The unusually heavy sudden mid-March snowfall forced me to change my walking patterns around the neighborhood this week and reminded me of one thing: I live in an astonishingly beautiful place. The buildings, constructed of natural materials at a time when construction and decoration still viewed coherence and integrity as a primary aim, created a cityscape and the snow covered up the shortcomings in landscaping and maintenance (not to mention the trash) and the combination reminded me of what is so special about this place.
My wife is fond of saying that so much of what is discussed and debated comes down to aesthetics. As innate and personal as our individual tastes may seem, they are all molded and mediated by the society in which we live and the experiences that we have. Growing up in Springfield I happened to notice that many of the most beautiful homes were in some of the poorest neighborhoods, and that nearly all of the homeliest homes were in the wealthiest. Whether it was because I recognized the beauty before I understood poverty or because the delineation was particularly clear along the pathways of my daily comings and goings I will never know, but for as long as I can remember my appreciation of what I would now call urbanism and architecture was disconnected from the qualities and conditions more closely tied to wealth.
In Andalusia I had a hard time understanding why the Americans with whom I worked, nearly all of whom were from the suburbs of the West and Southwest of the United States, were filled with such harsh judgements regarding places which I thought were beautiful. I remember the excitement in the crowd when a car was available to drive us to Hipercor, a sort of Spanish version of a Walmart in a Spanish version of suburban sprawl; I hated it. It seemed so antiseptic and banal and required such a tedious journey while the city in which we could walk around every day and fulfill our needs as we went about our proselytizing was gracious and solid, and conveyed unfathomable depth.
I remember standing in a small park on the grand central artery of Jaén and my compañero of the moment expressing his sadness at the lack of grandeur…in the cars going by! They were all small by American standards, and the closest thing to a pickup truck was a sort of bloated tricycle thingy which could turn on a dime but looked to be made of corrugated aluminum.
It strikes me that auto centered post war development is the pornography of human settlement. Outwardly it facilitates gratification but doesn’t demand enough to provide a complete experience. It does to society and community what food supplements do to nutrients; it isolates the elements which are more easily understood to be necessary for function, but fails in every way to understand just how other elements, perhaps not as easily identified or understood, enhance, promote, mediate, or control the effects of all the others. As with both industrial food and erotica, the experience of living in the car centered environment provides for the most basic outward needs, but fails to satisfy at a deeper level.
Just as with food and sex, however, if all someone has ever known is the artificial and the inorganic, then there is no way to know that the experience is incomplete, and even upon being given an opportunity for a more fulfilling experience the uninitiated may balk at the heavier burdens that accrue to more complete realities. Thus having to “find” a parking space and having to walk along sidewalks and across streets to arrive at a place where the menu is unique and the logistics are unfamiliar is orders of magnitude more frustrating than pulling into the McDonalds and ordering a Big Mac, but it also holds out the promise of a much higher level of satisfaction and of human connection.
In my conversations with colleagues or even students at my suburban school any mention to the beauty of Springfield is assumed to be tongue in cheek. I have to become exceedingly earnest in order to convince people that I am being serious when I say things complimentary to the aesthetic value of the city; which is not to say that doing so alters the hearer’s perspective on the city. To them it is an ugly and sordid place to such an extreme that they no more entertain the notion of changing their views thereon than they would do so in connection to feces or mucus.
There are things we never really see for the first time because we have been disciplined as to how to see them before we mastered the art of seeing; the Mona Lisa comes to mind, or the Statue of Liberty, or the Eiffel Tower. In America many of our cities are in this category but the disciple is taught to fear or disdain them. In a very real way the markers of poverty are the elements which ring the Pavlovian bell to categorize a place as ugly and only as those things recede will Americans accept cities as potentially beautiful, and even then for most it will be the markers of wealth and not the deeper grammars and syntaxes of traditional urban design that will stimulate their appreciation.