Wednesday, December 28, 2016

On "Descent of Species" by David Eagleman (about 650 words) *****

Want a simpler life? Be careful what you wish for. Eagleman traces out the implications of such a wish here at Biblioklept.

On "The People in the Trees" by Hanya Yanagihara ***

This is a disturbing book. Yanagihara makes the idea of raping a culture for one's own ends physical--makes the metaphor potentially real. Alas, where some books manage to be disturbing but to somehow keep one fascinated via language or character development, I was left rather cold by the main character throughout.

Norton Perina writes his life story at the urging of a colleague, who serves as the editor of his biography. Perina has been jailed for a sex crime against his adopted children--children that he has gathered from a Pacific Island nation that he has helped to destroy through his quest for knowledge. As readers, one is left somewhat in the dark with regard to whether Perina is actually guilty of the crime for which he's been jailed until the very end; part of me wishes that Yanagihara had left us in the dark.

One's distaste for Perina begins not just with the first-page revelation of what he's been accused of but for the tone of superiority that he maintains throughout the book. This is extended further as he goes about his scientific tasks.

Perina is invited to accompany some anthropologists to a South Pacific island as a medical doctor and aid. On the island, he and his colleagues discover a group of people who appear to be about sixty but who turn out to be much older, yet whose cognitive functions are less than to be desired. These people live in a native culture that has eschewed Western ways in, what we might say, both good and bad ways. The longevity of the people, however, is what most fascinates the researchers, most especially Perina, however, and his desire to find the reason leads him not only to the answer but to fame as he publishes papers on the subject. That fame, however, comes at a cost to the island and the islanders themselves, as it is then dredged by Western companies for the secret drug that they hope to create from what Perina has found. It is this destruction that is so hard to read about (and that inspires a great deal of pity), especially when described by someone as egocentric as Perina. One wishes he had been jailed long before the accusations fly that ruin his life, whether they be true or not.

As an indictment of Western colonialism, this work is as damning as any novel could hope to be.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

On "The Highline Highway" by Nathan Oates (3152 words) ***

"The Highline Highway" involves a strange proposition wherein the narrator is paid to sleep with a young woman to help diversify the breeding pool for an Amish-like community. The situation seems somewhat preposterous, though I'm guessing that Oates perhaps pulled the story from a headline somewhere. The story itself is a bit hard to read in some ways, as it's essentially like reading about a woman being raped each night for a week. There is little joy in this, even as the narrator tries to make some. It's one of the weaker stories in Oates's mostly very fine collection. You can read it here.

On “The Empty House” by Nathan Oates ****

The world is not a safe place. Oates's stories are often set overseas and in unfamiliar settings. The strongest ones involve people in over their heads, reminiscent of Paul Bowles's work. While some of the stories are real shockers, the collection unfortunately isn't wholly consistent in quality.

"Nearby, the Edge of Europe" focuses on a man whose wife has become an alcoholic no longer interested in her career or in putting in much work on the marriage, all this on a trip to Europe to see the husband's sister's family. A kind of sadness pervades the story as the narrator comes to grips with his dissolving marriage. The story can be read here at Jstor, with a free membership.

I'm not sure how to take "Looking for Service." Written from the point of view of a conservative businessman who doesn't much care for the liberal persuasion of his children and the like, the story recounts his trip to a third-world nation to resolve yet another issue for the mining company he works for. A subplot involving his need to care for his ailing wife provides a sympathetic side to him. And one can see that it is compassion that causes him to tour parts of the country with a youngish hippie couple. But what we don't see is much of a transformation in the man--he has preconceived notions of the country, of youth, of these two people in particular, and they're all confirmed for him, whether what he believes is true or not. I suppose the one thing we do come to see is that the man is full of fear.

In "A Woman without a Country" Oates hits his stride. The story involves a woman whose sexual escapade becomes part of a hit reality television show so that she is forever trying to escape from a past that it seems everyone knows about. I've often wondered how people who catch a bit of unwanted fame deal with it, and Oates does a good job here of channeling one possible reaction.

"Running Rapids" is a cold-hearted story that deserves its coldness. It's about a couple who go camping in Alaska and who run in with a group of Danish campers. What happens next is chilling in more ways than one. The matter-of-fact tone of the story adds to its macabre, and was the first to remind of some of Paul Bowles's work.

"The Yellow House" is the story that first brought Oates to my attention many years ago. My review of it can be read here, where a link to the story is also available.

"In the World Below" returns to some of the themes in "Looking for Service." In this case, an American with a diplomatic or multinational job of some sort has brought his son to Haiti, and together they sit out an ongoing revolution and all its apparent dangers rather than fleeing to safe American quarters. The story is told from three points of view--the father's, the son's, and their Haitian guide. Such multiple viewpoints are hard to pull off.

"Developing" is one of my favorites insofar as it uses a technique and tells a story I had never quite read before. It's a letter about a man who goes to pick up a set of photos he was not aware he had asked to be developed. The photos include pictures of a woman he does not know--or perhaps does. One is left wondering how to interpret the letter writer's actions to follow. Has he gone to live in his head? Or has his imagination actually come to life? Or is this simply a metaphor for another life he wishes he had? I was reminded of the fantastic realists of Latin America (Cortazar's "Orientation of Cats," in which a man's family is transported into a painting he goes to stare at each day in a museum).

"Hidden in the Trees" is another overseas story, this one about a American couple who tour nontourist areas of foreign lands. The woman is a former drug addict who draws her strength from her husband and who struggles with the lack of strength within herself. "In the Ravine" is about a slacker who realizes that his parents actually know that he is one, as his father takes him on a trip to find and dig up illegal marijuana plants.

The last two stories return to the dark and shocking material recounted in "Running Rapids." "Famous for Crabs," despite its seemingly trifling title is one of the darkest stories I've ever read. It's about a man who goes to visit an old college friend he reconnects with through Facebook. It can be read at here at Jstor with a free membership. The title story is about another man visiting an old college friend in Guatemala during the civil war and about the younger brother, twenty years later, who goes to track down the man who disappeared soon after.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

On "The Dolt" by Donald Barthelme (2189 words) ***

An exploration of the difficulties involved in writing narratives, this one centers around a man preparing for an examination. Read the story here.

On "The First Christian Century in Judaism and Christianity" by Samuel Sandmel **

Sandmel's book appears to have come out of a series of lectures on the subject that he gave. The general thesis of the lectures was that it's difficult to be certain about much of anything historically in the first century. In the sense that I often feel as if there is not enough information available to interpret some sections of scripture within their historical context, it was nice to read of a learned scholar essentially saying that that is how he feel as well. In the sense that I came to this book hoping for more information about the first century, it was a disappointment, for the book dwells mostly on this uncertainties and in that sense fails to present much of a portrait of first-century life.

The book is divided into four chapters--on the significance of the first century, on Palestinian Judaism, on Hellenistic Judaism, and on Christianity. Of course, the first century is very significant, for out of it springs Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. Knowing this century is in essence to know the origins of these two faiths. Too bad it is so hard to know much about the century.

The next chapter goes into this origin of Rabbinic Judaism, wherein the author has difficulty finding where the moment that Pharisaical Judaism transition into Rabbinic is (if indeed this concept is even correct). As for what we do know: Jews read scriptures at service, though the set Parsha calendar may or may not have existed at that time. The sermon, as we know, may have come before the first century or maybe later--it is hard to know how a short explanation of a given scripture transformed into a full-on discourse on the subject or when it exactly happened. Were there two Sanhedrin, one political and one religious? And did they (or one of them) have authority over life and death, and if so, why did Rome have to be involved when putting Jesus to death? The major issue throughout is that our major sources are religious (Rabbinic writings) or historical (Josephus), but there is not historical religious source, so we have to glean what we can from each.

