Rain in Seattle. Sun in Los Angeles. Fog in San Francisco. Wind in Chicago. The endless summer nights of Helsinki or Edinburgh. How could we navigate without our stereotypes of the urban air and sky?
(Yes, this is one of those personal and literary ruminations about urbanism, almost free of transit content, cross-posted from the personal blog Creature of the Shade.)
In his odd novel Voyage to Pagany, the great modernist poet (but not novelist) William Carlos Williams tells of a self-absorbed man riding through Europe by train. At one point (adequate fragments here) he's delayed in the middle of the night in Genoa.
Genoa. The name sounded hollow, depressing as the coldly sulphurous gallery through which he was passing, baggage in hand …
The placename is a sponge for first impressions, and never quite shakes them off. For Williams's hero, "Genoa" means "night, don't know anybody, don't speak the language, poor me." Or to reduce this (literally) benighted city to one sentence:
I will never see the sun in Genoa.
But here's what's odd. When I read this chapter in graduate school, the only experience I'd ever had of Genoa was of passing through it at night on the train. Today, that remains my only experience of Genoa, so even now, when someone says "Genoa" I imagine a city at night. Northwest Italy isn't high on my list of urgent travel destinations, so it's quite likely that I too will never see the sun in Genoa, and hence never dissociate the city from this absurdly accidental recollection.
Professional thinkers-about-cities would never reduce their impression of a city to a story of something that happened to them there. But everyone else does this quite naturally; when I ask a person on the street what she thinks of a city, she'll often mention some joyous or traumatic recollection, presenting that as her lasting definition of the place. We urbanists are supposed to take pride in having a larger, grander view. But I bet most of us carry these silly but useful attitudes, at least when we get far down our personal list of Cities We Want to Think About.
Right now, you see, I don't feel a specific need to expand my awareness of Genoa, except to the extent that I want to expand my awareness generally. I wouldn't pass up an expense-paid visit to Genoa in the daytime, and would surrender my prejudice happily if I did. But failing that, the prejudice is working for me. It's painting a relatively unfamiliar part of Italy with a few touchstones of mood. Thanks to these quick associations, my near-total ignorance of northwest Italy, while still near-total, is packaged and marked with a couple of personal baggage tags, so I can haul it around as a familiar without having to look inside.
The baggage tags are personal, but they're also authorized by the Greater Truth of Literature. Anyone can pass through a city at night, but I passed through Genoa at night just as William Carlos Williams's hero did decades ago. I have a similar tag stuck on Bologna, where I once had a scare of thinking I had missed a late night train connection and would be spending the night on a station bench. I'd have forgotten the episode by now had Robert Dessaix's hero not had exactly the same experience, in his fine novel Night Letters. Nonfiction lies all the time, but fiction makes no truth claims and therefore can never be disproven, so it can sell itself as a Gateway to Deeper Truth even when it's just the whining of a man stuck in a train station. Williams and Dessaix tell me that I wasn't alone in my nocturnal and unwanted visits to Genoa and Bologna, that these experiences actually Resonate with the Human Experience. So I remember them.
Thus authorized, it feels good, at least to me, to permanently associate cities with atmospheric conditions and their related moods. Even dealing with cities I know well (Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles) I find a pleasure in wrapping each in the stereotypical weather condition (rain, fog, sun, respectively) and experiencing all variations from that as an engaging nuance. For cities I don't know it's much easier: for me it's always night in Genoa. These simplifications are silly but seem useful in maintaining a mental structure of reality on which more interesting and reality-based thoughts can sometimes sprout.
Now and then I notice myself consciously choosing a new atmospheric prejudice. I was in Chicago over Memorial Day weekend 2011, and have chosen, for now, to think of Chicago as a city where towers loom in ominous chilly fog and thunderstorms.
On my stay there I had two days of that, followed by two days of hot sun. The fog and storms, I decided, are the Chicago I want, because they allowed me to experience the downtown skyscrapers as overpowering, exactly as they were intended. Structures vanishing into the clouds are not just tall, but unknowably, maybe infinitely tall.
Chicago was built to turn a vast frontier into commodities and profit. The many rail lines emanating from it look like force-lines of a blast, so to be at the center of the blast is, well, like the end of a science fiction film when we finally get inside the Center of Ominous Power. I wanted it to be grand but in mysterious, overpowering, intimidating way.
My ideal Chicago, in short, is a meteorological projection of a conventional story about what makes Chicago unique. So I feel briefly wise, though actually just prejudiced, when I look at my images of Chicago in such conditions, as though the city is telling me a story I want to hear …
In such a perfectly symbolic city, a photo that might otherwise be a joke, "Christ the Steakhouse," isn't funny at all.
Nor can "Time" be just the name of a media corporation.
Then the sun came out, and it was all flatter, more like a city anywhere in the midwest. On a long hike north from the loop, Michigan Avenue looked like Singapore's Orchard Road, Lincoln Park looked like a number of great midwestern city parks, the Clark Road business districts looked nice or not-nice in familiar ways, and the only glorious uniqueness was that my hike ended at a well-known religous site for green urbanists: Wrigley Field, a Major League Baseball Stadium with Practically No Parking.
By then, it was too dark to photograph, so as I sorted photographs in an about-to-close Starbucks in what would have been the shadow of the stadium walls, I thought "this is nice, Wrigley Field at night," which is perilously close to "Wrigley Field is night." And indeed, not being much of a baseball fan, It's quite possible I'll never see the sun there.
Pulling this post closer to target–some cities do get reduced to their transportation infrastructure; fairly or no. New York? Subways. LA? Freeways. Chicago? The el. San Francisco? The cable cars. Portland? The streetcar.
