Urbanity

There is a huge difference between the merely impressive and the expressive when it comes to modern cities. Rotterdam, once one of the glories in the European architectural crown, was bombed to dust in WWII and, given the poverty of post-war resources, was rebuilt in the following decades as a horrifyingly soulless, boxy blot of concrete on the face of the Netherlands. There is no comfort in knowing that the firestorm that destroyed the city was probably not planned as it happened but resulted from a perfect storm of another kind in miscommunications; the horrors of war are a long testimony to the potential for such devastation. In any even, it took Rotterdam ages to be revitalized into the place of energy and beauty that it is today. Why? What made it such a heart-stopping graveyard of a place when it had once been full of life and loveliness, and how could it ever come back to be something gracious and potent again?

There is no obvious single word that can express the massive destructive toll the bombing took on that city; annihilation is perhaps a close approximation, since it’s clear even from faded photos that the thoroughness of the attacks left very little evidence there had ever been a Rotterdam. I find it nearly impossible to imagine even when staring at proof. When my spouse and I visited the city for a conference even less than fifteen years ago it was still a sad shadow of its former glory, still dominated by 1950s-vintage blocks of affordable and utilitarian harshness that made me want to scream when I saw them in juxtaposition to the few tiny remnants of the beautiful architecture that had once filled the place.

The main reason that Rotterdam is beautiful once again, and that many other cities have, and some have never lost, such beauty is simple: architectural thought and distinction. Building what is cheapest and easiest to construct is a poor solution to lack of structure anywhere. Places that have never experienced the ravages of war, urban decay and other forms of damage and neglect in such extremes can retain the beauty and patina of urbane culture in their urban settings far more easily. Take Boston, Massachusetts, a city that has seen its share of ups and downs over time, but as one of the older cities in a young and generally untouched-by-war country, still has many of its older–even oldest–and most prized, elegant, distinctive buildings. Despite the expected problems of social unrest, economic up- and downturns, spots of urban blight and misdirected city planning that Boston has faced like any modern city, the knowledge that the architectural strengths it does have are worthy of protecting and preserving means that it was built as more than mere indoor space in the first place and that the character of the structures has as much value in shaping the city’s identity as do its great denizens.photoIt should be obvious to those of us wishing to see all of the world housed and sheltered in humane and useful structures and towns and cities that simply throwing up whatever is cheapest and most readily available is hardly more useful, in the long term, than just plain, well, throwing up on people. If we want others to live educated, healthy and therefore productive and admirable lives, we can’t stuff them into trash bins of buildings that, even if they don’t collapse under their own flawed ugliness, will never encourage their occupants and users to flourish. If we don’t intend to fill others’ lives with the vomitous garbage we ourselves would reject and flee, we must find ways to make good, practical, appealing design a mandate and not an afterthought or an unaffordable dream.

That approach not only makes living and working in tolerable shelter possible but nurtures the human spirit and pushes us all to better ourselves, our cities and our world. photo

Going Places without Getting Anywhere

Summer holidays allows some of us lucky folk to indulge our inner travel junkie. This summer was pretty much the lottery winner for the Sparks household in that regard, and it helped to scratch my perpetual go-somewhere itch more than a little. We went on a Road Trip. By that I mean a 6000+ mile loop from Texas to the west coast, north to Canada, and back again, over five weeks.

I won extra, since I got to make that trip with my favorite partner-in-crime, my husband. And he likes driving and I don’t much, so he did nearly all of it. I just got to watch the world go by, cities, states, countries, plains, hills, mountains, rivers, forests, and much more. I sat there mesmerized, my camera propped on my lap or–more often–shooting away virtually aimlessly as we buzzed by at 85 mph/137 kph (yes, there are some places where that’s the speed limit in the US) in hopes of catching some of the amazing, beautiful, weird, wonderful stuff we passed along the way. Thank goodness I didn’t have to try this kind of photography on the Autobahn.

Being dyslexic in so many helpful ways, I am the last person who should be navigator on any trip, but I was reminded that maps of any sort have their limitations anyway, and GPS only adds new layers of complexity and adventure, as when our perky GPS announcer lady (affectionately known as Peggy Sue) calmly informs us from time to time that we are in Undiscovered Country, or as she likes to put it, Not in a Recognized Area. The fun part of it is that the map on our GPS just goes blank at that point except for the little red arrow that is us, which thereupon floats through the air with the greatest of ease. That’s when I really call on my fantastic piloting skills, of course.

Mostly what I learn from maps of any sort is how far we are from where we intended to be and how many complications lie in the space between. But that, too, is part of the thrill and amusement of road-tripping or, for that matter, travel of any sort. The planned and well-known aspects are seldom as exciting and interesting as the things found by accident, the experiences had in passing and the ‘scenic route’ that is a fixable mistake. If we never made any U-turns or wrong guesses or took any side roads instead of the Main Drag, life and travel would be ever so much duller. And this trip was anything but dull. I’ll share some of the adventures with you when the dust settles!digital illustration

Hither and Yon

photoTravel calls. It almost always does. I am grateful that travel doesn’t always require a lot of concrete resources. Because when travel demands that I join hands and run away with her, I may not have instant access to the time, money and practical resources needed for physically hitting the trail.

