I have never read Zola. Well, that's not quite true, I read about 40 pages of Germinal years ago. It has traveled house with me twice. Therese RaquinI have never read Zola. Well, that's not quite true, I read about 40 pages of Germinal years ago. It has traveled house with me twice. Therese Raquin is both shorter and about Paris, so it seemed a better place to start. Maybe end.
More than anything it's about being trapped.
But first to satisfy my urbanist soul, it gives you a better idea of what those beautiful arcades of Paris -- the ones softly lit and glowing along which the flâneur would stroll at his ease beneath vaulted glass ceilings -- it gives you a sense of what those could mean to those who lived within them.
At the end of the Rue Guenegaud, coming from the quays, you find the Arcade of the Pont Neuf, a sort of narrow, dark corridor running from the Rue Mazarine to the Rue de Seine.
While the arcade is fictional, nothing else is, highlighted is the Rue Guenegaud:
If you substitute all the words of romance and beauty for adjectives you would use to describe a graveyard in gothic style, you will arrive at Zola's view of arcades, at least this one:
This arcade, at the most, is thirty paces long by two in breadth. It is paved with worn, loose, yellowish tiles which are never free from acrid damp. The square panes of glass forming the roof, are black with filth.
On fine days in the summer, when the streets are burning with heavy sun, whitish light falls from the dirty glazing overhead to drag miserably through the arcade. On nasty days in winter, on foggy mornings, the glass throws nothing but darkness on the sticky tiles—unclean and abominable gloom.
To the left are obscure, low, dumpy shops whence issue puffs of air as cold as if coming from a cellar. Here are dealers in toys, cardboard boxes, second-hand books. The articles displayed in their windows are covered with dust, and owing to the prevailing darkness, can only be perceived indistinctly. The shop fronts, formed of small panes of glass, streak the goods with a peculiar greenish reflex. Beyond, behind the display in the windows, the dim interiors resemble a number of lugubrious cavities animated by fantastic forms.
To the right, along the whole length of the arcade, extends a wall against which the shopkeepers opposite have stuck some small cupboards. Objects without a name, goods forgotten for twenty years, are spread out there on thin shelves painted a horrible brown colour. A dealer in imitation jewelry has set up shop in one of these cupboards, and there sells fifteen sous rings, delicately set out on a cushion of blue velvet at the bottom of a mahogany box.
Above the glazed cupboards, ascends the roughly plastered black wall, looking as if covered with leprosy, and all seamed with defacements.
He makes the same distinction that I do about space -- this is not one of those places you enter to enjoy:
The Arcade of the Pont Neuf is not a place for a stroll. You take it to make a short cut, to gain a few minutes. It is traversed by busy people whose sole aim is to go quick and straight before them.
It is in this place that Therese is expected to live the rest of her days. She interests me, this woman, a woman of colour really, half Arab and half French...or is her mother a pied noir?
...her brother Captain Degans brought her a little girl in his arms. He had just arrived from Algeria.
"Here is a child," said he with a smile, "and you are her aunt. The mother is dead and I don't know what to do with her. I'll give her to you."
The mercer took the child, smiled at her and kissed her rosy cheeks. Although Degans remained a week at Vernon, his sister barely put a question to him concerning the little girl he had brought her. She understood vaguely that the dear little creature was born at Oran, and that her mother was a woman of the country of great beauty. The Captain, an hour before his departure, handed his sister a certificate of birth in which Therese, acknowledged by him to be his child, bore his name. He rejoined his regiment, and was never seen again at Vernon, being killed a few years later in Africa.
She is abandoned as an orphan at her aunt's, given no love for herself, no education or training or play with other children, as she grows up there are no parties, dances, church socials. She has no friends. Instead she is made rather to attend on her sickly cousin, take care of his needs, be slotted into his same limited routines, to always be quiet and good and put him first.
Her only taste of freedom is when they live briefly in the country, she can be by herself outside, touch the earth, lie in the grass. And then her cousin takes that away as well, and demands they move to Paris.
She marries him by the way, it was always planned that way.
I cannot express the horror such a life gives me. She sits there in the shop in this dingy arcade with her great mass of hair and her face that could be beautiful but remains ugly with no light inside of it, and there is nothing else before her. So it's a little perplexing to me that it should be the aunt who is described as good and kind and becomes the victim, while Therese is on the wrong end of every adjective. The word sanguineous is very heavily used.
The nature of the circumstances seemed to have made this woman for this man, and to have thrust one towards the other. The two together, the woman nervous and hypocritical, the man sanguineous and leading the life of a brute, formed a powerful couple allied. The one completed the other, and they mutually protected themselves. At night, at table, in the pale light of the lamp, one felt the strength of their union, at the sight of the heavy, smiling face of Laurent, opposite the mute, impenetrable mask of Therese.
An interesting sidelight on the ghoulish nature of Parisians:
The morgue is a sight within reach of everybody, and one to which passers-by, rich and poor alike, treat themselves. The door stands open, and all are free to enter. There are admirers of the scene who go out of their way so as not to miss one of these performances of death. If the slabs have nothing on them, visitors leave the building disappointed, feeling as if they had been cheated, and murmuring between their teeth; but when they are fairly well occupied, people crowd in front of them and treat themselves to cheap emotions; they express horror, they joke, they applaud or whistle, as at the theatre, and withdraw satisfied, declaring the Morgue a success on that particular day.
Laurent soon got to know the public frequenting the place, that mixed and dissimilar public who pity and sneer in common.
You can imagine that once Therese starts reading it's all over, any life would be better than the one she is given. All my feminist hackles rise at this of course, as they do at any mention of 'nervous sensibility'. But god, the idea she should just content herself with her lot, with a putty face and lifeless attitude, makes me die inside.
This sudden love for reading had great influence on her temperament. She acquired nervous sensibility which caused her to laugh and cry without any motive. The equilibrium which had shown a tendency to be established in her, was upset. She fell into a sort of vague meditation. At moments, she became disturbed by thoughts of Camille, and she dreamt of Laurent and fresh love, full of terror and distrust. She again became a prey to anguish. At one moment she sought for the means of marrying her sweetheart at that very instant, at another she had an idea of running away never to see him again.
The novels, which spoke to her of chastity and honour, placed a sort of obstacle between her instincts and her will. She remained the ungovernable creature who had wanted to struggle with the Seine and who had thrown herself violently into illicit love; but she was conscious of goodness and gentleness, she understood the putty face and lifeless attitude of the wife of Olivier, and she knew it was possible to be happy without killing one's husband. Then, she did not see herself in a very good light, and lived in cruel indecision.
Not that she has chosen her lover well. Nor did she have to kill her husband. There's all this crap about instincts (as woman? As Algerian?) that the higher sentiments of books cannot save her from. I feel for Laurent a little as well. Zola refuses to allow him to leave his brutish peasant nature behind him for most of the story, describing his thick neck and his huge hands and his laziness...it's often hard to remember he's become a clerk.
For several months, he proved himself a model clerk, doing his work with exemplary brutishness.
I don't even know what that means.
I also hate this definition of women:
But, in her terror, she showed herself a woman: she felt vague remorse, unavowed regret. She, at times, had an inclination to cast herself on her knees and beseech the spectre of Camille to pardon her, while swearing to appease it by repentance.
And god, the creepiness of this, fuck this moral, how can this be what we aspire to? And another use of the word putty, as though that is all we are, to be moulded by our environments:
The wife of Olivier, with her putty face and slow movements, now pleased Therese, who experienced strange relief in observing this poor, broken-up creature, and had made a friend of her. She loved to see her at her side, smiling with her faint smile, more dead than alive, and bringing into the shop the stuffy odour of the cemetery. When the blue eyes of Suzanne, transparent as glass, rested fixedly on those of Therese, the latter experienced a beneficent chill in the marrow of her bones.
Poor Laurent only gets to escape his peasantness through the murder, before he was too full of life to be a proper artist, too much the peasant, but he is transformed -- a fellow comes to see his work and is amazed by the sudden appearance of talent:
The artist had no idea of the frightful shock this man had received, and which had transformed him, developing in him the nerves of a woman, along with keen, delicate sensations. No doubt a strange phenomenon had been accomplished in the organism of the murderer of Camille. It is difficult for analysis to penetrate to such depths. Laurent had, perhaps, become an artist as he had become afraid, after the great disorder that had upset his frame and mind.
