The key thing about Willesden’s French Market is that it accentuates and celebrates this concrete space in front of Willesden Green Library Centre, which is at all times a meeting place, though never quite so much as it is on market day. Everybody’s just standing around, talking, buying or not buying cheese, as the mood takes them. It’s really pleasant. You could almost forget Willesden High Road was ten yards away. This matters. When you’re standing in the market you’re not going to work, you’re not going to school, you’re not waiting for a bus. You’re not heading for the tube or shopping for necessities. You’re not on the high road where all these activities take place. You’re just a little bit off it, hanging out, in an open-air urban area, which is what these urban high streets have specifically evolved to stop people from doing.

Smith, Zadie. “North West London Blues,”

The New York Review of Books, 12 July 2012.

Much is made these days of globalization, both the pros and the cons; localization has become a trademarked hipster concept as well as a vehicle for frightening, xenophobic rhetoric. What gets lost in the abstractions of this conversation is the challenge of being patient with and attentive to our immediate surrounding. Despite an increase in the popularity of shopping and eating locally, I find that it’s just as difficult as ever to actually be aware of our natural and human-made surroundings.

Most people don’t know much of anything about the cities they grew up in or even their state (beyond the rigours of fourth grade California history). The average commuter couldn’t tell you why the street they drive to work on everyday makes the turns that it does. We’ve not been trained to see our local landscapes; instead, we’re often trained to ignore them.

I love Zadie Smith’s writing, as exemplified above, because she communicates both attention to and affection for physical structures and spaces. She gives me a model for careful thought about them:

Observation:Everybody’s just standing around …

Analysis:… it accentuates and celebrates …

Critique:This matters.

Concern: ...what these urban high streets have specifically evolved to stop people from doing.

I am encouraged by Smith’s example to ask the same questions of my physical environment that I would of texts I study and teach. It is of a piece with the Genesisnarrative and the language of the prophets and Christ himself in its care for the places where we live and its suggestion that we are placed in spaces intentionally.

Moving from suburban Orange County (where my parents gave me affection for the physical landscape) to Los Angeles and then to Edinburgh has given me some practice in falling in love with new cities. I’ve found that getting to know a city doesn’t “just happen.” We live busy lives that are not suited to serious contemplation of our surroundings.

So, given that, here’s a challenge. Take your city on a date. Spend time asking it the questions you might ask of a romantic interest. Give it a chance to explain itself, to show you its distinct beauty. You are, after all, already living with it.

Here are four suggestions:

1. Take a different way home.

Whether driving, walking or taking public transit, forcing yourself outside your daily routine is an excellent first step to comprehending the logic of your city’s layout. In southern California, challenging yourself to get places without getting on the freeway is an excellent task. Turn off your GPS or smart phone and look at a map. Ride your bike somewhere you might normally take your car. Take a bus. When driving, take a couple random turns and then practice orienting yourself. These are all ways to force your eyes to see the streets in front of you instead of zoning out until you reach your destination.

As I did this in LA, I found myself forced to see the people and communities bypassed by the freeways; in Edinburgh I’ve discovered the alleys and stairways that connect major streets; in both cities I’m able to ask questions: Why is this here? What is its purpose? How does it affect me?

2. Follow a local election.

Because of my parents’ careers, local politics were always a part of family conversation. Following their example, I’ve realized that the local school board, city council and water district races are the ones where (1) my vote makes a significant difference, (2) most people are apathetic and (3) most decisions that affect my daily life and society are made.

But even local politics can be quite overwhelming, so choosing one jurisdiction of your local government is a good place to start. Research what, for example, the community college board is responsible for. What kinds of decisions do they make? Go to a board meeting. Research (or talk to, if you can) someone who is currently serving, or who is going to run. Find out who is financing campaigns. Walking through this process once can help you to understand the way politics work in your particular city, and it can be empowering as you look at future elections.

3. Read a novel, poem, or essay by someone who lives/lived in your state/city/neighbourhood.

For anyone who grew up in or has spent time in the central coast, the opening lines of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (or other paragraphs in any number of his novellas) are evocative:

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses.

We can hear in his litany the unique mixture of affection and cynicism that only a homegrown author can capture. Novelists and poets practice the art of seeing well; when they turns that craft toward their own homes, the result is often a piercing clarity about a place it might be easy to overlook. Reading the stories and poems of people who grew up in or relocated to your state or city helps you to consider the effect of place on the self. Many independent bookshops and city libraries have a section for local authors. If you grew up or live in the suburbs of greater Los Angeles, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir by D.J. Waldie is short, non-fiction work to check out (both as a locally written piece and as a model for thoughtful consideration of space and history).

4. Find an old map/read a book of local history/visit a local historical society/tour.

Cities, to paraphrase the proverb, aren’t usually built in a day. Research the way that your city grew up and matured. Understanding the geographical and social forces that shaped its main thoroughfares and key buildings both deepens appreciation while uncovering the complexities and injustices that are often at the center of social growth. Local historical societies can provide a wealth of information. Historical or sociological texts can also be a rich resource. For anyone who grew up or lives in Southern California, I highly recommend Carey McWilliams’ Southern California: An Island in the Land.


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