Diversions: Building Cities by Sameer Vasta

The driveway beside our house fits two cars. This is a marked difference from our home in Toronto, where we not only didn't have a garage or driveway, but didn't have any street access at all. Instead, we lived in a house that was only accessible by walking down a long, pedestrian-only laneway. Owning a car would mean being dependent on the vagaries of street parking, and schlepping whatever we had to carry from the trunk, down the lane, back into the house.

We didn't own a car in Toronto because we didn't need one; the potential inconvenience of living without street access was in fact a bonus, for us. Here, we not only own a car, but use it daily. We experienced Toronto through the windows of streetcars or through the rhythm of our footsteps on the sidewalk; we experience London by navigating traffic through the front windshield.

"Transportation doesn’t just impact how we get from place to place. It shapes what those places look like, and the lives of the people who live there." John Zimmer, the co-founder of Lyft, is accurate when he says that we have not only built our cities around the primacy of the car, but around the fact that cars take up space for the 96% of the time they are not in use. His contention that a Third Transportation Revolution is taking place, and that this revolution will reclaim car spaces for public, pedestrian spaces, sounds like utopia to me: 

Since autonomous networks will be much more efficient than individual ownership, a large number of cars will come off the road — freeing up an enormous amount of space to devote to anything but cars. Eventually, we’ll be able to turn parking lots back into parks. We’ll be able to shrink streets, expand sidewalks, and make room for more pedestrians. That means more local shops and small businesses, more shared spaces, and more vibrant communities. This translates to better cities — and better lives — for people all over the world.

The biggest culture shock I have had since moving to a smaller city hasn't been in size and scale, but instead in the way this city is built for the car; as someone who avoided driving for most of his life, seeing the difference in the urban landscape has been jarring. This Third Transportation Revolution may just help this city to plan for people, and not the machines in which those people move around.

One of the men who made an incredible difference in the built landscape of Canadian cities passed away earlier this month. Ted Teshima, one of the original partners of Moriyama & Teshima Architects, was responsible for creating a world-leading architectural firm and putting Canadian architecture on the proverbial map. Mr. Teshima and his firm were either responsible for, or part of teams that helped create some of the landmarks that I most associate with my former city—the Toronto Reference Library, the Ontario Science Centre, the Ismaili Centre and Aga Khan Park (where L and I got married last year)— as well  as cultural touchstones in my new adopted home city.

As we think about building cities for the future, cities built for people and not for cars, it's worth re-examining the structures created and influenced by Moriyama & Teshima: buildings that express their purpose in the way they are used, and not just the way they look from an automobile window.


Unrelated miscellany, gathered:

What does end of life look like? In my family, death is mostly associated with hospitals, but I've been interested in what it means to die at home, peacefully, with the right kind of support and planning. This piece on in-home end-of-life support workers was enlightening and heartwarming. There is, of course, the other end of the spectrum: people who do not pass at home with their family, or do not die in a hospital, but instead perish alone, without the support they need and should get. What are those final elderly years like for those who grow old alone, and lonely? (Many thanks to Ashley for sending over that article.)

My life, like the lives of many Muslims in North America, has been markedly different since 9/11. Over on ColorLinesMuslim, Arab, South Asian and Sikh activists and allies recall where they were on September 11, 2001 and how that day has shaped their movements and resistance today. 

I hesitate to call them book reviews, so I will continue to call them marginalia. Some thoughts and scribbles on the three books I read this fortnight: The Lonely City, The Apprentice, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Can you remember the first time you tried Coca-Cola? I can not, so I am transfixed by this account of a 24-year-old who had never tasted Coke, and her attempt to make her first sip absolutely perfect.

The cognitive bias cheat sheet is incredible—and incredibly useful—as is this gorgeous infographic based on the article:

On the backs of the oppressed. by Sameer Vasta

"When my three sisters and I were little, my father told us that because of our skin colour there would be many instances when we would have to be far better than everyone else just to get the same level of respect. What a terrible thing for a parent to have to tell their child. What a terrible weight for a child to have to carry." —Kwame Twumasi-Boateng

Last weekend, I volunteered as a facilitator for an anti-racism summit here in my new hometown. This new city is markedly less diverse than my previous one, and my difference—in skin color, ethnicity, and mannerisms—is often glaring. There have been overt racist encounters, yes, but there have been many more subtle, smaller instances as well; so-named micro-aggressions that are not noticeable to anyone but the person being aggrieved.

This is why I was so excited to volunteer at the anti-racism summit: Canada likes to think that it is better than our neighbors to the south, but the reality is that racism is just as insidious, if not as overt, here in our diverse, tolerant country.

There are many recaps of the event online, so I won't go into details, but there is one thing that still bothers me. During the summit, the City Manager stood and told the crowd that City Hall was taking racism seriously, and that he had been tasked to write an anti-racism strategy, and that we should "commit to helping him."

At its core, this is the problem with efforts at inclusion in this city: they are always positioned us vs. them, even when the vs. is friendly. Instead of saying, "you live with this every day, how can I help write a strategy that reflects your experience," there was a paternalism to the City Manager's statement; we don't have to commit to helping you, Mr. Zuidema, because we live this reality EVERY SINGLE DAY. We are already invested because we can't escape the discrimination we are decrying.

James Shelley captured it well when he said that exclusionary elitism lurks behind the rhetoric of inclusion:

Not only do bureaucracies often assume at the outset to know ‘the answers’, but they even more dangerously assume they are asking the right questions. In this forum, the ‘right question’ was not, ‘Will you commit to the process of helping City Hall fix racism?’ To think this is an appropriate question is to effectively demonstrate that you were not even listening the last time you invited people ‘to be heard’. It is, instead, perceived as a reiteration of the experience that ‘racialized communities already shoulder disproportionate burden of process.’ (How many times would you personally accept invitations to sit around tables with ‘the decision-makers’ if your previous consultations had not led to change?)
Exclusionary elitism lurks behind the rhetoric of inclusion. Who has the power to set the terms of this engagement? — this is the unasked question that almost all engagement stratagems complacently take for granted.
Inclusiveness is only a preoccupation for those with the power to consider themselves includers or excluders.

