Monday, April 25, 2011

Who Says Driving is Adult?

Here in the United States we have a lot of work to do just in revealing the ways in which driving goes unquestioned, let alone actually getting out of the car. I realized this anew this weekend in watching a movie that seems to have defined my new city's image in the national imagination.
I like to joke about how Seattle is the capital of the 90s, back when grunge ruled the airwaves and flannel covered hordes of teens. So I watched the movie Singles, which came out in 1992 and takes place here.

I expected to see some lampooning of alternative lifestyles, like in the current TV series "Portlandia." But what struck me from the first scene was an all-too-American belief in the car as a symbol of adulthood. A main character delivers a monologue about the significance of having her own garage, even as we learn that she works for an environmental organization. Her commitment to the earth gets displayed through a little globe keychain. Later her love interest talks about his work project at the local department of transportation. He's developing a "super train" that would get individual drivers out of their cars, yet his character also drives everywhere. There's even a car accident scene as a plot development.

One character tries to impress a date by getting decked out in a day glo spandex outfit, and gets shown biking all over town. Eventually she's a mess and she has a flat tire. The message seems to be: biking is not for everyone, especially not casual riders.

There are no scenes involving public transportation.

This was almost twenty years ago, but obviously there are many people who still feel that maturity = car ownership, even in urban settings where buses and feet are more effective means of getting around. This cultural attitude sure can lead to some hypocritical representations of what is supposed to be "alternative." Alternative to what?

I think it can be hard to see substantive differences in a world all too dominated by branding and its pretenses to identity through consumption, but there is in fact a difference between driving and not driving. There is a difference between environmentalism as a plan to shape the future actions of others and environmentalism that takes immediate action by reducing one's own dependence on driving.

It's like that couple at the grocery store that puts their organic carrots in two layers of plastic bags and then gets into an SUV to drive home. There's something...missing?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

I Like My Urban DIY

When I was in college I remember thinking that discussions about "diversity" rang hollow, that the word got used as a euphemism for political correctness. I've often been cynical about how I fit into diversity, like my value to some people lies in my apparent un-whiteness. Even while becoming a cultural anthropologist, learning a discipline that embraces human cultural diversity as its foundational principle, I felt like "diversity" continued to be a placeholder for disingenuous quotas.
And yet now, living in an affluent part of Seattle, I wish I had some spice called diversity that I could sprinkle on my food.
It's finally dawned on me that I couldn't leave a place as unique as the LA Eco-Village and expect to immediately find something like it in another city. At LAEV I found a mix of commitment to ecological sustainability, vibrant public cities, and social justice, and hot damn did I like it. As I spent the last three years developing a perspective on urban space, these issues intertwined in my mind.
Only recently did I start to think about the word "urban" and what the heck it even means. When I put it in my blog title, I meant to convey my interest in cities, moving through them, exploring them, living in them, changing them through activism.
But urban can also be a euphemism like diversity, pointing to something it's not PC to name (i.e., race). It seems like at some point a new meaning grew, one that points more toward luxury condos and Calvin Klein underwear (at least that's what a window display at Macy's told me the other day).
Wandering around a place like Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood, which appears to be a model of aspirational development for the creative class, it's obvious that some people mean "urban" to connote a controlled environment where consumption opportunities are convenient. It looks more like a simulated city than one that real people live in.
So is "urban" still up for grabs? Can I be Urban Adonia and argue for neighborhoods that have people of different incomes and backgrounds and races using them in visible ways? Or should I start using hair gel and save up for a "loft" in a building that also has a parking garage underneath it?
To me, an urban community means one where people help each other, where people talk to each other, where people co-create a reality rather than buying one pre-fab with their hefty salaries.
While "diversity" shouldn't be used as a gloss for race, I think it does describe something necessary to my kind of city. There's something inherently valuable about getting exposed to other ways of life, and this is what I'm talking about when I talk about urban space.