Time, Space, and the Landscape of my Commute

“Make it stop my love, we were wrong to try

Never saw what we could unravel by traveling light,

Or how the trip debrides like a stack of slides

All we saw was that time is taller than space is wide.”

– Joanna Newsom “The Waltz of the 101st Lightborne”

As I read a bit of John Brinckerhoff Jackson’s A Sense of Space, Sense of Time for class last week, I kept thinking of the lyric above.* Jackson argues, in part, that when we think about what makes a location special to us, we are usually remembering events that have occurred there rather than any feature of the place. In a way, Jackson echoes Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined communities, suggesting that it is repeated practices that constitute public space.

Before Jackson gets into the roles of communal memory, he writes a bit about grids. I grew up in an area without any hint of a grid, but I could still recognize the truth of Jackson’s observation that a straight stretch of highway, devoid of distinguishing features, performs a specific role in American popular culture as a sort of zen state.

I don’t drive much, but I do sometimes approach the same introspective limit while walking, particularly on my way to work. Retreading the same mile and a half about eight times a week, I often find myself with my head down, the sidewalk becoming an undifferentiated highway. If I am particularly enraptured in a particular train of thought, this ribbon of concrete acts almost as one of Bruno Latour’s black boxes; I step outside my door and am conveyed to my employment. When I am particularly drowsy, in the morning or late at night, there is an almost alarming quality to the amnesia of the walk.

The police station at 19th Street and Oxford seen in 1961. The station became the Opportunities Industrialization Center a few years later and currently is undergoing redevelopment. Photo from the City of Philadelphia Department of Records via PhillyHistory.org.

Reading Dell Upton’s “White and Black Landscapes in Eighteenth-Century Virginia,” however, makes me think about how I move through this space differently than other people. As a pedestrian I have a very different experience of the 15-ish blocks than drivers, bikers, and even bus-riders. I pass about 10 bus stops, 7 stop lights, and 10 stop signs. I can follow 19th St. in both directions.

 

Instead of these discrete stopping points for cars, bikes, and buses, I have all kinds of landmarks along the way. There are blocks with vastly different styles of homes. There is a block where the sidewalk is so broken up I usually cross to the other side, another where the block’s residents are often out on the sidewalk forcing me to maneuver around them and yanking me out of my black box. Construction projects close the sidewalk or certain intersections and I have to reprogram my internal navigation for the duration of the project. Each time I cross the street to avoid an obstacle, I am responding to the script of the built and living landscape.

Returning to Brinckerhoff’s observations about grids, these blocks I use as landmarks are an extension of William Penn’s imagined Philadelphia. Bill Cronon called the planned Midwestern cities “Fictive lots on fictive streets in fictive towns,” and the reality of this Eastern city isn’t far off. None of my commute existed on Penn’s first plats, but his grid formed the pattern for much of the subsequent development.

Penn’s grid fostered the development of rowhomes, but that work is being undone, block by block. I pass multiple empty lots on my commute, some that have turned whole blocks into impromptu parks. In these places, the sidewalk is cracked, and vegetation seemed poised to take over. The grid, once an instrument of shaping the future, seems to be fading into the past.

* This song has a lot of gems for public history work; “The war between us and our ghosts,” for instance, succinctly sums up the current debate about monuments.

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