Previously, he had been half choked by the fulness of his blood, blinded by the thick vapour of breath surrounding him. At present, grown thin, and always shuddering, his manner had become anxious, while he experienced the lively and poignant sensations of a man of nervous temperament. In the life of terror that he led, his mind had grown delirious, ascending to the ecstasy of genius. The sort of moral malady, the neurosis wherewith all his being was agitated, had developed an artistic feeling of peculiar lucidity. Since he had killed, his frame seemed lightened, his distracted mind appeared to him immense; and, in this abrupt expansion of his thoughts, he perceived exquisite creations, the reveries of a poet passing before his eyes. It was thus that his gestures had suddenly become elegant, that his works were beautiful, and were all at once rendered true to nature, and life-like.
So yes. Surprising more artists and poets don't kill people. Both Therese and Laurent are trapped, inside of their natures, and inside crippling social mores, and inside this gloomy arcade. They were already buried alive in a way, even before they took the final step.
I was pretty happy when this book came to an end. But God, you can see what people are fleeing from as they run to Algeria, to America, to anywhere they can breathe freely, try to make of themselves what they can, live unfettered. You can see where the violence might come from that drove the terrible, unforgivable things that they did to make this new life for themselves.
A lot to think about here...Apparently for thinking about development and cities I really should have read La Curée and L'Argent, we shall see if I am able to face them. Germinal might go on the life-is-just-too-short pile, however....more
A fascinating evocation of the life of a queue of soviet times...it captures the boredom, small kindnesses, sense of fairness, frustrations, anger, cuA fascinating evocation of the life of a queue of soviet times...it captures the boredom, small kindnesses, sense of fairness, frustrations, anger, cursing, ribald talk, drinking, short romances...all the things that emerge as people stand for hours, days in lines while also managing their lives not to mention natural functions. It is entirely in one sentence dialogue running down the page, so it takes no time at all to read.
And Polo said: "Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice."
"When I ask you about other cities, I want to hear about them. And ab
And Polo said: "Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice."
"When I ask you about other cities, I want to hear about them. And about Venice when I ask you about Venice."
"To distinguish other cities' qualities, I must speak of a first city that remains implicit. For me it is Venice." (78)
This is all about Venice, so says the back and so says the passage above. So why is it European traveler Marco Polo expounding upon, explaining cities to emperor Kublai Khan? Why are these cities all set in the East, reimagined with camels and goats and that fantastical but fairly boring and predictable menagerie of dwarves and bearded women and other familiar sideshow freaks, or naked women of astounding beauty? Why do all the fabled cities seem to have the names of women, are referred to as female and lie there fairly inert for male gazes, male discoveries, male nudges and winks? Perhaps Khan captures it all when he says to Polo:
...So then, yours is truly a journey through memory!...It was to slough off a burden of nostalgia that you went so far away!" (88)
But how boring that this is once more a novel of ennui, however unusual. How predictable, how everything-Said-wrote about orientalism and it being nothing more than European fears and desires on display, picked and mixed in the furtherance of domination. It may be meant as an immensely clever and witty exploration of just such a phenomenon, but I don't think it escapes it.
These short vignettes, labeled things such as 'Thin Cities', 'Trading Cities', 'Cities & Desire', 'Cities & Signs', one could almost believe them intellectual exercises if they did not also seem to be named after former lovers. Perhaps those are not mutually exclusive. Each describes a city and ends in a paragraph of lofty metaphor that perhaps has something to do with its category. Perhaps not.
Some of these are lovely. Yet for me they could not escape my distaste with this form, they seemed forced somehow, like the intellectual boys in university trying to one-up one another over dinner. This has been on my list to read for ages, pushed forward by a quote I loved in Nabeel Hamdi's book on development, Small Change, he quoted this:
However, it is pointless to try to decide whether Zenobia is to be classified among happy cities or among the unhappy. It makes no sense to divide cities into these two species, but rather into a different two: those that through the years and the changes continue to give form to their desires and those in which desires either erase the city or are erased by it.
It is so true we are both shaped by and shape our cities, and this reminded me of the rallying call around building the city of our heart's desire (I knew it from Harvey, but I just read it somewhere else and quite remember where but was surprised...).
So alone I rather like some of these thoughts, they deserve more attention perhaps. but I wonder if they are not just empty cleverness. I have copied a few last sentences that I think could be either...
Desires are already memories (7)
...you believe you are enjoying Anastasia wholly when you are only its slave. (10)
The earth has forgotten her. (13)
Each city receives its form from the desert it opposes; and so the camel driver and the sailor see Despina, a border city between two deserts. (15)
Memory is redundant: it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist. (19)
The one contains what is accepted as necessary when it is not yet so; the others, what is imagined as possible and, a moment later, is possible no longer. (28)
There are more, but I tire. I think for a few aphorisms to illustrate an intellectual point this is a good place to go, but I was sad I did not love it as others seem to.
I did, however, love the city (the city of Cecilia? Really?) that grew to encompass the goatherder. He recognized countryside and landmarks of vegetation but became lost in cities, still his goats remembered the grass after the suburbs spread. They recognised the grass on the traffic island. I never imagine Venice having extensive suburbs that blend seamlessly into the neighboring city eating up the country, so perhaps it is not entirely about Venice after all....more
Truly one of the greats of urban planning, I loved this pivotal look at how you study public space and what you learn from the practice.
Not that it'sTruly one of the greats of urban planning, I loved this pivotal look at how you study public space and what you learn from the practice.
Not that it's scintillating reading.
Instead it is steady and deep, and based on actual observation. For instance, their study of the spaces that are most used and where most people sit, after sifting all the evidence they find the one common variable is:
People tend to sit where there are most places to sit.
This may not strike you as an intellectual bombshell, and, now that I look back on our study, I wonder why it was not more apparent to us from the beginning...the most attractive fountains, the most striking designs, cannot induce people to come and sit if there is no place to sit.
The sad reality is that almost no one planning and building public spaces actually fills them with places to sit. The sad fact of common sense, is that design often draws on different understandings of the world that clash with how spaces are actually used and loved. Books like this allow you to bring this up in an educated manner with a weight of evidence behind you.
Or carry out your own study. The importance of this cannot be underestimated, public space is key to our wellbeing and getting it right changes how we live and how we move through the city:
...an elemental point about good urban spaces: supply creates demand. A good new space builds a new constituency. It stimulates people into new habits -- al fresco lunches -- and provides new paths to and from work, new places to pause. It does all this very quickly. (16)
How to judge the success of a space? Look for people in groups -- people meet places that are known, that are liked and that are safe. They have decided to go there on purpose. You also look for a higher than average number of women:
Women are more discriminating than men as to where they will sit, more sensitive to annoyances, and women spend more time casting the various possibilities. (18)
This is true I think, as women are more subject to harassment and annoyance. Off-peak use often gives best clues to people's preferences, people sit wherever they can when a place is jammed but they sit where they like best when it is not.
An interesting note on behaviour, and one that rings true even though I have greater hopes for squares and things:
Plazas are not ideal places for striking up acquaintances, and even on the most sociable of them, there is not much mingling. When strangers are in proximity, the nearest thing to an exchange is what Erving Goffman has called civil inattention. (19)
But he notes that activities happening in the space -- performances, food vendors, sculpture but particularly performance -- make it more likely people will talk to strangers, share thoughts as they share an experience.
I love the insight that people say one thing when asked what they want, but actually they want a particular version of it:
What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people. If I belabor the point, it is because many urban spaces are being designed as though the opposite were true, and that what people liked best were the places they stay away from. People often do talk along such lines; this is why their responses to questionnaires can be so misleading. How many people would say they like to sit in the middle of a crowd? Instead they speak of getting away from it all, and use terms like "escape," "oasis," "retreat." What people do, however, reveals a different priority. (19)
People feel safer in a crowd, less conspicuous, it becomes more of an oasis I think if there are five people in a courtyard establishing its publicness and safety, than if you are alone. Though sometimes I like being alone. There are plenty of insights about sitting here...like it is good to be comfortable. but
It's more important, however, that it be socially comfortable. This means choice: sitting up front, in back, to the side, in the sun, in the shade, in groups, off alone. (28)
He describes how people always adjust moveable chairs before sitting down, even if it's just a couple of inches. Hell, I do it too. He writes:
Circulation and sitting, in sum, are not antithetical but complementary.
