Tag Archives: urban renewal

Chester Himes Writes Harlem (and Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones)

Grave Digger took off his hat and rubbed his short kinky hair.
‘This is Harlem,’ he said. ‘Ain’t another place like it in the world. You’ve got to start from scratch here, because these folks in Harlem do things for reasons nobody else in the world would think of. Listen, there were two hard working colored jokers, both with families, got to fighting in a bar over on Fifth Avenue near a hundred-eighteenth Street and cut each other to death about whether Paris was in France or France was in Paris.’

That ain’t nothing,’ Brody laughed. ‘Two Irishmen over in Hell’s kitchen got to arguing and shot each other to death over whether the Irish were descended form the gods or the gods descended from the Irish.’ (52)

I love Chester Himes, take such deep delight in these books for many many reasons. Probably the least of these is how Himes describes Harlem, gives addresses and intersections, signals the character and quality of people by the side of the street they live on, illuminates interiors in all their shocking colour… But I confess, that aspect of his books are pretty fucking cool. There he was in France writing these, a love and hate thing going on for his place, his people. A complex understanding of race and politics form the context, humour the only way for survival, and every now and then a hope for redemption.

It means today I can imagine some of these surroundings in all of their technicolor glory:

Her gaze touched fleetingly on his tight-drawn face and ran off to look for something more serene.

But there wasn’t anything serene in that violently colored room. The overstuffed pea green furniture garnished with pieces of blond wood fought it out with the bright red carpet, but the eyes that had to look at it were the losers.

It was a big front room with two windows on Edgecombe Drive and one window on 159th Street.

She sat on a yellow leather ottoman on the red carpet, facing the blond television-radio-record set that was placed in front of the closed-off fireplace beneath the mantelpiece. (80)

Who would’ve guessed that those rows of forbidding houses down St Nicholas Ave once held such settings? Another one:

They parked in front of the bar at 146th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue.

Chink had a room with a window in the fourth-floor apartment on St Nicholas Avenue. He had chosen the black and yellow decor himself and had furnished it in modernistic style. the carpet was black, the chairs yellow, the day bed had a yellow spread, the combination television-record player was black trimmed with yellow on the inside, the curtains were black and yellow striped, and the dressing table and chest of drawers were black.

The record player was stacked with swing classics, and Cootie Williams was doing a trumpet solo in Duke Ellington’s Take the Train. (94)

I am fascinated too, by the way over and again Harlem is emphasized as a place of country folk somehow stuck in the big city, and transforming it to wring what they need from it, be it soul food or be it codes of conduct.

‘Listen boy,’ Coffin Ed said. ‘Brody is a homicide man and solving murders is his business. He goes at it in a routine way like the law prescribes, and if some more people get killed while he’s going about it, that’s just too bad for the victims. But me and Digger are two country Harlem dicks who live in this village and don’t like to see anybody get killed. It might be a friend of ours. So we’re trying to head off another killing.’ (113)

These are from The Crazy Kill (1959). Another thing I love about these books — the covers.

Then there’s All Shot Up (1960):

The apartment was on the fifth and top floor of an old stone-fronted building on 110th street, overlooking the lagoon in upper Central Park.

Colored boys and girls in ski ensembles and ballet skirts were skating the light fantastic at two o’clock…

‘Reminds me of Gorki,’ Grave Digger lisped.

‘The writer or the pawnbroker?’ Coffin Ed asked.

A story about a boy falling through the ice and the villagers search and do not find him and so the question has to be asked, was there ever a boy?

They went silently up the old marble steps and pushed open the old, exquisitely carved wooden doors with cutglass panels.

‘The rich used to live here,’ Coffin Ed remarked.

‘Still do,’ Grave Digger said. ‘Just changed color. Colored rich folks always live in the places abandoned by white rich folks.’

They walked through a narrow, oak-paneled hallway with stained-glass wall lamps to an old rickety elevator. (260)

Reminds me of Gorki? Happiness in a single line. The description of wealth trickling down — and the depth to which it falls also makes my writing-about-race-and-class-and-buildings-and-cities heart go pitter pat. We saw these graceful, beautiful old buildings.

New York - Central Park

More covers…there’s a whole book to be written about covers, and what they say about what publishers are selling.

