Walkable Life: Part I

Bike <3

As an undergraduate, I didn’t have a car for the first 3.5 years out of 4 years that I was in Miami. During those 3.5 years of being carless, I saw myself as at a disadvantage. I felt limited by where I could go because of Miami’s lack of dependable public transportation, daunting amounts of traffic, and heavy reliance on (flashy) cars. As I think back to what not having a car meant, I see now that those experiences on foot, on bike, and on Metrorail have truly shaped my view of Miami, and even my own outlook and personal philosophies that helped to shape my current living and thinking.

In this post, I sketch out my interpretation of my memories. Through this narration, I (re)explore the movement between my everyday subjective experiences with the built environment through walking, biking, and moving, and the larger forces at work in this urban setting (like race, class, and gender); a framework for analysis that Rickie Sanders (2012) calls “new critical geography.”  With the city as a backdrop, I connect my experiences with the multiple meanings of movement and space inspired by the writings of Erin Manning (2009) and Nicolas Bourriaud (2002).

My text works with an underlying notion presented by Elizabeth St.Pierre (2004); the idea that Deleuzian ontologies (the focus of much of Manning’s work, and thus source of my (re)thinking) are

‘built upon the not-so-controversial idea that how we conceive the world is relevant to how we live in it.’ This belief leads us ‘toward the idea that we ought to conceive understandings that at least permit and perhaps encourage better—and alternative—ways of living in the world we conceive’ (May, 1996 p. 295; quoted in St.Pierre, 2004, p. 285)

So, without further ado, let’s take a look at how I conceived, constructed, and became (different) in my undergraduate South Florida life…

During my first year in Miami, my circle of activity didn’t expand much further than 1 mile from campus. I would walk to get sushi at Moon, Saturday nights were spent at the movie theatre at Sunset Place, and if I was feeling ambitious, I would walk to Publix to get some food for my dorm room. John Dewey (1934) might deem these coming and goings as experience(s), but definitely not the makings of “an Experience” or an “esthetic experience.” This movement was lazy, passive, and involved limited interaction that in no way ended in a new way of living/thinking/being.

Thankfully, this passivity faded and I began to navigate the Metrorail (think Disney-style monorail) system. The Metrorail proved to live up to its reputation as a fairly useless form of transit, as it traveled solely along US-1, through downtown, out to UM’s Med School, and slightly beyond – so – it was great for someone traveling to a place near one of the stops, but if not, there was an impending reliance upon an even more outdated and poorly run bus system. At this point though, my standards were quite low. I really just wanted to get away, however slight, from campus. My 2 +mile trips to Target, Shorty’s, and the Dadeland Mall, filled my experiential void and I began to see flickers and shades of what Miami truly is/was/became/becomes.

I saw manifestations of difference in race, language, class, and gender. I heard (lots of) Spanish, saw written French Creole for the first time, and caught glimpses of the “cosmopolitan” (Nijman, 2010) and the not-so cosmopolitan all in one glance. I learned why many women expressly discouraged the use of transit at “non-peak” times after being on the receiving end of many cat-calls and unwelcome advances, and came to realize why many women bunched together on the train (despite being strangers to each other) to something I can see as power and/or safety in numbers.

I saw art in motion – the quickly changing landscape, the omnipresent graffiti tags and vandalism, and people interacting, becoming, and being produced in the quickly shifting space of the train. The time of day seemed to dictate the space that this train became – each hour, minute, second determining what shade of Miami would/could be displayed. While in Miami, I did not have the theory to analyze these happenings, but now, I feel that I could write a dissertation exploring what Sanders (2012) calls the “larger forces” at work on the Metrorail.

At the time, I did not value these rich aesthetic experiences, these rhythms in perception and relation (see Dewey Dictionary, and Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics). I would often complain to my parents as any ignorant 17/18 year old might about how I had to ride the Metrorail with “druggies” (a word I recall being fond of at the end of high school/beginning of university). I would hyperbolize the “awfulness” of having to walk everywhere or take the train hoping to get a rise out of them that would result in me getting a car. Well, as you can imagine if you know my parents, they did not bend, but they did agree to buy me a bike for my second year.

It was with my bike that I started to feel a bit more comfortable in the big city, but came to realize that I still really knew nothing about it. The bike gave me a chance to explore. I loved my cheap hybrid from Target that would break down on the regular. It made me to feel like I was again a child in middle school, allowed to leave the confines my home’s street for the first time. My possibilities felt limitless.

As I think back on my bike and its role as my vehicle for freedom, I can conceive of it as an actant (Bennet, 2010; Latour, 2004) upon my changing ideas surrounding movement. Different than the conventional sense of movement, Erin Manning (2009) sees absolute or relational movement (vs. the conventional “relative movement”) as not the change in place from Point A to Point B, nor the population of space, but the creation of it.

