Learning from New York

Gail Thomas, Ph.D.

In an interview with Thomas Friedman on Sept 11, 2002, he was asked why we, the American people, with all our intelligence agencies, could not have foreseen this tragic event. His reply was: “It was not a failure of intelligence; it was a failure of imagination.” His continuing comments seemed to imply that as a society we have depended solely upon fact finding for information while other ways of knowing must be utilized for our highest wisdom. A failure of imagination. This single comment made so much sense to me, I jotted it down. It made sense. Sense. A humane city includes the senses. It seems that in a less humane world, we gather information, compile it, make charts and graphs based upon it and use these pie charts to make our choices. Where is the graph for what makes sense? How do measure imagination? Where are our pie charts for assessing values?

These seem to be the questions many are asking as we enter this new century and take a look around at the cities we have made. We are all fascinated with cities. We seem to come by this fascination naturally, that is, by our nature. It is our nature to build cities and to be either charmed or cursed by them. We are compelled by city life, drawn toward it as if magnetically, pulled as though a giant engine is reeling us into its environs by an invisible conveyor belt. Yes, there are those who never go near the big city (like the man who mows our meadow every year in East Texas — “I been to Dallas once’t” he said –“Never goin’ back!”) but, most people, even those who live in the country, hold an imagination of the city that draws them like moths to a flame. I think it is because the forms of the city, like them or not, show us who we are. The forms of the city tell us how we are moving into the future.

This series of free public lectures – The City of Imagination – is intended to take in the whole of things, to include those elements and areas that are so easily excluded in purely statistical dialogue. There is definitely a shift in perspective in so many areas of our lives. The past 400 years of being objective about the universe have certainly provided more data, and more detail, but it also seems that we have lost a lot of our ability to have good sense about the whole of things.

Last year our City of Imagination series featured the elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. We focused on the elemental life of the city-the invisible forces, that shape and form this particular place, making it unique.

The power of these invisible forces coming together in particular configurations have created a region here in Dallas County of chaotic convergence of land mass from north, south, east, and west, and geological strata revealing history dating back 12,000 years to Pleistocene mammals. We have a surprisingly mythic foundation — for thousands of years, early native peoples following the three forks of our Trinity River living off of the bounty provided by the abundant water, flora, and fauna. It is undeniable that this region we call Dallas/Fort Worth is rich in resources. This region, for reasons any active imagination might comprehend – spiritual, economic opportunity, nature’s bounty — has drawn to it millions of people seeking….what? Millions of people seeking….what?

What do we in Dallas seek when we say we desire a humane city? I want to push the search further and attempt a quick answer, although not an easy one: I want to suggest that what we truly seek is our own individual original self — that deep and eternal God-given essence within each of us that fuels our desires and ambitions and offers us, when we find it, a sense of presence. I want to argue that a humane city is a city where we as individual human beings are able to pursue our unique talents, our particularities in being human and where we have the opportunity to offer them as gifts back to the community.

So, tonight we begin a series on the Humane City. Let us look briefly at this word humane. Its origins might help us remember how language not only offers us a way of having dialogue with other humans but it remembers our relationship with the more-than-human cosmos in which we live. Certainly we recognize that it is an extension of the word human. But, are we even certain of the origin of this word we use so unconsciously? The word human is traced back to its Indo-European source to the word for Earth –dhghem — and to the word “earthling.” In Greek we find – khthon, earth, and the word we know aschthonic. In Latin, we find humus, of the earth. From these root sources we find the following words:humble, humiliate, exhume– all bearing witness to our relationship to the earth that pulls us toward it and bears us forth. To be humane, then, to add an e extension to human, seems to imply that we strive to stand up on this rich nutrient ground that gives us being – this humus — and be as fully unique and as completely whole as we possibly can be as earthlings. We are of the earth. To be humane, then, is to see how fully and completely each of us shows forth out of it. Let us imagine ourselves in this way, not separated from the earth but growing out of it, out of the rich topsoil of it.

