Essay on Chicago’s alleys

You aren’t going to find too many erudite essays like this one on the subject of Chicago’s alleys:

Thus, alleys in Chicago, as in most other cities, evolved organically: as a general product of function and construction, but with modulations in dimension, materiality, position, and construction, readily changed to suit the needs of its neighbors and occupants. Fluxing along their entire lengths, they cut a byzantine pattern in the city’s figure ground, contributing to its unmistakable appearance in plan without serving as the primary warp and weft of the fabric…

The results are not always beautiful or orthodox, but they are usually interesting; alleys seen in this light could be conceived as both museums and laboratories for material combinations and adjacencies, methods of assembly and detailing. But in another light, alleys are urban canyons—broken glass, vegetation clinging to the fragile mortar joints, with a single swath of sky above: more products of time and erosion, with human intervention to architectonic formations what glaciers are to geology. Again: raw super-nature registered through a Kantian impression of the sublime…

And consider this: glamour in its modern manifestations is generally assigned to objects and places that are alluring, attractive, and special. Its secondary connotation is less positive; a permutation of Norse and Scottish words that tie it to illusion and obfuscation, spells of the eye meant to conceal true natures. In that vein, is it so difficult to see ordinary as glamour, and alleys as extraordinary? We would do well to keep ourselves open; there may be something truly remarkable lying in plain sight within the gravel and brick.

For those who know cities well, I suspect many of them could tell of places where they found something sublime in the non-glamorous places. Much of the attention paid to major cities focuses on major works (like skylines) while residents and others who take a longer and deeper look see a different side.

I was reminded of Chicago’s alleys recently when showing my class part of Mitchell Duneier’s video supplement to his ethnography Sidewalk. In the film, we see images of the subjects of his research – homeless street vendors – wandering through New York City’s garbage in order to find books, magazines, and other things to sell at their sidewalk tables. There was so much garbage simply piled at the curb, not exactly a glamorous sight. In contrast, alleys allow some of these basic functions to be moved behind buildings and open up sidewalks for more pedestrian and social uses.

Veblen: lawn = cow pasture

In The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen briefly tackles the lawn:

Everyday life affords many curious illustrations of the way in which the code of pecuniary beauty in articles of use varies from class to class, as well as of the way in which the conventional sense of beauty departs in its deliverances from the sense untutored by the requirements of pecuniary repute. Such a fact is the lawn, or the close-cropped yard or park, which appeals so unaffectedly to the taste of the Western peoples. It appears especially to appeal to the tastes of the well-to-do classes in those communities in which the dolicho-blond element predominates in an appreciable degree. The lawn unquestionably has an element of sensuous beauty, simply as an object of apperception, and as such no doubt it appeals pretty directly to the eye of nearly all races and all classes; but it is, perhaps, more unquestionably beautiful to the eye of the dolicho-blond than to most other varieties of men. This higher appreciation of a stretch of greensward in this ethnic element than in the other elements of the population, goes along with certain other features of the dolicho-blond temperament that indicate that this racial element had once been for a long time a pastoral people inhabiting a region with a humid climate. The close-cropped lawn is beautiful in the eyes of a people whose inherited bent it is to readily find pleasure in contemplating a well-preserved pasture or grazing land.

For the aesthetic purpose the lawn is a cow pasture; and in some cases today — where the expensiveness of the attendant circumstances bars out any imputation of thrift — the idyl of the dolicho-blond is rehabilitated in the introduction of a cow into a lawn or private ground. In such cases the cow made use of is commonly of an expensive breed. The vulgar suggestion of thrift, which is nearly inseparable from the cow, is a standing objection to the decorative use of this animal. So that in all cases, except where luxurious surroundings negate this suggestion, the use of the cow as an object of taste must be avoided. Where the predilection for some grazing animal to fill out the suggestion of the pasture is too strong to be suppressed, the cow’s place is often given to some more or less inadequate substitute, such as deer, antelopes, or some such exotic beast. These substitutes, although less beautiful to the pastoral eye of Western man than the cow, are in such cases preferred because of their superior expensiveness or futility, and their consequent repute. They are not vulgarly lucrative either in fact or in suggestion.