You walk, you sit, the two go together. And where do you sit? For all the sitters in the world this rings true:
Benches are artifacts the purpose of which is to punctuate architectural photographs. They're not so good for sitting. (33)
He writes about when people stop to talk to someone chance met, they don't step aside but usually do it 'smack in the center of the flow' (21). And damn, that is also so true. And hell of annoying.
What is not to love about this little piece of urban spatial poetry?
Foot movements are consistent, too. They seem to be a sort of silent language. Often, in a shmoozing group no one will be saying anything. Men stand bound in amiable silence, surveying the passing scene. Then, slowly, rhythmically, one of the men rocks up and down: first on the ball of the foot, then back on the heel. He stops. Another man starts the same movement. Sometimes there are reciprocal gestures. One man makes a half turn to the right. Then, after a rhythmic interval, another responds with a half turn t the left. Some kind of communication seems to be taking place here, but I've never broken the code. (22)
I don't know the code either, but I like it.
This explains the horribleness of Wilshire Boulevard's wind tunnel in Los Angeles, or how damn cold Canary Wharf and other downtown areas get:
...very tall, free-standing towers can generate tremendous drafts down their sides. This has in no way inhibited the construction of such towers, with the result, predictably, that some spaces are frequently uninhabitable. (44)
I agree that you need food, street cafes and I love his love of street vendors, I agree the more the better. I never understood the passion of planners to shut them down. You know them, you talk to people in line, they are vital parts of the community, full of gossip and helping make places safe. I love them. My heart breaks when the police come and destroy everything and take them away.
Anyway, one last comment on the chapter, titled: 'The Undesirables.' It could use a better title. The 'undesirables' are our people too and that is unkind, yet you know that is how too many people thing of them and this chapter is written for them. To counteract their bum-proof benches and surveillance cameras and gates and spikes and all those horrible things that make you despair of our society.
Places designed with distrust get what they were looking for and it is in them, ironically, that you will most likely find a wino...it is the empty places they prefer; it is in the empty places that they are conspicuous--almost as if, unconsciously, the design was contrived to make them so.
Fear proves itself. (61)
The best way to handle this issue is to make the space attractive to everyone. To have people in them who take care of the space, mediate issues. To understand we are a community and there are other ways to deal with problems than to lock people away or force them elsewhere.
But that is the big fight, no? And this book one tool to fight for public space that promotes sociality, conviviality, community....more
It's impenetrably white, her world, which to me explains this sentence:
Yet California has remained in some way impenetrable to me, a wearying enigma,
It's impenetrably white, her world, which to me explains this sentence:
Yet California has remained in some way impenetrable to me, a wearying enigma, as it has to many of us who are from there. We worry it, correct and revise it, try and fail to define our relationship to it and its relationship to the rest of the country. (38)
I don't have a long and tortured history of wagon trains and leading pioneer families in my relationship to California of course. No grandmothers telling me what life is about in quite that way, no artifacts of long journeys. Some of this history, and its residues in these younger generations, was pretty damn interesting. I suppose it is also pretty damn interesting as a residue of homegrown philosophy amongst 'us' Californians, the ones who were white:
Stressing as it did an extreme if ungrounded individualism, this was not an ambiance that tended towards a view of life as defined or limited or controlled, or even in any way affected, by the social and economic structures of the larger world. To be a Californian was to see oneself...as affected only by "nature," which in turn was seen to exist simultaneously as a source of inspiration or renewal...and as the ultimate brute reckoning, the force that by guaranteeing destruction gave the place its perilous beauty. (66)
Perhaps there were brief flashes when such optimism might have been shared by African Americans -- a couple of decades before WWI but after that time white congressmen tried to pass legislation banning all black folks from the state entirely. Before the Klan got quite so popular in the mid 20s.
The genocide of Native Americans was quicker and more complete in California than in many another state, so I doubt their survivors ever felt this to be true.
There's the difficult relationship with the aristocratic 'Californios' who had once themselves owned the land and enslaved indigenous peoples, and then there's all of the mostly darker skinned 'Mexicans' (amongst other uglier names) who worked for them, many of whom had lived there for generations. The other Mexicans who came up for the agricultural and seasonal work and still come up. But now they stay, along with a whole lot more compañer@s because that border and NAFTA is no joke.
We shouldn't forget the Asian workers brought in to build railroads and pick oranges and grow crops, massacred in L.A., stripped of any ability to own land or become citizens until 1942. The Japanese thrown into concentration camps up and down the state in WWII. California's history is not at all pretty, and it never was.
White pioneers did not just wrestle climate and geography and dangerous beasts, they came in (to varying extents) as conquerors and oppressors, which is precisely why they could say things like:
...We believed in fresh starts. We believed in good luck. We believed in the miner who scratched together one last stake...We believed in the wildcatter...Put out your campfire, kill the rattlesnake and watch the money flow in. (128)
and on the same page, why some Californians might be in it all together (against the rest):
I asked my mother to what "class" we belonged.
"It's not a word we use," she said, "It's not the way we think." (128)
Because of course, there were a whole lot of Californians below class. Ah, the intersections of race and privilege.
I think it's this foundation of violent privilege that California is built on that helps explain some of the other things Didion wrestles with, like the 1990s point system for sexual conquests used in Lakewood High School, carried out by boys who called themselves the Spur Posse. It was exposed by a number of girls raped and sexually harassed who came forward. Brave of them, and horrifying the community response, and it's the kind of thing that needs all kinds of light shining down on it. Light so bright you no longer get parents like Donald Belman, defending their child by describing how the D.A. "questioned all these kids, she found out these girls weren't the victims they were made out to be. One of these girls had tattoos for chrissake." (124)
I wish we could talk about reactions like that in the past tense.
I also liked that Didion touches on the shift in California away from free education for all (though she can't really tell you why) and the real change that took place in the 1980s:
CA no longer feels 'rich enough to adequately fund its education system.' the second: 'many towns in California...so impoverished in spirit as well as in fact that the way their citizens could think to reverse their fortunes was by getting themselves a state prison."
She sees this is nothing new, just another 'version of making our deal with the Southern Pacific...making our bed with the federal government." (183)
I like that she sees that. The contrast between a state that thinks it made itself rich when in fact it took lots of government money, always did and still is. I hate she doesn't deal with who makes up the majority of those imprisoned, and how they might have arrived there.
I also learned a bit about California's treatment of mental illness, something I might follow up. Didion cites Richard W. Fox's study So Far Disordered in Mind: Insanity in California 1870-1930, which found that 'California had a higher rate of commitment for insanity than any other state in the nation...' (193)
That's crazy (unless again, you think about the violence and the ongoing non-acknowledgment of violence). This is also crazy.
'By the end of 1920, of the 3,233 sterilizations for insanity or feeblemindedness performed to that date throughout the United States, 2,258, or seventy-nine percent, had taken place in California. (195)
Like the prisons, they filled up to and beyond capacity in asylums. California was always big on putting people away apparently, even before three strikes.
This is an interesting book, beautifully written, but deeply infuriating in its blindness to certain things -- interesting in itself, but I fear the propagation of such blindnesses....more
I quite loved this story of Ifemelu and Obinze, funny that the fact that it has become a best seller gives me a little more respect for people in geneI quite loved this story of Ifemelu and Obinze, funny that the fact that it has become a best seller gives me a little more respect for people in general and possibly also the literary establishment. Funny also that my love of it made me realise what a wonderful book it is, as so much of the dramatic arc is centered on relationships in a difficult world and that is not usually something that will grip my attention.
I like my relationships solid and healthy and consisting of mutual respect and taking care of each other -- I like them as things I don't have to think too much about but can just trust. I hate drama in them. I don't like to spend time talking through them or thinking about them or knowing about how other people do it (or fail to). So I kept wanting an element of the fantastical, a crime, I kept bumping into my own limitations. But I loved this book all the same.
Of course, it is about lots of other things, race and class and loneliness and immigration and shame and the things we do for money and the things that break us and how we heal those breaks or fail to, how we name our integrity and keep it, what we do when it slips. It is about love. It is about change. About being brave.
