Category Archives: Space

Thoughts on Richard Sennett’s “Flesh and Stone”

The other day I read the introduction to Richard Sennett’s, Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization. What an incredible piece — perfect example of why I love introductory essays.

Sennett here is writing a history of the physical aspect of life in the cities I have been learning about all my life: Athens, Rome, Paris, London. He isn’t interested in an intellectual history: just a bunch of Western thoughts traveling along from one place to another. Instead, he writes, “I was prompted to write this history out of bafflement with a contemporary problem: the sensory deprivation which seems to curse most modern building: the dullness, the monotony, and the tactile sterility which afflicts the urban environment.” With the context of history, Sennett introduces us to the ways citizens have lived differently in the past and the role of the city in protecting and facilitating human interactions.

Additionally, Sennett conjures a common conflict within this history that sets Western cultures in opposition to the body. He writes, “Western civilization has had persistent trouble in honoring the dignity of the body and diversity of human bodies …” from the Greek ideal of male athletes to the multicultural communities of modern Greenwich Village (15).

Consistently returning to the current experience, Sennett writes that rather than interacting with other people while accomplishing daily tasks, even literally bumping into them, many of us live from one contained space to another: the home, the car, the office.

Today, more sensory experiences are now consumed with little required input. Pleasure and pain are most often experienced through television, movies, and video games and even the greatest cities are most often viewed through the windshield of a car. Distances that once involved hours and innumerable human interactions now require only 10-15 minutes of driving. “Both the highway engineer and the television director create what could be called ‘freedom from resistance.'” Sennett is writing from the vantage of this society we’ve created for ourselves in order to prevent unplanned, unwarranted encounter. “Thus the new geography reinforces the mass media. The traveller, like the television viewer, experiences the world in narcotic terms…” (18).

After looking through my books, multiple friends have commented that the large font of Flesh and Stone “stands out” on the shelf or that the title is “weird”. I think Sennett (or his publisher) chose the title partly in order to make people uncomfortable. The fact that it sounds sort of like an adult romance novel is definitely connected to Sennett’s thoughts on contemporary life and our discomfort with even the word “flesh.” Sennett is concerned for the experience of the body in the city in and most importantly the way that social behavior reinforces social connection far more than in merely romantic terms. He writes, “much as today in small southern Italian towns a person will reach out and grip you hand or forearm in order to talk seriously to you” (21).

When I read that particular example I was struck by the simple idea of it and how far it is from normal behavior among my friends and family. Sennett writes to teach us about ourselves and the lives that we live, sometimes prescribed by urban design and other times by cultural tradition we have forgot to even notice

Finally, Sennett concludes with a personal note about the origins of his research, particularly within the context of his friendship to the late Michel Foucault. When they began in the 1970s, he writes that Foucault envisioned human bodies as constrained by tradition, culture, and “choked by the knot of power.” But as he observed Foucault in his last days, Sennett noticed that the fixation on power and control began to relax. As a result, the book that he completed is not the research that Sennett began decades before.

Particularly, he pushed his research beyond simply the realm of human sexuality and, to honor his late friend, embrace the numerous aspects of life that provide meaning and value. He writes, “If liberating the body from Victorian sexual constraints was a great event in modern culture, this liberation also entailed the narrowing of physical sensibility to sexual desire” (26). This narrowing, to Sennett, is no longer necessary or helpful toward understanding human social interaction. As in the example from Italy (I think the Instagram account @notmynonni is a fitting connection here) there are a million meaningful moments in a life that deserve our attention.

Ever-committed also to his hope in the potential of the city, Sennett writes from the Judeo-Christian perspective that the body is connected to the spirit, valued and important. Although I don’t think Sennett is a Christian today (in more recent interviews it seems like he identifies as a secular humanist), at the time of writing this book he identified as a “believer” and acknowledged this perspective in his research. While conceding the Biblical idea of “the fall” and great separation between humans (loss of trust, for example) he also shares the way that his faith weaves into his research and his own stubborn optimism.

Somewhere between the chaos of the past and the isolation of modern life, Sennett ultimately writes, “to show how those who have been exiled from the Garden might find a home in the city.”

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The Netherlands: A Map of Time and Space

This map is beautiful: a black field with every building in The Netherlands color coded based on the year it was built. Take a look at Amsterdam:

Amsterdam

And Haarlem:

Haarlem

The Hague:

The Hague

Apeldoorn:

Apeldoorn

Aaaaaand the whole kit and caboodle:

Screen shot 2013-09-02 at 10.09.44 AM

Racial Demographics in the US

For the past few days I’ve been playing with an amazing map developed by a team at UVA attempting to display census data in a more accessible way. Take a look at Richmond:

Racial demographics in Richmond

Chicago:

Chi Town

New Orleans:

NOLA

Houston:

Houston

St. Louis:

St. Louis

The Bay Area

Bay Area

NYC and surrounding region:

NYC Region

And the Whole Shebang:

USA

Watercolor Richmond

I just stumbled upon an article in Good about a program that produces interesting maps of your favorite places all over the world. Considering how much I love maps and cities, this site made my day.

