Tuesday, May 26, 2009

I love communities with Hope

Yours truly was a member of one of the many teams to interview this week for a chance to participate in the healthy communities initiative for the Sterling community in Greenville, S.C. The Bon Secours/St. Francis Hospital in that neighborhood is the lead organization of the Phoenix League, which is spearheading the effort to help Sterling rise from the ashes. There are rumors that there was a healthy competition among planning consultants for this job....including 30 firms, some from as far away as Philly and Denver...Yikes!

Greenville is a way cool city and I can see why folks would be eager to get work here. It has a pedestrianized downtown that is always well populated with people of all stripes and is strung with an enormous variety of local businesses (a sign of a truly healthy and attractive downtown). It has the rare asset of tumbling river with a roaring waterfall passing right through downtown, and wonderfully landscaped streets, parks and greenways. On top of all those assets it has a well-lived character, retaining many of its historic buildings, and you can tell Greenvillians really love their downtown.

Unfortunately, like many minority communities in the South, the Sterling community, which is just a fifteen minute walk from downtown, hardly has anything in terms of infrastructure & Greenville like amenities...except it does have a wonderfully intimate and neighborly character, mainly due to its very old, tight-knit neighborhood fabric. This community also has a keen sense of its history. Among the Sterling High School's alma matter include none other but Rev. Jesse Jackson.

And it does seem to have plenty of hope. I love the plaintive spirit in the Phoenix League's video. Who can help not wanting to be part of this project? Stealing great ideas from Vancouver's Crown Street and Seattle's SEA Streets (and various Flickr images), the video actually inspired me to create my own improvement concept for Sterling's wonderfully intimate streets:

Monday, May 25, 2009

From Broadacres to...Lymelife

Originally Posted at IMP Awards
Poster design by Crew Creative Advertising

Lymelife, the newest installment of the "Suburban Dystopia" film genre has hit the art houses. This film mode seems to be a perennial indy fall back (esp. in the advent of Summer blockbuster season). It's strange that Hollywood would invent a genre that effectively exists to parody the suburbs; Hollywood here would seem to bite the hand that feeds it. But for some reason, these kind of films offer plenty of fodder for actors, writers and directors to plumb. It seems to me that these films have come to the fore at a time when Boomers/GenX'rs have found latent creative outlets in psychoanalysis of their childhoods. It's interesting to me that a kind of self-critical nostalgia would spring from the psychosis of cul-de-sac existence. "Urbanism" of course, is not what these films advocate as an antidote to Suburban Dystopia...but perhaps we urbanists need to be savvy about what they represent.

Behind all the lawn-mowed tedium and hardiboard of suburbia, we often imagine a dystopian world populated with disengaged, doe-eyed Christina Riccis and, worse, sneering and black-caped Dylan Klebolds and Eric Harrises. What is the source of this view? The film director and producer Tim Burton, offered this to an interview in Premiere magazine:

I grew up in suburbia and I still don’t understand certain aspects of it. There’s a certain kind of vagueness, a blankness…Growing up in suburbia was like growing up in a place where there’s no sense of history, no sense of culture, no sense of passion for anything. You never felt people liked music. There was no showing of emotion. It was very strange. ‘Why is that there? What am I sitting on?’ You never felt that there was any attachment to things. So you were either forced to conform and cut out a large portion of your personality, or to develop a very strong interior life which made you feel separate.

When asked whether the source of appeal for his surrealist, “American Gothic” films was a reaction to cleanse of ourselves from the decentralizing afflictions imposed by the Opie-land of our youth, Burton responded:

When people are deprived of a sense, their other senses get heightened…If you're culturally devoid of something - of weather, of artistry, of interesting architecture, all the way down the line to culture itself - you're either forced to give in and get that car dealership, or you manufacture those things for yourself. The pain you go through, I also recognize, is the thing that makes you.

…And more perversion and subversion goes on in suburbia than anywhere else. There are worlds within worlds. You look at these weird televangelists and you see they're filling theatres with thousands and thousands of people, and they're kind of entertaining, but it's like - Whoah! These are intense worlds. Whenever I'm in a hotel, I like to go into a ballroom where there is a group of people that for one reason or another has gathered. And it's always weird, isn't it? This convention or that convention. The energy of the room is always amazing.

