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Anne Dalke's picture

Vitiligo causes depigmentation of the skin. I know about this, because my son has patches of vitiligo on his wrists, hands, and jaw. The condition is much more noticeable in those of us who are dark skinned, than in those of us whose skin is lighter in color.

I'm trying to write a short story here about vitiligo. It is about the absence of homogeneity, the presence of authenticity (cf. Zukin) on Logan Square. It's about how a biological phenomenon invites a certain kind of social drama (cf. Mumford), playing out perceptions, creating uneasiness, dis-ease. Do I attend carefully enough to the raced and classed history and present of this country, in which people with darker skin bear a disproportionate burden of discrimination? Do I offend, in making a physical condition metaphoric?

I loved the conception of “The Quiet Volume.” I loved being whispered to attend to the sounds in the library, and to attend to the ink on the page. I loved the shadows cast by the image of my hand on the blank page—having my attention called to the gradations of color and sound created when I placed my hand there.

It was all very evocative, of the surfaces and the depths of reading.

Something I love to do, in the quiet.

At the table where Mark and I were reading, and being whispered to, were two other men: an older white man who had a book open in front of him, as well as a pile of books beside him. Sitting across from him was a black man, who was wearing a blue bike helmet, who got up several times to bring back, as he announced, “some very heavy books,” and whose face was very dramatically marked by vitiligo,  

Our two companions talked for the full hour that we spent with our own volumes turned down very low. It was hard to attend to what was being said (it was, of course, just as hard to attend to what was being read)—but I overheard that the conversation was, in part, about the power of God. I vacillated between wanting to ask our tablemates to be quiet, and speculating that they were a (staged) part of the drama in which we were participating. I finally realized that their being there, talking, as we were being there, reading, was just the sort of social drama that Mumford describes in “What Is a City?”:  “in its various and many-sided life, in its very opportunities for social disharmony and conflict, the city creates drama…differentiated opportunities for a common life and a significant collective drama” (p. 8).  

Later, when I left our group and slowly limped home alone, I passed the Cathedral Basilica, and came upon a very long line of men, who seemed to have queued up for supper. Both of our library companions were in the line—confirmation that they and I were all participating in a much larger social drama than the one scripted by the designers of “The Quiet Volume”: it was an urban theater with insistent economic differentiations.

So: I learned something today (among other things) about the varied uses of the Free Library. Ant Hampton and Tim Etchells created a piece that invited us to experience all the layers of reading, all the voices that intersect when we pursue words across a page. They did so, though, in a space that offers a number of Philadelphians something much more than the mandated quiet of a library reading room, or access to books. The Free Library gives our tablemates refuge from bad weather, a seat, a free bathroom and (at least as evidenced by this afternoon) access to social interchange. It’s not a place for quiet. It’s a place for talking.

So: today I’d say that’s “what a city is”: the space where all this happens at the same table, both undesigned and inevitable.

Socially: vitiligo.

Mumford, Lewis. “What Is a City?” Architectural Record (1937).
Zukin, Sharon. Big Think Interview (2010).