Environmental & Architectural
Life on Earth: San Francisco, Oostburg, and the Figure-Ground Reversal
Childress is the author of Landscapes of Betrayal, Landscapes of Joy: Curtisville in the Lives of Its Teenagers (Albany, NY: State University Press of New York, 2000).
While walking to work in San Francisco, I used to make a game of imagining the landscape as it might have been two or three hundred years ago. Among all cities, San Francisco might seem to lend itself most readily to such a pastime. The steep hills are still prominent, the ocean and bay envelop the city on three sides, the wind and fog are always close at hand, and the native grassland and shoreline marsh systems are evident and vital parts of nearby places.
And yet I found it very difficult to dream away the city and see deer trails on the grassy hillsides‑-all I could see were buildings and cars and overhead trolley guides. I had played this game elsewhere with great enjoyment and assumed my blockage was due to the height and density of the never-ending skyline. It wasn't until five years later, while studying the landscape history of a small Wisconsin village, that I discovered why San Francisco was impervious to my dreams: It isn't on the Earth.
Earth, or more specifically the Earth's surface, is not a part of the San Francisco landscape. Only occasionally does a patch of green emerge from the concrete, and when it does it is as likely to be on a penthouse or atop a parking garage or sunken below sidewalk level as it is to be "on the ground." Gardens are found almost as often indoors as out. Because of this unpredictability and rarity, all plantings become disconnected from the Earth: yards, parks‑-even Olmsted's enormous and lovely Golden Gate Park‑-are simply set into fabricated niches in the hardscape, spaces that were cut out of the city grid and filled with plants as though they were window boxes. Soil and plants are the artificial elements that occasionally interrupt the city's natural concrete datum.
This horizontal irrelevance of the Earth is accompanied by a vertical disconnection as well. We go below the street to catch trains and trolleys, the sidewalk opens up for cartons to be shuttled downward, and the "ground floor" and plaza gardens of the Alcoa Building are on the third floor roof of a parking garage. Surprisingly, this feeling of disconnection is validated, even strengthened, whenever you get a chance to see below grade. When a building is demolished in the center of the city and the wreckage is excavated down twenty feet or so below sidewalk level, the datum exposed is still human in origin--party walls of adjacent buildings, utility conduits, retaining braces and struts and stanchions, almost anything but dirt. David Macaulay's wonderful civil-engineering picture book, Underground (Houghton Mifflin, 1976), illustrates exactly the experience of surface life in San Francisco: A thin crust of paving hovering over a plenum filled with pipes, tunnels, utilities and storm drains. Earth is non-existent; the sphere is a hollow, engineered shell.
There is an old joke about an Englishman in India who asks a local resident about Hindu cosmology. The world rests on the shoulders of an elephant, he is told. "What does the elephant stand upon?" "The elephant stands upon the back of a great turtle." "And what does the turtle stand upon, pray?" "Oh, after that, sahib, it is turtles all the way down." In San Francisco, one could take an auger and drill down seemingly for miles and miles and retrieve nothing but the lost evidence of human occupation. In short, city all the way down.
REVERSAL AND SOLID EARTH
Oostburg, Wisconsin, is a farming village of some 2,000 people about 45 miles north of Milwaukee. There, the city's modes of object and ground are reversed. Buildings and roads are laid cautiously onto the soil in small encroachments. Earth is solid in Oostburg, unlike the hollow ball of the city. The ground is dense, to be plowed or shoveled only at great expense of time and strength. The few marks made by humans have merely been painted onto the surface. It's easy to see Center Street as a six-mile-long piece of black tape pulled taut and laid from township line to township line, and just as easy to imagine it all gone, the land unmarked, covered with blackberries and marshy swamps.
Human occupation is a tenuous act in the country, marked by small, sometimes timid, moves to occupy a portion of the Earth. The city builders have more confidence (some would say chutzpa), redefining the coastline with landfill, building up into the sky and down through the crust re-forming the face of the planet.
But what does it mean to live on Earth if Earth is nowhere to be seen? Is one's concept of Earth related to urban and rural styles of living? Cultural landscape writers show how human decisions about the environment, both built and natural, reflect the values and beliefs of the builders and inhabitants. What does it say about modern urban culture, then, when the ground itself becomes an arbitrary feature of the cityscape? It would seem to be no coincidence that we speak of homeland and native soil, of people being rooted or well-grounded.
With all of the current work on place attachment, including my own studies of rural villages, it will be interesting to see whether place narratives reflect the respective degrees to which the horizontal and vertical surety of Earth as datum has been overcome or replaced by the engineered uncertainty of concrete as datum.