From The Heat’s On (1961):

So we’re leaving Harlem, moving on to the Bronx briefly…and the abode of Sister Heavenly (this whole set-up, god damn, amazing):

Apartment buildings gave way to pastel-colored villas of southern Italian architecture, garnished with flower gardens and plaster saints. After a while the houses became scattered, interspersed by market gardens and vacant lots overgrown with weeds in which hoboes slept and goats were tethered.

Finally he reached his destination, a weather-stained, one-stories, pink stucco villa at the end of an unfinished street without sidewalks. It was a small house flanked by vacant lots used for rubbish dumps. Oddly enough, it had a large gabled attic. It sat far back of a wire fence enclosing a front yard of burnt grass, dried-up flowers and wildly thriving weeds. in a niche over the front door was a white marble crucifixion of a singularly lean and tortured Christ, encrusted with bird droppings. In other niches at intervals beneath the eaves were all the varicolored plaster sainsts good to the souls of Italian peasants.

All of the front windows were closed and shuttered. Save for the faint sounds of a heavy boogie beat on a piano, the house seemed abandoned. (351)

And we move on from housing and neighbourhoods and cities to music and grief — this from when Coffin Ed thinks Grave Digger has died:

It was a saxophone solo by Lester Young. He didn’t recognize the tune, but it had the ‘Pres’ treatment. His stomach tightened. It was like listening to someone laughing their way toward death. It was laughter dripping wet with tears. Colored people’s laughter. (468)

I’ll end with Blind Man with a Pistol (1969), the last of my Chester Himes reading jag in the run up to actually going to Harlem. I like how it opens with some philosophy:

…all unorganized violence is like a blind man with a pistol.

Again we get down to the spatialities of class position:

Where 125th Street crosses Seventh Avenue is the Mecca of Harlem. To get established there, an ordinary Harlem citizen has reached the promised land, if it merely means standing on the sidewalk.

Himes writes a thick description of streets and bridges, patterns of usage, establishing how this corner means different things, socially and economically and spiritually, to Blacks and to whites. He continues:

Therefore many white people riding the buses or in motor cars pass this corner daily. Furthermore, most of the commercial enterprises–stores, bars, restaurants, theaters, etc.–and real estate are owned by white people.

But it is the Mecca of the black people just the same. The air and the heat and the voices and the laughter, the atmosphere and the drama and the melodrama, are theirs. Theirs are the hopes, the schemes, the prayers and the protest. they are the managers, the clerks, the cleaners, they drive the taxis and buses, they are the clients, the customers, the audience; they work it, but the white man owns it… The black people have the past and the present, and they hope to have the future.

What better explanation of the vast separation between use value and exchange value could you possibly ask for, or the contradictions of capitalism structured by race?

Now this, on tthe car belonging to Coffin Ed and  and Grave Digger Jones, just made me laugh.

…at night it was barely distinguishable from any number of other dented, dilapidated struggle buggies cherished by the citizens of Harlem…

Struggle buggies. I’m going to try and remember that.

More on space and race and class, and how these things confront each other from one side of the street to the other:

Across Lenox Avenue, on the West Side, toward Seventh Avenue, were the original slums with their rat-ridden, cold water flats unchanged, the dirty glass0fronted ground floors occupied by the customary supermarkets with hand -lettered ads on their plate-glass windows reading: “Fully cooked U.S. Govt. Inspected SMOKED HAMS 55c lb…Secret Deodorant ICE-BLUE 79c …

Notion stores with needles and buttons and thread on display…Barbershops…Smokeshops…Billboards..Black citizens sitting on the stops to their cold-water flats in the broiling night….Sports ganged in front of bars sucking marijuana…Grit and dust and dirt and litter floating idly in the hot dense air stirred up by the passing of feet. That was the side of the slum dwellers. the ritzy residents across the street never looked their way.

All of this…how is this not a kind of love song to Harlem? Despite the realities of this:

“Why would anyone live here who was honest?” Grave Digger said. “Or how could anyone honest stay honest who lived here? What do you want? This place was built for vice, for whores to hustle in and thieves to hid out in. And somebody got a building permit, because it’s been built after the ghetto got here.”

This building is owned by Acme Realty — they own a lot of buildings in Harlem, superintendent doesn’t know much else, only they’re all white. There’s more about slum removal:

The New York City government had ordered the demolition of condemned slum buildings on the block of the north side of 125th Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues, and the residents didn’t have anywhere to go.

Residents from other sections of Harlem were mad because these displaced people would be dumped on them, and their neighborhoods would become slums.

