Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Redefining Urban Space: Multiple Mobilities in the Automobilized City

At this year's meeting of the American Anthropological Association, I was thrilled to present my research alongside a few other people studying the politics of mobility. (That last phrase isn't just jargony gibberish, but instead a way to talk about the fact that not everyone encounters urban space and transportation in the same way. Race, class, and ability impact our mobilities and how we conceptualize them.)

First up on the panel was Scott Brown, a graduate student in anthropology at the New School for Social Research in NYC. His talk, "Shifting Gears: Cycling Toward an Anthropology of Design," dealt with bike infrastructure design, and was based on his work with Parsons' UrbanBike program.

Then Lusi Morhayim, an architect working on a PhD at UC Berkeley, gave a talk on "Car-Free Street Events: From Counter-Public Opinions to Counter-Spaces." She has done participant-observation at Critical Mass, Sunday Streets, and Park(ing) Day in San Francisco, and had an eloquent take on how these events affect participants' ideas about public space.

From the University of Memphis came a paper entitled "'It Will be a Super-Highway for Drugs and Crime!': Neighborhood Perceptions of Greenlines, 'Urban Danger,' and Transportation Alternatives in Memphis, TN." I learned that the University of Memphis has a strong applied anthropology program where people can get MAs while carrying out community-based projects. In this case, Dr. Keri Brondo led a research team that partnered with Matt Farr, who works for the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy, to bolster public support for the Shelby Farms Greenline, which converted an old rail right of way into a multi-use path.

Matt read the paper, and has also started a website, Bikes Mean Business, that promotes biking by showing its benefits for local economies. Their paper argued that bicycling has a lot of potential to improve health in Memphis, but people see it as a vehicle for crime. This rang true for me; my experience listening to homeowners in Long Beach reject a bike lane while using euphemistic language about people of color and the poor was what first got me thinking about bikes and anthropology back in 2008, so I was glad to hear the Memphis group's research on this topic.

Next I presented my paper, "Diverse City: Situationism, Anthropology, and DIY Bike Infrastructure in Los Angeles."

My talk focused on the tendency among bike folks to think about infrastructure in terms of concrete, physical changes to built environments instead of thinking about experimental, human infrastructures. Drawing on the legacy of situationist "happenings," I framed ciclovías as an example of how you can create a temporary zone where biking is less harrowing, and how this could impact what people feel is possible the next day when the streets are full of traffic again. During the talk I showed a continuous playlist of videos people had posted to Youtube of their day at 10-10-10, the first CicLAvia.

After me came Nathalie Boucher, a PhD student at Montréal's Institut national de la recherche scientifique - Centre Urbanisation Culture Société. She read "Going Down to the Place of Three Shadows: Journeys to and from Downtown Los Angeles Public Spaces," a paper about her ethnographic research in different parks in downtown LA, and her experience spending the day with a wheelchair-bound homeless man.

Our discussant was Zack Furness, a cultural studies professor, author of One Less Car: Bicycling and the Politics of Automobility, and someone with a damn cool website. Since Zack couldn't make it to the conference, he sent us written comments on our papers, and I read them at the end.

Maybe one day I'll be surrounded by others who research bikes, but at this point in time it's pretty freaking novel for me to spend time with people who are reading the same theories as me and are experiencing the same bikey moments as me. My brain felt like this for the rest of the conference:

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Too Little Time in Montréal

Though I spent most of my recent trip to Montreal inside conference rooms listening to talks or inside bars carousing with other anthropologists, I managed to escape into the city for some drifting on a few afternoons. This was my soundtrack.

I saw lots of transport cyclists, people getting around on bikes without wearing sporty spandex outfits. I didn't see many people riding bikes on sidewalks, and didn't notice any altercations between bicyclists and drivers. The Bixi bike rental system appeared to have pulled most of their fleet out of service for the winter, but I could see that there were lots of convenient places to pick up or leave bikes.

Many intersections lacked pedestrian crossing signals, maybe because people just crossed the street as soon as possible, like in New York. I came across a lot of sidewalks that had been closed by construction. In these cases people just walked in the road until the sidewalk cleared. Drivers cut very close to me and other pedestrians in crosswalks. 

I would have liked to ride the subway more, but the hotel where I stayed in the Plateau neighborhood sat on a convenient bus line.

The city has many neat public spaces, both indoors and out.

There were lots of juxtapositions in the landscape, old next to new and wintry branches framing modern monoliths.

I spent a very pleasant afternoon exploring Quays of the Old Port of Montreal, Montréal's frontage along the St. Lawrence River that has been converted into a series of public spaces. J'aime bien l'adaptive reuse.

