In this episode we explore the experience of riding in the city, a space currently in a process of massive upheaval as people stream back into spaces once hollowed out by deindustrialization and depopulation. This has created massive contradictions, and layers on top of the immediate experiences of riding in urban spaces. All these themes and more are explored through a creative narrative telling.
Cycling the American City – Since the general outsourcing of industrial production away from the U.S., and the creation of the ex-urban business park environment to cater for our changing economic base, American cities have impacted in some negative ways. Indeed as this economic constriction was closely followed up by widespread suburban flight, primarily of middle class white communities, municipalities have seen a further reduction in tax-incomes and a tightening of operating budgets. This has forced city governments to re-orient their role, shifting away from managing large budgets and providing public services, towards enticing private partners to leverage investments. In combination each of these processes have fundamentally changed the nature of Urban America.
The outcome of these change was a hollowing out of our cities – from which we have only recently seen a resurgence – and a growing inequality between the urban rich and poor by all measures. Income, wealth, housing, life expectancy, educational attainment, etc. have all become areas of divergence. Specifically in terms of resources for physical activity, recreation, leisure, nutrition, healthcare, and other factors related to the body, demonstrate a similar pattern that has become embodied in significant ways. The social system that aimed to erode these differences, providing services that aided in re-distributing resources, has all but disappeared, and the results can be stark. One of the most disturbing statistics that demonstrates this widening gap is life expectancy, where in some cities neighborhoods that are only a short distance apart can have significant differences. In my own city, Boston, according to a 2012 report from the Center on Human Needs based at Virginia Commonwealth University, the variation in life expectancy is over thirty years. They suggest that “The tract with the longest life expectancy (91.9 years) is in the Charles River Basin (between Massachusetts Avenue and Arlington Street, north of Commonwealth Avenue). The tract with the shortest life expectancy (58.9 years) is in the Roxbury neighborhood (between Massachusetts Avenue and Dudley Street and Shawmut Avenue and Albany Street)” (p. 21). Indeed with a number of factors contributing to these differences, the statistics demonstrate how urban inequalities can materialize in some very real and meaningful ways.
Yet, while this narrative can create the image of two cities, it is important not to suggest that these inequalities mean we have communities running alongside each other without interaction, or that some groups and spaces in the city lack value. This could not be farther from the way in which our urban communities function. Our cities are tangles of complex interactions between people, the spaces they inhabit, and the communities they are a part of. Cities are not easy to define, analyze or understand, and sometimes the lived injustices and inequalities of urban life are the outcomes of processes not easily understood. To consider the city as simply divided between the ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ or the ‘powerful’ and ‘weak’, would be overly reductionist. In contrast the ability to better understand our urban environments may come through embracing this complexity, and tracing the potentially unexpected or hidden connections that bind it together. It is an approach that may well highlight the importance of communities that often are not given importance in a simplistic telling of the city.
For us looking at cycling in the city is a great point of entry into exploring this complexity and the uneven nature of the urban. It allows a way to explore both the stark differences of urban inequality, and the nuances of its formation. In this narrative realist telling we look to touch on how the city can be experienced from the grand processes to the gritty minutiae of the everyday, all from atop a saddle. Still passing through, covering extended tracks of the city, but still slowly enough to anchor for a time and experience the multiplicities of the city, the bicycle may well provide a form of embodied insight worth pursuing further.
For more on this subject check out these resources (just a small selection):
Center on Human Needs Report – http://www.societyhealth.vcu.edu/media/society-health/pdf/PMReport_Boston.pdf (Cited above)
WNYC Podcast There Goes the Neighborhood – http://www.wnyc.org/shows/neighborhood
Amin Ash and Nigel Thrift’s Cities: Reimagining the Urban – http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-0745624138.html
Timothy Gibson’s The rise and fall of Adrian Fenty, Mayor-Triathlete: cycling, gentrification and class politics in Washington DC – http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02614367.2013.855940#.V42Kbq7b-KA
Hot off the presses! In fact it’s not yet in my hands, but this is work I have watched evolving from afar and it looks great! Melody Hoffmann’s Bike Lanes Are White Lanes: Bicycle Advocacy and Urban Planning – https://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/product/Bike-Lanes-Are-White-Lanes,677153.aspx
Some amazing art work from Ramiro Gomez highlighting the often hidden, but also very real connections between a range of low-income workers and the ‘high life’ of wealthy Los Angeles living – http://www.cjamesgallery.com/assets/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/RamiroGomez-Portfolio1.pdf
- Also catch an interview with Gomez and his collaborator Lawrence Weschler talking about their project Domestic Scenes on the podcast Bullseye with Jesse Thorn http://www.npr.org/player/embed/481047760/481047766
Feel free to add any other resources in the comments.