So yesterday I wrote a little bit about the housing type missing from the Ala Moana Transit Oriented Development plan – decidedly unglamorous low-rise walk-up (though there are many examples that transcend the concrete box Motel 6 aesthetic and are quite appealing visually). It’s a common housing type in Honolulu’s urban core, and truly the most affordable. Low upkeep, no need for expensive elevator repairs seemingly every weekend. I feel like half my PhD cohort lives in the walk-ups clustered near UH Manoa along University Ave.
[Google Street View, looking south on University Ave. Yup, lots of concrete]
In many ways, I understand why walk-ups aren’t held up as an exemplar of island style living. No views of the ocean, usually very little grass or even a patch of dirt. But that need not be the case, we have an abundance of tangerines, avocados, and pomelos growing on the side of the fence! Our landlord kept the fruit trees even after building an accessory dwelling unit on the back side of the lot.
Anyway, I think there’s a kind of scrappy friendliness and make-do humbleness that characterizes many islanders (just as the memory of the Matson strikes and Hurricane Iniki makes many a hoarder) that is visible in my little neighborhood of walk-ups spotted with a few single family homes. People haul out their repaired lawn chairs to sit on the curb for an after-dinner smoke. The young guy down the street repairs boomboxes and then strides around the block playing music. My over the fence neighbors started keeping chickens (this suburban girl honestly thought the morning clucking was a novelty alarm clock for weeks). The “mayor” of our block keeps an eye on things while she waters and weeds her property. This sense of living together in a place is not always inclusive or conflict free but nonetheless is palpable in a way that wasn’t evident when I lived in a high-rise condo.
When I was helping with Kanu Hawaii’s Live Aloha in Your Neighborhood campaign I was living in a 14-story apartment building that had a pretty nice laundry room and open air lobby that residents sometimes hung out in. But besides our immediate neighbor to the right, I didn’t know a single thing about the other apartment residents. We just got in the elevator, made awkward eye contact or not, and then scuttled into our respective apartments, shutting the doors behind us. In retrospect, I should have put a chair out in the hallway and said hello to people, but ultimately in order to knock on my neighbors’ doors (as part of Live Aloha) I turned to liquid courage (shot of whiskey).
I am not an environmental determinist, but I do agree that building types and neighborhood design can foster or hinder neighborly interaction. But sociability can also happen in un-designed places, like how the pajama-clad denizens of Shanghai and the coffee drinkers of Hanoi use the streets as an extension of their living rooms. Even without the porches promoted by New Urbanism, people will find their way to the street if the buildings they live in are porous, close to the ground, open to the elements. I’ve yet to see a high-rise apartment building that actually works as a conduit to urban sociability rather than a one-way elevator to privacy.
Charles Landry's The Creative City: A Toolkit for Urban Innovators includes this intriguing example of city policy intended to keep small retail in neighborhoods and shift requirements for new buildings from parking spaces to storage for bicycles and baby strollers. Emphases added:
Paris approved a Local Urbanism Plan in 2005 which seeks to encourage small shops and key workers to stay in the city. It seeks to sustain the economic, social and cultural ecology of Paris, not in a nostalgic way but to strengthen locality and diversity. Central Paris, with just over 2 million residents, is far livelier because it has a dense and varied network of shops and people. It wants to sustain the social balance that makes Paris what it is and not have a place with the rich on one side and the poor on the other.
It seeks to achieve this goal by influencing the market through regulation and incentives. To nurture la mixité sociale, a requirement for developers is to set aside 25 per cent of any project spanning more than 1000m2 for social housing apartments in districts where there is little at present. The majority of these will be reserved for key workers, such as teachers, nurses, council employees and shop- keepers, who are rapidly being driven out of a city where many residents rent their homes, endangering the social fabric.
To enhance a vibrant local retail sector on the streets of Paris and to sustain its distinctive food culture, half the 71,000 shops in Paris have restrictions placed on them to prevent inappropriate change of use when the shopkeeper either sells up or retires. This means that a small food shop would have to remain a food shop, and it would prevent, for example, a string of mobile phone chain shops replacing butchers, bakers or greengrocers. The move follows studies showing that the number of delicatessens has fallen by 42.8 per cent in the past decade, with butchers falling by 27.2 per cent, fishmongers by 26 per cent and bakers by 16.2 per cent. At the same time, the number of mobile telephone shops has risen by 350 per cent, fast-food restaurants by 310 per cent and gymnasiums by 190 per cent. Other measures in the plan include a requirement for developers to set aside 2 per cent of any new building for residents’ bicycles and pushchairs. On the other hand it will reduce the number of parking spaces they are required to create. (p 134 Landry)
Waiting for Godot in New Orleans: A Field Guide is compiled by the artist Paul Chan, whose visit to the city after Hurricane Katrina led to the restaging of Beckett’s classic play as a collaborative process. I know, collaboration is a word bandied about by a lot of artists (and planners too, for that matter) but in this case, Chan really put in the time. To bring their experience in theater production and community engagement, Chan asked the Classical Theatre of Harlem (CTH) to come on board. CTH “brought its own previous experience of hosting potluck dinners” where community and cast got together to talk to each other and talk about the play. In the case of the New Orleans process, five potlucks “overflowing with gumbo, chicken, beans, étouffée, and crawfish” were held. CTH’s co-founder, Christopher McElroen described how his initial conversations with Chan made it clear that the project was truly intended to ”build community rather than exploit a landscape.”
As Nato Thompson, curator at Creative Time, described:
When Paul Chan states that what was required was the production of a public, his words go to the heart of the most critical element of this multi-pronged endeavor, the one hardest to see. Without a background of workshops, potlucks, meetings, and time spent among the residents of New Orleans, Waiting for Godot in New Orleans could easily have worked as yet another spectacle that the disaster tours digest so readily. The pieces were there. Without the production of a public, the work could fall into the trap of spectacularizing the painful image of horror. In a contemporary art world full of gestures that supposedly point at problems and critique, then, how does the production of a public position itself as a substantially different aesthetic maneuver?
Ultimately, a play transpired. On November 2, 3, and 4,, 2007, at the intersection of N. Roman Street and Forstall Street, and on November 9 and 10 in the front yard of a house on the corner of Robert E. Lee Boulevard and Pratt Drive, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot came to life before a beyond-capacity crowd. Each night began in New Orleans style with gumbo and a second line band (the Big 9 Social Aid and Pleasure Club, Rebirth Brass Band, the Pinettes Brass Band, and Salty Dog) that would parade the crowd into the stadium seating built to hold eight hundred people.
How to capture what happened in the play? To call it site-specific seems so limiting. In the distance, one could see the barges making their way out toward Lake Pontchartrain from the Mississippi River. You could see the foundations of homes that once stood peeking out from the encroaching weeds.
The dead were powerfully present. And there was a play. The cast performed not for strangers, but instead, for a community. People had not come to just see a play. They had come to be together. It was a peculiar ritual, summoning community.
Goethe, via Barbara Ehrenreich’s Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy.
This book is super fun and is having a colloquium in my head with William McNeill’s Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History and UH Manoa political science professor Michael Shapiro’s talk last week on “Political Temporalities: The Rhythms of Work and the Arts of Resistance.” She discusses early Christian dancing in church (apparently quite common until the Middle Ages), the rise in melancholy as connected with the suppression of Carnival, Fascist spectacles, and more. Right now I’m reading about rock and the eruption of bodily, collective fervor.