fire escapes and flaneury in american cities

June 4, 2010 at 10:34 pm | Posted in culture, North America | Leave a comment
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When I think of America, I think of fire escapes. After all, every movie and TV show has shown me people are constantly making use of the metal stairs attached to the outside of their building. Chatting with neighbours, partying, camping out, escaping from criminals, chasing criminals and even, occasionally, escaping from fires. How have we managed to live without them in the UK? Not only have they multiple uses, but in my opinion they look really quite attractive.It was with much excitement that I noted they were everywhere I went in america. I felt like I was wandering around a real life movie set in Chicago, New York, Boston and even Portland (Maine, not Oregon).Fire escapes aside, american streets really did look and feel much how I had imagined them. There was a half-familiarity, especially in New York, where the buildings were older, the streets were smaller and the crowds were just as oblivious as any in London.There were of course skyscrapers, the likes of which are not yet commonplace in London. But old and new seemed perfectly placed side-by-side – unlike the soul-less high-rise developments around London’s Docklands – where it was easy to find a little local brick-built deli next to a towering steel and glass structure. After two years away from London, when I returned at christmas 09 I was surprised at how the area around Liverpool St had so many more tall buildings than before. Maybe the way forward is to redevelop what’s already developed? If London ends up with anything similar to New York I’d be happier than if the artificial newness of ‘Docklands style’ were to spread (something I’ve seen only too much of in Seoul).

The other quintessentially american city I visited was Chicago. I’ve always been excited about the idea of Chicago – not only for the jazz, blues and gangsters, but also for Due South (though only location shots were actually filmed there). It didn’t disappoint.Chicago’s a sprawling city. To get anywhere by car it seemed you have to join a big freeway and then find the correct exit; no small backroads here. By L-train (elevated train) you have to go into the centre and out again. Although, once you arrive at your destination walking is a viable option and that’s what I enjoyed the most – exploring the different neighbourhoods on foot. The downtown was big, towering over the surrounding areas, and filled with as many indeterminate coffee shops as any city I could imagine.Wicker Park was full of trendy, ‘ironic’ and ultimately expensive shops, but also had the best fast food I could ask for; Sultan’s Market.

Chinatown was delineated by oriental murals, gates and statues. Shop fronts along the main drag showed their identity with external embellishments and the usual Chinese ‘souvenirs’ for sale, while apartment buildings seemed a little smaller and neater than elsewhere in the city.The clear segregation between neighbourhoods is something that’s apparently peculiar to Chicago. Sure, every city has a Chinatown, but how about a Mexican barrio? I really liked colourful Pilsen and its yummy food, but I’m told an outsider in one of its bars will be given a frosty reception.There were many examples in Chicago (though it’s something I saw all over the states) of the ‘different is better’ attitude when it comes to building. There’s also a serious lack of terraced housing. It’s one thing if you live in the suburbs and have ridiculous amounts of space assigned for each property, but really I don’t see the need, or indeed the advantage of detached properties, in a crowded city. With such strong local community identities, I wonder why no-one is considering the bigger picture of what these neighbourhoods look like and how they use their space.On the other hand, Boston, for want of a better word, was a cute city. The centre was easily navigable, with charming colonial structures nestled among the newer builds. The suburbs were full of pretty wood-board buildings, painted in colourful shades of pastels.Despite being relatively small, Boston easily holds it’s place amongst larger cities in terms of cosmopolitan cuisine, cool hangouts and a subway system. I liked it. I liked it a lot. It feels like a perfectly-sized city.

Portland was even smaller. The tallest building here was the hotel we stayed in.Seafood restaurants galore, arty shops and a waterfront still used for industry as well as tourism. It was nice, but somehow everything seemed dusty…like it wasn’t quite at its best. Maybe it’s because it was the middle of winter, or because there’s always a sea breeze.People were friendly enough, but there were no superficially-warm smiles. It was refreshing, but not what I’m used to since living in Korea, land of the super-polite.This being New England, I imagine when it’s warmer that people open up a bit more, just like in old England. Either way, the reserved nature of Portland felt more British than any of the smiley, “Have a nice day” smaller towns I saw elsewhere on this great continent.

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