In a humane city, therefore, there would be no waste. No wasted people, no wasted things. Like the humus after which we derive our name as humans, everyone is needed, everything is used, and each thing is food for something else. There is an inherent mystery involved in this rhythm of life, and a grace. It is the stuff of poetry. And I want to include a poem now. This is the poem that resonates with my deepest being. The poet is Gerard Manly Hopkins.

God’s Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West sent

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward , springs-

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Gerard Manly Hopkins, 1877

“There lives the dearest freshness deep down things….” This is my theme for a humane city, although “generations have trod, have trod, have trod/ And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; / And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell”….

All this, and yet, “there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” Hopkins sees the spontaneous generation of God in all things. He is not referring to a romantic rural setting; he is speaking about the city, (think of New York City one year ago) where all is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil. This is precisely where we are to look for the dearest freshness, deep down things. And here enters my title: “Learning from New York.” If we look, I believe we will find a humane city.

When I gave Larry my title early last summer, I was, of course, giving a nod to “Learning from Las Vegas,” the book by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Stephen Izenour, remembering the shock of realizing that we had anything at all to learn from Las Vegas and from what seemed to be a degradation of urban culture.

What we learned of course is how quickly things change, or more correctly, how quickly we humans are able to change things. Venturi rubbed our faces in the images of Las Vegas and made us look closely: “…Las Vegas, where a roadway becomes a city; where a building becomes a sign.” This book, published in 1972, called our attention to how speed, mobility, and the superhighway have so radically changed our lifestyles; Ada Louise Huxtable puts it this way: “…from LeCorbusier to Brazil to Miami to roadside motel in a brief 40 year span.” (In an August New York Times article, Andrew Revkin tells of satellites that map vegetation and the nighttime signature of human activity – fire and light – showing that people have altered more than one-third of the terrestrial landscape. “Once it is changed, it is usually changed forever,” the article reads. I thought of Las Vegas.) So that was the impetus – the shock of learning so much from a place I had chosen to not even think about.

But, why Learning from New York? Two points were in my mind at the time I chose the title. First, of course, is what we have learned this past year about caring and loving from people we previously have considered too busy to speak to or greet and too urban to notice the needs of the stranger. We have all been taught an important lesson by New Yorkers. They have taught us how to stop, to grieve, to care, to love, and to remember. “And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;/ And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell:/ the soil is bare now….”

But, there is another point about New York that came to me when I was considering the notion of the humane city. And that is the importance of decisions that are made and the ones that are defeated in the building of our cities. I was thinking of Jane Jacobs in New York City in the early 1960’s when she fought Robert Moses in his attempt to build three highways that would bisect Manhattan: the Upper Manhattan Expressway, the Mid-Manhattan Elevated Expressway, and the Lower Manhattan Expressway. The Lower Manhattan Expressway was designed to level fourteen city blocks of Greenwich Village and to create the eight-lane highway that would slash through the Village, Soho, and Chinatown, from the East River to the Hudson. This “Urban Renewal Plan” would displace almost ten thousand residents and workers and destroy thousands of historic buildings. Robert Moses’ views about Greenwich Village were well known; he considered it a slum and argued, in an interview, that, “Cities are created by and for traffic. A city without traffic is a ghost town.” Those of us who love New York should be grateful that Jane Jacobs lived in Greenwich Village with her family at that time. She wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, calling attention to the value of the brownstones and the close-knit neighborhoods and the rest is history. Robert Moses and his three expressways were voted down. Jane Jacobs began to awaken us from an anesthetized stupor, not only the kind that builds Las Vegas and Miami and the roadside motel but the millions of suburbs and concrete shopping centers built solely for the automobile that followed in the final three decades of the 20th century. Jacobs awakened New Yorkers, but sadly, not the rest of the nation. As she said: “Surrendering the street to the automobile and placing people into isolated super blocks creates a city of people removed from one another: when people spend all their time in private spaces and leave public space behind, cities decline.”