Public parks of course fall in the same category with the lawn; they too, at their best, are imitations of the pasture. Such a park is of course best kept by grazing, and the cattle on the grass are themselves no mean addition to the beauty of the thing, as need scarcely be insisted on with anyone who has once seen a well-kept pasture. But it is worth noting, as an expression of the pecuniary element in popular taste, that such a method of keeping public grounds is seldom resorted to. The best that is done by skilled workmen under the supervision of a trained keeper is a more or less close imitation of a pasture, but the result invariably falls somewhat short of the artistic effect of grazing. But to the average popular apprehension a herd of cattle so pointedly suggests thrift and usefulness that their presence in the public pleasure ground would be intolerably cheap. This method of keeping grounds is comparatively inexpensive, therefore it is indecorous.

Veblen is suggesting the lawn is a particular kind of status symbol, a connection to nature and a particular level of economic standing. Plus, this is a particular kind of Western urban adaptation of nature: have a little patch of grass and an animal, all standing in for a real connection to nature and a symbol of owning more expansive property. All of this sounds Bourdieuan: the lawn is a particular expression of class status and training.

The beauty of highway over ramps

A sample of photographer Alex MacLean’s aerial photography includes this picture of a highway intersection in Albuquerque.

Alex MacLean 2008

Beautiful. There are several dimensions to this:

1. The interplay of light and dark both from the sunlight as well as the darker roadway and the lighter desert.

2. The modernist twists of the highway ramps.

3. The smallness of the cars, a reminder of the limited lives we lead.

I know highways are concrete entities that lead to traffic and air pollution but I’ve always enjoyed seeing them from above.

Building beautiful cities

Architecture critic Edwin Heathcote suggests the beauty in cities is to be found in its ordinary moments.

My first thought is that standards of what is beautiful in cities changes quite a bit over time. Architecture changes. Material conditions change. Culture changes. Buildings go through cycles of acceptance and what might be charming or notable in one city is not so revered elsewhere.

My second thought is that this may be an exercise in gatekeeping: who exactly gets to declare cities or designs as beautiful? Architecture critics, of course, get to do this.

My third thought is that Heathcote may just be right. Much of the attention cities receive tends to come down to particular neighborhoods, like the business core or trendy locations, or particular buildings (like the tallest and/or newest skyscrapers). For example, visitors in Chicago tend to get to see the “greatest hits” including Michigan Avenue, the Loop, the museums, Millennium Park, and other glitzy and well-maintained places meant to project an image. The problem is that most of Chicago doesn’t look like this and the majority of residents are operating in other parts of the city.

Sunsets can beautify the suburbs and McMansions

I was amused to run into this Flickr/Instagram photograph of a beautiful sunset over a subdivision of suburban McMansions. The tag on the photo: “Suburbia has awesome sunsets too | #shareyoursunset #sky #McMansions.”

This short commentary can be tied to how suburbs are often portrayed. The suburbs are often caricatured as bland or ordered in a mass-produced way or messy places but rarely as beautiful. Even though the suburbs were originally intended to be a way to combine nature and residences (particularly compared to the dirty cities of the Industrial Revolution), this idea has been lost today. The newest subdivisions tend to be flat places where the existing trees and topography have been leveled for human residences. (However, it is interesting to look at older subdivisions, say those built in the two decades after World War II, and see their more mature trees. Are these neighborhoods now more beautiful simply due to the passage of time?)

This also goes beyond nature. Think of popular culture depictions of suburbs that tend to have a similar storyline: “this suburban family/street/community looks put together but once you dig below the surface, you find all sorts of flaws.” (This is not just limited to suburban stories.) Outside of home interiors (often the focus of magazines and television shows), where is there beauty in suburbs?

Yet, the sky is not completely obscured by suburban subdivisions so perhaps for just a few moments, the suburbs too can be a place where natural beauty is revealed.

A sociology PhD student is studying changing women’s clothing sizes while also not looking in the mirror before her wedding

This story has now been going around for a few days: a bride-to-be decided 6 months before her wedding to not look at herself in the mirror for the next year, blog about the experience, and draw attention to how women think about beauty and their bodies. What perhaps has gotten lost in this story is that this is being undertaken by a sociology PhD student who is writing a dissertation about women’s clothing sizes:

When Kjerstin Gruys got engaged to her longtime boyfriend, the former fashion merchandiser turned sociologist feared she would relapse into an eating disorder as she hunted for the perfect wedding dress. She was fiercely committed to researching her sociology Ph.D. on beauty and inequality, but was overwhelmed by the pressure of having a picturesque wedding. Her values and behavior were at odds, and she knew had to do something — and quick.

