In his essay, “Garcetti’s Bridge to Bicycle Nowhere,” LA writer Joseph Mailander (2014) describes the harrowing bike ride across the half-mile Hyperion-Glendale Bridge between “the lands the freeways forgot,” Los Feliz and Silver Lake. The traffic signals there currently afford a brief, semi-safe interval between the roaring cars and trucks on the road. “And how are they making this bridge safer?” asks Mailander. “By making the traffic even faster and daring the cyclists to mix with the motorists even more.”
Just about everything I’ve read about urban development has faulted the car for the ills of the city. “A city can be friendly to people or it can be friendly to cars, but it can’t be both,” says Bogatá’s mayor Enrique Peñalosa while riding a bike through his city in 2007 (quoted in Montgomery, 2013, p. 7). “The most dynamic economies of the twentieth century produced the most miserable cities,” he says. “I’m talking about the US, of course—Atlanta, Phoenix, Miami, cities totally dominated by private cars” (p. 9). Bogatá and Peñalosa are the first case study in Charles Montgomery’s book Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2013). Montgomery writes that as systems, cities are susceptible to self-replicating. That is, a design is established, becomes codified in the plans, and spreads itself to other cities. For example, the car-based dispersion that characterizes our American cities is encoded in their DNA. “The dispersed city lives not only in the durability of buildings, parking lots, and highways,” he writes, “but also in the habits of the professionals who make our cities” (p. 75).
A disturbing amount of these habits come from military practices. Sophie Yanow’s War of Streets and Houses (Uncivilized Books, 2014) briefly and beautifully tells a story of struggling with space, place, and the design of both through subtle comic panels and sparse text. Of this struggle, she tells Sarah Goodyear at The Atlantic Cities, “I sat in on an urban planning course once where the professor was talking about how we as a culture in North America have lost a certain ‘know-how’ when it comes to building and creating spaces. But even if we have the know-how to shape space the way we want to, authority always wants to defer to professionals, to urban planners or architects.” In War of Streets and Houses, she cites Foucault’s “disciplinary space” to describe the ways urban space is designed to control its inhabitants. Echoing urban theorist Jane Jacobs, Yanow continues, “…I think that in terms of building social movements, a walkable city is important. Places where people literally brush up against each other on the sidewalk, where they have to be in public together and don’t just see each other passing by in cars.” Urban space is such a different experience when you’re actually in it, on foot or on a bicycle and not in a car or a building. As Rebecca Solnit tells Jarrett Earnest at The Brooklyn Rail, “With cities I’m more interested in public spaces and streets, which have been important for my work on democracy and the way that democracy requires us to co-exist in public, so I’m more concerned with the space between the buildings than the buildings themselves.”
Having grown up in rural Northern California, Yanow first finds downtown Montreal an anonymous space, “Empty. Calm. As if it hid nothing and had nothing to hide” (p. 23). She quickly compares it to places along the coast or in the suburbs where “human scale things are quaint or unimaginable” (p. 20, 21). Democracy happens at human scale. That is why we occupy the streets and not the fields.
In Rebel Cities (Verso, 2012), David Harvey traces the pedigree of urban-based class struggles back to the late eighteenth century. From Paris in 1789 through Paris in 1968, through Seattle in 1999, and the more recent Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park in New York City, Harvey situates the city as the center of capitalist and class struggle. Where others have criticized OWS is unorganized and ineffectual, Harvey praises the movement, writing, “It shows us that the collective power of bodies in public space is still the most effective instrument of opposition when all other means of access are blocked” (p. 161-162). There is less and less public space to fill with bodies as such. From Georges-Eugène Haussmann in Paris to Robert Moses in New York, changes in architecture and urban planning might be the most tangible and tenacious result of political unrest.
Our cities were redesigned to prevent political action and simultaneously they’ve been reconfigured to accommodate automobiles. Looking ahead we see more lanes of gridlocked traffic. Mailander (2014) adds, “Imagining the future as a cool and pristine place is code for saying things aren’t right right now. Some may like to try to fix things by inviting dreamers to dream bigger dreams. But we had better apply some math to these dreams too.” Cars drive capital. If we want them out of the city, it’s time to learn the algebra of alternatives.
Earnest, Jarrett. (2014, March 4). The Poetic Politics of Space: Rebecca Solnit in Conversation with Jarrett Earnest. The Brooklyn Rail.
Goodyear, Sarah. (2014, April 14). An Illustrated History of All the Ways Urban Environments Can Control Us: An Interview with Sophie Yanow. The Atlantic Cities.
Harvey, David. (2012). Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. New York: Verso.
Mailander, Joseph F. (2014). LA at Intermission: A City Mingling Towards Identity. Los Angeles: Nellcôte Press.
Montgomery, Charles. (2013). Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.
Yanow, Sophie. (2014). War of Streets and Houses. Minneapolis, MN: Uncivilized Books.
I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.
Editor of Boogie Down Predictions (Strange Attractor, 2022), author of Escape Philosophy (punctum, 2022) and Dead Precedents (Repeater, 2019).