I want to thank Dan, Al, and the rest of the loungers for inviting me to blog in the Lounge this month.
As Al mentioned, for the last three years, I have been working on an ethnographic exploration of space-claiming in public spaces. (Yes, my actual research agenda requires me to spend significant amounts of time at beaches, parks, and hanging out with artists). My scholarly work raises this central question: how do we value our notions of collective identity?
Robert Park, the University of Chicago sociologist expounded on the meaning of the city laboratory in his book The City as Social Laboratory:
[I]t is in the urban environment -- in a world that man has made -- that mankind first achieved an intellectual life and acquired those characteristics which most distinguish him from the lower animals and from primitive man. For the city and the urban environment represent man’s most consistent and, on the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more to his heart’s desire. But if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city, man has remade himself.
Park observes that the city’s laboratory evidences mankind’s desire to remake himself. This observation suggests that the way we occupy space -- the people we invite to join us in places, the people we exclude, and the manner in which we do so -- communicates an impression of our collective selves onto the world around us.
Let me provide a tangible example. In Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co., the Supreme Court considered the rational basis of a comprehensive zoning plan proposed by the Village of Euclid. The Plaintiff, Ambler Realty Co. attempted to invalidate the plan because a tract of land it owned was zoned for three different types of uses: one parcel of the tract was zoned for heavy industrial, one parcel was zoned for all residential and light commercial, and one parcel was zoned for only single family and duplex residential. One of the salient issues confronting the court was whether the prohibition of apartment housing across the zones was rationally related to the state's police powers. The court said:
With particular reference to apartment houses, it is pointed out that the development of detached house sections is greatly retarded by the coming of apartment houses, which has sometimes resulted in destroying the entire section for private house purposes; that in such sections very often the apartment house is a mere parasite, constructed in order to take advantage of the open spaces and attractive surroundings created by the residential character of the district. Moreover, the coming of one apartment house is followed by others, interfering by their height and bulk with the free circulation of air and monopolizing the rays of the sun which otherwise would fall upon the smaller homes, and bringing, as their necessary accompaniments, the disturbing noises incident to increased traffic and business, and the occupation, by means of moving and parked automobiles, of larger portions of the streets, thus detracting from their safety and depriving children of the privilege of quiet and open spaces for play, enjoyed by those in more favored localities-until, finally, the residential character of the neighborhood and its desirability as a place of detached residences are utterly destroyed. Under these circumstances, apartment houses, which in a different environment would be not only entirely unobjectionable but highly desirable, come very near to being nuisances.
Did Justice Sutherland believe that these light and air stealing apartments had no children? Or did he just believe that families occupying the air and light abundant zones should have a greater right to occupy open space than those that occupy apartment buildings? In a follow-up post, I will talk about who those people were. For now, lets simply agree that the people occupying apartment houses were likely poor and marginalized. Justice Sutherland in defining the apartment house as a "parasite" and nuisance on the space around it, also implicitly reified that the image that we most protect is likely the image for which we most relate.
Before I taught Village of Euclid this week, I showed the video at the top of this post. In the video, the narrator says “the grid plan is... pure homogenizing in a city where there is no homogenization available, there is only total existence, total cacophony, a total flowing of human ethnicities, tribes, and beings, and gradations of awareness, and consciousness, and cruising.” The grid plan represents systematic order -- much like many of us, it lays forth well mannered streets that politely intersect one another at discreet right angles. And for others of us, the grid plan confronts our sensibilities, reminding us that the order of the city does not reflect us all So confronted, whose image does the space we occupy reflect? And where are we in its collective image?