Friday, November 19, 2010

Livability Indicator #18: Graffiti

I have been wanting for some time to create a post about graffiti. Like all things, there can be two sides to it, good and bad. Density is typically reviled by the NIMBY types worried that a dense development will bring crime and lower their property values. When they think density, they are envisioning Flatbush tenements, or section 8 housing, or even typical garden style apartments the litter the sunbelt, built to last 15 years at best, often lasting 20- or 30-plus. They end up caving in on themselves.

Nobody cares for them, because they weren't built to be cared for. Furthermore, where tenements and section 8 barrack housing are forms of warehousing, shoving people into places, garden-style development was originally intended for market-rated housing. Often, these were considered the nicest places to live when new. They were garden-y! It was like a little bit of nature to ease the burden of living around dirty, stinky, smelly others. Oh, xenophobia.

At the time what we didn't realize was the form and arrangement of garden-style apartments (the "train wreck" as seen from above) without public infrastructure were cul-de-sac in nature, vestigial appendages ready to fall off without the lifeblood infusing it. And they die off eventually. All of them. There are basic rules to developing neighborhoods, they can't be disembodied. If they are so, we let them go. We don't care for them and they devolve, fading away into a history that will never be written about them.

On the other hand, people do want some place to care about. The better a neighborhood functions (or is designed in aggregate over time by the millions of hands molding them) the larger that sphere of "home base" is. This was best illustrated by Donald Appleyard. If you are fortunate enough to live in a great neighborhood, you will most likely describe your home as that place, "I live in Brooklyn." Well Brooklyn is a pretty big place. If your area is pretty crummy, overrun by a car-centric environment, you may describe only the walls you occupy as your home or possibly even smaller.

If an area is isolated from the larger system of a city (infrastructurally, socially, economically, etc.) and, in turn, in decay, we still have a need seeded deep in our DNA to "mark our territory." Since nobody cares about this area and, by extension, me, what do I care if anybody minds how/why I mark my territory or what it then looks like? Broken windows does have some merit, but like any theory, it can be taken too far. Gangs, often perpetrators of the kind of graffiti we deride as bad, might spray paint a symbol or word on buildings or signs to let rival or competing organizations know, stay out.

There is a critical connection here though, and it ties in with Sudhir Venkatesh's book "Gang Leader for a Day." Venkatesh was a graduate sociology student canvassing the area and before he knew it, ended up befriending local crime lords. What he found was an intricately organized, hierarchical structure that in many ways provided for the safety of its neighborhood in ways that the public sector failed to do so.

Perhaps you can sense where I'm going with this. Eventually, the power of the internet, the ability to spread global information virally at the speed of light led to the infamy of a shadowy graffiti artist named Banksy. Banksy was known for middle of the night spray paint stencils that were indeed art (here is a link to google image search for Banksy). Banksy parlayed his work into exhibits at the Tate Modern and an awe-inspiring opening scene to the Simpsons:

I'm guessing Banksy has done more than add art to blank walls but inspired millions to create their own art. When combined with a desperation for safer, cleaner neighborhoods, the spread of urban principles to the interested lay person, and a backlash against cars, the result has been street art around the world.

Since both the good and the bad are typically statements of ownership, expressions of those that occupy the place, eventually street art has become the Better Block, both art showcase as well as physical improvements to the neighborhood. When done right, it takes back the public realm from the car, creating a new center of gravity for the neighborhood. Neighborhoods need centers of gravity.

When roads become barriers, they make edges, therefore neighborhoods retreat from those edges and the center of gravity is internalized, disconnecting it from the urban fabric, virtually assuring an eventual decay. We need our roads to be seams, main streets for local activity. We need them that way, so the place is still connected to the body, the city. In that way it retains its permanence and makes caring for it not a hopeless and fruitless affair.

When the governing institutions fail to foster these places due to arcane, failed and entrenched policies (in this case more worried about moving traffic from two parts of the city that generally have no interest in interacting and/or to fill the coffers of engineering firms seeking to build bigger roads), we all become gang leaders. Renegades that have to take care of our neighborhoods on our own, possibly even illegally as the Better Block has shown.

When the illegal is more positive than the legal, it is time to revisit policy.

What graffiti shows, whether of the well-intentioned or poorly intentioned, is the yearning for something better. In a hand of poker, we're drawing three new cards. The mal-intentioned is also revelatory. It shows an area that is disconnected, isolated from mind or sight of the collective. Not enough care about the area to do something about it. We left it out to die on the vine.

When policy isolates and disconnects the way our highway building mania has done, it is also time to revisit policy.