…they were absorbed by the urgency of having to find immediate housing, and they bitterly resented being evicted form the homes where some had been born, and their children had been born, and some had married and friends and relatives had died, no matter if these homes were slum flats that had been condemned as unfit for human dwelling. They had been forced to live there, in all the filth and degradation, until their lives had been warped to fit, and now they were being thrown out. It was enough to make a body riot.

One angry sister,who stood watching from the opposite sidewalk, protested loudly, “They calls this Urban Renewal, I calls it poor folks removal.”

And to end not just with the lies of development and progress, but how those fit within the context of generations of lies. Grave Digger Jones sums up the frustrations of a generation:

And you and me were born just after our pappies had got through fighting a war to make the world safe for democracy. But he difference is that by the time we’d fought in a jim-crow army to whip the Nazis and had come home to our native racism, we didn’t believe any of that shit. We had grown up in the Depression and fought under hypocrites against hypocrites and we’d learned by then that whitey is a liar…

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Root Shock pt 2 — Struggle and the Aesthetics of Equity

Root Shock - Mindy Thompson FullilovePsychiatrist Mindy Fullilove’s Root Shock doesn’t just explore the costs of displacement to the consciousness of the individual and the collective, but also looks at struggle on multiple levels. First, though, lets just revisit her framing of the issue:

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)

 

 

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Root Shock pt 1 — Urban Renewal and Public Health

Root Shock - Mindy Thompson FulliloveThis 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)

 

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Nottingham’s Caves and Reconstruction of Communities

Nottingham was our last stop on those glorious summer days in the Peak District, and a fascinating one. I didn’t know it was a city of caves, built over sandstone that human beings have been tunneling out for centuries.

We attempted a derive of underground Nottingham. It involved much suffering, especially by my partner Mark who can’t abide tours led by ‘characters’. I hate them too, but for me being underground offset that — though for the record, I thought we’d be able to do them without a tour leader in costume and was proved dreadfully wrong.

The 450+ caves underneath the city do not appear to be things that city bureaucrats and planners cared about at all until recently unless it was to seal them up and stamp them out — sometimes I wonder how it’s possible that people with such power view awesomeness as a liability. Until I read Le Corbusier. This church survived, but with the indignity of corporate identity and its reinvented nature as a Pitcher&Piano chain pub plastered all over it.

Nottingham Trip

Planners tore down all the old narrow streets with their twisting and interconnecting cellars, and built scenic car parking, with ‘local colour’ added through its naming in a most disheartening way (poor Maid Marian):

Nottingham Trip

They also plunked down Broadmarsh Shopping Centre on top of them. The best tour (that we had time to find and embark on) of the caves has to be accessed through the shopping centre itself, with more care gone into warning you of stick figures in peril than the wonders beneath that might distract you from Top Shop:

Nottingham Trip

I thought, actually, the characters in costume were pretty good for what they were asked to do — I finally understand how tanning works! I personally prefer straight exposition, but I didn’t mind the acting. The tannery carved out of the rocks several hundred years ago once looked out onto running water — human beings have transformed this section of the landscape with immense thoroughness, and with a rather jaw-dropping destructiveness once you realize what has been lost. The caves were still eerie and wonderful, despite our being part of a large group of people tramping through in hard-hats

Nottingham Trip

The very poor lived in them — at much risk to health and life expectancy:

Nottingham Trip

They were used as cellars and storage rooms and hiding places and escape routes and gambling and drinking dens:

Nottingham TripDuring WWII people escaped the bombs in them. I wanted more, so I decided we would brave the prison on our save-money-by-visiting-both-attractions tickets — a terrible mistake. They did try to make horrific injustices and horrible punishments a little less horrible, but the gibbet is there hanging. They just weren’t sure whether this needed to be an indictment of past (and present) barbarities and solidarity with its victims (my strong feeling), or a house of horrors, or a curiosity box of punishments with some celebration of law thrown in.

Nottingham Trip

There’s a statue of a woman being burned to death complete with fake fire, a celebration of changing prison guard uniforms alongside a most heartbreaking procession of punishments for crimes of hunger and poverty, and reminders of just how many were transported to other countries both to cement the power of Empire and to rid England of the troublesome poor the wealthy had no use for, especially the ones that did not just die quietly of cold and starvation.

