I loved the Shirley Baker exhibition, found it moving and inspiring both. ‘Women and Children; and Loitering Men’ at the Manchester Art Gallery. Her photographs are vibrant, beautifully composed, full of life, provocative–everything photographs should be–and at the same time her subject is the one closest to my heart: everyday life and working-class community.
Pioneering British photographer Shirley Baker (1932-2014) is thought to be the only woman practicing street photography in Britain during the post-war era. Baker’s humanist documentary work received little attention throughout her sixty-five years career. This exhibition includes previously unseen colour photographs by Baker alongside black and white images and ephemera such as magazine spreads, contact sheets and various sketches. It specifically focuses on her depictions of the urban clearance programmes of inner city Manchester and Salford. This intense period of study, spanning from 1961 – 1981, documents what Baker saw as the needless destruction of working class communities.
This is an exhibition put together by Anna Douglas, first shown in London (of course, already I am feeling this North-South injustice)
For an amateur photographer and an urbanist and with a lifetime devoted to building power and community, these photographs sing. They document this structural period of demolition, the hope of better lives and council housing, the children my god the children everywhere and you love every one of them. Mothers everywhere too (and all my fears of being like that, like them, that joy vanished from them though I know often it is still there and it is my own fear speaking still, it seems visible only in the children and some of the old men).
The old men, the unemployed, the laundry, the cats and the dogs, the hope and despair, beauty and laughter and oppression and a hard working life all painted in black and white and glorious colour.
Maybe I loved most sharing this space with others, it felt like these rooms were filled with unusual suspects for a gallery, and a couple of older men were reminiscing behind me for a while about these days I was staring at captured with such compassion and immediacy it was altogether beautiful.
Some pictures from the website dedicated to her.There was another picture with a cat that was my favourite. I cannot find it. The unexpected heartbreak of denial in an internet age. Reminds me of my own poverty-stricken youth. Nothing like this though. The kids above — I imagine this was a day that all of them have remembered all their lives. The kids below — those faces too old and wary. I knew so many kids like that, love this country because seems like they are rare now. Nothing sad about this kid though. There is so little about Shirley Baker and I want to know all of it, devour all of her photographs. The book cost £30 — impossible at the end of the month. The other books from the handful of times her work has been shown all over £100. Luckily there is a website dedicated to her, it states:
Shirley Baker (1932 – 2014) was one of Britain’s most compelling yet underexposed social documentary photographers. Her street photography of the working-class inner-city areas, taken from 1960 until 1981, would come to define her humanist vision.
“It has always astonished me how quickly things can disappear without a trace.”
Hampered by union restrictions on female press photographers, she abandoned plans to work for the Manchester Guardian…. it is her empathetic but unsentimental photographs of inner-city working-class communities in Salford and Manchester as they experienced years of ‘slum’ clearance that has come to define her distinct vision.
“My sympathies lay with the people who were forced to exist miserably, often for months on end, sometimes years, whilst demolition went on all around them.” (Shirley Baker, on the slum clearances of inner Manchester and Salford)
Look at these incredible visions of the city and the life that filled it and spilled over it as the face of it was being transformed.
They are incredible, I wanted to see all of them. I wanted to know more of how she thought about them. I loved too, the exhibition’s integration of oral histories from people in these neighbourhoods, though I kind of hate the technology so I didn’t listen to all of them.
I will be patient, I suppose, and wait for more.
In looking for some of my favourite photographs I found this one online, an older Shirley Baker in front of this building I love and have long wondered about as I walk past it all the time on my way home, now a Chinese Restaurant on Plymouth Grove. It’s somehow so warming to think of her here, in my own place.
I love the idea that Nothing is Lost. The struggle that it should be so. I long for it, having often felt the vertiginous realistion that you can’t quite remember what used to be in a place before the regeneration kicked off and filled the world with its shiny ugliness, or the equally vertiginous feeling of being lost yourself amongst streets you once knew well. Have fought over. I think much of academia alongside planners and architects and politicians have no words for this loss, no sense of its meaning. I think too often their own positionality prevent them from ever knowing such grief, much less coming to grips with it.
So it needs voices like those found in the collaboration Nothing is Lost both to understand the tangled legacies of regeneration, and to ensure that development does not succeed in erasing what was there before. I could even imagine a world where this kind of work helps form the foundation for rebuilding an area together with its residents to create a place the steps fully into its own potential, conducive to a fullness of life and creativity and wellbeing.
So what then, did the Games bring to the East End? A degree of examination and scrutiny of the city’s true historical centre, its frayed edges, the backdrop to its most shameful statistics of poverty and conflict, a part of Glasgow with a deep-seated and firmly held distrust of its city fathers (and a long list of grievances to support it) did make its way past the boosterism and aggressive myth-making of the organisers….
I loved this beautiful collection of work in its awesome brown cardboard box, a surprise gift from Mitch Miller, later rushed home from Glasgow to Manchester with anticipation. It hurt me to tear it open and thus ruin a lovely object, but the contents were worth it of course.
Inside three booklets of words, photographs, drawings (and more words), and the incredible dialectograms that unfold to display complex drawings mapping out the interactions between people and the spaces they live in and create. I am more than a little obsessed with those at the minute — love them so much I have already given one away to someone from one of the communities depicted. They are too precious to hoard. Because look:
Schipka Pass. The name is no help. It gives no clue to the gaudy, ramshackle lane between the Gallowgate and London Road that was once a cut through and then an in shot housing an eclectic flea market. It gives no indication of the splendour of the surrounding tenements, long since knocked down. I google the name, Schipka Pass, and try to find out the lane’s roots. Folk on Glasgow chat forums say there’s a Schipka Pass in Bulgaria, the site of a battle between peasants and Turks in the 1700s, and speculate that someone associated with the lane in Glasgow had ancestors who fought there. I don’t even know how to pronounce Schipka, but follow Gary’s lead and use a hard ‘k’ as in Skipka rather than a Connery-esque ‘Shkipka’ as I’ve also heard it pronounced.
Her words capture the experience for those of us who could not be there, the flavour of place and feeling, the smell and sound of the bright caf or the muddy chaotic laughing park as people talk about their work, their homes, their memories. My favourite I think was the chapter on Schipka Pass. That might perhaps just be because it took on the legacy of trader Dick Barton (!). So for me, and I suspect for many, there was a whole other layer of utter delight every time I read the name and this music running through my head for the whole of it. It seems to match the pace of his son’s banter.
Chris Leslie’s photographs reminded me I knew Schipka Pass when I lived there, but only ever as a wasteland.
As Leslie describes it:
Schipka Pass – initially a hive of Victorian tenements and bustling back courts, a handy shortcut to get from the Gallowgate to London Road and eventually a flea market akin to Paddy’s Market, bizarrely and somewhat unfittingly named after a pass in the Balkan’s Russo-Turkish War of 1877.
In the latter end of the 20th century it was spiritual home to Dick Barton, who covered his flea market with handmade painted signs of football rants, messages of public safety (beware of yawning dogs) and urban myths of a brothel called Sheik-Ma-Tadger. Empty and dormant since the 80s all that survived was the Patrick Thistle-coloured painted boards. When a wallpaper shop went on fire for several hours in 2011 the whole street level of shops was demolished and then boarded up, leaving another huge crater scarring the East End landscape.
