Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) was an urban writer and activist who championed new, community-based approaches to planning for over 40 years. Her 1961 treatise, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, became one of the most influential American texts about the inner workings and failings of cities, inspiring generations of urban planners and activists. Her efforts to stop downtown expressways and protect local neighborhoods invigorated community-based urban activism and helped end Parks Commissioner Robert Moses’s reign of power in New York City.
Our next project for Integrative Seminar/Studio, entitled Bizarre Bazaar, looks at the ways in which we engage with our city spaces through popular markets. We often see markets as areas of trade and commerce but market spaces are the pulse of any city – languages, culture, impressions, histories and stories converge in the market. Our project celebrates these market spaces through an engagement with communities, people, languages and commerce.
We have chosen markets that are known for a particular thing – whether it is fabric or beads, vegetables or animals, flee markets and paper; these markets speak about the best and the worst of our cities. Students are encouraged to encounter these places and dig past the first impressions drawing out and teasing the nature of the city itself.
Jeanette Winterson describes Calvino’s book Invisible Cities as the book she would choose “as pillow and plate, alone on a desert island.” This semester the students of the First Year Studies look at a close reading of Invisible Cities, in a way to encounter a visual language, its play of memory, its ability to transcend the written word and its ability to make prose into poetry.
We began the class by reflecting on Integrative Seminar I, the areas of study we explored, our relationship with the material and our renewed relationship with our cityscape. Through this we were able to begin thinking about the elements that allow for ‘ownership’ of a city – how do we own our city? how do we encounter it? does it share its secrets with us? These questions helped us lead the discussion to the idea of memory, impressions, imprinting and the emotions of the city that emerge out of our interactions with it. The students and I talked about the different ways in which the city comes to be through poetry and prose, and we read passages from The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock by T S Eliot, and the ways in which the protagonist reflects on the nature of the self through his encounters with the city. We began by reading a few passages from Invisible Cities, laying out our first impressions of the language, questioned its use of imagery and metaphor and discussed the importance of the voice…who was speaking? Were these impressions seen from far away or from the by lanes of the spaces. Did the voice matter? I spoke with the students about a passage from the Ramayana of Valmiki, where Hanuman, who flies across the oceans first sees the mighty city of Lanka with its staircases of crystal, its floors of precious stones and its latticed windows that let the moonlight filter through.