I believe that Jane Jacobs began then and continues teaching us today about what makes a humane city. If asked to describe a humane city in a few words, I believe she would say: “…of course streets and neighborhoods” but zooming in, “small shops on intimate streets with owners in attendance; vendors selling produce and goods on the sidewalks; energetic entrepreneurs needing to make their enterprise work well (and therefore be more attentive to the customer).” “Franchise stores only as a start up to get going, until smaller operators get a foothold.” “Always create a climate for the little guy; he or she is the key to the new economy.” You see, Jacobs realized something about cities that proponents of the urban renewal projects failed to see – that cities have an organic nature and will develop according to the laws of nature if allowed to. People and the communities they develop, if allowed the freedom to do so, will grow from the inside out, in the way the acorn grows into the tree. She says in The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “Most city diversity is the creation of incredible numbers of different people and different private organizations, with vastly differing ideas and purposes, planning and contriving outside the framework of public action.”

“There lives the dearest freshness, deep down things.”

Someone said we don’t have to describe what a good city looks like. We know it when we see it. We know it when we experience it. My heroes in city planning as you might guess are: Jane Jacobs from Toronto; Holly Whyte from New York; Christopher Alexander from Berkeley. Why? Because they all talk about the “experience” of the city, the qualities of the city; what it is like to walk down the street, to sit, to observe; in short, to pay attention to what is around us. (They do not talk about numbers, bureaucracy, control). My sense about Dallas is that one reason we drive so fast and build more high speed roads is that we do not want to stop and take a look. It is rather shocking, really, to look closely at what we have built!

What lasting forms have we created in our 20th century cities? Will anything we have built be standing 1000 years from now? Even 100? Certainly our skyscrapers will be gone. They are built to last only 50 years, and that expectation implies constant maintenance. I can remember my shock when, in the late 70’s and early 80’s, a developer explained to me that the many cranes moving slowly across the Dallas skyline were constructing buildings that were amortized for 15 years. After that, they would probably come down. I can recall realizing that we were erecting buildings like other cultures put up tents.

Now, I believe the 21st century city will look different by 2100. And, I believe we will live differently in the 21st century city. We do not have the models yet. We haven’t even made them, though some are trying–like Glenn Murcutt from Australia, Will Bruder and Rick Joy from Arizona, and young Dutch, Scandinavian, Swiss, and German architects. We are still using our 20th century models to build our cities, and this seems quite wasteful to me. Will we be able to create cities that have learned to eliminate waste? Architect William McDonough[1] suggests that we eliminate the word waste. Instead of the word waste, applyfood. In nature there is no waste; what is discarded becomes food for something else.

How does the city of the 21st century reveal this close relationship with nature, with humus, with the humane?

We have to look at what makes sense. Let’s look at the senses of the city. What makes sense in a city if we want the human being to come first? What makes sense in the city if we want each human being to be able to be original and unique and to be needed and to be able to give these particular gifts back to the city? This is the ultimate test of being humane. To honor (to look the second time) at the uniqueness of the other.

We experience our soul life through our senses. Most of us know only 5 senses –seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting, but, there are actually 12. These 12 senses give us the balance we need in our body to move around in our everyday lives – we might call it the sense of presence, we are fully present when these senses are alive and active. Robert Sardello tells us these 12 senses [2] include four surrounding our body – touch, balance, movement, life (the life sense is aligned with the interior organs of the body). There are four senses that tell us of the environment we are in — sight, smell, taste, and warmth. Then there are the senses through which we intuit the realms of spirit around us – what we might call the invisible forces that are at work on us all the time — hearing, speech, the thought sense, and the sense of the I – the individual spirit that I am.