The chapter of Hellenistic Judaism does a lot of comparing of Philo's views to those of Paul. And the chapter of Christianity focuses on how, in the author's view, most of the writing in the New Testament tells us more about the time in which the books were written than about the first century. In the author's view, most of the New Testament was written much later, some as late as the second century. Here, the author's view, corresponding to mainstream Protestant beliefs, that Paul created a radical break with the Jewish law, colors most of the author's views. Since the author is Jewish I suppose I can't be surprised that he looks on the New Testament from a largely secular perspective and, thus, is prone to dismissing much of the more typically religious view of the writing of the works. But I came to this work hoping to find out more about the Judaism of the time, and the fact that the author feels there are so many uncertainties that he can't make too many claims rather disheartened me to the extent that by the time I came to this final chapter, his views left me rather unimpressed.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

On "Sum" by David Eagleman (381 words) *****

The title story from Eagleman's collection reflects on our lives as packets of discreet activities. When thought of that way, what we do seems to take on much greater significance--and also lesser. Is our time really best spent on our phones? Also included are three other short pieces from the collection. Read the story here.

On “People in Cities” by Edward Krupat ***

A somewhat dated work (mid-1980s), Krupat's text is a grand summary of various theories about the city. And that's what it excels at--at summarizing. The issue with this is that it's hard to get a grasp on the ideas at times because so much information is conveyed, and generally Krupat takes little stand on any particular one. Hence, it's a book without a very dull thesis: Cities . . . people look at them in different ways. Unfortunately the writing isn't engaging enough to keep one enthralled without a strong thrust.

Krupat's book is really an exercise in social psychology--as it pertains to the city. As he points out in his introduction (chapter 1), any one view of the city can be widely different. Look at a map. There is the map that a cartographer of streets creates, and then there is the map that an individual might create, which would drop out certain things and add other things in.

Krupat's message really begins to take shape, however, in chapter 2. Here he looks at what a city is and what makes for a good city. He examines two ways of evaluating a city: objective and subjective. A short summary of various objective measures is then rendered, going back to the early 1900s. Think of those "best cities" lists one reads about perennially in magazines. That's what Krupat is examining--how such lists are created, what the criteria are, and how fair such lists are. Some lists look largely at economics. One interesting list looked at moral integration--that is, to what extent the people in the city shared similar values. Each list comes up with different "best" cities.

Krupat then turns to subjective measures. Most interesting in this list is his own measure, which was created by having people list off five adjectives that described three different cities, and then three kinds of cities (large, medium, and small). Large cities tended to be found to have more culture but also to be more isolating and dangerous.

Eventually, Krupat argues that both the objective and subjective need to be considered when viewing a city. Objectively, a given city or area might have less crime, but if people feel as if they are in danger, it doesn't matter. Feelings and reality, of course, affect one another. Feelings of danger can lead to actual danger, just as feelings of safety can lead to actual safety, just as actual danguer can lead to feelings of the same, and so on. And what we value in a city will differ from person to person, making such lists on some level highly subjective in the end anyway.

The next chapter focuses much of its discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of anonymity that a city offers--or whether  the city offers anonymity at all. Krupat claims that living among strangers is a relatively recent phenomenon. Such can be alienating. But there is also something else that a city offers that isn't offered in a rural area or small town. Whereas one's friends in a smaller enclave are largely determined by who lives nearby, in a city one's friends are often people with similar interests. This is afforded by the fact that the city offers more density and thus more opportunity for people of similar interests to live nearby. So where a small town might have three people who like live jazz, a large city might have three thousand. The latter would afford such jazz lovers more opportunity to meet with each other and to enjoy the same activity. In a sense, then, the city often has enclaves within it that are not so anonymous.

Krupat then returns to the idea of the image of the city. Here, he explores in great detail Kevin Lynch's work (based around his seminal work). Krupat also looks at various studies coming out of that work. Our views of what is distant and far, for example, are influenced by this image. Interestingly, we will tend to view things moving toward the center of town as closer than things moving away from the town, even though the latter might be closer in actual distance. Reasons this might be the case include one's tendency to go toward the center for other activities or simply the more arresting qualities of the landscape moving to the center. This can be offset, however, by such things as how straight the path is. If we have to make a lot of turns to get somewhere, we will tend to view that place as farther away, even if the straight shot is actually a longer distance. There is also the means by which we go about forging our personal maps, which tend to start very egocentrically with key paths sketched out; we then move to disjointed landmarks; and finally, once we have been in a place for a while, we fill out our map with a larger, less-egocentric sketch. Likewise, how much we have to travel affects how we see our city. Usually, the poor have smaller maps, as they travel through cities less, but in a city where all services are granted in a given small area in which largely rich people live, the situation might be reversed, so that the poor travel more to get to various necessary things, thus forging a wider map. Walkers see more detail but a smaller area than drivers. Drivers see and remember more about a city layout than passengers, but navigators see and remember more than drivers. How we view a city then depends on how we function within it. Putting all this together for design purposes, Krupat summarizes his point about the image of the city this way: “Good design . . . satisfies two conflicting needs. It provides order to facilitate comprehension, movement, and security, and at the same time it offers enough complexity and change to stimulate curiosity and exploration.”

In the second half of the book, Krupat discusses how people live in cities. The fifth chapter focuses on the city as "too much"--how or whether the city is stressful--in terms of crowds, noise, and pollution. In terms of crowds and their affect on the human psyche, Krupat draws a set of four variables: crowded in the house but spacious outside (farmhouse), spacious in the house and spacious outside (e.g., suburb), crowded in the house and crowded outside (urban ghetto), and spacious in the house but crowded outside (urban luxury condo). Research has not been completely clear as to whether any of these have negative effects more than others, especially with regard to social pathology, although there does appear to be some increase in stress with regard to the crowded living inside caused by the lack of privacy. A general feeling of helplessness can ensue, and people who feel helpless, Krupat says studies show, tend to be less willing to do things for themselves to resolve situations. Kids in such situations, in other words, will tend to give up at hard puzzle tasks much more quickly than kids who live in less dense and less stressful situations. All this is mitigated by cultural context. The definition of dense differs from place to place. What is thought of as dense in New York might be seen as fairly spacious in Hong Kong, for example.

The same kind of social considerations go into the effects of noise. Where the noise is coming from often affects how it is heard and whether in contributes to stress. People are more willing to accept, say, traffic to constant parties from youngsters downstairs--that is, the latter is seen as noisier, even in situations where in fact the two might be the same in terms of decibels. As with crowding, children raised around noisy environments, say, close to an airport, are less likely to stick with difficult tasks, such as reading. Reading scores drop for kids who live in noisier surroundings.

But stress--what constitutes noise and crowding--really depends on perspective. Someone coming from rural Arkansas may find Fayetteville to be very stressful with regard to these factors, whereas someone coming from New York to Fayetteville may find the town quite spacious and quiet. Our reactions to a city are thus always quite personal.

Are cities places where loneliness is rife or do they contribute to people's interactions with one another? That is the next question Krupat tackles. As with so many other questions that Krupat answers via various studies that have occurred, he finds no definitive answer--it all depends on how you look at things. One study finds that people in the country have relationships based more on locality, whereas city people have relationships based more on shared interest. Hence, in terms of place, city people have a wider net, whereas country people have a smaller one. But that is also not entirely certain, as the rest of the chapter brings out in its focus on neighborhoods and communities--on what these are and whether cities offer them. One intriguing study denoted one other difference between smaller places and larger: Moving to a small town, one made friends faster than moving to a big city; however, after six months, the number of friends a given newcomer had made was essentially the same, if not a bit larger for the big city. Friendships are still common in larger areas, though they may take more time to form, and when they form, they may actually be more intimate (or not--there's discussion on this as well, what an intimate relationship actually means). As for communities, the discussion in part goes into whether they have to be a place. Neighborhoods, however, are seen as places--but what sort of places? Again, more definitions are presented. Krupat also looks at kinds of neighborhood communities and the people who live in them. He presents a grid based around two variables: rooted/nonrooted and bonded/nonbonded. People tend to fit one combination of these sets. Rooted and bonded people are "established participants" in an neighborhood (think, families with kids). Bonded but not rooted would include young people with limited education and monetary prospects--they grew up in the neighborhood and can't leave it easily. Rooted but not bonded would include isolates--older people who have lived in the neighborhood for years and don't plan to leave though they don't really participate in many of its activities. Finally, there are not bonded and not rooted, which would include people Krupat labels "young mobiles," folks who live there for, say, work but who aren't particularly wedded to the neighborhood in anything but a superficially participatory way (e.g., going to the coffee shop). These kind of inhabitants can in turn help define the kind of community a neighborhood forges: homogenous, constrained, or committed. In homogenous communities interest and residence coincide (I think of hipster communities, where everyone is an artist of sorts). In constrained communities, people are bound together by limitations, such as a foreign language or culture, as in an immigrant community. (It would seem to me these could also be considered homogenous, save that many people aren't there entirely by choice.) Communities by commitment are forged when people have a stake in the community (e.g., young families with kids or, often, communities that are threatened by outside forces such as a highway).

