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Archive for the ‘City Identity’ Category

If you happened to miss, like I did, the Grand Rapids LipDub video that went viral two weeks ago, stop everything and watch it right now. The video was created through the efforts of Rob Bliss and Scott Erickson in response to Grand Rapids’ inclusion in Newsweek‘s list of America’s dying cities (based on population decline) in January. Hundreds of local residents turned out to appear in the video, lip-syncing to Don McLean’s “American Pie,” to help Bliss and Erickson prove Newsweek wrong. I won’t go into the details too much because really, you just need to watch it.

I’ve been traveling in Europe for the past few weeks, with spotty internet access, so I hadn’t heard anything about this video until it was referenced on my favorite blog two days ago. Then there I was Friday morning in a friend’s kitchen in London, reduced to weeping at the sight of all these Grand Rapids residents, from different walks of life, stepping up to make a statement about their city. Fifty or a hundred years from now, when Rob Bliss, Mayor George Hartwell, and even perhaps Newsweek itself are long gone, Grand Rapids LipDub will be a powerful historical document, a snapshot of the city during a period of significant change: the dress, the cultural life, the architecture, the people. Here’s hoping someone stays on top of migrating the video to new formats.

Addendum: Two more comments as I continue to think about Grand Rapids LipDub. First, it’s definitely boosterism, but at least it’s an organic form of boosterism, widely supported by local residents, in reaction to boosterism’s other extreme, “ruin porn.” And second, because I do see this as a form of documentary, something Grand Rapids will want to look back on years from now, I wish it had been able to show us the full picture—good and bad, ballroom dancers and local celebrities but also the city’s homeless citizens or children without health care. But of course then it wouldn’t be boosterism. I’ll take it anyway.

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Today I found the ticket stub for Baarìa, a movie I saw at the Glasgow Film Theatre last summer. Baarìa is written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore of Cinema Paradiso fame (another film that should be in your Netflix Queue if you haven’t already seen it).

Simply put, Baarìa is Tornatore’s love song to his hometown of Bagheria, Sicily. History is a major character in the film: we see Bagheria change through three generations of the same family, from the 1920s to the 1980s. Without spoiling anything, there is a breathtaking moment at the end of the film where time runs together and you feel—acutely—Tornatore’s longing for the Bagheria of his memories. Baarìa is a visually stunning example of the imprint a place can make on one’s soul.

Interestingly enough, parts of Baarìa were filmed in Tunis (presumably in the Medina?), because it more closely approximates what Bagheria looked like in the early 20th century. (As an aside, you might want to check out the work of my colleague Habib Saidi at Laval University in Quebec City; he studies tourism and cultural heritage in Tunis, among other places.) Which raises another possible topic for a blog post: cities that feel like other cities—past, present, or future.

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One of the best parts of my November visit to China was the tour I took of West Lake, in the city of Hangzhou. West Lake is a special place, treasured by all of China but treasured in particular by the residents of Hangzhou. After a few hours there I could understand why; the landscape is restorative. Everywhere I looked there was a different kind of beautiful. We took this boat:

Across the lake to this island:

And along the way the view looked like this:

After the boat ride we toured the West Lake Museum, where I developed an even deeper appreciation for the power of this place. Turns out that for hundreds of years there has been a history of identifying the best views or spots at the lake and giving them special status, sort of a West Lake Top Ten. An important part of this practice is that each special place is given a poetic name. In fact, according to the museum interpretation West Lake serves as one of the best examples of the Chinese tradition of assigning poetic names to beautiful places. There have been a number of these poetic lists at West Lake over the years; the most well-known (and one of the oldest, although I had trouble pinpointing list origins) is this one (I recommend clicking here for the full effect, with photos):

Dawn on the Su Causeway in Spring
Curved Yard and Lotus Pool in Summer
Moon over the Peaceful Lake in Autumn
Remnant Snow on the Bridge in Winter
Leifeng Pagoda in the Sunset
Two Peaks Piercing the Clouds
Orioles Singing in the Willows
Fish Viewing at the Flower Pond
Three Ponds Mirroring the Moon
Evening Bell Ringing at the Nanping Hill

Periodically, even up to present day, new lists are created, sometimes involving public contests. A recent list is:

Cloud-Sustained Path in a Bamboo Grove
Sweet Osmanthus Rain at Manlong Village
Running Tiger Dream Spring at Hupao Valley
Inquiring about Tea at Dragon Well
Nine Creeks Meandering Through a Misty Forest
Heavenly Wind over Wu Hill
Ruan’s Mound Encircled by Greenness
Yellow Dragon Cave Dressed in Green
Clouds Scurrying over Jade Emperor Hill
Precious Stone Hill Floating in Rosy Cloud