Nottingham Trip

If I were not heartbroken enough, here the caves were things of horror, holding felons (remembering that god these were some unjust laws in a system of complete injustice) and people imprisoned for debt. These were the only caves I would love to see blown into tiny pieces, along with this prison.

Perhaps as an attempt to lighten the horror of all we were seeing, was they had recreated Drury Hill. A city nerd’s dream come true. Having destroyed this neighbourhood of history and character and community developed over a whole lot of hard years (from whence also came most of the desperate poor came who were sent of to America, Australia), they rebuilt a cardboard and mirror version for our enjoyment. We wandered through it:

Nottingham Trip

Nottingham Trip

We walked past ghosts

Nottingham Trip

This was such a strange version of the modern urge to recreate the material past that people in power have destroyed and that now fascinates us, but in a sanitised and safe way. A belated recognition of what gives a city its character and why people love it. A nod to tourists, but I imagine this is one of the museums every child growing up in Nottingham is brought to see and in some ways is forming ideas of what Nottingham was and is now.

In most ways I prefer this version to Disneyland’s fake high streets, because there is no way you can pretend that this ever was or is real. This is perhaps as good as such things get, its absolute fakeness was still extensive enough that an old couple had some trouble finding their way out, and it is both interesting and disturbing — which this kind of exhibit should be, with a splash of Roger Rabbit’s toon town thrown in. Here is a taste of what was here before:

Nottingham

Nottingham

These pictures are from a forum in which people remember what was and shake their fists at the planners who destroyed it all, as they do in cities around the world where what people most love and remember has been torn down in the name of progress. I have no love of the dirt, disease and misery that once filled some of these streets, but surely we were capable of transforming them into decent housing for the people who lived there. I love that curve of businesses and homes up the hill, and mourn its loss alongside those who lost their homes and livelihoods — I know well that you are never the same again after those things are torn from you, torn down.

City planners never really cared about that, which was always part of the problem. Empathy could have gone a long way to save what was best in our cities. Instead poverty was dispersed, and the earth flattened (a bit) and all the cold barrenness of malls and parking garages put in their place. The hospital where my mum was once a student nurse now turned into luxury flats. A few memories remain in the midst of profit’s rush to reshape a city for its needs.

Nottingham Trip

Nottingham Trip

Nottingham Trip

The castle is also preserved, along with the castle caves and Mortimer’s hole. More costumed characters leading tours and telling gruesome stories and too many people on the tour with you. But these caves are really cool.

Nottingham Trip

Really, the way to enjoy old and underground Nottingham is through its pubs. Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem is of course the most famous, and the place my mum most remembered from her time there. It was immensely awesome and also very busy. We also made it to the Hand and Heart.

Nottingham Trip

Nottingham Trip

It’s a fascinating city, really. One fighting to create employment for its survival and believing development will do that also, and I know the shopping centre is as much a part of that as these rather forlorn attempts to turn empty store fronts into something positive:

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Byron lived here, Charles I planted a standard several hundred years ago to ‘start’ the civil war (I think the roundheads did that really) — the plaques marking this occasion are many and cover a fairly large area that you realise was once a hilltop. I bought a book on the caves I have yet to read, and which charmingly has pictures of most of the caves with a woman I assume is the author’s wife in each of them — wearing a stunning array of clothes and hairstyles. The pubs were many and old — they seem to have survived much better here than other places. There is more potential in some ways for a city like this to reinvent itself from the bottom up, unlike London where money floods in from top down forcing anything interesting and creative out or coopting and destroying it. The moral is, more power in reimagining and recreating the city to more people. So I will end on my favourite sign and a slide show:

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Stuart Dybek’s Chicago Coast

Stuart Dybeck - The Cost of ChicagoWhy did no one tell me about Stuart Dybek before? These stories were extraordinary. Just as a writer I found the quality of his prose alone making my little heart beat faster, these stories are breathtaking. But these are also stories of a working class kid growing up in a fucked up but well-loved Catholic, half Polish half Mexican neighbourhood. A view and a voice that is all too rare, and perhaps explains why no one has told me about Stuart Dybek before. It involves memories, beauty, urban myths, cross-race romance that brings shame and wonder, music, weed, wandering, the ordinary overlaid with magic.

Mrs. Kubiac’s building seemed riddled with its secret passageways. And, when the music finally disappeared, its channels remained, conveying silence. Not an ordinary silence of absence and emptiness, but a pure silence beyond daydream and memory, as intense as the music it replaced, which, like music, had the power to change whoever listened. It hushed the close-quartered racket of the old building.

