Shaping Places

November 18, 2021



I can’t concentrate when things around me are a mess. I can’t even settle in to watch sports ball until I’ve straightened up the den first. I find it difficult to focus on writing if my office is unkempt. Being surrounded be a mess makes me feel messy in my head. I change my setting, because I have grown aware of how is affects me emotionally.
 
In his book, Talking with Strangers, Malcom Gladwell writes about the concept of coupling. The notion that people might have a tendency towards a specific behavior, but they aren’t likely to act on that behavior unless it is coupled with the “right” place. He sited a number of examples of coupling, including prostitution in Newark, NJ. The local police department isolated the area where the oldest profession was most commonly being practiced. When this area was targeted, prostitution in Newark nearly stopped. It didn’t just migrate to other neighborhoods, it went away. Something similar happened in San Francisco. The Golden Gate Bridge had long been the most popular site in the city for people to take their own lives. City officials argued for years whether or not it was worth trying to guard against this, the assumption being, if there was something done to mitigate people’s ability to leap off of the bridge, suicide cases would just spread out to other parts of the city and cause other complications. The accepted line of thinking being, someone that wants to end their life will find somewhere to do it, regardless of location. Eventually city officials put up fencing around the bridge that kept people from reaching the edges. Suicides rates in San Francisco plummeted.
 
Gladwell sited a number of other examples of coupling, all demonstrating that our environment has an outsized impact on our behavior. I think we all understand that our setting affects how we feel, but maybe we haven’t considered just how much. Turns out, someone might have an inclination towards a particular behavior, but they won’t act on it unless they find themself in a place where that behavior feels fitting. This is profound and should force us to reconsider the places we build and how PLACE changes people’s behavior.
 
A couple of weeks ago, I had to to go to Wal-Mart. My in-laws had gotten us a kitchen gadget that wasn’t working and I needed to return it. This is a trip I do not relish making because I know how it makes me feel- and I know I don’t like it. I would say I try to avoid doing things that make me feel bad, but my visits to the Korner Pub would tell another tale. I should say, I try and avoid PLACES that make me feel bad.
 
I made the short trip a couple of towns over and with defiance in my stride and fear in my heart, I marched up to the glorious gates of Wally World. I find it a very uncomfortable experience, going into that place. It isn’t that Wal-Mart is all that dirty, but that it makes me feel dirty. It is mind bendingly gigantic, enormously massive and rather large. You can barely see the ceiling from the floor. There is no attempt at being cute or fun, it is utilitarian in every regard. It’s like walking onto the set of Joe Versus the Volcano. I don’t know if they found a designer that specialized in dystopian lighting, but it’s fantastically depressing. So I shopped like a ninja with IBS. In and out as quickly as possible. Yet even with maximum efficiency, I found myself feeling depressed by the experience. The sights, the sounds, the cheapness of the entire endeavor made me feel like hell. There was no way to avoid being impacted by the process, no matter how quick it was.
 
Here’s where you pose the chicken or the egg question…do trashy people build trashy places, or do trashy places make people trashy? Well, seeing as a bunch of millionaires build all the trashiest places, I think we can settle on an answer. It is our surroundings that influence us so negatively. I am not shaming anyone that shops in such places. They are simply adapting to the substandard surroundings they have been handed. You put on a suit and hangout in Home Goods and tell me you don’t feel out of place. Trying to lead a dignified life in the most undignified of settings is a nice “bootstraps” story, but it’s just a story.
 
It would be an easy out to call me a snob for this, but that’s a lazy take. Be honest, be blunt. No one enjoys the experience of shopping in soulless places. No one looks forward to their visit to these vinyl monoliths of consumerism. To bring class into this is suggesting I think it’s beneath me, but no, I think it’s beneath everyone. Some say there can be pleasure found in shopping, but not this kind. Remove quality, creativity, pride, beauty, fun, craftsmanship, and community from the experience of acquiring goods and there isn’t much left to enjoy. All these places were built with one purpose, to maximize profit, which is fine for their shareholders, but it’s a disaster for you and your neighbors and your community.
 
I understand my privilege. I know I am more able than others to avoid these places, and that is the real tragedy. The notion that for so many, this is the only option- that big box stores and dollar stores are the best they have. It’s not that I think I am better than these places, it’s that I know we are ALL better than these places. No one should have to feel run down by their town. No one’s surroundings should be degrading. We are far too wealthy a country to build the types habitats that degrade us.
 
Up until the pandemic, I tended bar a couple nights a week while I worked to get Revitalize, or Die. off the ground. Mick and I worked together for about 9 months. He was a good bartender though was easily distracted by the ladies. His sense of humor always made a shift go faster. I liked working with Mick, but when he should up to work messed up a couple of times, he was sent packing. It was sad to see him go and also a little concerning. I heard from other bartenders that he had his struggles. A couple of months went by and coworker reached out to let me know Mick had passed away of an overdose.
 
After calling hours, I took a little time to walk around Mick’s hometown. Main Street wasn’t just in bad shape, it was empty. Devoid of all life. Not a single business, not even a single car. Weeds growing up between the cracks in the sidewalks. Buildings falling down. Burger wrappers blowing down the middle of the sun baked street. It barely seemed believable that this was once the heart of a community. I don’t know what all my friend struggled with, I don’t know his whole story, or what his family life was like, but I do know that this place played a role in his tragic outcome. It is an impossibility to be surrounded by decline and not suffer from some yourself. It is resolutely true, that depressing surroundings will eventually make their way into your consciousness. You can’t fight off what you consume every day. If you only eat whoppers, you’re gonna get fat, if all you ever see is Burger King, you’re gonna be blue. We are all affected by our surroundings way more than we realize.
 
We don’t have a choice in how our environment shapes us. We are all forced to ride with traffic if there is no bike lane. We are all terrified when walking next to a 45mph road. We are all depressed when we see rundown houses. We all feel a little dirty when we go to the Dollar Store. Our habits and behaviors are constantly influenced by the design of our places. We have very little control over how our environment shapes us, but we have total control over how we shape our environment. We have the knowhow and resources to build places that would decrease addiction. We have the ability to build places that would improve our mental health instead- we can create neighborhoods that would foster more physical fitness and plazas that would bring us closer to our neighbors. We have a choice and that choice is in how we shape our places. We can shape them in a manner that makes life harder, uglier, and sadder, or we could shape them in a way that gives people a chance to be proud, dignified, connected and happy. Knowing our places shape us, we need to rethink how we shape our places.

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