Sunday, September 03, 2006

Genius loci

Most employed people, and that means most people, have limited time for travel, and some of that must be domestic, largely in the form of family obligations. When they go abroad they wish to take maximum advantage of their opportunities. In practice this often means concentrating on major cities, London and Paris, Berlin and Rome. Before going, one can make lists of things to see, but beyond that one hopes to tap into the Spirit of Place, the genius loci as the Latin phrase has it. How can this be described?

In former times one spoke confidently of national character. Let us first determine what the English national character is--polite, practical, oriented to the preservation of age-old traditions--and then we will see that in London. Well, not anymore, perhaps, since central London is now mainly inhabited by people of non-English stock.

Then there is the London of urbanists. One of them, the Dane Steen Eiler Rasmussen, characterized London (without intending any offence) as "the scattered city." The "Great Wen" spreads out horizontally over a vast territory, unlike the concentrated Continental cities, whose identity is largely bound up with the restricted territory marked out by their former system of walls.

In reality our understanding of cities is probably subjective. Interestingly, the German philosopher Leibniz developed his idea of perspectivism by alluding to prints of cities. Some show a birds'-eye view, others one of the main city gates, still others the markets where citizens gather. All these represent the city, but none exclusively so.

During the sixties I was fortunate to live in London for four years. I can tell you what my London is. Above all, it is a configuration of green squares, such as Mecklenburg Square, where I hung out when I lived in a building there, or the great open space of Hyde Park, where I would read looking out at the Serpentine. London was also the Wren churches in the City (not the same as the city), and of course the great museums, where I spent much time. I was attached to the University of London, in "godless Gower Street," so that was important. Nearby was Dillon's Bookshot, not the sad relic it was now, but a continuing source of education in itself. Finally, there were certain pubs in Earl's Court.

A couple of years ago an impecunious friend, a freelance writer, showed me a list of spots, his "must" in London. At the age of forty he was fulfilling his dream. Good for him. But I recognized hardly any of his "musts." He was planning to see a different city than the one I knew. Paging Dr. Leibniz!

Despite all the changes over time, and the differences of perspectivism, there is a LONDON. As the saying goes,s there'l always be a London. Perhaps it is like that legendary boat of Greek antiquity, the Argo. In the course of many years journeying, its timbers, all of them, were gradually replaced. But when the ship finally came back into port it was immediately recognized. The boat's form, and with it, its spirit remained.

Some things I suppose can only be the fruit of experience. Sample London, if you haven't already, and see what I mean.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some cities retain their character as they go through growing pains, such as New Orleans, San Francisco, New York City, Boston, while other cities never had much character and have become blights on the landscape, such a Newark, Philadelphia, Miami, Los Angeles. Urban planning is an art, and we either devalue art or abuse what we call art through intensified ugliness or both. Some cities, like Rio and San Francisco, have the added geographical qualities that enhance any artistic "improvements," but some geographies are irreemably lost by disregard, such as Los Angeles and Miami.

One of my favorite cities is Buenos Aires, not known for its geographical setting, but its architecture, often imitating Paris, is quite stunning. But over and beyond geography and architecture, a city must have its own elan vital, its own spirit of life. Not many cities have that. In Buenos Aires, one palpably feels the demos, the people themselves, as an integral feature of urban life. In a dimunitive sense, San Francisco's eccentricities mirrors some of that vitality, but one cannot escape the cynicism, hostility, enmity, attitude, self-indulgence in S.F., whereas I found none of these objectionables in Buenos Aires. Rio's denizens seemed indifferent to their city's beauty, but very focused on their own individual aesthetic, which in its disjointed manner, added to the city's color.

Climate also plays a role. No city to me has a better climate year-round than S.F., although I prefer the beaches of San Juan and Honolulu at certain times of the year (our beautiful beaches have an unyieldingly cold ocean). Looking, but not touching, that vibrant organ of ocean is very frustrating, but our cool climate compensates for the loss. Even the fog is hospitable to everyone, save tourists, conspicuous for their cooler clothes in one of our coldest season.

Then size of the city is an important feature. For aesthetics, geography, climate, citizens, etc. Santa Barbara is very difficult to beat, but its size, one of its virtues, is also one of its principal vices. The university and the citizens' wealth do much to add the high culture to the small town out of the French Riveria, but alas, this narrow strip of land between the mountains and ocean, has a claustrophobia and isolation not otherwise expected. One of UCSB's professors claims to have doucmented a higher degree of physical gravity, which manifests itself in a slower pace than most California cities. I never bought the claim, but the slower pace is definitely a feature, and either a virtue or vice, depending on one's own energies.

Amentities also fit a city, and while Santa Barbara has a significant number of fine amenities, restaurants and gay life are no longer a part of it. Once a hub to both, the town's enormous wealth finds social outlets in other ways, and sadly prevents anyone without wealth from dwelling in its environs. The "gay wealthy" entertain themselves or fly to L.A. or S.F. The long-time gay bar has folded, as have its competitors along the way. The beaches are now the only means of social connection.

Hence, a city's economics plays a dynamic role in its character. Both San Francisco and Santa Barbara bar any "industry," only service commerce is allowed. No middle-class jobs means no middle class, and over-priced mansions mean few unemployed or underemployed people. Urban projects bring the low in economy to S.F., but Santa Barbara has been able to skirt any adaptation to the social realities of other cities. In the final analysis, Santa Barbara is like Disneyland, a nice tourist place for a day or two, but not a place to spend a lot of time.

My birthplace in central California had a population of 35K at my birth, and now exceeds 350K. No planning, just expansion, and worse, expansion of homes into the richest agricultural land in the world. Less expensive homes for urban flight also consume precious land on which to grow and harvest foodstuffs. The ten cannaries, now defunct, are concrete dinosaurs, hollow, and non-productive. The immigrants, largely from the south, make welfare the city's largest industry, then follows Gallo wineries. Even cheap California land has become too expensive when states like Indiana and Kansas have more for less. All these former blue-collar workers now dwell on the dole. Moving to Indiana or Kansas in search of a job is simply unthinkable.

Urban planning makes eminent sense, but its the one thing that very few cities do. Juxtaposing jobs, housing, environment, common-sense, etc. takes more than utilitarian calculus, but someone should give thought to how, where, and why we build, and whether it should be "attractive," not simply economical. But we lack that kind of precience, and must count ourselves lucky that some cities and towns succeed, despite ourselves.

1:05 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home