The next time someone asks me, "oh, what brings you to this neighborhood?" when I am mere steps away from my own house (it happens more often than you think), I will remember how, sadly still, the task of reaching equality lies disproportionately on the backs of the oppressed

The Apprentice by Sameer Vasta

Towards the end of The Apprentice, Jacques Pépin describes his current home kitchen, custom-built to his desires after a lifetime spent in the culinary industry. The kitchen as he describes it is dreamy: everything in its right place, with an abundance of counter space and the best tools for the task.

L and I are house-hunting right now, poring over hundreds of real estate listings, in an effort to find the right place for us to settle in for the long term. We have our differences in tastes and desires, but we share an important commonality: the primacy of the kitchen. As we flip through the perfectly-staged photos in each listing, we always stop at snapshots of the kitchen, often using it a barometer for how we will feel about the rest of the house.

The appeal of a nice kitchen is not simply superficial. After all, the kitchen is a place of congregation; during any gathering or party, guests naturally come together in the place where food is being prepared, and where drinks are accessible and abundant. Ever since moving to London, L and I go out less and cook a lot more. I prepare the fifteen weekday meals, and some on the weekends, so I often find myself spending more time in the kitchen every week than I do in any room of the house other than the bedroom. Having a place to cook, a place to gather that is functional, accessible, and beautiful is an important consideration in our future house purchase.

Jacques Pépin in his kitchen. (The Food Network)

Jacques Pépin in his kitchen. (The Food Network)

Unlike Mr. Pépin, I have not spent my entire life in kitchens, commercial or domestic. My desire, ability, and propensity to cook regularly are relatively new developments that have come from my work-at-home situation and the want—nay, need—to be healthier and more financially prudent. I do not feel the same ease in the kitchen as Mr. Pépin, but as he describes so well in The Apprentice, any ease, skill, and comfort will grow slowly as I spend more time preparing meals. Mr. Pépin may have cooking in his blood, but he beautifully describes how his abilities were slowly honed over time, through painstaking hard work from apprentice to master chef; a good cook is made through trial and error, repetition, and learning from the best.

I will never be as proficient in the kitchen as Mr. Pépin—or as many of the people in my life, to be honest—but my comfort grows every day. L will hopefully attest that my skill has improved as well, as she is the one that must eat the fruits of my labor. What The Apprentice taught me is that proficiency will take time, will take work—and hopefully, in the near future, will involve a more functional and beautiful kitchen, too.

Time to get back to looking at real estate listings.

The Lonely City by Sameer Vasta

I had a dream last night in which I was walking through this city, but in my dream, the city was empty. In my dream, there were no people, no traffic, no conversation. The streets were deserted, the city, quiet.

I was alone; I was not, however, lonely.

Loneliness is something that is acute in cities. This truth, as explored in Olivia Laing's The Lonely City, is perhaps explained by the idea of being surrounded by people but yet being alone. Isolation is more piercing when we feel disconnected, knowing that connection and community are in front of your face, yet so far away.

I rarely feel lonely these days, even when I am alone. The cold edifice of the urban landscape feels warm to me, but I know my experience is unusual. Ms. Laing's experience is perhaps more typical: the columns of the city act as metaphorical dividers. This urban solitude has been reflected in art and media for generations. 

The Lonely City is part memoir, part exploration of the art that loneliness inspires; it is a reminder that proximity does not equal connection, that density can cause isolation. It is a reminder that the city, even when completely deserted in our dreams, builds walls between us. Overcoming these literal and figurative walls is the challenge of our urban life.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Sameer Vasta

What’s in a title? What does it mean to be a titular character? When is a title just subterfuge, a way of hiding the real message, the real narrative in any kind of story?

These are questions that I’ve pondered at least twice this past week, questions to which I do not have any answers.

The first time I reflected upon titles this week was after watching Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl. Ostensibly the story of the first person to undergo gender reassignment surgery, at least as hinted at by the title, The Danish Girl is not the story of Lili, as it would like us to believe. It is, instead, the story of another Danish woman, Lili’s wife Gerda, and of how her life changed as her partner went through this journey.

Finishing The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao gave me another opportunity to think about titular characters; Junot Díaz’s novel may claim to be about Oscar, but it is more aptly the story of the lives of the people around him. Oscar (Wao) De Léon may be the thread that ties all of these personal histories together, but these are rich histories, a multitude of narratives of lives and loves, that could stand on their own. Mr. Díaz shows immense skill in weaving all these stories together, and uses Oscar to bring a deft cohesiveness to the book.

By the time I had finished The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I was yearning to learn more about Lola (Oscar’s fierce yet compassionate sister), about Beli (his headstrong and proud mother), about the Dominican Republic under Trujillo. I did not care to know more about Oscar, but that was unimportant; he may have been the titular character, but he certainly wasn’t the raison d’être for the novel.

A lot has been said about Mr. Díaz’s fascinating writing style, littering the prose with references to science fiction and fantasy, seamlessly drifting between English and Spanish slang—rightfully so, as the writing is not just unique, but beautiful. Not enough has been said about how Mr. Díaz wrote a novel where the title character was the least interesting character in the book, and still managed to make it one of the most engrossing stories I have ever read.

What is, then, in a title? We are all the titular characters in our own lives, but whether or not our we will be the most interesting, the most central characters will matter mostly on who tells the story when that time comes.