Thursday, 18 August 2011

Garrison Towns

Stafford Beer made the remark that Washington DC was effectively a 'garrison town' because outside the walls of the government offices, much of the city was (although perhaps it's a bit better now) very dangerous to visit. This analysis has been echoing with me as I thought about the riots, and I reflect on my visit to the states.

On my last day, I visited Dayton, Ohio because I was flying out from there and had a few hours to kill. The idea was to do some shopping. The very friendly taxi driver who took me from Richmond to Dayton airport, on hearing of my plan to go to downtown Dayton I think tried to talk me out of it. But he didn't say "I wouldn't go there mate if I were you - it's really crap!". What he in fact said was "If you want to go shopping, there's a great mall you should go to". He even drove me past the mall in question to convince me. It didn't convince me, and I decided the last thing I wanted to do was to spend hours in a shopping centre. I wanted to see a real city.

It turned out that Dayton was rather crap - but in a weird way. My plan to go shopping was frustrated by the fact that there were no shops. This is very surprising because any British town, despite all other aspects of crap-ness, at least has shops (albeit the same shops). But Dayton, unlike British towns, looked impressive. It could pass for a little bit of New York - and very clean. And then I thought about those imposing skyscrapers and the associated emptiness around them, and I thought it was like wandering around some sort of military encampment: the feeling that somehow I was out-of-place; I oughtn't be there. Is this how the Welsh thought around the imposing castles of Edward I in the late 1200s?

The experience of alienation was one where I felt I could form no attachment to the place: or at least, only a 'negative attachment': "this is not for me". There's an aspect of double-bind here: "this is not for me... yet I am here... and I am unable (prohibited?) to express that aspect of my identity which causes me to feel uncomfortable"

I wonder if there may be something about this alienating experience which sheds some light on the riots the other week. I was also wondering about the propensity for Hollywood films to revel in the destruction of the urban environment. Destruction and vandalism may be acts of attachment. Fantasy destruction may be one way in which some form of attachment can be made to otherwise alienating environments.

But are European cities any different? We don't feel alienated by the Welsh castles any more - we instead see them as being deeply romantic. That shift, I think, is to do with history and permanence. The permanence of buildings allows people to weave their stories around them. Dayton's empty streets may one day become rich and romantic. But only if its structures have permanence... maybe imbued with a degree of sanctity. But to do that, the values of the corporations who put them there need to change.

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