Wednesday, January 27, 2016

"The Gingerbread House" by Robert Coover (3171 words) ***

Many of Coover's stories in Pricksongs and Descants revolve around fairy tales--or their retelling. Often details change or Coover offers several varying versions or he opts to make a vaguely sexual component obvious. Such is the case with this refashioning of Hansel and Gretel, which can be read here.

On "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" by Jane Jacobs *****

Jacobs opens her book with a discussion of a neighborhood in north Boston (in the 1950s/1960s, when she was writing). The area is a slum--only, it isn't a slum. The streets are vibrant and the place has lower crime than many other neighborhoods in Boston. Why then does it still have a reputation as a slum among city planners? She closes her book with a description of a beach area in New York. The beach isn't that great looking, but it does feature clay soil that dries and leaves odd looking "sculpture" one can take home as a souvenir. The beach is next to a park that features grass fields and playgrounds. In the name of improving the area, the city removes the beach, puts in a seawall, and extends the grassy area. What little character the park had is now gone; it's like most other parks. These are the problems, Jacobs notes, with city planning. They are based on theories about cities that are rooted in philosophical ideas that have nothing to do with what actually makes cities work. Jacobs is about to rewrite what city planners should be focusing on.

The theories the Jacobs takes down are those of the Garden City and the Radiant City by Lewis Mumford and Le Corbusier. One felt that cities needed lots of green space and to be less dense; the other created an ideal city that existed as lone skyscrapers amid vast parks. Jacobs says that this overidealization of nature kills cities. Parks have a purpose, but parks for parks sake in the midst of cities are city killers.

Jacobs lays out four basic tenets that successful cities or parts of cities follow: (1) an area must serve more than one purpose; (2) blocks must be short; (3) buildings must vary in age; and (4) the population must be sufficiently dense. Taken together, these are the things that can ensure a successful city, a successful city park, a successful neighborhood, and so on.

The reason an area must serve more than one purpose is so that people come and go through the area throughout the day and night. If all the action is at morning and evening rush hour and at noon, the area will otherwise be dead. This action time is not enough to serve many types of businesses, and those it can serve will close up shop at the other times.

Short blocks are important to allow for ease of access and flow. They simultaneously cut down on traffic and increase the use of any given street.

Buildings need to have a variety of ages--and looks--to further diversity of tenants. Older buildings will generally have cheaper rents and thus tenants of that sort who can afford them. If all the buildings in an area are the same age, they all fall apart at the same time. And only the types of businesses and people who can afford a new buildings will be in the area, and eventually only those who can afford old stuff will be in the area. So those shoe repair, wig shops, and dance studios that can't afford high rents won't come to the new-fangled portion of town, and only some high-priced restaurants will sit along the street. As the neighborhood declines, the restaurants will leave, and if any businesses at all do move in, they are likely to be of only one sort (e.g., thrift stores).

Density is important because without it, crowds can't fill the streets and make businesses want to open up or stay open.

Jacobs also covers specific examples of various city structures. She notes how sidewalks are best when they are used frequently and at all times of the day. Her four tenets are the means by which one gets crowded sidewalks. Sidewalks that are in use reduce crime and thus blight, because where there are people, thieves and their ilk are less likely to operate. With neighborhood interaction and personal investment in that neighborhood, children are less likely to act up and are also safe from danger. The same tenets can be applied to parks. They need to be in places where they are used by different kinds of people throughout the day and where there are enough people to fill them. Like sidewalks, this is what makes them safe--and popular.

She also covers material on how parts of a town have a natural inclination to become less diverse with time--and thus less successful as a neighborhood. As a neighborhood becomes more popular, poorer residents and businesses have to move out, and slowly all those wig shops and dance studies are replaced by restaurants and offices. Too many of the latter, and the mix of people and the times of day that are spent in the place becomes more segregated. Nights fall off (or days, if the neighborhood moves in another direction), and soon that popular neighborhood is not so popular anymore. Maintaining the mix of ages of buildings is one way to fight this, as is the city offering financial benefits to certain types of businesses for staying. The point is to keep the area diversified. (On the contrary, cities often tend to do the opposite--putting all the government buildings or art institutions in one sector--which kills the neighborhood via a lack of variety.)

She also covers something she calls "border vacuums." This is where a large piece of infrastructure gets in the way of the neighborhood, essentially killing off things as one nears the point. These could be large parks, railroads, highways, long blocks, stadiums, waterfronts--anything that is big and long and doesn't offer much in the way frequent and all-day foot usage. Instead of placing yet more parkland in such areas (as cities often do), Jacobs says, things that encourage frequent usage should be zoned or placed in these spots.

She covers how to get rid of slums, which seems a particularly difficult problem to solve. For her, it's a matter of encouraging people to feel a sense of community--to stick around in the neighborhood so that they have something at stake in it. Of course, if it's a slum, folks naturally want to move out, so that's the problem. But a typical solution--obliterating the slum and starting from scratch only exacerbates problems. The slum dwellers are moved wholesale to a new area. Any sort of businesses that did manage to get a foot into the slum are closed up. All buildings are of the same age in the new area. And no one feels all that connected to it. Getting rid of a slum is a slow process.

One of the problems with such areas is financing them. Folks can't get credit to build new structures, enhance old ones, or start businesses because of the bad reputation of the area. Jacobs sees various solutions--government guaranteed loans, local loans, neighborhood organizing. In one case in Chicago, a neighborhood banded together to threaten to withdraw what savings they did have from a given bank if credit was not extended. The banding together did the trick.

