Saturday, October 3, 2009

My Evening With David Byrne

Had an interesting evening with David Byrne & 500 of our closest friends this week.

The format was actually that of a panel discussion -- DB was one of four people -- the other 3 were:

DB tried as much as possible to give equal time to the others. And a lot of the audience's questions were directed to the other 3, very specific questions about policy and plans.

Myself, I would have loved to hear more from DB. He didn't talk about policy issues or planning issues, except for some historical references to the traditions of car-oriented urban planning, and a reference to Jane Jacobs, the woman who turned the tide against the destruction of neighborhoods for the sake of cars in the late 50's to the 70's. (Fascinating woman -- just read reviews of some of her books and of books about her, in New York Review of Books).

Instead, he talked primarily about his experiences, perceptions, and what cycling is to him. I actually found that more interesting than anything else. Policy wonks and planners must, by definition, speak in terms of external outcomes like reductions in CO2 emissions, number of cars on the road, &c. That's all well and good, and I am very appreciative of their hard work -- really, I am. But to me personally (and I'm sure for everyone who was there that night), cycling is rooted at a deeper level -- it is something existential. Even if cars sucked up evil and emitted goodness, I'd still be cycling. Both the physical activity and the effect it has on my well-being, and the way it allows me to experience the world around me. DB spoke about this kind of thing.

There's one observation DB made (can't remember whether he spoke about this or I read it in his book) that stirred a memory. I grew up in Albany, NY. When he wasn't working on Sundays, my father would take me and my brother to the Greek Orthodox church near downtown. (This was by bus -- my father's first car, a used 1959 Plymouth Fury with punch-button transmission, was years in the future). After church, he'd take us down to the Hudson River. When I look at photos of these trips, I remember being terrified, overwhelmed by the structures, the traffic, the noise, the sheer scale of things. These photos show me and my brother standing in a field of weeds, with the Dunn Memorial Bridge in the background.

As hard as it is to believe, at that time, there was no easy access to the Hudson River, the very raison d'etre for Albany. Downtown, Pearl St. (where my mother worked as a seamstress, and my godparents ran a diner), was just a few blocks away, but between downtown and the river were heavily trafficked roads, fences, and rail yards. Even by then, the riverfront was designed for cars, not for people. But my father came from a place where there were few cars, and where access to the water was integral to people's lives. And so, he took us to the river. (It just occurred to me that the first Talking Heads song I ever heard was their cover of Al Green's "Take Me To The River." Hmmm.)

Anyway, I'm just a few pages into DB's book, but I'm very excited about what I'm reading. When I ride to work & back, I get to see our city in ways that I never would by driving, or even taking the bus. I get to see the trucks entering and leaving our port; I know when the salmon are running by the gathering of fishers at the waterfront; I see some of the places the homeless live; I see the longshoremen gathering at the Union Hall for work assignments; I see tugboats nudging barges bound for Alaska down the mouth of the Duwamish.