Thursday, September 9, 2010

Talking Heads' Head Talks Cycling, Cities, Civics

Photo by Annie Lebowitz

Below are the musings of fellow Down to Earth writer, Paul Dillon, his broaching of David Byrne's (of the Talking Heads) view of the world from the lens of a bicyclist. David is all about bicycling. Dillon does a fine job contextualizing sustainability, green and planning issues in the Down to Earth blog he pens. He has a short preface and then gives us Byrne. David's talking about civic life, civic engagement, the public commons, public places, and the cancer of privatizing our space, our roads, our lives. His message should be in the hearts of every politician in this society, in this world. Next post is on Cynthia McKinney's Bike for Peace/Bike for Clean Energy.

I love David Byrne. The renaissance man is an avid cyclist and his last book, a hilarious and insightful travelogue called the “Bicycle Diaries,” pedaled his odd musings about life on the road while on tour with his fold-up bike. This month, the audiobook will be released with a twist: Echoing ye old radio dramas like The Shadow, it’s more like a cross between a podcast and a radio show instead of the usual author or actor reading in silence. Instead you get background music, street sounds and other ambiences that help put the listener in the picture.

Always experimenting, Byrne explains it best in an email. So, I did one chapter (“New York”) as a test, with me reading, and though it took a lot longer to assemble than I expected, I felt it did indeed do what I imagined it could; when you heard the tinkle of glasses and silverware during a restaurant “scene,” boom!-you immediately felt you were there. Your mind fills in the details and these little sound cues help paint a fuller picture. If only I could have added smell! When the text went off on one of many tangents, and I began ruminating about a subject off the beaten path, a little bit of music I happened to have available helped tell you, the listener, that, yes, we’ve left the “story” temporarily, but will return soon.

He said this book can be consumed in any order, and it doesn’t matter which chapter you start with so one could download and listen to the chapters as individual podcasts, in any sequence. You can get a first taste of the introduction HERE. After the jump is an excerpt from the book, accompanied by picture of Byrne’s bike racks in NYC, with a dollar sign on Wall St. and a high heel on 5th Avenue. (Can Spokane go above and beyond the basic rack model offered and stake out their own designs? No more blue spiders behind a building, thank you very much.) Enjoy.

from the book:

I ride my bike almost every day here in New York. It’s getting safer to do so, but I do have to be fairly alert when riding on the streets as opposed to riding on the Hudson River bike path or similar protected lanes. The city has added a lot of bike lanes in recent years, and they claim they now have more than any other city in the United States. But sadly most of them are not safe enough that one can truly relax, as is possible on the almost completed path along the Hudson or on many European bike lanes. That’s changing, bit by bit. As new lanes are added some of them are more secure, placed between the sidewalk and parked cars or protected by a concrete barrier.

Between 2007 and 2008 bike traffic in New York increased 35 percent. Hard to tell if the cart is leading the horse here— whether more lanes have inspired more bicycle usage or the other way around. I happily suspect that for the moment at least, both the Department of Transportation and New York City cyclists are on the same page. As more young creative types find themselves living in Brooklyn they bike over the bridges in increasing numbers. Manhattan Bridge bike traffic just about quadrupled last year (2008) and the bike traffic on the Williamsburg Bridge tripled. And those numbers will keep increasing as the city continues to make improvements to bike lanes and adds bike racks and other amenities. In this area the city is, to some extent, anticipating what will happen in the near future—a lot more people will use bikes for getting to work or for fun.

On a bike, being just slightly above pedestrian and car eye level, one gets a perfect view of the goings-on in one’s own town. Unlike many other U.S. cities, here in New York almost everyone has to step onto the sidewalk and encounter other people at least once a day—everyone makes at least one brief public appearance. I once had to swerve to avoid Paris Hilton, holding her little doggie, crossing the street against the light and looking around as if to say, “I’m Paris Hilton, don’t you recognize me?” From a cyclist’s point of view you pretty much see it all.

Just outside a midtown theater a man rides by on a bike— one of those lowriders. He’s a grown man, who seems pretty normal in appearance, except he’s got a monstrously huge boom box strapped to the front of the bike.