Finally, Jacobs also covers the problem of cars on city streets. Remove them from the streets, and no one will venture to a given area because it is too hard to access. Put enough streets and parking in to allow for the cars, and the city becomes too spread out and lacks the density necessary to make it thrive. She proposes a counterintuitive solution: making the cars go away through attrition. That is, make them less convenient to use and people will stop using them. One can encourage the right kind of vehicles on certain streets by doing things such as adjusting lights so that constant traffic stops make a given street inconvenient for through motorists but are perfect for frequently stopping buses and maybe for delivery trucks. Provide fewer parking spots to encourage use of public transportation or taxis.

To what extent are Jacobs's ideas real to me? Walking on a street with more people around certainly does feel safer most of the time. But I also think of some areas in the town where I live that would be considered slums. I would not feel safe walking them at night, even though there are lots of folk around. Businesses--what few there are in such areas--are often closed at night or have bars on the windows. How such crowded areas can also feel unsafe I am unsure. Still, by and large, areas that follow her four tenets do seem to be more to my liking, as would be the case of the city centers of all of the cities where I've lived. Downtown Los Angeles was dead at night when I was a kid (primarily office buildings), but my hometown of Pasadena refurbished many of its older buildings on the west side of town and the diverse set of uses that were put down there, along with the number of apartments placed close by, and the short blocks have all made it a very busy and exciting part of town.

Monday, January 18, 2016

On "At the End of the Mechanical Age" by Donald Barthelme (2725 words) ****

This tale is everyone's tale at the end of the world. Our loved ones die, and we fill them in with others. We cling to each other, and we play our roles--in marriage and divorce. This particular story concerns the not-so-heavy "love" affair between Mrs. Davis and the narrator. Read the story here.

On "Party out of Bounds" by Rodger Lyle Brown ****

This tale of the late 1970s and early 1980s in Athens, Georgia, covers the advent of the music scene in the town, specifically as it relates to the New Wave period of Rock and Roll. Indeed, to this day, when I mention Athens, Georgia, to someone as a place where I live, many will recognize it as the home of two bands: the B-52's and R.E.M. (This is becoming less so as I get older, and the younger generation has no idea who said top 40 bands from the 1980s and 1990s are.) Even though many other bands have come out of the town now, outside of a few who follow indie bands or who happen to like a cult band, most folks outside of town seem not to have heard of said other bands, even ones that have hit the top 100.

But the B-52's and R.E.M. were a definitely unique force in their time. I grew up in California, and by the late 1980s, both bands had made their mark on the top 40, and I knew in each case the place where they had derived. I was not anything close to a connoisseur of counterculture music at that time, so that says something. And in the 1990s, during my grad school days, R.E.M. dominated MTV's playlist. As such, many memories are tangled up with the two bands. One that has particular fondness for me was at a wedding around 1990. A friend of mine from high school got married. The happy couple left, but the reception party, which involved a dance, continued. A local cover band played, and they were fantastic, and one of the songs they covered was "Roam," which was charting at that time. I remember the evening as a lovely hearken back to high school at a time when hearkening back to high school was important to me; I was on my own--my parents freshly having moved away for a job--going to college and working and not feeling as if I really fit in anywhere, the way I had in high school.

The book itself is a memory prod. I came to Athens in my thirties, a good couple of decades after the events recounted in this book. By that time, Athens already had a reputation for rock music. And I became a person who was sort of into the scene, who lived on its edges. I had many acquaintances among people who played in many of the current bands. I went to a few of the parties (though I usually avoided the afterparties, which happened after a bar closed and would stretch in to sunrise). I enjoyed my time in the scene and sort of miss it, though fewer and fewer people I'd see out were my age or even ten years below my age. (As a friend of mine says: The parties are still around--among those who are of the older set--but they are more private now and not as often.) At the same time, I never felt completely at home in it either. I am not a musician and had no desire to be one; I am very conservative religiously and morally, which meant that drugs and sex were not the part of the party culture that I mixed with, which in turn meant that I stayed away from some of the stuff going on.

So anyway, the book covers much of this as it was just getting started. Before these two bands--and the other bands who happened to be around at that time that did not find as large of a following, including Pylon, Love Tractor, and Oh-OK--Athens had been home, apparently, of mostly just country and blues bands, as one would expect of southern towns. One reads of the foundation of the music club, the 40 Watt. One reads of how R.E.M. and the B-52's came to be and of how the town became so hip that others began to come just to be part of the hipness (newspapers writing of it; Matthew Sweet, apparently, showing up for a few months to play until he himself hit it big and moved on, never intending to stay, just wanting the attention connected to Athens).

The stories of the parties--and there are a lot--get to be rather tedious by the middle of the book. And certainly, for me, R.E.M.'s founding was not as interesting, as it seemed more typical of many a band in town--this one just happened to become big stuff. But the early-going portions of the book are exciting. One can't help but feel the excitement as the B-52's become a thing. Formed, it seems, more or less as a lark, they were fun, fun, fun--and definitely the kind of band one would want at a party. Their odd style shook up the times, not just the town. But in a way, though they put Athens on the map for rock music, the predated that whole scene, so much so that they had to move to New York to find places (outside of private parties) to play.