Thursday, September 24, 2009

Intersection of McMechen and Brevard Streets

I nominate the intersection of McMechen and Brevard St. as an example of an 'open city space.' This little section of Bolton Hill, while it is certainly not the hub of the neighborhood, is the perfect example of its 'open city potential.'

For one, it lacks the luster of the city as "an object of cultural consumption for tourists, for an estheticsm, avid for spectacles and the picturesque" (Lefebvre, 148). It's not 'pretty' or even necessarily well-designed, it seems to have fallen into place like "the ancient cities that have acquired the patina of life" (Alexander, Part I). No doubt, planners and administrators were aware of the dialogue that would take place between groups as a result of their proximity, but I expect much of its development happened without being engineered. Alexander addresses this in the second part of his essay "A City Is Not A Tree," admitting that a definite overlap and natural social interaction is difficult to introduce into an otherwise segregated area. "I must confess that I cannot yet show you plans or sketches. It is not enough to merely make a demonstration of overlap -the overlap must be the right overlap. This is doubly important because it is so tempting to make plans in which overlap occurs for its own sake. This is essentially what the high-density 'life-filled' city plans of recent years do. But overlap alone does not give structure. It can also give chaos. A garbage can is full of overlap... As the relationship between functions change, so the systems which need to overlap in order to receive these relationships must also change" (Alexander, Part II).

The mixed use of this space comes less from the nature of the spot itself than from its position between several unrelated establishments. People use and coexist at the intersection of McMechen and Brevard St. from The Commons, the Mount Royal Elementary and Middle School, as well as residents of the Bolton Hill neighborhood, some of whom are also MICA students. The students from the Mount Royal school seem to come mostly from just outside the Bolton Hill neighborhood. The placement of the school in this area, directs them, their teachers, and their parents or older siblings to the area. MICA students who live in Bolton Hill and who live in the Commons, make their way through this intersection on their way to and from class. Any of these parties may patronize Bolton Hill Blossoms, located right at the corner, the video store, the shopping center down McMechen Street, or On the Hill Café located just on the other side of the Mt. Royal school.

In his essay, Alexander decries "...the separation of recreation from everything else. This has crystallized in our real cities in the form of playgrounds. The playground, asphalted and fenced in, is nothing but a pictorial acknowledgment of the fact that 'play' exists as an isolated concept in our minds. It has nothing to do with the life of play itself. Few self-respecting children will even play in a playground" (Alexander, Part II). That seems like an exaggeration. The playground at the Mt. Royal school defies this immediately for its lack of enclosure. There is a low wall surrounding the property of the school, but it has several openings, and a wide thoroughfare runs through the campus, essentially an extension of John Street. 

At around 3:00 on a weekday, the Mt. Royal kids are either being picked up or beginning to walk home (often down Park Avenue or down Brevard Street behind the Commons), MICA students are returning from class either to their apartments in Bolton Hill or the Commons, and the usual non-student residents of Bolton Hill are out and about. It's a mix of foot traffic and cars. Any daydreaming pedestrian runs the risk of accidentally colliding with a small but enthusiastic Mt.Royal student. The Commons stoop serves as a hang-out spot during the day as well as the occasional yard sale, and during the evenings, a pick-up and drop-off point for the MICA shuttle. The corner of McMechen and Brevard is a stop for the public bus as well as the Collegetown Shuttle. The local fruit cart sometimes makes its way down McMechen, parents collecting their kids and Bolton Hill residents walking their dogs also populate the intersection. During the past few weeks I have even noticed a man selling ices on the corner of McMechen and Park. Most of the time this space functions as a good example of an open city space. It is important to note, however that "The open city is not a stable, but a dynamic state, a temporary equilibrium between openness and reticence, based on tolerance... This temporary equilibrium makes the open city vulnerable because her existence is threatened by her own mechanisms… of tolerance and voluntary closeness, in short by her own freedom” (Christiaanse, 3). The geographical closeness of these different communities or social groups can promote tolerance and peaceful coexistence, but it can also allow for a display of contempt and aggression. For example, in the area of Brevard Street just behind the Commons, a ground-floor back window of one of the Park Avenue apartments was broken. It is not certain who is responsible for the broken window, but I witnessed the resident taping the glass from inside. Within a week, a caged screen was installed, bolted into the brick, and a sign was posted –presumably by the resident- saying “Notice: All activities monitored by video camera.” It is situations like these that breed distrust from both parties and threaten the delicate balance of this “open city space.” Effort on the part of all members of the community to promote positive interactions between groups may help prevent the “…interconnected public space where tolerance is replaced by tension and even conflict and where physical and social barriers dominate” (Christiaanse, 3).

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