Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Intuitive Cityness

I left the house, the bus was late, the sky did its drizzly thing. I felt glum. Then, as we passed through Belltown, this funny thing started happening where people seemed to freeze for a moment while I peered at them through the bus window. It's like all of a sudden I could see how 3D their lives were, how ridiculous and amazing it is that so many people can be doing so many things as part of so many trajectories as we all pass through the same shared spaces. Seattle felt like a city.

Two teenage girls stood on a corner, one was dressed like the quirky character from an 80s teen movie, and she was pulling it off. A heavily made up blonde fed the electronic parking meter. A man jogged past, his craggy, dark face showing age and concern. A long, tall, gray haired woman took a smoke break outside a comic book store. I saw two different dudes ask a younger man for a cigarette, and knew from his gestures that the one on his lip was his last.

By the time I got off the bus, I felt glad to be joining in the fray, the bustle, of a downtown district at lunchtime. I was on my way to see my friend James Rojas (here's a piece LA scholar-activist Gilda Haas wrote about him last year) lead a workshop with some local kids. In James' workshops you use your hands to create your ideal city; he gives you many, many bits and pieces to choose from as materials, and asks you to tap into that knowledge you didn't know you had about what makes city life happy.

Today he'd be working with students at the Academy for Latinos Achieving Success (ALAS), a science and math educational program sponsored by the Latino community education nonprofit Campaña Quetzal. I got there just before things got going and met all the dedicated and creative adults who were making this thing happen. Once all the kids had a space at the table, James dumped out a big box of curlers, plastic Easter eggs, mismatched toys, farm animals, basically plastic pieces of every shape and color. The students spent a while building their cities, and then James asked them to tell us about them. Several of the kids spoke Spanish more comfortably than English, so we all listened in two languages while they explained their cities. One boy built "Ciudad Desconocida" (the Unknown City). Another built "Museum City," perhaps inspired by their recent trip to the Burke Museum at the University of Washington. "Green Lake City" also appeared, I'm guessing because that kid had visited Green Lake, which is a freshwater pond with a bike/ped path encircling it in north Seattle. The cities featured skyscrapers and parks, and, in most cases, freeways.

Like many cities, Seattle seems cut in two by a freeway. I say "seems," because I know of many crossing points that should make the freeway less of a barrier, but I still I avoid walks that would make me cross it. Walking across the freeway means passing above a thunderous flow for a few blocks, trudging through a non-place like a non-person. I'd rather take the bus. The moral of the story is that I-5 is loud and wide, very present, and these kids could not imagine a city without it.

As an urban planner, Latino urbanist, and public artist, James does workshops with a variety of groups. He facilitated one for CicLAvia in 2009, when we were still trying to convince people that a ciclovía would make LA feel great. This summer he's been working primarily with kids, most of whom he says have probably "never read a book or seen a map about their respective cities but have a great deal of intuitive knowledge." It's accessing this "intuitive knowledge" that makes me so excited about James' work. My dissertation fieldwork has been about how our bodies experience and create different landscapes through walking, biking, and driving, and how these differences can be so hard to point out because we don't talk about them, we just live them. James says that kids "walk, see, smell, touch and feel. Their whole body becomes a learning tool to understand the landscape," but without being asked to articulate this expertise, they may not understand the connections between their own actions and the shape of the city around them. James contends that "through play, they can tap into their knowledge and are empowered to change their environment." By the time the ALAS students had finished adding ideas to the large model of Seattle they'd created with James, they had been shown that our city is what we make it.

It made me feel more at home in Seattle to see one of the people who made my LA great in action up here. When I left the workshop, the sun had come out, if only temporarily. I rode the bus across the freeway to Capitol Hill. 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Notes on Train Songs

"Mystery Train" by Elvis Presley

When I first got a collection of songs that Sam Phillips had produced at his Sun Records studio, this song immediately struck me cause it's awesome. I think it conveys the chug-chug freedom of a long-distance train ride, the sense of motion and space as you whip across America. I'm not really sure if the train took his baby, and now he's sad, or if it took his baby, brought her back, and now things are peachy, but at least Elvis hadn't yet succumbed to the suffocating sound of pappity pap pap that money-hungry music execs served up for most of his career.

"The Train from Kansas City" by the Shangri-Las

Things are decidedly bad in this one, cause the train's arrival brings romantic complications. I very much appreciate the clips of a steam-powered locomotive that the poster added to this song.

Apropos of Kansas City, "Kansas City" by Wilbert Harrison.

It's not a train song exactly, but I always make a point of listening to it as we roll into Kansas City station on the Southwest Chief when I'm heading from Chicago to LA. It's usually around 10 pm, and the skyscrapers loom in the distance as I peer out the window and imagine fine lookin' gents strolling around with a fat paycheck in their pockets, waiting to find a lady to spend it on.

 "I Often Dream of Trains" by Robyn Hitchcock

Unlike the other songs, wherein characters await trains, this one actually takes place inside the space of the moving cars. The narrator wanders through a shifting dream train, and the song's melody shifts accordingly. I think this would make a splendid lullaby if you wanted to raise a lil' Morrissey or Donovan.

"Tren al sur" by Los Prisioneros

Let's get poppy, train enthusiasts! Honestly, since I'm not a lyrics person so much as a melody person, this song remains untranslated in my mind. I kind of make up sounds that go along with the tune when I'm singing along, like I do with many of the rock en español songs that defined my teenage years. Anyway, I like how the song chugs down at the end.

"Last Train to London" by ELO

A different kind of train, a more commuter-style job, comes up in this song, whose scheduled departure threatens to end some idyllic night in the life of the narrator. And this video really illustrates why we should replace our current unsightly railroads with neon tracks.

