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“City” is a noun.

A noun is a person, place, thing, or idea.

Which is a city?

Is it all of the above?

Consider the following, moving from the intimate to the abstract and back again.

The city is a person. Those who love cities most, or a particular city, will speak fondly (or bitterly) of their relationship with it.  A familiar friend, an exciting object of desire, a partner in crime.  Or a constant pest, a worst enemy, a bully or a flirt.  Being in a new city therefore means becoming acquainted, learning who, not what, that city really is.  A desire to see the city in its brighest colors, from its best side, to mutually impress.

Of Chicago, Carl Sandburg wrote:  “Stormy, husky, brawling, / City of the Big Shoulders: / Come and show me another city with lifted head singing / so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.”  Chicago seems now to be that aging worker with an inferiority complex, “Second City,” second-best to its neighbor(s) to the East.

Of New York, the New York Times’ Christopher Solomon, on leaving the city, confessed “You are that red-haired girl who welcomed me here and then did not want me. And like her, I still love you, and even now I miss you.”  LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy sang “New York, I love you, but you’re bringing me down.”  New York is famous for its ego and vitality, and is loved fiercely.

Does a city have a gender?  What gender does your city have?  If you can answer that question, maybe your city is a person.

The city is a place. Leaving the realm of relationships, a city becomes a place.  A dot on a map, a place to call home, an environment in which to interact, a backdrop for life.  Landmarks, wayfinding, and distances become the important descriptors by which the city is understood:  origin, journey, destination.

Transit maps are especially good at placing a city:  where am I?  Where am I going?  What path do I take?  Bill Bryson wrote of the whimsical quality of the London Underground, including places like “Finster Bush” and “Swiss Cottage” which brought you to who knows what fairy-tale land.  The city becomes not one place but many, a network of discrete destinations that may be measured as much in time as in geography.

When you leave your own city, it becomes even more “place-ified” to you.  Answer the question:  “Where are you from?”  “I’m from here.”  Or “I’m from another place.”

The city is a thing. Zoom out once more from emotional groundedness – the city becomes a thing, an entity, a unit of analysis.  Social science research is especially good at this, poking and prodding at the city organism to study its systems, properties and functions from all angles.  Census data and infrastructure diagrams render it inert for a moment in time, under glass for further study.

Those frustrated by politics may also reify the city, forgetting its council is a collection of people and instead referring to The City as its own autonomous entity.  The City tows your car, raises your taxes, leaves you bus-less in the middle of the night.  It becomes an it, a faceless opponent, an Other.

Ask yourself:  it’s Christmas morning, the municipal offices are closed, and every single city official and employee is not coming in.  Is there still something in City Hall?

The city is an idea.  With this, we arrive at both the edge and the center:  what is more abstract than an idea?  Or more private?

Perhaps the city exists most of all in our own minds, our desperate attempt to make sense of its chaos and complexity.  Thought of a city we know can trigger nostalgia, love, fear, sadness, a particular good or bad memory.  T.S. Eliot wrote, of course, “And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”  We create the city in our own minds, or perhaps even a new one every time.

Even more abstract is the very idea of “city” itself.  How else would we know exactly what Petula Clark’s song “Downtown” means, and that Downtown could make us feel better?  The word City, with no geographical referent, conjures a concept web of diversity, density, crowding, anonymity, loneliness, activity, happiness, culture, violence, enterprise, wealth, poverty, history and future.

For those of us who love cities, they always elude definition because they are all of these things.

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… Possibly the most pretentious post title yet!

So it’s officially Week 7 that I’ve gone without a car . . . that is, it’s still in the shop with transmission problems.  (The lesson to be drawn from the past two summers’ worth of car problems is, do not buy a Subaru without a good warranty and a steady income!)  As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time on public transit going one place or another, and have taken advantage of the lovely service of the public library.

Earlier in the summer I was avoiding “work” reading (planning-related books), in favor of easy fiction and those random books that had been on my list for a while.  As I reluctantly realize summer is ending, however, I’ve started turning back to the city books.  Rationale:  there’s a long list of planning-related things I should read.  I won’t want to read them during the school year, because that’s all I’ll be doing anyway; light fiction and some “escapist” stuff (easy to pick up and put down and pass out in the middle of a chapter at the end of the day) will be a better idea.  Therefore, better do it now!