Recalling Robert Sardello’s understanding of the 12 senses, it came to me that an inhumane city is one in which the senses have become alarmingly disoriented. We live in a simulated world. Can we imagine what virtual space does to the senses of the body – touch, balance, movement, the life sense? Imagine the difference in the formation of the sensual body if we spend most of our time in cars, airplanes, speedboats, amusement park rides or subways as opposed to walking, bicycling, canoeing, touching a flower or a tree or petting an animal?

Now, don’t get discouraged. Of course, all of us spend most of our time moving from one place to another in cars or trucks and in the Greater Dallas Area this is not going to change. But there are things we can do. We can begin to focus on the areas in our Dallas region that can become people oriented instead of car oriented. And, in doing this, we learn from New York.

New York is a sensual city. Why? Because of the noise and the smells and the visual color and texture. But, primarily because it is so pedestrian – people walking, people running, people standing on street corners shmoozing, people kissing, people carrying groceries, people laden with shopping packages, people waiting for taxis, or running for subways. New York is a sensual city because it has people everywhere doing everything imaginable. It is a sensual city because of the surprises it offers at every turn.

While I desire the surprise and suspense that I get when I walk in raw nature, where the wildness breaks through and death is present next to the living, I desire equally as much being on a crowded, narrow street with a mass of mixed humanity looking in the windows of retail stores offering goods of all kinds. The surprise and the mystery is all there. A crowded street is beautiful. My sensual body loves it. I seem to come to life and sense an embodying presence within me. I feel humane. When I become full to this extent, full of a sense of my own unique original self, I become aware that I want to give back, perhaps in keeping with the rhythm of life, like the rhythm of breath.

In a humane city, we, each one of us, want to give to our city, to participate through the unique talents we as individuals can offer, to create something altogether wonderful, magical, nourishing, inspiring — a place to do good work, to raise a family, to worship freely and with dignity, to be challenged intellectually and to be moved emotionally. We desire the arts – music, dance, theatre, poetry – that recall us to our most meaningful and deeply human selves.

Let us consider what is happening to us when we go to the Meyerson and sit in the McDermott Concert Hall? Or when we go to the Dallas Theatre Center or to the ballet or to the Dallas Institute for a lecture or a seminar, or when we go to church or temple or mosque? Well, the first thing that happens is – we stop. We stop. And something else is happening. It is different than if we were at a sporting event or an entertainment event. We don’t talk to our neighbor. We don’t eat popcorn and laugh or whistle. We stop. We breathe silently. And something quite extraordinary happens. Deep listening comes to us. Deep listening is a profound experience and it doesn’t happen very often. Deep listening takes place in us. We offer it habitation. A profoundly different sensibility arises within us (the senses), and then something sprouts within us. It is our soul. We are experiencing the actual expansion of our soul.

Many of you know that we speak unashamedly here of the soul. The psychology we profess is a psyche logos or the wisdom or speaking of the soul. We speak of the bonding of spirit and soul and we go to great lengths to distinguish between the two.

And, we are not talking about religion, even though the word religion means a leading forth toward the divine. This is psychological talk, my discipline. So the kind of psychology I practice is attempting to hear, always, the soul speaking. The real task is to hear the soul speaking in the city. And, I can say that I believe with every fiber of my being that it is the task of everyone of us here in this room today to care for the soul of our city. Every gesture, every project, each meeting and gathering requires this awareness. Can you even imagine what this place would be if we could achieve that? Think about it for a moment. Is this not how people in Santa Fe feel about their town? How about San Antonio? Rome? Kyoto? Florence? Sydney? What is the quality of these places that draws us to them? Is this not what we yearn for in Dallas, for ourselves? For our children? For the families yet to come?

But, we can begin now, in the beginning of the 21st century to build in a different way. We can create a city here in Dallas, Texas that is as beautiful and healthy and green and nourishing as any city on the planet. We all know we can. This is the Dallas Spirit to know that we can. We can create a city that is a work of art. We must have the vision in mind, however, to do this. Plato says that every work of art must begin with an image implanted in the lens of the eye, so that we see through this image when we look at anything and everything around us. We do not yet have the new models. We do not know what our 21stcentury city will look like. But we do know that we must stop and take the time to look again at the kind of city we are making.