This captures only a small taste of the wealth to be found in these writings and photographs. I feel that the Sheik-Ma-Tadger brothel will of a surety make an appearance at some point in my own stories in its honour.
Back to Alison Irvine, her talks with Robert Kennedy, local boy made good and building an adventure playground from the ground up. Reminding me of how connected the very basics are in communities like ours across the world. This reminded me of the Black Panther breakfast programs — a startling contrast even as I thought it, yet one which holds.
Feed the children, he says. Help out the parents whose budgets during school holidays are burst because they’re having to find money for breakfast and lunch when in term time these meals are provided for free at school. (37)
Irvine talks with a man with a name that actually beats that of Dick Barton:
Raecher Hiscoe thumps the cover of one of the seats on his family’s Sky Dive. ‘That’s the skin,’ he says, in answer to my question. ‘We take the skins off, inspect the steel frames, repaint them as needed, repair any damage and then we reassemble them. Stick your head beneath the floors and get an idea of the layout.’ The ride is mostly packed away but I crouch and take a look.
We’re in a shed in Carntyne, hired by a group of travelling showpeople, including Raecher and his family, to enable them to open out their rides and do the maintenance and safety tests required for the start of the show season. Inside the shed, rides stand in their unlit, undressed state, half opened out, steel arms stretching towards cold corners.
The stories of Dalmarnock’s travellers, how lives and patterns and spaces have changed. Dalmarnock, that I only ever walked through once, knew mostly as a name in a list being called as I waited for my train. Which brings us finally to Mitch Miller’s dialectograms:
For me it meant going back to the work I had done on my own community, Glasgow’s travelling showpeople. ‘We’ form the largest minority group in the schools of Shettleston and Carntyne, and before the new housing that came to Dalmarnock, its largest group of residents. Yet this community – one that has been in Dalmarnock for forty years, and associated with the wider East End for nearly two hundred – has rarely been discussed, despite being directly in the path of Clyde Gateway’s redevelopments. As Alex James Colquhoun, the former Chair of the Showman’s Guild (based just over the river at Cambuslang) noted, not one member of the community made it into Commonwealth City the BBC Scotland documentary on the changes taking place in the Dalmarnock area. Not even the aerial shots that swept over Springfield Road, Baltic or Mordaunt Street or Dalmarnock Road itself captured a single one of the twenty or so yards that line Swanston Street, just a few metres away from all of these thoroughfares.
I can’t begin to capture the wealth of stories, drawings, photographs held here, but I loved them. Together I think they explore in a most beautiful and complementarily detailed way the connections between people and place going back over generations, the stories hidden in today’s empty spaces and fading advertisements, the grief and loss caused by decay, ‘slum removal’, ‘regeneration’. Above all the ignorance built into a profit-driven process with no understanding of the wealth that exists here or ability to ever see it, making hope so precarious for meaningful improvement.
Hearing resident voices, seeing with new eyes what was there and what is gone, exploring through drawings how people connect to each other and inhabit a space to render it place — all of this allows the complexities of everyday life to surface in areas shaped by the structural violence of poverty and discrimination. The kindnesses and community and individual violences these larger structures engender, the hope and the despair, the beautiful and the far-from-beautiful-but-hell-of-interesting (and itsn’t that often so much better)? All of the things that create meaning, and that do so in relation to one another as they grow up over time — it is this old forest growth that is cut down by development, to be replaced with standardized and regimented rows that grimly shine.
Above all, Nothing is Lost throws into high relief the understanding that people matter without judgments or reservations. An understanding that rarely connects with the slick promises of regeneration, which too often simply brushes them away.
We started at the Lowry on Saturday — arriving in Media City. My partner argues it should be pronounced Mediacity, which does better reflect how shiny it is, how empty and windswept yet expensive, how soulless though it has gone a half-hearted length trying for soul. A few families gave it some life, some heart. But it feels alien from the vantage point of the estates that lie near it:
And honestly, how dared they name the outlet mall after one of my favourite painters known for his incredible street scenes full of workers, children, dogs and cats, sympathetic views of all of us with all of our deformities and sadnesses and tired loneliness showing. Against a great backdrop of factories. One of the great painters of the working classes, the misfits, the outcasts. What I found most poignant was that he painted what would soon be lost. Preserved memories of a city being demolished around him. Like St Simon’s church here:
And now here he is in the ruins of the lively docks. I wish I had seen his pictures in the old Salford Art Gallery. First public library in the whole of the UK. I could see why some were upset when they moved them, though inside the new gallery the space is lovely. But honestly, the mall.
But this post isn’t about Lowry, not this one. (For more on Lowry you should read Mark Bould’s amazing post here.) It’s about some of the landscapes and the factories as they appear now. Nothing at Mediacity called for a photograph somehow, not even by its ugliness. It’s just bland despite its bling, built for consumption and status. Uncomfortable. Cold.
I love water, and yet the water along these old Salford Quays was nowhere inviting or picturesque until we left the regenerated area behind us. I loved the canal, however, the vibrance of the graffiti down alongside it. The exuberance of colour and character. Educational too, as I learned all about David Icke and his belief that we were being invaded by lizard people from outer space. Then there was the kid who walked past us with a backpack disguised as Captain America’s shield.
But regeneration was everywhere — in the great banks of painfully plain boxy buildings that could be either offices or ‘luxury’ apartments, in the old factories still beautiful and tastefully renovated, but swallowed up by the cheap new build. In the still empty lots strewn with rubbish and the poverty looking even dingier. This regeneration sat strange and isolated alongside the asphalted motorway, the wreckage of earlier decades that tore down neighbourhoods to build roads of great size funneling speeding cars past with a roaring and a coughing of fumes. Much of this walk was experienced as the city planners’ great fuck you to the pedestrian. I wondered who had thought a sign welcoming the driver to Manchester in a desolate traffic circle might be a good idea, especially alongside the changing neon sign that carried advertisements for Sky News followed by a notice in small font that the city was working to end homelessness.
Seems like there are more people sleeping rough every evening I walk through the streets.
Still we found pockets of awesomeness, a sense of the past. A reminder that more existed in life, in our humanity.
Everywhere these contrasts. Click any photo below and it will take you to a slide show…
In Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, Janette Sadik-Khan describes what she was able to achieve after being hired as New York City transportation commissioner by mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2007. She would hold that position for six and half years, part of his new vision for a radical change.
This is a book packed full of good ideas for transforming cities into places where people can walk, bike, sit, enjoy public space. It is a story of how such spaces were created both in terms of design, and as importantly the political know-how and processes required. It is also a brilliant place to go for ammunition in the struggle to get similar, livable, safe streets in other cities where there is a desparate need for them.
As always, a serious engagement with issues of history, equality, and economy are pushed to the side. Who are these spaces for? How do they affect land value and the forces displacing communities? How did such devastation happen in the first place? These aren’t really questions asked, so this is to some extent a superficial urban revolution, a street fight amongst elites. Perhaps this was a political or practical choice — both in the winning of her battles, and in the telling of these stories. We all know that these days equity isn’t actually all that popular, but it begs the question of just when planners lost that battle and started making practical choices about the discourse they use.
