The Flow of Life

The topic of Flow of Life started in my head as a thesis idea for my Urban Design Theory paper, but I realized how personally relevant it is, and I also missed writing on this blog. So here: BLOG POST!

I was writing a paper for Film Theory class about the importance of setting in film, and Arnheim writes about the “flow of life” that the street represents in film. Cinema is when film seems to capture humanity. Streets are a rich resource for cinema, as you’ll notice in many films including It’s a Wonderful Life and Cleo from 5 to 7.  It is the character’s public space, a stage for interaction with the rest of the world, just as the home is the stage for interaction with the nuclear family.

I remember at certain points in my childhood, on beautiful Saturday afternoons, when it felt like I was cut off from the rest of the world, like the town was empty because everyone was at the football game (kind of like U of M yesterday). There was plenty to do at my house, I’m certain. But nothing could be satisfying, because I felt isolated. My nuclear world wasn’t enough; I was needing mental stimulation. I remember wishing to be where everyone was.

This is a standard feeling of isolation. I still get it often. It feels like staying home alone on a Friday night, which is never desirable unless you’d had a long and stressful week and you need a moment’s peace. The film Pulse kind of captures this feeling. It’s a horror movie where pretty much everyone starts dying. (From seeing a ghost I think. It was J-horror.)

I’m starting to think we built a nation that structurally does not support a happy life. Extreme. But to think streets used to be a source of stimulation, social gathering, chance meetings, etc. when they are now a source of boredom-tears from being stuck in traffic jams, or a source of road rage towards other drivers who didn’t use a turn signal. We go to work (which has varying degrees of awfulness for everyone), then we drive home (which we have control over, and we decorate to our liking, and we maintain our closest relationships). Work and Family. Running into friends is not probable, and must be planned.

For me, this is a comforting pattern most of the time, as I have social anxiety. Boy, is it easier to drive, to stay home, to stay away from the downtown and the crowds of pedestrians.  To have control over who I see and when. But I pay for it in these feelings of isolation, in my lack of face-time with friends. I am not afraid to call new people to share a cup of coffee. I am afraid of having that actual cup of coffee with the new friend. It’s a new relationship and those have unknown paths. They may not work out. They are unpredictable. Just like the street. I want to burrow beneath my covers when I’m feeling anxious about this.

Facebook has become a complete replacement for the street as a source of the flow of life. Slowly, as we know, Facebook morphed from a stalker-ish profile collection for college students to a constantly-running feed of updates, photos, and links from people you know (and from businesses, musical artists, nonprofits, political figures, etc.). When we need stimulation, to catch up with friends, to feel a little less disconnected from the world, to talk about something from the news, we go to Facebook.  We can control this flow of life and which aspects of it we want to subscribe to. We can do it in our pajamas and type things we’d never say and stay safe. You can’t get hit by a car in your house. Usually.

I know this argument gets made, in some form, almost daily. That Facebook can’t replace face-to-face interaction and blah blah blah. It’s bigger than that. Facebook is a symptom of the major problem. That we don’t know how to be communities anymore, and that we have no daily connection to each other. That we literally don’t have the physical structure for this. That we need each other, collectively, publicly, anonymously; we need that place where anyone can show up, anything can happen, a flow of possibilities, opportunities to celebrate life quietly (or loudly) as a species.  We were robbed of this, and we should claim it back.

Beautiful City

I work in southwest Detroit now.  My supervisor took me on a tour of southwest Detroit today. We drove around for an hour.

The neighborhoods have mature trees and houses that sit close to one another. Some houses are burnt to the ground. Some are fine. There is a large island of industrial landscape and it looks like some cynical writer’s depiction of the future. There are terrible pot holes with stories behind them. There are miles of railroad. There’s a historical Fort that should be a tourist attraction. There’s a river with half-sunken boats, and houses near the bank. There are stable neighborhoods where the residents have lived there for over 50 years. There’s a huge empty train station that you can see from many angles in the city. The more it crumbles the more beautiful it gets. There’s a newly-built bridge and market with new concrete and new design and no people. There are tires everywhere. There’s a foundation where a Propane truck careened off a ramp, exploded, and burned down a house. There’s a field where a baseball stadium was. There are birds and vines and weeds overgrowing and bricks falling down. There is life and death in a natural ratio; there is no discrete line where built meets nature. There are stories and history on every block.  This is the most fascinating and beautiful place I have seen.