Then of course, there is the short story ‘Blight’ that so embodies the lived experience of urban renewal — everything I care most about, have fought over.

During those years between Korea and Vietnam, when rock and roll was being perfected, our neighborhood was proclaimed an Official Blight Area.

This is the relationship with power poor people know far too well:

Still, in a way, I could see it from Ziggy’s point of view. Mayor Daley was everywhere. The city was tearing down buildings for urban renewal, tearing up streets for a new expressway, and everywhere one looked there were signs in front of the rubble reading:

SORRY FOR THE INCONVENIENCE
ANOTHER IMPROVEMENT
FOR A GREATER CHICAGO
RICHARD J. DALEY, MAYOR

A series of paragraphs I have gathered that seek to understand what this declaration of blight means, the point of view the young men who live there — who are themselves more than likely seen as blight by the men in suits:

It was the route we usually walked to the viaduct, but since blight had been declared we were trying to see our surrounding from a new perspective, to determine if anything had been changed, or at least appeared different. Blight sounded serious, biblical in a way, like something locusts might be responsible for.

Nor did anyone need to explain that Official Blight was the language of revenue, forms in quintuplicate, grants, and federal aid channeled through the Machine and processed with the help of grafters, skimmer, wheeler-dealers, and army of aldermen, precinct captains, patronage workers, their relatives and friends. No one said it, but instinctively we knew we’d never see a nickel.

Blight, in fact, could be considered a kind of official recognition, a grudging admission that among blocks of factories, railroad tracks, truck docks, industrial dumps, scrapyards, expressways, and the drainage canal, people had managed to wedge in their everyday lives.

What its last days were like, and the vibrance that existed there before the destruction:

It was an old neighborhood that Mayor Daley, despite his campaign promises, was preparing to demolish to make way for a new university. But life went on that summer as it always had — daily newspapers printed in strange alphabets; nuts, cheeses, dried cod sold in the streets; the scent of crushed lemon from the bakery that made lemon ice; Greek music skirling from the restaurant downstairs.

It is not all easy to sympathise with, honest in the lines of race that divided neighbourhoods and their changing contours:

Douglas Park was a black park now, the lagoon curdled in milky green scum as if it had soured, and Kapusta didn’t doubt that were he to go there they’d find his body floating in the lily pads too.

And always a sense that the past hardly exists:

It was hard to believe there ever were streetcars. the city back then, the city of their fathers, which was as far back as a family memory extended, even the city of their childhoods, seemed as remote to Eddie and Manny as the capital of some foreign country

What past there is is constantly under threat, actively being destroyed through the destruction of the city:

The past collapsed about them–decayed, bulldozed, obliterated. They walked past block-length gutted factories, past walls of peeling, multicolored doors hammered up around flooded excavation pits, hung out in half-boarded storefronts of groceries that had shut down when they were kids, dusty cans still stacked on the shelves. Broken glass collected everywhere, mounding like sand in the little, sunken front yards and gutters. Even the church’s stained-glass windows were patched with plywood.

This feeling — I know this feeling.

Things were gone they couldn’t remember but missed; and things were gone they weren’t sure ever were there…

At times, walking past the gaps, they felt as if they were no longer quite there themselves, half-lost despite familiar street signs, shadows of themselves superimposed on the present, except there was no present–everything either rubbled past or promised future–and they were walking as if floating, getting nowhere as if they’d smoked too much grass.

I know I’m just quoting the things that touch upon all I obsess over in thinking about cities have been made, could be remade. It’s almost like Marshall Berman writing crystalline stories of coming-of-age perfection to encapsulate his pain of losing the Bronx. There is so much beauty and life here beyond that, and this last line is splendid:

He had special windows all over the city. It was how he held the city together in his mind.

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The 10+ Pathologies of Le Corbusier

A TOWN is a tool.

Towns no longer fulfil this function. They are ineffectual; they use up our bodies, they thwart our souls.

The lack of order to be found everywhere in them offends us; their degradation wounds our self-esteem and humiliates our sense of dignity.

