Assignment 1: Urban Patterns and Perceptions

A short paper, 3-4 pp., double spaced, exclusive of graphics, which are welcome. Due Monday, 19 February.

As we proceed with our historical survey of the cities of the past, we'll begin a second, concurrent line of inquiry having to do with the contemporary city and contemporary attitudes to it. We'll often turn to Philadelphia as our first-hand laboratory and representative example when a visit is involved, but if the logistics of getting to another city or finding information on it don't interfere, that's certainly encouraged too.

This first brief paper assignment offers two options, one (a) requiring a little actual traveling, the other (b) a little browsing amid different media.

(a) This has to do with observing pattern. Among the most prominent factors of differentiation in and around cities are the gradient between center and periphery, and the distinction between radiating structures and the fabric they cross. Using these notions as an orienting mental diagram, take a trip that seems to traverse some of these concentric zones and radiating structures. You might take a train trip in and out of the city, or take the trolley to 69th Street and take the elevated all the way to Frankford and back. To a significant degree, both of these offer views of small streets and backyards in a way that shows you representative elements rather than staying to the special condition of a radiating one (such as some buses follow). You might also go in a car or take a good long walk, but in any case try to take a traversing route that cuts across different textures and conditions.

Note the visible patterns, and try to extrapolate upon them. Consult a good map of the route you've taken.

Putting it together, discuss what you've seen. What kinds of cues can you read? What signs of distinction can you see in adjacent areas? What kind of areas would you think these must have been when what you can see was first built? Industrial, residential (what different kinds of residences), commercial, what kind of mix? Speculate with an historical eye as to how it might have gotten that way. Would you guess there to have been visible change since then? A lot of this will be guesswork, but try to use and query and build off what you can discern.

(b) This has to do with current perceptions. Attitudes toward cities have varied dramatically over the course of history. Sometimes it is the home of civilization and higher forms of living, in contrast to a crude, hard, sometimes brutish life in the countryside; other times it is the home of sin, crime, and disease, while the countryside spells peace and health and morality. Often it is more complex than that.

Looking rather unsystematically among various media and points of view--newspaper or magazine articles, song lyrics, settings in films and television series, conversations with people, including some who might have vantage points different than your own--what does the idea of the city represent today? Against what is the city contrasted?

Allude to two or three views or give brief snippets that you find revealing or cogent. Take them at face value, as text, or more for assumptions they betray, as subtext. Contrast these views and extrapolate from them. If some seem generally representative, what might be the future of the city? How do you respond to that prospect?

Return to City 190 schedule
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