Monday, November 22, 2010

The Geography of Surface and Depth: San Francisco and Tokyo

The San Francisco underground – at least the part of the BART that I rode inside the city proper – is really terrible. There are no maps near the ticket machines, no audible station announcements, no signs with station names easily visible from the train at stops. If you want to know how to make the train less convenient and accessible than the bus, come to San Francisco. It's one stark contrast with Tokyo, whose subway organization and labeling is relentlessly clear and logical, down to a multilingualism that makes it potentially transparent (after a certain learning curve) to an array of foreigners.

The contrasts in the two cities' landscapes are layered and transverse. At the very surface, SF is a beautifully mystified city – a mosaic of murals, creative storefronts, beautiful century-old brass scrollwork, window displays, public art. By contrast, while I don't have a great deal of personal grounds for comparison, others before me have described Tokyo as one of the drabbest, if not outright ugliest, of the great cities. Its parks are scraggly and unkempt, and as much as they are romanticized by a certain American subset who fetishize their “postmodernity,” the unregulated trammel of racing neon lights, dirty plastic mascots, and frantically spinning tin signs amount more than anything to an unending eyesore. There are the struggles of a small few humanizers – graffiti artists and creative boutique retailers fighting the grey concrete and off-white tile, the textural regularity of the cheap and mass-produced buildings – but the fight, against indifferent ward governments and citizens long cowed into aesthetic submission, is one they can't win.

But at another level, the roles reverse. Beneath its surface vulgarity, for instance if we travel the paths of its streets and experience their flow, or even just look at a map of any random section of the 23 wards, we can see that Tokyo's humanity and chaos are inscribed at a deeper level. The map to the right happens to be of Shibuya, but shows a familiar pattern – a major hub towards which major streets and minor lanes alike converge, inconsistently, with kinks and swerves, revealing the trace of pedestrians and rickshaws and palanquins carving them by consensus over the course of a century or three. Streets bend and spiral, both at the level of the block and the level of the city as a whole.

The example that occurs to me now is Yamanote Dori, which originates (as far as my usage of it, anyway) up in the northwest territories (Nakano, Suginami) and curves around Tokyo's belly (Shibuya, Ebisu) only to perform an utterly ridiculous pirouette as it ends right around Shinagawa. The road is a rough sketch of the Golden Ratio, the formula that forms the snail's shell or the fern frond, or the arc traced by a split atom. Its name, “Hand of the Mountain,” summons fairy tales about devious woodsmen. At that more atomic level, even the most insignificant backstreet is likely to trace a similar swerve, and to do it while utterly nameless. Even the larger streets are scarcely signed, leading to a kind of spatial darkness, a cloaking mystery that is the inverse of the subway's clarity. Native Japanese and foreigners alike cluster at the maps around subway exits and police boxes, quizzical and searching. Just as the subway's ease is multilingual, the impenetrability of the streets has nothing to do with one's tongue – rather, it is a function of a more cosmopolitan closure (that is, an equal rejection of all against all), each district, ward, and cho requiring its own degree of local knowledge for confident travel.

Contrast all of this with San Francisco, which is essentially two grids that knit together along a street whose name is purported to reflect everything that is most rational – Market. The streets are numbered, or they are named for men – Geary, O'Farrell, Montgomery, Hyde. This humanism is ironically unlike the creativity of the muralists and graffiti writers, its assertion of permanence and influence only diminishing the city, rendering it a faint protest against the ages.

Tokyo, then, is an uncanny city, hiding itself, producing its own shadows, while San Francisco (from its weather on down) is the ultimate visibile city, sun-drenched (even the adult DVD stores and peepshows are lit up, with open lobbies, public . . .). But the uncanny is dual, and so is publicness – Freud of course conceived the uncanny originally in German, as the unheimlich, or un-homelike, a more easily conceived negative that contains its own inverse. Tokyo's opacity renders it familiar on the local level, its myriad screens and curtains concealing warm and congenial spaces, while San Francisco's warmth spills out onto its transparent streets. This doesn't diminish the value of that warmth, but it renders its surface smooth – the whole city is warm, and the passage from place to place is not a passage from the familiar to the unknown. San Francisco's internal passages are of another sort, on which more shortly.

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