Tag Archives: books

Thing-finding

April 10, 2014

A lot of the wonders of walking were most elegantly summed up in children’s book I read long ago. Pippi Longstocking, famed pirate heroine and vanquisher of boredom everywhere, knows a lot more about walking than your average grown-up. One morning, while Pippi is busy baking a modest five hundred cordiform pepparkakor, a kind of Swedish cookie, her neighbors Tommy and Annika visit. When she finishes, Tommy, like your average bored, screen-sucking kid, asks, “What are we going to do now?”

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“I don’t know what you are going to do,” said Pippi, “but I know I can’t lie around and be lazy. I am a Thing-Finder, and when you’re a Thing-Finder you don’t have a minute to spare.”
“What did you say you are?” asked Annika.
“A Thing-Finder.”
“What’s that?” asked Tommy.
“Somebody who hunts for things, naturally. What else could it be?” said Pippi as she swept all the flour left on the floor into a little pile.
“The whole world is full of things, and somebody has to look for them. And that’s just what a Thing-Finder does,” she finished.
“What kind of things?” asked Annika.
“Oh, all kinds,” said Pippi. “Lumps of gold, ostrich feathers, dead rats, candy snapcrackers, little tiny screws, and things like that.”

Tommy and Annika thought it sounded as if it would be fun and wanted very much to be Thing-Finders too, although Tommy did say he hoped he’d find a lump of gold and not a tiny little screw.

“We shall see what we shall see,” said Pippi. “One always finds something.”

The children set off on their own, like few children have the luxury of doing today. Pippi thought it would be best to keep to urban surroundings, as most things to be found are where the people are. She tells Tommy and Annika about the incredible things she’s found in the forest, and she would of course tell you too, if you read the book.

Tommy and Annika looked at Pippi to see just how a Thing-Finder acted. Pippi ran from one side of the road to the other, shaded her eyes with her hand, and hunted and hunted. Sometimes she crawled on her hands and knees, stuck her hands in between the pickets of a fence, and then said in a disappointed tone, “Oh, dear! I was sure I saw a lump of gold.”

pippi-tree

Thing-finding, like Pippi instructs her friends, can be as humble a pursuit as finding rusty tin cans and dead rats to hunting down prizes like gold. Today, I investigated a mesmerizing beacon that turned out to be a roadkill e-cig. Any takers?

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It’s not the find but the perceptual game that matters, looking at your surroundings to connect seemingly disparate things together, to find new ways of making sense of the world. This can be as silly and undignified as stringing together some weird narrative to explain all those sad useless mattresses lying around, as the Walthamstow Tourist Board did this week. They’re also doing commendable work with the lost pair of shoes population. It’s all good, as long as, like Pippi, we’re wandering around and paying attention.

Excerpted from 'Celebs that Look Like Mattresses', by the Walthamstow Tourist Board

Excerpted from ‘Celebs that Look Like Mattresses’, by the Walthamstow Tourist Board

Suddenly Pippi gave a terrific yell. “Well, I never saw the like,” she cried, as she picked up a large, rusty old tin can from the grass. “What a find! What a find! Cans — that’s something you can never have too many of.”
Tommy looked at the can doubtfully. “What can you use it for?”
“Oh, you can use it in all sorts of ways,” said Pippi. “One way is to put cookies in it. Then it becomes a delightful Jar with Cookies. Another way is not to put cookies in it. Then it becomes a Jar without Cookies. That certainly isn’t quite so delightful, but still that’s good too.”
She examined the can, which was indeed rusty and had a hole in the bottom.
“It looks almost as if this were a Jar without Cookies,” she said thoughtfully. “But you can put it over your head and pretend that it is midnight.”

Tomorrow is Walk to Work Day, a perfect opportunity to stretch your whimsy muscles and see some strange things. According to the official website based in San Francisco, as few as fifteen minutes of commute-oriented walking count as walking to work, so there aren’t many excuses not to do it (injured feet might be a valid one). You never know what could happen. Maybe Pippi herself will appear and reward you with a pepparkakor from her Jar with Cookies for your efforts.