That’s when I travel Inward. While I love traveling in fabulous cities and foreign countries, unknown rural roads and famous tourist sites, I also delight in traveling the interior world. I make inner places both based on those lovely locales I’ve visited in real life or know of through others and on ones wholly invented by my strange little imagination, and they’re populated with all sorts of people and creatures, real or magical or, better yet, a nice mix of the two, doing whatever the denizens of such places should or can do. Anything can happen, and in the inner world I can be the one deciding what that Anything should be, playing puppet-master and ringmaster as I see fit, and returning home to my conscious and ordinary world of day-to-day life when it’s time to do so.

And when traveling Inward is not enough or the moment of wealth arrives when I can afford traveling Outward again, that’s what I like to do. So much unexplored territory remains for me to learn, experience and enjoy. To assimilate as fuel for further inner invention! So many friends and towns and countries I long to revisit. Beauty and mystery and joy and adventure that removes me from my ordinariness. That, whether my journey goes inward or outward, is a grand and miraculous thing.

May we all travel well, wherever our travels take us.photo

I Left My Car in San Francisco

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Edmonton

Many cities are best appreciated on foot. No matter how plush or sexy a car you have, sitting in it immobile in ugly traffic is just as unattractive as ever–maybe more so, if you’re thinking that somewhere in the next six blocks, if you can ever traverse them, is the bling-swinging pedestrian, high-speed messenger’s bicycle or runaway shopping cart with your pretty car’s number on it, and nowhere in the next eighteen blocks is there such a thing as a parking space for under $40, should you negotiate the next six unscathed. Life in a car is rough enough.

But there’s so much you can see and do on foot anyway that is unattainable or at least seldom noticed from inside a car. Window shopping while driving is no safer or more successfully accomplished than texting at the steering wheel. People watching, one of the best entertainments and learning tools known to observant persons, is at best a fleeting glimpse while driving past, not like the pedestrian’s opportunity to slow down and say hello or, more covertly, sit on the nearest bench and watch the whole human show parade along its way. Some cities, like San Francisco and Prague, Seattle and Stockholm, have enough narrow hilly streets that you can’t see halfway along the block, let alone what’s up over the hill’s crest or down around the next curve.

But if you were trying to operate automotively anyway, how would you be close enough to smell the smoke of a wood-fired oven drifting out a cafe window, to peer in and notice a gilt coffered ceiling behind the revolving door of an old bank building, to catch the eye of the shop proprietor who winks at you out of the dim interior so slyly that you can’t resist going in to see the hand-woven silks so ravishingly gleaming under the curved glass of that ancient mahogany display cabinet? What chance would you have of getting ever so slightly jostled off your straight walking path so that you notice that in the almost invisible gap next to you, between the bent copper drainpipe on the left and the broken rusty post-box on the right, a narrow cobbled alley appears, with sunlight spilling into it in ragged patterns created by its tiny balconies swathed in brilliant yellow and red and purple flowers?

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Denton

I’ve always preferred in-town meanders of the bipedal variety over wheeled ones, especially those exploratory ones in a new town or just a new part of a familiar town. If there’s not too much ground to cover, I covet the freedom I have to stop and gape, to slow down, take sudden unplanned tours and detours, to take pictures of the quirky oddity that almostescaped my eye. The fitness that comes from walking certainly beats that of planting my posterior in a car seat, no matter how tensely city traffic might make me perch there, and if I do get weary there are not only refurbished old trams, pedicabs, monorails and water taxis to deliver me from my exhausted state to my actual destination if necessary, or better yet, a nice leisurely cafe break at a sidewalk table with a sparkling mineral water in hand and dark sunglasses on so I can see all of the action nearby without appearing to stare too disconcertingly while I catch my breath and give my aging parts a little welcome recovery time. I’m just grateful to have two functional legs, no matter how modest my fitness level happens to be.

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Casco Viejo

Since my dyslexic gifts (yes, I just spelled it dsylexic before editing) include complete lack of an inner compass, one of the particularities of strolling wanders for me is that I must always allow plenty of time, and assume a fair likelihood that I will be well and truly lost at least once per outing. Including in my home town. Possibly in my own yard. But so far I’ve always found my way back again, like the proverbial Bad Penny, and remained alive and unharmed. I’m reasonably canny about not going into dicey areas alone or after dusk, taking off without an emergency cell phone (now that I finally have one, though it really is strictly for emergencies thankfully), or going for a genuine who-knows-where expedition without telling someone. But beyond that, plus some welcome good luck and guardian angel accompaniments, I can say with a certain amount of pleasure, surprise and/or pride that many of my best adventures have happened as a direct result of just staying close to the ground and taking advantage of the fortuitous events that occurred along the way, embracing the goodness of the fun and fascinating people who cross paths with me in those fine and serendipitous ways that happen when you let them. They can’t put that stuff in tourist guidebooks.

So I’m glad that I got out and left behind any car in so many grand places, or I’d never have loved them so well. Munich, New York, Verona, Chicago, London .. . would any of them have been a tenth as lovely from a car as on foot? It’s possible, I suppose, but I wouldn’t take back a single pair of my worn-out soles to find out for certain. I suspect more truly that it’s because I get up and leave my car in all those wonderful, fantastic places that I end up leaving my heart in all of them too.

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Boston