The next chapter turns toward questions of design and how designers can help or hinder the facilitation of the social aspects of cities. Here, Krupat relies a lot on Jane Jacobs--especially her chapters on housing for the poor. Krupat raises three examples of how bad design can hurt communities. One is a town in India designed and built by Le Corbusier (who has come under fire in other books). Here, the design was centered on Western ideals and was thus wholly inappropriate for its consumers. The Indians thus sit on the floor of their kitchens in shifts rather than use the table altogether because, you know, tradition and comfort. Parks go unused because Indians don't really "do" that sort of thing, and shopping nodes intended to service small communities with a diverse array of shop instead service one industry, meaning people have to travel all over the city to get to one kind of shop (since Indian shopping happens in bizarres, where there are not set prices and people need to compare, say, one place's bid for a muffler versus another's). Families, rather than being gathered as they would be traditionally, have to journey across the city to see one another because housing is segregated by income.

Another town damaged by well-meaning planners is the West End of Boston. Planners assumed the area to be a slum because of the run-down buildings, but while it might have been slummy physically, the social aspect of the area was not. Old buildings were removed for a mix of high-rise apartments and offices, and the community itself died, as the locals, even though they had been guaranteed housing in the new facilities, found the new neighborhood not to their liking. Gone was the family-and-friend oriented community.

Krupat then looks at a project in St. Louis, akin to one described in Jacobs's book. Here, high-rise housing afforded nice apartments for the poor but failed to provide any sense of community. Common living areas were obliterated, and crime surged. Large parks and small hallways where it is easy to hide do not facilitate parents being able to keep watch on their children, let alone neighbors mixing with each other and keeping watch on their neighborhood. In fact, Krupat compares one project next to another in New York, one with shorter buildings and many common areas and one with high rises and one very large common area. Crime is relatively less pervasive in the first and even maintenance is cheaper.

What is needed is more scientific study so that designers are more in-tune to the end users' needs. The gap between the two is one that often creates trouble for urban projects. Complicating this gap is another one--that the designer is often working for a city or committee that is itself one step away from the end user, so that there are in fact two gaps.

Krupat closes the chapter with a discussion of defensible space, introduced by a theorist named Oscar Newman. His idea is that project design needs to be worked around space that provides a range of spaces--private, semipublic, and public. It is these semipublic spaces that many of the high-rise projects lack. Without them, communities can't flourish, and anomie sets in, encouraging crime and other ills that occur when no one knows one another or keeps track of what's going on around. It is in fact in this context that Krupat raises the example of the two next-door New York projects.

Another finding of Newman's is that smaller is generally better. This is something Krupat argues against, however, as his point is that small cities are not necessarily better than big ones. They both have their advantages, and it is those advantages to which Krupat turns in the next chapter. As he notes at the start, whether one prefers big or little depends on what one is looking for. The most intriguing portions of his final chapter focus on planned cities. There is talk of Howard's Garden Cities of Tomorrow. Whereas Rybczinski made it seem as if Jane Jacob's made the plan something of a strawman, Krupat's description of his plan seems more akin to what Jacobs rejected: small cities surrounded by greenspace, yes, but also lots of greenspace within the city. Krupat does not consider the cities that grew out of said plan to be a success. He also looks at the planned town of Columbia, Maryland, which he says was a mixed success. It had various nodes—little villages with commercial centers for each, one major town center, a bus system linking them all, and carefully deployed greenery. It sounds like a well-planned city. But that is exactly why Krupat says it's a mixed success. One issue is that such planned cities tend to focus rather homogenously on families, so there isn't much in terms of cultural mixing (no young singles, no old people, no poorer people). Second is the question that such a city raises, namely, Whose city is it? Being so planned, residents have little control over what goes on in the city, and that lack of control can lead to frustration. Such a city, in other words, can't live and breathe the way truly successful cities do. People have to feel as if they have some control over their living environment in order to feel secure and at peace—that's really the key to urban or rural living.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

On “The Straightened Arrow” by Tom Noyes (8587 words) ***

"The Straigthened Arrow" involves a man on some sort of religious mission involving a ten commandments statue. But he suspects that what it really involves is his devout wife trying to get rid of him so that she can spend time with the pastor. What is surprising here is how well versed Noyes is with scripture and with differing religious views, for much of the story concerns debates among Christians over doctrine. Read the story here at Stonework.

On "Spooky Action at a Distance and Other Stories" by Tom Noyes ***

Tom Noyes's collection of tales merges religious concerns with violence, oddity, and the regular day. As such, it doesn't seem to have that much drawing the pieces together, other than a few characters that seem to repeat. The strongest stories involve violence of a sort, mostly because we are treated to watching something unexpected slowly develop until we completely understand how such a thing could happen--in fact, had to.

"Here, There, Yonder" is told from multiple perspectives that all fit in the same setting. One is a boy flying for the first time. Another is his grandmother, returning to visit her two sisters, who years before she stopped talking to. And yet another is a flight attendant who is in a somewhat unhappy relationship with another flight attendant. I'm not sure what we're to glean from the differing perspectives except perhaps that the adults seem to have a number of broken relationships that the innocent young boy has not yet discovered is part of life.

"Everything but Bone" is a slice-of-life piece about a divorced man and woman who reunite to attend the man's father's funeral and about their son, who brings along his new girlfriend, a kind of carbon copy. There is a focus, in part of the story, on hair, on how it outlasts "everything but bone" once we're dead. This hair plays a role in each man's life in the story, defining them but also hiding them. Memory is hard to piece to together.

"Love Canal," one of the stronger stories from the collection, involves a pastor's family. The pastor is replacing a former pastor who ran off with one of the wives of his congregation (one might assume the wife from the opening story, "The Straightened Arrow"). But what seems an easy task--simply not messing around on your wife when you are pastor--becomes much more than the pastor bargained for.

"The Daredevil's Wife" is a short piece about Niagara Falls barrel riders.

"Greeting Phantom" focuses on a newly but less-than-happily married couple with a newborn son. The husband creates an imaginary to entertain his son with; the wife does what she can to push the ghost away. But still, the couple is together, while upstairs, what appears to be a less well-off couple that has split up is actually a couple who are dealing with health issues. This is the first in a set of stories in which violence is heavily implied or present. And maybe it's that passion that makes these latter stories feel as if they matter more.

"Wrong Hands," the strongest story in the collection, is about an out-of-shape man who takes up dieting and exercise at a gym--or seems to be about that. But as the story progresses, and the man becomes more and more heavily involved in weight training, a kind of violence begins to pervade the story, as the man is caught up in a way of life in which machismo plays a larger and larger role. Soon, just as his eating was once out of control, his anger becomes out of control.

"Rot and Squalor" focuses on a high school basketball coach whose disappointment in his team and desire to motivate it turns darkly violent.

The title story is cleverly told tale of a man who believes he is the spawn of a dead twin. The story comes to us via recordings to his psychologist.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

On "Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning" by Donald Barthelme(3022 words) ****

More a fictional expose on a real-life figure than a story per se, this was one of the stories that vaulted Barthelme toward fame. Think of "Thirteen Ways to Look at a Blackbird"; then think of a character sketch for a popular magazine. That's essentially how this fun piece reads, which you can read too here.

