On the Radical Possibilities of Quiet Streets

Design by Tom Szorday

My recent return from the somewhat ambivalent embrace of New York City and the warm and loving hug of Los Angeles has brought the quietness of Cleveland streets–both in commercial centers and residential neighborhoods–into relief. Propinquity* is not, for better or worse, a quality much attributed to Rust Belt cities, and you can feel its lack as you move through them.

Despite the popular imagination of global urbanization shuttling us all into highly and densely populous cities** (think Tokyo or Rio de Janeiro), there is still an enormous swath of our planetary urban landscape that remains, excluding major festivals, protests, or riots, quiet.

Wandering midtown Manhattan at any hour means running into people, animals and things. Its public transportation infrastructure and geographical limitations on growth have meant that roaming the city (if not all its outer reaches) means being very close to others (both human and non). Walking around downtown Cleveland (or Albuquerque or Detroit) does not, except in specific circumstance, afford the same sort of breeding ground for tumultuous proximity.

As someone committed to the radical potential of all sorts of cities, I want to know if the quietness, the apparent desolation of many Cleveland streets, might not offer a certain window through which those of us invested in another kind of city might jump.

As a means by which to begin to think through this potential opening, I’m going to pose a series of questions that I will not attempt to answer here. These are the rough outlines of a different kind of real estate speculation:

Sans surveillance: The less populous parts of cities tend generally to be experienced as unsafe. A winter Saturday-morning stroll in my neighborhood can feel downright apocalyptic–and I live in a highly occupied area. The more folks around, in general, the more comfortable most of us not suffering from pathological misanthropy tend to feel. But being unwatched can also liberate. Nothing to inhibit public dancing or singing, for example. Could shameless, singular occupation of such spaces prove more massively engaging?

Less is more: While the vacant lot and the abandoned building are clear markers of blight in the urban landscape, they are too a tabula (almost) rasa. Architect and theorist Keller Easterling*** has written extensively on subtraction (and not subtraction for the purposes of immediate redevelopment) as an emerging necessity in architectural practice. You could demolish and redevelop, sure, but what if you didn’t. What if instead of some new urbanist nightmare construction, you engaged the space as it stands or subtracted from it for alternative purposes? Community sculpture gardens? Pop-up doughnut shop? Post-Fordist landscape painting classes?

Radical ecologies: Quiet city streets may not always be occupied by people, but they are always teaming with life. Plant and non-human animal interventions abound. Is there, perhaps, some way in which we might harness the lesser populated neighborhoods of the world as a laboratory for alternative, speculative ecologies? Think of the possibilities of unoccupied industrial space as a marker of what natural and cultural forces do to physical structures. I’m not talking ruin porn here, but rather the productive capacities such spaces might have already within them for imagining the possibilities and perils of a future coming into being. The urban landscape as urban laboratory?

I think these questions require serious consideration. I also think they require great creativity and some totally un-serious fun. If we can learn to seek out play and pleasure in the quiet, we might renew not only our cities, but our thinking about how to live in, build, and share them.


*I love this word. I really, really love it.

**Indeed, we are an urbanizing planet. See Mike Davis Planet of Slums (London: Verso, 2006). (But wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t ignore the periphery on this one?)

***I owe my minimal knowledge of Easterling to two of my comrades, both of whom will remain nameless for their protection. I wouldn’t want them to be forced into confirmation or denial of their connection to me.

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