One book I picked up (per a friend’s suggestion) is Nan Ellin’s Postmodern Urbanism (Princeton Architectural Press, 1999 rev. ed.).  It’s pretty theoretical and there’s a fair amount of academic name-dropping — even some stuff from the old cultural history reading list!  Hobsbawm! — but it makes some interesting claims about the goals of (post)modern design, what it’s actually doing, and why it’s ultimately still part of the Modern Project.  That is, it might look different than modernist buildings, and it might attempt to return to pre-industrial city form, but it still takes a rational and technocratic approach to achieving its aims.  And it inescapably operates within a market-oriented, consumer-based structure which essentially dictates the outcome of design and planning exercises, however inclusive.  [Insert lots of David Harvey block quotes here.]

Here are a few things to think about.  I still am.

“Recent urban design inarguably advances the modern project because it refuses to relinquish the vast possibilities offered by the new technologies because it is embedded in larger market forces.  Despite its prevalent romantic imagery, its mode of production, distribution, and consumption remain highly rational as do the lifestyles of the people who use it (with a few scattered exceptions).  In architecture, an abandonment of the products and promises of the modern project would constitute an undeniable regression because its evolution has gone hand in hand with that of new technologies.  And a challenge to the modern project on the part of planners would violate the very bases upon which planning rests since the profession emerged during the modern period and is predicated on modernist notions of rationality and progress.  It is not surprising, then, that the architecture and planning professions have largely avoided reflecting too deeply on the continued validity of the modern project.

“Pressed to ascertain whether this recent swing of the pendulum in urban design theory and practice has actually posed a challenge to the modern project or whether it has affirmed it, we must concede that as long as architects and planners seek technical and creative solutions to social problems in pursuit of progress, they continue to pursue the modern project.  While contemporary urban design may break from the modern project formally and rhetorically, it actually continues it technologically, politically, and economically, perhaps with the exception of a growing sensitivity toward social diversity and toward the environment.  Symbolically, contemporary urban design both continues and breaks from the modern project for it suggests to the general public a re-valorization of history, urbanity, the vernacular, and the community, while in fact only cosmetic changes are effected.  In sum, while contemporary urban design may constitute a symbolic break from modernism, in actuality, it continues the project, as is revealed by architects’ and planners’ goals, their means for implementing these goals, their products, and their means of assessing the relative success of these products.

Rather than avoid the drawbacks of modern urbanism, then, architecture and planning since the 1960s are guilty of much the same, albeit unwittingly.  This is largely because the political economy of advanced global capitalism and the continued prominence of positivistic thinking (despite challenges posed to it) impose constraints that limit its actual divergence.  A reality which many architects and planners have preferred to ignore or minimize is that rather than following function, form has increasingly been following finance.  The prime mover, particularly in the more liberal economies, is less the architects and planners than the larger economic system in which they work and which functions according to the profit motive.  Like the initial claims of modern design to be populist, those of postmodern urbanism have also been subverted, perhaps even more so.  But designers are reluctant to acknowledge their ever-growing reliance upon the marketplace for it detracts from their potential for creative expression and for implementing change, not to mention their ability to preserve the legitimacy of their professions.” (212-213)

“Superficially, then, we have come full circle.  This time, however, the pre-industrial-looking landscapes (some of which are more convincing than others) are the product of hyper-rational efforts.  As such, postmodern urbanism might be perceived as dishonest or pretentious for trying to be something it is not.  In addition, its complicity with the political economy in which it is embedded often renders its intents unrealizable, or in the interests of capital rather than the larger good.  As a result, many contextual intentions are stymied and, even when realized, are judged unsuccessful by users and designers alike.  When successful, though, these efforts can result in environments that harmonize with the physical and social contexts and which people appreciate for their non-intrusive quality and formal interest.

