Tag Archives: density

The Placeness of Peaceness

Living in dense city neighborhoods has its adaptive challenges. Everywhere one looks, there is a hard-surfaced structure, either hovering above in your airspace, staring straight into your windows or squeezing you laterally and literally. Sometimes it feels as if you are living in restraints, a less-soft straitjacket cutting and impinging, always at right angles and with sharp edges. It’s just the fact of being in an overbuilt environment. And besides the concrete canyons’ physical oppressiveness, depending on the human inhabitants sharing this constricted space and their self-awareness or awareness of others, the claustrophobia can be exacerbated by annoying behavior. And noise. Not only caught in a vise, but held there while being pelted with decibel levels that could otherwise compel one to give away national secrets to any enemy nation.

There seems to be some law of balance or, rather, imbalance, that the worst, loudest, most out-of-control morons will end up across the street from the quietest, privacy-seeking individuals. What are the odds? And in certain situations, it can be but it isn’t always the result of a long-standing, seething, political or religious dispute, or a national boundary. And other times it is simply that he shows up on one side of the street and you are on the other, and his presence is intolerable because he keeps making it known, constantly. There are such people living in dense city neighborhoods who, like four-legged animals, mark their territories – territories they don’t own, by the way. They do it the same way, with urine, or they do it by tossing a trail of their daily junk food trash, also with intimidating vibes and with the sounds of their voices. So the squeeze can be, besides spatial, also aural and physical in the sense of body language. Much of this behavior is self-destructive in origin but can end up taking entire neighborhoods with it if it is permitted to continue or flourish. This, in the extreme, is gang behavior. But it is also the precursor of neighbor-violence.

In this city, in far worse sections, there have been people killed over disputes and misunderstandings, sometimes even misidentifications, or wrong words, wrong actions, wrong place and time. Some deaths are accidental, others are purposeful, most are a result of rage and of feeling the kind of helplessness and hopelessness that comes as a result of seeming to have no other recourse. Sure, there are battles over boundaries that happen in the suburbs and in large tracts of rural landscapes where one might think that if there is land aplenty, there is a more generous spirit. Not. But it seems that the urban environment with its visible limitations and dense over-crowding causes more anxiety and the probability of it multiplying exponentially toward a crescendo more often. For many people living in these in-your-face tight packed places, there is a desire to live anonymously, to not make eye-contact, to come and go secretively, to stay inside, to keep the blinds closed. It is a kind of denial of the reality of the place, a distancing for self-preservation, a coping mechanism; it is definitely a tough challenge to be open and trusting of so many vying for such a small piece of turf. It is not ideal. But the covert behavior of those in denial set the empty stage for those with overt actions, those who want to control and muscle and “own,” to fill the void, as in a takeover.

The noise, the relentless yakety-yak and shouting rise sharply above the pervasive din of the usual city sounds: car engines starting, doors slamming, alarms beeping on, alarms beeping off, trucks rumbling by, alarms sounding off when the truck vibrations are too intense, dogs barking, alcohol-elevated voices being delivered from lowered motor-functioning bodies, circling anxious cars desperate for just one last parking space (or trying to score drugs), the blinkety-blink blasting tune of the ice-cream truck, blaring “music” from passing cars that sometimes stays for a while and drowns out other noises, people hollering from one corner to the next – as if the cellphone had not yet been invented. Oh, yes, and there are also the cellphone ringtones; who can possibly receive that many calls, especially when the receivers seem to be hanging everyday, all day, with everyone they know? There are more assaults, trust me. It makes a person with keen hearing dread the open-window season, since all of this can already be heard through double panes of glass.

What I yearn for is elbow room, breathing space and no faces in my face, day in and day out. No one invading my turf and everyone else’s, whether physical or airspace. An absence of shouting and profane voices – did you ever notice how often the loudest mouths have the least to say? It is that way on this street, and generally in this country, that the volume is inversely proportional to the content.

