I recently finished Bernie Sanders’ re-release of “Outsider in the House” and was struck by one of its reoccurring themes. Undoubtedly informed by his background as a three-term mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Sanders respects and understands the complexity and significance of politics and economics functioning at a localized level. In a country as vast as the US, cities seem, at times, so detached from the more macro legislative work happening in the country’s capital. However, cities remain the backdrops for operational successes and failures of national policy. They are agents of policy mobilization where the average citizen can begin to view and understand the influence of high level decision making on everyday lives. Sanders understands that cities aren’t passive landscapes easily molded by every piece of enacted legislation. Rather, they are dynamic clusters so distant from the epicenter of federal policy design that the political and economic intentions, that legislation embodies, inevitably comingle with the political, economic, and social characteristics or histories of the city itself, thereby producing sometimes unintended impacts.
I bring this up because even in a country with expansive physical geographic reach like the US, cities are connected, but not submissive, to the policies implemented at the federal level. Sanders gets this. In acknowledging the importance of the local, he is acknowledging that our experience at the local level has every right to be taken into consideration at every level of governmental action so that ultimately our cities can be re-imaged in a way that is, in fact, socio-ecologically equitable. He writes:
As the mayor of Burlington, and someone committed to grassroots democracy, I saw no magic line separating local, state, national, and international issues. How could federal cuts in education not be a local issue? They affect our public schools. How could environmental degradation not be a local issue? It affects the water we drink and our health. How could issues of war and peace not be a local issue? It is local youngsters who fight and die in wars. Ultimately, if we’re going to revitalize democracy in this country, local government will have to assume a much stronger and expansive role. (85)
This sheds light on the fact that policy issues that can feel so distant and inexplicable ultimately become directly and indirectly entangled with our existence to form a lens through which we view and decipher our surroundings.
How we all image our cities and abstract political, economic, social, and ecological reality depends upon a multitude of factors including the policies that ultimately govern the urban experience. Preferences or limits to mobility, day to day activities or routines, hobbies, economic background, demographics, etc. etc. are all factors that coalesce to inform how we manage to traverse our landscape and make sense of our identity.
In an episode of one of my favorite podcasts, “The Theory of Everything”, the host, Benjamin Walker, attempts to figure out what his podcast is truly about. Interestingly, he concludes with an excerpt from his colleague Luc Sante’s book, “The Other Paris” that attempts to dissect the meaning of the term “flâneur” or city walker. In reading this definition, Walker concludes that he is the flâneur of podcast hosts. The excerpt reads:
The flâneur is not a reporter. Reporters are in the business of asking specific questions to which they require specific answers. The flâneur may entertain questions in the course of things but overall he or she is in the business of negative capability. The flâneur must be alive to the entire prospect. To the ephemeral and perishable, as well as the immemorial. To things that might ordinarily lie beneath notice. To minute changes and gradual shifts of fashion. To things that just disappear one day without anyone paying attention. To happenstance and accident and incongruity. To texture and flavor and the unnameable. To prevailing winds and counter currents. To everything that is too subjective for professionals to credit. The flâneur must possess a sixth sense—possibly even a seventh and an eighth. Must have an intuitive suss for things that may occur without warning and things that are subtly absent and things that are silently waving goodbye.
I contend that the flâneur is not an attainable intellectual knack, but rather an intrinsic state of being. In our own way we are all flâneurs—as we all move through our cities we observe and take stock of the conditions surrounding us based on who we are and where we are on our social and physical paths. Our intuitions evolve in the city as a result of the socio-ecological and physical circumstances we encounter. When we walk through our cities, we are not deliberately seeking out answers to pre-determined questions. It is in the state of movement that we attempt to identify the questions that we seek to answer. Even as a geographer and planner – as someone particularly attuned to urban issues and successes – I don’t sit down on the train every day thinking of a particular question. The journey that my train of thought chooses to pilot often depends on my mood, my state of mind. Our emotions and how we feel influences our cognizance of our surroundings. Davidson and Milligan (2004) write:
Without doubt, our emotions matter. They have tangible effects on our surroundings and can shape the very nature and experience of our being-in-the-world. Emotions can clearly alter the way the world is for us, affecting our sense of time as well as space. Our sense of who and what we are is continually (re)shaped by how we feel. (524)
This observation manifests within the boundaries of our everyday movement in the urban landscape and consequently powers our world-view. Since moving back to Los Angeles, following a year of living in London, it remains a daily challenge to map my ten-mile journey from Culver City where I live to Downtown Los Angeles, where I work. It’s no longer just about hopping on the tube or taking a long walk meandering through London’s intimate city blocks. Every morning lying awake in bed has become a time to meditate over which mode of transportation I’ll use for the day. A mere 15 minutes can be a deciding factor between hopping on my bicycle, taking the bus, or having to drive my car to the Culver City train’s parking lot. Transportation and rearranging my preferred modes into a negotiable route is a permanent aspect of my life as an Angeleno. I feel lucky actually to even be someone who has the choice between private and public transportation on a daily basis. I accept this and weirdly enjoy the daily strategic challenge of traversing LA, but it undoubtedly impacts how I view the city. Five days out of the week, LA to me is an 11-13 mile linear space between Culver City and Downtown. Only on the weekends does my interpretation of the LA landscape take into consideration the mosaic of neighborhoods and interstitials spaces that LA has to offer.
With that said, becoming the re-imager for me, following some years of highly regimented research investigations within the parameters of academia, is more about taking time to allow questions organically to emerge and allowing the understanding and exploration of these questions to naturally progress. Allowing myself to not resist the nature of my daily routine and the experiences that accompany it – as with transportation – and see what questions develop.
In a world where our daily lives are incessantly saturated with information, we don’t give enough time for our brains to take in information and question. Take my daily routine. I typically wake up to a podcast, read on the train, listen to the news in the car, work (at which time I’ll occasionally scan facebook and instagram feeds) and then repeat reading/podcast listening on the way home at which time I’ll exercise, go out to eat and conclude my day with reading in bed. Where’s the time to let my head absorb the multitude of facts, opinions and statistics that are out there? As re-imager, I argue that we need this time and as re-imager I will try and take my own advice.
I especially need to remind myself to take this advice during this presidential campaign season in the US. I’m so fascinated by the speed at which the media is capable of overwhelming us with (dis)information. I don’t discount the media and the increased availability of information, but I question the speed at which we are expected to digest it. Can we have a moment to think for ourselves or do I need to be spoon fed op-eds and crap articles that distort the facts and my perception of my role in society all the way up until the point I stuff my vote in the ballot box?
Our opinions and experiences in the city are rooted in our own trajectories, not that of a Facebook feed. We need to read, listen and acknowledge all of the information that exists, but we also need time to understand our own experience and let that inform how we want to guide socio-ecological transformations. I’m not blind. I understand that in some ways I am only contributing to the plethora of blog articles that we have access to. However, my intent is to advise both myself and you to respect that the knowledge we learn and acquire based on our own past and present existence is just as valid as the information we seek to better understand the world around us.
Again, thanks for reading and stay tuned.
Davidson, J., & Milligan, C. (2004). Embodying emotion sensing space: Introducing emotional geographies. Social & Cultural Geography, 5(4), 523-532.
Sanders, B., & Gutman, H, (2015). Outsider in the White House. Brooklyn, NY: Verso Books.
Sante, L. (2015). The Other Paris. New York, NY: Macmillan.