Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Neighborhood

Somewhere in the midst of the flyover states lies an ambiguous area commonly known as the Midwest. This ill-defined area is known for many things: polite people, cows, corn, grain elevators, simple values, soybeans, and more corn. From 35,000 feet in the air most of these things are not visible to the naked eye, they blend into a larger patchwork which defines the landscape and our behavior more so than modern technology or any of the other conveniences which we take for granted. Years before internet connectivity, the interstate system, and rural electrification, another event took place which has had a lasting effect on the inhabitants of this abysmally hot and cold, corn fed country.

Before our agrarian forefathers immigrated to the Midwest, surveyors set off over the Appalachians mandated to apportion the seemingly infinite landscape into a series of perfectly proportionate rectangles. Empowered by the Land Act of 1785, the surveyors would allow a centuries old concept to acquiesce in the southeast corner of what was then the Northwest Territory. Thus, the grid observed from high above, defined by dirt roads, bisected by highways, and arranged without regard to the natural landscape took root in the fertile landscape. Observing this pattern it’s easy to criticize it for the proliferation of monoculture and a subsidized transportation system which enables the continued depopulation exodus from the rural, but there is far more to this organized chaos than meets the eyes.

Having been raised amongst the 90 degree angles that define this portion of rural America, I’ve come to recognize a familiar albeit smaller pattern among urban centers. It may be smaller, but it’s rectangular pattern is all too familiar. The gravel road has been replaced with fresh asphalt and a deteriorating but convenient sidewalk. Despite the smaller scale, something about the format feels inherently natural. The symmetrical web of infrastructure is to community what the even spaced rows are to a field of corn and soybeans, only instead of genetically modified starches this pattern begets a closeness that no social media fad has been able to match.

The urban fabric which consists of the physical infrastructure within communities is often best understood as a neighborhood, and measured in terms of the “block”. It is on the block I reside which I am most familiar. My familiarity with the built environment which surrounds me declines proportionately with distance as I travel further from my temporary but increasingly permanent residence. As I move one unit in either direction from my domicile,  I find what some may affectionately refer to as “character” others might describe as “urban blight”. I gravitate in one direction more so than the others, primarily because the confluence created by natural and man made barriers. My attempts to wander in one direction are limited by the presence of North America’s greatest waterway (at least in terms of volume, length, and shear size) and in the other direction I’m bound by a rather unpleasant motorway. It would be ill fitting to call it a street, those exist in neighborhoods, where people walk, ride backs, and stroll casually about. This paved monstrosity is oppressive and callous, designed to move vehicles urgently from point A to point B while punishing those who dare enter it’s realm on foot. My attempts to cross it would be comparable to a game of Frogger.

There is a direction which I often gravitate. Unlike the broad motorway, this area is navigable utilizing alternative transportation methods like “feet”.  The barometer that measures urban blight and vibrancy is definitely leaning towards the latter. This area is snug in terms of the block with ample opportunity to partake in urbane activities, i.e. encounter other people who might not appear, act, or adhere to same social norms as myself. This landscape is often something that is neglected in a culture of hyperactive individualism, where the pursuit of connecting with others funnels us into the electronic frontier of social networks. These seemingly “free” platforms of connecting at a global scale, allow us to quantify what passes as relationships, alleviating us from the burden of connecting in outdated forums like sidewalks, parks, coffee shops, or my personal favorite, the neighborhood bar.

Compared to the relatively high startup cost and free registration process of the electronic world, the connections beget by living within the grid and perceiving the world one block at a time are not too difficult to bare. There is the routine cost of $2 coffee and $4 beer, but in a world where we collectively are asking the question of “what is there to do?”, an answer may be closer than we realize. It’s either that or a $20 ticket to see amateur hockey players hack it out to the lyrics of “Rock You Like A Hurricane”. While I still have a car parked out front, I’ve found that the grid diminishes its tethers, allowing me to wander, explore, linger, and interact at a pace which is more attune to the world we collectively inhabit. These small investments and changes in behavior are something that the computer screen, smart phone, smart watch, and smart glasses can’t compete (but you should probably keep checking back in here on a regular basis incase I find evidence to the contrary).

In the words of Scott Doyson, it’s not hard to discern that “our innate desire to feel connected is nothing trivial”. The blocks that define urbanism, no matter how amorphous or elongated, are but one small part of a simultaneously infinite and infinitesimally small pattern. What the block offers in comparison to post modern development patterns is an engaged sensory experience, connecting to our most basic desire of belonging. It’s not a stretch to say that walking amongst these streets, perceiving place defined by the sounds echoing off brick facades and pale yellow light illuminating a path home, that one can’t help feel they are part of something. It evokes a suspicion that the universe has contrived to create these surroundings to foster a connection with this place or perhaps send us in search of another. Deep down we want to matter, maybe not to the strangers around us, but to ourselves. We are here to do something, and we need the physical world to enable us to reach that end.

We take notice of the flower, but it’s roots are often hidden. We take notice of the sidewalks, tree lined right of ways, well kept yards, and the scent of a barbeque in a backyard not too far away. These are the attributes of community which are not visible from 35,000 feet, but characteristics our imagination inherently conjure. While a plant may not grow or flower without it’s roots, may the same be said for community? Without an adequate physical world to facilitate interaction and connections, will a collection of roadways, stoplights, and households achieve community? One might argue that these economically convenient encampments are no permanent than the cheaply made artificial products of which they are constructed. Meanwhile places with an authentic sense of permanence, retain the ability and wherewithal to continue facilitating the connections which define community. It is the structure, the built environment within this framework of the grid, that enables something greater even in the most barren of environments.