Monday, November 23, 2009

Obama on Jane Jacobs and cities

Not for one of our assignments, but I came across this the other day and thought I'd share it with the class:

It's a clip linked to from the market urbanism blog, showing Obama receiving a copy of Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities as a gift, and talking to a group of supporters in Toledo, Ohio about the importance of cities and how their success is linked to the success of the nation.

He speaks to the same point as Kenneth Jackson in his essay "Gentleman's Agreement: Discrimination in Metropolitan America" :

The major conclusion of this analysis is that no one city or suburb can alone do much about poverty and discrimination. If communities jointly support the needs of the poor, this can be an effective solution to metropolitan ills and disparities. In short, the histories and the futures of [cities and suburbs] are linked. Affluence and despair, in the modern American context, are as intertwined as day and night, as the wind and the rain. The New York metropolitan area, the largest and most complex in the United States, is really an interconnected job and housing market. If Wall Street investment banks lay off thousands of employees, [the suburbs] all feel the repercussions. Any solution to America’s urban ills must begin with the recognition that residents of metropolitan regions share common challenges. Few people benefit when inner city schools are dysfunctional, when public housing projects become armed camps, or when minority jobless rates are double those of the middle class. Similarly, city dwellers should recognize that on balance, it is a benefit to them if the region includes a variety of residential and educational options, including many in the suburbs. 


The “gentleman’s agreement” of the United States is the shared willingness to ignore or to attribute to natural causes the maldistribution of poverty and wealth among local governmental jurisdictions. The problem will not be solved unless the local, state, and national governments, encouraged probably by the court system, develop policies that can earn the contingent consent of most people. This is to say that successful solutions and conditions must earn the willing and active approval of the electorate, who must believe that other citizens are doing their share (pp 211- 212). 

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Weapon of Inclusion: basketball courts

I nominate basketball courts as a weapon of inclusion. All public sports venues create a situation that invites play and exercise amongst strangers, what make basketball stand out is it's simplicity and popularity. Basketball courts offer a space to play, only requiring a basketball and players. Players can come alone and play by themselves or join others there. A game can vary greatly in size to how many people are needed . When in a heated game is already in session, a court can have a formal feeling, but generally courts are open to others and never require scheduling in advance. Basketball courts offer a space for the game or practicing any time day or night, do not require a large space, and are low maintenance (no need to cut any grass or line a goal). Unlike swimming or ice skating, basketball does not require surveillance. This allows for less inhibited or calculated interactions. It is easy to place a basketball court in an urban space or tuck it away into a neighborhood, unlike a soccer field or track. Basketball is very popular internationally and across many races of people. As racial tension and divide is a large factor in closing the city, basketball is a simple accessible avenue for those of different races to play together without much effort.  

Additionally, basketballs are often the only well-lit space on a block and as an open space (unlike a tennis court or skateboard park) can be used for other purposes like jump-roping, clapping games, even playing music late at night (I've seen it! see link: The court, if well-lit at night can serve as a haven and increase safety - of course if it attracts drug dealing or violence (murders are often committed on basketball courts in Baltimore according the the City Paper's Murder Ink). This is often countered, most famously by Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in their promotion of midnight basketball as a tool against crime, arguing it occupies many "at-risk" young men (low-income, African-American young men). Courts are often used at night by young people and can serve as a safe space, often built near schools, parks or major streets. Overall, courts offer a place for children and adults to meet people in their neighborhood and exercise in a relaxed social setting.

Monday, November 2, 2009

We All Scream for Ice Cream

I can still remember, quite clearly, my first encounter with an ice cream truck. Growing up in the rural outskirts of suburbs surrounding metropolitan DC, I suppose the houses were spread a bit too far from each other for the average hard-working ice cream vendor to make his profit worthwhile. So for some time, the entire institution of mobile ice cream distribution was a completely alien concept to me.

One day in the midst of my eighth or ninth year, I was over at a friend’s house; she lived in a typical townhouse complex, clustered around a typical community pool. We were playing outside when I started to hear this strange lilting sound far off in the distance; it was verging on resembling a melody, and it’s compressed, twinkly notes were growing closer. Confused but intrigued, I froze, cocking an ear in a vain attempt to better decipher the sound waves. I turned to my classmate, inquiring what that crazy noise could possibly be, and she just stared back at me as if I had just told her my limbs were made of ice cream. “Um… That’s the ice cream truck…” she responded slowly, as if it couldn’t be more painstakingly obvious. Ice cream truck? You mean, they bring the ice cream to you?” Thus far in my young life, my experiences with ice cream acquisition were limited to parlor-served cones or store-bought cartons. I contemplated the information for a moment, mouth agape, but this brief musing was quickly dissipated; I excavated a few coins from my grubby, grade school backpack and eagerly stampeded towards the musical promise of a sweet, cold reward.