On "Design with Nature" by Ian McHarg ***

This book combines ideas from urban planning and landscape architecture with ideas from ecology. What is to be gained? A lot of lyrical passages about the beauty of nature, which grow more and more tiresome the longer they go on. It's not that the book is without its merits. McHarg's text, after all, is considered a classic. And when he gets down to practicalities, he often has intriguing ideas to present. But every other chapter is theory rather than practicum, and reading this theory fifty years later is like reading a set of dated truisms amid a collection of late 1960s liberal diatribes.

McHarg especially has it out, it seems, for Christianity, which he often blames for the environmental ills of the planet. Christianity is anthropocentric, he denotes, and as such we don't pay attention to the earth's natural balance. (What, I might ask, would paying attention to the earth's natural balance entail other than stewardship and a belief in human-centered superiority? I don't know any cats or dogs or pigs or chickens that worry about preserving the planet's balance. If they overpopulate or do environmental damage the earth naturally takes care of it--through evolution, if you will. The distribution of the animal changes, as does the distribution of the other animals and plants it affects. So too, one might argue, with humans, if indeed we are here merely by chance and are merely one other creature among the rest of the globe's inhabitants. The idea that we need to keep nature balanced, the way it was supposed to be, is then itself an anthropocentric one, one that implies that we are somehow above the other creatures on the planet. Anyway, the constant attacks on Christianity obviously wore thin on me.)

But as I noted, the practicum chapters were of some interest. An early one discusses the ocean and the beach. Much of this is old information to me from other reading I've done--how important beach dunes are, how various attempts to keep beaches in place using groins actually damage beaches further down, and so on. But it was concrete.

Those sort of points make for interesting studies later in the book, when McHarg lays out the best ways to, for example, choose where to lay roads. Too often, he points out, we pay attention chiefly to costs--and by that, he means, the physical costs, of laying a road. Hence, highways are placed where there is less development or where development is cheap (i.e., poor communitities) and where the land offers the cheapest means to lay the road (less drilling, etc.). But this often doesn't equate to what the actual cost is--that is, the actual cost needs to include the culture and social cost. When we lay down a highway through a community, we're splitting the community in half and we are likely killing off neighborhoods. And when we lay a road through pristine forestland that birds use for nesting, we may also be laying out environmental effects that will in turn affect the social and cultural ones. His solution? He takes various maps that lay out the different costs associated with each route for a road. Overlaying this maps allows us to see which route is likely the most cost effective.

In another practicum chapter, McHarg looks at different environments that are best for city building, laying out a hierarchy of preferred land on which to build, in this descending order: flat land, forest, steep slopes, aquifers, aquifer recharge areas, floodplains, marshes, and surface water. Knowing these preferences, we should thus really aim not to build on floodplains and to build on flat land. The only qualifier? Flat land is also the best land for agriculture, so we have to be attuned to those needs as well.

In an extended example, McHarg focuses on a plan for the city of Baltimore and how that city can continue to grow without giving in to sprawl, selecting the proper places to grow and the proper places to preserve and what the density in these locations should be.

Next, McHarg turns to a theoretical discussion of how we would go about creating a proper environment for an astronaut sent to live in space. He shows how all the various systems are integrated and how difficult it is to account for everything that nature does naturally. The astronaut easily can find that he or she has not accounted for some need and throw the system out of whack. This leads into the chapter on Staten Island, which again is planned according to different values and needs, using overlaying maps that give planners the means to know where the best places for conservation are, as well as the best places for urbanization, both residential and commercial.

In the next theory-heavy section, McHarg approaches a group of thinkers he calls "Naturalists." Here he lays out the idea that we need not see evolution, the survival of the fittest, as necessarily negative. He argues that natural organisms adapt to one another, that the fittest only surviving is actually a way of advancing nature so that it is more interdependent. The lion that eats the caribou, for example, is doing the caribou a favor in terms of keeping its stock lower and also helping it to evolve to a higher state through only letting the most fit survive. Parasites depend on hosts, but hosts often adapt to depend also on the parasite. Whole ecosystems exists because of this interdependence. One of those, arguably, is our own body, which consists of a host of cells, most of them cells that have learned to specialize in particular tasks in order to make the body work together efficiently. The cells are interdependent, supporting a much greater whole, the way each living thing supports the greater whole of the earth.

Next, McHarg turns to a project on the Potomac River basin. Much as he has done in earlier chapters, he lays out the various areas as being most suitable for various resources in order to understand where it would be best to urbanize and so on. The one intriguing point he makes in this chapter is that we are too prone to zone things for one use, whereas nature does not zone: various uses can be gleaned from one area in nature, and we should do the same in the city. But other than that, the discussion of the Potomac seems like yet another practicum that repeats information that has gone before. The techniques to discover what the best places to build are well known by now, and so the extended examples grow increasingly tiresome.

Potentially, the section on Washington, D.C., could prove interesting insofar as McHarg attempts to apply his ideas to a city that is already in existence, rather than to the suburbs of a city that is expanding. But in the end, I found this section to be disappointing. His main point seems to be that we need to take into account more than finances when designing sites. In D.C., it would be important to take into account the "pallette" of the particular area, make the landscape conform to the overall tone of the section of the city. Of course, this is easier said than done, since in the end it is the market that determines how we value space. His earlier points about taking into account how altering that space affects value seemed more direct to the point.

The book ends with a chapter on the health of a city, which is perhaps one of the most interesting and thought provoking. Here, he uses his mapping system to denote neighborhoods in Philadelphia with various diseases, mental diseases, and pollution, along with economic troubles, crime, race, education, unemployment, income, density, and so on. Putting all these together helps to establish a "healthy" area of the city as being in the north and west. But why is not as clear. He then goes into studies of population carried on with rats, showing how density of living has great affects on health. Though apparently able to have a denser population in their environment, the rats at some point begin to stop multiplying as fast, and disease--physical and mental--begins to become more rampant. Those rats that are dominant don't have the health problems; the rats that are submissive do. They become loners or sexually deviant or sickly. This, he thinks, is because of the stressful stimuli that exist in high densities. There seems that there might be some correlation to human populations as well, as denser areas have greater amounts of antisocial behavior and sickness. But the ideas, while intriguing, are not entirely proven or provable. But surely, one wouldn't then say that humans need to move into suburbs and less dense areas for health reasons--or would one? Here he briefly looks at how attempts to gentrify troubled areas with such densities rarely solve the problem. The original inhabitants are usually pushed out of the area, and what social network they had to deal with their problems is thus taken apart. I found myself here wanting to read more about density and its effects.

In the end, then, McHarg notes how we can take into account various factors of our environment as we build and plan and rework cities. This is a valid point but one that seemed, in McHarg's reasoning, too bound to its time.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

On "I Asked My Mother" by Lesley Dormen (1113 words) ****

"I Asked My Mother" focuses on obsessive compulsive shopping. It's a short piece but exquisitely put together, the middle story in Dormen's excellent collection. Really, it's about how a mother and daughter communicate and how the weaknesses of one become the weaknesses of the other. Read the story here at Five Points.

On "Contagious" by Jonah Berger *****

The subtitle of this book promises much--it says the book is going to tell readers "How Things Catch On." And Berger does a great job doing just that, combining conversation recountings of studies and analysis and setting out a book of interest both to psychologists and marketers.

The book reads like many a self-help or marketing guide, a trade book. But what makes this one different is that the author really knows his stuff--the load of examples and the use of footnotes shows it.

Basically, Berger points to what some things go viral or catch on as being related to six factors. Viral things will sometimes have all six going for them but not always; however, they will always have some of these factors going for them.

The first factor is social currency. The idea here is that people like to appear hip or knowledgeable. Being able to talk to someone about an oddball restaurant or a cool movie shows that you are a person worth talking with--one who has something to share. An interesting example is a bar modeled after a speakeasy called Please Don't Tell Anyone. You have to go through the back of a hot dog stand and dial a special phone; only seventy or so people are allowed in each night. There isn't any advertising other than word of mouth. This does indeed sound like a cool secret folks would want to hear about. I was left, however, wondering how such a place starts. If secrecy is your gimmick, how is it those first hundred or so customers find you in order to spread the secret? I suppose an invitation to a select crowd might work to get the buzz going.

