Asocials, and the imprint of a dynamically dense Christmas wonderland
So you know those scale-model Dickensian villages that pop up this time of year in store windows or on holiday-themed merchandise display tables? The ones that most kitsch-averse people would describe as cloyingly precious, [. . .] Um, well … the thing is … I love those. I always have. As a kid, I would make my whole family stop our Christmas shopping whenever we came across one of these tiny, twee tableaux. [. . .] Then I’d be jolted back to 1970s Dallas, Texas, as my family and I zig-zagged through the massive shopping-mall parking lot in search of our car.
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There’s a reason, I think, that human beings—wherever they happen to live—dream about disappearing into the inviting setting of an urban village, be it real and historic or fake and kitschy. In the visual shorthand of our collective unconscious, the scene functions as a reliable stand-in for our much more abstract and hard-to-define concept of community. On some intuitive level, we know that we owe much of our civilizational progress to the 12,000 years we spent interacting with one another in our shared spaces, public and private. The overlapping systems that eventually fused into what we call “culture” could never have done so without the regular opportunities for healthy intellectual, economic, and social collision afforded by the urban-village model.
Today, as suburban sprawl and carbon emissions increase commensurately, we rightly tout the inherent sustainability of that older model, arguing for greater density, centrality, and walkability when planning our new cities and rebuilding our old ones. Throughout most of human history, however, these elements of the urban village weren’t laudable goals so much as logistical givens. This remained true even after horse-drawn omnibuses and streetcars arrived in the 19th century, and later, electric streetcars, trains, and subways. As much as these and other forms of public transportation changed the social and economic dynamics at work within our communities, they didn’t fundamentally alter how we felt our neighborhoods should look and feel.
No, it took the automobile to get us to second-guess 12,000 years of common-sense, community-reinforcing urban planning. It’s no secret that when large numbers of us stopped walking or taking public transportation and started driving cars instead, those cars took us down the road toward air pollution, global warming, and climate change. But something else happened, too: the civic aspect of walking through one’s community was irrevocably diminished. [. . .] These transportation choices, it turns out, have played an oversize role in our climate crisis (transportation accounts for nearly 28 percent of annual U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions), but we don’t talk nearly so much about what else our modern dependence on cars—a dependence built in to most of our contemporary urban planning—has cost us: those many moments of routine connection with our communities that we used to experience on a daily basis.
The design and land-use movement known as New Urbanism developed during the 1970s and 1980s as a response to this sad state of affairs. The label, of course, is an ironic misnomer. What the architects, urban planners, social critics, and enlightened land developers who defined its tenets and spread its gospel were actually encouraging was the reclaiming of an old urbanism: the one that gave us the dynamically dense, unabashedly walkable village that helped transform us from a bunch of Neolithic goatherds to the wheel-inventing, globe-circumnavigating, smartphone-addicted sophisticates we are today.
The first community designed along New Urbanist principles was the 80-acre resort town of Seaside, Florida, which helped establish the movement’s templates. Among them: concentrating retail in a central, pedestrian-scaled commercial district; strategically siting civic amenities—schools, houses of worship, theatres, etc.—such that no resident would ever feel too removed from any of them (and, importantly, could walk to all of them); and architectural guidelines, as opposed to restrictions, that fostered aesthetic coherence without forcing people to choose from a limited range of cookie-cutter houses.
The cultural chord that Seaside struck resonated. Unfortunately it resonated less with city planners and zoning-board members than it did with commercial real-estate developers.
[. . .]
But even though I don’t believe adding a trolley, a manicured “village green” and a few levels of apartment-style residences can turn a shopping center into an actual community, nor do I believe these faux-New Urbanist developments necessarily deserve all of the scorn that critics routinely heap upon them. Whenever I walk through one of these spotlessly clean, architecturally overdetermined simulacra (such as this one, in Glendale, California), even though my inner critic might well be railing at the crassly inorganic nature of it all, my inner ten-year-old is taking it all in—the families boarding the trolley, the couples sitting down to dinner at a sidewalk café, the shoppers browsing in the brightly lit stores, the residents watching from their upper-story balconies—and thinking: Cool!