There was lots to think about, I loved the stories of Nigeria, of the US East Coast, but perhaps because I live in London now, am a little more removed from everything that I was in the US, I can't help but quote these:
In London, night came too soon, it hung in the morning air like a threat, and then in the afternoon a blue-grey dusk descended, and the Victorian buildings all wore a mournful air. In those first weeks, the cold startled Obinze with its weightless menace, drying his nostrils, deepening his anxieties, making him urinate too often....Sometimes he would stop outside a tube station...and watch the people brushing past him. they walked so quickly these people, as though they had an urgent destination, a purpose to their lives, while he did not. His eyes would follow them, with a lost longing, and he would think: You can work, you are legal, you are visible, and you don't even know how fortunate you are. (227)
This too rings so true, breaks my heart:
The wind blowing across the British Isles was odorous with fear of asylum seekers, infecting everybody with the panic of impending doom, and so articles were written and read, simply and stridently, as though the writers lived in a world in which the present was unconnected to the past, and they had never considered this to be the normal course of history: the influx into Britain of black and brown people from countries created by Britain. (258)
I also loved Ifemelu's blog posts on race in the U.S., they were both funny and perceptive, a bit like Black Girl Dangerous:
Job Vacancy in America -- National Arbiter in Chief of "Who is Racist"
Here's the thing: the manifestation of racism has changed but the language has not. So if you haven't lynched somebody then you can't be called a racist. If you're not a bloodsucking monster, then you can't be called a racist...Or maybe it's time to scrap the word "racist." Find something new. Like Racial Disorder Syndrome. And we could have different categories for sufferers of this syndrome: mild, medium, and acute. (315)
This quote is just because I know someone like this:
There were people who were born with an inability to be tangled up in dark emotions, in complications, and Iloba was one of them. For such people, Obinze felt both admiration and boredom (249).
My disinterest in complicated relationships has nothing to do with lack of emotions, and this made me smile as I feel the same.
Anyway. I am looking forward to everything else she has written....more
Chester Himes is an author whose work I really love, and this has been sitting on my shelf forever. It starts out a bit disappointing -- a bit gossipyChester Himes is an author whose work I really love, and this has been sitting on my shelf forever. It starts out a bit disappointing -- a bit gossipy about Dick and Jimmy and others. Complaining of this I was reminded that this was pre-internet in French, and what was the likelihood of it getting any circulation?
There was much less need to be cagey in those days.
Still, it is nice to think of Richard Wright and being so generous -- once giving Himes $1000 when only asked for $500, giving money to James Baldwin to allow him to finish revising one of his novels and helping him get the Saxton Fellowship. The interviews get better, more thoughtful, perhaps more sober as Himes gets older.
his words stand for themselves really.
I did particularly love some of the details, like this description of his studio in Paris
Himes lives at Saint-Germain-des-Pres, in a top-floor studio on rue Bourbon-le-Chateau. you have to stoop in order to get inside. Nearly everything there is red: the carpeting, a vase of roses, and even an angrily-daubed abstract canvas. (Francois Bott, 1964)
This was the flat that Melvin Van Peebles moved into. Sweet Sweetback himself.
I love Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones, love the Harlem novels, loved to read this:
I was very happy writing those detective stories, especially the first one, when I began it. I wrote those stories with more pleasure than I wrote any of the other stories. And then when I got the end and started my detective shooting at some white people, I was the happiest. (49)
This also reminded me, in a way that still jars slightly with that understanding of America that I learned in school and somehow no amount of education and experience can quite eradicate completely, of the way that the US is founded on violence and how that runs through absolutely everything:
Cause no one, no one, writes about violence the way that Americans do. (47)
Anyway, you know, there is no way that one can evaluate the American scene and avoid violence, because any country that was born in violence and has lived in violence always knows about violence. Anything can be initiated, enforced, contained or destroyed on the American scene through violence. That's the only thing that's ever made any change, because they have an inheritance of violence; it comes straight from the days of slavery, from the first colonialists who landed on the American shores, the first slaves, through the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Indian wars, and gunslingers killing one another over fences and sheep and one goddamn thing or another; they grew up on violence. And not only that, it's gotten to be so much a part of the country that they are at the place where they are refining the history of their violence. (62)
It reminds me also how many writers moved abroad to achieve a basic dignity in life.
The only reason for going to Paris is just to have a certain amount of freedom of movement for a limited period of time. (64)
Writers of colour, that is.
WIlliams: What about your experience with white expatriate writers? Himes: I don't have any experiences with white expatriate writers. (69)
Later Michel Fabre would ask him if living in Europe had changed him?
Of course. Here a Negro becomes a human being. There's nothing grotesque about a black man meeting a white woman here. There's nothing unnatural. (127)
and in describing for him why he stayed in Paris and NY (and responding to a question from Miotte about why not NY), Himes says:
France was an escape from racial prejudice in the publishing industry. I believe that America allows only one black man at a time to become successful from writing, and I don't think this has changed. France seems to be a place where my talent would make me as successful as Alexandre Dumas. (121)
Himes describes the regular get togethers at the Café Tournon, with Himes, Dick Wright to a limited extent, the centre of them Ollie Harrington. John A. Williams, unsurprisingly, carried out my favourite interviews, a long and nicely in depth one. This is my favourite story from it:
Dick was a compulsive conversationalist in the early hours of the morning. When he woke up he had to telephone somebody and have a long conversation. When Ollie wasn't there he had to find someone else--Daniel Guérin or even Jean-Paul Sartre. But they got tired of these conversations, so he chose Ollie. As long as Ollie was in town Dick would telephone him as soon as he woke up in the morning, whether Ollie was awake or not (it didn't make any difference) and have long conversations about the CIA and the race problem and all. You know, that kind of conversation doesn'tgo down too well at seven-thirty in the morning. (77) -- John A. Williams 1970
Michel Fabre, following on the heels of this in the same year of 1970, focused on writing:
I think that writing should be a force in the world. I just don't believe it is. It seems incapable of changing things. (89)
and Himes' relationship to Harlem:
...most American black people have kept to ghettos for many reasons, but mainly to hide from the prejudice and the arrogance of white people, and because they wanted to be together, for protection, and togetherness. I didn't do this, and this is part of the reason why I have to explain myself. (89)
To David Jenkins in 1971 he gives his thoughts on struggle, which he novelised of course, though didn't in the end finish it:
I have never fully endorsed the black movements, although I have supported both the Black Muslims--I was a friend of Malcolm X--and the Panthers. I don't think they will succeed because they are too used to publicity, and a successful revolution must be planned with secrecy, security.
Yet there is no reason why 100,000 blacks armed with automatic rifles couldn't literally go underground, into the subways and basements of Manhattan--and take over. The basements of those skyscrapers are the strongest part of the building...This was the novel I was wring, and I don't know if I have the energy or determination to finish it. (102)
The last interview with Michel Fabre in 1983 focused a lot on writing, and I always love to know other people's routines:
I like to get up early, have a big breakfast, and work at one stretch until it's time for lunch. If the mail is good, I generally go one with my writing. If it;s bad, my mind is distrubed for the rest of rhe day. I have nearly always typed my manuscripts, without consulting any reference books or dictionaries. In my hotel room in Paris I only needed cigarrettes, a bottle of scotch, and ocassionaly a good dish of meat and vegetables cooking on the birner behind me. Writing's always whetted my appetite. (130)
Fabre says he's sometimes been called a 'surrealist' writer, which I suppose makes some sense, I quite love Himes' answer:
I didn't become acquainted with that term until the fifties, and French friends had to explain it. I have no literary relationship with what is called the surrealist school. It just so happens that in the lives of black people, there are so many absurd situations, made that way by racism, that black life could sometimes be described as surrealistic. (140)
(Fabre, Michel and Robert E Skinner (eds). (1995) Conversations With Chester Himes. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. )...more
I quite loved this raising of women's voices that plays with the deeply collective nature of their experience. It acknowledges the strengths of an enfI quite loved this raising of women's voices that plays with the deeply collective nature of their experience. It acknowledges the strengths of an enforced world of women hidden away behind veils and walls, but also its high walls and limitations, examining the fractures in that world as women support the independence struggle, receive an education, travel to Paris. They are both joyful and devastating fractures. This narrative from multiple viewpoints in time and space struggles with an undifferentiated mass of understanding, survival of a life cycle where freedom of streets and speech end before puberty and all else folds in on the family and other women, but also those women who have been torn like splinters from it, whether through education or the freedom struggle. There is pride in this heritage, and also frustration. Nothing is easy and nothing is entirely one thing or the other.
