musings., politics
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the nostalgia machine.

I’ve been thinking a lot about nostalgia lately.  Here I’ve written a lot about history, about memory, about temporal multiplicy in the urban fabric and the importance of historical context for civic engagement and cultural identity.  But what happens when we think that in order to remember, we must freeze something in time?  Or, to reconstruct it to how we imagine that it may have been, a la Carcassone?  Even further: when we commodify and articulate that history-myth for economic gain or political power?

I’ve raised these issues before.  But what I haven’t seen is a broader discussion of this problematic outside of the realm of historic preservation.  But consider: what are food trucks for?  What is a bike path, or a greenway, or a pedestrianized plaza?  Are they so different from what urbanists have done before, in pursuit of a competitive, attractive city?

Consider, for example, Ebenezer Howard’s scheme for the Garden City of To-Morrow (1898).

Today we recognize in this plan for a world of “slumless, smokeless cities” a master plan that eventually resulted in the development of suburban sprawl, greenfield destruction, and urban decay.  But at the time, Howard’s conception of small cities with self-sufficient agricultural areas and separation of polluting industrial uses from residential areas and recreational greenways was something that we also recognize – a search for sustainable living in the modern world.

Contemporary urbanist practices can similarly be seen in relation to historic patterns of nostalgia.  In the greenbelts, greenways, and urban farms of our cities we reclaim a mythical natural heritage and beautify our cities and cleanse our bodies with the presence of nature and the search for a slower, more human pace of life.  We leave behind the consumptive, technical world for honeybees, bicycles, and vegetables.

All of this is to say, that nostalgia – for the past, for the countryside – plays an important role in the practice of progress.  A competitive city is a desirable city, and nostalgia, at this particular moment, is at the heart of our collective desires as we lament a past when we were more equal (really?), more in tune with nature (well, maybe), less corrupted by our technology and the nasty business of progress.  But nostalgia is not the same as recovering the past – that we can never do.  And when developing our cities in the image of a planner or developer or politician’s imagination of a desirable past, I think we’re giving up the possibility of multiple, flexible futures in favor of just another growth machine in disguise.

This is of course not to say that these nostalgic practices do not often have important outcomes. You know I believe in history, in preservation, in reclaiming lost practices. Incorporating vegetation, non-auto transportation, and farming into cities is an important step for our health, for our environment, and in many cases for reclaiming identities for cities that have lost their strength.  And saving important buildings or historic urban fabric from demolition often has powerful implications for equity and identity. But when practiced without careful attention to process, it can look a whole lot like another machine creating a totalizing narrative of a place without room for change or reimagination.  A growth or nostalgia machine city is one that has a single, teleological myth.  It is a city that grows, or a city that remains the same, for the purpose of economic growth and competitiveness.  I think our cities need something more.

This year I’m exploring what practices and measures might be for governing flexibility in cities in a way that goes beyond nostalgia.  I’m not looking for answers, but beginnings.  I look forward to getting your feedback.

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