In my first post I talked about the comfort I found in my rooftop hideout, in seeing everything from above. Aside from my own nighttime escapes however, my suburban roof was never really utilized. It was a functional and literal roof over our heads but its potential was not fully seized.
Nowadays, in my apartment building, I escape to my shared rooftop perch every once in a while. Maybe it’s the associations to my suburban roof, but there’s something about being high above everything else and the stillness that height provides that feels comforting. Contrary to my suburban roof, the height does not make the city appear paralyzed. You can still see it moving and breathing, it’s just quieter. In the summer time I’ll go up there to read, or paint—really just to escape from the grind on the street—and I’ve seen others use the building roof to work out, as a place to get a quick cigarette and for the occasional party.
In the city, the rooftop has been transformed into a public space for the inhabitants of its buildings. Whether it’s through pools, parties, or the creation of a garden space, the city rooftop has become a shared space that feels distanced from the hubbub of the city but still connected to it all. There’s a stillness that comes from being up above the city streets. And there’s a possibility for social interaction that there never was in my own suburb roof. In addition, much like the European balcony, the city rooftop allows for an outdoor living space necessary to juxtapose the daily emphasis on the home and the office.
Growing up in the suburb, I always heard about the concept of rooftop parties and pools, but that was never something I could conceive of. The suburban roof hasn’t made that transformation. Rather than being a wasted space, I think the rooftop can be altered to serve a function similar to that of a patio space, but with a more intimate feeling due to the height characteristic. A lot of the attractions to rooftops in the city is the view, and although there may not be much of a view for most suburban rooftops, there could be more emphasis instead of the comfort and usability of the space. With an emphasis on accessibility, comfortable seating, and green space the suburban roof can be shaped to utilize the space for social interactions. I don’t imagine the suburban roof as being as extravagant as some of New York City’s rooftops (or some listed in this Buzzfeed article). With an abundance of private space there is not a real need for pools on roofs or a place for parties, but there is a need for a quite and comfortable outdoor space that serves as an escape from daily life.
There was something really special about my quite rooftop nook growing up. It served as a place for contemplation, a small retreat that was mine to enjoy. But I don’t think it should have been just mine. Although I do think I value the experience a lot because it was a solitary one, I would have enjoyed to share the company of others while I stared at the familiar neighborhood in an unfamiliar angle. It’s important to use space wisely and pay attention to the nuanced ways it’s utilized to take the place even further.
The Spirit is defined as “The animating or vital principle in man (and animals); that which gives life to the physical organism, in contrast to its purely material elements; the breath of life” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The spirit of a place encompasses the elements that breath life into locations. For me, that life comes into being over time through the memories that start to be associated with the location itself.
But what about places that we haven’t even been to, or places we barely remember that have a vivid spirit, or sense of place attached to them.
I was born in Caracas, Venezuela. I lived there till I was six years old and used to go back every summer when we still could. I haven’t been back in over seven years. At this point, my memories are starting to get fuzzy. And yet, last semester, when given the writing prompt “Take Me to a Place You Love”, Caracas was the place I chose, the feelings I associate with Venezuela remain strong.
Caracas has a pulse. The sticky air is full of expectations never met and laughter covering it all up. It’s full of the breath of its passionate people who click their tongues faster than what you thought possible. There’s something about the people, they’re warm and considerate and willing to share their life story with you within two minutes. And there’s something about the food, tajadas and arepas, it will always make you question how could something that tastes so good possibly not be good for you.
But when I stop to think about what the landscape looks like in Caracas? I couldn’t really tell you. I know that the view from our old apartment showed the mountainous range cut apart by buildings of all sizes. I know that my grandma’s part of town, in La Guaira, is characterized by small shacks stacked on top of each other through the alleys. The structures behind the city feel almost insignificant, not relevant to the people or feelings you get. The spirit I feel, is completely disconnected from its material self, and maybe its because it’s been so long that it’s hard to remember the specifics but I feel almost more attached to the spirit of place because of this disconnect.
I think back to the conversations I used to have with my grandma about her native land the island of Madeira, Portugal. An immigrant herself, my grandma loved to recount her past and tell me all about her adventures roaming around Madeira. Maybe she had a vivid imagination or maybe an amazing memory, but her stories felt so clear and definite, I felt I understood something about this place I’ve never been to. Through these stories, I developed a connection to this far off place and grew to romanticize it even to this day. There is no doubt in my mind, that I have a romantic notion of what Madeira is like, maybe even of what Venezuela is like, but that’s what keeps them alive to me. My associations may come from a distant form of experience but they feel real to me.
