The Word On The Street
If you live in a city, you live in a landscape that is actively trying to talk to you at all times. There’s the obvious ways; the street signs, road markings, warning notices and so forth; Instructions and admonishments from an authoritarian parent. Then there are the more friendly communications, the billboard advertisements, the shop window displays, maps and timetables on bus stops. It all adds up.
Seriously, look around you next time you’re outside (maybe you’re outside right now). See how long it takes to find a direction other than straight up or straight down where your field of vision doesn’t contain some kind of message.
And when you’ve found that vista, look again. Ask yourself, are you SURE this scene has nothing to say?
Of course, there’s the graffiti. Whether it’s a scrawled obscenity or a nom de plume de la rue, it’s always saying something- usually, “I was here, I am here, I exist and I wish to be heard”.
But there are other ways the city tries to talk to you. Not just with words, but with symbols too.
I’m not talking about road signs.
Ever seen a pair of shoes hung by their laces from a telephone wire? It’s not a common sight in the UK, but I’m told it’s common in America. It’s a shop sign, indicating a spot where drugs are sold. In the UK you’re better off looking for a house with closed curtains but an open door. Don’t go in, wait outside. Someone will come out. Be ready to run away if they don’t like the look of you. Similarly, the phrase “red light district” didn’t spring out of nowhere; at one time men of a certain pitiful type would walk the streets in search of windows with red lights, another indication of illicit business. Burglars leave marks for each other, arcane looking symbols that indicate easy entry or dangerous dogs.
And then, of course, once you’re thinking that way, then there’s no end to it. After all, isn’t every carefully mown front lawn a message to the world about the standards of it’s owner? And therefore, every unkept driveway a statement by omission? Litter on a street says someone isn’t considerate enough to clean up after themself. A pastel painted drainpipe sends another message of it’s own.
A city is a landscape carved by people, and if there’s one thing we love to do, it’s talk; ideally about ourselves. We live in a giant mosaic novel, an open ended dialogic narrative that we all get to contribute to. Every street is a paragraph and every road sign a footnote. Graffiti artists scribble in the margins, while architects and builders bring William Burroughs’ cut up technique into three dimensional space, rearranging what’s already been written into new and exciting forms.
The trick, of course, is working out what on earth it all means; and more importantly, whether the answer to that question is even worth knowing.