Instead of becoming engulfed in a vanity obsession, she committed to a year without mirrors — and launched the blog Mirror Mirror…OFF The Wall six months before her wedding date…

For her Ph.D. research, Gruys has moved on from body image and started examining vanity size — when clothing that was once, say, a size 8, becomes a size 6 so that women feel better about themselves, she said. By analyzing Sears catalogs from the past 100 years, Gruys said she’s seen drastic changes in clothing size over time. “I think the most interesting thing I’ve found so far is simply that clothing sizes have changed so dramatically, especially for women, and in the direction of getting away from having the clothing size and clothing measurements having any relationship to each other.”

“When we think of standards we think of things that make our lives more standard and more efficient,” she said. But clothing size standards are different across every fashion firm and even across brands within a firm. “We attach so much emotion to body size, women especially and companies want us to feel good when we are trying on their clothes.”

Both projects sound interesting and studying women’s clothing sizes from a sociology of culture perspective is something I wrote about recently.

It is also intriguing to think how this PhD candidate is mixing more traditional forms of research with blogging. This particular mirrors project is not simply being undertaken by someone like AJ Jacobs, a writer who has tackled some odd activities and then written about them (my favorite: The Year of Living Biblically). Rather, this is an academic who has a background in fashion who is also researching topics in the same subfield. The blog could function as more of a personal outlet but I assume it would be informed by sociological insights. I suspect we will see more of this in the future as academics would benefit quite a bit from blog side projects that draw attention to noteworthy issues as well as highlight their research.

A final thought: what would be an equivalent project that a man could undertake?

A new kind of capital: “erotic capital”

Sociologists have written a lot about “economic, social, and cultural capital.” One sociologist suggests adding a new category: “erotic capital“:

Even some academics are waxing poetic about the hidden value of sexual prowess. Sociologist and London School of Economics professor Catherine Hakim, author of Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom, believes that “erotic capital” is the fourth human asset, in addition to economic, social and cultural capital.

She defines it broadly as physical and social attractiveness, and says that flirting is one manifestation. “Charisma often includes flirting, when appropriate,” Hakim says, “and these days even CEOs are expected to display charisma.”

While the rest of this post is about “flirting gone wrong,” I wonder how other sociologists would view the idea of “erotic capital.” People have some control over their looks, particularly if they have money (which often enables better health care), but it is also predetermined. Additionally, there is pressure to conform to culturally-specific standards of beauty. All of us are socialized into particular patterns of attractiveness which could range from being well-mannered to flirtatious and dressy to roguish.

There are quite a few studies that discuss the effects of being attractive. I don’t recall Goffman’s dramaturgical work mentioning much about “physical or social attractiveness.” While such studies did account for power dynamics, certainly attractiveness plays some role in interaction. Can attractiveness be enough to overcome deficits in other areas of capital or would it be in fourth place in terms of importance about the types of capital?

Making art out of sprawl

The Infrastructurist comments on a story about an artist who uses sprawl and suburbia as his subject. The Infrastructurist and the story commentator suggest these images are alienating and ultimately, tragic:

The suburbs are totally self-contained, labyrinthine, and generally terrifying. The Times describes them as “static, crystalline and inorganic. Indeed, some of these streets frame retirement communities: places to move to once you’ve already been what you’ve set out to be.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

I don’t think one has to see these images as tragic. A couple of possible defenses of such images (and the one The Infrastructurist has on the story is a good one):

1. These can be seen as very ordered places. Not ordered in the sense of traditional city grid ordered but they still have a logic. The streets may be more winding but these communities seem to be centered around retail centers or parks. They may even have their own kind of beauty.

2. If one already thinks sprawl is bad, then viewing these overhead shots may just be throwing fuel on the fire. However, these images can be read as the American manifestation of particular social and cultural values: individualism and privacy as built in single-family homes and suburban streets for our cars. In America, the particular expression of these values may be best exhibited in suburbs. There are other ways suburbs/sprawl could be structured to still support those values – or perhaps these commentators would suggest these values themselves should just be done away with. But that is not a problem with these images; it is an underlying issue with sprawl and suburbs.