Any North American cities out there whose name inspires thoughts of the bus system?
@Scotty. Boulder, mainly because of cuteness. Brisbane, certainly, for the busways. Los Angeles will probably the first in North America to make a bus network sexy, as there are no alternatives.
For me, living here, Chicago is the Lakeshore Path, late at night in winter. In one direction, the lights of the loop soaring high over land, bright, and the muted noise of traffic on Lakeshore Drive. The other way, staring out across the ice covered water, cracking with unseen waves and darkness off to the horizon.
While the Chicago reaches across the land, it is the crack of ice that every so often holds against the city.
At a slight tangent from what Scotty says, I often find myself strongly associating a city with one colour, and thinking of that colour whenever I think of the city; the colour being that of transit vehicles. London is most definitely red, and Helsinki is undoubtedly a dark green city. I never can associate a colour with Baltimore, whose buses and light rail vehicles are plain white.
To add to Jarrett’s list, I’ve known a few people to visit Ottawa and come away thinking of buses, for much the same reason as Brisbane. Oh, and, of course, London! Few people have a clear idea of what a tube train looks like, but everyone thinks about the red buses.
Due to the coincidence of the timing of every time I’ve been there, I cannot help but associate Baltimore with humid, hazy heat and sunlight. The consequences of that go beyond just the way it looks in that weather. As a result of that heat, I’ve never experienced Baltimore as a place of energy and activity, but rather of heat-induced lethargy.
It is a city I’ve experienced as the view from buses and the atmosphere of coffee shops and parks, rather than as the sights, sounds and smells of exploration on foot. That said, I also know it for beautiful warm evenings, and so despite knowing it in the light, my most pleasant memories of Baltimore involve experiencing it in the dark.
I went to college in New England after being born and raised in southern California. I remember returning to New Haven in the fall of my sophomore year and having a feeling that something was “off.” I couldn’t put my finger on what it was until I realized that New Haven was inextricably associated with cold for me. My freshman year there was my first “real winter,” so when I returned to New Haven in September, it was disconcerting that it was so hot and muggy, because it was so tied to wintry cold in my mind.
For me, Chicago is almost two cities: there’s a blustery, frigid, snowy metropolis at night, and then there’s a stiflingly hot lakeside beach with skyscrapers behind it. There doesn’t seem to be much in between.
“Helsinki is undoubtedly a dark green city.”
Interesting, but I suppose it’s understandable, since the green-yellow trams are so visible in the center of the city. I wonder if the color would be bright orange for someone who uses the Helsinki metro daily. Possibly not, since the metro trains live almost completely in their own grade-separated world.
Btw. Helsinki is in the process of acquiring a new batch of trams, and the decision about the color scheme hasn’t been made yet. It’ll likely be one that shows continuity with the green, since previous attempts to change that have run into great resistance in Helsinki. Here’s the manufacturers rendering of the new model in two hypothetical liveries approximately matching the two currently in use.
As a Finn, I must protest Helsinki being lumped in together with Edinburgh 🙂 (Admittedly the blog post was about preconceptions.) Helsinki is five degrees of latitude, or over 550 km, further to the North compared to the Scottish capital, and the effect on the lightness of summer nights is noticeable.
@Mikko. My prejudice totally. As someone who's far too wimpy to consider living over 50 degrees latitude, and not all that keen above 40, I inevitably stereotype all high-latitude lifestyles as requiring admirable hardiness, annual confrontations with mass-death (of plants at least), a realistic fatalism arising from the cruel cycle of seasons, and midnight picnics at the beach.
Isn’t Vancouver at 49?
@Alon. Yes, and we have issues!
It seems that the further from the equator a place is, the more cultured it’s likely to be. In relation to higher latitudes, areas at sub-tropical latitudes can engender a harsh mentality in the populace, as Brisbane proves.
Brent. There are other variables! J
“I inevitably stereotype all high-latitude lifestyles as requiring admirable hardiness, annual confrontations with mass-death (of plants at least), a realistic fatalism arising from the cruel cycle of seasons, and midnight picnics at the beach.”
Heh. That made me think of this video produced by the city of Helsinki about the development of three new districts in former harbour areas, which were freed up when the new harbour in Vuosaari opened in 2008. The computer graphics of the planners’ visions show bright summer days, as you’d expect, and the filmed bits show a tow boat traveling to the new areas in a frozen-over Gulf of Finland. I suppose it’s the difference between virtual reality and the… well, reality. For the record, the transit in the new areas will be based primarily on extensions of the tram network, the first parts of which are currently approaching completion.
Re. culture in the north, the northernmost university in the European Union is located in Rovaniemi, Finland, which sits on the Arctic Circle. The town is also home to an incredibly inane Santa Claus theme park, so I guess it’s a mixed bag. (Latitudes: Edinburgh 55, Copenhagen 55, Helsinki 60; Anchorage, AK 61; Rovaniemi 66)
Jarrett, please put more of these type of posts on humantransit, I find them really interesting.
Interesting that you single out Brisbane as identified with its busways, we Brisbaners still regard the rail system as the backbone of our public transport, but it is much less unusual or remarkable to the outsider, I guess.
Speaking of our rail system and similar to your reference to Wrigley Field, I was able to win an argument with someone that there should be fewer rather than more car parks in inner city developments by pointing to our large inner city football field, Suncorp Stadium, which regularly holds upwards of 50,000 people on the doorstep of the CBD with almost no disruption to the city because they built it with a bus station, near two train stations and with no car parks. Great to have a living example of a transport/urbanist point.