The Preface, The Idea

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In the preface of his City of Rhetoric, David Fleming outlines the course he will take in his book regarding the relationship between public discourse and built environments in the United States. I have noticed that Fleming structures his argument three parts. The first part of his argument in the preface is the rejection of implicit judgement of his topic. He establishes that his work is unique in this part. In the second part of his argument, Fleming introduces the perspectives he uses to come to his conclusions and gives historical examples, thereby convincing his audience to read further into his piece. The last part of the preface, however, indirectly makes the claim that if we can change the environment around us, we can change the politics it produces.

Fleming does make clear that he doesn’t wish to take a traditional work of view, but a commentary on existing built environments and how the influence public discourse. Fleming states that his book is a “verbal portrait of contemporary civic life in the United States” (xi). He emphasizes this because he feels it is important to communicate to his audience the uniqueness of his perspective. By offering this “verbal portrait,” he isn’t trying to explain deep historical trends rooted in sociological studies. Instead, Fleming reaffirms that he is offering commentary on existing trends of community development and political activity. Fleming states that, with his book, he will attempt to “crack open the visible world of our local lives and find within it a specifically political rationale” (xi). Once again, he is making clear to his audience what his purpose is and why his perspective is unique from other people who have contributed to similar conversations.

Subsequently, Fleming introduces the tools and techniques he wishes to explore the relationship between discourse and environments. In order to achieve his goal, Fleming says he will bring together  “three traditions of thought not usually linked: political philosophy, urban design, and rhetorical theory” (xii). The mixture of these three perspectives when trying to understand the effect place has on discourse contributes new material to existing conversations in each of the three traditions individually. Fleming then develops this part of the preface by offering historical examples regarding how actors like ancient Greeks, the founders of democracy, utilized principles of urban planning to promote democracy. With the various examples Fleming offers, he builds trust within his audience because readers will then start to trust there is indeed a relationship between space and discourse. This helps to draw attention to Fleming’s argument in the rest of his book.

As the preface comes to a close, Fleming suggests that if we can understand these relationships, we can actively reshape them to influence the politics of our environment. Fleming makes sure to emphasize the importance of studying the relationship between public discourse and the built environment. Fleming states, “if we continue to design our landscape so that we need not have contact with people who are different from us, we should not be surprised when the political life that results is impoverished” (xiv). By saying so, he is suggesting that the opposite approach will have an adverse affect. To elaborate, Fleming is hinting that if we design our landscape to have us in contact with people that may be different than us, we may see a revitalization in public discourse and a surge in political participation.

Design and a Post-Gender Society

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Suzanne Tick, in her “His & Hers: Designing for a Post-Gender Society,” the central argument is that modern-day designers must use their craft to promote acceptance and change in society. Before stating her claim, Tick refers to the breakdown of traditional concepts of femininity and masculinity defining societal norms. The path her article follows begins by explaining traditional concepts of gender, then how the perceptions of gender are changing, and finally, the affirmation that design can be a method to view these changes and further them.

Immediately after stating her claim, suggests that the modern design landscape is still stoic and rooted in the past. Tick states it is “still deeply rooted in Modernism, a movement shaped by a predominantly male perspective.” She introduces this perspective and then furthers her point by stating historically, men have dominated design because of the tendency to gravitate towards power roles in offices. After reading this part of her article, her readers may seem alarmed, dismayed, or disappointed because Tick’s writing suggests the male-centric paradigms on which the design landscape is based on is negatively hegemonic.

In the next part of her article, Tick argues that the male-dominated design workforce is subject to change, and she does this in two sections. First, Tick references well-known phenomenons like Emma Watson’s He for She campaign, and the successes of the LGBTQ rights movement. According to Tick, these movements initiate the need for solidarity of all genders because they implore men to “join the cause for gender equality, both here in America and around the world.” Men are beginning to help deconstruct norms in society that have benefited them for so long. This is supported by the second section, which suggests that women are becoming more prominent in the workforce because of the role of Mother Nature, which inspires workplace sustainability, hospitality, and softness.

Tick acknowledges that this change may not be easy, but she argues it is a natural human phenomenon. In this part of her article, Tick relates her argument back to the design landscape and names designers and their work as evidence of changing gender norms. For example, Alexander Wang’s women’s coat from Fall 2015 has “masculine tailoring with a military coat,” and Annemiek van der Beek’s Primal Skin makeup line “has been designed to be appealing to the male buyer.” However, this may confuse people because it is human nature to be uncomfortable with concepts that don’t inherently make sense. Tick introduces the struggle of being labeled an outcast, much like Martine Rothblatt, trans CEO of United Therapeutics. However, Tick cites that the change is only natural. She suggests that issues regarding gender and bathrooms, for example, are rooted in the need to include and support others. She also suggests that design has evolved in a way to support people with disabilities for the same reason.