I ride off on my own bike and a few minutes later another boom-box biker passes by. This time it’s a Jane-Austen-reading, sensible-shoe-wearing woman. She’s on a regular bike, but again, with a (smaller) boom box strapped to the rear … I can’t hear what the music is.

City Archetypes

There is a magazine in a rack at the entrance to my local Pakistani lunch counter called InvAsian: A Journal for the Culturally Ambivalent.

What is it about certain cities and places that fosters specific attitudes? Am I imagining that this is the case? To what extent does the infrastructure of cities shape the lives, work, and sensibilities of their inhabitants? Quite significantly, I suspect. All this talk about bike lanes, ugly buildings, and density of population isn’t just about those things, it’s about what kinds of people those places turn us into. I don’t think I’m imagining that people who move to L.A. from elsewhere inevitably lose a lot of that elsewhere and eventually end up creating L.A.-type work and being L.A.-type people. Do creative, social, and civic attitudes change depending on where we live? Yes, I think so.

How does this happen? Do they seep in surreptitiously through peer pressure and casual conversations? Is it the water, the light, the weather? Is there a Detroit sensibility? Memphis? New Orleans? (No doubt.) Austin? (Certainly.) Nashville? London?

Berlin? (I would say there’s a Berlin sense of humor for sure.) Düsseldorf? Vienna? (Yes.) Paris? Osaka? Melbourne? Salvador? Bahia? (Absolutely.)

I was recently in Hong Kong and a friend there commented that China doesn’t have a history of civic engagement. Traditionally in China one had to accommodate two aspects of humanity—the emperor and his bureaucracy, and one’s own family. And even though that family might be fairly extended it doesn’t include neighbors or coworkers, so a lot of the world is left out. To hell with them. As long as the emperor or his ministers aren’t after me and my family is okay then all’s right with the world. I had been marveling at the rate of destruction of anything having to do with social pleasures and civic interaction in Hong Kong—funky markets, parks, waterfront promenades, bike lanes (of course)—I was amazed how anything designed for the common good is quickly bulldozed, privatized, or replaced by a condo or office tower. According to my friend civic life is just not part of the culture. So in this case at least, the city is an accurate and physical reflection of how that culture views itself. The city is a 3-D manifestation of the social, and personal—and I’m suggesting that, in turn, a city, its physical being, reinforces those ethics and re-creates them in successive generations and in those who have immigrated to the city. Cities self-perpetuate the mind-set that made them.

Maybe every city has a unique sensibility but we don’t have names for what they are or haven’t identified them all. We can’t pinpoint exactly what makes each city’s people unique yet. How long does one have to be a resident before one starts to behave and think like a local? And where does this psychological city start? Is there a spot on the map where attitudes change? And is the inverse true? Is there a place where New Yorkers suddenly become Long Islanders? Will there be freeway signs with a picture of Billy Joel that alert motorists “attention, entering New York state of mind”?

Does living in New York City foster a hard-as-nails, no nonsense attitude? Is that how one would describe the New York state of mind? I’ve heard recently that Cariocas (residents of Rio) have a similar “okay, okay, get to the point” sensibility. Is that a legacy of the layers of historical happenstance that make up a particular city? Is that where it comes from? Is it a constantly morphing and slowly evolving worldview? Do the repercussions of local politics and the local laws foster how we view each other? Does it come from the socioeconomic-ethnic mix; are the proportions in the urban stew critical, like in a recipe? Does the evanescence of fame and glamour lie upon all of L.A. like whipped cream? Do the Latin and Asian populations that are fenced off from the celebrity playgrounds get mixed into this stew, resulting in a unique kind of social psychological fusion? Does that, and the way the hazy light looks on skin, make certain kinds of work and leisure activities more appropriate there?

Maybe this is all a bit of a myth, a willful desire to give each place its own unique aura. But doesn’t any collective belief eventually become a kind of truth? If enough people act as if something is true, isn’t it indeed “true,” not objectively, but in the sense that it will determine how they will behave? The myth of unique urban character and unique sensibilities in different cities exists because we want it to exist.

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