Some Random Thoughts on the City

The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs, 1961
Ultimately I want to do away with the city. It represents the values of civilization which boil down to alienated and centralized power and wealth. Yet there are aspects of the city that I enjoy, particularly the opportunity for chance encounters with stimulating strangers. Where human beings do not congregate in large numbers, the opportunities for such encounters are much reduced or even disappear. But nowadays cities are built to serve the needs of capitalism and the state. And they have always served the interests of the ruling powers who had them built: priesthoods, military elites, those who stole the wealth and creative energy of others in order to set themselves up as rulers.

In her otherwise interesting book  The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs forgets this aspect of the city, its role as symbol and tool of the ruling class. This is not so surprising since at a certain point cities become too large and chaotic for the rulers to keep them in hand. So Jane Jacobs tries to look at cities in terms of how they actually function as relationships among human beings and between the human being and this particular artificial environment. What I find most interesting in Jacobs’ book is her assessment that the city functions best as an environment for human life when it is diverse and vibrant with a wide variety of people and activities interweaving with each other. This parallels what comprises a healthy wild environment – it needs a wide variety of different life forms carrying out a variety of different activities that weave themselves together. The destruction of such diversity indicates a moribund situation.

Going back to the city as Jacobs conceives it, we see the need for an active street life. This is where the interweaving diversity manifests itself most clearly. According to Jacobs, for this to function most effectively, wide sidewalks where various activities could take place would have to combine with a mixture of different sorts of uses of space in the neighborhood. Consider, for example, how a café with outdoor tables on the sidewalk in a neighborhood that also included people’s homes and public spaces for other purposes could encourage regular interaction and discussion of experiences among those who live in the neighborhood. All in all, Jacobs considers a wide variety of different levels of relationship as necessary for making cities livable human environments.

Jacobs is wrong in considering the various suggestions of city planners that undermine this diversity and empty the streets to be well-intentioned mistakes. She is giving these well-paid servants of power too much credit. As I pointed out above, cities emerged with centralized power and wealth and have always been meant to serve the purposes of the rulers who hold these. As industrialism congregated greater and greater numbers of those in the exploited classes into cities, they began to turn the environment to their own purposes, and the ruling class had to take action to counter this. City planning as a recognized specialization can be traced back to Hausmann whose changes in Paris were intended to limit the possibility of insurrection by making it easier for the state’s troops to maneuver through the streets. This should make it clear that the aim of city planning has always been control in the ruling class’s interest. If, in times of “social peace”, vibrant and varying activity on the streets prevents the petty unpleasantness that might otherwise mar people’s daily lives, it also provides a network of relationships that can form the basis for self-organization among the poor and exploited in times of social unrest, with the potential of pushing that unrest in the direction of insurrection. In such situations, these networks of communication can be turned to such interesting purposes as keeping an eye out for the cops. It is in the interest of the ruling class to do all that it can to hinder the formation of such networks of communication. And the forms of city planning Jacobs describes and attacks in her book do precisely that.

The division of cities into zones for different purposes is a prime example. Downtown shopping areas, more specialized shopping areas for “bohemian” tastes, arts districts, residential areas, industrial areas, may not always have strict boundaries, but they still indicate the specialization of space in cities. This specialization affects the nature of foot traffic, allowing for greater social control and reducing the opportunities for stimulating chance encounters. When I lived in New Orleans in 1991, many neighborhoods had not yet succumbed to this sort of specialization. If I occasionally encountered some less than pleasant realities, I also encountered a vibrant, active street life that offered a wide variety of interesting encounters and led to the discovery of some wonderful secrets  about the city. Of course, New Orleans has changed drastically since then. And the devastation that Katrina caused has opened the door to building the city completely in the service of capital.

Portland, on the other hand, already has its divisions. It is not as bad as some places, but increasingly the only public spaces that exist are those dedicated to commerce in some form, and these are being more and more concentrated into malls, strips and other areas devoted almost exclusively to commercial interaction. So these become the areas of activity while residential sidewalks are mostly deserted. Thus, for the most part, public gathering is specifically attached to commodity consumption. Nonetheless, in some of the poorer neighborhoods, the streets are more active with playing children, adults hanging out on their porches, at bus stops, etc. But it is not the vital street life Jacobs describes from fifty years ago.

So the question arises, where will we find the networks of communication we will need in times of social unrest? This is particularly important now in the US where class reality is often hidden under racial tension. In a riot provoked by another cop killing another black person, how are black people on the street to know who their “white” accomplices are when day-to-day interaction is so minimal? This is not a minor problem.

In the context of industrial civilization, the desire for chance encounters with strangers is more readily fulfilled in cities than in any other human environment. But this comes about purely by accident due to the concentration of large numbers of people in these artificial environments for much less desirable reasons. (Cities have generally been formed for purposes of control and commerce – having military, religious and/or economic origins.) Over the last several decades, city planners, obviously working in the interest of the ruling order, have been doing all they can to reduce the possibilities for such encounters, keeping them confined to locales where they are easily controlled and generally connected to commodity consumption – bars, cafes, malls, etc. These environments are becoming less and less conducive to such encounters due to imposed noise, surveillance and the unpleasantness of most modern urban architecture. This combines with the reification and commodification of social identities and relationships that has made it harder for people to reach out beyond their own cliques and subcultures and the underlying everyday fear of the other that has insinuated its way into our minds from a variety of media scare stories to transform modern cities into wastelands of overcrowded desolation.