Is it fake? Yes. Is it cheesy? Very. But like Dan Reed, a Washington, D.C.-based architect, planner, and urban design blogger, I believe that even the cheapest, most highly processed cheese still has some nutritive value. Reed has defended suburban “lifestyle centers,” arguing that even the most ersatz iterations of New Urbanism can serve as a psychic prompt that may help even the most dyed-in-the-wool suburbanite tap into his or her long-repressed collective memory of daily life in the archetypal village. Repeat the experience enough times, he suggests, and you might just end up awakening something dormant deep inside that person.
As a teenager living in the exurbs of Washington, D.C., Reed would regularly trek to theWashingtonian Center, a retail and entertainment complex in Gaithersburg, Maryland. There, he writes, “walking suddenly became something fun. We could walk from the movies to an artificial lake, then look in store windows on our way to dinner. And we could do all of this while being around and looking at other people.” This early encounter with what he calls “gateway urbanism“ proved to be formative, starting him on the path toward thinking holistically about architectural planning: not just buildings, but also (in his words) “the spaces between the buildings.”
[. . .]
These days I’m lucky enough to live in a beautifully preserved swath of New York City that’s about as close as you can get in America to the full-size version of one of those nostalgic scale-model villages I’ve always loved. Architects and urban planners designed and erected most of the buildings, avenues, and parks in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in the half-century between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the first World War. Like other neighborhoods built then, mine simply and elegantly reiterates the common-sense planning precepts that have served human beings so well since we first moved out of our sequestered caves and into our earliest communities.
All this common sense feels uncommonly magical, though, on a cold evening in December, when my family and I can stroll down a street of lovely brownstones and buy a Christmas tree on the avenue, then pause on the way home to chat with some friends on their stoop, pick up some ornaments or wrapping paper, maybe even indulge in a hot chocolate at our favorite neighborhood cafe. It’s a beautiful sight. We’re happy that night. We’re walking—walking—in a winter wonderland. (“Decorative Christmas Villages: a model for sustainable living?” Jeff Turrentine, Salon.com)
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I wonder if this author has read Dave Eggers' "The Circle." In that book there is this "Google" community very much concerned about encouraging people-interaction. People are encouraged to share, mix -- to embed their story in within the larger community. Not "collide," maybe, but certainly intermix. And they too, like this author, are a brave sort, quite aware that a lot of their vision might smack of kitsch, and show a lot of childish longing and naivety, but, um, they still really like it anyway, and can't be embarrassed away from making it their leading vision.
About their own community, which as well isn't architecturally "cookie-cutter" by any means, they might just as well described it like this : "As you walked, you saw friends, passed your favorite local restaurants and shops, kept an eye out for any suspicious activity, and noticed who[m]" could use your help. For them, as with this author, "suspicious activity" involved those behaving counter to "common sense" -- those who for example tend to sequester themselves, thereby denying the larger community their input and providing a bad example which worked against the "imprint" of sociality and generosity the layout of the community was designed to push.
Eventually there's a hunt to show-up one of the absurd , counter-human "Neanderthals" who's insisting on his isolation. He's not a gun-toter, but rather a literate -- in spirit, obviously possessing a lot of Eggers and Franzen in him. Like them, he's the type to believe this "routine connection between communities" has created a culture -- not of variety, of something "overlapping" and dense, but rather something flattening and abolishing: a culture/tyranny of niceness (Franzen); a culture/tyranny of decency (Richard Brody).
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Human beings did progress went they left the caves, but an honest person accounting for progress would also note it happening when individuals left communities when communities turned bad.
The last time we heard more about communities than we did about the individual, was in the 1930s. It was also a time when individual distinction was lost to something larger -- communities didn't facilitate the flaneur, the wit, the cosmopolitan, but the ordinary person who shared the same hearth as you do. I myself am still very suspicious of any salute to the dense urban mix where you can't imagine the cosmopolitan getting lost therein to define themselves any damn well way he or she pleases. You ain't seein' me twinkling inside the storybook setting, even if I can fool myself there's no risk of it, 'cause it's Park Slope, or Brooklyn, or Berkeley.
Emporium / Patrick McEvoy-Halston