Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Grid City

The familiar goal to “end homelessness,” both locally and nationally, is almost always sought through plans that attempt to modify people in order to fit existing conceptions of space in the city.  However, thought is rarely given to the other side of the spectrum - altering our ideas on space to fit the needs of people.

This can be attributed primarily to our unwitting tolerance of the Grid City.

“Mitigated by many political freedoms, the provision of parks, the inspiring presence of a dynamic, open landscape, and a recent history of social and economic improvements through struggle, the American grid nonetheless remains a powerful geometry of isolation which encourages conformity and disassociation, and deadens our living experience by denying our common bonds” (Lakeman, 17).

The grid is pervasive throughout Western society and by no accident.  The National Land Ordinance of 1785 divided all land west of the eastern colonies into one mega-grid and concurrently mandated that all city plans also take this form.  Often touted as a unique experiment, westward expansion was simply a mirror of earlier ancestral history.  The Romans, Greeks, and Assyrians had all used the grid as a means of conquest by division.  An essential component to a capitalist economy, the grid transforms land into a commodity, establishing divided and competing interests.

While I recognize the risk of romanticizing extreme poverty, the organic growth and autonomous nature of tent cities represent a desperately needed divergence from the grid.  Typically guided by necessity, tent cities take a more geomorphic form comparable to early societies.

Lakeman points out a fascinating, yet disturbing fact about these indigenous cultures that pre-exist the arrival of the grid: they tend to disappear (i.e. Native Americans).  The fate of today’s tent cities is no different.

There are a few rare cases where, after relentless determination, these informal settlements have fought to establish themselves in the city.  One example is Seattle’s itinerant model, which grants conditional use permits, allowing a tent city to legally exist on a site for three months before moving to new land. This requirement of continuous dislocation seems to be completely arbitrary, but clearly illustrates the city’s position: we can’t abide that this thing can exist permanently unless it moves constantly.  For if it did remain on one parcel of land, it would raise many of the unasked questions swept under the rug by our blind an involuntary acceptance of the Grid City.

The case of Dignity Village in Portland does just this.  After the camp was relocated dozens of times around the city, it received a stable piece of land on which it has resided for over a decade, slowly transforming from camp to village.  Lakeman describes the transition:

 “[Camp Dignity] started off as tents but immediately they were self-organized into clusters, they were a nomadic form of a village at the start.  As it was realized they were about to transition into a permanent sort of settlement patterns, they were about to re-enact human history here – the last 10,000 years is going to play out in a decade. They are going to be able to go from nomadic hunters and gatherers in a way - since they were subsisting off of what they could find - to settling and then establishing a system of pathways, nodes, and places… and then they would build it out and it would actually become an urban fabric that would be reflective… and in the landscape of America lets face it, almost nothing is reflective, its almost all produced by developing entities that is then consumed and inhabited – so this would be the only example in  the history of the city that actually reflected the people that lived there.”

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