"Train in Vain" by The Clash

Is this song even about trains? You should let it soothe your ills nonetheless.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Seattle Transportation Homesick Blues

I started this blog because I spent the last few years as an anthropology PhD student and a bike activist in Los Angeles. This involved a lot of carfree travel in a region known for being totally car'd out to the maxxx. My biking, walking, and transit-using explorations of the city were possible not through an amazingly straightforward and accessible transportation infrastructure for bikes, pedestrians, and transit users, but through joining a group of humans who helped each other make carfree living a reality.

Urban Adonia has been my outlet for saying: It can be done, folks! You can live a helluva life in LA outside of a car. Plenty of people do it, too, but it doesn't seem to count somehow if they're not doing it as part of some identity politics: being "transit-dependent" has a very different meaning than being "carfree."

Living that way in LA, as a member of an intentional community and collaborator on exciting projects like CicLAvia and Ciudad de Luces/City of Lights that pushed the bike movement and the city to re-think the boundaries between biking as a survival tool and biking as a cosmopolitan pastime, I gathered many volumes' worth of stories and insights about our country's issues with transportation and class, race, and gender. I realized, though, that writing a well-researched and theoretically sophisticated dissertation about this experience meant that I would have to bow out of the ongoing, hectic world of activism.

So I returned to the Pacific Northwest. I'd lived in Portland as a college student and existential crisis-ridden young adult, and that's where I'd learned to ride a bike in traffic. When I moved up to Seattle from Los Angeles, I expected to find myself in a similarly bike-friendly city. I thought I'd get up here, stow my cats, whip my bike out, and join a parade of fun, happy bike commuters who practiced what they preached. Instead I found myself drenched and daunted by massive hills that make for fabulous vistas but a startlingly car-dependent populace.

It's been rather disappointing. I didn't think I'd be telling new acquaintances here about how much more friendly LA is in comparison with Seattle's social chill, or encounter more casual drunk driving than I did down there. Seattle's got some stuff that far outpaces LA, like more physical infrastructure for biking, and more affluent folks choosing public transit. But when the League of American Bicyclists announced last month that Washington led the country as a "bicycle friendly" state, I once again chafed at the bizarre dissonances that a lack of ethnographic research brings to urban planners' reports. Seriously, guys, does the everyday experience of individuals mean nothing? I can tell you as an experienced transport cyclist who moved here from "nobody walks in LA" that I find Seattle bike unfriendly. And again, it's not cause of a lack of infrastructure (the one area in which Washington got a D grade); there are sharrows out the wazoo on streets around here.

This has caused much reflection on my part. I didn't really know how to write about it on this blog, cause I'm still a newcomer and thus uninformed about local histories of activism and improvements, so I've been keeping quiet. A native Seattleite told me recently that infrastructure for bikes has grown tremendously since she was a kid in the 1990s, so there you go, I lack perspective. At the same time, since I'm a social scientist as well as a cyclist, I've noticed some things in my new city that have helped me articulate some key but overlooked features that make biking for transport easier or harder.

Here's what I've found:
1. Geography and climate matter. What works in one city may not work in another because of torrential rain and steep slopes that got developed into neighborhoods for some reason. In a sunny, relatively flat place like LA, people can make do with broken spokes, flat tires, non-functioning brakes, unsecured seatposts, whatever bike they can get their hands on for $10. In a wet, hilly place like Seattle, we have to transform our bodies with prosthetics like waterproof gear and enhanced bikes. These things can be expensive. I definitely do not see the large numbers of low-income cyclists in Seattle that I did in LA.

2. Human infrastructure matters. Who you spend your time with, who you talk with, who you travel with, have a big impact on what seems possible. In LA, I knew who to text to have a riding buddy home from a party. In Seattle, new acquaintances repeatedly offer rides even if a bus runs right outside. It's a big part of my dissertation project to describe how, practically and theoretically, human infrastructure made living carfree in LA possible for me. I haven't developed a network of bikey friends in Seattle, and I think that has a lot to do with my impressions of the place as bike unfriendly.

3. A liberal conscience does not make a car disappear. Seattle is known as a green city just as LA is known as a car city, but WTF, people drive a lot and sloppily up here. I constantly witness traffic violations like California rolling stops, drivers seeming quite confused about what a crosswalk is for (do I park in it? huh?), drivers pulling into intersections that are not going to clear before the light changes, etc. I could go on, but any sighted person could too. These little gestures that dehumanize other street users add up to a hostile landscape for non-motorized travelers, no matter how much money you give to MercyCorps or how organic those peaches are.

This last issue surprised me the most. For some reason I'd had this idea that LA's size posed such a barrier to bike commuting that there were people who really wanted to try it, but just couldn't. Here in Seattle, though, plenty of people live in neighborhoods very close to the city center, but make them suburban by driving everywhere.

I think Seattle gives a glimpse into LA's future if it continues on its current path of gentrifying central neighborhoods. Will it be more bike friendly if a bunch of people who've worked very hard to seem like rich guys move into the urban grid? Not if cycling is still seen as a last resort or a luxury sport. And is this really something we can fix through investments in bicycle infrastructure? Not if we can only think of infrastructure as concrete and paint. We should be considering the impact that our attitudes and actions have on our cities, and how to shift attitudes that endanger us all.

I'm looking forward to getting to know bicycling Seattle better when I move into a more urban neighborhood next month. Meanwhile, I gotta be a good scholar and learn about the work of other people who have been writing about concepts similar to what I'm calling human infrastructure, like AbdouMaliq Simone and Filip De Boeck.