…Globalisation, mobilisation, too much information - these are supposed to be good things, but I wonder if it's undermining our sense of where are we going and who we are. It's so fragmented, it's hard to tell. So in my Planet of the Apes, I wanted to represent that fragmentation. The first movie had that simple metaphor of the apes acting just like humans and the humans acting just like animals. Here we're coming into their culture at a different time, and it's more like now. Factions are moving off in all directions. You've got some apes that are turning more human; then you've got your ape purists. And the self-esteem has not all been beaten out of the humans. It's all a little greyer. The people who said you shouldn't remake that first movie are right: you can't recreate the same issues for this time. You can't recreate Charlton Heston! (From an interview in The Guardian Unlimited website, August 3, 2001, now found here.)

The critical attitudes towards mass-culture and suburbia, which are reflected in Tim Burton’s films, are reflected by many other works of pop culture today. Tim Burton himself probably started the phenomenon of the “Suburban Dystopia” film-genre in 1990 with his film Edward Scissorhands, a tradition his film Big Fish proudly continued with a subtle critique of the New Urbanism to boot (the late and contorted phase of Levittown). Films such as Happiness, The Ice Storm, American Beauty, Far From Heaven, and too many others to list (along with what we are daily exposed to in our newspapers and Dateline NBC) seem to suggest that our media-culture is obsessed with the surrealist waste-land of contemporary suburbia.

The value for these films to me is instructive...The psychosis of the suburban life springs from a paradoxical need to conform, to behave with a facade, all the while claiming one's under-handed autonomy and superior independence in the ruthless pursuit of the American Dream. In the vigorously diverse city (such as I recently found walking on the streets of South Philly) such a need retreats in the stew (or salad bowl) of urban tribehoods that comprise the diverse, highly variegated and extremely porous and inter-connected neighborhoods of the city. Whereas one could imagine a middle-aged woman sun-tanning on the roof of her townhome in the Bronx as normal existance, such behavior enacted on a hipped roof Long Island dwelling makes suddenly visible to everyone the bezerko conditions of a derailed marriage.

However, the suburb, in spite of its psychotic family life, is a useful instruction of "American Gothic" - all that piety and social armature that sustains us as Americans. As a Messy Urbanist, I don't ignore or pooh-pooh American Gothic...Actually I love all its campy affects. But even if you dislike my aesthetic, one thing that architects and urbanists tend to ignore or underplay at their peril is the need for Americans to create havens, retreats from the world, while dwelling in proximity (but not too close) to one's neighbors. Sometimes hip designers (like David Adjaye) and trend-setters (like the mag Dwell) do reference this need and intuitively nurture an implicit pursuit of balanced - even spiritual - interior lives, but hardly do I ever see it pursued in the "faux-warehousy" apartment developments of the past decade. We need to understand better as designers the social need of most Americans to seek rich interior lives in the communal contexts of their "urban tribes", what drove them to make artist lofts out of abandoned warehouses, independent of prying eyes and hands, in the first place.

On the other side of the coin, we must also externalize much of what has been suppressed behind all the hardiboard. We need to realize that a stimulating street life must countermand that life displaced to the Vegases and Star Trek convetion worlds. We are in competition! Somehow we need to comprehend these surreal master worlds and find ways to externalize them, to bring them back to the streets and squares. That is a charge for Messy Urbanism. Welcome to my world.

UPDATE: The Suburban Dystopia film genre has now become "cliche", and Michael Joshua Rowin is ticked off about it. Anything packaged for consumption is suburbirific, and it is an irony of ironies that Suburban Dystopia would become itself packaged, huh?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Moral Bi-polarity of Christ

boycott eggs this easter!, originally uploaded by arimoore.

Just back from my trip to Portland, Oregon, I am flush with curiosity about the psychological and ethical universes underlying and driving alternative lifestyles, such as those tacitly expressed in the Vegan flier above. So... I am most pleased to find an article in Miller-McCune profiling the work of research psychologist Jonathan Haidt very useful and categorically insightful in differentiating the distinct moral motivations of American liberals and conservatives. Jonathan's work reveals that the (often) distinct value systems of conservatives and liberals spring from their differing emphasis paid to five moral priorities. Please read the article for a fuller treatment, but, as defined in the article, these are:

1) Harm/care. It is wrong to hurt people; it is good to relieve suffering.

