String of Pearls

Stan Kahn


While traveling in Sumatra, Indonesia a few years back I stayed at a small budget hotel which, by local standards, was reasonably comfortable. All the floors and stairs - it was a five story building sans elevator - were finished in thick, good quality, 12 inch square ceramic tiles. The architect, assuming an architect was involved, in order to avoid the hassle of cutting those tiles or for some other unknowable reason, turned the phrase 'form follows function' on it's head and designed the stairs 12 inches high to match the tiles.

Now as many readers will know, twelve inches is excessively high for stairs - the standard being six to eight inches - and makes for awkward, strained, uncomfortable negotiation. For the Western visitor such anomalies are a big part of the draw of third world travel - the West being excessively organized, orderly, standardized and especially in America, designed with possible litigation in mind.

But it reinforced once again the feeling I've had since I was a teenager that the individual's ability to 'function' is strongly impacted by life's 'forms'. Those twelve inch stairs were not that big a deal, especially for only a few days at a time, but they still represent an inherent dysfunction and instigator of petty disgruntlement and would certainly begin to weigh on my psyche in time. This would be very similar in essence, though of course extremely minor in comparison, to spending hours every day stewing in traffic on a Los Angeles Freeway or being stuffed beyond reason into a crowded New York subway train. Every part of mundane life that isn't right, isn't logical or efficient, or establishes gratuitous hurdles in our path, takes a slice, greater or lesser, off of our potential and our peace of mind.

Cleveland, my home town, is probably most noted for it's once burning river, the Cuyahoga. Back in the seventies it frequently burst into flames from a pollution cocktail consisting of industrial chemicals and methane from the breakdown of organic waste. But it's nadir in hosting a burning river was no more than the culmination of a long history of skewed priorities, indifference and neglect

Fifty years ago Cleveland was America's sixth largest city with more than 900,000 people, today that number has dropped to just more than half it's post war high. As every major city, Cleveland had it's many points of pride, but it was small and crowded - supporting a population density of more than 12,000 people per square mile - and it was built cheap - fake brick asphalt siding on drab, small ugly houses is for me it's most memorable visual feature. Furthermore, all but a very small part of the city was built to serve lower income groups. Almost all of the better quality housing was in the suburbs. Along with Detroit, it epitomized the term 'gray area', and was largely devoid of brightness, style, warmth or beauty.

I devoured all the literature available at the Cleveland planning bureau very quickly after my first visit at the age of fourteen. I was quite disappointed upon my second visit a few months later when they had nothing new to hand out. It was gray but I'd identified with it and was very unhappy to have to leave at the age of seventeen when my mother packed up us three kids and drove off to Los Angeles.

It was a difficult adjustment, going from an earthy housing project life and a racially mixed school to a pastel domiciled one hundred percent white suburban LA where nearly every kid of sixteen had his own pinstriped and personally monikered car to drive. I somehow missed the reality of Cleveland's grime, but also saw that people in LA were much more open; their thinking encompassed much wider vistas.

In a short time the pastel began to get to me, and I began to long for a grimy reality check. But Cleveland, oh so provincial, was out of the question - LA had stretched my horizons and expanded my perspective. Instead, at the age of eighteen, I went off to New York. My first experience there was quintessential big apple. As I disembarked from the massive Port Authority Bus Terminal trying to follow written directions to a relative's house, awed by and disoriented in it's immensity, I stopped to ask directions from a man tending a newsstand. He gruffly shot back, "Do I look like a cop? I'm not paid to give directions."

But I loved it. It was thrillingly active and dynamic and it went on twenty four hours a day, it never stopped. Imagine another city where every subway line, and New York has 276 miles of them, operates at twenty minute intervals throughout the night. And it was passionate and involved; every conceivable off the wall political group in the world had a representation in the city. I'd often remark that it took a city of eight million people for me to find a handful of like minds.

But in just one year, carried by family exigencies, I returned to do another three years' time in LA before I could boomerang once again back to the big apple. The next five years saw me going through a lot of personal changes but I did manage to fulfill a longstanding dream and cobble together a BA in urban studies. City planning is a relatively new discipline. As late as 1968, City College of New York had no planning program; I had to gather courses from half dozen different departments. As I was pursuing the academic study of cities I gained an intimate knowledge of the world's most powerful city on the ground as a cabdriver.

But the hard-edged life began to weigh on me. I'd be cruising the city streets seeing thirty story apartment houses turning into stacks of identical cubbyholes inhabited by mind-numbed automatons. Meanwhile after I graduated, in my short and only stint at professional planning as a trainee for the city of New York, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that nearly every effort the city was taking to improve itself was in fact making things worse. The were mostly on the order of grand plans or great subsidies designed to stimulate the development of new office towers even though the city's infrastructure couldn't begin to serve the needs of those that were already there.

My thought processes turned repetitive and mildly obsessive. The dirt, noise, danger and expense of living became increasingly oppressive until, fortuitously, the psychedelic revolution burst on the scene and on me and I gained the insight to see myself turning into a compulsive mumbler or subway wall screamer of the type that abound in New York.
It was about the time when Canned Heat was singing "Goin' Up the Country" and Bob Dylan was extolling the virtues of "Country Pie". Meanwhile I was living in a first floor apartment surrounded by tall buildings that was so cavelike we had to have the lights on at high noon on a bright sunny day.

I barely escaped the big city with my faculties intact and ran as far from the madding crowd as I could manage, which turned out to be an intentional community (read hippie commune) of about 35 people in the mountains of Southern Oregon. It took two years of living in the Oregon woods where the greatest danger is a hard rain before I was released from the New York paranoia of walking fast while frequently looking back over a shoulder in the expectation of getting mugged. It was two years before I could just slow down and enjoy life.

It was planned and developed in a natural, organic, unplanned way. It was auto free, child friendly and community centered. It was a microcosm of society as a whole and as such there were no end of conflicts and controversies, but it encapsulated and reflected an idealized and futuristic view of society designed to directly serve people's deepest, truest, most essential needs. We lived without utilities or amenities but no amount of money could have purchased a more beautiful setting for a healthier, more enlightened lifestyle. Alas it was a short lived experiment in alternate living and we all began to drift off in our own ways.

I swore I'd never live in a city again, but after five years in the country, for which I was nonetheless extremely grateful, the lure of urbanity became irresistible. Fortunately, this time I was able to choose Portland, one of America's most user-friendly cities. It struck me as a place of easy accessibility where even a common person could afford adequate living space. Big enough to supply a diversified urban life, but small enough for an individual to make a difference.
I gave my best effort over more than a decade's time to affect change through grassroots community activity. In ten years time I missed no more than ten neighborhood association meetings. Portland is noted for citizen involvement. I put thirteen years into a cooperative recycling company that was first in the US to offer curbside recycling collection and by it's example it forced local and state governments to mandate a similar service for all.

But nothing is perfect no matter how hip, excellent or relatively advanced and after seventeen years in triple mellow Portland, at the age of fifty, it was time for me to have my first experience of the world. In five years I traveled in twenty countries in Europe, the Middle East and in Asia. Most of that time was spent in Asia and included a year in Thailand and two years in China. Many of the ideas in this book - notably the superblock concept and separated bike paths - had been ruminating around my synapses for years. In my travels I was able to see them on the ground, in action.

So I've seen a bit of the world and glimpsed inklings of the future. I've experienced the most urban of lives and the most suburban of lives in America's two largest cities as well as a life in green and isolated splendor. I've taken a small part in a mid-sized city's quest to exemplify a healthy urban lifestyle and I've been enriched by the witness of many other cultures.

The String of Pearls is a distillation of a lifetime of potential futures thinking.

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