The second factor is triggers. These are essentially items that remind you of something that is being marketed. The key here is frequency and the context. If somehow you can align what you're selling with something that folks think about regularly, you're more likely to stay on their minds. Write a song about Fridays, for example, and you'll probably be on folks' minds once a week. And that in turn will spur word of mouth.

A third factor is emotion. People are more likely to share things that stir particular feelings. Interestingly, Berger finds that contentment and sadness do not cause people to want to share. However, emotions that stir people a lot are anger and awe. That makes sense, though, when I think about articles that I might myself want to talk about with someone else: something unjust or something amazing.

A fourth factor is something Berger calls public--or making the private public. I'd call this the sheep or crowd factor. Basically, we are more likely to try something or to use a certain product if others are doing so as well. Hence, if there are two restaurants to choose from and one is crowded and one empty, we're more likely to think the crowded one is better, irregardless of the actual quality. So many people, we think, can't be wrong. This is, I've long thought, one of the most frustrating facts about marketing--success breeds more success. It's like money: the more you have, the easier it is to make more. Much of the chapter focuses on how brands attempt to get their logos and message out for folks to see. Berger looks particularly at the "residual" effect--we might look at them as souvenirs. These are things like bags we take home from a store and then reuse, which then show off the product's identity to others. The crowd factor might seem contradictory to the social currency factor, but it isn't when one really thinks about it. Take something as popular as the Super Bowl. If one watches it or the ads that run during it, one has the ability to discuss them with folks then next day. Being knowledgeable, even about something that most people already know about, still makes for one being a potentially good conversationalist.

A fifth factor is practical value, which is exactly what it sounds like. If something is useful, it's more likely to catch on. I guess my big question here would be why some things seem to be more useful than others. That, I suppose, comes down to ability or technique and also to branding. If you create something that is easier to understand than other things that do the same, your instructions or product will get more use--or so the theory would go. But branding has much to do with success here too--people will gravitate toward practical products from others who are already familiar. That's the reason for the success of the Dummies books, though some such books are better written than others. Much of Berger's chapter, however, focuses on price points and how we tend to buy things contrary to actual sense. If something is “on sale,” for example, we more likely buy it--even if it's not actually discounted. For products under one hundred dollars, it's best to give a percentage for how much one is saving; for over that amount, it's best to give a dollar figure. Ten percent seems a lot more than five dollars, for example; but $200 seems a lot more than five percent.

The last factor is story--basically, products are best marketed as some sort of narrative. When one looks at the first five factors, word of mouth is most likely to spread if a good story is attached to the technique involved. Hence, we tell someone about the great deal we got on something or how amazing some product is or something like that. Some attention here is given to advertising and how that can be counterproductive if the story told as part of the ad is not inherently connected to the product. You might catch someone's eyes with dancing penguins, for example, but if you're selling laundry detergent, the two narratives likely won't have much of a connection and thus won't remain part of the same story. It's essential that the attention grabber and the product have some relation so that they both become part of the story told.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

On "The Party" by Donald Barthelme (1648 words) ****

Some stories demand to be read closely, and this is one of them. The language is incredibly dense. But what a joy to listen and watch along with the narrator of this social gathering. Read the story here.

On "They Shoot Horses Don't They" by Horace McCoy *****

I first read this book a decade or so ago while reading a list of pulp mystery novels, a list that I enjoyed much more than I expected to. McCoy's book stood out because of the extended metaphor and its reference to a historical phenomenon I had not been familiar with. Less a mystery than just plain pulp, the book tells the story of a couple who go to make some money, to survive, during the Great Depression, by joining a dance marathon.

Dance marathons were popular for some time during the 1930s. Essentially contests in which couples danced for as long as possible, until they were the last couple standing, they were entertainment spectacles. Here, however, the marathon is a metaphor for life--a tough and grueling life. The couple can't leave the floor; it has to remain to eat (food is provided) and to have a chance at the thousand-dollar prize that will give them a new start in life, if they want it, that is, for the woman, Gloria, has already given up on life: she just wants to die, if only she had the guts to do herself in.

And that is the gist of the book, how her dance partner is finally convinced to kill the woman as a favor to her, as the dance marathon moves forward despite petty crime, crooks hanging out in disguise, affairs, better morals society protests, and so on.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

On "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" by Philip K. Dick (ca. 9000 words) ***

Made into the movie Total Recall twice now, the original story features aspects that are picked up in both films but goes in a different direction by its end. The opening of the story is somewhat similar to those films: a man leading a humdrum life discovers that he was once a secret agent. In this case, he was an agent on Mars, though of course, that is the very memory he's gone to Rekal Inc. to have implanted as a means of escaping his humdrum life--to fulfill his dream of going to Mars. From there, the story becomes a trip. Is the memory real or implanted? And now that his life has been changed--or returned to what it was?--how does he solve the problem that he is supposed to have lost this secret agent identity? The story has a number of great themes, but it feels forced in terms of the quickness with which it is told. The dialogue serves the plot more than the character. The tale feels as if it need to the breathing space of a novel. But Dick here is writing pulp, and it serves that purpose well. Just as it served well as the basis for a couple of movie versions, which feel like they have the breathing space required. You can read the story here.

On "Becoming Justice Blackmun" by Linda Greenhouse ****

This biography of a Supreme Court justice grabs most of its information from Blackmun's own papers and diary. It presents the story of a justice who moves from the right side of the political spectrum to the left during his time on the bench. It also tells the tale of two men whose friendship draws to a close as this transformation takes place.

Blackmun grew up in Minnesota and went to school with another Supreme Court justice, Warren Berger. The two were, thus, long-time friends when they ended up on the Supreme Court together, though their paths to the Court differed. Although Blackmun went to a top law school, he found himself in the middle of the class, after having excelled in college, much to his displeasure. Such is the experience of most law students, I have found out, via my wife.

He then went to work for a nonprofit medical organization, the Mayo Clinic. Berger, meanwhile, went to Washington to clerk and then eventually to serve in the government, before being elevated to the appeals court. Blackmun turned down several opportunities to go work for big law and for D.C. government, but eventually he succumbed, taking a job for the appeals court out in the Midwest.

Berger becomes Chief Justice, and when an opening comes up under the Nixon administration, he suggests Blackmun. The old buddies end up living and working in D.C. together. Both moderate conservatives from Minnesota, there's some expectation that they will vote together on various cases. And that's largely how their time on the Court starts.

Blackmun's big decision was Roe v. Wade, which he wrote for the 7-2 majority. That case, as it turns out, was largely one meant to protect doctors from prosecution and Blackmun's thinking was affected heavily by his time at the Mayo Clinic. However, as time went on, the case became more and more about the Constitution's inferred "right to privacy" and women's rights.

Blackmun's defense of Roe became more and more about these latter things but also, it seemed to me, about protecting his legacy. When new conservative judges such as Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy, and William Rehnquist came on to the Court, Roe seemed likely to fall--and barely survived. The former two, however, over the years, would move to the left as well and eventually uphold Roe in some later cases.

Blackmun went from voting about 90 percent with conservatives to 90 percent with liberals over his years on the Court, moving from the right to the left. Berger did not move as much accordingly, but more than that, as Blackmun became his own man on the Court, not simply taking Berger's same positions, the relationship became strained. One reads as the correspondence between the two grows slimmer and more strained, such that mention of Berger in Blackmun's diary at the time of the former's death is just that and not much more. It's a sad thing to witness.

I was told that Blackmun said that it wasn't he that changed but the Court, that it grew more conservative. But reading the book, I came to feel that in fact it was not just the latter. The Court may have gotten moderately more conservative, but it seems to me that Blackmun moved to the left too (as made evident by the justices with whom he largely voted). Why the shift? Faced with real situations, it was hard to remain an idealist, Blackmun said. Certainly, I can see how one's views could change when faced with real people whose lives may be affected.

Monday, October 10, 2016

On "King of Jazz" by Donald Barthelme (1226 words) *****

One of my favorite comic pieces by Barthelme, this one is about hipsters battling it out to play the coolest jazz in town. There are solos and riffs, and who will come out on top is not really the point. The point is getting there. Read it here.

