Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Until the late 1950's, most city/urban planners in the USA were architects. Most schools blueprinted plans that indeed had cultural and sociological implications,  but either couldn't or refused to see that their biases had stark implications for the kinds of buildings and cities they envisioned. It wasn't until the late fifties, when sociologists became involved in questions of urban ethnicity and neighborhood richness and viability that cities were seen as more than collections of buildings, parks,streets, stores, traffic patterns and transportation grids.

Jane Jacobs, who never received a degree in architecture or urban planning, but whose freelance writing on urban neighborhoods took her to most of them, and many not visited by the owners and managers of the journals for which she wrote, saw something at work that she first labeled "weird wisdom" - people staying safe and content in areas which were labeled "slums" by urban planners. She went on to figure out what really made cities work: not high rises, random green spaces or rich people, and especially not areas which emphasized only one kind of spatial and time-marked use. Rather, the areas which seemed to work best for cities and city people were those that included short blocks, a variety of architecture, a variety of uses, a lack of one-usage zoning, and green spaces integrated into their neighborhoods.

Cities, she felt, especially city streets and areas, had to create diversity by helping it along in zoning. If there were too many buildings of one kind or one use, cities had to factor in different uses and help by welcoming other uses, and without labeling uses as immoral. Bars, for instance, could actually could serve as welcome spots for relaxation and natural anchors and eyes for night time travelers on their streets. On the other hand, if businesses such as banks proliferated in an area, they left little space for other uses, cross use, and night time use.

She compared cities to puzzles and city street orders to dances. She made urban planners and city dwellers aware that those who could only see building in terms of one or two variables (calling Robert Moses!) were destroying the natural, useful and healthy density of cities, neighborhoods and streets.

Jacobs, who loved Greenwich Village and, along with her husband, owned a building on Houston Street, left the USA in 1968 in order to make sure that her sons would not be drafted into the Vietnam War. From Toronto, she continued to work for diversity and natural density in cities, neighborhoods and streets.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities is now required reading in urban planning and urban sociology classes.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Favorite book that should be pulled from the shelves

Prodigal Women, by Nancy Hale, is one of my favorite books. It tells the story of three women who live in a suburb of Boston in the 1920's and experience love in dangerous and difficult ways. They eventually find their ways back to wholeness and self-understanding.

It was pulled from the shelves of a library a few years back. Should it have been? My answer is yes.

The book contains the line "operated by a reeking colored boy."

Once upon a time this line would not have drawn much notice. Stereotypes were not challenged, and calling an African-American man "reeking" and "boy" was not met with much notice. "Colored" was considered a polite way (sort of) to refer to black people then, although somehow it sours my stomach. Hindsight? Maybe.

But the implication that a black person would smell simply cannot be excused, even when the author wrote it in the 1920's. Generally "accepted"? In some circles. Angrily and rightfully criticized? Yes, in some circles.

"Boy" was of course also used often to refer to black men. The implication that they are and were not mature enough to be called "men" or perhaps deserved to be addressed in the tone that would imply some kind of hierarchy, as opposed to not  being addressed at all, was more prevalent in the South, but was certainly not exclusively its property. And "property" was the thought directly in back of this entire phrase, that this black man was "owned" by someone, or had been in the recent past.

And this, in short, is why even though this book is one of my favorites, and remains one of my favorites, I am glad that it was pulled. I hate the idea of having readers assume that a) this kind of stereotype fit the description of any or many black people in the 1920's, and that b) there were not enough people who despised such descriptions at the time the book was written.

As with many books that seem to express or perpetuate negative stereotypes of ethnic and racial groups, many of us make our very shaky peace fraught with ambivalence and caveats.

I am glad I read  Prodigal Women. I am also glad that it will not see this particular library's shelves again.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Grammar errors and ambiguity

Grammar and ambiguity

I am about to get what some might consider nitpicky/nitpickety.

"Corcoran and her fellow researchers found plastiglomerates on more than 20 sites across Kamilo Beach, and they believe they could probably found on beaches around the world.'

Typo? Maybe. Grammar error? Maybe. Whatever it is, I resent it. Sure, the author might 
have meant to say, "probably find more." But by the same token, she might have meant to write, "probably have found more." One means that they are still finding or in  the process of finding plastiglomerates, our new human calling card. The other means that they have finished. The project is a done deal. No more rushing off to beaches to encounter, record and analyze plastiglomerates.

And did she mean to write "more?"  "Many more?" "A whole caseload and basket more?" "A bushel and a peck more?"  "Most assuredly more?" "Unquestionably a great deal more?"

Many grammar errors don't make it impossible to understand the writer's words. But they introduce a degree of ambiguity. Why take the chance that half of your readers will interpretyour sentence one way, and the other half will read an entirely different meaning? Worst of all, why leave readers straddling two or more possible meanings, or making your sentence a cousin of Schrodinger's cat?

And worst of all: why do I have to do the work of interpreting a sentence. the meaning of 

which should have been crystal clear? The last time I looked, I was not being paid to 

interpret another writer's sentence. I don't want to get stuck doing another writer's work.

Unless, of course, I were to get paid.