Look, for example, at the hierarchy of the way we have built our cities in the last century — the road network comes first, then the buildings, then the pedestrian space. In the 21st century, this hierarchy needs to reverse. And, we can begin to see it in cities all over the globe – pedestrian spaces first,buildings second, and roadways third – to serve the people.

What is happening in Dallas today that is helping make our city more humane?

  1. Mayor Miller (in addition to fixing the potholes – a humane act toward all the cars and trucks) appointed the “Inside the Loop” committee and asked Robert Decherd to head it and challenged this committee to come up with “one great idea.” They have. Ken Hughes is shepherding it. It is a large park in Downtown Dallas. Imagine several city blocks of grass, flowers, benches, lots of trees, with open areas for concerts or public gatherings, and side streets leading off the park heading toward Farmers Market with sidewalk cafes and street vendors selling fruit, flowers, and shopping items. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
  2. Henry S. Miller III is trying to make the old Mercantile buildings work for retail and residential.
  3. Main Street – the block between Neiman Marcus and Pegasus Plaza, filled with retail depicting the character of Dallas. Dallas Originals.
  4. In one of the store fronts next to Neiman Marcus, A Fashion Incubator, 8 fashion designers all in one space. We’ll have a program that helps them get started.
  5. A new restaurant adjacent to Pegasus Plaza with tables out on the plaza.
  6. The wall is coming down between the plaza and the Magnolia Hotel, and perhaps another restaurant adjacent to the wall of the Magnolia Hotel with access into the hotel for guests.
  7. The Davis Building, will be luxury loft apartments thanks to Larry and Ted Hamilton.
  8. The magnificent Dallas Power & Light Building, featuring above the front door a cut glass mural of Zeus holding lightning rods, again thanks to Larry and Ted Hamilton.
  9. Stone Street Plaza, developed by Thomas Taylor, offering the Metropolitan restaurant, Café Izmir, Mark and Larry’s eclectic mix of home décor, and an Art Gallery Restaurant, opposite Campisi’s.
  10. 1505 Elm has luxury condos and will be finished in March.
  11. Eight more condominiums are going in on Jackson Street.
  12. Alice Murray has signed a contract on Mr. Koo’s building at the corner of Main and Akard to create loft apartments.
  13. Thomas Krahenbuhl and Truett Roberts, Dallas architects who are officing on Stone Street, are developing 1414 Elm Limited.

Sustainable Village close to the Trinity River in the Industrial District is being planned. It is a new concept for a mixed-use area – retail, design district, antique shops, warehouses, residential, live/work studios. Ken Hughes has worked with RTKL on a new design, and they will receive a design award next week for this project. The design shows the old Trinity River meanders opened up with boating docks lining the residential lofts. The streets are lined with windmills that generate energy; roofs carry solar powered units; the waterways will contribute to energy needs.

The Sustainable Village seems to work in my imagination because it makes sense. My senses spring to life when I imagine it. It seems to have a humane quality to it – honoring the earth, the air, the water. The place seems to have presence. When I imagine myself walking along the narrow winding paths depicted in the drawings, I seem to be more human.

All of these projects are being built putting people first, catering to our hungry senses — People first, buildings second, roads third. A 21st century city. A humane city.

“There lives the dearest freshness deep down things….” This is my theme for a humane city, although “generations have trod, have trod, have trod/ And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;/ And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell”….

All this, and yet, “there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”


[1] William McDonough and Micheal Braungart, The Next Industrial Revolution.

[2] Robert Sardello, “Care of the Senses: The Art of Soulful Living.” A weekend seminar at The Dallas Institute, Feb. 20, 1996.

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