Still, every time I go to Tucson and watch the terrifying sprawl into the desert and the constant widening of streets into a city that makes it ever more unpleasant if not impossible to walk, I feel deep in my bones the kind of uphill battle even this kind of project, with constant reinforcement of its economic benefit, represents.
On the side of good — part of what made Sadik-Khan’s campaigns possible was grassroots advocacy. She writes:
This new vision came into focus as a growing advocacy movement hit critical mass, spurred by Transportation Alternatives, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, the Straphangers Campaign, and political outsiders who often understood the goals of government more keenly than many people in office. With the release of PlaNYC, the advocates suddenly found an administration proposing traffic solutions beyond traffic signs and signals and dedicated to safety, efficiency, and transportation investment based on data. (xiv)
This is part of what allwed her to start with certain assumptions — proved in studies over and over and over again, yet ignored by planners around the country:
Streets for the last century have been designed to keep traffic moving but not to support the life alongside it. Many streets offer city dwellers poor options for getting around, discouraging walking and stifling vibrancy and the spontaneous social gathering and spending that energize the world’s greatest cities, dragging down economies that would otherwise thrive. (1)
Building new highways, widening streets, and endlessly sprawling the city’s limits have merely multiplied the damage to city cores and smothered the very assets that make cities places where people want to live — their accessibility, convenience, diversity, culture and immediacy. (2)
The idea of the many things streets have been, could become again:
Streets are the social, political and commercial arteries of cities…identify social status. … mark political and cultural boundaries…play critical roles in democracies and in the transformative moments of history. … City dwellers around the world are beginning to see the potential of their city streets and want to reclaim them. They are recognizing an unmet hunger for livable, inviting public space. (3)
Which brings us to just what the streetfight is all about — to make such transformations against the push-back of the status quo.
She starts with Jane Jacobs, everyone among this new flood of books about public space, density, and livable streets does — the idea that streets aren’t just for traffic, that observation will help uncover a street’s multiple real uses and help solve its problems.
Rocket science it appears. Because, of course, Jacobs has been both celebrated and all the while practically ignored for decades of disinvestment in urban cores and white flight and building the suburban dream — even when it comes to rebuilding it in city centres.
Sadik-Khan’s analysis of what her team was facing at the beginning of her term:
Downtown Manhattan street life … amounted to sidewalk hot dog vendors and lunches eaten standing up. What public space there was could be found in front of courthouses and official buildings, grim and uninviting spaces likely to be occupied by homeless people and the city’s less savoury elements…
The city’s previous minimalist agenda for these spaces? ‘Basic maintenance, repair and safety from crime.’ (14)
This is the world of the traffic engineer, like those under Bob Moses who worked to transform NY: The City of the Future. She shares this image, where pedestrians were only ever an afterthought:
Yet Sadik-Khan distances herself in some ways from Jacobs’ fight against Moses in that it came to mean constant battle to preserve what exists against change. Sadik-Khan argues that cities have to change after many decades of disinvestment and decay, she writes:
retrofitting our cities for the new urban age and achieving Jane Jacob’s vision today will require Moses-like vision and action for building the next generation of city roads, ones that will accommodate pedestrians, bikes, and buses safely and not just single-occupancy vehicles… (19)
This book is something of her Moses-like vision (!), the struggle to bring it to life, and how it worked…
Density is Destiny
I often tell people that if they want to save the planet, they should move to New York City. But it could be any big city…Cities’ geographic compactness, population density, and orientation toward walking and public transportation make them the most efficient places to live in the world. Large cities like New York or Mexico City offer the best odds for sustainable growth… New Yorkers have a carbon footprint 71 percent lower than that of the average American, a function of driving less, living vertically, and the economies of scale that come with centrally located goods and services (23).
I think this is a good point. Cities linger in our conscious and subconscious as unsustainable. There are the other biases against cities that are bound up in racial and class fears and a particularly American ideology:
Making cities a choice preferable to the suburbs cuts against a long-standing anti-urban bias in the United States based on a view that cities are dangerous, crowded, and havens for crime. (24)
Which helps explain why
After years of rhapsodizing about the virtues of pristine forests, modern environmentalists have changed their tune on the city. Instead of fighting to preserve the spotted owl in the forest, they are taking the fight to cities, advocating smart of compact urban growth as part of an antisprawl strategy. (25)
Instead of? I don’t think so. There are as many campaigns as there are kind of environmentalists as there are issues that need to be resolved for our very survival on the planet. Loss of biodiversity is hardly less important than sprawl, why simplify global warming into oblivion? But anyway.
Setting the Agenda
The collective impact of these plans, processes, and policies was a wholesale government rebranding. We were changing the language and the expectation of what the department was capable of and responsible for, and how it should use the resources under its control. (40)
How do I hate ‘rebranding’? Let me count the ways, principally in that rebranding as a word actually doesn’t mean changing actual responsibilities or use of resources, and so in practice is thrown around as indicative of great changes when only superficial change is made.
There are multiple ways to transform streets through extending curbs, adding bike and bus lanes, and this chapter has a lot of good places to look for the studies that will bolster the struggle to stop street widening and promote similar kinds of projects in other cities.
She hits it on the nose:
Cities today are designed for private vehicles not because it is the most efficient mode, but because other transportation options were rendered impossible following planning decisions made decades ago. (64)
Of course, power and money were behind those decisions so this is quite complicated, there is rather uncritical praise of the redevelopment of Broadway in LA, which I know to be a deeply troubling contribution to the racial cleansing of downtown. In particular you can go back to Kevin Lynch’s descriptions of Broadway half a century ago, and it is all too clear that Broadway didn’t actually need much help to be a vital cityscape, it needed changes for whites to feel comfortable there. The development of Hollywood density is quite similar.
These are troubled histories. Like this one:
Before there was a New York City, there was a Broadway. Originally brede weg in pre-Colonial Dutch Nieuw Amsterdam, Broadway was one of the island’s first roads at a time when there was an actual wall built at Wall Street to keep out native incursions and Five Points was a pond within a swamp. (73)
Pre-fucking-Colonial? The wall built to keep Native Americans off their own traditional lands, a people who didn’t believe in walls to begin with, or private ownership?
It troubles me how sentences like that sit alongside great ideas for city transformation, acknowledgment of what she calls desire-lines and the importance of city sidewalks:
the natural, spontaneous way that people use public spaces, often contradicting the way the space was designed. … Desire-lines are a road map of opportunity… (74)
Sidewalks aren’t raised concrete streets for pedestrians. They are the front yards for city dwellers, as important as any suburban lawn. … these in-between places are a stage for New Yorkers, the urban filament where people sense and connect to the city’s energy. (75)
She’s the one who brought Jan Gehl on board to look at how NY’s public spaces could be improved. His own book detailing some of this is an interesting and very worthwhile complement. She quotes Speck as well, but that was more likely to set me off more given his focus on planning to increase property values.
But back to what can be learned. I particularly liked the way they used paint — like the blue-line project that once partially transformed my Bow neighbourhood in East London.