Here’s a watercolor of Richmond:

Richmond Watercolor

While I was at it, I also made one of Detroit:

Detroit watercolor

Here’s Tyler:

Tyler

And just for fun … Istanbul:

Istanbul

And Copenhagen:

Copenhagen

Naming New Worlds

Behind the house where I grew up there is an undeveloped lot of trees and grass. As a child, my neighbors and I often climbed over the back wall into this untamed world. We constructed imaginary realms and a gateway to the outside. We even gave it a creative name: Trocourba.

Always fair (even as children), I remember we pulled the name from fragments of each of our respective school mascots: Trojans, Cougars, and Braves. As children, we saw this lot as an empty palate for us to fill with our imagination. Much of what we built has been lost, but I still walk through those woods when I’m home and remember the days spent claiming and naming that empty space.

***

This post is about the attitude of the explorer: the belief that discovering a place makes it “new.” And if it’s new then it’s never been named. We name things every day in order to claim them and make sense of them. In order to understand a place, we give it a name. It makes it familiar.

What first started me thinking about the idea of “naming and claiming” was a conversation I had with my high school students last year. I was teaching the “pre-European” section of a class on Richmond history and we started to discuss the word “savage.” This post is a follow-up to my fascination with the word “savage” over a year ago.

The concept and conviction of savagery, I realized, is a necessary precursor to the process of “naming new worlds.” There are two primary steps in this process. First, discovered lands are proclaimed “new” simply because nothing there is familiar and, second, the existing names for that land (and all inhabitants) are deemed illegitimate. In my class, we discussed the British invasion of present-day Virginia, but that’s not the only example of “savage” places being invaded. Many years after the US gained independence from the British monarchy, the kingdoms of Europe made similar claims on land in Africa. Much of this continent was subdued by the military might and shameful brutality of early Europe. As tribes and kingdoms in Africa fell, new nations were formed.

It was time for some new names:

Many of these names have been changed in the past 50 years of independence, but the legacy of colonization, of course, lives on.

In my search to understand this connection between mapmaking and empire, I remembered one of my favorite sections in the play, Tamburlaine, by Christopher Marlowe. Tamburlaine is a play about a man that seems superhuman in his ambition and his strength. In one scene, Tamburlaine discusses the growth of his kingdom by using the metaphor of a map and a pen:

“Zenocrate, were Egypt Jove’s own land,
Yet would I with my sword make Jove to stoop.
I will confute those blind geographers
That make a triple region in the world,
Excluding regions which I mean to trace,
And with this pen reduce them to a map,
Calling the provinces, cities and towns
After my name and thine, Zenocrate”

(Marlowe, Tamburlaine, I, iv, 72-79).

Here Marlowe conveys the dreams of a new map for a new kingdom with a new king. Tamburlaine connects the map of the world to his goals for military conquest and his desire for increase. With these words he boldly speaks the future into existence. He, like many leaders throughout history, desires to claim the earth as an extension of himself and his power. His kingdom will be as large as his desire because his strength will not be stopped in his pursuit.

This confidence is not unique to Tamburlaine or fiction at all. There are many examples of powerful men looking over other people’s land with greed. These days we all understand this idea of a “nation” as if it is the way that we’ve always structured the world, but that is not the case. As we shifted to nations from the former powerful families, kingdoms, and empires, many voices of dissent were silenced as neat maps were drawn by powerful hands. Here’s a few examples (with dissenting factions in parenthesis):

  • The United States of America (The Lakota, The Sioux)
  • The Democratic Republic of Congo (The Banyamulenge)
  • The United Kingdom (Northern Ireland)
  • China (The Uighur, The Tibetan)
  • Iraq (The Kurds)

In America, we expanded our borders with military victories and the conviction that God Almighty had ordained our growth. In other nations, it was a colonizing force that created new borders with little regard for indigenous territories or cultural differences. While the colonizing or invading forces subdued, they claimed the land and it’s “inferior” inhabitants. In nearly every single case, it went something like this:

“Sorry, that place you call home isn’t your home any more. Oh, and stop calling it that. It’s not called that any more. You’re pronouncing it wrong. How could you be so stupid?”

***

This is the power of names. When a name is given, it becomes familiar. When the name of a place is changed, natives become foreigners. Dignity is stripped. Identity is lost. And there is a deep unquenchable resentment that lives on in hearts and minds.

We are all a part of this legacy. We are all naming or being named.

Smelling Magnolias

When I worked at a high school in Richmond last spring, I drove the bus in the morning before going in to teach. Each day, I dropped my students off at the front of the building then drove around the corner to park. Several times on my way back to the entrance, I walked past a small magnolia tree covered in blooms:

Walking by that tree, I would stop and lean in for a minute or two to smell an old, familiar smell. It’s completely cliche, but magnolias will always make this southern boy think of home. For that brief moment, I was there: climbing in the magnolia in front of the house where I grew up.