How could a woman speak aloud, even in Arabic, unless on the threshold of extreme age? How could she say 'I', since that would be to scorn the blanket-formulae which ensure that each individual journeys through life in a collective resignation? . . .
my oral tradition has gradually been overlaid and is in danger of vanishing: at the age of eleven or twelve I was abruptly ejected from this theatre of feminine confidences -- was I thereby spared from having to silence my humble pride? in writing of my childhood memories I am taken back to those bodies bereft of voices. to attempt an autobiography using French words alone is to lend oneself to the vivisector's scalpel, revealing what lies beneath the skin. the flesh flakes off, and with it, seemingly, the last shreds of the unwritten language of my childhood. (156)
The complications of relationships around gender fold into the complications of the colonial relationships fold into the complications of being a writer and a women emerging from then women's world of illiteracy and oral tradition. It is a swirl of what is lost and what is gained negotiating all of these sides, and a needed counterpoint to the more straightforward narratives of the French/Algerian struggle narrated so eloquently by Mouloud Feraoun, and Alistair Horne.
It is the French as the Other:
The policeman and his family suddenly seemed like transient ghosts in this locality, whereas these images, these objects became the true inhabitants of the place! For me, these French homes gave off a different smell, a mysterious light; for me, the French are still 'The Others', and I am still hypnotized by their shores.
Throughout my childhood, just before the war which was to bring us independence, I never crossed a single French threshold, I never entered the home of a single French schoolfellow... (23)
It is the French use of language, and their imprisoning within their own ideologies and stories, contrasted with young Algerian women:
But what is the significance behind the urge of so many fighting men to relive in print this month of July 1830? Did their writings allow them to savor the seducer's triumph, the rapist's intoxication? These texts are distributed in the Paris of Louis-Phillipe, far from Algerian soil...Their words thrown up by such a cataclysm are for me like a comet's tail, flashing across the sky and leaving it forever riven.
And words themselves become a decoration, flaunted by officers like the carnations they wear in their buttonholes; words will become their most effective weapons. Hordes of interpreters, geographers, ethnographers, linguists, botanists, diverse scholars and professional scribblers will swoop down on this new prey. The supererogatory protuberances of their publications will form a pyramid to hide the initial violence from view.
The girls who were my friends and accomplices during my village holidays wrote in the same futile, cryptic language because they were confined, because they were prisoners; they mark their marasmus* with their own identity in an attempt to rise above their pathetic plight. The accounts of this past invasion reveal a contrario an identical nature: invaders who imagine they are taking the impregnable City, but who wander aimlessly in the undergrowth of their own disquiet. (45)
It explores the collectivity of women created by time and tradition and strict rules. One of the narrator's sits outside of this, she receives a love letter and somehow feels it is for all:
those women who never received a letter: no word taut with desire, stretched like a bow, no message run through with supplication. (60)
There exists the fact that husbands always referred to as 'he' and not by name because for each woman there can be only one he, a multitude of unnamed men to match the multitude of women present. A tradition that beats individuality off with a stick, disciplines human being into the roles laid out for them.
You escape Algeria momentarily for Paris, the uneasy relationship, love found between two young people there, even as they remain trapped in the webs of revolutionary fratricidal violence:
The couple continued to roam the streets, chatting together, momentarily free of the others and the 'Revolution'; nevertheless, even if their embraces in a doorway could not claim that they were making history, still their happiness was part of the collective fever, and they were always on the look-out to see if they were being shadowed and to throw the police off their trail. But the police were not seen to be the greatest danger...the couple knew that the secret fratricidal struggle was all around them....
As they strolled through the Paris streets together, at every crossroads the girl's eyes instinctively avoided the tricolour flag whose red reminded her of the blood of her compatriots recently guillotined in a Lyons prison...(102).
A woman walks alone one night in Paris. Walking for walking's sake, to try to understand...Searching for words and so dream no more, wait no longer.
Rue Richelieu, ten, eleven o'clock at night; the autumn air is damp, To understand . . . Where will this tunnel of interior silence lead? Just the act of walking, just to put one foot energetically down in front of the other, feeling my hips swinging, sensing my body lightly moving, makes my life seem brighter and the walls, all the walls vanish . . .
While the solitude of these recent months dissolves in the fresh cool tints of the nocturnal landscape, suddenly the voice bursts forth. It drains off all the scoriae of the past. What voice? is it my voice, scarcely recognizable? (115)
Some find voice in the city streets of Paris. Some find voice in the French language. But always it comes at a cost:
As if the French language suddenly had eyes, and lent them to me to see into liberty; as if the French language blinded the peeping-toms of my clan and, at this price, I could move freely, run headlong down every street, annex the outdoors for my cloistered companions, for the matriarchs of my family who endured a living death. As it . . . Derision! I know that every language is a dark depository for piled-up corpses, refuse, sewage, but faced with the language of the former conqueror, which offers me its ornaments, its jewels, its flowers, I find they are flowers of death... (181)
To refuse to veil one's voice and to start 'shouting', that was really indecent, real dissidence.
Writing in a foreign language, not in either of the tongues of my native country...writing has brought me to the cries of the women silently rebelling in my youth, to my own true origins.
Writing does not silence the voice, but awakens it, above all to resurrect so many vanished sisters. (204)
Nothing can sit easily here. Nothing avoids contradictions.
After more than a century of French occupation -- which ended not long ago in such butchery -- a similar no-man's land still exists between the French and the indigenous languages, between two national memories: the French tongue, with its body and voice, has established a proud presidio within me, while the mother-tongue, all oral tradition, all rags and tatters, resists and attacks between two breathing spaces. In time to the rhythm of the rebato, I am alternately the besieged foreigner and the native swaggering off to die, so there is seemingly endless strife between the spoken and written word (215)
A story comes near the end of the book, interspersed with an old woman telling of her hardships in supporting the freedom struggle, the house burned down about her, tramping into the hills. Burying her sons. A young woman joining the struggle. Burying her brother. This story of a wedding, a celebration of women to which uninvited guests can come and watch but cannot remove their veils and join in.
As if they were finding a way of forgetting their imprisonment, getting their own back on the men who kept them in the background: the males -- father, sons, husband -- were shut out once and for all by the women themselves who, in their own domain, began to impose the veil in turn on others. (205)
It mourns and celebrates the opening up of this world, the freeing of women and men from these bonds, and looks uneasily into the future and the crushing of contradictions and the voices that they made possible.
I wait amid the shatter sheaf of sounds, I wait, forseeing he inevitable moment when the mare's hoof will strike down any woman who dares to stand up freely, will trample all life that comes out into the sunlight to dance! Yes, in spite of the tumult of my people all around, I already hear, even before it arises and pierces the harsh sky, I head the death cry in the Fantasia.
Paris/Venice/Algiers (July '82--October '84)
*severe malnutrition characterized by energy deficiency....more
From one modernist master to another, this is quite a wonderful book. My favourite thing aboutTranslated by William Carlos Williams.
Say what? you ask.
From one modernist master to another, this is quite a wonderful book. My favourite thing about it perhaps, is less the book itself and more the story behind the author's breakup with his movement -- as Soupault was 'ejected' from the surrealist movement in 1926 (along with Artaud) for 'their isolated pursuit of the stupid literary adventure.' (v)
Ah, the stupid literary adventure. I imagine it like Baudelaire's wild addiction to bad literature...
Back to the book, it presents to you... Paris:
The rue de Medicis along which we were strolling at a fair pace is sad around ten-thirty at night. It is the street of everlasting rain.
It is said that along one side of it is the meeting place of masochistic bachelors. A modest and silent club. Here umbrellas take on the appearance of a flock.
"You know," she said, "that around here are places where you can get coffee with cream."
At its very start the rue de Vaugirard stinks of books. The odor comes from every side. Its friend and neighbor, the rue de Tournon, is more inviting. So much so that I was prepared for a proposal and the address of a comfortable hotel. (3-4)
The Paris that belongs to the wanderers (and obviously, the lovers).
"Where are we going?"
I expected that petulant and vicious question. It is the night's query and Georgette did no more than express aloud that eternal interrogation.
One more question without answer, a question one also asks of the stars, the weather, the shadows, the entire city.
Georgette, the sailor, the dog and I myself had no answer ready and this we sought wandering at random, driven here rather than there by an invincible fatigue.
Thinking it is over as we were walking with soft steps under the trees of the Champs-Elysees, I seemed to catch a purpose, that of all the night prowlers of Paris: we were in search of a corpse. (20)
That this books contains a corpse and a mystery endears it immensely to me. Don't get me wrong, this is not noir nor thriller nor detective story. It is a book about the Paris that only comes alive in the night, and it cannot be roughly handled nor can all of its secrets ever be known.