I really enjoyed Montréal's bilingual culture, and it made me realize how little I know about the French colonial legacy in North America, the Hudson's Bay Company, and the politics of language. Where I grew up in Southern California, Spanish might be heard as often as English, but due to racism I can't imagine it becoming an official language. Hope I have an excuse to visit Montréal again soon.

Amtrak Habitus

The concept of "habitus" allows social theorists to talk about the connections between seemingly insignificant actions we take every day and our perspectives on what should happen in the world around us. In my graduate research, I've used it a lot to think about why biking in cities like LA is possible for some people, but seems totally crazy to others. My favorite theorist, Pierre Bourdieu, wrote a lot about habitus, building on the work of another French anthropologist, Marcel Mauss.  In the 1935 essay "Techniques of the Body," Mauss characterized the body as our primary tool for experiencing the world, focusing on the importance bodily practices can have in our worldviews. The things we do over and over in our everyday lives have a lot to do with what we think we should be doing.

I usually decide to take the train instead of flying to academic conferences because riding the train allows me to use a less ecologically destructive mode of transport and it exposes me to people I would not encounter in my life at home. I've created an Amtrak habitus for myself that allows me to stay comfortable while hanging out with strangers for days at a time. When I take a long trip, I bring lavender castile soap and a little French press. Brewing my own strong coffee and washing up with a pleasant scent make me feel at home on the train. Through my routine, I inhabit a familiar place while in motion. Riding long-distance trains still makes me seem like an eccentric, I guess, but it sure makes me wonder how other people get to know this enormous country.

I just got home from a trip to Montreal for the American Anthropological Association conference. My itinerary took me on the Empire Builder, Lake Shore Limited, and Adirondack trains. Some seatmates stuck out in my mind. One lady happened to have been an extra in Breaking Away, a go-to movie for bike-themed outdoor film screenings, when she was working on her anthropology PhD in Bloomington, IN. She had long ago decided against an academic career, and instead worked in museums. Another seatmate told me that she regretted raising her kids speaking only English. An Egyptian by birth, she spoke Arabic, French, Italian, and English when she married a Mexican American man who did not want his children to be multilingual. My last seatmate wrung my heart the hardest. A Navajo railroad repairman, he laughed at my jokes and showed me a video of his horse ranch. We chatted about Chinle and other Navajo places. Then he asked me for advice about his girlfriend, who was carrying their baby, and who had been posting on Facebook about late night carousing. He said that sometimes she slept and slept, and once when they'd kissed he'd been stung by something very bitter on her mouth.

Moving around the train breaks up long journeys and gives me an escape when seatmates get overwhelming. Usually I spend a day in the observation lounge. On this trip I had a morning chat with a young black woman on her way to see her boyfriend in a North Dakota oil town. She told me earnestly about her hopes for the baby she was carrying. After she reached her destination and took her bright smile off the train, I settled down to work on a dissertation chapter.

The lounge soon filled with the loud hijinks of a few white men intent on a spree. Since alcohol is sold on board trains, some people think of the trip as one long binge, and it's not uncommon for Amtrak to kick drunks off the train. These guys sipped on Black Velvet and beer and got rougher and rougher, and I started hearing jokes using the n-word. I took off my headphones, my heart pounding, wondering what I should do. Sitting there without saying anything made me feel like I was somehow complicit in their ugly repartee, not to mention unsafe as a person of color. Once they taunted a black conductor who passed through just after a fried chicken joke, I decided to do something. I caught the laughing eye of one man and said that they couldn't use such inappropriate language in a public place, that it was unacceptable and they should keep it to themselves. He immediately backed down, but his buddy, the wildest of the bunch, told me to go sit with the kids. "This is the booze car," he said.

A woman moved to the seat next to me and thanked me for saying something. We sat there for about an hour, each doing our own thing, while the same group continued with their banter but without the racist jokes. Later on I decided to tell a conductor what I'd heard. He let me know that they'd be escorting that passenger off the train at the next station. I wasn't the only person who'd been made uncomfortable, it turned out.

When I interrupt racist banter in the lounge car, I'm making a statement about what is ok on the train. Because I was there I could assert that this train was not a segregated space that tolerated hate speech. My Amtrak habitus has shown me how many different kinds of people ride the train. As a theorist and as an activist, I know that interacting with people unlike ourselves can have a positive impact on the world we live in. Riding the train brings one into a cosmopolitan space, which unfortunately might be a novelty for many Americans. I'm glad I've been able to make it my routine.