By following the footsteps and tracing an outline of the way people use the street today, we could uncover the design of the city we will want to live in tomorrow. These streets of tomorrow can be outlined in paint. (79)
She gives this example
It’s great. But again, she notes the joy with which the local BID agreed to take care of it — and practically that makes sense — but there has been a constant struggle against BIDs for the use of private security guards to control who has the right to access space. Anyway. This conflicted process of improving neighborhoods, yet generally for a wealthier kind of person, continues. On the High Line, she writes:
…it was becoming clear that the area would soon resemble the nearby upscale Greenwich Village, abandoning its bleak past as an after-hours drug-scoring, cruising strip. (83)
She notes the role of independent media in supporting their work, for better for for worse, particularly Streetsblog, which chronicled the
urban revolution unfolding on new York City’s streets’ that newspapers and ‘blogs obsessed with conflict’ could not tell (84)
Honestly, I think some of the deeper conflicts around equity and justice did need a lot more telling, but newspapers rarely get to that level either, there was clearly a lot of much less worthwhile NIMByist arguments going on.
Another note, both very positive if the change is positive, and yet more than a little frightening:
Once you changed a space, its new configuration became obvious and unassailable, and people immediately abandoned whatever attachments they had to the way it used to be. (84)
The Battle for a New Times Square
Times Square is iconic to all factions around the development of city spaces.
Times Square by that point had already outgrown most of its legendary seediness and shed the peepshow theatres… (91)
In their planning they worked with the business district, the Times Square Alliance, and sure enough, a measure of progress was a massive increase in property value:
The Real Estate Board of New York found that per-square-foot rental rates for ground-floor properties fronting Times Square doubled in a single year, a figure that would eventually triple. (102)
Poor Luke Cage, banished from downtown New York just when it needed superheroes the most. It seems to limits the conception of ‘people’ to write this:
These changes weren’t just quality-of-life improvements. They opened a city to its people and through that expanded its economic prospects. (103)
Stealing Good Ideas
Shock horror, the point of this chapter is that you should learn from other cities. It looks at (the admittedly wonderful) example of Medellin and Bogota. Which I shall, I must, examine separately on its own terms, as both are extraordinary.
I do like the encouragement of people to make space their own.
These DIY acts reveal the power of signs, signals, paint–seemingly minor cues from the streets that shape our lives. It takes only a little bit of imagination to transform a sidewalk into a place-making feature of the street. In an increasing number of cases, city planners are being inspired and, in turn, inspiring these kinds of unorthodox strategies, blurring the lines between the sanctioned and unsanctioned and also erasing the barriers between the people and those who represent them. (136)
I hope we see more of this, and I hope we see more bike lines, but woah! The crazy battles over bikelines! Because I do love bikelines and lanes, particularly of this kind, separated from cars by a painted shoulder or by concrete as in Holland (sadly not like most of London or Bristol).
Bike share? Very cool. Safety in numbers of pedestrians and streets that require constant attention and vigilance from those driving them? All good.
And then, the chapter title:
Sorry to Interrupt, but We Have to Talk About Buses
I get it. A lot of people don’t like to ride buses. So why would you want to read about them here? (233)
I am glad when she returns to Bogota and a quote from Penalosa which I have heard before,
An advanced city is not one where poor people drive cars, but where rich people take public transportation. (235)
So true. At the same time, those poor people actually form the majority in cities, they take the bus, the issues with equity and justice are clear despite the framing of this, suddenly bringing into even higher relief the audience for whom this book is written. She gets, of course, that it’s a question of equity, I like her for it, but equity is rarely visible in this book. Possibly, as I said earlier, because of that audience. Buses are a hard sell where equity is not a primary consideration.
This lack of equity as a worthwhile object in itself leads to the next section, and quote:
Next to safety and mobility, which should be the first considerations, the economic power of sustainable streets is probably the strongest argument for implementing dramatic change. (252)
I don’t quite understand how we have arrived in a place where commonsense fails to find problematic a lack of fairness or justice in these first considerations, or to leave unquestioned the public good in this scenario:
In Minneapolis, a 5.5-mile former rail right-of-way converted into a bike and recreational path spurred $200 million in investment over the last decade, resulting in 1,200 new residential units. (261)
When displacement, and the shuffling of the poverty deck, is always a huge related issue.
Nuts and Bolts
I love that she loves infrastructure — I confess I don’t think about this enough myself. It is an issue few think about, I know, and undoubtedly why this should be the last chapter. Sadik-Khan writes:
But no one want to hear about infrastructure. It’s even less sexy than buses. (265)
Poor buses. Compare the US to London where the buses are iconic and much loved — and they work.
But I share her love of bridges, and am so jealous of her chance to climb one. I rather love her love of asphalt, the details of this chapter of rock and its sources, its processing, its new life as a surface.
Her last lines.
There is a new vocabulary for street designs that serve the needs of the people who live in cities. There are new expectations for streets. And there is New York.
If you can remake it here, you can remake it anywhere.
I am glad we have developed a new vocabulary, a new portfolio for design, new expectations.
Now, for social equity to become something we care about again.
For more on building social spaces and better cities…
Street Value is a brilliant little book from Rosten Woo and Meredith TenHoor. It is beautifully illustrated and innovative in form, with copious drawings, photographs, maps and plans that charts the history of Fulton Street Mall in Brooklyn decade by decade. It brings together quotes from business owners and customers, memories, narratives and photo essays to try and understand the history of this single street in a way that I love.
At the same time, it evokes a history of many such streets across the country by unpacking the narratives of abandonment, racial change, redevelopment and above all, highlighting the ways that racism has shaped urban spaces through some of the most honest and revealing interviews I have ever read. This street continued to make money through thick and thin where almost all other malls failed. Yet from the moment white flight really took hold and it became a shopping destination of choice for communities of colour, it has been seen as a ‘problem’ by the city and planning agencies who have continuously worked to ‘redevelop’ and ‘revitalise’ a space that needed neither redevelopment nor revitalisation in order to bring the white folks back. But let the book speak for itself.
By 1960, most of the larger department stores that had come of age with A&S, such as Loeser’s and Namm’s, were already finding it hard to compete with a new generation of discount retailers. …
The owners of Fulton Street’s largest stores perceived the problem differently. To them, the clearest indicator and proximate cause for worry was this: white people were making up a smaller and smaller percentage of the street’s shoppers. (55)
You have the influential Chicago School: Park & Burgess’s basic theory held that racial succession was, if not a cause, then a very accurate indicator that depressed property values, and abandonment would soon follow.
The concept of blight proved a powerful, though unsubstantiated, explanatory mechanism. The declaration of blight on Fulton Street was unique because the objective indicators of economic health so clearly contradicted the theory of blight. The shoppers may have come from Bed-Stuy, but business was good. Foot traffic was brisk and retail rents could compete with the best in the city. (59)
‘Preventative renewal imagined two rivals: Manhattan on the one hand, and the suburbs on the other’ (60). They simply couldn’t imagine a street that succeeded and yet was neither. So they unsuccessfully tried to become one or the other.