They are not worthy of the age; they are no longer worthy of us. (Prologue – xxi)

Le CorbusierI should have read Le Corbusier (1887-1965) long ago. I thought I knew more or less what he was about, but not at all. Not until I read his words did I understand just how fiercely he declared war against most of what I love about cities, just how pathological a paradigm he created. I see him, now, in all of the great horrible, alien city centres I have known built upon destruction. David Harvey and Neil Smith argue rightly I think, that capitalism needs to constantly tear down and rebuild to keep expanding, so Le Corbusier can’t get all of the credit or blame. But I think his writings shaped urban renewal and regeneration in very fundamental ways, coming when they did, perfectly and emphatically justifying the destruction of all that had come before to build anew. Idealism perfectly suited to profit.

In this I think he is much like Friedman and Hayek (this trio together almost makes me like Hayek), creators of theory and ideology perfectly suited to justify the needs of capital expansion and the dubious moral and technical ground of business men. Thus cast aloft as victorious.

This is true of Le Corbusier, despite the fact he was the product of a slightly earlier age:

I think back twenty years, when I was a student; the road belonged to us then; we sang in it and argued in it, while the horse-‘bus swept calmly along…

— or perhaps that explains everything, perhaps because he was imagining something not yet seen and the pathologies are much more obvious to modern eyes. Except that planners still seem to mobilise many of them. I have tried here to summarise what I think they are, here are the 10 pathologies unrolled in Planning the City of Tomorrow (with two other revealing points):

1. Men are the pitiless masters of the pitiless universe.

Not the rapture of the shining coachwork under the gleaming lights, but the rapture of power. The simple and ingenuous pleasure of being in the centre of so much power, so much speed. We are a part of it. We are part of that race whose dawn is just awakening. We have confidence in this new society, which will in the end arrive at a magnificent expression of its power. We believe in it.

Its power is like a torrent swollen by storms; a destructive fury. The city is crumbling, it cannot last much longer; its time is past. It is too old. The torrent can no longer keep to its bed. It is a kind of cataclysm. It is something abnormal, and the disequilibrium grows day by day. (xxiii)

Natural forces, torrents and storms, power and more power, rahr.

My scheme is brutal, because town existence and life itself are brutal: life is pitiless, it must defend itself, hemmed in as it is on all sides by death. to overcome death, constant activity is necessary. (298)

Our cities themselves are in a struggle to the death:

And these great cities challenge one another, for the mad urge for supremacy is the very law of evolution itself to which we are subjected. (87-88)

2. Where the past is not quite dead, we must kill it. Gloriously.

Decorative art is dead. Modern town planning comes to birth with a new architecture. By this immense step in evolution, so brutal and so overwhelming, we burn our bridges and break with the past. (xxv)

In these cases the only right of individual sensibility is to embody the collective will…a mathematical medium which must be deeply important to us, since it provides for the multitude a single outlook and a unanimous sensibility. With a cold and clear accountancy the + and — of an epoch are established. A way of thinking, of general application, arises. (52)

Our world, like a charnel-house, is strewn with the detritus of dead epochs. The great task incumbent on us is that of making a proper environment for our existence, and clearing away from our cities the dead bones that putrefy in them. We must construct cities for to-day. (244)

3. All the things must be straight:

Man walks in a straight line because he has a goal and knows where he is going; he has made up his mind to reach some particular place and he goes straight to it.

He has this whole things about ‘The pack-donkey’s way and man’s way’, the wandering, idiotic path taken by the pack-donkey which defines our towns. He has a go at Camille Sitte — what he calls ‘a most wilful piece of work’ in its celebration of the picturesque and the curved line.

The circulation of traffic demands the straight line; it is the proper thing for the heart of the city. The curve is ruinous, difficult, dangerous; it is a paralyzing thing.

The straight line enters into all human history, into all human aim, into every human act.

We must have the courage to view the rectilinear cities of America with admiration. (10)

He continues, drawing interesting political parallels between the political and the material:

The winding road is the result of happy-go-lucky heedlessness, of looseness, lack of concentration and animality.

The straight road is a reaction, an action, a positive deed, the result of self-mastery. It is sane and noble.

What becomes of a heedless people and their winding roads?

It is in this way that cities sink to nothing and that ruling classes are overthrown. (12)

It’s true that those on the other side of this battle tend to champion curves, variety, mystery, and all too often urban revolution. May we heedless people win in the end.