Daybreak. Paris, heavy-headed, began to fall asleep. (21)
In this, Paris is like the woman of this story, Georgette. Another creature of night.
She loved only the dark which she seemed each night to wed and her charm itself did not become real until she withdrew from the light to enter obscurity. Looking closely at her one could not picture her as living during the day. She was the night itself and her beauty was nocturnal. (49-50)
A prostitute, yes. A romanticised and problematic figure, yes. But a complex one, and the narrative voice is aware of its own need to romanticise her, to preserve her mystery. In spite of himself the narrator follows her into the day, drags her into the well-lit and the known.
She went to the baker's, to the milkman...All the evidence of respectability .... But when I thought of what she had been, which some would have loved to call queen of mystery, I would rather have seen her dead at my feet.
She was everything that one would expect in a twenty-two-year-old girl.
She stopped before a house in the narrowest part of the rue de Seine, not far from the quays. At the rear of the court she climbed a narrow stairway to the fifth floor.
Day splashed the casing of the stairs; and all the blemishes wrought by time appeared. Georgette opened a door. (58-59)
All this, and yet he fails. He buys her attentions, attempts to shift her into a defined role in subservience to him for a night to take power over her that way. And fails.
Always he roams the streets. Following Georgette, following her brother Octave, equally mysterious. He seeks out the sailor, the one with him the first night, the murderer most likely, and what wondrous words are these:
I relied on Paris, on the night and on the wind. I expected much of the Gare d'Orsay where one may occasionally hope and wait without aim or reason. The two twin clocks pointed to the hour of one; on the Seine, the reflections of fires and lights were still dancing by, like a galloping flock. (91)
He meets up with Volpe, yet another shadowy underworld figure who seeks only profits in whatever quick scheme is possible, who was advising the police that first night standing over the corpse. He is never brought into clarity either, all is dreamlike.
The cold morning had given Volpe the only drunkenness of which he was capable.
"Tell me, when Georgette disappears, have you noticed that day is not far distant? If she should disappear forever, I have a feeling, and believe me I don't let things muddle me, I have a feeling there would be no more night." (121)
Her mystery allows her to be independent, part of the 'gang' without being anyone's lover (in particular). It allows her to be 'treated like a man. The women did not consider her to be one of their number.' (130) This despite her profession. I don't quite know what I think about these things, whether this gives her power or strips her of it, whether it makes of her object or subject. I like this unknowing.
This is a book of puzzles, but they are not meant to be solved.
It is above all a book of streets, of walking, of Paris and its secrets. It is a dark delight.
The days when we follow the secret voice of diversion are those chosen by chance to show us its ways.
Empty-handed, I set out upon the discovery of the flight of time and of space. Words, like joyous companions, started before my eyes and spun about my ears in a carnival of forgetfulness.
I was tired of those involuntary inquisitions, of those incessant curiosities. Boredom with the eternal pageant turned my thoughts to what you will. I fled voluptuously. (135)
My first fan book, and I did enjoy reading it in small pieces. Full of facts, quotes, gossip about the stars of the show and fairly fascinating listsMy first fan book, and I did enjoy reading it in small pieces. Full of facts, quotes, gossip about the stars of the show and fairly fascinating lists of other things they had done or would go on to do. Audience reaction to monsters was equally fascinating. Intellectually I particularly liked the chapters on the economics of television production and the archiving of shows at the end -- along with the efforts to preserve and save what was left and the search for episodes in unlikely places. Like the Mormon Church in Clapham.
I also really loved the very last pages, storyboarding the special effects.
This is an extraordinary book, not least because I'd seen it referenced as an architectural handbook and a good source for thinking about public spaceThis is an extraordinary book, not least because I'd seen it referenced as an architectural handbook and a good source for thinking about public space. It is all that.
But really, it is quite a mad reimagining of our world as it could and should be, but at the same time serves as a blueprint of how to build it. After that final scene in V for Vendetta when the world is reduced to rubble and everyone is like oh shit, what next? You want to think through what happens after the revolution if you'd prefer not to find all the bondage leather you can carry and go off into the desert to kill other people other for fuel and for fun and for vaseline and always drive really fast?
Get this book. But why did no one say?
Maybe because the authors use the introduction to emphasize the ways that this new society can be built piecemeal, can grow organically within the old (but really, can it?). Still, I struggled to hold that in mind as I continued to read given they seem wildly prescriptive at times, pulling out studies and equations and optimal numbers as guides. Ultimately, I grant them, their larger ethos consists of building for the ways that people actually use space with a view to making them (and the earth) happiest. They write:
We believe that the patterns presented in this section can be implemented best by piecemeal processes, where each project built or each planning decision made is sanctioned by the community according as it does or does not help to form certain large scale patterns. We do not believe that these large patterns, which give so much structure to a town or of a neighborhood, can be created by centralized authority, or by laws, or by master plans. We believe instead that they can emerge gradually and organically, almost of their own accord, if every act of building, large or small, takes on the responsibility for gradually shaping its small corner of the world to make these larger patterns appear there (3).
As I say, this doesn't stop them from thinking really big:
Wherever possible work toward the evolution of independent regions in the world; each with a population between 2 and 10 million; each with its own natural and geographic boundaries; each with its own economy; each one autonomous and self-governing; each with a seat in a world government, without the intervening power of larger states or countries. (14)
I didn't realise that this is actually a part 2 (and there is a part 3, The Oregon Experiment). The earlier book, A Timeless Way of Building goes more into this fascinating idea of patterns and language and how we write them across the city. So I'll wait to delve into that, this is way too long as it is. But essentially this book breaks up the components of cities, towns, neighbourhoods and homes into numbered pieces for assembly, ranging from 1. Independent regions to 37. House cluster to 135. Tapestry of Light and Dark to 204. Secret place (YES! Every home needs a secret place) to 253. Things from your life. It's an impressive number and thoughtfulness of patterns. So what follows are a few that struck me in particular, but there is so much richness here in thinking about different kinds of spaces, and it pulls on a variety of literature, you'll always be finding different things.
I don't usually like quotes from native people's taken out of context, but this one is beautiful, and a way of thinking we have moved far too much away from:
I conceive that land belongs for us to a vast family of which many are dead, few are living, and countless members are still unborn. --a Nigerian tribesman (37)
The one place they completely lost me in the book -- the whole 1166 pages of it -- was their 'mosaic of subcultures'. The principle here:
The homogenous and undifferentiated character of modern cities kills all variety of life styles and arrests the growth of individual character. (43)
I might agree with that, but how strange to go from that to neighborhoods divided up into subcultures and separated one from the other by belts of industry or other land uses? They write that this is so no one more powerful or wealthier subculture might be tempted to interfere with their neighbors, but this seems a deathknell to diversity and fortuitous mixings and glorious circumstance.
Funny that this emerges with their understanding of how people view property values and how they value homogeneity -- things that I think this separation plays into even though such ideologies have been constructed for all of the wrong reasons and have immense negative effects. I am back to wondering why people just can't seem to even attempt to grapple with class and race in the city. Probably something to do with class and race. Still. They grapple with a lot in this book, primarily physical space and how we live in it, and so I will allow it some exemptions given its already massive nature as utopian blueprint. But i would prefer an equality of class, race, gender, sexuality and etc to be explicit in that.
Hell, if they're going to call for an evolution of independent regions a la Kropotkin, they can throw a little intersectionality in there.
But I do like acknowledging that 'People need an identifiable spatial unit to belong to' (81). That neighborhoods need to be small in number, small in area, and guess what, large streets driven through their middle destroys them.
I like the section on 'The Magic of the City', the ways that they are 'rich, various, fascinating.' (59) I like that they don't really try to define it, just let it stand as it is. Because obviously, they just have some magic.
So do railways, and I love that the Swiss have a massive network that ties in the smallest villages to the largest towns after the 'democratic railway movement' of the 19th Century demanded and won that they do so. This has avoided some of the centralisation seen in France and England, maintaining the viability of smaller areas. Go Switzerland.
There is a whole section on how terrible high-rises are, and how they negatively impact the mental and social well-being of the people living within them. Children start playing outside later and less-often unattended and free, people feel isolated, it's a larger barrier to get out into the world. There can be few casual interactions, you are removed from everything and no longer can feel part of the street and the life on it. A lot of this makes sense, though it also reminded me of the Doomwatch episode where the female scientist tests the new council highrises and has a nervous breakdown. You get the feeling it's more because she's female.