The Fulton Arcade was a preemptive strike against the perceived decline of the Central Business District. Designed to compete with the charms of the suburban strip, it would attract would-be suburban shoppers by constructing a proxy of a regional shopping mall… (62)
The pedestrian was to rescue the commercial life of the street; the planners only had to remove this figure’s natural enemies: the elements and the automobile. But an important contradiction haunted the scheme: the street was already a commercial success. Pedestrians already thronged Fulton street. Why was preventive renewal so necessary? … By their logic [planners], black shoppers were poor and poor shoppers had no place in the Central Business District of Brooklyn. (63)
They still kept trying. So no one with any experience of downtown revitalisation efforts will be surprised at their next steps:
Urban design could make the street look like a mall, but it couldn’t make it act like a mall. To create the impression of safety, cleanliness and order…had to invent a new form of government: the Business Improvement District. (73)
By the 1990s:
Pedestrianization had failed to bring white middle-class shoppers back to the area. Instead, it helped the mall flourish as a nationally significant locus of consumer culture. The culture’s significance, however, continued to remain invisible to the mainstream, no matter how many hit singles mentioned the mall or how many dollars were spent on the street.
Planners continued to view the street as a problem to be solved rather than as a resource to draw from (89).
The following quotes are from an interview with Richard Rosen, then a member of the Urban Design Group working on the Fulton Mall, before becoming Chief Executive Officer of the Urban Land Institute. They studied the street in 1968 and found that the number shopping there
was always around 400,000 a day. We did find it was the fourth biggest shopping center in the United States, and that the retail sales were hugely dramatic, in spite of the fact that Max Schulman, the president of J.W. Mays Department Stores, wasn’t very comfortable with who his customers were. (127)
You guys can’t imagine this because you’re younger, but this was a white America not used to multicultural activity. They wanted to be sire that they covered their white base so they went to Kings Plaza and Roosevelt Field. A&S moved further and further out.
Thus is wasn’t the lack of sales or of people that caused stores to leave, but the prejudices of the owners, their identification with a white base. ‘A cultural thing’ as Rosen says. He is astonishingly open in this interview:
well, yeah, we probably were sort of racist in our thinking at that time to think blacks were synonymous with poor. When I started to work at the Urban Land Institute in 1992 we used to tongue-in-cheek say to staff, the worst word you can use is ‘urban.’ Urban was such a bad word. It was a code word for poor and minority. And now urban is a hot word. Urban Outfitters. Urban this, urban that. I mean it’s just changed (131)
And then so revealing for the work of planners and those working on downtown ‘revitalisation’:
I think that Downtown Brooklyn happened in spite of what we did at Fulton Mall. It’s all about safety, and the perception of safety and the reality of safety. And in the 60s, one of the things that was happening with the perception of safety was that it wasn’t. Department store owners were saying that they’d rather be in a mall because in a mall you can control it, and how are you going to control Fulton Mall?
Part of the idea was to make it clean. We had people dressed up in uniforms, and it was all to create a perception of safety. But I don’t think we saw it in those days quite like you might in retrospect. I never conceptualized that the reasons that people liked malls was because they were safe and they didn’t like Fulton Street because they didn’t know if it was safe, and there’s a lot of people walking along that don’t look like you do and you’re afraid and you don’t want to be there.
You heard from Jonathan Barnett who had the perception that the economy in Brooklyn was going down. He was wrong, it was going up. We had a perception that we had to save the economy by renovating the mall, and that’s because the department store owners were saying they were going to move out. And why were they going to move out? They weren’t moving out because they weren’t selling things. They were making lots of money. They were moving out because they perceived it wasn’t safe and their clientele was not who they wanted it to be (132).
Always always always the use of the word ‘people’ in these quotes assumes white people. It’s so extraordinary and yet explains so much about American society. In an interview with Mike Weiss, former executive director of the Fulton Mall Improvement Association and the MetroTech Business Improvement District from 2003 to 2007, he says of the mall—already a vibrant and profitable mall for people of colour:
The vision would be to assist in managing change, which is always inevitable, and try to build the district into more of a kind of vibrant 24-hour diverse, multi-use district. There are constituencies that don’t yet shop on the mall that we believe could, including the college community that exists in Downtown Brooklyn (154).
Street Kids is a thought-provoking ethnography of youth on the streets and those who try to reach out to them – and one that faces squarely all of the ethical issues involved in an academic studying such a population. I appreciated that so much, as I did the fact that she became an outreach volunteer for two years to complete the study. Thus
What I learned is that when young people tell adults anything about their lives, it is a gift (18).
Ain’t that the truth.
I also appreciated that this got beyond some of the more liberal heartbleeding to look at structural factors – the way that neoliberal privatisation of services and cutbacks in social spending has decimated service provision as the state makes way for private and often faith-based charities, the way that zero-tolerance policing and controls over public space by BIDs and others have forced non-white, non-hetero, non-middle-class populations out of the spaces they have long inhabited and into greater mobility, invisibility, and danger. One consequence of gentrification is even more deaths as youth find themselves under more stress from police, far from services and the familiar networks they rely on for survival, and in neighborhoods that are less safe. The majority of New York’s youth on or of the streets are not the highly visible white population of kids panhandling and scruffy and from around the country, but rather local kids of colour who do everything possible to hide the fact they are homeless, a high percentage of them queer, a high percentage of them escaping abuse. White middle-class residents of newly gentrified areas demanding that they just go home? Just not getting the dynamics are they. Not wanting to get them either.
Scholars argue that public-space laws that drive any perceived source of disorder from gentrifying or commercialized public spaces are ‘revanchist’ that they punitively deny people a right to space. In effect, these laws dismiss homeless people as legitimate social subjects with the right to exist in public… Public-space ordinances are being used to spatially exclude marginalized groups while simultaneously constructing some groups as deviant, disorderly subjects with no right to an orderly, commercialized city (13-14).
Thus society is ‘disciplining street youth into invisibility’ (19). Out of sight, out of mind. Out of funding.
There is a lovely discussion of ‘emplacement’, building on work by geographer Tim Cresswell – how have I not read him before?
Human geographers contend that social subjects are also spatial subjects, that as social beings, people understand the world through grounded and contextual categories. Moreover, places help naturalize social structures and hierarchies by their seemingly stable existence. In the popular lexicon, there is a place for everything, and everything has a place. Places are always both physical and social locations organized through powerful social ideologies. This sociospatial construction is a process of “emplacement.” Besides occupying spaces, these spaces makes us who we are; that is, we shape and are shaped by complex geographies, as both agents and subjects of places (25)
This not only offers insight into our characters and development, our own relationships to places, but also helps define what is at stake in the formation of place. Thus:
The presence of street youth marks a social fissure disrupting modern Western society’s imaginary of itself as orderly and just. Because street you present a type of social dissonance—a ripple in the social stream—social forces over the years have attempted to dislodge, explain away, reposition, reimagine, and erase them.
