|A happy street: Smedley between Spruce and Pine.|
There was a highway in Vietnam called The Street Without Joy. Actually the French gave it the name - La rue sans joie. The phrase dates back at least to a 1925 movie starring Greta Garbo, which in turn was based on a 1924 novel, Die freudlose Gasse by Hugo Bettauer. Bernard Fall, with his 1961 book Street Without Joy, brought the phrase to a wide American audience.
Too many of our alleys in Philadelphia have earned this name. One of the reasons is razor wire, which continues to show up in places that I would not expect it.
Let's talk for a minute about the semiotics of razor wire. I don't know what it says to you, but here's what it says to me: war zone. And while its owner may view it as a defensive device, preventing access by unwanted visitors, it also clearly has an aggressive function - to intimidate. Not just potential burglars, but anybody walking down the street.
If you're simply interested in protecting your home, modern technology provides a veritable cornucopia of products that are both discreet and effective. Sensors, cameras, the ability to berate an intruder while seated in front of your computer at work - I won't do the alarm company's sales job here, but really, if you're willing to give up the mine's bigger than yours thing, you're wasting your time with razor wire.
And if your psyche really cries out for some physical barrier to lacerate someone trying to come over a gate or wall, maybe it doesn't need to intimidate every passerby. Maybe it could even be funny. You could tear a leaf out of the Book of Isaiah Zagar. The presentation below is not particularly intimidating, but anybody trying to go over it is likely to lose some blood - maybe not enough to bleed out, as sometimes happens with razor wire, but certainly enough to enable identification. So it depends a bit on how much damage you really want your defenses to do.
|900 block of Waverly.|
I understand the romantic appeal of razor wire. The fact is, there was a war in our cities. As Adam Gopnik puts it in a recent New Yorker article, "it's hard for those who didn't live through the great crime wave of the sixties, seventies, and eighties to fully understand the scale or the horror of it, or the improbability of its end."
But that war is over, and maybe, just maybe, it's time for us to demobilize. I understand that the murder rates in Baltimore and Chicago are unacceptable - frankly, the murder rates in Philadelphia and New York are unacceptable - but this is no longer a war. Kaboni Savage is behind bars, and he's going to stay there. The same with Rudolph McGriff. Beyond Philadelphia, there's Whitey Bulger. He's behind bars too, at long last.
As Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage cried out in panic during a lull in the Thirty Years' War, "Peace has broken out!" Some people may be irreconcilable, but I suggest that perhaps it is time to turn our swords into plowshares and think about what a city at peace would look like.
Maybe we should think about streets with joy, rather than streets without joy. I think this may be a stretch for some people. It's not just a question of removing negatives, like razor wire. We need to think about what sparks joy.
Here, for example, is the 1800 block of Cypress. It's a nice street - no razor wire that I can find, clean, orderly, even reasonably well organized from a design point of view, at least for a service alley.
|1800 block of Cypress.|
But I'm just not feeling it. A while ago I put together a rating scale for our alleys, ranging from F to A. I'll give this one a C.
With the amount of money that's available on this block, we simply have to do better than a gentleman's C.
You don't have to go crazy. For instance, take Smedley Street, pictured at the beginning of this story. If Grandma Moses had lived in Philadelphia, she would have painted Smedley Street. Of course Smedley has the advantage of having the homes face on the street rather than being a service alley with a parade of garage doors.
So maybe you need to shift from Grandma Moses to Isaiah Zagar, or even Piet Mondrian. (Hint: Garage doors don't have to be boring. It's a choice.)
There's more in the bones of Philadelphia than the Federal style; we should recognize that and build on it.
See also Alleys, My New Favorite Alley, Do We Secretly Want Ugly Cities and Dangerous Streets?