Check out this definition of culture as well, I think this is still operating in many a mindset actually, it is helpful to see it written down, to see it tied to a physical manifestation such as a straight line, a straight road:

Cities can be seen emerging from the jumble of their streets, striving towards straight lines, and taking them as far as possible. When man begins to draw straight lines he bears witness that he has gained control of himself and that he has reached a condition of order. Culture is an orthogonal state of mind. Straight lines are not deliberately created. They are arrived at when man is strong enough, determined enough, sufficiently equipped and sufficiently enlightened to desire and to be able to trace straight lines.  (37)

4. We Must Have Order and Exactness — all the Rest is Terror.

Whereas in walking through a city our minds can estimate the value or the uselessness of the suggested general development in the future, and can appreciate a co-ordinated and noble plan, our eyes, on the contrary…can only see cell after cell; and the sight of these provides a jagged, loose, diversified, multiplied and nerve-wracking spectacle; the sky is seen against a ragged outline and each house suggests, even by its very shape, some different order of thing. …

This is the critical point to which our analysis of the city brings us; the spectacle of individualism run riot, fatal and inevitable. A weariness arising out of chaos! There is, and there will be, no common standard until such time as a new age of discipline, wisdom and unanimity in the sphere of art, is born. (71)

It is almost impossible for me to find an ounce of empathy with this viewpoint. I feel it borders on actual pathology, obsessive-compulsive and horrifying. I cannot imagine viewing the world through this lens that fears everything I love:

The house, the street, the town, are points to which human energy is directed: they should be ordered, otherwise they counteract the fundamental principles round which we revolve; if they are not ordered, they oppose themselves to us, they thwart us, as the nature all around us thwarts us, though we have striven with it, and with it begin each day a new struggle. (15)

When man is free, his tendency is towards pure geometry. It is then that he achieves what we call order.

Order is indispensable to him, otherwise his actions would be without coherences and could lead nowhere. (22)

But the details of this development [of the city] involve the growth of individual cells (houses), each of which is an individual thing; this tends to a lack of coherence, and is a grave menace. (70)

This is life and death stuff to him, and only order can save us:

We struggle against chance, against disorder, against a policy of drift and against the idleness which brings death; we strive for order, which can be achieved only by appealing to what is the fundamental basis on which our minds can work: geometry. (93)

Especially regarding Paris, I don’t think he cares much for individual human beings:

Paris is a dangerous magma of human beings gathered from every quarter by conquest, growth and immigration; she is the eternal gipsy encampment from all the world’s great roads; Paris is the seat of a power and the home of a spirit which could enlighten the world; she digs and hacks through her undergrowth, and out of these evils she is tending towards an ordered system of straight lines and right angles; this reorganization is necessary to her vitality, health and permanence; this clearing process is indispensable to the expression of her spirit, which is fundamentally limpid and beautiful. (25)

and New York, he really hates New York:

New York is exciting and upsetting. So are the Alps; so is a tempest; so is a battle. New York is not beautiful, and if it stimulates our practical activities, it also wounds our sense of happiness. (60)

5. Geometry contains the only soul we have

…we shall come to consider as more important than the mechanism of the city, what we may call the soul of the city. The soul of the city is that part of which is of no value from the practical side of existence: it is, quite simply, its poetry, a feeling which in itself is absolute, though it is so definitely a part of ourselves. (58)

The power of Le Corbusier is here perhaps, the truth that there is indeed a poetry to geometry and clean lines.

The forms we are discussing are the eternal forms of pure geometry and these will enshrine in a rhythm which will in the end be our own, going far beyond the confines of formulae and charged with poetry, the implacable mechanism which will pulsate within it. (65)

6. Speed, we need more speed.

A city made for speed is made for success. (epigraph chapter XII)

Roads are not meant to connect people, as Cullen argues, but to separate them, to provide space for infrastructure and to facilitate the movement of cars:

The modern street in the true sense of the word is a new type of organism, a sort of stretched out workshop, a home for many complicated and delicate organs, such as gas, water and electric mains. (167)

And while he likes high speed trains connecting one city to another, Le Corbusier really hates the idea of public transportation on other scales:

The tramway has no right to exist in the heart of the modern city. (169)

7. We must rebuild the centre — but first, we must destroy

The centres of our towns are in a state of mortal sickness, their boundaries are gnawed at as though by vermin.

His words stand alone really, and my heart mourns the empty and soulless centres of too many cities, razed to the ground and recreated along these lines.

How to create a zone free for development is the second problem of town planning.