The first time I got hit by a car was in New York City, my freshman year. It happened on my way to class on a Monday morning. I was crossing Broadway (legally, I have to add) minding my own business when I feel something hit the back of my leg. Immediately, my hands slam on the hood of the yellow cab and I hear myself yell, “What is your problem”. Instead of taking a slow turn, the cab had accelerated into me. Not too hard, but hard enough to make me collapse onto the hood of his car. The cabbie had the audacity of flailing his arms at me yelling as if I was in the wrong. Don’t you know that people run this city, I think to myself. My heart had dropped to my stomach, but I was fine. I walked on.
I got to class, found my seat next to a friend and started, “I just got hit by a car…” He has lived here all his life, a New Yorker through and through, and simply replied, “Welcome to New York.”
I am becoming a regular. Walking these same streets so many times that finally we are becoming one. Mindlessly going from place to place but always observing. I notice when the doorman at the corner building changes. I notice when the street performers choose Union Square rather than Washington Square. I notice the familiar faces that walk in packs of strangers. The ones I never speak to. But am comforted to know they’re always there.
Looking around at the never-ending parade of people, it’s a dizzying effect.
Waiting, waiting, waiting. Standing all together, waiting. Heads turned in the same direction. Two minutes. Five minutes. Seven minutes. People distracted by phones, their neighbors, anything. You hear the rumble. A light approaches from the darkness of the tunnel. Rats skidder away, hiding in the crevices. I wonder how they get used to living through such conditions. Heads turn towards the movement of the wind. Deceleration. Coming to a slow stop. Doors open. Shuffling in and out. On to the next destination.
She approaches me. I guess I look safe. I guess I look like I know where I am. And I do, at this point. I tell her how to get to 23rd street. She’s Portuguese, well Brazilian. I could ear whispers of my grandmother in her voice. She expressed concerns about our respective countries adopting more and more socialist views. Both of us are lucky though, we had the room to judge from afar. She’s been to Spain and Canada. She calls Vancouver the better New York. She wants to live there for a few years. She wants to learn French. “It’s so beautiful and chic,” she says. She cant pronounce their words correctly but she won’t give up. I’m impressed by her English, impressed by her ability to open up to a complete stranger. So much is shared in just 10 minutes. I wonder what it would be like to not have that wall. It’s my stop. She wishes me the best in all of my life. I make sure she knows the next stop is hers. I wish her the best. I tell her not to give up on learning French. I walk out.
Hits me like a truck.
Back in the middle of things
the center of it all.
Eyes of Childlike wonderment look around.
It’ll never cease to amaze.
Ready for more?
There’s always more.
Fairfax, Virginia is driven by a version of the “American Dream”. The notion that if you work hard you will succeed. You will be able to provide for your family. You will be able to buy nicer and nicer things. You will be able to own a home. And if you already own a home, don’t worry, you can get a bigger one. Come and join the consumerist society and collect more stuff, for the sake of stuff.
Before the housing bubble started crumbling in 2007, my typical American suburb appeared to be thriving. Construction and development at an all time high and unemployment at a low. But like most of America the recession hit us hard. Seemingly overnight all the construction, all the development stopped. From townhouses to multi-level large family homes, the town expansion was put to a halt. Contractors gave on the possibility of creating a place for others to call home, instead choosing to leave behind skeletons of neighborhoods everywhere.
In Place and Placelessness, Edward Relph describes the loss of a sense of place, stating, “The trend is towards an environment of few significant places–towards a placeless geography, a flatscape, a meaningless pattern of buildings” (117).
The abandoned expansion in my town created the same emptiness Relph is concerned about, a literal “meaningless pattern of buildings”. The frameworks of houses and garages were left behind like carcases, injecting a deserted feel into an otherwise friendly, residential area. As a teen, these carcases became a playground. With a few friends we would enter the eerie emptiness late at night, trying to find add some purpose to the meaningless collection of unfinished buildings.
Of course the meaningless in this case is reaffirmed by fact that these developments were left incomplete. But the way I see it, the problem stems even further. The placelessness that grew in my neighborhood stems from the nature of our culture to want more and more. From age seven to eighteen, I lived in the same home. But so many of friends, moved from one house to a bigger one–not because their family was growing, or an urgent need to move existed, but simply because larger is deemed as better. Why are so many new strip malls, or newly developed neighborhoods that look exactly the same? Look closely they’re just a little bit larger than the old ones. And that sameness is practical for the contractors, but leads to the destruction of a unique sense of place.