How We Talk about Progress: Urban Terrorism in Grand Rapids

In East Hills of Grand Rapids, vandalism has popped up as a recurring problem. After some disturbing letters and threats, it is clear these “urban terrorists” believe Wealthy street and the nearby area are being gentrified. Gentrification is when an urban area gets revitalized and higher income people start moving in and renovating the buildings. This process frequently displaces lower income residents, especially in large cities like Chicago where entire low-income housing structures (ones that are not vacant) are sold and renovated as condos, leaving the former residents scrambling for new affordable housing.

Nothing this extreme has happened in Grand Rapids. The past few years has just been decrease in property values all over the city. But the reverse demographic shift (the people who moved out to the suburbs or a better life are moving back into the city for a better life) has finally hit West Michigan.  So when this neighborhood, with businesses like the Green Well, the Winchester, and Wealthy Street Bakery, which have sprung up in the last ten years, sees this kind of economic development, it is an exciting new trend for real estate statistics and has implications for Grand Rapids’ economic situation.

This whole state is in trouble, and we all know that. My point here is that gentrification is not happening in this area, but something else is. And we should pay attention.

It is tempting to jump on any band wagon that shows economic activity in a part of town that used to be more run down. It is easy to slap the “improvement!” label on any neighborhood that has an influx of white people and new businesses. We keep seeing articles about great things happening and the pictures show brand new stuff that looks old fashioned and hip, white people riding bikes fashionably, and the words “local first” everywhere, and we say it’s so much better than it was before. This is kind of like telling a person who lost a significant amount of weight how amazing they look now. The classic response is, “well geez, did I look that awful before?”  What are we implying when we say “wow, this neighborhood has really turned around!”

We have to be careful about how we talk about progress and improvement in neighborhoods. What was the neighborhood like before? Was it truly empty? Because there are neighborhoods in Grand Rapids (Burton/Eastern area) that have thriving businesses that aren’t related to stuff white people like, and are very diverse economically and racially. Moreover, when I drive through these neighborhoods I constantly see people waving from their cars to each other or meeting on the street. There is definitely a close-knit community among the black population in SE Grand Rapids and I fear we are ignoring this by only measuring progress by economic development.

I can see why this would happen though, because right now we equate, subconsciously, upper economic class with white people. We subconsciously think, “how can we get white people back into this neighborhood?” because we see that as a sign of the return of safety and vitality. And this might contain a kernel of truth sometimes, but this mode of thinking is more dangerous because it’s so insidious. This kind of thinking perpetuates the racism that still exists everywhere, the racism that cripples people from being happy about who they are.

Whether it’s The Green Well or Happy’s Pizza that’s a hopping place on a Friday night, we should call it good.

The terrorists could be anyone, from white suburb kids to old angry people. What they’re doing is incredibly wrong and they’re actually sabotaging a valid point with misunderstanding and fear mongering.

“Old” Buildings

Last Friday I went walking around Lowertown in Ann Arbor to observe a certain area for my Urban Design class.  It was amazing. Want to see my favorite part?

How old do you think it is? In what decade did someone dream this design up?  My friend Anne thinks it’s gross but I’d live in it in a hot second.

Yeah this is a screen shot from Google Streetview. The ultimate stalker’s tool. When you’re stalking places. Like me.  Down the street was a psychoanalyst’s office in a building from 1886 which used to also be a brewery.  All the houses are close together and were built all different times. You can see the late 1800s, 60s, 70s, 80s. It’s nuts. The oldest commercial building is down the road on Broadway and it’s from 1832. It’s now a thrift shop.

My professor said certainly people did not build here “just because the river was pretty.” And I thought, yeah right. That was the romantic period. They idolized nature like it was a sin. These old brick buildings are pretty as heck. They cared more about aesthetics than we do today, for sure.