Field guides without fields

March 22, 2014

Announcement: Marche du Nain Rouge is tomorrow! As if you needed a reminder. The walk starts at 1 at Traffic Jam in “everyone’s Midtown Detroit” and goes to Cass Park, Mike Ilitch’s Midtown Detroit.
For those who don’t believe the hype, this means that the Anti-Funeral Procession for the Cass Corridor is happening from 2-6.
Also, please stop calling it the ‘Marche de le Nain Rouge.’ That’s just not right.

Browsing the library shelves, I came across an enticing new acquisition, A Field Guide to American Houses: The Definitive Guide to Identifying and Understanding America’s Domestic Architecture. Originally published in 1984 by Virginia Savage McAlester, the second edition, released last December, offers considerable updates, such as how to “read” a neighborhood, and information on homes built after 1940, which constitute an entire 80% of American dwellings.

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The immense hardcover volume, the size of an obnoxious biology textbook, weighs quite a bit more than could be easily packed to take into the muddy field or hefted open to consult while perched on a slippery snowbank — a better title might be An Encyclopedia of American Houses. As intended, it’s a trusty desk reference companion. The preface suggests three ways of using the book: flip through it to find similar photos, use the sprightly pictorial key to identify main features, or read about the historical precedents to the main American house styles. Taking this information out into the field, “style identification can become almost automatic,” and the book waits at home to aid in sorting out subtypes.

Whichever way you approach it, at least a little of the information seeps in almost instantly, broadening perspective of the built environment in a way that a tree guide, for example, can seldom do for the natural environment. To an untrained eye, the differences in siding on houses are easier to discern than the subtleties of bark patterns. It’s been a great game to wander through neighborhoods, peering at porches and chimneys and cataloging types of dormers or “other roof elaborations,” piecing together more of Detroit’s abundant history.

From Native American tepees and wigwams to the McMansion (McAlester favors the kinder term ‘millennium mansion’), the coverage is inexhaustible. When you think you’ve come to the end of the book, a short appendix dealing with green and alternative construction appears, accompanied by photos of geodesic domes. This astute comprehensiveness was a long time coming. As the New York Times relates, McAlester had originally assembled “some 100,000 house photos, many from the Library of Congress, and pinned them on a giant corkboard. Picture the tormented detective in a thriller, rearranging mug shots, with bits of red string.”

The extensive visual references are hard to choose from, but this Spanish Revival has the best landscaping.

The extensive visual references are hard to choose from, but this Spanish Revival has the best landscaping.

Many of the houses I’ve recently wandered past are Queen Anne or Stick, some Shingle, Second Empire, Italianate, Richardsonian Romanesque — in short, lots of Victorian homes, the entire chapter gorgeously represented in a few mile radius. What’s fascinating is how old some of these stylistic impulses are. In an age of new construction techniques like balloon framing and the beginnings of the design industry, Victorian homes were still being modelled, albeit loosely, on Medieval prototypes — the same thatch-roofed stuff people had been building from the 6th through 15th centuries. Even as MIT established the first American architecture program in 1865, the dominant styles recalled Medieval times, with or without various Classical elements appended to them. McAlester coordinates the solidly useful information in the field guide with well-placed tidbits of architectural history. Until 1840, she notes, before the boom of competing architectural styles and schools producing architects to advance them, there was only one formally-trained architect in the United States.

The many features of a Stick style house.

The many features of a Stick style house.

The Queen Anne wall itself as a decorative element -- graphic titled "Devices to avoid flat wall surfaces".

The Queen Anne wall itself as a decorative element — graphic titled “Devices to avoid flat wall surfaces”.

Detroit is as diverse as you’d expect for such a large city, and exploring neighborhoods with both newer and older wonders of residential architecture is something to look forward to as the weather warms and forgotten sidewalks are unearthed. Where are all the Tudors, the boring Neoclassicals and Colonial Revivals, where are my secret favorites, the smartly-tiled Spanish Revivals?

Geographic distribution of Greek Revival subtypes.

Geographic distribution of Greek Revival subtypes.

It did make me curious about what is arguably the oldest house in Detroit, the Charles Trowbridge house on Jefferson. The house is easy to miss, so easy I’ve walked past it dozens of times without noticing. This has probably happened to millions of people since it was built in 1826. Coming north off the river, I walked past it again, and kept going. There is no green historical marker in front of the unassuming Greek Revival brick structure, painted white with a mishmosh of Victorian elements tacked on at some point. It’s not very interesting to look at, outdone by the showier adjacent residences-turned-offices, one of which has been attached to it by an enclosed walkway.