In my town, the quest towards the American Dream really seemed to turn into the quest for a bigger house. If the meaning behind the new landscape is only to take up more space, we will continue to create a large structure of indistinguishable boring places. Places that lack a history to connect with or place where you can see your own future.
There were always the rumors. Rumors saying that Rocky Run Middle School was built like a prison. That the prison at the edge of town had the same terrible layout and the county figured, “what the heck, let’s make another. After all, they’re only annoying teenagers”.
Well, at least that’s how we felt.
Needless to say, middle school was not a particularly enjoyable time of my life—I was still going through my tomboy phase, amongst other things—but I do think that a lot of my middle school woes stemmed from the lack of sense of place in the building itself created primarily by the it’s less than inspiring design.
The school was laid out in a single-level oval, with an inner and outer ring of classrooms, a hallway running through them, and the gym, library, lockers and theatre in the middle. The walls were painted a pale yellow the lockers a royal blue. Walking through the halls everything looked generic, never distinct, just yellow cinderblock after yellow cinderblock.
The layout created what I consider the biggest oversight by far: the lack of natural light. I didn’t know at the time the importance of sunlight, but I could definitely feel it. At some point I realized that only the outside ring classrooms had a small window, and other than gym time and the occasional lunchtime outside on good days, this was the online contact with sunlight we were expected to receive for seven hours, five days a week.
When looking from the outside in, there’s nothing about the school that sticks out. Much like the inside hallways it all appears very generic, except the outside’s dull brown cinderblocks appear even more dim than the pale yellow.
In the suburbs, not much attention is paid to architecture. Expansion tends to go outwards rather than upwards. Choosing flat wide buildings rather than tall ones. Although I’m sure a lot of New Yorkers would gladly accept a little more breathing space, overall design and functionality needs to be kept in mind. In his article From Bauhaus to Our House, Tom Wolfe jokes about how quickly “Every great law firm in New York moves without a sputter of protest into a glass-box office building with concrete slab floors and seven-foot-ten-inches-high concrete slab ceilings” (33). But at least then that great law firm in New York has sunlight beaming on them from the glass encasing and hopefully a nice from which they can look out on.
I don’t know if my middle school was in fact designed by the same architect who made the prison, but I do know, whoever it was, they could have done a better job.
Although, I do believe I tend to lean towards the world of open spaces, I still hold enclosed spaces in very high regard, having a certain familiarity with them. Whether it’s an office space, a restaurant, or a school, you immediately have a mental image in mind, a frame of reference, and even if the reality of the space differs from the mental image, the structure is the same. Now, take the enclosed space of a home, the home that is special to you, is there a certain universal structure? There is something very specific and special that makes a house, a home. But does it hinge on a set of preconceived domestic values?
“Home was where each room, each passage, has its own unique character and where every space, every hour of the day, imposed its own appropriate behavior” (The Almost Perfect Town, 24)
In his essay The Almost Perfect Town, J.B. Jackson talks about the power of enclosed spaces in establishing “relationships and identities”. He discusses the interior of American Dwellings in which a structure was set in place in accordance to certain domestic values: “privacy, family continuity, undisputed possession and, most cherished of all, the ability to offer formal hospitality” (26). As he states, these values can be manifested in many ways but much of his examples resonated with my own experiences.
Thinking back, my two-story home was set up with importance placed on privacy and formal hospitality more than anything else. A major reason for inhabiting any enclosed space is privacy. My home, like most others, served as my family’s barrier from the outside world. We had a fence around our backyard, distinguishing space that was solely ours. We had the bedrooms all located on the second floor, away from the stray eyes of visitors. We had shades or curtains at every window, letting the outside world in as much as we deemed appropriate.
Although formal hospitality was very rarely carried out in my home, we had the stage for it ready at all times. Every room on the first floor served a purpose, and one room served pretty much as the “hosting” room. We had a separate kitchen table and a separate living room with an actual television and board games everywhere but this room served as a special dining/living room. It held two comfortable couches surrounding a coffee table, a sofa bed where guests would stay, and a beautiful red oak dining table set for six with placemats and all. It was by far the nicest room in the house, and it was for the most part left untouched.
There is a certain charade that I associate with this form of living, not entirely authentic, not organized for the inhabitants but for the visitors. Thinking of my home abstractly it doesn’t feel like it was set up specifically for me, but it always felt special.
Domestic values aside, it did feel like mine.