Poetic indeed. After some online investigation I found other places in China–Beijing, for example–with designated poetic names, but not a whole lot of information about the overall history of the practice and its cultural meaning. Let’s be clear, therefore, that I’m coming at this as an uninformed outsider, but I really like this concept. And while a visitor like me can appreciate poetic names at West Lake, I think they are mainly meant for locals. It’s a way of acknowledging the places we go back to again and again, the ones that make us appreciate changing seasons and times of day, the ones we would fight to preserve. It says: “I know this place. For it, not just any name will do.”

My experience at West Lake made me immediately start thinking about my own special places and what their names should be. I’ve been playing around with some of my favorite cities: Ball Soaring toward Green Monster (Boston) and Tervasaari Burning with Afternoon Light (Helsinki), for example. I’ve also been thinking about my house: Sun Streaming through Front Window Turns Us Catlike, and Sunday Funnies Enveloped in Fluffy Goosedown Cloud. Some results have been better than others but I’m not too concerned about that; it’s the process that matters. There’s a lot of joy in thinking about your favorite places and distilling them down to their most meaningful attributes, savoring the possibilities of each word. And I could see how a city-wide effort–crowd-sourcing suggestions, voting on the best names, arguing passionately, celebrating the outcome–could be a powerful collective experience.

Post a comment if this has you thinking about poetic names for the places in your life. I’d love to start keeping a list. And who knows, maybe turn it into a full-scale project some day.

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When I was in China last month I spent a day in Hangzhou, a city of 7 million a few hours southwest of Shanghai. Like most Chinese cities, it has a temple for the god of the city. These gods serve as the spiritual counterpart to living local officials, protect their cities from all manor of problems (wars, natural disasters, crop failures), and also address the individual needs of residents.

Hangzhou’s current city god temple is not very old; it was built in the 1990s. But nonetheless it is beautiful, and well-sited. Surrounded by trees, it sits on Wu Hill, not far from the Hangzhou Museum, looking out at the entire city. Here’s the view from the temple toward West Lake:

And the view looking east, toward Hangzhou’s business district:

I’m not very religious, but the city god is a concept I can get behind. I’m thinking of America’s Rust Belt cities, struggling to reinvent themselves given new post-industrial realities. Or Washington, DC, which so often gets swallowed up by the federal government. Or New Orleans. These places could all use a god just for them, to give an extra push where us mere mortals fail.

Or a super-hero. Or a fairy god-mother. I’m not picky.

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Where Am I?

I took these photographs on a recent travel excursion. Can you guess where I was?

If you guessed somewhere in the UK, you’re wrong. I was in Shanghai, China. (more…)

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In July of this year Asian Longhorned Beetles were found in six red maple trees in a wooded area about a mile from my house in Boston’s Roslindale neighborhood. Asian Longhorned Beetles bore into hardwood trees like birch, maple, and elm, eventually killing them if left untreated. Authorities consequently set up a quarantine area that includes my street. This means no one is allowed to transport firewood or yard waste out of the area, and an inspection is being conducted within the quarantine zone. There is a particular concern for the trees of Arnold Arboretum, which lies within the quarantine area.

In 2008 there was an Asian Longhorned Beetle outbreak in Worcester, Massachusetts. The city was forced to cut down 25,000 trees. Here’s a before and after comparison:

Worcester Street before, by Kenneth R. Law

Worcester Street before, by Kenneth R. Law

Worcester Street after, by Kenneth R. Law

Worcester Street after, by Kenneth R. Law

With old trees, as with historic buildings and artifacts, sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. (more…)

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Daniela Kostova and Olivia Robinson's Anxiety Map via Flickr/kthread

I’m a fan of the urban planner Charles Landry and his concept of the creative city. I just started his book The Art of City Making and came across this passage:

Our sensory landscape is shrinking precisely at the moment when it should be broadening. Sensory manipulation is distancing us from our cities and we are losing our visceral knowledge of them. We have forgotten how to understand the smells of the city, to listen to its noises, to grasp the messages its look sends out and to be aware of its materials.

I was reminded of Landry when I came across a link to a contemporary art exhibition currently showing at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery in NYC. It’s called You Are Here: Mapping the Psychogeography of New York City. (more…)

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