Apparently this is it. The oldest house in Detroit, built 21 years after the 1805 fire.

Apparently this is it. The oldest house in Detroit, built 21 years after the 1805 fire.

This inviting bench has a nice view of the adjacent carriage house, totally mismatched in style from the house it sits behind.

This inviting bench has a nice view of the adjacent carriage house, totally mismatched in style from the house it sits behind.

If I get around to reading the field guide cover-to-cover, it will take some time, but it’s wonderful to savor in small portions, and a sensible purchase for that privilege. It’s also done the favor of keeping me occupied during the obligatory daily segments of the thousand miles. If gold were as helpful in understanding what goes on with our building habits, this book would definitely be worth its weight in it.

The fact motivating the creation of this field guide, that old homes hold a certain value in our culture and their ownership conveys some level of prestige, is by no means universal. In other countries, such as Japan, no such field guide would be written. As Freakonomics reports, the average lifespan of a house before its value dwindles to nothing is just 30 years. Some studies even pin this number as low as 15 years. Half of all houses are demolished within 38 years of construction. This, from a country that lent the rest of the world aesthetics like wabi-sabi, encouraging us to celebrate the small imperfections of our homes, inside and out. Here, older homes don’t tend to depreciate like used cars, and a hundred years will pass before the average home is demolished. One can begin to understand this, in a location that sees 20% of the world’s high-magnitude earthquakes and has a recent history of homes obliterated by bombings, leading to crummily-constructed houses popping up to quickly accommodate the million people left homeless, but the obvious, like McAlester illustrates in her field guide, is never the whole story.

It’s hard to say which is curiouser, our paradoxical penchant for filling our old homes with sleek, cheap Ikea furniture, or the Japanese drive to knock everything down and design exactly the house that is desired by the occupant. In a culture of ancient temples, recycling, and traditional values like mottainai, or avoiding wastefulness, the Japanese approach to housing comes as kind of a shock. To simultaneously value newness as “spiritually clean and pure,” except perhaps in the case of a fresh pair of vending machine underpants, is bizarre.

Maybe the more profound way to accept transience is to demolish everything that isn’t a mossy Buddhist shrine — but I hope, stuck as we are on hanging onto the past, it doesn’t come to this in America. The ability to see the proverbial hand of time moving across a landscape is not a pleasure I’ll easily give up, a reluctance likewise felt, no doubt, when I have to walk this field guide back to the library.

6,000 miles, and counting

March 11, 2014

What’s the best use of nine pairs of shoes? To avoid the expected and uninspired answers about donations to needy children, you may want to ask William Helmreich, professor of sociology at City College and the City University of New York, and, most recently, author of The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City. While donating footwear is a worthy move, so is Helmreich’s eighteen-shoe effort, what the New York Times called an “unstuffy love letter to the delights of street-smart walking” in a charming interview with the much-pursued perambulist.

Helmreich is very adept at the thing-finding and game-playing that make walking the celebrated pastime and mode of transit that it is, having continued well into adulthood (he’s 68) the practice many abandon as small children. “My philosophy is, everything’s interesting,” he says, in the city he calls “the greatest museum in the world.” As he tells the Atlantic Cities, “Every block can be interesting. It’s not just about covering ground, it’s about how you cover ground.”

Between 2008 and 2012, Helmreich covered a lot of ground — 6,048 miles of New York’s streets, which is 1,512 miles per year, or a little over 4 miles each day. That doesn’t sound like much until you think about torrential rain, illness, vacations, other obligations. Missing a four-mile day means 8 miles the next day, 12.4 by the third, and so on. At a pace one can only imagine was leisurely, ducking into shops and courtyards and conversations, this could take the better part of a morning, an afternoon, or both.

Of course this venture was rewarded with lots of curiosity and good press. Since there’s still no copy available at the library that I can amble over and pick up, my perhaps outdated default for acquiring new reading material, I haven’t yet gotten my hands on the book. It was delightful to find Helmreich condensing some of his experiences into an essay for the always-lovely Aeon Magazine just past the new year. He wrote,

“The question, for a professional sociologist such as me, is: was this the best way to study a city?