On "The Next American Metropolis" by Peter Calthorpe ***

This was not exactly the book that I was thinking I would be reading. The title suggested something futuristic, dealing with changes in how we view cities and how technology would change our cities. Instead, the book is mostly an urban-planning guide, full of photos and practical points. By now, having read several books of urban theory, I do not find Calthorpe's ideas all that intriguing or different from what is general accepted best practice. Essentially, Calthorpe takes the ideas of Jane Jacobs and discusses how to put them into practice. And he criticizes Le Corbusier and the Garden City movement for its ideas. For Calthorpe, though, the most important defining element of a city is that it is walkable, something I can highly agree with. His ideas than are focused on making things pedestrian sized and friendly: denser communities, buildings facing streets instead of parking lots, creating mixed-use transit hubs, and so on.

What struck me most while reading Calthorpe's introduction was how, if so many are agreed that these are the best practices, other organization continues to happen. Calthorpe dives into this a little. The main issue appears to be that our planning happens piecemeal, and no one wants to give up their piece of control. Private landholders don't want to be told how to develop; towns create no-growth initiatives that essentially have the opposite effect by pushing development outside the no-growth zone and drive up sprawl; efficiency standards are passed for vehicles but people drive more miles as bigger highways are built to allow for more cars, and so on.

But this is, of course, part of the issue with democracy. We all want our large piece of land when we have a family, our piece of country. Or if we own property, we don’t want to be told what we can and can't do with it. Urban planning requires that individuals give up control over their own desires for the greater benefit of all. That's a tough sell on an individual level.

Calthorpe is also big on mixed-use planning, something he says most zoning laws discourage. He isn't talking just about shops under homes; he's also talking--and he goes on about this at length--about homes with in-law suites. The idea is that if we have a family home with an extra apartment, that extra apartment contributes to density--an adult family member can use it or it can be rented out to a single. The greater density would encourage the creation of transit hubs ("transportation-oriented developments"--places where public transport meet with multiuse commercial districts--child care, post offices, grocery stores), which in turn would encourage walking and the use of public transport rather than the use of private vehicles.

And it is this turn toward the private--private roads, private homes, private cars--that kills off our sense of community and actually makes us feel less safe, and thus encourages further isolation.

Calthorpe throws a set of statistics at readers with regard to car use. While population in the states went up between 1970 and 1990 by 20 percent or so, vehicle miles traveled went up 80 percent or so. Sprawl is causing us to drive more and to spend more time in our vehicles. While in Europe, the auto accounts for between 30 and 50 percent of travel, in the States, auto accounts for 86 percent of travel (walking and biking, 33-50% vs. 11%; public transit, 11-26% vs. 3%).

He looks also at certain plans that were proposed by a group that put together a book called Sustainable Communities. This text focused on making ecology part of planning, and it placed nature a bit too front and center, compromising on density. With another set of experts, Calthorpe helped to create another plan that uses what he terms "pedestrian pockets." Here, nodes of retail and transport and greenery make for walkable communities, where said nodes can be found within one-quarter mile of residences. Later, the incorporated a broader plan that allowed for single-family low-density homes. What has been found even more practical, however, is a return to a grid model, where said nodes fit within the grid, rather than a suburban model where residential neighborhoods of cul de sacs feed into single arterial streets. The issue with the latter plan is that traffic on said streets becomes overbearing, as there are few other ways to get around a town. A grid allows multiple means to reach one destination. (The lack of grid and the use of arteries is something that bothers me about Athens, Georgia, where essentially only one street really goes through the town center from the town's edges. This means that one essentially is confined to the one street or to the loop to get around town. It's a mess, and it would be even messier if the town were larger. What gridding exists is in older parts of town but doesn't lead anywhere much after one gets out of the older core.)

Calthorpe turns to the practical means of making plans--forging regional plans, more local plans, zoning, and so forth. He then sets out a set of guidelines. As one might expect from such a set, the reading here is rather dull--essentially laying out in more didactic form much of what has gone before, telling readers exactly how to forge transit-oriented developments: how much land should be devoted to commerce versus residence, how parking should be on the backside of buildings, how land use should be multiuse, and so on. Much emphasis is placed on making areas walkable: keeping traffic slow (less than fifteen miles an hour), sheltering pedestrians with tree shade and street-side parking, providing sidewalks, ensuring walkways go with the flow of traffic and not away from streets, and so on.

The last section provides concrete examples of where the plan has been put into place or will be. Most of the areas are in California (mostly Sacramento and San Diego), with one in Brooklyn and one in Washington State. Unfortunately the urban planning images are generally too small to fully detail what the author is talking about, meaning that readers have to rely on the captions and the general description to sort of get a sense of the plans. As a whole, the book ends up reading like a government manual and failed, for me at least, to fulfill a lot of its potential. Granted, the work was written two decades ago, but other than contemporary planning and design, the author doesn't really go into what metropolises will look like--the title, in other words, was misleading.

Self-driving cars and the like offer us now an opportunity to reconfigure the city. It'll be interesting to see what happens. On one hand, one could envision less space given over to vehicles, because folks won't need personal ones; on another level, one could see more space given over to such vehicles (parking lots of cars waiting for renters), much like rent-a-bike lots.

Monday, October 3, 2016

On "Sororally by Gary Lutz (1334 words) ****

Essentially the story of a work relationship--or date--that ends up going nowhere, the real charm in this piece is the language. "Eyes chance ambitiously" onto another's. Tasks are inherited from one day to the next. It's the beauty of the verbs and the occasional surprising descriptor. You can read the story here at Web del Sol (scroll down to the second piece).

On "Stories in the Worst Way" by Gary Lutz ***

All these pieces are short, and all have been, it feels like, edited down from something much larger. Lutz is one of those practitioners of the sentence, which means that every line counts--and virtually every line is something totally original. People don't just sit. They uncrack their bones into a repository. That sort of description, while beautiful (and actually, that's not a quote--it's just something akin to what Lutz would do), makes for difficult reading if one wants to go quickly. But it's worth slowing down and savoring the work.

Not that the stories themselves, beyond the language, always hold up something that original. Quite often, they're more or less slice of life pieces without much of a climax or epiphany. In "Sororally," a man goes out with a coworker, but a relationship doesn't work out. In "Waking Hours," a man stumbles through life at a job, spending time with the kid from his former marriage, and looking for gay lovers. In "Street Map of the Continent," a man deals with the fallout of a wife who leaves him (or dies). The latter story ends on a strange, seemingly unrelated tangent, as do many of Lutz's other pieces. In that sense, they remind me a bit of Lydia Davis's work, which has a fan base and its critical followers but of which I have not been one.

In "Slops," a man considers some events affected by his constant bouts with colitis. "Devotions" recounts marriages; "When You Got Back" involves a man in a relationship with a high school senior who goes out for a walk and meets another man with laundry that has been done but that doesn't look it (perhaps some kind of comment on the man's own behavior?).

"Esprit de L'Elevator" breaks what is already a short story up into even smaller pieces. The man at its heart meets four people in his apartment building each day. He begins writing a book for them--and then excerpts of said book are quoted. It's as if Lutz is just having fun with the little snippets here, whatever neat thing might strike his fancy.

In "Education," which seems vaguely set in some eighteenth-century world but also in our own, a man goes to "educate" a young miss for her mom and grandma. The story revolves around geography (learning town names) and, as one would sort of expect, sex and innocence.

"Certain Riddances" involves a man's life at an office and is full of fun and interesting asides--how names weigh us down with expectation. But like so many of the tales, it peters out with information that has seemingly little to do with anything that has gone before it, focusing on the man's life at home. The story could be about the way in which our relationships are in many ways anonymous, how we don't know people even when we do, and how what we do know impinges on our ability to connect. So taken in by words and occasional grand ideas is the writer, throughout this piece and others, that one rarely feels much for the characters or situations.

"Pavilion" is about marketing or public speaking or family relationships or all of them. A man speaks about forging families to others, forges one of his own sort of--and others. The last line here is memorable enough that it demands reading of the story itself to get to.

