By Siraj Asfahani | June 27, 2017
Date: Monday the 19th | Time: 6:00 pm
I open the door and the show begins. I walk the usual left, right, left with brief pauses during certain turns. I make sure not to stray away from my regular 3-foot wide path on stage; I feel anxious as I take my last turn. The performance has begun and it cannot tolerate a single mistake. For the last eight months we have been presenting the same piece, though the actors have changed over and over. Each performer is so focused on their role they don’t remember others’ acts. Although the show is quite repetitive, reappearances on stage never make it perfect. The show is simple: walk and stop, hover your eyes in a vertical motion, and unless taking a turn, do not look sideways. The only chance for us to take a glimpse of one another performing is when a red light stops us from crossing to the other stage. In those few seconds, you see performers adjusting their costumes, making sure that no obstacle will hinder their usual act. But the act doesn’t rely on the interaction of two performers; quite the opposite, in fact. The moment two actors get out of character to salute one another is the exact moment the show is interrupted.
The performers are random people walking on the street, the stages are sidewalks, and the whole performance is simply a lonely walk to the train at rush hour in the heart of Chicago. The experience of walking along the streets of a dense city is no longer animated by a variety of scenes and interaction of people; it is oftentimes dry and lifeless. Density has been a key element in healthy cities, yet cities are no longer sensitive to their populations. Many streets look similar, numerous stores are chains, and sidewalks are mostly used for walking. Today’s cities are oftentimes too staged to function.
Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) was an urbanist and activist whose writings championed a fresh, community-based approach to city building. She spoke of the “Sidewalk Ballet”, a perception of urban complexity based on casual public trust and contact. Jacobs argues that sidewalk ballet’s “essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. The order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance . . . an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole.”
Before zoning began to promote shopping malls and buildings that can only be described as boxes, the streets were scattered with small local shops, full of character and life. A distinctive street feeds off the little enterprises that bring about its character. The street shouldn’t be a staged performance, but rather a backstage. On stage, performers are not who they really are. In fact, they are merely manufactured characters. The backstage, however, is a space where people enjoy spontaneous and genuine conversations as opposed to a script writer’s notion of dialogue. In Jacobs’ opinion, interaction between people is what creates the ballet. It is the distinctive parts of a city, where random people interact, that adds flavor to the street.
Cities are theoretically designed to bring people together and allow for social and communal interaction between one another. However, many cities and communities are almost designed to look like one another, aiming for the generic minimal image. The absence of local stores, a lack of a “neighborhood feel”, and the constant repetitiveness in style and experience makes the whole less interesting. These places are planned to be great and impressive, clean and tidy, structured and positioned, but not interactive. They are essentially great examples of staged redundancy.
“Placemaking” or “Designing for the people” is a great recommendation to help bring character back to the streets. The element of surprise is what is missing in our cities–a reason to attract people of different interests. Placemaking advocates for a distinctive character that is highly influenced by the community and the neighborhoods’ history and culture. As a first step, we should promote pedestrian streets, to allow people to be themselves and not staged to follow the lead of a car-designed street. Pedestrian streets full of benches, arcades, lights, vegetation, flower beds, kiosks, vendors, umbrellas and other little elements can create enormous vibrancy, all based on human interaction.
A pedestrian street is simply a bigger sidewalk, a bigger backstage.