2) Fairness/reciprocity. Justice and fairness are good; people have certain rights that need to be upheld in social interactions.

3) In-group loyalty. People should be true to their group and be wary of threats from the outside. Allegiance, loyalty and patriotism are virtues; betrayal is bad.

4) Authority/respect. People should respect social hierarchy; social order is necessary for
human life.

5) Purity/sanctity. The body and certain aspects of life are sacred. Cleanliness and health, as well as their derivatives of chastity and piety, are all good. Pollution, contamination and the associated character traits of lust and greed are all bad.

Not surprisingly, liberals tend to hold the first two as values "to take to the mat" (and even have hostile reactions to the last "authoritarian" three), while conservatives emphasize the essential importance of the last three and regard the first two as secondary pursuits that, in essential cases, may be disregarded (witness the fact that 62% of Evangelicals are ok with the use of torture to pursue group threats).

In the Vegan flier above, I note that the "Harm/Care" (no. 1) value is clearly at play and is the evangelical hook ....But also notice that underlying tones of a "Purity/Sanctity" sensibility (no. 5) are subtly also at play...not just in the invocation of Christ-values but the categorization of food as being pure or impure. Haidt's insights thus helps me to map a curious dual moral motivation that may be underlying Veganism (especially in the activist variety - as examplified in the work above). This actually helps me understand the near-religious aspects of Veganism, in distinction from run of the mill vegetarianism.

Unlike Haidt, I don't believe that simply understanding each other's diverse moral priorities will remove the heated rhetoric exchanged in political clashes between the Right and Left, but they might make us more apt to listen to each other with greater lucidity and, at the very least (as he is probably correct to point out), help us not talk so much past one another. As well, Haidt's well defined and lucid five-fold barometer shows us why some of us that comprise the "Evengelical Left" or the "Emergent Church" feel like such odd fellows within Evangelicalism. In fact, I believe Haidt's work reveals why we have "emergents" at all. I believe the fundamental motivation driving the "Emergent Movement" in the Evangelical Church is in fact this very mismatch between Emergents' underlying moral emphasis on Justice/Fairness over our majority brethren's priorities regarding "in group loyalty"...who - rightly or wrongly - fearfully point to the continuing relevance of Evangelicalism not just as a political movement but as a cultural and religious one. We in the Left, perhaps, underestimate the threat that our personal absolution to remove conservative politics from the docket of Kingdom pursuits may have on the continuing existance of Evangelicalism. In placing indulgent emphasis on, for example, urbanism and environmentalism (and veganism, underground cultures, et al)... are we shafting our Gospel?

How interesting that our theologies or politics may be colored by our location on these five moral slides. I reflect here that Christ was all over the map on the five slides. On the one hand, Christ was a revolutionary Rabbi who argued vigorously for justice and demanded loyalty beyond one's filial and cultural attachments. On the other hand, he was an irrepressible moralist who also demanded purity, and vigorously attacked the sin of divorce (because, yes, Christ did define that as a sin) and all the interior pollution formed from our social and interior lusts -- our morals of convenience (aka moral relativism). I reflect here that, in fact, Christ married the two "Left/Right" poles by bringing above all an allegiance to the Kingdom of God to the forefront. So with Christ, your "in-group" purity could comprise the love and justice you extended toward Others (that is why he had an ill regard of a man's capricious "right to divorce" ). Allegiance to Kingdom-hood is a moral allegiance.

Christ's Sermon on the Mount describes Christ's moral left/right "bi-polarity". In the Sermon, Jesus created a unified moral foundation whose wellspring actually comprised a robust and cohesive account of the vigorous moral demands of Torah, which he encapsulated in the simplified ethic "Do unto others as you would have done unto you." Such a narrow ethic...and such a narrow road. Surely, no more unified and demanding moral charge has ever been laid.

Will we have the courage to apply it? Have we ever? Cheers to the "simple-hearted"...