Approached correctly, walking forces you to slow down and really look at what you’re seeing. Like the flâneurs of times past, one needs to stroll leisurely and engage people in conversations about how they feel about where they live, what they do, and how they perceive the place is changing. Had I driven through the city, along its highways and thoroughfares, I would have missed 90 per cent of what I found: the teeming life of the city’s backstreets, its parks and playgrounds, its outdoor and indoor eateries — all this would have remained invisible to me. Besides, driving (and for that matter, cycling) tend to mark you as an outsider, even if you live there. When you cover ground quickly, people assume you’re just passing through. But when you walk through a neighbourhood, people assume you’ve got reason to be there.”

What would this feel like in Detroit? According to Helmreich, New York has 120,000 more or less easily enumerable blocks. The chaos of Detroit’s wheel system intersecting with mile roads and all the smaller side streets in various repaved or crumbling repair pave an extra layer of challenge. It’s certainly possible, one step at a time, as individuals like Chris Kort have found, who walked the streets in 2012, inspecting every tree for the U.S. Forest Service’s records.

The city maintains 660 miles of main roads, plus 1880 miles of residential side streets, with an additional 210 looked after by MDOT or the Wayne County Road Commission; together, at least 2750 miles of roads over the city’s 139 square mile area. (Just under half of New York’s size, at 303 square miles, both cities have roughly equivalent street coverage per square mile).

One would probably see a lot of what the workers and volunteers on the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force saw over the past couple of months as they inched through the snowy city, cataloging each parcel of land and possibly setting to rest the last-house-on-the-block question. Projected to take place over just nine weeks, teams surveying the 385,000 – 400,000 of Detroit’s properties set out with tablets or phones, documenting each. (The number varies depending on whether you’re reading Crain’s or Model D — either way, it’s a lot. The phone number provided by the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force for resident questions about the survey instantly forwards to a generic voicemail). Recommendations for demolition of blighted structures will be furnished to the mayor’s office later this month, and the resulting Motor City Mapping project will eventually go public with its informational trove.

Aside from the obvious increase in people needed to complete it within a similar time frame, how might the survey have differed if done on foot? By all accounts, surveyors stayed snug in their cars, snapping pictures out the window before motoring along to the next site, “blexting” — LOVELAND‘s gimmicky portmanteau of ‘blight’ and ‘texting’ — their cursory data back to the headquarters. There was a lot of snow and no engagement with the community or the environment. This knowledge of the city hardly seems intimate. One wonders how surveyors could even adequately assess a snow-covered building’s status from that remove.

Although for many reasons I decided against walking a different section of Detroit every day in 2014, eventually covering it all, Helmreich’s project nonetheless inspired some movement. Deliberately undershooting numbers or patterns that seemed in any way grandiose, I set a goal of 1,000 miles this year. This is a modest three miles a day, mostly in Detroit, and an aim with which I’ve been shocked to find only mixed success. Three miles is barely anything, I thought — well below the 10,000 steps recommended by medical professionals, a mere hour of strolling at Google Maps speed. It’s not even quite a 5k.

I would love to undertake a Helmreich-style survey of the city, but a large share of my reluctance comes from a factor that often goes unaddressed in the context of this blogging — safety, a point Helmreich eloquently, if only briefly, addresses in his essay for Aeon. (He tells the New York Times that he avoids wearing blue or red shirts for their association with gangs). It would be great if Detroit really were a safe place to ramble, but numbers and instinct say otherwise. To counter the fear-mongering of many news outlets, the subject is rather deliberately avoided here, perhaps irresponsibly. The aim of the rambling network is to encourage people to walk, to feel safe walking — the more people who walk and feel safe walking, the more conducive to safe walking the city becomes. It’s just not quite there yet. At all. So, like everything else in Detroit, we rely on community. We band together and walk.

Maybe between all these walks, alone and collectively, we’re channelling a bit of Helmreich in the Midwest. Have you undertaken this kind of committed programmatic exploration? Would you? As Helmreich says, everything’s interesting. Especially here, in a city where time so palpably passes, the landscape is almost too literally a great (if haphazardly archived) museum. Let me know if you want to go for a walk in it.