Re-visiting a BBC Radio 4 – Start the Week podcast from late last year (28 October 2013) in the context of a story that is in a continual state of creation I was returned once more to the subject of the city, and how the individual interacts with the city.
Three main topics came up that are all inter-related and weave in and out of each other:
- Seeing the city – Seeing the city when you visit, and when you live in it. You see the city at different levels, you see different layers: different distances, perhaps, as visitors often see the up-close, the grime, the quotidien, whereas locals overlook these, at a different height, blending out the noise (different signal-to-noise ratio).
- Re-using old buildings, re-purposing: building life, or perception of people living in them? – Are old buildings worth saving? What constitutes the criteria for preserving something? Is it a feeling of an era, something representative, something that fits into a temporal environment? And so when moving out of this frame/window, what happens to the building? Does it become a museum, attracting visitors, or can the building be used again to attract people who will live in it (again, the immersion question)? And how is the feeling of the building perceived, depending on which it will be?
- Patrimonie, not heritage nor nostalgia – A call to define something that is not heritage (i.e., needs to be preserved as is) or nostalgia (i.e., go back to how they were), but rather that the old becomes incorporated into a library of “things” which the people living through an era, and those coming directly afterwards (since the effect wears off over time), share and can at any time dig into to root themselves, ground themselves, and find a framework.
Overall, the sense is one of what happens when one immerses oneself consciously in a city, beginning to see things that one might not have seen before. Light, layers, a built-up history of settings, buildings, an urban environment in which one is both forever a (transient) visitor as well as a permanent resident, leaving behind a scent, a trail, a kernel of existence.
Inspired by a Start the Week podcast from December 2013, I made myself a note before Christmas to spend some time thinking about the lively discussion, which was loosely centered on the idea of an “old-fashioned” community based on geography, and whether this can really be re-created in the current modern world, with its variety of different connections and reasons for connections. As a counter-point, the idea was raised to what extent a community arises from the existence of a common purpose as opposed to simply a physical geography. This is probably especially interesting if the common purpose exists in the face of adversity, and raises a multitude of additional tangential questions:
- How does one define a community?
- Who defines a community? Those within it or those from without?
- Do communities form in physical locales, or do individuals/groups move to a specific locale with the creation of a community in mind?
My particular interest, as might be expected, relates to the psychogeography aspect of this discussion. Psychogeography is also tied to community, but in two different ways. On the one hand, it is tied to community as most of the memories linked to its geography happen in the community, in a shared area that is familiar. On the other hand, however, one of the key points of psychogeography as it has been studied, described, and formulated was to move into the unfamiliar, explore the areas outside the community, or perhaps to better describe it: outside the known community. This generates in my mind an image not just of overlapping communities, but stacks of communities, where sub-groups exist within larger entities, and individuals are defined (and define themselves) as belonging to different circles based on their personality, belief, or other subjective or objective criteria.
An idea for a story that came to mind (related to the additional discourse on the disappearance of the traditional high street) was of a person walking down such a high street, with the narrative focussed on the sensory experience: sights, smells, the overall experience of what made the high street a special place and often a/the central location of a community.
Just in time to save me the effort, a recent Thinking Allowed podcast about the multicultural smells of an East End market in London brought this back again. This kind of sensory description can be used to link different cultures with different locations, different times, and the many layers and waves of immigration and assimilation into big urban centers such as London. And at the core are people such as “Ali the assimilationist hero” who by understanding his customers (from many different backgrounds) is able to stitch together a pathwork of sensory and cultural triggers that not only satisfy each customer individually but make up the rich tapestry of which each individual is a part.
- Can one comment on cities and the city environment if one doesn’t live in a city?
- How is the city perceived by someone living outside the city? (suburbs, short train ride, long train ride away? increasing distance from the center of gravity?)
- How is the country perceived by someone living in the city?
- What is easier in the country, and why?
- What is more difficult in the country, and why?
“…cities are at the apex of human endeavour. High-density cities are creative, thrilling and less environmentally destructive than sprawling car-based suburbs typical of America. Cities are passports from poverty. They attract poor people, rather than creating them. They are where humans are at their most artistically and technologically creative.”