But I loved this poem from Glasgow
The Jelly Piece Song By Adam McNaughton
I'm a skyscraper wean, I live on the nineteenth flair, on' I'm no' gaun oot tae play ony mair For since we moved tae oor new hoose I'm wastin' away, 'Cos I'm gettin' was less meal ev'ry day
Refrain Oh, ye canny fling pieces oot a twenty-story flat Seven hundred hungry weans will testify tae that If it's butter, cheese or jeely, if the breid is plain or pan, The odds against it reachin' us is ninty-nine tae wan.
We're wrote away tae Oxfam tae try an' get some aid, We've a' joined thegither an' formed a "piece" brigade, We're gonny march tae London tae demand oor Civil Rights, Like "Nae mair hooses ower piece flingin' heights." (117-118)
Moving on to 45. 'Necklace of community projects', how cool is that? They write:
The local town hall will not be an honest part of the community which lives around it, unless it is itself surrounded by all kinds of small community activities and projects, generated by the people for themselves. (243)
These are political projects of opposition in part, but free and low-cost space for any number of things to begin, projects to come together, things to be created. Exactly the kind of spaces that real estate capital tends to destroy.
Pattern 47 is Health center -- and they look at Peckham Health Center as a model. I've been meaning to look into that place for ages, and its early focus on staying healthy and thinking about it holistically rather than simply seeing health as the absence of disease.
Green streets? Yes please, many small residential roads do not need asphalt and would be perfectly lovely with paving stones or concrete treads for tires, allowing natural drainage, reducing heat trapped and use of non-renewable resources and making it feel good to be and play in. I'm in.
Lots of small public squares -- wonderful. Here they make the point that the operative word is small, that it is small plazas that are most used unless there is a very large flow of people past a place. The authors have put so much time and thoughtfulness into this book, they suggest 60 feet in diameter (at least in width, long and skinny seems to work as well), bigger than that and places don't feel used, vibrant.
The idea of outdoor rooms, both public and private -- we should have them. It is true as they say that
There are very few spots along the streets of modern towns and neighborhoods where people can hang out comfortably, for hours at a time. (349)
I'd go further than that and say that such a thing would be frowned up and disapproved of in the US and UK these days, that kind of social fabric is something belonging to the past. There is to be no more enjoyment of time. Unless maybe you're on the Mediterranean, or Aegean.
We need to end speculation and profit on housing of course. Of course. 'Rental areas are always the first to turn to slums.' But as importantly,
People will only be able to feel comfortable in their houses, if they can change their houses to suit themselves, add on whatever they need, rearrange the garden as they like it... (394).
This is a book that describes thick living walls that can be carved out, shaped by incoming families. Niches made and filled. Gardens created. Rooms added on. Their rule of thumb for this pattern?
Do everything possible to make the traditional form of rental impossible, indeed, illegal. Give every household its own home, with space enough for a garden. Keep the emphasis in the definition of ownership on control, not on financial ownership (395).
They want to reinstitute the inn, a warm centre where strangers can stay, congregate, meet, entertain each other. Yes, I say.
Open space and gardens are used if they are sunny (with deserts being somewhat of an exception). So put them on the south side. How hard is that?
Connect your buildings, create some density, don't create dead space between buildings! They write 'Isolated buildings are symptoms of a disconnected sick society' (532), and I think they may be right. make sure they're insulated for sound of course, but that saves on energy and space and all kinds of things. I also like the idea of lines of long thin houses facing the world on the long sides, rather than the narrow ends as they do now. That makes sense to me in terms of sunlight and view, but apparently mathematically it creates the greatest feeling of spaciousness and allows the maximum flexibility in arrangement of space. Who knew?
They go all the way down into seemingly minor details of what makes us happy and comfortable, but still so important. A wall at our backs when outside, arcades that bridge the spaces inside and outside. Building edges should be crenellated to create interest and space for people passing by, and as much care should be given to the space surrounding the buildings as to the buildings themselves-- they form a whole. They notice that people tend to hug the edges of squares -- if those don't work, the square will never work. That homes should have an entrance room to make it feel as though you have truly arrived somewhere. They write:
The most impressionistic and intuitive way to describe the need for the entrance room is to say that the time of arriving, or leaving, seems to swell with respect to the minutes which precede and follow it, and that in order to be congruent with the importance of the moment, the space too must follow suit and swell with respect to the immediate inside and the immediate outside of the building. (623)
They think of what children most need from space as they grow, ending with possible private entrances and private roofs. They junk the Victorian ideals of tiny bedrooms rooms in favour of children having bed niches surrounding shared space for living rather than sleeping, small dressing rooms for that which we want to keep most private. Distance and space alone for parents. Rooms that are never perfectly square or uniform. Building materials that are easily used by people without much experience, cheap, and ecologically greener. They even have some plans and rules of thumb for building.
I read through this -- skimmed often, as this is more meant to be a working book, one you flip through as you plan your own space and its building -- and was immensely impressed. So much of this lies outside commonly accepted wisdom on 'good' development, yet intuitively so much of this feels right. I want to sit and just imagine what society might transform into if more were built this way.
It makes me want to build.
(Alexander, Christopher, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein. (1977) A Pattern Language: Towns. Buildings. Construction. NY: Oxford University Press.)...more
Nabeel Hamdi in his book on development constantly refers to the idea of emergence, which he draws from this book by Steven Johnson. Another bit of poNabeel Hamdi in his book on development constantly refers to the idea of emergence, which he draws from this book by Steven Johnson. Another bit of pop science applied to the world and I wasn't too sure I wanted to read it. Somehow I was convinced by its shortness, and the blurb from J.G. Ballard - 'Exhilarating'.
This is a bit Ballardian. Though it has no car crashes, sharp angles or sex symbol references.
In August 2000, Toshiyuki Nakagaki announced he had trained slime mould to travel the fastest route through a maze. Pretty amazing.
More amazing was that it turns out slime mould does not have a few cells that order all the rest around as had previously been assumed, but that given the right conditions, its components--often happily trawling about on their own doing what they do--each put out a call to join together and take advantage of opportunity and thus collectively do what they could not on their own. If you can use such human words to describe a very different process.
Which you probably shouldn't. Just as you probably shouldn't use that process as more than a broad metaphor to think about how things other than slime mould work, especially things as complicated as human beings.
So when this books was very broad I found it thought-provoking, and the narrower it got the higher my frustration.
I did like the breadth of what it drew on, going from slime mould to ants to Engels writing about Manchester - and I liked that it provoked me to think something slightly new about this classic with a quote I hadn't noted in my own reading:
I have never elsewhere seen a concealment of such fine sensibility of everything that might offend the eyes and nerves of the middle classes. And yet it is precisely Manchester that has been built less according to a plan and less within the limitations of official regulations--and indeed more through accident--than any other town. Still...I cannot help feeling that the liberal industrialists, the Manchester "bigwigs," are not altogether innocent of this bashful style of building. (37)
But Engels went on with Marx to look at some of the things structuring this apparent accident, principally capitalism and the exploitative hierarchies it creates. How some of this emergent behaviour interlocks with these structures is what is actually what I find most interesting, and discussing 'emergence' as though this emerging takes place on a blank canvas rather than into a world of structural inequality and oppression which act to shape it is deeply problematic. I would like a dialectical understanding of such things, how horizontal emergence articulates with structure. Maybe changes it for the better.
This book doesn't do that.
The fact that it doesn't do that makes it possible for Johnson to note hopefully that Al Gore is a fan of complexity theory! And in the same paragraph to describe corporate mantras of bottom-up intelligence and also the organising of the radical antiglobalization movement protest movement. Isn't it all fascinating.
The science stuff is fun though, like the fact that ant colonies follow a lifecycle over 15 years (well, Arizona carpenter ants do -- and I know those large bastards well with their amazing foraging lines that change every night, stripping a new plant of everything and leaving others alone). This, despite the fact no ant lives more than a year, thus the puzzle of:
The persistence of the whole over time--the global behaviour that outlasts any of its component parts--is one of the defining characteristics of complex systems. Generations of ants come and go, and yet the colony itself matures, grows more stable, more organized. (82)
This reminded me of the corruption and violence of the Yorkshire police in the Red Riding trilogy. But we are not ants. I like the fact that the Sim city game failed when the people were made too smart, instead they had to be dumbed down, fixated on one thing. Like ants.
Sim city may play with a form of emergence, but it is still limited by programming and the extent of its programmers imaginations of what cities are.
