In 1971 urbanist William H. Whyte, mentor to Jane Jacobs ("The Death and Life of Great American Cities"), began the Street Life Project in New York City. Whyte and his team trained Super 8 cameras on plazas, streets, playgrounds, and other small urban spaces and simply watched, via time-lapse photography, what people actually did. What they found led to changes in the way we view the social settings of cities. Whyte, the consummate participant observer, found that what people actually do and not what they say they do is the best key to the success of a place. His observations seem, at times, remarkably unprofound, like common sense, and yet it was a common sense bereft of urban planners driven by notions of rationality and efficiency. People were attracted to small spaces with high densities.
But better than the wisdom gained from such observation --- novel at the time but now more common if institutionalized (think web-cam, movement studies) --- are the black and white photos contained in the book that recorded his observations, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. (There is also a one hour color film of the study here.) The people. Remember that this is 1971, the waning of the counterculture, pre-Watergate, and, judging by the photos, a time when life was of a slower pace, even in New York City. African-American children ride bikes and play games in the middle of 101st Street in East Harlem, a couple kiss, a woman reads, people sunbathe. Men watch women, a woman and man (him in a checkerboard suit) clasp hands in the street, an older man points to the sky, a well-dressed woman looks on. People sit wherever there is room to sit --- on the ledge around St. Peter's church, on a simple round bench at Rockefeller Center, or on the steps at St. Thomas church where the sun warms the stone.
What Whyte did was apply the power of observation so often used to study wildlife and natural areas to the urban landscape. In so doing, he unintentionally discovered more than just how people used small urban places. He demonstrated the great diversity and richness of human social life. Well-heeled shoppers, street people, children, the elderly, hippies, construction workers, office workers, policemen, and merchants all show up in his Super 8. And he noticed something very important about place: "When you study a place and chart it and map it, you begin to acquire a proprietary right in it. You do not reason this. Obviously, you have no such right. But you feel it. It is your place. You earned it." He even noticed that he developed this same regard for people as he considered their patterns of behavior, sensing that "[t]hese are my people out there."
I would say it is much more than Whyte postulates. Built in our very nature is a longing for community and for place, one that stems from our being made in God's image. The triune God exists in community; we best image Him when we exist in community, not as isolated individuals. Our very embodiment means that the body and place has deep meaning for us. We are more human, and more humane, when we deeply connect with a people and a place.
In a new book, The Space Between: A Christian Engagement With the Built Environment, Eric Jacobsen notes that "[w]e live in a culture that has become convinced that there is no longer any connection between geography (where one lives and the distinctive qualities of that place) and our experience of community." We think place becomes irrelevant when social technologies foster relationships irrespective of place. And yet I suspect a strange and disembodied anomie takes root when we live and interact primarily in front of monitors and television screens, with IPads and smartphones, and we begin to feel hollowed out and detached.
Whenever I travel one of the first things I do in a new place is to leave my hotel and walk in it. These walks are always memorable, at least to me, however pedestrian they may seem to others. I stop in a coffeeshop in Milwaukee and sit and listen to the conversations around me, see the somewhat different dress and features of the people that surround me. I note street names, see people lounging on the grass and looking out their windows, reach out and touch brick and mortar, railings and trees, historic buildings and bridgeworks, relishing their physicality, their permanence. And for a moment, like Whyte, I sense that the place is mine and the people, my people. I am the Super 8. But more than a mere recorder, I am outwalking in my place among my people.
God did the same. He made a people and a place. He walked in the cool of the Garden. And throughout the history of the Hebrew people, he was never far way, covenantally bound with his people and their land, moving in and among them. And then, quite amazingly, He came and walked among us. His people, His place. At the end of time, He will dwell with His embodied people (not spirits) in a real and tangible place. Yes, we long for place and people --- for real community and "land" --- because it is who He is.
When I was a kid my friend Bobby and I walked the streets of our neighborhood, navigating backyards, jumping fences, avoiding dogs, and rehearsing for adulthood, among a place and a people that we will never forget. Even now, I can remember the feel of fence posts, telephone poles, pavement, curb and gutter, and the grass in his backyard on which we lay looking out at stars. It may only have been a barely noticed corner of suburbia, but I was Super 8. I was outwalking. Even now, I can see the street names, the navigable backyard paths, feel the asphalt under my feet.
I don't want to live life vicariously or virtually. I don't want to just be a Super 8. I want to live life among a people and a place that I deeply and intimately know.
I want to walk in it like God did.
[The photo of William Whyte and his Super 8 camera, featured on the back cover of his book, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, is by Margret Bemiss, a researcher in the Street Life Project.]