In an interesting addition to the whole debate about the use of the word ‘underclass’, she clarifies what I kind of knew but hadn’t vocalized – that it is grounded in ideas of youth, as well as race and class and gender. Unemployed youth, criminal youth, teenage mothers. Young people. Even more reasons to hate it, apart from how it’s been used to undercut welfare and demonize those in poverty. ‘They’ are different, outsiders when the term ‘community’ is mobilized as an ideal form in service of cleaning up and cleaning out, in service of attracting the middle and upper classes back to the city and creating spaces for capital.
I also liked her critique of the ‘end of public space’ argument mobilized by Mitchell, Davis, Sorkin and others, presuming that there was an earlier ideal. Instead:
Public spaces have never been open and accessible to everyone in society; rather, policing and shifting norms have functioned together to shift geographies of access and rights to particular spaces and subjectivities. Over time, women, children, and minorities have all struggled to gain the right to access, use, and be visible in public…public spaces become arenas for members of society to claim their rights. According to this view, public space is a process, a nexus of power relations, not a fixed state. Public space may not “end,” but it can shift in regard to power relations.
I really love this idea of the public and public space as process and power relations, I need to think about it more.
I have a few critiques of course. Street Kids moved from description and storytelling to theory, and what I’ve written above I found really useful, but other sections not so much and it made it a bit disjointed at times. I’m not the biggest fan of Foucault, for example, so to draw on him in discussing the rise of child labour laws and compulsory schooling as disciplining and the imposition of middle-class values on working-class children earning a living in the street I find a little maddening. Not that it isn’t true, but that is not the whole story – working classes fought hard for child labour laws and schools, these have always been contested areas and created new spaces of contestation in which struggle could play out. I always feel that Foucault condescends, that he loses that aspect of regulation, health and education services fought for and won (though not everyone would agree with me on that I suppose). The discussion of outreach as performance I also found interesting and disturbing truth be told. There is an element of performance in anyone’s activities in public, on the street. But in something like outreach, as I found in organizing, what you are striving for is connection. To get through performance to something deeper. Buber’s I-Thou, or Fromm’s work or anything in addition to performance.
Finally, there was only one mention of FIERCE!, who I love. Who organize and work politically for the preservation of their right to public spaces (being primarily LBGTQ youth of colour and as fierce as their name). Who question the whole social service framework and what is possible working within that framework. The ways it can save, empower, but more often I think, disempower. The ways this connects up to capitalism and gentrification. This book doesn’t really engage with the critiques they make. Interesting, because otherwise I so appreciate the focus on engagement, commitment, concreteness in turning academic work towards improving a situation and changing policy.
When all the fancy rhetoric about “blight” is stripped away, American urban renewal was a response to the question, “The poor are always with us, but do we have to see them every day?” The problem the planners tackled was not how to undo poverty, but how to hide the poor. Urban renewal was designed to segment the city that barriers of highways and monumental buildings protected the rich from the sight of the poor, and enclosed the wealthy center away from the poor margin.(197)
I also like this fundamental insight:
In the peculiar calculus of American racism…white people must occupy whole parts, like a whole row of bus seats or a whole neighborhood. As soon as any black people enter, the whole is spoiled, and the white people must either eject the black people…or move away themselves. (225)
The most basic means of struggle against such a calculus is that as an individual or group, in the form of political direct action. She talks about what fighting back means to people, quotes testimony from trials:
Gladys Moore on the Montgomery Bus Boycott: “Well, after so many things happened. Wasn’t no man started it. We all started it overnight. (emphasis added) (40)
Jo Ann Robinson, in her memoirs: “The one day of protest against the white man’s traditional policy of white supremacy had created a new person in the Negro. The new spirit, the new feeling did something to the blacks individually and collectively, and each liked the feeling. There was no turning back! There was only one way out–the buses must be changed!” (41)
She also talks about the healing process that occurs through collective struggle, which is nice to hear from a medical professional:
As a public health psychiatrist, I believe that healing a group’s psyche occurs through a collective process that requires organizing ways in which people come together to learn facts, share ideas, raise questions, and search for solutions. (180)
Near the end of the book she lays out a series of workshops done with community members. The first used an idea she called ‘The Community burn Index’, used to measure the damage to the neighbourhood lot by lot, charted through a community mapping exercise where small groups walked street by street telling stories and really seeing their streets and homes. I quite loved what this revealed:
I learned something about the difference between interiority and exteriority when it comes to what we see. People who are insiders to a place stop seeing it. It is a hand part of human consciousness that many things–including the scenery we look at every day–slip our of awareness in to the vast pool of rote activities and knowledge.
People who are outsiders to a place see it as a landscape. they are inhibited from seeing what they’re really seeing, but in their case it’s not because it’s new. Rather, we have another handy mental device for decoding places we’ve never been to before, and that is stereotyping… Oddly enough, neither the inside nor the outsider has the foggiest idea what he is look at. (185)
It is coming together to really look, to see things in the moment as they are, to tell stories, to talk to each other, that they helped each other really see what was there, what was no longer there.
That’s powerful, no?
They repeated this exercise with people from all over Pittsburgh, trying to build connections not just between residents and their built environment, but between people from other neighbourhoods and this particular neighbourhood so long cut off from the city. Through the eyes of a French planner and architect, they realise that this is a neighbourhood that once had multiple entries and exits and paths down the hill to the river, and all of them had gone, sealing them off from the rest of the city.
It is through discussions with this same architect, Michel Cantal-Dupart, that Fullilove proposes a new framework for analysing and resolving issues created by development. She calls it the aesthetics of equity, and it holds some interesting ideas I think. In summary:
Principle One: Respect the Common Life the Way you Would an Individual Life (199)
There is always a common life, whether or not you can see it right away. My own aside — people in power never see it.
Principle Two: Treasure the Buildings History Has Given Us (199)
If only planners had ever done that…instead we work with what they have left us, and I think this is key:
The solution to the “many centers” problem lies in improving the connections among them. The passerby must be able to figure out how to move among the jumble of squares. We need images that compel transition, promote flow, and permit movement from one place to another. We need a permeable city, safe not because of its walls, but because of the engagement of its citizens, each and every one a guardian of the public piece/peace. (204)
Here Fullilove edges towards all the wonderful literature studying how buildings and planning create environments that foster and build community.
Principle Three: Break the Cycle of Disinvestment (204)
I suppose here is where my study of political economy makes me a little skeptical that this could happen without one hell of a fight that is more transformative than anything we’ve seen before. But I write too much about that elsewhere. Still, it is fundamental to these dynamics, and needs to be understood just as much as everything else here.
Principle Four: Freedom of Movement (205)
Hell yes. This has never really existed in the U.S. for non-whites. But there’s a funny section here on the massive gardens of André Le Nôtre built for French aristocrats and the Sun King himself. I feel strongly about such gardens that use perspective to show power and wealth and the subjection of nature, so it’s interesting to be challenged here with a sentence that says
Perspective creates both the intimacy of “here” and the wonder of “there”. It allows rest and dwelling, but it also encourgaes exploration and travel… Perspective is, at heart, a democratic tool, because it is a linking tool. (208)
I think Gordon Cullen explores this quite beautifully in the townscape in ways that show just how much about power and wealth those damn gardens really are. But point taken in the abstract. I think Cantal has some odd views being passed along here, as Haussman is praised a little further along for his vistas and opening up of the city, and that just makes me a little sad without acknowledging the massive displacement, the purpose of making the poor easier to control and send them to the peripheries.
