Thursday, February 22, 2007

The road and the pavement

The first time I moved to London I read Jonathan Raban's Soft City, a brilliant hymn to urban disorientation and weirdness. It fitted. In fact it fitted so well that it was uncomfortable to read it on buses: I felt that I was looking into my fellow passengers' minds, which was creepy, and that I was offering them the means to look into mine, which was terrifying.

A month ago I moved to London for a third time - difficulties in getting a phone line sorted account for this blog's deadness since - and have ended up reading Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Among other virtues, it turns out to the Raban's anti-book: a hymn to the self-sustaining, self-ordering power of busy areas. He looks at the nearest main road and sees a malevolent river-god (see the link above for quote); she looks at the bustle on the pavement and sees a ballet. What makes it attractive, beyond the sunniness of her outlook, is the quality of her observation. Consider this, on how a good street can police itself:

The incident that attracted my attention was a suppressed struggle going on between a man and a little girl of eight or nine years old. The man seemed to be trying to get the girl to go with him. By turns he was directing a cajoling attention to her, and then assuming an air of nonchalance. The girl was making herself rigid, as children do when they resist, against the wall of one of the tenements across the street.

As I watched from our second-floor window, making up my mind how to intervene if it seemed advisable, I saw it was not going to be necessary. From the butcher shop beneath the tenement had emerged the woman who, with her husband, runs the shop; she was standing within earshot of the man, her arms folded and a look of determination on her face. Joe Cornacchia, who with his sons-in-law keeps the delicatessen, emerged about the same moment and stood solidly to the other side. Several heads poked out of the tenement windows above, one was withdrawn quickly and its owner reappeared a moment later in a doorway behind the man. Two men from the bar next to the butcher shop came to the doorway and waited. On my side of the street, I saw that the locksmith, the fruit man and the laundry proprietor had all come out of their shops and that the scene was also being surveyed from a number of windows besides ours. Nobody was going to allow a little girl to be dragged off, even if nobody knew who she was.

I am sorry - sorry purely for dramatic purposes - to have to report that the little girl turned out to be the man's daughter.

I'm sure other people could give you subtler or more rigorous versions, or refutations, of the "eyes on the street" theory that anecdote supports. Some of them would tell a similar story. But if there's any of them who would notice and describe the girl "making herself rigid", please tell me, because I want to read them.

Given the news around here at the moment, it feels good to be reading a case that cities are not necessarily places of terror; that they can be uniquely civilised, and civilising. My bit of south London (more or less as predicted) has managed occasionally to remind me of one of Jacobs's good scenes, rather than her bad ones. I just wish I could be more optimistic about conditions a borough boundary north.


Anonymous said...

So, you're in London now? Where? And what are you doing now? Do you have some sort of glamorous job?


Jasper Milvain said...

I'm in Sydenham, near Crystal Palace, and I'm subbing for the Telegraph. The new office is quite glamorous, but I'm still not.