My quest is to find the placeness of peaceness. Maybe it doesn’t exist in the city. I have been seduced by the idea of community, of shared resources, of clearer distinctions and manageable sizes. But what I find, after nearly three decades, is uneasiness, uncertainty, misconduct, lines drawn, social contracts broken. It is no longer detente I seek – it is a kindly and peaceable kingdom.

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The Place of Space

Anyone who has ever taken an art class quickly learns that whites are as important as blacks, negative space is as important as positive (sometimes more so), empty shapes are as important as solids – spatial perception requires both. It is that ability of the brain to determine the shape of objects and their position in space based on the way that light falls on an object and reflects off its surfaces, and the resulting shadows it casts.

In vast landscapes where there are few objects to see, there is an inability to judge distance and space. Probably the opposite of that, having too many objects crammed together without any space between – as in a dense city environment – causes just as much deadening of perception.

When we first searched for our future home, there were two neighborhoods that held interest for us. The one we chose was, in the 19th century, a textile-mill town built on and up steep hills of a gorge created by an active, picturesque and formerly industrial river. The other neighborhood possibility was a low-lying flood plane adjacent to a larger and commercially-trafficked river. Aside from the natural topographical differences, the other more meaningful attribute at that time was housing stock. Both neighborhoods were probably of a similar vintage with working-class rowhouses as their currency for shelter, but what we noticed right away was that in the hilltown, there was a good balance of houses to green areas – whether it was small caged yards, grassy strips along curb-lines or quite a few wooded lots, mostly on the unbuildable steepest slopes but also some just interspersed, breaking up the monotony of house mass. This, as opposed to the flatter neighborhood that had almost an equal number of empty, demolition-scarred lots in proportion to the number of houses. There were vast tracts of land separating one or two lonely looking houses, and you knew that they had not been built that way. Plus, whatever green space existed was empty, weed-covered lots that sometimes extended for entire blocks. If not for the disrepair and the age of the buildings, there was something suburban about the large swaths of emptiness: kind of like Detroit has become as a result of all its missing housing and destroyed neighborhoods.

We determined that too much desolate, open space, in city terms, does not make for a livable or desirable environment (and, too, in suburbia but that is a different issue).

Fast forward twenty-five years. Development has become rampant in both neighborhoods. The flatter one, having a huge amount of developable space, has been able to absorb, so far, any project that shows up. There will be limits, however.

That brings us to the hilltown, which was pretty much well-developed by the mid-20th century. In fact, then, you could not give away the houses here, the area was so undervalued. Sometime in the late 20th century, the fates reversed and properties’ values increased tenfold. Then, every scrap of land, no matter how small, started to have potential for income-production. As the buildable scraps of land became new housing, no matter how compressed into a site they were, the scramble for fast turn-around in a ballooning market overtook common sense or sanity. It was a new kind of gold rush in them thar hills. And despite the downturn of the real-estate market in the past handful of years, the erection (and we don’t use that term lightly) continues. It has reached a point now that is absurd – absurd because much of the old housing stock is empty and languishing, waiting to be bought, and, most absurd is that the very thing that attracted us to this area, the balance of hard surface to green, is disappearing rapidly, reversing the livability factor and making every block a continuous, relentless hard-surfaced canyon.

Too much positive space, almost zero negative space – the only negative space left being streets for cars. In the greed and pillaging of the land, the very qualities of living on it have been diminished. It is one of those theorems of inverse proportion in which the popularity of a place can become its own destruction. Humans are weird that way.

Our arslocii theory has been that placeness occurs when the object and the site enhance one another, creating a greater whole. Without negative space balancing the built environment, there is solidity without respite, no relief, no shadows, no place you would want to be. Just as the vast tracts of empty land are discomforting, so are the overbuilt canyon walls. In some ways, the city is becoming not unlike expressways with their sound barrier walls – chutes that we are pushed through like cattle – having no connection to any of the surrounding landscape, not knowing where we are and having no distinct landmarks. Creating a nowhere.


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