A few days ago I wandered through a gigantic Barnes & Noble in a Baltimore mega-mall. Overwhelmed by the acreage and options, I drifted down the aisles: Literature. Astrology. Manga. Cooking. Investing. When I saw a section labeled ‘Urban Fiction’, I got excited and rushed toward it, imagining a bookshelf bursting with paranoid novels by JG Ballard, Don Delillo, Luc Sante, and Georges Perec. Instead, the shelves were lined with pulp paperbacks: Ride or Die Chick 2, Thug Lovin’ and The Dopeman’s Wife. It was a sharp reminder that the word ‘urban’ is remarkably elastic.
Urban. Is it a positive or a negative word to you? Does it conjure images of a bustling business center or grim housing projects? Does it describe a physical environment or does it suggest a lifestyle?
I often wonder how growing up in a Detroit suburb defined — and distorted — my perception of the city. Although we lived only seven miles north of Detroit, my parents rarely went downtown in the 1980s. I remember the ker-chunk of the doors locking whenever we crossed Eight Mile Road. “It’s safer,” my dad said. And so I began to conjure elaborate and bloody scenarios of masked robbers ripping open the doors of our Pontiac and dragging us onto the pavement. This was my introduction to the city.
In high school, I snuck into Detroit every chance I got. Sometimes I went to late-night parties in clubs and factories. More often, I simply drove around aimlessly and looked at things (much like I do these days, now that I think about it). The city was forbidden and therefore fascinating. After a few successful trips downtown, my childhood fear of the city was replaced by fetishistic teenage awe: the city was exciting, aspirational, and (to deploy another tricky word) underground. Although my sense of all things ‘urban’ became positive, it remained warped and unrealistic until I actually lived in a city. I wonder how this experience compares to someone raised in New York, Chicago or San Francisco. Imagine being a kid with a MetroCard, a lot of mobility, and no fear.
Urban decay. Urban radio. Urban legend. Urban slang. Urban renewal. Urban chic. ‘Urban’ is a screwy word, loaded with axe-grinding and assumptions. We bring our personal baggage to it. Same with ’suburbia’, ‘rural’ and ’sprawl’. As Robert Bruegmann writes, these terms aren’t so much “an objective reality as a cultural concept”. Writing about the repopulation of the Lower East Side in Sprawl: A Compact History, Bruegmann argues:
Gentrification at the center and sprawl at the edge have been flipsides of the same coin. In a typically paradoxical situation, no matter how much the new, more affluent residents profess to like the ‘gritty’ urban character of the place, so different in their minds from the subdivisions of the far suburbs, what makes the neighborhood attractive today are less the things that are actually traditionally urban but those that are not. The most important of these are sharply lower population densities, fewer poor residents, less manufacturing activity, and the things that the Lower East Side finally shares with the suburbs: reliable plumbing, supermarkets with good produce, and a substantial cohort of middle-class residents.
It’s a provocative comparison, although Bruegmann’s confusion of ’traditionally urban’ with ‘poor’ is a red flag. Bruegmann downplays the reasons people enjoy living in the Lower East Side (and he seems primed for a cage match with James Howard Kunstler). Plumbing and produce aside, I believe people move to cities for three obvious reasons:
1. To be freed from the demands of the car
2. To enjoy dignified building stock.
3. To be close to other people (and hence have more options for work, food, friends, etc.)
The last item is the most important. As William H. Whyte observed in his series of groundbreaking films from 1979 called The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, “The number one activity is people looking at other people.”
Watch the entire series here. It may seem a little old-timey at first, but stick with it. After five minutes, Whyte’s narration hits a stride that becomes oddly soothing and addictive. Many thanks to Candy Chang and Jan Chipchase for turning me on to Whyte.
Whyte’s work endures because he connects distinct urban behaviors to the shape of our buildings, plazas, and sidewalks. He connects social behaviors to physical space and vice versa. There is no agenda with Whyte. There is no baggage if you stay curious.
This post originally appeared on KinoSport, the notebook of James A. Reeves. Reeves is a writer, educator and designer. He is currently working on a book about America called The Awful Making of an Optimist. He lives in Greenpoint.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.