Still, I quite like these four principles. Just as I do the idea that people should be able to take city spaces and make it their own.
I also like the thought she ends with:
We are somewhere on the dwelling/journey spiral. We have all been forced from home but non of us has yet reached safety. We might choose to continue to proceed in blindness. But we might also recognize that we can use the journey to create the arrival of our dreams in the community of all of us.
Let us listen to the bell; it tolls for us. It’s time to go home. (239)
This is one of the few books that really tries to come to grips with the deep psychological trauma caused by mass displacement — what it calls Root Shock. It does so through the prism of urban renewal and reminds us of the scale of it. The program ran from 1949 to 1973, and during this time the U.S. government bulldozed 2,500 neighborhoods in 993 cities, dispossessing an estimated million people. They were supposed to be slum clearances, they were supposed to create space for new housing. Few of these clearances did, and we are still coming to grips with what was lost. But there is a bitter truth behind the switch from ‘urban’ to ‘Negro’ removal — it is the Black community that lost the most and that continues to be most impacted by it all.
What was it, then, that was lost?
…the collective loss. It was the loss of a massive web of connections–a way of being–that had been destroyed by urban renewal; it was as if thousands of people who seemed to be with me in sunlight, were at some deeper level of their being wandering lost in a dense fog, unable to find one another for the rest of their lives. It was a chorus of voices that rose in my head, with the cry, “We have lost one another.” (4)
I like this understanding of it. I also quite love that despite a clinician trying to deepen our understanding of the psychological impacts, she maintains a larger understanding of just what is happening.
This process taught me a new respect for the story of upheaval. It is hard to hear, because it is a story filled with a large, multivoiced pain. it is not a pain that should be pigeonholed in a diagnostic category, but rather understood as a communication about human endurance in the face of bitter defeat. (5)
And you know I love the spatial awareness that has to be part of this, because it is a physical loss of building, home, neighbourhood, as much as a loss of connection.
Buildings and neighborhoods and nations are insinuated into us by life; we are not, as we like to think, independent of them. (10-11)
So how does Fullilove define Root Shock?
Root shock is the traumatic stress reaction to the destruction of all or part of one’s emotional ecosystem. It has important parallels to the physiological shock experience by a person who, as a result of injury, suddenly loses massive amounts of fluids. Such a blow threatens the whole body’s ability to function…. Just as the body has a system to maintain its internal balance, so, too, the individual has a way to maintain the external balance between himself and the world. This way of moving in the environment…. (11)
It is not something that is experienced right away and then disappears.
The experience of root shock–like the aftermath of a severe burn–does not end with emergency treatment, but will stay with the individual for a lifetime. In fact, the injury from root shock may be even more enduring than a burn, as it can affect generations and generations of people.
Root shock, at the level of the individual, is a profound emotional upheaval that destroys the working model of the world that had existed in the individual’s head. (14)
This book is interladen with quotes and stories from people Fullilove worked with, she cares like I do to let people speak for themselves about their experience. She quotes Carlos Peterson, on the bulldozing of his neighbourhood:
‘My impression was that we were like a bunch of nomads always fleeing, that was the feeling I had.” (13)
There is Sala Uddin, who remembered urban renewal first with approval — the new homes they were getting, then:
Critiquing his own earlier enthusiasm, he pointed out to me, “We didn’t know what impact the amputation of the lower half of our body would have on the rest of our body until you look back twenty years later, and the rest of your body is really ill because of that amputation.
The sense of fragmentation is a new experience that we can now sense, that we didn’t sense then. We were all in the same location before. Now we are scattered literally to the four corners of the city, and we are not only politically weak, we are not a political entity. We are also culturally weak. And I think that has something to do with the easiness of hurting each other. How easy it is to hurt each other, because we are not that close anymore. We are not family anymore. (175)
Because she is able to listen, she is able to describe the ways that people are connected both to buildings, but also to each other. I love how from multiple angles, the human connections to the earth, to the built environment and to each other always emerge as key to lives well-lived, whether looking at permaculture or public space or psychology:
This lesson of interconnectedness is as hard to learn as differential calculus or quantum mechanics. the principle is simple: we–that is to say, all people–live in an emotional ecosystem that attaches us yo the environment, not just as our individual selves, but as being caught in a single, universal net of consciousness anchored in small niches we call neighborhoods or hamlets or villages. Because of the interconnectedness of the net, if your place is destroyed today, I will feel it hereafter. (17)
This brings a new look at Jane Jacob‘s street ballet, where
you are observing the degree to which people can adapt to different settings, and not just adapt, but attach, connect. They are connecting not to the negatives or even the positives of the setting, but to their own mastery of the local players and their play. (19)
I am quite intrigued by this idea:
Instead, the geography created by dispersal-in-segregation created a group of islands of black life. “Archipelago” is the official geographic term for a group of islands. Black America is an archipelago state, a many-island nation within the American nation. The Creation of the archipelago nation had two consequences for African Americans. The first is that the ghettos became centers of black life; the second is that the walls of the ghetto, like other symbols of segregation, became objects of hatred. In this ambivalent, love/hate relationship, it was impossible to chose to dwell. Yet people did choose to make life as vibrant and happy as they possibly could. (27)
This feels particularly true of earlier periods when the colour lines were hard and fast and patrolled by white mobs and white gangs and the use of violence. When green books were necessary when travelling to know where to stay, what to eat safe from the oceans of white hatred (too far? Not in terms of the hatred, but maybe in terms of metaphor…) When the ghetto walls were high and strong and each brick legally protected, which is part of the story and the trauma of urban renewal’s root shock. For so long people faced the choice: to fight to improve the ghetto or the fight to leave it. Regardless, she captures something of what the ghetto cost the city as a whole:
Segregation in a city inhibits the free interaction among citizens and invariably leads to a brutality and inequality, which themselves are antithetical to urbanity. When segregation disappears, freedom of movement becomes possible. that does not necessarily mean that people will want to leave the place where they have lived. The ghetto ceases to be a ghetto, it is true, but it does not stop being a neighborhood of history. Postsegregation, the African-American ghetto would have been a sight for imaginative re-creation , much like the ghetto in Rome. (45)
She writes later on:
The divided city is a subjugated city. (164)
The tragedy always was this inisght, again from Jane Jacobs (as summarised by Fullilove):
A slum would endure if residents left as quickly as they could. A neighborhood could transform itself, if people wanted to stay. It was the investment of time, money and love that would make the difference. (44)
That was almost never allowed to happen. Instead neighbourhoods were bulldozed — and again there is the comparison to rubble left by war, similar to Dybek, to Gbadamosi:
Indeed, in looking at American urban renewal projects I am reminded more of wide-area bombing–the largely abandoned World War II tactic of bombing major parts of cities as we did in Wurzeburg, Germany and Hiroshima, Japan–than of elegant city design. (70)
It was done in the most destructive way possible:
Even though the basis for compensation was gradually extended, the payments continued to be linked to individual property rights. Collective assets — the social capital created by a long-standing community–were not considered in the assessment of property values. (79)
There is not enough on why I think, which limits the section thinking through what we can do to stop it. But there is this quote from Reginal Shereef, who studies the effects of urban renewal on African Americans in Roanoke:
“But the reality of urban renewal was that cities wanted to improve their tax base. And that is my interest. I have always looked at the intersections between public policy and economics. And what happened in Roanoke was neighborhoods was torn down so that commercial developers could develop prperties and sell it to private interests…” (98)
Part 2 looks at some of the positive ways to think of community, ways that we can work to preserve and improve our neighourhoods. But I’ll end this with one of the lovelier expressions of what home means to people, this from resident Dolores Rubillo:
“People know, you know where you are–” and, leaning in to me added, “you are safe in the dark.” (127)
Prague is a city that lingers long in the mind and heart. Today though, it feels to me a triply divided city — the older sections jammed full of tourists and shops and mummified and tidied and meant for display, the newer suburbs that everyday vibrant life and imaginings have now been pushed into, and the awe and wonder of what Prague once was as experienced through the words of its authors. There are no hard and fast boundaries between them, geographical or otherwise, they are rather layered (even if found more in one place than another).
