place and space: knowledge

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“I walk because it confers – or restores – a feeling of placeness. The geographer Yi-Fu Tuan says a space becomes a place when through movement we invest it with meaning, when we see it as something to be perceived, apprehended, experienced”

– Dr Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse: Women walk the city in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London.

I had a few thoughts upon reading this particular couple of sentences. I thought of the idea of knowing and understand a space, or especially, a city, and what it means to know that space. When I travel to European cities, I do feel that I know a city far better from extensively walking through it than I would if I took taxis everywhere or stuck to a prescribed “tourist” path. However, I think that for the typical “white”, “western” person of privilege who jets off for one or two weeks of vacation Europe (sometimes spreading that time thinly over several cities, as we Americans tend to do) this idea of walking around gives a false sense of intimacy and knowledge.

What do I mean by this? I think back on all the times I’ve heard people come back from vacations with gigabytes of photos saved on their phones, their digital cameras and who speak with deep familiarity of a place in which they stayed for a matter of days, really. Five days, fourteen days, three days in one city and three in another… how much can we really know of a place, no matter how much we “walk” it or pride ourselves on being an atypical traveler. We all are, we all declare ourselves “travelers” not tourists, we all claim to weave ourselves into the fabric of a city with our days of wandering.

Though I’m not mentioning the actual book very often, so far, this is the kind of thing for which reading China Mieville’s City and the City makes me stop and think about the idea that different versions of these cities – of Berlin, London, Prague, Firenze, etc – exist. There are different realities for each city and, as a tourist (or traveler, whatever you feel like calling yourself) you only ever really know one layer of the city and you can remain blissfully unaware of all the other layers underneath. This became so clear to me during my time in Berlin, walking around with Mohamad. Of course, I’ll never experience Berlin as he does. But I got a glimpse of, or maybe just a deeper awareness of, these other layers having seen how people always tried to defer to me (the white, German looking woman with blue eyes who spoke far less German than did he) when we were out together. Going to the Arab markets, Iraqi restaurants, and walking down Sonennallee with him allowed me to see things from a liminal space, I was an outsider with special access, a guest of an “insider.” I saw much more of Berlin than I would have on my own. I had come across an article about the infamous drug scene at Kottbusser Tor and I had to laugh because I had, a couple of times, passed through there with Mohamad quite late at night. I would not have done that on my own – aside from the fact that I just don’t normally stay up late at night anymore, a lifetime of training has taught me to avoid certain areas as a woman alone. (For what it’s worth, though there were definitely some people I would want to avoid around there and I was offered drugs a couple of times, I never felt like I was in danger. People do like sensationalize things.) I feel like I should also mention, we had only been there because it was one of the main stops for buses we both rode to and from our respective places of temporary residence. I, coming from a world of whiteness and privilege, get messages that places like Kottbusser Tor are dangerous and should be avoided at night. Others… well, it’s just a place.

My point is, I just wonder if we kid ourselves about how well we come to know a place because of our walking. “We” being we of privilege. I lived in Prague for three full years, almost exactly to the day. Obviously I knew the city quite well, in some capacity. But I’ve been replaying my time there and wondering how much I missed and how many layers were left unseen.

This passage from Dr Elkin’s book struck made me think of one of the assigned readings for my Berlin Study Abroad last Summer. We read a selection from Doug Saunders’ Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World. I enjoyed reading it but for the purposes of this post (and what I said above), I’ll point out that he is a white, male journalist (and British):

“In my journalistic travels, I developed the habit of introducing myself to new cities by riding subway and tram routes to the end of the line, or into the hidden interstices and inaccessible corners of the urban core, and examine the places that extended before me. These are always fascinating, bustling, unattractive, improvised, difficult places, full of new people and big plans.”

This quote continues on to speak to a larger point, but the first thing I thought of was simply that of exploration and the ability to “conquer” cities and urban space has a lot to do with the ability to be mobile. Aside from walking, we take it for granted that we will have easy access to public transport. When I travel, I think nothing of paying however much it costs to purchase a ticket that will give me access to the trams, buses, etc for the duration of my stay. Tickets can get pricey. So while we generally think of the flâneur as one who walks, inevitably there will be some hopping on and off of trams, buses, u-bahn, s-bahn, etc. (I am particularly fond of trams.) Discounted tickets are available for some groups of people in Berlin (and, I imagine, most cities, just as here in Seattle) but they are not free.




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