To close her essay, Tick emphasizes the concept that the changing design landscape is evidence of the emergence of a post-gender society. In her words, “…we need to design for the accumulation of different human beings who are out there by being respectful to individual needs, and creating environments in which people can have their own individuality.” By saying so, Tick affirms that the hegemonic concept of male-centrism in the workplace is breaking down, and design can viewed as a medium through which we can both see and add to this change.

The Fundamentals

Cloud of related terms to urban planning

 

David Fleming, in the afterword of his book titled The City of Rhetoric, argues that if we wish to see any advancement in American society, we must no longer neglect the important relationship between a given space and socioeconomic trends. This chapter is unique in the sense that he begins by providing historical and political examples that many Americans are aware of. He references political bills, statistical data, and publicized orations. To clarify his argument, he remaps the arguments he developed throughout the course of the book. This way, we understand the relevance of what seemed like arbitrary detail in the part before. Finally, he stresses the relationship between space and socioeconomic issues is not coincidental. Before we can understand the complexity of the world we live in, we must examine our built environments. If we can understand the rhetoric of our built environments, we can prevent the further fragmentation of our society.

Fleming begins his argument by listing examples of major events that the American public has experienced, and this solidifies the connection between his work and the real world. For instance, Fleming begins this chapter with a quote from the U.S. Housing Act of 1949 which reads, “The Congress declares that the general welfare and security of the Nation and the health and living standards of its people require . . . the realization as soon as feasible of the goal of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family” (211). This allows Fleming a platform to introduce other historical examples of the American government addressing public planning, and their failure to address it well. He references how the Bush administration circa 2006 failed to uphold the standards set by the 1949 Housing Act and how hurricane Katrina revealed that the American government had tried to mask worsening socioeconomic trends as indicators of progress. To Fleming’s readers, such examples draw the connection between theory and practice. For lack of better terms, it simply becomes real.

To reinforce this concept, Fleming revisits and reflects on the examples he had explained in depth throughout his novel. He recalls the shortcomings of Cabrini Green, Chicago’s suburbia, and unforgiving high rises. After acknowledging them, David Fleming begins to answer the proverbial question, “So what?” And to that, he answers that design, by nature, is natural and countervailing to large-scale political and economic forces. Design is organic, and to force design to work differently and to separate people, the design is flawed. To further the concept of a relationship between a built environment and larger economic, social, and political issues, he appeals to a widely accepted cause–global warming. Fleming argues ironically,  “dense, centered cities— as “un-natural” as they often seem to us— may be our best hope in fighting global warming and, ultimately, saving Earth as a habitable planet” (215).  He references this because, one way or another, he is trying to convince his readers why these concepts are important. If one reason isn’t enough to convince his readers, then this might.

The overall message of Fleming’s afterword inspires a sense of activism. It is short, concise, and despondent. Fleming recognizes the fragmentation and polarization of American society is only increasing, and that he doesn’t have much hope even in newer generations to reverse this trend. However, Fleming isn’t entirely convinced there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Although he expects there is no point in placing the burden upon future generations to essentially reverse a trend that has been developing for centuries, he claims that the minds of youth are still malleable. I admire the way Fleming ends this last chapter. Fleming states, “Perhaps if young people experience, even just within the walls of a high school or college classroom, what it can be like to be members of a strong public, they will grow up and demand such publics in the ‘real world’” (214). And how are these “strong republics” formed? Well, the first step is to understand our built environment.

Who We Are is Where We Are

A sign reading "No Human Being is Illegal Here"
Sign on one of the resident buildings in Shaw, photographed by me

In the eighth chapter of City of Rhetoric titled “Toward a New Sociospatial Dialectic,” David Fleming argues that space affects a given person’s behavior in relation to their environment because there is a clear link between environment and opportunity. To make this claim, Fleming splices this chapter into two parts. The first part of the chapter focuses on what was previously said. It reinforces previous concepts Fleming has introduced such as the relationship between suburbia and a feeling of bland conformity, or an urban jungle that by nature breeds hostility and paranoia. The second part, however, explains why certain spaces are allocated to certain types of people, whether they be separated by race, class, or both.