Let me rewrite Manning’s explanation of absolute movement to suit my needs:

My movement creates the space I will come to understand as “the room” Miami (my addition).  The room Miami is defined as my body + the environment, where the environment is an atmospheric body. Without that particular moving body that particular environment does not exist (p. 15).

These movements, these aesthetic experiences achieved on my bike (versus my passive interaction prior) allowed me to create what I came to know as Miami. I created the space through my movement. Therefore, I see this concept working with the idea that everyone creates their own space they call “Miami” dependent upon how and where they move through and with this space. They produce the space as it produces them – an entanglement, or potentially an aesthetic assemblage.

If we extend the poststructural challenge to essential humanism – the idea that every human has a unified essential core that remains constant – to spaces and places, we might conceive of Miami as something never in possession of an essential “self” but a dynamic entity shifting and being produced through the forces thrust upon it. I can now see both myself and the city as subjects in process, continually changing, moving, becoming.

As Manning (2009) writes, “movement tells stories quite differently than does a more linear and stable historicization” (2009). The stories told from my bike and from the Metrorail were dynamically engaged, are It was through this movement that new concepts emerged, became thinkable, or in a general sense, became.

To steal from Bourriaud (2002), it is no longer possible for me

to regard the contemporary workMiami as a space to be walked through […It is instead] a period of time to be lived through, like an opening to unlimited discussion. The city […] ushered in and spread the hands-on experience: it is the tangible symbol and historical settings of the state of society […] (p. 15).

These “hands-on” experiences, allowed me to further tell my stories of movement, and deepen my understanding of the interconnectedness and relationality of my experience within the space.

Always learning, I spent many a Sunday afternoon getting lost in the winding and beautiful streets of Coral Gables and Coconut Grove. I often came upon new streets that looked nothing short of exotic to me. They had old and intricate stonewalls, gigantic banyans trees that seemed to frame the road and create a tunnel for cars, and several times, I happened upon a flock of peacocks. I felt like I had been let in on a secret. Through my own exploration of this city that I lived within, I felt like I was coming to know things that none of my peers (save those who had grown up in Miami) knew anything about. This secret world beyond the main arteries of US-1 and I-95 brought me a new level of appreciation for this city that I had not felt much love for prior to this.

By the time my parents did get me a car in the second semester of my senior year, I felt like I knew the 10 miles surrounding campus quite intimately. I knew how to get everywhere and was not afraid to make a wrong turn because I had probably already explored that street on my bike. I also knew that I did not need my car for everything. I reserved it for trips to South Beach, taking friends to the airport, and for grocery and shopping trips where I would buy something heavy. I walked and biked just about everywhere else and I came to love that. Although this movement took more time than a car ride would have, I believe, like Manning (2009) expresses, that this type of movement also “makes time” (p. 17) time to reflect, and engage in working to understand the space I move within.

Had I been bought a car my freshman year, I’m not sure that I would have been able to develop such a deep connection with the city that I spent 6 years in. A car, in and of itself, is disconnecting from the world. It is what Mark Augé might call a “non-place.” A non-place (think mall, highway, or somewhere that could be anywhere, lacking vibrancy) impedes perception and awareness. Understandings created in non-places, if created at all, are only partial, incoherent, like static on the radio.

In a car, you are in your own bubble, separated from other people, and most definitely separate from nature. Quickly driving by a banyan tree does not allow for the aesthetic experience possible by standing under its vastness, walking through its hanging root system, and hearing the assortment of wildlife in its limbs. You cannot gain the same satisfaction, I believe, in driving to a destination, than working physically to get there. Non-places do not lend themselves to (aesthetic) experiences often.

Continue to Walkable LIfe: Part II

 

Bennett, Jane. (2010). Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Bourriaud, Nicholas. (2002). Relational Aesthetics, trans. by Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods. Dijon: les presses du réel, (1996).

Latour, B. (2004). Politics of nature : how to bring the sciences into democracy; translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Manning, E. (2009). Relationscapes : movement, art, philosophy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Nijman, J. (2011). Miami : mistress of the Americas. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Sanders, R. (2012). The Complexities of teaching simple geographic concepts: A guide to connecting critical geography to the classroom. In Kenreich, T. W., Geography and social justice in the classroom (pp. 81-102). New York: Routledge.

St.Pierre, E. (2004). Deleuzian concepts for education : The subject undone. Educational Philosophy & Theory, 36(3), 283-296.

Speck, J. (2012). Walkable city : how downtown can save America, one step at a time. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.

4 thoughts on “Walkable Life: Part I

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s