Out Of Stock Pt. 1

(A paper for the 244th Con­gress of the Forum for Amer­i­can Folklore.)

It is the human lot to be dis­con­tent­ed with the dis­ar­ray about us. Peo­ple aim­less­ly sweep through it, won­der­ing at what is hid­den with­in. They grasp at whole com­mu­ni­ties grow­ing through the mess, look­ing to uproot one entire­ly, encour­ag­ing anoth­er immod­er­ate­ly in hopes that it will van­quish all the rest. They give up on what is at hand, and look instead at neat words and dia­grams that are sup­posed to rep­re­sent it. Often, out of frus­tra­tion, they end by resolv­ing to mow it all down and start again.

A city is, in the final analy­sis, anoth­er such heap of prob­lems; quite pos­si­bly it is the very emblem of all the rest. To tem­porar­i­ly exchange the actu­al city for a post­card view, or a dot on a map, or a spread­sheet, can salve its dif­fi­cul­ty but not solve it. Worse, the many such incom­pat­i­ble attempts to tame it, the myr­i­ad of applied poli­cies, plats, and plan­ta­tions, active­ly con­tribute to the ongo­ing dis­ar­ray in phys­i­cal reality. 

Evi­dence has nev­er stopped peo­ple from cre­at­ing and shar­ing a vari­ety of ways to make sense of the city, which have over time grown into their own ide­o­log­i­cal tan­gle. Any attempt to ful­ly account for such means would be its own sort of fol­ly. Nonethe­less, it may prove prof­itable to cat­a­log sim­pli­fi­ca­tions of the city, in the same way that we have enu­mer­at­ed bal­lads, or fairy sto­ries, or string fig­ures. If we bor­row the term urban­ism” from the pro­fes­sion­al lit­er­a­ture to describe such sim­pli­fi­ca­tions, it is used here in a more pejo­ra­tive spir­it – as a habit, a tic, a crutch, some­thing applied with­out con­sid­er­a­tion. Far from being coher­ent bod­ies of ana­lyt­ic delib­er­a­tion, such urbanisms” are best under­stood as tropes, cob­bled togeth­er to tell pass­able stories.

As a prac­tic­ing folk­lorist, I have ded­i­cat­ed much of the last twen­ty-five years to gath­er­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic tropes in urban­ism, as they are found in the pro­fes­sion­al and lay lit­er­a­ture. I have begun my work with Unit­ed States in the 20th cen­tu­ry, in despair of get­ting any­where with­out lim­it­ing my scope. In comb­ing through the era’s jour­nal­ism, com­mer­cial lit­er­a­ture, belles-let­tres, and oth­er ephemera, I have iden­ti­fied to date 413 dis­tinct vari­eties of trope, ten­ta­tive­ly divid­ed into three phy­la, 17 orders, and 46 gen­era. A selec­tion of my find­ings to date follows. Pur­ple Crayon”

The cru­cial thing about draw­ing the city in advance is not that it allows you to be pre­cise – no! Nev­er draw in pen­cil, because then you would begin wast­ing time in eras­ing and draw­ing again. The city should pro­ceed not in the state­ly way of your mind; but as crooked­ly as your hand, accord­ing to every shiv­er and every for­get­ful thought.

Paul-Louise Gas­par­din, The Shape of Urban Order and the Order of Urban Shape, Knapp Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1929, p. 11. Mem­phis”

5. SAND OFF all the edges. Noth­ing rough! When you touch your hand to the mod­el you should like what you feel.

6. FILL all pores. It shouldn’t breathe – that’s your job. 

7. FOL­LOW every line with your eyes. Do your eyes feel good? Then you’re done.

-Bowles Sharpe, Design to a Fine Point, Phais­tos, 1985. True Love”

You have been toss­ing back and forth for a long time on a cheap mat­tress. A very high buzzing sounds in the air. You squint at the pink flick­er behind the lurid blinds. You’re in a real­ly deep mood! You put on a coat; walk past the dark store­fronts, and walk into the bright store­front you have often passed: a small for­tuneteller late, late, just after the rain has fall­en, and you ask her before even sit­ting, my pro­pos­al, my design, should it be the brack­ets, or the giant eagle? The rook-and-bish­op? The weaver’s spin­dle? What will it be, to sec­ond the face of my love?

-Dana Ascherbach, The Back Alleys of Archi­tec­ture,” in Provo­ca­tions, ed. Fuller Ban­nock, Phoenix Archi­tec­tur­al Press, 1989. Table­top”

Yes and a may­or will dream­i­ly move the saltshakers/

around and air­i­ly sculpt the neigh­bors in town

Tovah Kim­bell, Salt­shak­ers.” Pen­ny­far­thing (August 1993), p. 41. Refuge”

Isn’t there anoth­er city out there, Paul? A place made just for mixed-up peo­ple like you and me?

-Rod­er­ick Pill (screen­writer), The Roar­ing Dev­il, Paragon Pic­tures, 1948. Unsayable”

Far away, under an Alaskan moun­tain, make a city with penal con­victs devot­ed to every unsayable propo­si­tion. Pun­ish them all in turn by mak­ing them serve as objects in each oth­ers’ fan­tasie. Tan­ta­lize them by end­ing their fan­tasies just before they are con­sum­mat­ed. Film the pro­ceed­ings. Use the result­ing images in a dis­ci­pli­nary fash­ion for the nor­mal but tempt­ed peo­ple back home. 

-Richard D. Fil­pitt, The Div­i­dends of Crime,” Torch of Lib­er­ty (Sep­tem­ber 1975), p. 60. Plant Cell”

To under­stand how this would work, imag­ine a planned com­mu­ni­ty with­out streets, only a grid of lots enclosed by fences. These fences are out­fit­ted with gates reg­u­lat­ed by a series of pro­to­cols cus­tomized to fol­low each home­own­er’s pref­er­ences. To make sure of free pas­sage through their neigh­bors’ lots, the res­i­dents must cul­ti­vate good­will. Oth­er­wise, they face an esca­lat­ing loss of mobility.

-Eliz­a­beth Morales, Access and Ethos,” Query (March 1997), p. 29. Para­cosm”

…for in this city each man must dwell alone – a few win­dows his only insight into the doings of his fel­lows. He is charged at birth with a mis­sion: to describe with total accu­ra­cy the envi­ron­ment in which he finds itself. When ready, he must sub­mit that descrip­tion in a sin­gle enve­lope pro­vid­ed to him, through the slot in his locked door. If his descrip­tion is judged to be true and cor­rect, he will be released and allowed to see for himself.

P. Fred­er­ick Echols, The City Drowned in the Bath­tub,” Uni­ver­so (March 1936), p. 40.


(July 2023)