Memory is, of course, powerfully connected to smells and I have noticed this more intensely in the past few years. Maybe I’m more aware of the smells or perhaps I’m becoming more aware of the memories. Either way, smelling magnolia was a comfort on those mornings before walking into school and trying/failing to teach.

In recent months I’ve begun to move toward “nostalgia” as a topic of interest. During this time, I’ve remembered moments of nostalgia in my own life as I’ve also found it referenced in books and articles. Nostalgia is intimately related to the themes of this blog. As we propel ourselves forward we’re also liable to make an occasional backward glance. Also, nostalgia reminds me that “leaving” is not always as complete as we wish. We are all building on the past and it surely composes much our future.

I can’t always predict when I’ll come across a magnolia to remind me of another place or another time, but I hope I’ll stop to smell and remember. As my brain visits old synapses and makes new connections, I will be content to rest in the moment. And then, to take a step back and be thankful for the past and the present.

Magnolias grow in the most unexpected places.

Detroit Preflection

“Have fun in Detroit!” a friend said to me today. Then added, “I never thought I’d say that.” I laughed and thought, “I never thought I’d hear it.”

In one week, I’ll probably be eating lunch in that infamous American place: MoTown, The Motor City, The D, former home to the Arsenal of Democracy, and the historical heart of the global automobile revolution. Today, it’s a bleeding heart, to be sure, but it’s a crazy American story and I’m ready to see it for myself.

•••

I don’t remember the first time I heard about Detroit. I don’t think it really factored into my elementary, middle school, or high school educations. If it did, it wasn’t a prominent stop along the way.

Actually, I think my first connection to Detroit was in the movie, The Jungle Book (1967). As King Louis sang “I wanna be like you,” the rhythm of Motown filled my young ears. It’s a somewhat dubious scene in the movie, but a good example of Disney capturing the musical genre that Detroit sold to the world. It would be most of my life before I would even begin to consider it’s context or implications.

I didn’t grow up dreaming about Detroit, but I’ve always been interested in cities. This particular city has been calling my name since I first read Tom Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis for a class five years ago. As I read Sugrue in horror, I learned about the racism and violence that ruined the city in the twentieth century. My classmates and I watched a moving documentary, “Goin’ to Chicago,” that introduced the story of the Great Migration and its role in changing many northern cities (definitely click the link to watch the video if you’ve never seen it). The following summer, I had a layover in the Detroit airport and talked to a woman who told me that she was proud of Detroit despite it’s national perception, but then added that she preferred to live in “nearby” Windsor. I remember the airport was pretty cool too.

That same summer, my boss at Partnership for Smarter Growth gave me a copy of The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape as if it were a coming-of-age ritual. She said that someone had given it to her and now it was time for me to have it. Around that time (or earlier), my parents enthusiastically told me about the documentary “Standing in the Shadow of Motown” and I later watched and was amazed. Here’s a link to the trailer. What a place! This music changed the world, but many of us forget it or were never taught in the first place.

For the next few years, I spent almost all of my time learning about Richmond and New York City. But last summer I watched (and really enjoyed) Eminem’s movie Eight Mile and was reminded of my fascination with the city. More overcoming, more amazing music, more fight, more attitude. I have to go there.

Last year, I started to read the book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration and once again I became incredibly interested in the story of the Great Migration. The title is not hyperbole. The story is epic. It’s a huge book and I had to put it down, but I’ll finish it some day. It’s impossible to understand race in Detroit without understanding where everyone came from. This is the story of African American migration from the rural south to northern cities such as Detroit.

I have seen three brief videos that have connected me to Detroit in different ways. First, the Chrysler Super Bowl commercial, “Imported from Detroit.” I was totally moved by the gospel choir, dramatic shots of the city and phrases such as, “you see, it’s the hottest fires that make the hardest steel.” It was bombastic, yes, but you can’t deny that attitude. It is unique. You could not make a video like that about Richmond, or Austin, or San Francisco. More recently, I watched the trailers for the documentaries Burn and Detropia, both jarring insight into the reality of Detroit’s profound decay and loss. I continued to feel the drama of this city from 1,000 miles away.

I recently stumbled upon one last video that I have grown to love over the past year. It’s a beautiful piece about the Michigan Central Station in southwestern Detroit titled, simply, “Michigan Central Station.” I like this video and I choose it to conclude this post because it’s not sad, but it’s a real portrayal of an abandoned place. It’s also connected to a Web site, “Talk to the Station,” where we’re encouraged to share “ideas and love” for the dilapidated structure. The ideas are great and the energy is exciting. Fifteen ideas in the last two weeks!

As I look forward to my visit, I am most excited about this kind of creativity and stubborn ingenuity in the face of a raw and bitter history. My pilgrimage has been brewing for almost five years and I’m ready to see the place for myself.

Detroit, I’m on my way.