I like to walk, but this is a kind of walking as far removed from my experience as this level of poverty, an experience of the city and how you live in it that I can only catch glimpses of through imagination and weary feet. How transformative has the change in transportation been?

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