Therefore my settled opinion, which is quite a dispassionate one, is that the centres of our great cities must be pulled down and rebuilt, and that the wretched existing belts of suburbs must be abolished and carried further out… (96)

BUSINESS INEVITABLY GRAVITATES TOWARDS THE CENTRES OF GREAT CITIES (114 – yes, those are his capital letters yelling at you in the greatest factual error of the century)

Therefore the existing centres must come down. To save itself, every great city must rebuild its centre.

WE MUST BUILD ON A CLEAR SITE. The city of to-day is dying because it is not constructed geometrically. To build on a clear site is to replace the “accidental” lay-out of the ground, the only one that exists to-day, by the formal lay-out. Otherwise nothing can save us. And the consequence of geometrical plans is Repetition and Mass-production. (220)

8. Scientists can know everything, plan everything, see everything, and solve everything.

Statistics are the Pegasus of the town planner. They are tedious things, meticulous, passionless and impassive. All the same they are a jumping-off ground for poetry…(107)

I understand, now Cullen’s rant about statistics.

Science has given us the machine. The machine gives us unlimited power. And we in our turn can perform miracles by its means. (150)

… no one is going to make a politician out of me.

Economic and social progress can only be the result of technical problems which have found a proper solution.  (301)

9. We don’t need skilled craftsmen, we have mass production.

The mason dates…from time immemorial! He bangs away with feet and hammer. He smashes up everything round him, and the plant entrusted to him falls to pieces in a few months. The spirit of the mason must be disciplined by making him part of the severe and exact machinery of the industrialized builder’s yard. (176)

Down with skilled craftsmen and pleasure in workmanship and individuality in anything.

10. The best planners are regal, imperious and infinitely powerful, while democracy is just crazy and dangerous

And finally, that magnificent legacy left by a monarch to his people: the work of Haussmann under Napoleon III.

In order that our enthusiasm may not be tainted with cowardice and that possible support may be emboldened, it is essential, if we are to make a strong assault on compromise and democratic stagnation, to describe clearly the equipment which our forerunners have bequeathed us. (141)

The final plate of the book is a painting: ‘Louis XIV Commanding the Building of the Invalides’, its caption: Homage to a great town planner.

This despot conceived immense projects and realized them. Over all the country his noble works still fill us with admiration. He was capable of saying, “We wish it,” or “Such is our pleasure.”

Servants are Always Sulking

Nothing says more than Le Corbusiers addressing his reader as one of a class that has servants as a matter of course — this helps explain his views on democracy.

And once we get on to the subject of servants, we begin to see ho really free we are! One day a week we have to do for ourselves. If you like company of an evening, your servants sulk and there is domestic crisis. …

As for food, you maid goes to the local store and wastes a lot of time, and everything is very expensive. (214)

He goes on to talk about sulky servants coming on night shift, sulky servants asked to do a little extra polishing…sulky servants everywhere, except I am not quite sure where they are supposed to live.

What an opportunity for Capital!

He admits he is no good at sums, and no economist volunteered for the job of costing this out, but

The moral is that we must not say, “but . . . what immense sums would have to be sunk in all this expropriation and reconstruction,” but rather, “What an opportunity for capital for almost incredible amounts would be created by such an attempt at revaluation!” (295)

That about sums up one of the principal reasons this kind of thinking and this version of planning has become so ubiquitous. It also deeply disturbs me just how well this discourse sits alongside and uses so many of the same clusters of ideas as those of white supremacy, colonial mastery, misogyny and many another evil. They all seem to spring from the same well.

You put all of this together, and what do you get as the ideal town?

Le CorbusierLe Corbusier Le Corbusier Le Corbusier

His attempt to find soul and poetry through an architecture of mastery here create the landscape of my greatest fears, and one with elements that are eerily too familiar.

We shall leave the last word with Ivan Chtcheglov then, one of the situationists who took up this gauntlet and fought this concept of space to the death:

We leave to monsieur Le Corbusier his style that suits factories as well as it does hospitals. And the prisons of the future: is he not already building churches? I do not know what this individual–ugly of countenance and hideous in his conceptions of the world–is repressing to make him want thus to crush humanity under ignoble heaps of reinforced concrete, a noble material that ought to permit an aerial articulation of space superior to Flamboyant Gothic. His power of cretinization is vast. A model by Corbusier is the only image that brings to my mind the idea of immediate suicide. With him moreover and remaining joy will fade. And love–passion–liberty. (35)
‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’ Gilles Ivain (aka Ivan Chtcheglov) Internationale situationniste no 1 (June 1958)