There are people who are content to stick with their cliques or retreat to small town or rural provincialism with only the expected and known relationships. But this is often a recipe for stagnation. The desire for chance encounters is a reflection of a desire to be stimulated and challenged in new ways, to be provoked to explore the unknown, to act and think outside one’s usual habits. The people that we know too well, that we see and interact with regularly, rarely provide such stimulation. These known relationships are necessary for providing intimacy, comfort, trust, complicity, affinity and the support necessary for exploring the unknown. But it is the encounter with the unknown, the stranger, the encounter with difference, that keeps life vibrant and lush.

But this brings up another way in which this society has been undermining the joy of chance encounters. The reification of social identities into defined categories, particularly in this age when mass media guarantees an increasing standardization of these identities, undermines the capacity for individuals to express their uniqueness. It is increasingly difficult for many people to break out of a character that is simply a collage of social identities to express anything deeper. So most “chance” encounters now have a ritualized style similar to the sorts of encounters this society imposes. This raises an immediately practical question: what can we do to break through these standardized rituals? Here the ideas of creating situations, detournement and subversion take on a significant personal meaning in the context of daily life.
As cities are increasingly designed to enforce the suppression of these encounters, to be stagnant swamps of enslaved humanity capable only of serving the needs of the state and capital, it becomes urgent for everyone who loves these encounters, and particularly those of us who see the need to destroy civilization and, thus, cities to reflect on how we could maintain the possibility for such encounters, both now within (and outside of) increasingly sterilized, prison-like cities, and in the future in a world without cities. The purpose of such reflection is not to come up with the solution, the blueprint, the guarantee of an ideal future. Rather it is an area for exploration and experimentation.

In Letters of Insurgents, Jan describes his dream of possibilities in a world without the economy or the state: “We’ll leave the clearing and walk through the forest to the neighboring village and we’ll think we’re dreaming, because the village won’t be there anymore; we’ll find thousands of people building a city like no city that’s ever been built and they’ll welcome us and ask us to help because they’ll all be our friends; there won’t be any policemen or prying old women because they’ll all be too busy building or making love. We’ll stay in our friends’ beautiful city as long as we want and not a minute longer; we’ll be as free as birds; we’ll roam across the entire country; we’ll visit streams and caverns and other cities, and in each city we’ll find only friends; they’ll all beg us to join them in what they’re doing and we won’t know where to turn first because every activity to which we’re invited will seem more gratifying than the rest.” Certainly, the capacity to freely roam will play a significant factor in the opening possibilities for chance encounters, as will experiments in creating different ways that human beings can be together, based upon the active creation of our desires.

I also think of large festivals and gatherings that may last for weeks, based upon the sheer enjoyment of other people rather than on shared ideas – or shared subcultural style. It seems that in certain areas of the world, before permanent trading centers arose, temporary bazaars would be set up in recognized places for trade and other forms of human encounter. Although these bazaars originated in economic exchange, many other sorts of interactions could and did happen there. In addition, Native American powwows are an example of people coming together for larger scale interaction.

A writer who was once interesting (but who has sadly since become disgusting) suggested an area for exploration along these lines: “the importance of the time/space of non-work, which, until the stage of the real domination of society was reached (i.e., before World War II), was one of encounters between individuals as opposed to simply one of recreation. The city represented the space in which the activities of reproducing the labor force were détourned into the streets, cafes, festivals (especially traveling carnivals), dances and music, expressing the existence of individuals who were both unique and separated from their social relationships…”

Because I don’t have or desire a blueprint for what a decivilized, anarchic society might be like, I would not rule out the possibility of a different sort of large-scale, more permanent gathering of human beings. – something for which we have no words since such gatherings certainly wouldn’t be like any city that has ever existed, being free of all the economic, political, religious and military aims or constraints that have been the purpose behind every city since the beginning of civilization. The question of how any of this might manifest is an area for creative exploration and the practical application of imagination. There are numerous sources of inspiration: William Blake, the surrealists, the Diggers, various radical millenarian movements, Native American powwows and villages, the wide variety of festivals that have existed throughout human history. This is a realm for creative dreaming, for considering the broad spectrum of human possibilities and what we could create from it to realize our various and conflicting desires.

1 thought on “Some Random Thoughts on the City”

  1. Hi there,

    I was really intrigued by your thoughts on the city. Im an architecture student currently doing my masters degree and am working on a thesis focused on the city and inefficiency of urban planning. I’d love it if you could give me the name, and the work it comes from, of the individual who is responsible for the last quote and u call disgusting now. I’d be eternally thankful. I really enjoyed your essay, I dont know if I fully agree, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Kudos to you!


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