The impossible city

Mark Turner teaches at King's College London and is the author of Backward Glances: Cruising the Queer Streets of New York and London (Reaktion Books, 2003).

A pack-donkey's way

I grew up in a suburb of Washington DC in the 1970s-80s. For most of my childhood it was a place of grandeur, of school trips to museums and annual Fourth of July fireworks displays. By my teenage years, however, the city had become a place of sexual excitement, both real and imagined. It was a place where congressmen got caught with male hustlers more frequently than was expected (real), where gay men played volleyball outside a decadent nightclub in the shadow of the Capitol (real), and where all the sins of the cities of the plain converged (imagined). As a curious and horny gay teen who increasingly explored the city's streets I wasn't exactly certain of what I was looking for, though I invested a great deal of time in thinking about it.

As it happens, Washington is a very straight city. Its lines, angles and proportions are proper and dignified; its urban ambitions strictly low-rise, "European" we called it. It's a rational grid-and-circle city, all letters and numbers, unwaveringly certain of itself, unattractively self-confident in its display of power. Its predictability suggests the monotony of a company town - despite the political spectra - and it has the unhappy distinction of appearing very normal, but only because it is. If it's Gomorrah (or, in my case, Sodom) you're after, you may as well stay in the suburbs where all the really twisted stuff happens.

In his 1929 manifesto, The City of To-Morrow and Its Planning, Le Corbusier energetically ushers in his vision of urban modernity with a simple distinction between old and new ways of moving through the city: Man walks in a straight line because he has a goal and knows where he is going; he has made up his mind to reach some particular place and he goes straight to it. The pack-donkey meanders along, meditates a little in his scatter-brained and distracted fashion; he zigzags in order to avoid the larger stones, or to ease the climb, or to gain a little shade; he takes the line of least resistance.

Needless to say, Le Corbusier was on the side of the straight walker and not the capricious donkey. His modern city would be organized around a related set of concepts: function - order - machinery - perfection. Circuitous routes suit the medieval pack-donkey, not the modern man. Uneven lines, he suggests, produce uneven, unequal civilizations of discontent. "The modern sentiment," he tells us, "is a spirit of geometry, a spirit of construction and synthesis. Exactitude and order are its essential condition." And in his plans for a "Contemporary City of Three Million People", first mooted in 1922, he provides a total and totalizing vision - a network of high-rise, cruciform towers embedded in green parkland, intersected by wide, open highways, regulated by straightness. The straight and the modern are as one.

I like tall buildings and wide vistas as much as the next urban man, but I worry about all that regulation in the city of tomorrow. In part, it reminds me of the city of the past, the Enlightenment city of perfectibility. And in its way, it acts - if not quite looks - like Washington, where there's not enough room for unexpected moments, where the experience of moving through the city isn't nearly bent enough. What about ambiguity and contingency, what about randomness and uncertainty? "We struggle against chance, against disorder, against a policy of drift," Le Corbusier says. But not all of us do.

The way we move through our city streets says something important about how we experience them. Walter Benjamin taught us that much (as did Dickens, Whitman, and a whole lot of others before him, too). Though it sometimes seems almost nostalgic these days, walking remains the pre-eminent way of moving through the city. But how we walk depends on the kinds of streets and back-alleys we have, the different sorts of squares and parks we have to walk through.

There's a way of walking the streets that undermines the regulation of the straight line, that advocates a policy of drift, and that may have more in common with the pack-donkey than the modern man. I'm thinking here of cruising: gay men walking the streets, casting round a lustful eye, hoping to pick up other men. The cruiser wanders the streets open to chance encounters in often unforeseen places, motivated by a desire to connect with other people. He takes his time waiting for a moment of reciprocity, when another's eyes meet his own, producing some kind of meaning. If there is a straight line that matters to the cruiser, it is the line that exists between two people looking at each other, full of uncertainty but equally full of possibility. Georg Simmel calls this form of visual contact "the most direct and the purest interaction that exists", and the cruiser is someone who exploits this interaction most fully.

Cruising requires a kind of drifting, and drifting opens us up to chance. Le Corbusier believes that the curved line is "ruinous, difficult and dangerous". He senses the disruptive potential of the bent experience. He struggles against uncertainty, but some of us prefer to take our chances. This may be a tactic, a way of resisting the overly planned narratives and structures that are out there trying to describe and delimit us. What happens in the city of tomorrow when all space is always already rationalized? What happens when there are no more difficult and dangerous paths to follow? What happens when it all becomes so... straight? Well, what happens is that people find the curved line, and bend the city to their own needs.

Le Corbusier wouldn't have much cause to straighten up Washington today; it's plenty straight already. But even in a city as seriously straight as Washington, you can follow the pack-donkey's way - to the warehouses in the southeast part of the city, to the Lady Byrd Johnson Park just across the river, to the meandering trail of the P Street "beach", and elsewhere. Even in Washington, there are tactics afoot and people still willing to take their chances.



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