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.

Physical Community and Internetworking

With the Internet being the primary way I communicate with people, and having grown up this way, I have to wonder why I care about the physical community around me so much. I can find people who have the same tastes, beliefs, ideals as I do on-line.

That’s the same argument that Randall O’Toole (he sure is) in his awful book called the Best Laid Plans or something like that. He was all, “why are planners all concerned with communities? We don’t need that anymore because we have the internet.”

Oh, okay.

The creation and extensive use of craigslist.com shows the marriage of physical community and internetworking. (Did I just make up a word?) Here, people can anonymously sell things, hire people, lease apartments, and post missed connections. People like it because it’s safe. You don’t have to have any contact information on any of your posts. They even finally have gotten better spam protection.

I think craigslist is a good start, but the same idea is going to have a different looking and working website in the future. It is great that it categorizes by location, but what if each neighborhood had its own forum? On Facebook, my neighborhood has its own page–but it only has 80 fans. You know more than 80 people in my neighborhood have Facebook.

Neighborhood pride went out when platte developments came in. Of course, I have met people who actually do know all of their neighbors. But in my neighborhood, one that had an annual block party only 15 years ago, this aspect is gone. Maybe an internet forum for neighborhoods defeats the purpose–we could simply knock on peoples’ doors and say hi, couldn’t we? In a span of ten years, it has become more easy and safe for people to post on a website than to initiate in person.

This confused post shows how big we’re going to have to dream as internet integrates more and more deeply into our lives.

The Town Hall Meeting Model

I watched a healthy dose of Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report last night, with some good friends. These episodes were focused on the town hall meetings Obama held across the nation about the health care plans. People bringing guns to these, yelling at the microphones, Nazi accusations…at first I was thinking, wow, Obama’s attempt at bringing community organizing and small governments back to democracy is not working.

But yes, it totally is!

In my community building class in Chicago, we watched videos of town hall meetings. We watched people passionately confront their local leaders and demand what they wanted. It not only worked, but it was inspiring and interesting and fun.  I’m glad people are pissed about healthcare. I’m glad people are scared that public transportation may lead to socialism (haha) and I’m glad they’re lining up in droves to protest what they think is right. Or out of fear. Whatever. They’re involved. They may be reiterating O’Reilly’s hyperbolic statements, some of them, but at least they’re doing it directly and not on their facebook (haha).

When Obama won, I didn’t want the Rebublicans’ voices to be silenced. I think their fear is unfounded, though, and I want them to confront it face-to-face, voicing it and hearing a human voice respond to them, instead of getting it drilled into their head from a radio show and pondering the fear into their hearts at night. It’s good when people feel they have a voice (power) again. What we all really want to avoid here is a backlash, whipping too far in the opposite direction of what happened from 2000 to 2008. So we have to listen to the conservatives.

Still, they can leave their guns at home for goodness’ sake!

Gran Torino Illustrates Good Neighborship

I finally saw Gran Torino last weekend, after refusing to see it in Chicago with my friends. I never had any idea what it was about.

from screencrave.com
from screencrave.com

Aside from the fake-sounding dialogue and the way-too-blunt Christ-figure scene, I enjoyed its message. I enjoyed Clint’s character, too. He is incredibly racist but good to his neighbors by accident. His kids encourage him to move to a “community” but he wants to stay in his crumbling neighborhood, which his kids call the ghetto. When there’s trouble at the Hmong house next door, he comes out with a gun and intimidates the gangsters away. He has the teenager next door work for him. He sits on his porch and watches the neighborhood, ready to interfere when something goes wrong. He puts the public eye back into neighborhoods and respect back into the youngsters. And all of it was either forced on him or by accident.

Maybe Clint wanted to achieve this inherent sense of community in Walt. People that age remember what it was like to be a part of a neighborhood. The baby boomers simply want to get as far away as possible from intense problems that community has to deal with. We call the police when neighbors are too loud instead of talking to them ourselves. We turn inward, live passive aggressively, and repress.

With the climax scene, it becomes apparent that the best way to put criminals in jail is to provide witnesses to their crimes. This involves actually being around. Sticking your head out the window when you hear raised voices.

Jane Jacobs would be so proud of Walt from Gran Torino. In even the broken neighborhood featured in this movie, the people who live in it salvage a livable life.

GR Pride

The Green Gathering was great. It was a lot like the charrette I helped run in Chicago…voting by dots for each project, trying to figure out what the citizens would pay for. Some of the items were about improving walkability and safety–a city after my own heart <3. It was fantastic. I will be going to more of this stuff!DSC02142Charrette-style voting by dots: blue is what you personally support, red is what the City’s priority should be, and green is what you would pay for.