In "Recessional" a man lives with a divorced woman and her daughters. It's one of the longer stories in the collection, and as such, Lutz spreads out a bit, and that is in itself curious to see. A large amount of space is given over to the man emptying his pocket out on a dresser while his wife talks. I've never read so brilliant of a description for something so mundane.

"The Preventer of Sorrows" focuses on rooms--a woman's various rentals. Rooms with roommates and rooms alone, rooms with partners and husbands. Rooms in rowhouses and attic rooms. This manner of telling a story, not unlike Susan Minot's "Lust" is often compelling, but Lutz brings with it his own skewed vision such that the piece is something very different from anything Minot wrote. The piece ends with a profound line about how a place can overnight become something else. It makes you think about how we assign meaning to the places we go.

"Onesome" is about the struggle of staying in such relationships and how we in some ways subordinate our own lives in order to continue on with these others who have become part of us.

"Not the Hand but Where the Hand Has Been" covers much the same ground as many of the other stories, especially the early ones--a failing marriage, a set of jobs. Here, the focus becomes indexing, and the story itself features an index, and the narrator throws more and more of his life into categories (and into the jobs that he has).

The collection is full of so many stories, so many short ones, that it would be ponderous to recount all of them. Instead, one notices common themes and settings--offices, relationships, teaching, a kid. The pieces often feel as if part of a dream, given that the situations seem random and often the happenings go off on seemingly nonsensical tangents, even as they remain generally oh-so-commonplace. But Lutz's real strength in the sentence itself--so many beautiful lines. They get stacked up so much that his stories are probably better savored one at a time than read in a collection like this, where they tend to overwhelm and where the thread of the narratives gets lost.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

On "After Zombies" by Robert Garner McBrearty (646 words) ***

Being a successful writer, it seems at times, is simply about catching the next wave--or rather, being the first to get there. That's the schtick in this short piece, which dashes out several ideas that inevitably seem to have already been tried. I don't know if there really are any new ideas. Read the story here at Lowestoft Chronicle.

On "Great Streets" by Allan B. Jacobs *****

Jacobs is interested in why some streets are better than others--why we return to certain streets more than others regardless of what's on them. The issue, of course, in trying to define such things is that a street's greatness is always defined within a context. What exactly does a person need the street for? That's going to make a large difference in the definition of "great street."

Jacobs, thus, lays out several criteria. Great streets do the follow:

1. Great streets contribute to (a feeling of) community.
2. Great streets are safe and comfortable.
3. Great streets encourage participation.
4. Great streets are memorable.
5. Great streets are representative.

I can see the object of points 1-4, though I'm a bit less taken in by point 5. But definition really does affect our criteria here. A highway can be a great street in terms of its function when it works well, but that is not the kind of street Jacobs is talking of here--a street that is only really meant to be a conduit for getting us from one place to the other in the quickest and most direct way. Jacobs is talking more about streets in which people linger--or want to.

After the initial criteria is laid out, he begins discussing specific streets--a short residential street in Pittsburgh that has very dense population and nothing by street parking; a few streets going back to medieval times, with their attendant winding and narrowing and widening; wide boulevards with trees and separate parklike areas for pedestrians, the Grand Canal of Venice.

Jacobs makes me contemplate what I would consider a great street--among places I've visited or lived. In terms of large boulevards, I am reminded of the Beacon Hill area of Boston, where I stayed for a week, with its occasional street-level businesses, its three or so stories of dense living space, its wide sidewalk, its park running down the center, and its termination at the Commons. It was a wonderful street. Is it a street that would foster community or participation? That, I can't say, not having lived there.

The streets I most remember in towns where I've lived, I find, tend to have been those in downtown areas--it's really the downtown that I remember, more than the street. For me, a great street is an area conducive to walking--great sidewalk, lots to look at and see, many people around. In Pasadena, most of the major shopping areas are located on Colorado or Lake, meaning that these are the streets I most walked on and that I focus on when thinking of great streets. But sidewalks were almost everywhere, so the town was really conducive to walking no matter what street one was on. Colorado and Lake, however, offered the most in terms of people milling around. Lake died after six p.m., however, meaning that Colorado (and specifically the Old Pasadena section of it) was really the only one for people watching at night. What made this road successful, however, was that there was a nightlife. At the time in which I was growing up, the Hastings Ranch area, which is essentially a large strip mall (parking lots surrounding various outdoor shops and eateries), was not pretty, but it was actually a place where one could venture for an evening and leave the car mostly behind--there were theaters, a bowling alley, lots of restaurants, and some shopping. I would not describe the streets around these places as great, however. Why not? Perhaps because the streets themselves were merely byways--ways to get to the parking lot. Businesses did not abut the streets. And yet, not too far from where I grew up was Washington, which in parts have such abutting buildings and quite a few businesses. Really, it has potential to be charming, but there were few pedestrians and traffic whizzed by as if on a highway. I think ultimately it is that people make for a great street.

In Oxford, Mississippi, walking was more difficult. Some older streets made for a pleasant ambiance, but they were short, the town small. Mostly, it was the downtown square and its few immediate blocks around it that I remember most. In Fort Worth, again, the downtown Sundance Square is most memorable. The streets in other parts of downtown (south and east) should have been memorable--they had the same makings of those near the "square" (which was mostly just a parking lot)--but fewer pedestrians ventured out to those parts of downtown, especially at night. In Athens, Georgia, it is again downtown that is most memorable. That said, for walking, I used to like Lumpkin, Milledge, and Prince, when I lived closer to those areas. They featured occasional pedestrians as well, and old buildings, most of which were not set back from the street by parking lots (though quite a few might have yards or gardens of a sort). And what made these streets special? In part, it was the possibility of seeing or meeting someone I know. It was the feeling of neighborliness.

Even among residential areas, the ones I like best are great for walking, but even more for watching. The street I grew up on had wonderful sidewalks, and some large porches. It had the makings of a good street, but again, few walked it. Those porches sat sadly empty virtually all the time. Compare this to Adams Street in Oxford, which also featured some large porches but which, being close to downtown, featured more pedestrians--people greeted each other from the porch. It too had the makings of a good street, but it lacked a sidewalk, which meant that people could not linger. In fact, few residential neighborhoods really feature many people milling around. And in a way, that too is right--in context. I mean, when I go home, part of me wants to be alone, with my family. Part of me. Part of me likes that constant possibility of social interaction. It depends on my mood.

But as far as defining great streets, perhaps his strongest examples are those of streets which used to be great. Sometimes, seeing what is wrong, what is not working, is more useful in terms of diagnosing what "great" means. His examples include the Champs-Elysees. This one still has retail businesses on it and a good deal of pedestrian traffic, but it is not as great as it once was. Why? Because, Jacobs contends, the trees have been pruned too much and temporary buildings have been allowed to invade the wide sidewalk, creating dead space along the pedestrian portion of the street on each side, as people are forced out away from the other buildings. Ironically, many of these types of changes have been brought about by the businesses that have suffered--demanding smaller trees so that their signage is more evident, more space to sell wares. His next example of a street gone bad is Via del Corso, which suffers, he says, from being too long. Plazas mark the beginning and end of the street, but they're too far away to see. The narrowness couples with the height of the buildings makes for some parts of the street that almost never see sun. And while the street no doubt was once great, in the centuries since it came into being, many other great streets have come into being also, making it no longer stand out. (Oddly, this street, in his description, seems very robust even today, which would suggest to me quite the opposite: that this still is a great street, though admittedly I've been been a huge fan of those corridors of shadow that some streets are.) His last example is Market Street in San Francisco, which in its heyday was full of people and streetcars. But modernism has done away with much of that--the streetcars have been turned into subway stops (and that, only four); the people don't come as much because the buildings lining the streets have gone from big to bigger. Modern skyscrapers often don't have street-side retail--they demand that you go in, and when you do, you get the lobby for, say, a bank, which is hardly a large public draw. The windows are not individualized, so you can't tell how many stories there are from the outside or where the people are--the street, in its modern incarnation, lacks the feeling of the personal and the communal.

