Critical paths

Brisk, sere and indoorsy days like today are just about perfect for catching up on reading – and I’ve got a towering stack of it, too. Of late I’ve been trying to work my way through the second and third tier, some of the less obvious candidates for addition to the upcoming semester’s Urban Computing curriculum.

Top of the stack today is Grady Clay’s badly dated, but useful, 1973 Close-Up: How to Read the American City. In one or two places, Close-Up is astonishingly prescient, but for the most part it’s precisely that the book is so dated that makes it valuable pedagogically.

I want to quote Clay at some length on learning to recognize the pattern he calls the “political venturi,” after the narrow tubes that provide automotive carburetors with the highly aerated gasoline they need to achieve combustion. In Clay’s terms, an urban venturi is a “pathway or network of paths along streets, sidewalks and corridors” where a confluence of “central-city movers and shakers, influentials, wheelers and dealers, and hangers-on” predictably converge. (Even his metaphors hang heavy with all the hydrocarbon-stinking weight of the Industrial Age!) Here’s his account:

Despite the rise of electronic communications, much important person-to-person business is still transacted out in the open, between office and lunch, courtroom and conference, bench and bar, desk and drinks.

The process of my own discovery is worth looking into, for it tells something about the ways in which downtown…districts work, and suggests clues to their futures. In writing about my own city, Louisville, I found it essential to move about on foot, to pay personal calls on as many political, financial, and other key figures as possible, to see them in their own haunts and lairs, to probe their attitudes and experience, and, as a journalist, to move in public places, observing who was with whom for clues to future alliances, deals, and consortia.

After repeated exposure, I discovered that once particular stretch of sidewalks, doors and corridors in the financial-civic district was extraordinarily productive in contacts, tips, suggestions, reactions, observations and gossip.

…I found that by stationing myself at noon on the crowded public sidewalk outside the largest bank and office building, keeping in view the doors of the County Court House and the second-largest bank, plus the route from nearby City Hall, I was likely to meet at least two dozen news sources, men [sic] in public life or business, headed for restaurant or club, willing and sometimes eager to exchange rumor, gossip and hard information…It became clear that here was an unavoidable “Indian path” between the offices of the downtown elite and their noonday drinking/lunching/negotiating places. This walkway carried a high information load, a mixture of rumor, gossip, facts and near-truths having varying capacity to shock, inform, placate or cause repercussions.

We’re obviously not far from Jane Jacobs here, and from her insistence that genius loci is something best absorbed by personal physical immersion; from Holly Whyte’s groundbreaking studies and observations; or, for that matter, from good sound policing praxis.

But I have to wonder if any would-be urbanist trying such a tactic on for size these days would go home happy. Here’s where you realize the extent to which globalization, organizational decentralization, and physical dematerialization and dispersal really have grown teeth since the early ’70s, and the degree to which, collectively, they’ve transformed our cities. (“Largest bank”? I’m…typing on it.) Even in the most centralized of Central Business Districts, I’m hard-pressed to imagine a contemporary downtown in which a critical mass of decision-makers can routinely be found on foot, unguarded and accessible, simply there to be buttonholed by enterprising cub reporters.

I don’t for a moment dispute the idea that all too many important decisions still get made by relatively compact nexuses of powerful people, nor that much of the underlying consensus-building involved happens in person and at point-blank, even pheromonal range. What I have a really hard time imagining, though, is that the contemporary American city lends itself to direct observation of, and/or intervention in, such concentrations of power, either as a matter of physical infrastructure or of how its residents are socialized. Most all Manhattan’s Blarney Stones are long gone; by contrast, you can station yourself at the Starbucks across from District Court all day, but I simply don’t think you’re going to see any particularly revealing transactions going down over the decaf Venti lattes.

Close-Up‘s like a time capsule in that respect, a direct transmission from an era in which the “downtown elites” really did call the shots, and all the decisions that mattered were made and imposed from the top down, by martini-lunching cabals of starchy, middle-aged, white “clubmen.” You could make an argument that not nearly enough has changed in the world, and that’s an argument for which I’d have a certain degree of sympathy, but Clay’s Louisville seems like it abuts George Bailey‘s Bedford Falls at far more points than it does any city I’d recognize.

One response to “Critical paths”

  1. nicolas says :

    Well, my personal experience leads me to think that it’s now “non-places” (Augé) like airport queues, high-speed trains that are genius loci.

    The example of trains (especially high-speed ones such as TGV or ICE) is quite revealing. I always overhear interesting discussions there (even in the second class). Both in the morning (people preparing their meetings in groups) and in the afternoon (people debriefing their meetings).

    Not to mention certain documents that are left in the train. See for instance
    An egyptian government fax intercepted by the Swiss foreign intelligence agency was discovered on a train by journalists. The fax alleged that a certain country in North America detained 23 Iraqi and Afghan terror suspects at a base in Romania.

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