Some of the proposed projects:

  • Redeveloping Market 201 with taller buildings, corridors to the water, and extremely accessible transit access
  • Giving the rapids back to Grand Rapids by creating a white water rafting course using dams
  • Giving Grand Rapids (FINALLY! PLEASE!?) a permanent farmer’s market area
  • Making GR more bikeable–bike lanes downtown
  • Making it easier for citizens to create community gardens
  • Making GR a city where everyone lives a quarter mile away from a park.

Cool stuff. I’m proud of my city.

Green Gathering and Idea to Incubate

Tonight I am going to the Green Gathering in Downtown Grand Rapids.  It’s at Harrison Park Elementary School and they will be talking (and voting?) on what projects are our priority…white water rafting? Bike lanes? Farmer’s markets? I’ll let you know how it goes.

My idea to incubate (and what better place to incubate anything than a blog?) is starting a project where people sign up and commit to walking or biking to any destination that is under 1.5 miles away. It seems small (litttlllleeee) but depending on where you live, it can be a huge HUGE challenge. Our grocery store is 1.3 miles from home, but I would never think to walk there, mainly because there are no sidewalks on the entire stretch of 28th Street–the most direct route. However, if I take Alger, a residential street, the walk is much safer and more pleasant. Too bad that rerouting makes the trip 1.9 miles. But that’s a perfectly lovely bike ride. If you’re completely out of food and need about 12 bags of groceries, a car is perfectly acceptable because you can’t bike with that many groceries. All kinds of loopholes. In my hypothetical project, I’d leave it to the participant’s best judgment.

I walked to the post office today, and it was a mile away. It was great, except that I was lugging two boxes on the way there and on the way back, it was windy and rainy (good thing I had an umbrella). I’m still so glad that I did it. The point I want to come across is that we, as a city, want to walk and bike again. We want to be seen walking, we want it to be safe for us to walk, we don’t want to be ignored by cars and developers. We want sidewalks. If people start walking to their closer destinations, even though there may not be a sidewalk and they have to trek through a huge parking lot, it will add to the shift away from cars. Also, we could experience just a little bit what it’s like to not have the privilege of owning a car.

These kids know how to WALK
These kids know how to WALK

Yay for Community Centers!

I’m very excited to have learned about The Ray and Joan Kroc Community Center being built in my city. It’s in an area that is void of anything institutional like this. It will have art space, recreation, education, worship (it’s a Salvation Army facility), all kinds of stuff going on. Best yet, a grant paid for geothermal heating/cooling systems under the sports fields behind the facility.

Here’s a video from a dapper Salvation Army man.

Maybe Suburbs Aren't So Bad

Well, I’m living in the suburbs again. Well, on the edge of suburbs. No more downtown-smalltown. I’m actually loving it. My area is really walkable–we live in a neighborhood of Grand Rapids called Alger Heights, with a main-street-esque area where you can enter the stores/restaurants from the front. There is a great ice cream place, too. The store owners on Eastern and Alger take care of their stores. It’s too bad the grocery store couldn’t stay afloat.

I just took a walk around the residential streets. I do this a lot–I run most days but I like to walk in the evenings. I actually avoid the Alger Heights main street when I walk. I don’t like taking walks in commercial areas. I like walking by houses and saying hello to other walkers, watching kids play. I also go through the cemetery and the nearby park sometimes. All these areas are preferable to a commercial district. Too many cars, I guess.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with not wanting to stroll through commercial areas. I think my preference is shared my many and is also telling. Suburbs aren’t a bad thing. But they’ve gone too far. When developments have all new houses, no trees, and no sidewalks, there’s a problem. Residential streets should be near commercial streets in a structured pattern, not going on forever and ever. Places lose identity this way. My neighborhood is Alger Heights because of the Eastern and Alger commercial district. If that weren’t there, we’d just be southeast Grand Rapids. Not a place where people want to be.

That’s what it’s about–creating places people want to be.

Living Lonely

I was not looking forward to moving back home after graduating college last summer. It reminded me of all the summers I’ve spent through grade school alone in my house while everyone else was at work. Saved by the Bell, talk shows, soap operas droned on TV. I’m pretty good at entertaining myself (I am doing hubpages now–very addicting and distracting), but the loneliness gets to me.

I think this captivity and isolation I have felt has fed a lot of my obsession with building better communities–physically and socially. There have been a lot of things that have helped me–my friends, good music, guitar, writing–but none of these things can replace the need for people in my life. When my family comes home at night, I accomplish a lot more. Just having people near me gives me more confidence and drive.

I hope whatever job finds me will be a good place to be. I know having somewhere to go will help. I will hopefully find an apartment soon. I also plan on going to some community events next week, held by the city. My hometown, Grand Rapids, does a ton of stuff. The efforts of the city government amaze me.

Moral of the story: get your kids involved in something in the summer. Most of our communities are not set up for spontaneous people-meeting, but there are so many things going on to combat it. Living small does not have to be lonely.