A city holds its breath

Paul Constant

March 11, 2016

A city is not just a black dot on a map. A city is not just its streets, or its buildings, or its people. When you take a long view, a city is a river in time. If you were to view the life of a city from its founding to its destruction in high speed, say a year passing every second, you would see it as a jittery flow of kinetic energy that wends and winds and shapes the earth around it. Towers would rise and fall, traffic would come and go; the only constant to a city is its motion. Seattle, for example, has seen moments when it has almost dried up — “Will the last person leaving Seattle turn out the lights,” the billboard said — and it has seen moments, like right now, when it rages and swells beyond its banks and destroys the lives who have lived contentedly on its shores for decades.

But if you slow down and pull up close and study things from a human perspective, you see the cost of all that motion. Unchecked, a city can drown or starve people with its boundless expansion and retraction. Without some kind of intent behind its growth, a city can create widows and orphans as surely as a loaded gun.

We live in a city, now, where it seems perfectly logical for some neighborhoods to hire a private police force to harass and injure anyone who does not look like they do. We live in a city where minorities are shamed and harmed and killed by the police. We live in a city that claims to love art, but our city also ensures that artists cannot afford to live here.

If you were to ask a child thirty years ago to draw a picture of Seattle in the future, odds are good that the city they’d draw would look a lot like the Seattle of today: crayon-colored streetcars, a trio of biodomes, lots of cars everywhere, glittering skyscrapers and wide streets and drills chugging away under the surface. But the Seattle of today suffers many of the unintentional problems you’d find in a child’s limited imagination, too: homogeneity, a simplified understanding of complex systems like economics and policing, an inability to truly comprehend problems like homelessness and mental health infrastructure and poverty.

On paper, Seattle looks like utopia. In real life, you understand that it is a utopia — but only for a tiny percentage of the population. And that’s simply unacceptable. A city is no damn good unless it works for everyone. And you could canvas any number of Seattleites, from NIMBY homeowners in Ballard who conveniently forget that the homeless are human beings; to lifelong Columbia City residents whose communities are becoming unrecognizable; to cash-strapped Capitol Hill renters who are being forced out of their homes in an Amazon-fueled gold rush, and I’d be willing to bet that despite their differences they would all agree on exactly one thing: Seattle is not working for everyone. And that means it is working for no one.

In 2012, San Francisco — a city that has experienced a very similar pattern of growth and loss and heartbreak and anger and confusion and fear — hosted an exhibition called Streetopia that lasted for a little longer than a month. Streetopia was a conglomeration of events and installations — art shows and zines and talks and a free café — created by over 100 artists to combat the city’s wave of gentrification.

In a new book by the same name, edited by Streetopia co-founder Erick Lyle, cartoonists Mike Reger and Rio Roth-Barreiro explain the project like this:

Streetopia was an idea. Or a question: what would things be like if they were how we wanted them to be? If we all had a community space that wasn’t reliant on profit to stay open, what would we do with it? If we lived how we wanted to, how would we live? Events. Art shows. Live music. Workshops. Speakers. A free café with free food. Free exchange of ideas. A minicomic tree. That sort of stuff. Why do old school San Francisco people only come together now for an event of this magnitude or in the face of tragedy?

Streetopia is a squat, dense little brick of a book, loaded with colorful photographs and reproductions of documents from the exhibition. Essays by Streetopia contributors including Rebecca Solnit, Daphne Gottlieb, Chris Kraus, and many other authors are laid out in columns and sidebars magazine-style, giving the prose a bit of a periodical’s immediacy.

The name is not just a cute play on words; Streetopia explores the concept of what an urban utopia would look like. (It’s not a coincidence that the book contains an interview with arguably the last influential American utopian thinker, Ernest Callenbach, the author of the novel Ecotopia.) But like many utopian visions, Streetopia is not interested in a comfortable transition. If you’re looking for a feel-good consensus, this is not the vision for you.

Streetopia embraces controversial topics like a Safe Injection Site, a proposed safe — even luxurious — public space for impoverished drug addicts to shoot up in comfort and with a community of like-minded users. (You won’t see Mayor Murray embracing this policy anytime soon.) Other acts of civil disobedience include Joey Alone’s account of illegally planting trees around San Francisco. At first, he lost a lot of trees to dog urine, which burns young saplings like acid, but “soon, I wasn’t losing very many trees anymore. I’ve probably planted over a thousand goddamned tress throughout my life so far. Some of the trees I’ve planted are now over fifteen feet tall.”

Streetopia encourages revolutionary thought. Indeed, most of San Francisco’s dispossessed residents don’t see any other way out of the current situation but revolution. As Sarah Schulman notes in her Streetopia talk “A Gentrification of the Mind,”

We have a new generation which is the most radical I have seen in years, the most open, and the most desirous for change. Why? Because they are saddled with student debt that boggles the mind, and can’t get jobs that could get them out of it. The yuppie promise is no more. That path is closed. And so the classic American promise of success and superstardom just around the corner seems more and more absurd.

It's fair to ask, four years later, if any of this revolutionary talk has amounted to much of anything in San Francisco, where rents keep climbing and the classes continue to divide. But this is not just fist-in-the-air agitprop; Streetopia reflects a city’s vision of itself. Lyle contributes an essay that examines Philip K. Dick’s alternate-history San Franciscos (as seen in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and The Man in the High Castle) and compares them to the tech companies that are driving out some of the city’s poorest people. Lyle dissects the dominant tech religion — the idea of a Singularity, in which human minds are eventually absorbed into a technological cloud in which they will live forever — and criticizes it as the spirit of Manifest Destiny that’s ruining his city: “With their public devotion to the Singularity, tech CEOs are really telling us that they already wish to be seen by us as immortal superintelligent gods, that their technological innovations are already the very instrument shaping mankind’s future evolution.”

This is not the future that the past promised us. It’s not even the present that we believe it is. Philip K. Dick’s predictions were more correct than he ever could have imagined, but they came true in the most banal way possible. Welcome to the future: a city inside a city, where people wearing virtual reality helmets don’t have to recognize the real human suffering around them. Is this progress?

The problem with anti-gentrification forces is that they tend to fall prey to easy sentimentality. It’s easy to want to colonize the past and live there forever, but that’s always going to be impossible. Even in this science fiction future, our time machines only move in one direction — relentlessly forward. But is it wise to push forward when that’s the same direction your foes are going? Maybe another option is necessary. Maybe you have to stop the river in time, to gather your senses and plan.

That’s what exhibitions like Streetopia are for: they’re snapshots of a specific time and a place, a way to stop everything from rushing onward. It’s a way of saying “this is where we are,” and to think about what that means, and to chart potential paths. These moments are important in the lives of a city, too. As Lyle writes:

The 1989 quake…damaged the Bay Bridge, bringing its traffic to a halt for the first time since the bridge’s opening in 1936. Two years later, when the first iteration of the Gulf War began, hundreds of anti-war protesters calling for “No Business as Usual!” rushed onto the bridge, stopping traffic for the second time. By stopping traffic, protesters seek to claim as their own the earthquake’s power to disjoint the forward flow of time.

If you cock your ear and listen, you’ll hear Seattle begging for a Streetopia of its own, a celebration of what it means to be from Seattle and a contemplation of what we want that to mean in years to come. Reading Streetopia will prepare you to think about what such an exhibition would entail, and why it’s so necessary. It’s time for the city to hold its breath and make a wish. And then it will be time for the city to exhale and to make those wishes come true.

Seattle, let’s stop time together.

Books in this review:
  • Streetopia
    by Erick Lyle

    October 26, 2015
    312 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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