Everyday a little different

Dreamy suburbia, www.flickr.com, accessed 10-26-13

The American Dream complete with vanilla houses, big driveways, and manicured front lawns, http://www.flickr.com, accessed 10-26-13

Being a resident of suburbia has given me intimate familiarity with the rote rhythms of commuting, school buses, lawn mowing, dog walking, and picking up the mail that permeate suburban neighborhoods. People live their lives largely inside, occasionally stepping into the backyard but using the front yard as only a demonstration of their compliance with the pre-established patterns of the community. The one opportunity each week for neighbors to see one other in the front is the mandatory mowing of the front lawn. Front yards are largely empty, yet symbolic according to Dr. Crawford. She described garage sales as temporary events that flip the normal social structure and use of space in suburban neighborhoods, challenging and transforming the environment of the front yard.

Shopper engaging in the informal market of the yard sale, commons.wikimedia.org, accessed 10-26-13

Shopper engaging in the informal market of the yard sale, commons.wikimedia.org, accessed 10-26-13

While in Toronto for the 15th National Conference on Planning History put on by the Society of American City and Regional Planning History, I attended a session about Everyday Urbanism, featuring a paper entitled “The Garage Sale as Everyday Practice and Transformative Urbanism” presented by Margaret Crawford, Ph.D., professor of Architecture in the College of Environmental Design at the University of California, Berkeley. To introduce this session,  Paul Hess, Associate Professor, Department of Geography and Program in Planning at the University of Toronto, gave a short overview of Everyday Urbanism and explained that Everyday Urbanism can take on a variety of forms to address under examined and overlooked areas of urban environments. As explained by Douglas Kelbough, “Everyday Urbanism is non-utopian, controversial, and non-structuralist. It is non-utopian because it celebrates and builds on everyday, ordinary life and reality, with little pretense about the possibility of a perfectible, tidy or ideal built environment.”

The stories are part of the transaction, commons.wikimedia.org, accessed 10-26-13

The stories are part of the transaction, commons.wikimedia.org, accessed 10-26-13

Dr. Crawford’s paper presented explained the ways that the garage sale causes an “inversion” of suburban spaces. The garage sale is a public event held on private property. It is completely public, open to everyone. Instead of the lawn being the pristine, exclusionary space of its everyday existence, the garage sale makes it open for all to access. No one is turned away. This event brings things from the most private parts of the house to display for the public to engage with and potentially acquire. The meaning of items is linked to the house and the house also testifies to the legitimacy of the goods,  Social interaction is a key component of the transaction. Normally, life in suburbia is very private but this event brings interaction outside, on display. Interactions within this informal market are not like the anonymous purchases transacted in traditional business environments. Bargaining is an expected part of the dialogue. Stories are another kind of trading and bargaining. Stories go both ways and are invented and transferred by both the buyer and the seller, connecting meanings to the items. There is a social nature to the transfer of goods. The nature of this sort of event causes a rethinking of suburbia to be stimulated. In essence, this is an informal creation of “mixed use”. While suburbia may not be the ideal format for future development, the everyday experiences of those who reside there can make us rethink our preconceived notions about what suburbia is. Residents create adaptations to adjust the places they call home to their needs and desires. If we look closely we can find the clues to see the Everyday Urban a little differently.

2 thoughts on “Everyday a little different

  1. Doug Kelbaugh wrote, “… the Everyday Urbanist overestimates the mythic aspect of the ordinary and ugly.” And, while this may be a truer explanation of the sentiments of those who spend their weekends garage-sailing (traveling to various garage and yard sales sprinkled throughout the suburban landscape) — is it a fair description of the average feelings of those who live in suburbia?

    I ask this since, in most suburban subdivisions, the HOA places highly restrictive time, place and manner rules on the “garage sale” — usually setting up only one or two weekends during the summer months where the residents are permitted to hold such sales. This type of command-and-control mechanism, to me, falls outside the three variants or urbanism described by Kelbaugh (Everyday, New, and Post) — and this is where Crawford’s hypothesis fails.

    I tend to think the Everyday Urbanist is the one who shops at a garage sale (the consumer/haggler) and not the host. When it violates existing codes (a subdivision’s CC&R’s, not to mention the implied violations of the tax code — since how much of the income from such transactions are reported to the taxing authority?) the garage sale is much closer to the Post Urbanist construct formulated by Kelbaugh.

    “It (Post Urbanism) is explorative rather than normative and likes to subvert codes and conventions.” (Kelbaugh, 2001)

    And while the garage sale doesn’t have the massive power-base normally associated with the works of the typical post-urbanist, it is not unlike the musings of the patron saint of Post Urbanism — Lebbeus Woods. Woods’ work, “Anarchitecture, Architecture is a Political Act” is the font from which flows much of these writings.

    “Within the historical and hierarchical city, the heterarchical city – the free zone – is constructed. This is one level of inconsistency. But there is a deeper one – within the heterarchical city, another city of unknown shape and substance is constructed – the city which cannot be named. Its inhabitants do not fit patterns at all. Their names are known, but beg to be forgotten.” (Woods, “Anarchitecture, Architecture is a Political Act”, 1992, pg. 8).

    Perhaps, at a certain level, the garage sale is that point of inversion where Post Urbanism and Everyday Urbanism intersect. In its Ouroboros-like manifestation it is that “city of unknown shape and substance” inside the purely Post Urbanist metroplex. From this perspective, the Suburb (with its tightly homogenized outward manifestation) is the historical and hierarchical urban pattern — but as one moves inward toward the center of the metropolis the traveler will encounter the sidewalk hawkers and flea markets. This is the tip of the Free Zone spoken of by Woods — this is the true location of Crawford’s transformative exchange.

    When rule-abiding suburbanites (infrequently) opt to replicate this completely human and natural form of commerce in their yard sales, they aren’t the ones building the Free Zones (they aren’t manifesting the transformation). The suburbanites are simply unloading their unwanted junk, they are not displaying their precious & guarded treasures in some type of inversion of the suburban “front yard” hierarchy. It is the unknown hagglers, the un-named buyers, the anonymous garage-sailers – bringing with themselves the attitude of the downtown flea market and the sidewalk hawkers – who are weaving new stories from the discordant recollections of the suburban sellers.

    • Thank you for your comments, quotes, and citations as we are all in the process of learning together. The concept of Everyday Urbanism is new to me. The concepts intrigued me when I heard the presentation by Margaret Crawford so I decided to give myself a good excuse to learn a little more. I intend to continue learning more about everyday circumstances and the impact of small changes or temporary events.

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