Meyrink’s The Golem is brilliant, taking you backwards to a Prague that I think perhaps is now only very rarely visible in shadows and courtyards. The Prague once visible through such windows in the Jewish ghetto:
If I turned my head a little I could see my window on the fourth floor across the street; with the rain trickling down, the panes looked like isinglass, opaque and lumpy, as if the glass were soggy. (41)
Meyrink writes in 1914, already the streets he described are mostly gone, lost in the 1895 sweep of renewal that cleaned and tamed it. But many of the themes explored in the Kafka museum about the relationship between author and city, words and experience, are here connected. I quote at length, because this is one of the most awesome passages where the city becomes what is real and sentient. More real, more human, more purposeful in many ways than the lives held within it, who become the phantoms:
I turned my attention away from him to the discoloured houses squatting side by side before me in the rain like a row of morose animals. How eerie and run-down they all looked! Plumped down without thought, they stood there like weeds that had shot up from the ground. They had been propped against a low, yellow, stone wall — the only surviving remains of an earlier, extensive building — two or three hundred tears ago, anyhow, taking no account of the other buildings. There was a half house, crooked, with a receding forehead, and beside it was one that stuck out like a tusk. Beneath the dreary sky, they looks as if they were asleep, and you could feel none of the malevolent, hostile life that sometimes emanates from them when the mist fills the street on an autumn evening, partly concealing the changing expressions that flit across their faces.
I have lived here for a generation and in that time I have formed the impression, which I cannot shake off, that there are certain hours of the night, or in the first light of day, when they confer together, in a mysterious, noiseless agitation. And sometimes a faint, inexplicable quiver goes through their walls, noises scurry across the roof and drop into the gutter, and with our dulled sense we accept them heedlessly, without looking for what caused them.
Often I dreamt I had eavesdropped on these houses in their spectral communion and discovered to my horrified surprise that in secret they are the true masters of the street, that they can divest themselves of their vital force, and suck it back in again at will, lending it to the inhabitants during the day to demand it back at extortionate interest as night returns.
And when I review in my mind all the strange people who live in them, like phantoms, like people not born of woman who, in all their being and doing, seems to have been put together haphazardly, out of odds and ends, then I am more than ever inclined to believe that such dreams carry within them dark truths which, when I am awake, glimmer faintly in the depths of my soul like the after-images of brightly coloured fairy-tales (41-42)
It is the houses that control us, not the other way round…we built them but they have taken lives of their own, darkly connected to our own which they give and then take away. It is another play, another layer amongst many layers, on reality and on life. On the golem created of mud, the golem dead and the inert become living, the golem held within walls where sits no door but yet not contained. A thing of the past invented and created and now perhaps gone, but that still stays with us, still has power. Like the ghetto, like memory, like everything we build as communities and as peoples.
These things all, ultimately originate from us. From our thoughts and our imaginings far more powerful than anything physical:
He believes the unknown figure that haunts the district must be the phantasm that the rabbi in the Middle Ages had first to create in his mind, before he could clothe it in physical form. (61)
And Meyrink plays with all those dreams of fantasy and superstition, our tendency to find meaning in everything and make sense of the world through images.
And just as there are natural phenomena which suggest that lightening is about to strike, so there are certain eerie portents which presage the the irruption of that spectre into the physical world. The plaster flaking off a wall will resemble a person striding along the street; the frost patterns on windows will form into the lines of staring faces; the dust drifting down from the roofs will seem to fall in a different way from usual, suggesting to the observant that it is being scattered by some invisible intelligence lurking hidden in the eaves… (59-60)
The main characters eat at the Old Toll House tavern behind the Tyn Church, this beautiful centre of Old Prague now a heaving mass of tourists pouring across the St Charles Bridge in such numbers that they fill the narrow streets and every square and drive you along at their crawl. This pictures puts off everything but the tops of their heads so I could remember this place without them, remember it as it had once been experienced but may perhaps almost never be again.
There is pathos added, too, by the loneliness, some of the same helplessness of Kafka…but it seems to me that Meyrink at least knows what it is that his character is needing:
The strange atmosphere of reverent solemnity, in which I had been enveloped since last night, was dissipated in a trice, blown away by the fresh breeze of a new day with its earthly tasks. A new-born destiny, wreathed in auspicious smiles, a veritable child of spring, was coming towards me. A human soul had turned to me for help! To me! What a change it brought about in my room! The worm-eaten cupboard suddenly had a smile on its carved features and the four chairs looked like four old folk sitting round the table, chuckling happily over a game of cards. (89)
And for all the gothic awesomeness, the dark opaqueness of this novel, there are still shafts of light that make their way through. The answer lies within us, to be found by us, it does not lie in our creations nor in our conditions nor in a single static meaning given us by our god.
Each questioner is given the answer best suited to his needs; otherwise humanity would not follow the path of their longings. Do you think there is no rhyme or reason why our Jewish books are written in consonants alone? Each reader has to find for himself the secret vowels that go with them and which reveal a meaning that is for him alone; the living word should not wither into dead dogma. (119)
There is lots to write about golems, about the story itself, its twistings and turnings, its layers and opaque meanings and uncertain events and endings. Lots to write about its serial form (erased through collection into a book). I think when I read it again I will find very new things in it, and write again and think more deeply about it. I recognised the room from which the golem of Kavalier and Clay emerged, the Prague of Kafka and Karels Capek and Zeman and so many others, the Prague that lives in my mind’s eye.
And oh, some of the language:
Mute and motionless, we stared into each other’s eyes, the one a hideous mirror-image of the other. Can he see the moonbeam too, as it sucks its way across the floor as sluggishly as a snail, and crawls up the infinite spaces of the wall like the hand of some invisible clock, growing paler and paler as it rises?
Step by step I wrestled with him for my life…He grew smaller and smaller, and as the day broke he crept back into the playing card. (111)
And how Meyrink battles against his city and his fate like Jacob wrestled the Angel. I do not know who won, nor do I know what it means that these houses are no longer there and can no longer confer in the night.
Just communities, just cities, Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.