Sunday, February 22, 2009

Unique on Campus

Strong communities do not thrive because an environment was specifically designed to that end. Designed environments can encourage social interaction but can they create a sense of community? Strong communities exist around individuals; these individuals and their personalities anchor the community. These individuals reside in public spaces, they do not force social interactions rather they facilitate it. Their spaces are not necessarily specifically designed to with the intent to encourage social interaction, but become one as a result of the individual installed in said space. Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities eloquently depicts this concept of community structure. In “The Uses of Sidewalks: Contacts” chapter Jacobs is speaking specifically to sidewalk life but it is relevant to community infrastructure beyond the sidewalk.

With the question of how Jacobs’ concepts apply to my experience at RISD to date in mind while I read Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities this quote struck a cord: “The social structure of sidewalk life hangs partly on what can be called self-appointed public characters. A public character is anyone who is in frequent contact with a wide circle of people and is sufficiently interested to make himself a public character. A public character need have no special talents or wisdom to fulfill his function-although he often does. He just needs to be present, and there need to be enough of his counterparts. His main qualification is that he is public, that he talks to lots of different people. In this way news travels that is of sidewalk interest. Most public sidewalk characters are steadily stationed in public places.” At RISD the most successful “sidewalk life” is found in the form of our shops. Our shops, like Jacobs’ sidewalks, are the places people pass thru out of necessity, as so much of our life here is based on production. Our techs are our “public characters”. The monitors and gear heads the “roving characters”. The shops posses many of the elements Jacobs sees as vital to a lively neighborhood. Our techs facilitate social interaction and the spreading of news. The shops, especially as the semester progresses, are bustling with activity. This activity attracts even those not needing to be there because there is palpable excitement, lively discussion, music, food, gossip, knowledge, and advice to be found. Looking at RISD as a city these are our successful neighborhoods. They are places where we feel solidarity, security and where we turn in times of need. Reading “Use of Sidewalk: Contacts” drove home the import of these places. Though the shops may not have been set up with this level of social interaction in mind, it is the place where I personally feel the most sense of community. By sad contrast, and in testament to “its cultivation can not be institutionalized”, my experience with the areas “designed” for casual interaction is that they are not so lively or interesting. They lack the permanent fixture of public characters and also our need to pass through them. One is must intentionally go to the space to have social interaction, it requires a plan. The spontaneity and/or serendipity of a chance social interaction are taken out of the equation.
The I.D. Wood shop located at 161 South Main St is possibly the most unique “neighborhood” in our RISD city. It is on river at street level, walled on to sides with floor to ceiling windows. These windows not only provide beautiful light and a nice view for those in it, they provide an opportunity for residents of the city (Providence) in which our “city” resides to glimpse in and be enticed by our bustling little neighborhood. It is the only place on campus (that I know off) where “outsiders” have the opportunity to see the creative process of our world in action not just its product. During the warmer months when I find myself having a cigarette on the stoop outside the shop, I frequently find myself answering questions posed to me by passers by on their way to or from a night out on the town “What do you do in their?” ”Looks like fun”, “Can we come in” etc, etc. I found myself as the object of entertainment to a gathering crowd while doing a woodturning one warm, spring night (see photo of lathe). At night the light from within affords those on the outside a clear view in and draws the attention from passers-by, RISD or otherwise, like moths to a flame.

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