Thursday, March 18, 2004

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words

I clicked through a blog ad on Matthew Yglesias' site and found David Sucher's "City Comforts," a book about making cities more human and more likely to promote a sense of community. Tagline: "how to build an urban village." I'm a big advocate of city living, so I took a look at their sample chapter. It covers aspects of urban design that faciliate casual meetings and conversations among city dwellers - things like sidewalk cafes, sunny plazas, and lots of public bench seating. Nice stuff.

I have to say, looking at the illustrated examples, is that it's probably a lot easier to "build an urban village" if you do it in a real village. Sisters, Oregon has a population of 959, according to the 2000 census. Cannon Beach, Oregon, a pleasant little resort town with a year-round population of 1588. Nantucket, for heaven's sake, another resort town with a year-round population of 3830. It doesn't surprise me that these places have an intimate feel, but I'm not sure how helpful it is to offer them as salutary examples for Detroit and LA to emulate. Okay, so the chapter has pictures of Seattle, Tokyo, Boston, and New York, too - but the majority of the places pictured just aren't what I would call urban.

But my first reaction, looking at the pictures, was "hey, look at all the white people." Among the dozens of people pictured, I count two African-Americans - one playing chess, one listening to a concert. Both of them are surrounded by white people. None of the people in the pictures look to be sub-middle class. You don't see any green hair or leathers or multiple piercings, either. Fostering casual meetings is certainly a good way of building community, and I like most of the suggestions in the chapter - but the illustrations implicitly define "community" as "gatherings of unthreatening white middle class people." I'm not saying this to score some kind of an abstract point - I'm saying that, if you wanted to take pictures like this where I live, you'd have to find someplace to hide the vast majority of city residents.

That's not to say that we don't have great public spaces. We have some lovely plazas, squares, public markets, and parks. But people who hang out in them need to be comfortable negotiating their way around homeless people and junkies and crowds of rough-housing teenaged boys, as well as suited businessmen on their lunch hours. And white folks need to be comfortable being in the minority. I love the city, but it took some adjustment after living in a small, homogeneous town in the Midwest. Plenty of people stick to the suburbs precisely because they don't want to, or aren't able to, make that adjustment. They feel scared or awkward around the kinds of people who gather in the urban layouts that Sucher lauds.

The ironic thing is that you see a lot more examples of the kind of thing he's talking about - active foot traffic, people hanging out being social on the streets and sidewalks, public game-playing - in poor urban neighborhoods than you do in wealthy suburbs. Just down the street from me, for example, there's a block with several boarded-up houses on it. Scruffy black men congregate on the stoops of the abandoned houses, smoking, talking, calling out amiably to passers-by, sometimes passing around a bottle in a paper bag. It would make a great picture for the City Comforts chapter, encapsulating several of Sucher's ideas - except that his intended audience would probably find the scene more threatening than welcoming.

The absence of scary-looking people (from a middle-class suburbanite perspective) from Sucher's illustrations isn't just a cosmetic problem, it's a problem for his argument. Most U.S. cities don't have homogeneous populations who are only prevented from bonding over their essential similarities by the alienating influence of urban design. Cities are heterogeneous collections of people from different backgrounds and with different cultures, crammed together into a compact space with other people and groups they don't necessarily feel comfortable being around. Urban improvement plans which don't address differences of race, class, and culture are, essentially, suburban enrichment dressed up in urban language.