We Know More Than We Can Tell

It’s Environmental Film Festival time again in Washington! Last night we hosted a film at the National Building Museum called “Designing a Great Neighborhood” which took us through an 8 year process of from site selection to inhabitation in extraordinary detail. The neighborhood, in Boulder CO, had all the stuff; it was so green it glowed. And all the people seemed so happy. Yet, I’m sure their happiness didn’t derive directly from the carefully calibrated roof overhangs and the bioswales. There was so much more to it than that and it’s that excess, that generosity that shifts a place from green to truly sustainable. But it is really hard to say exactly what that is. I was reminded of Justice Stewart Potter’s famous assertion about pornography, that he might not be able to define it but he sure knew it when he saw it.

That’s what we face, really, in trying to plan, design, and of course build, better greener communities. Somehow, the best of them, usually from history, remain both more and other than simply the checklist of green attributes. Potter’s claim is just a more earthy way of describing what philosopher Michael Polanyi, in his deceptively thin volume The Tacit Dimension, calls “tacit knowledge”. Polanyi’s theory is that we know more than we can tell.

What makes a great neighborhood? I know more than I can tell. Although though I give it a try in the Museum’s web video series “Great Green Places.” In it I itemize the parts of the landscape that make Dupont Circle such a great green place. But we would have been out there filming into eternity to really capture the full picture. How is it that we can know more than we can tell? We know the faces of hundreds of people, but can’t tell how. Polanyi, and other phenomenologists argue that we our knowing depends profoundly on memory, and memory on all of our senses. We might think that our knowing is rational, but it is haptic, aural, olfactory, and visual.

“The knowledge I have of my own body differs altogether from the knowledge of its physiology; and the rules of rhyming and prosody do not tell me what a poem told me, without any knowledge of its rules.” Polanyi

Gaston Bachelard, in The Poetics of Space, suggests that we don’t merely inhabit the world, but the world in habits us. We carry our houses, our sense of home, imprinted on us like a mother duck on her ducklings, with us our entire lives seeking correspondence everywhere. Bachelard calls this the oneiric house, the dream/memory of house that each of us carries with us in our minds and against which we referee all representations of house. I think we also carry with us an oneiric city, as a gatekeeper, a referee of our perception of city. What is a “hometown” anyway? The average American always has to pause a minute before answering, “what’s your hometown?” Is it my birth-town? My present-town? My parent-town? Or, my oneiric town, the place in memory and geography where I feel “at home.”

Writing about this sends me into a Bachelardian reverie about Glen Ridge, NJ. Although I lived there only for less than 15 years of my life, it’s my oneiric town, my home-town. It is the wellspring of my intuitions and convictions for how things ought to be. Walkable, tree-lined, compact, transit oriented---all of today’s terminology applies, yet barely hints at those qualities that made it most memorable. From our house on Inness Place, I could walk 3-4 blocks to the train station where my father arrived from Manhattan every evening at 6:15. In the winter, I might have gone to the ice-skating rink next to the station, and on the way home cross the street to the row of shops on Grove Street. They housed the necessities of the vita beata: a deli, pharmacy, bakery, liquor store, beauty salon, dry cleaners, newsstand, and pizza joint. Walk down Oxford Street and the 3 storey duplexes would give way to single family bungalows. That, and the change from tall industrial streetlights to the low gas lights, was the sign that we had crossed from Montclair into Glen Ridge. Right turn at the next block, quick left and down the hill to the last house on the right, up the steps that join the sidewalk, up the walk, and another flight of steps to the porch. Home. From that omphalos I could walk or ride my black 3-speed to friends, piano lessons, middle school and high school,…my school years were bus-free, an unusual condition in the US.

The gas lights, the canopy of trees, the blue slate sidewalks, the gathering of civic life under red tile roofs at the Middle School and the Library, right where the large world passed through on rail, through the Glen, and on down Bloomfield Avenue. This memory contains all of the architectural, urban and livability values that I continue to hold. In all of my moves and wanderings since, I have carried this memory as an ideal with me as I try to make myself “at home”…looking for the pattern of living, the shape, the casts of characters, the habits that formed my impression of dwelling.


anne said...

Great perspective. You forgot to add how we would walk home for lunch from Forest Ave. Elementary School. I think that's why I've always wanted to live near enough work that I could go home for lunch.

BAC said...

Hi Susan! My best friend from Grad School at Columbia lives in Glen Ridge and is raising her children there - I'm sure she'll love your blog!