During the first year I spent living in Baltimore, I found myself residing in the infamous Pigtown of the southwest section of the city. I was sharing a rowhouse with a formerly significant other, as well as sharing in the overwhelmingly limitless task of renovating and rehabilitating that rundown piece of property. Living in Pigtown, there was not a night that went by, whose air remained untainted with playful music box jingles, for probably at least nine months out of the year. Perhaps there are considerably fewer children living in the Bolton Hill neighborhood, to which I later migrated and currently reside, but I can only recall ever hearing the distinctive presence of an ice cream truck on one solitary occasion. In Pigtown, there were also at least three or maybe even four different trucks out there making the rounds; I could tell them apart from the slightly different songs they played, each one an almost painfully familiar tune from the realm of public domain. I was particularly appreciative of these frequently attendant dairy merchants during the hottest summer peaks, as our un-insulated kitchen and functionally inferior freezer unit made it impossible to keep store-bought ice cream from dissolving into a liquid mess. Especially within that oppressively hot heart of the summer, the fleet would cycle those streets sometimes until well past three in the morning. Naturally, I do harbor the suspicion that these particular entrepreneurs are also peddling something a bit stronger than ice cream. And although most would probably consider this an immoral detriment to the community, on an ethical level perhaps that’s true, but as far as the community dynamic was concerned, this additional fact only drew people closer together, as adults and children alike could be easily coaxed out into the street by the siren’s wail of ice cream melodies. And unlike most commercial establishments we are accustomed to these days, it is still a one-man job, leaving the waiting customers to stand idly around and to hopefully perhaps even engage in an otherwise unprovoked communication with their associates by proximity.

Say what you will about Pigtown, but I couldn’t help but sense a spirit of community there, as rather unconventional as it might be. There were always people planted on stoops, whether they belonged to someone else or not, the schoolchildren would gather together, flocking to school en masse, and nameless, unknown neighbors would often acknowledge me with a nod or a greeting, simply because of the repetition of visual recognition. Most inhabitants of our immediate area seemed to know each other, as many had lived in this neighborhood for numerous years, if not generations. (We even knew some of our local crackheads by name as well.) Now, I’m not saying that community atmosphere has anything to do with the frequent patrol of ice cream trucks in the area, but I do believe the persistent existence of them is made possible because the community is knit in such a way, that persists an atmosphere receptive to such interactions.

The eagerly anticipated arrival of an ice cream truck drags people from the isolation of indoors, not only coaxing them into the street, but also uniting individuals with a common, albeit inconsequential, goal. The key to the ice cream truck’s effectiveness in gathering neighbors together is the very limited time frame containing their visit. It is not something anyone but the truck driver himself can plot or schedule, and so it forces people to drop what they are doing more immediately than any other urban function I can think of. Neighbors might on the off chance cross each other’s paths in their day-to-day comings and goings, but the likelihood that timing could be coincidentally synchronized is usually quite slim. The inviting wail of an ice cream truck sets forth a solid, concrete reason for neighbors to converge in the same place at the same time. I’m sure it also doesn’t hurt that the overall cultural perception of ice cream is as a treat, an indulgence, or a reward. Isn’t everyone a good deal more sociable when there are tasty desserts involved? There is something so satisfyingly casual about the endeavor; it is an activity virtually free of the traditional pressures of the outside world. So the ice cream man beckons his surrounding citizens out of their domestic fortresses of solitude, and into the street, irresistibly plunging neighbors together, bound by common sweet teeth. Even if these neighbors are already on friendly terms, every little piece of interaction weaves another tiny thread of community tighter. Because even if gathering around the dull glow of a buzzing ice cream truck window only elicits idle chitchat between neighbors, it still fosters a social and visual recognition among the population, encouraging opportunities for deeper levels of community interaction. I believe the key community-driving success behind the ice cream truck industry lies in its own triviality. Overly deliberate intentions of rousing community spirit and involvement often prove to be awkwardly labored in their execution, like somebody is trying too hard to bind community members together under legitimate, albeit artificially contrived circumstances. As productive community socialization performs best when functioning as the unintended result of seemingly happenstance encounters, I think the most beneficial neighborly interactions manifest when we least expect it.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Canines for the Open City!

One of the undercover agents working for the Open City may live right in our own homes! Dogs, more than any other pet, bring people outside and often together. Bolton Hill is a perfect example of a space with untapped potential for interaction. Private houses and apartment buildings allow for people to stay cooped up inside. But dogs need to be walked, and this brings people out of their yards, gates, and fences, down from the top floors of apartment buildings, and outside in all kinds of weather.

The beauty, I think, of this entry to the arsenal, is that it is so common and also so positive! Man's best friend often has many of the qualities that our human neighbors lack: energy, curiosity, and a tendency to be friendly and outgoing. Although dogs' personalities vary, some will run right up to a stranger to investigate, or just to get a pat on the head and a good scratch behind the ears. The owner will often follow at some distance, or attached to their gregarious pet by its leash, forcing the owner into some kind of interaction with their dog's new friend, a 'hello' and a smile at the very least.

I've often found myself talking to a dog before even making eye contact with the owner. There's one older man in the neighborhood who I've seen following a few paces behind his tiny unleashed dachshund who trots along, obediently keeping within distance. Most times, I'll bend down to pet the dog, then look up to greet the old man. Dogs are especially interested in other dogs- whether as a friend or possible opponent. And being cloistered indoors most of the time, out of the company of their own species, who can blame them? To most people who live in an urban or suburban environment, the sight of a dog dragging its owner towards another animal is amusingly familiar. Who doesn't like making small-talk with your neighbor while your dog tangles its leash around your legs, the both of you clutching warm grocery bags. Open city! Common' feel the love!

There is always the issue of cleanliness, since the parks and sidewalks we frequent are all fair game as 'bathroom' to our canine friends. But for the most part, people around here seem to abide by the 'clean up after your dog' laws. The park at the corner of Bolton and Wilson Street even has a re-used plastic bag dispenser, which I assume is for that purpose. 

Recently, though, I was looking out my living room window onto the park on Park Ave, and I witnessed a man pick up after his dog with his bare hands(!) and toss it under a parked car, after checking to make sure no one was watching. Hopefully the other pet-owning residents of Bolton Hill have a little more class. And cat-owners? Well, you guys are just anti-social.