For most people, the sight of their first digital town sprouting upscale neighborhoods and chronically depressed slums is downright eerie, as though the hard math of the digital computer had somehow generated a life-form (88).
That was slightly infuriating, but I was raging as he continued in that vein:
Neighborhoods are themselves polycentric structures, born of thousands of local intersections, shapes forming within the city's larger shape. Like Gordon's ant colonies, or the cells of a developing embryo, neighborhoods are patterns in time. No one wills them into existence single-handedly; they emerge by a kind of tacit consensus : the artists go here, the investment bankers here, Mexican-Americans here, gays and lesbians here. The great preponderance of city dwellers live by these laws, without any legal authority mandating that compliance (91).
Laws mandated compliance with racial segregation until 1953 in the US, the planning profession's obsession with homogeneity and separation of land-use has been policy for a hundred years, and unofficial policies and blatant discrimination still exist. We cannot forget the legacy of violence and issues with race and definitions of 'American' as white and etc. resulting from the conquest of the US and slavery that are even now being fought out in Ferguson and Baltimore and cities all over the country.
There is a lot more wrong with this idea, but in a nutshell: patterns do naturally emerge, but American cities at least do not reflect any such 'natural' patterns arrived at through tacit consensus. The idea would be laughable if it did not write off and deeply insult centuries of struggle by people of colour, poor people, lbgtqi communities to live where they choose with some level of dignity. That still hasn't been won.
This is why I hate using an idea emerging from slime mould, and other such biological marvels, to say 'this is how cities work.' To explain what is created by human beings. It simplifies and ignores what doesn't fit. Sadly our cities, our slums, our uprisings are all things we have actively created and fought over.
When do I like playing with an idea such as emergence? When it does not seek to explain, but rather shifts our frame, maybe makes us see things in a different way. Notice what we hadn't before. When metaphor opens up insight.
There are manifest purposes to a city...But cities have a latent purpose as well: to function as information storage and retrieval devices. Cities were creating user-friendly interfaces thousands of years before anyone even dreamed of digital computers. Cities bring minds together and put them into coherent slots. Cobblers gather near other cobblers...Ideas and goods flow readily within these clusters, leading to productive cross-pollination...The power unleashed by this data storage is evident in the earliest large-scale human settlements (108)
Again, still a bit problematic in its simplifications, but the idea of the city as a giant centre of information storage and retrieval is quite cool, fun to play with and think about.
I also liked the recognition that in studying communications and discourse these days, 'We need a third term beyond medium and message' (161). We need something that gets at how we are filtering things, accessing them. The web really has opened things wide up, but how are people being channeled, how do they figure out where to look and what is worth looking at?
Near the end Johnson gets to the question of what this can do for politics. Same issues as raised by what this can do for cities -- things aren't just emerging onto a level playing field so how emergence deals with existing structures of domination is the real question. That what makes its embrace by the right-wing who are anti-big-government in everything but the monopoly of force, and by the radical left so different.
In fact, the needs of most progressive movements are uniquely suited to adaptive, self-organizing systems: both have a keen ear for collective wisdom; both are naturally hostile to excessive concentrations of power; and both are friendly to change. For any movement that aims to be truly global in scope, making it almost impossible to rely on centralized power, adaptive self-organization may well be the only road available. (224)
Possibly true, but the capacity of capitalism to co-opt so much demands of us much more of a stretch in our thinking about how this actually can create a positive change in the world that goes to scale....more
This book had many strengths and a few weaknesses, but for delving into the nitty gritty of how to study public space and the way people use and shapeThis book had many strengths and a few weaknesses, but for delving into the nitty gritty of how to study public space and the way people use and shape it, both in outlines of practice and a bibliography of others who have done so, this is a great place to start.
I also love that they connect public life with public space, it is not a study of one separate from the other.
A common theme in many of these studies -- we really screwed up when we started large-scale planning:
Public life and public space were historically treated as a cohesive unit. Medieval cities grew little by little in accordance with changing needs, in contrast to the rapid tempo of modernism's large-scale planning (3).
So how do we study what is working and what is not to improve our cities and public space?
You start with the basic questions of how many, who, where, what, and how long?
There is a great chart of the continuum of ways that we move through space for pleasure and for need -- which you may not be able to read here, but the book is full of these beautifully designed charts and graphics that help you think through how you might design a space:
A list of different kinds of studies you can adapt to your city, and the primary tools you can use:
Mapping (of activities, people and places) Tracing (how people move across a delimited space)
Tracking (shadowing to see how people move through space)
Looking for Traces (trails, paths worn through grass)
Photographing (time lapse photos are so so cool)
Keeping a diary Test walks
There is a great chapter on all of the different people who have looked at these issues over time, and the source for most of what it is on my list for future reading...it is quite inspiring to see the faces and read some of the words of those who have fought for more liveable cities, ones built around the needs and actual lives of people and that are allowed to emerge from the bottom up rather than being built for motives of profit or static and powerful ideals of how we should live, what cities should be like.
This list is very male, and entirely white so it needs some broadening. It also doesn't engage at all with theorists like David Harvey or Henri Lefebvre, so important to understanding how capital works to shape cities from above. Funnily he does bring up Sorkin's book Variations on a Theme Park and mentions Mike Davis as well, but never engages with their key arguments around capitalism and privatisation.
This perhaps explains why Gehl can gaily talk about his work as a consultant for cities like Sydney and London, and particularly the work he did on NY's Times Square and Cape Town in preparation for the World Cup without also mentioning the huge struggles happening in these places over the question of the right to the city, and the ways in which regeneration of public space that he contributes to has dovetailed with its securitisation, privatisation and mass displacement of the poor and people of colour. So damn frustrating because to do this work well we have to deal with those larger issues, if only to minimise their impacts. At least, in all of those countries listed about where class and race are still huge issues (and perhaps they are not in Copenhagen, I am no judge). If we don't, we contribute to the social and racial cleansing of our cities, if only by driving up land values and forcing more and more people out of these areas. Ideally we need a fundamental transformation putting social and racial equality along with the right to the city of all residents above the demands of capital and real estate profit.
With that larger critique said, the actual pages and pages of case studies were great (though the whole of this is a little Gehl heavy establishing him within the canon and sometimes repetitive with it, but fair enough), not only as ways to think about and study public space, but as pointers to what makes public spaces work or not -- and how planners so often get it completely wrong. These were a few of my favourites.
Good Places to Stand - 'These studies clearly show what was later described as the edge effect: the fact that people were more likely to stay at the edge of spaces.' (84)
This naturally means that when a space is too big and open people still hug the edges and the places that are at a more human scale. If only the planners of the Olympic Park had read this.
Who Walks, How Fast, When? - This showed the importance of people taking their time in a space in terms of the feel of it, dawdling made possible by warmer weather in our countries (the opposite in Tucson where heat drives people off the streets): '...streets are experienced as more lively in summer than in winter -- even when an equal number of people are on the street' (87)
Many Good Reasons (Studying activities and excuses for being in public spaces) --
It was clear early on in the process that people do not always have an obviously practical reason for being in public space. If you ask them directly, they might tell you that they are in town to shop or run errands. The many good reasons and sensible arguments made for being in public space often prove to be rational explanations for activity patterns that weave together errands and pleasure. in this context, rationally explained behaviour can cover stays in public space for the purpose of looking at people and public life in general. (90)
Action Research (from empty stretch of gravel to active playground in one day) -- this was a marvelous project to inject life and space for women and children into high-rise social housing (one of the places in this book gender is specifically addressed), where 50 residents and 50 students built an enormous and wonderful adventure playground in an empty stretch of gravel between the high rise and some lame sand boxes.
Diary Method -- two students spent 24 hours on a street writing down absolutely everything that happened! I am impressed and have some strange wish to do this myself. But I know a number of places, entire cities really, where writing down everyone's actions would have immediate (and dangerous) consequences. This points to the privileges of working in Denmark I think.
Measuring Fear and Apprehension -- sadly not about class or race issues -- these don't exist in these studies as I say -- but an interesting way to study the impact of traffic on public life
Active or Passive Facades --
'most of what we take in visually is at eye-level, and in relation to buildings, it is primarily the ground-floor level that catches our eye. Numerous studies have pointed to edges, the transition between building and public space, as significant for how many and which activities take place.' (104)
Going from 43 to 12 Criteria -- a checklist for assessing public space qualities! I love checklists......more