Sunday, May 16

Health, history, horses

I'm finding that all this moving around has made me very aware of my experience of cities, particularly how I adapt to them both physically and psychologically. The pace of life here is different, slower than in larger cities I've lived in. (There is something to be said about the reduced stress on the immediate envorins that smaller populations have.) The freedom of time and movement has allowed me to indulge in a kind of regional wanderlust.

We recently took a drive to Saratoga Springs, now famous for it's annual horse race. Originally a fort built on the Hudson River, mineral springs thought to have medicinal properties caused settlement to develop around the site. By the 19th century, it was a major destination for those suffering from a diverse list of ailments ("From Lung, Female and Various Chronic Diseases"), who sought relief from the specific mineral properties of about 110 different natural springs. As modern medicine phased out the popularity of hydrotherapy, only the Roosevelt Spring is now still open for use. The rest of the original site, built in the 1940's for public use, is now a park.

The comparison of types of "watering holes" was apparent to me on our visit, and I couldn't help but make the relationship between contemporary consumptive practices and a prior generation's pilgrimages for a bath. The 19th c. notion of traveling to the rural springs for rest from the physical stresses of "the metropolis" involved engaging with a space and a community in an act and environment specific to the physical location and removed from the behavior needed to navigate a city. The park-like setting of the original bathhouses was a space built more for a slow contemplation. In contrast, Saratoga as it is now exhibits a more contemporary list of leisure activities related to consumption: eating, drinking, and shopping at boutique stores. All of these activities were somewhat expensive to engage in, and exhibit a much more quantitative form of leisure, i.e. you can probably calculate your fun quotient by using your receipts. Furthermore, many of the stores are chains or sell a displaced good (Mexican food or Rastafarian gear.) It's as if the space is simulating a unique experience, but really acting as a surface for what is known. As posited by Robert Misik, "Public places that are only pseudo-cities, backdrops of the social in which one can indeed be active, but only in a peculiarly passive way."

What will be the next face of cities? Saratoga has retained it's visual appearance as a city built in the 19th century, yet has had to adapt to the rapid change in use of urban centers as shells for global culture. And now with the connectivity provided by the internet, a physical location for interacting, sharing information and trading goods and services is not necessary. We no longer need to go anywhere. And yet our cities still exist and function. People still move to them, live in them and work in them. If not centers of commerce, then perhaps our communal activities can become truly about communities again. The High line project in New York, for example, re-imagined the detritus of industry as open space for community interaction. In places like this, we would be entering back in to the "real", where we could experience the phenomena of lived space as dictated by users, not commercial interests. If we are hoping to experience a combination of a density of human interaction and the opportunity for contemplative space and time, it seems a viable solution. I guess as long as people can use a laptop to order their groceries and check their email there, it would work.