Throughout the various accounts of great streets, certain themes seem to emerge. Buildings tend to be of similar design or at least of similar height so that everything fits together. There are windows on the first floor; if it is a business district, shops and restaurants appear on that first floor. Windows and architecture ensure that we know that these are individual lived spaces. There is room for pedestrians on the sidewalk. There are usually trees providing ample shade. Often, traffic is kept to a moderate pace.

In his discussion of great residential boulevards, for which he uses Monument Avenue, in Richmond, as his case study, he makes a shoutout to Orange Grove Boulevard in Pasadena, which I'm well familiar with. I didn't mention it among talk of Washington, Colorado, and Lake. I can see the street's appeal, most especially on the west side before the road turns from north-south to an east-west direction. There, the street is lined with those ample trees, and there is a large sidewalk, and the homes are large and imposing and beautiful (Millionaire's Row, they were once called). But traffic along that part of the street is very busy; when I was a kid, I knew of someone from church who was run over while mowing a lawn on that street. Turn the corner, and the street loses identity in my mind (close to where the Rose Parade switches from Orange Grove to Colorado)--until it gets further east and hits my childhood neighborhood. There, the homes were more middle class, and the wide street was wonderful in some ways (my dad always commented on how all streets should be so wide), but at least in my mind, there was also trouble with such a wide street, especially as one got toward Allen Avenue. The trouble was the trees. They just weren't large enough to cover such width, which made for difficult and hot walks. (Further east still, there was a nice park along the street at least that I remember enjoying.) Certainly, the sidewalk was large enough to allow for many pedestrians, but there rarely were not many as one got further east. It was the north-south section of the boulevard that to me offered the most excitement and pleasure for a walk or a job, but it was also an area that I knew I would never live on, as it was pricy (unless one found an apartment on the far south end). Are great streets always expensive in terms of adjoining land?

Later, in a second section, Jacobs focuses on specific streets in diagrams and short bulletted lists of features, with the streets gathered together by category (e.g., residential boulevards, commercial districts, etc.). There, Orange Grove makes its full appearance. He notes that the curve at Colorado is the most intriguing area, which I find a bit of a surprise, since there's not much there at that corner (large parking lot), though the Norton Simon Museum is close by as well as the old Ambassador Gardens, though I suspect that the latter is mostly defunct now. Reviewing the street on Google maps, I realize that I've forgotten what much of it looks like--and that it has changed a lot since I was a kid. I suspect that one thing Jacobs likes about it is how it does twist and turn all along the way. He notes that it's a more compelling street to drive than to walk, and I would agree.

Also featured in that second section is Main Street in Disneyland. He notes how this little piece of land shows how an urban feel can be pushed into a small space. Main Street's main problem? It doesn't know whether it's a semblance of a big city or a small town. In other words, it's idealized but also obviously fake.

One of the more interesting failures that Jacobs features is the Ringstrasse, Vienna. It is a road that rings around a section of town. The drawings of it look beautiful--full of trees and wide spaces to walk. However, buildings are kept off at a distance, and the most direct path to anything you want is to go through the ring, not around on it. Hence, the Ringstrasse, while potentially a nice place to walk, is not a compelling street because it serves little real function.

A startling success occurs is Motomachi in Yokohama. Confined to a small space, the street actually burls through buildings of a sort. What I mean is that the base of the buildings is smaller than the buildings as they appear above--the buildings overhang the roadway, leaving room for cars and people at the bottom to wind their way through them. (I am left wondering, however, how much shadow would potentially make this area seem dreary, which Jacobs doesn't indicate.)

Next, in the third section, Jacobs compares city grids. Now, streets are placed in a context. Each grid is presented at the same size so that the size of the streets and blocks is evident in comparison to other city grids. What became evident to me quickly was that cities that developed later, after the advent of the automobile, feature larger streets and blocks--in other words, they appear to be less pedestrian friendly. American cities tend more toward square grid patterns, where no street stands out from another (or sadly, in some newer town with subdivisions, dead ends). Some older cities around the world have very small streets, and it is in these cities that you are more likely to encounter grand streets as well, in comparison to those small ones.

As cities, like Boston, have aged, however, many have imposed more modern grids--larger blocks and streets (merging blocks, widening streets)--so there are fewer intersections. This, in turn, affects wealth, power, and real estate distribution and pricing. Larger blocks tend to encourage wealthier landholders, so in a sense then, the commoner has become less and less powerful as streets have been modernized. Downtown belongs to the rich landholder, the corporation or billionaire.

Finally, Jacobs begins to summarize his findings. What makes a good street? A good street will have these characteristics: (1) It will be walkable. (Sidewalks play a big role here, but streets without sidewalks can still be walkable if that lack forces cars to flow at pedestrian speed. Trees and curbs can also bring a sense of safety to walkers by separating them from cars. The main thing is being able to walk securely at a leisurely pace, with not so many people around that one can't stay on the road and not so few that you feel alone while walking.) (2) It is comfortable--relatively sheltered from the elements (warm in the winter, cool in the summer, not too windy). (3) It will have definition. You can tell where the sides of the street are and often where the street begins and ends. A street that is too wide is seemingly not a street at all. A human-scale street allows you to interact with people--to recognize people from the other side. The scale of buildings is generally small (three stories or less), though taller is possible as long as the buildings don't begin to seem oppressive (comfort fits in here--too tall can mean too cold because of shadows or can create a wind tunnel). Monuments can make up for streets that might be wider than usual, providing focal points and definition; trees can do the same in terms of establishing borders. Finally, there needs to be a fair amount of density. A street with buildings too far apart and nothing else to establish a border, meaning that one can see across the block into backyards and other streets, will seem like less of a street. (4) It will be visually compelling. There have to be things to look at. Shadow plays a role--and the complexity of building faces. A completely smooth building face does not provide as many opportunities for different ways to light to play off of it as a face that has lots of juttings out and cornices and other fixtures on the façade. The movement of people and of leaves can be interesting. Things have to change. (5) Things have to be transparent at the street's edges. Windows must provide views into the buildings. Or there must be a suggestion that something is beyond the building or wall, like overhanging tree limbs, encouraging people to move into the space. (He gives as a counterexample a building on Colorado Boulevard in my hometown made of black glass. I don't remember the building, so it is likely the kind of black hole he references. I'm thinking it's one of the two or so office buildings splitting the One Colorado area from the Old Pasadena area, making that portion of the street, which is only a couple of blocks, seem desolate and long, even though the two areas on either side are not that far apart.) (6) Complementarity is essential. Buildings must be of a similar style; they must seem like they belong together. Similar heights help. Great buildings might occasionally stand out--but it is the otherwise mostly uniform type of building that makes such buildings stand out. (7) Great streets must be well maintained. (8) Great streets must have quality workmanship. (This is one reason most section 8 districts don't feel like great streets. Their buildings usually have a single, simple box design that is repeated over and over and feel as if they were put up quickly and cheaply.)

Beyond the requirements above, Jacobs notes, great streets often have the following (though they aren't as essential): (1) trees; (2) starts and finishes; (3) lots of buildings (which provides for variety of sight and of use); (4) ornaments, as in gates, benches, fountains, fancy streetlights, and signs; (5) occasional breaks (these are open spaces on longer streets--squares, piazzas, parks); (6) accessibility (you must be able to get to the street with ease); (7) density (streets need people); (8) diversity; (9) relative shortness (long streets lose their appeal over the long haul); (10) incline (completely flat streets are boring); (10) less than enough parking (too much parking, Jacobs contends, actually takes away from the street's character--usually, one is best off with minimal on-street parking and no parking lots; lots behind the buildings are not a solution, as these will tend to funnel people to the back instead of to the street; people must find parking elsewhere, on a different nongreat street, perhaps in a garage not on the main/great street); (11) contrast (different from other streets); (12) historicity (though the author then seems to contradict this by saying a great street can be from any time period).

In the end, Jacobs says, what a great street has is magic. And that, in itself, is undefinable. But the hope is that his book will help designers come closer to it when creating new streets.

The book itself is very well done, full of wonderful drawings of the streets and sketches of the streets in the context of other streets in the town, all drawn to the same scale. It's definitely well worth a look, as this summary does little to give the full feeling of the book.