The majority of my childhood was spent in my suburban single-family home in the small neighborhood of Greenbriar, Virgina. I say small, but really I mean it just felt small. The 2010 census revealing that Fairfax County’s (in which Greenbriar lies) population density of roughly 2,455 people per square mile, tells a different story.
We first moved to Fairfax when I was almost 7 years old. My father had recently landed a job in the United States, traveled back to bring his family and start a new life here. Like the proper immigrant family that we were, and are, my parents were big on opportunities. And they valued a good education over almost everything. After a year of bouncing around townhouses, they chose a quiet neighborhood, in the suburbs of Washington D.C. in a county known at the time for its great public school system.
My parents felt blessed.
In 2009, Fairfax was listed as number 3 in the “ America’s Top 25 Towns to Live Well” by Forbes magazine, listing its strong public school system and high median salary as major incentives. But what does that really mean to live well?
To me, the move was exciting, but overall something I didn’t really understand. I had been uprooted from my home city of Caracas, Venezuela, when I was still pretty young but I could sense the atmosphere was very different. Going from the vibrant South American city, where strangers could become instant friends, to the metaphorical and literal cold 1960’s styled suburb was something I couldn’t wrap my head around. I remember how long it took me to find my way around my own neighborhood. All the street names in Greenbriar start with either the letter “M”- majestic, marble, memory lane, or “P” – poplar tree road, poets court, or my very own Point Pleasant Drive. With the exception of a few houses that had gone through serious remodeling, there were only four styles of houses, one split-level version, one single story version, and two two-story versions, one boxier than the other. Those that did remodel their homes were looked down upon, their inability to conform to our four styles and maintain the “balance” of the community immediately pegged them as the black sheep.
It was a perfectly safe neighborhood (we never even locked our front door), a good place to raise a family, but like most suburbs, there was always something about it that felt suffocating. And there was something intensely liberating about my move to New York, my move back to a city which “was scaled to people, not cars”(Kunstler, 14).
In an earlier post, I talked about the rite of passage of getting a license and the importance that holds in suburbia. Until that moment, you are trapped within the radius of your bicycle or the whims of whoever chauffeurs you around. There existed no center of the city that you could walk to, to explore, shop, or waste time away with friends. The next closest thing being the mall, but even that was at a driving distance. In The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler says it best stating, “Teen life was reduced to waiting for that transforming moment of becoming a licensed driver” (14). That all “transforming moment” was all we had to hold on to, and even though it did relieve a lot of the anxiety of being a suburban teen, eventually I just started to feel trapped again, just in a bigger box. Shuffling from house to car, car to building, over and over, attributing no identity or excitement to location: is that what living well means?
“Will the city be any fun? The citizen can be the ultimate expert on this; what is needed is an observant eye, curiosity about people, and a willingness to walk. He should walk not only the streets of his own city, but those of every city he visits” (Downtown is for People, Jacobs).
In both Downtown is for People and Death and Life in Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs places a large emphasis on the walkability of a city. In order to attest to the strength of a city, Jacobs tells us to turn to the streets and walk around. “Cities are an immense laboratory of trial and error, failure and success, in city building and city design” (22). What activities/stores does the average citizen require in a walkable distance? How much of their time is spent on public space or parks? What increases his/her willingness to walk? By observing how the average citizen interacts with their respective city and how they explore new cities, we can uncover what things work and what does not.
Jacobs believes this needs to happen on the scale of the street, by analyzing the walkability of the city today.
But, where do automobiles fit into the story of a city? According to Jacobs, urban planners and designers are unable to conceive of a functional city with automobiles. “They do not know what to do with automobiles in cities because they do not know how to plan for workable and vital cities anyhow—with or without automobiles” (23).
While its important to provide open public spaces and vibrant, walkable streets, its ever more important to include a plan for how the automobile will interact within the city. According to a study by Experian Automotive, Americans own an average of 2.28 vehicles per household. The experience of driving through a city differs greatly from walking through it, and in order to foster the same ease as when walking, plans to alleviate congestion and traffic must be addressed in advance.
The summer after my freshman year I went on a cross-country road trip with a couple of friends. Our two major destinations: Los Angeles and San Francisco. Although both are considered cities in the modern sense of the word, to me only San Francisco served as a functional city. While San Francisco is able to incorporate automobiles, public transportation, and very walkable spaces into its city boundaries, Los Angeles seemed to not consider any of these three. To me, Los Angeles seemed more like a series of overpopulated suburbs rather than a structured city. It proved virtually impossible to get anywhere without a car, walking being entirely out of the question, and even with a car, traffic was inescapable. Would Jacobs consider Los Angeles any fun? A city at all? How can automobiles be better incorporated into the landscape of Los Angeles?