“Although the lessons of modern urbanism have yet to be fully assimilated and postmodern urban design theory is inherently flawed, it nonetheless offers certain correctives to its predecessor and has generated some built environments that are widely recognized as superior to those which issued from the tenets of modern urbanism.  Most important is the renewed attention to fulfilling non-functional needs and tastes, as manifest in building on a human scale; reintroducing ornament, color, and whimsy; developing a mix of uses in one project; valuing public spaces of many kinds; and valuing experimentation with new typologies, morphologies, and modes of architectural production including various kinds of user participation, computer-aided design, and serial production techniques.  Some of this experimentation has undeniably enhanced the lives of its users as well as the shape of the landscape.

“The reconceptualizations of the city and of culture over the last few decades are inscribed within the larger challenge to the modern canon in contemporary Western society.  This broadbased challenge is reflected in legitimacy crises in our basic assumptions, ways of knowing, and practice, and it is expressed in the millennial meditations described above.  While all indications suggest a threshold, what lies on the other side remains unclear.  At its worst, the extreme relativism and disengagement that may result from a distrust of master narratives and expertise can eliminate any possibility for communication, ethics, and democratic practice.  With regards to cultural forms of expression, it can detract from any emancipatory and educational possibilities.  The result can be an ultra-subjective alienating sense that there is no longer a “real,” and a corresponding obsession with artifice which allows for easy manipulation by the deft imagery of advertising and other forms of persuasion.  In some respects, then, the efforts among urban designers to remedy the imagery merely play into the hands of this process, ultimately intensifying rather than combating the prevailing sense of insecurity.” (291-292)

I’m looking at you, New Urbanists!!!

Reflection on a Sunday night’s walk home…

Relationship Status:  It's Complicated with The City of Chicago

Relationship Status: It's Complicated with The City of Chicago

I reiterate:  this blog won’t be ALL about LEGO urbanism.  But this post pretty much has to be.

One of my goals for getting back into “LEGOing” (correct verb? dunno) is to recreate some of the Chicago and city sights in LEGO form… not so much the Sears Tower and famous landmarks, but more ordinary things like a street corner, a rehabbed 3-flat, possibly a courtyard building or a vacant lot with a construction trailer.  No direction-following here, my friends!

My first project was a new Bucktown-style condo, complete with roof deck, two-story interior floor plan, European-looking car, and dude with a newspaper:

Project 1:  Bucktown Condo (exterior shot)

Project 1: Bucktown Condo (exterior)

Before deconstructing I got a cutaway shot of the first floor.  The high-res image reminded me that these LEGOs probably need a clean…

Project 1:  Bucktown Condo (interior, first floor)

Project 1: Bucktown Condo (interior, first floor)

More awesome than this, however, are the advanced-level yuppie LEGO sets available in their store.  If you’re not wowed by Star Wars, the Taj Mahal, or that lame farm set, check these out.  I recently purchased the “Green Grocer” set (comes with a cat and mouse and croissants!!!) but you can also get the “Corner Cafe” and “Market Street” (urban factory) sets – and THEY LINK TOGETHER.  The website claims you can even link 4 of the cafe sets together in a block, but this begs the question of who would spend $600 for multiples of the same set.

In any case, these sets are delightfully European and/or yuppie, and listed as Ages 16+, so it’s totally fine.

LEGO Store: Green Grocer set | Corner Cafe set | Market Street set

I also purchased a decidedly suburban set, the standard white-and-red House set.  Two notable features:  set includes a full complement of red 45 degree roof pieces, totally worth it; and it has directions for a few different layouts, all of which would fit comfortably at the end of a cul-de-sac.

And in a major throwback to the 1950s, LEGO also re-released their Town Plan set.  I was tempted to buy it if only to recreate some of Lake Street in Oak Park, but decided I wasn’t into it, beyond the old cinema building.

More legitimate thoughts on urban planning (and more LEGOs) to come.

For my post it seemed appropriate to start at the beginning of many a journey in the city … waiting for the city bus.  While the palm tree suggests this is not in fact in Chicago, it might as well be.  No doubt three #2 buses are tailing each other a few blocks down the road after badly-timed traffic lights and having to load a long line of people at every other stop.  But at least the doctor and fancy lady look too happy to have been waiting long.

Waiting for the 2 Bus in LegoLand

Waiting for the 2 Bus in LegoLand

I can promise this blog won’t be exclusively urbanist-LEGO humor, but gotta start with the important stuff.