Streets

19 April 2012

A city sidewalk by itself is nothing. It is an abstraction. It means something only in conjunction with the buildings and other uses that border it, or border other sidewalks very near it. The same might be said of streets, in the sense that they serve other purposes besides carrying wheeled traffic in their middles. Streets and their sidewalks, the main public places of a city, are its most vital organs. Think of a city and what comes to mind? Its streets. If a city’s streets look interesting, the city looks interesting; if they look dull, the city looks dull.

Todd Solondz: Sure. You know, when I was young and growing up in the suburbs, where there was nothing to excite me, no real culture or stimulation, no real adventure, I thought all the time about how one day I’d move here and my life would be like this. I’d live and work in Manhattan, and there’d always be something happening. And in the end, for me, it’s not so much about the theatre and the museums and galleries and so on. It’s about the streets, and the life of the streets, and the endless parade of different kinds of people, and how you can never get enough of it. It’s always there and you never grow tired of it, just going out and walking or sitting and watching it all.

Churchill, on a visit to a poor neighborhood in Manchester, saying, with his odd and signature mixture of real empathy and inherited condescension, “Fancy living in one of these streets—never seeing anything beautiful—never eating anything savoury—never saying anything clever!”

The streets, despite the artillery strikes, were full of life: at the antitank barricades, children with paper helmets, perched on top of the obstacles, were waving wooden swords; I passed an old woman pushing strollers full of bricks and even, crossing the Tiergarten toward the zoo bunker, soldiers chasing a herd of mooing cows. At night it rained again; and the Reds, in turn, celebrated Lenin’s birthday with a brutal riot of artillery.

The children invented a game for themselves that involved hurling a stocking, which has been tightly packed with dust, through the air like a rocket, and as it falls it creates an entire cloud of dust. The youngsters play this game a lot, although it has been forbidden by the management. —Anonymous, Memorandum to Dep. Chairman of Moscow City Children’s Commission, re: Children’s Command, Barybino (1936)

In Paris all was still turmoil. That very night, my father would hear artillery trains passing along the outer boulevards. No one could know if the explosions meant victory or defeat. “From the towers of Notre Dame you could see the heads of the Russian columns appearing, like the first undulations of a tidal wave on the beach.” So writes Chateaubriand and it is likely true, or most of it.

They were now entering the centre of the city, an off-white grid of frozen canals and deserted avenues, lined with impressive Neoclassical & Art Nouveau buildings. In the twilight, their incongruous stuccoed, statue-haunted silhouettes, rising darker against the darkening horizon, gave the eerie impression that they had been cast down from the sky like palaces from another planet. You could not, by any stretch of the mind, imagine an architecture less adapted to its surroundings. An Ideal City punished and banished to the Far North for its marble hubris, it loomed titanic and mad . . .

Luanda was not dying the way our Polish cities died in the last war. There were no air raids, there was no “pacification,” no destruction of district after district. There were no cemeteries in the streets of the squares. The city was dying the way an oasis dies when the well runs dry . . . . Thanks to the abundance of wood that has collected here in Luanda, this dusty desert city nearly devoid of trees now smells like a flourishing forest. It’s as if the forest had suddenly taken root in the streets, the squares, and the plazas. […] The building of the wooden city, the city of crates, goes on day after day, from dawn to twilight. Everyone works, soaked with rain, burned by the sun; even the millionaires, if they are physically fit, turn to the task.

_____________________

Another Day of Life, Ryszard Kapusciński
Aurorarama, Jean-Christophe Voltat
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs
Europe Central, William T. Vollmann
“Interview with Todd Solondz,” Sigrid Nunez, The Believer
The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell
“The making of Winston Churchill,” Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker
Parrot & Olivier in America, Peter Carey

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One Response to “Streets”


  1. I love that Jacobs quote “a city sidewalk is […] an abstraction.” another great Jacobs quote is “The city is not a work of art.”…


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