For the majority of my life, I lived in Fairfax County, a suburb of Washington DC. Like in every other suburb, there wasn’t much to do. As a teenager I would hang out at town centers, strip malls, parks, and the shopping mall. Public transportation, at that time, was a joke and distances were much too far to walk on my own. Getting driven by a parent or someone’s older sibling was always necessary. My world revolved around these places, but when I turned 16 and a half, I realized I had no idea where any of them were.
I still remember the look of dismay on my high school teacher’s face when we couldn’t tell him in what direction DC was. It was east, pretty much directly east, I learned soon after. In the state of Virginia, at age 16 and six months a teenager is eligible to take a written test to receive their driver’s permit. This was a big deal. At the time, I was just excited and ready to be able to get around on my own—after all, my bike could only get me so far. The freedom that would come about through the ability to drive seemed endless.
But let’s be real. I had never really looked at a map. I knew New York was north, Florida was south and California was west. But getting from point A to point B, constructing a route in my head, and then actualizing that route was a whole new process.
Learning how to drive and the entire process of orientation that goes with it, really creates a new way of thinking about the space around you and how you can interact with it. Landmarks are easy, the movie theatre by the bowling alley or the Thai restaurant by the church, they made the places closer to home easier to navigate. But what happened when I stepped past the outskirts of town, outside the comfortable bubble that surrounded my home? For at least my first six months of driving, I found myself having to return to my home base before I could go to any destination. It was as if my neighborhood was really the center of the universe, and I was pulled back to it each time, in order to adequately orient myself.
The rules of the road, are necessarily simple. Signs can communicate so much and in their universality they create an environment that is easy to navigate. Much like when walking around a new place, driving just requires you to familiarize yourself with your surroundings in order to get comfortable. Associating town names and their locations in relation to each other, recognizing highways and exits, just takes time. But they help to expand the mental map, developing a more sophisticated relationship with space.
Although New York City can be a nightmare of confusion for any newcomer, it doesn’t take long to get adjusted to the legibility of the city. The grid-like structure allows the area to be easy to map out mentally, the vivid details of each neighborhood aid in imageability, and the ever changing storefronts and diverse characters leave room for the “value of a surprise”. In accordance with Kevin Lynch’s terms, New York City and it’s environment has been set up as a generally easy city to navigate. Although you can still get lost in certain neighborhoods that stray from the organized structure, it doesn’t take a professional urban traveler to feel oriented.
Last summer I spent 5 weeks in Accra, Ghana for the NYU Journalism program. I’d only ever been to two countries: the U.S. and Venezuela, both of which I’ve familiarized myself through many years of wandering and travel. When I prepared to depart to Ghana, in the end of May, I had no expectations of what I was going to see because I simply couldn’t create an image of Accra in my mind. I had no idea what a city in Africa would look like, all my life I’d been led to believe that didn’t even exist.
A day or two before leaving, our TA in Ghana emailed us an article which talked about the Ghanaian governments useless efforts to name its cities streets. It took me a while to understand what that implied: Accra’s streets had no names.
Traveling around an unfamiliar territory is a unique thrill. The process of discovery is exciting and terrifying. I was very unsure of myself when I first started venturing around Accra. In previous unfamiliar areas, I would rely on maps and my smartphone’s GPS to help lead the way, street names to orient myself, and the north, south, west and east directions to aid in creating a mental map. In Accra, its all about the landmarks.
Throughout my 5 weeks there I learned the name of only one street, Oxford Street, in the Osu neighborhood. But I knew that the coffee shop in Labone was right around the corner from the house we stayed at, I knew that the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum was on the highway next to the Arts Center, I knew that across from Labadi beach was the best fabric store. In Accra, taxis will take you cheaply anywhere, you just have to know the landmark.
My mental image of Accra is super fuzzy, but at no point during my time there did I ever feel lost. I didn’t have the crutch of a map or GPS to make me feel entirely comfortable but I had my landmarks. Each day I ventured out, I gained a new landmark and continued to develop a web of places that could help me to get to more places. I knew where things were because I had been around the area, or somewhere nearby, and if I didn’t know, I had no choice but to ask.
“To become completely lost is perhaps a rather rare experience for most people in the modern city” (Kevin Lynch). Maybe not even the most modern of cities.