Fleming makes an interesting choice to reinforce the previous examples he has introduced mainly in Part Two of his publication. He revisits the examples in his previous chapters from Cabrini Green to 1230 North Burling Street. He revisits why the structures in Cabrini Green were overrun by gang activity while 1230 North Burling Street witnessed the creation a relatively executive board. Not only does he summarize the points he makes in these chapters, he explains why this matters. The first part of this chapter is essentially a summary of Part Two because Fleming is preparing to explain why it matters. So why does it matter? Fleming then argues that it matters because how engaged citizens are in their surroundings ultimately defines the success or failure of a commonplace.

Citizen engagement, however, is only one aspect to Fleming’s argument. He develops it further by contextualizing it into a broader conversation regarding the relationship between environment and opportunity. Essentially, Fleming explains the success or failure of his aforementioned examples in relation to how easily citizens of a given area were able to interact with one another. In the latter half of the chapter, Fleming suggests that the architecture of an environment deliberately either unifies or separates people. It may also encourage individuality of conformity within them. These effects, in concert with an individual’s demographic characteristics, determines how much opportunity that person has in relation to their environment. Once this is determined, we can begin to understand their level of involvement in their environment.

By making this argument, Fleming indirectly asserts that by changing the structure of one’s environment, we can influence the way people behave for better or for worse. By design, we can create a more or less inclusive environment for the people that live there. Although Fleming acknowledges that human beings are too complex to directly influence for specific outcomes, the deliberate restructuring of an environment can distribute influence and voice more equally among people. In doing so, we create what Fleming says a “strong republic.” Of course, this ties back to the quote Fleming introduces in the beginning of the chapter by George Eliot in Middlemarch. The quote reads:

“For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.”

The quote only reinforces the notion that what we do is characterized by where we are.

The Single Narrative and Inner City Residents as Rhetorical Agents

A handcuffed person.
RALF-FINN HESTOFT/CORBIS. Obtained from Time.

In the seventh chapter titled Home of his City of Rhetoric, David Fleming explores the relationship between narrative and inner city residents as rhetorical agents . Fleming sections this claim by first explaining the single narrative given to the residents of inner cities is a harmful one. He then develops this portion by analyzing the various effects that the single narrative has, especially effects that turned out to be adversarial to the black community in these inner cities. Then, Fleming introduces the narrative that people of the inner cities wish to demonstrate instead. This portion is expounded on by disclosing what residents think of their community, of their buildings, and their relationship.

Fleming points out that the existence of a single narrative suggests that it is unrivaled. As a result, this narrative is echoed by visitors of the community to major newspapers. In the case of Chicago’s Cabrini Green, the single narrative purposely pauperized and disempowered residents. For example, in 1998 the Chicago Tribune described the architecture of Cabrini Green as “Hellish highrises.” In similar example, an architectural critic by the name of Blair Kamin related Cabrini Green to a concentration camp. In both instances, the community is seen as a backwards area where chaos and disparity rule the streets. Ironically, this argument also furthered the single narrative that thrived off of stereotyping.

Furthermore, Fleming suggests that if the residents of inner cities had the power to recreate their environment, it would accurately reflect the existing social dynamics of their community. He begins this part of his argument by introducing a narrative a resident of Cabrini Green had tried to further. He writes, tenant Barbara Moore said in an 1999 interview, “We want to be thought of as human beings. We are not the worst of people. We are people.” In doing so, Fleming asserts that the residents of Cabrini Green are indeed rhetorical agents. This suggests they do have the power to reclaim this narrative. One way that Fleming proposes they do so is by creating community organizations. The example Fleming provides is particularly of 1230 North Burling Street. In this particular highrise, residents have created a board of directors that oversee the maintenance and security of the building. In doing so, residents have created a sense of community, opportunity, and responsibility within their own environment as they deemed fit.

When people aren’t given the opportunity to express themselves how they deem appropriate, they are stripped of their status as rhetorical agents. They are stripped of their power to define their liberties and boundaries. However, people are rhetorical agents and therefore have the ability to create an entirely new and organic system of interacting with the environment around them. However, because this is an inherently provocative and rebellious act against the standards modern institutions have set, they are demonized and receive pushback. Yet, the residents of Cabrini Green just want one thing. As Fleming enumerates, they just want “to secure a competency and live on their own surrounded by their families.” Nothing more, nothing less.

They Made Us Live Here

In City of Rhetoric, David Fleming explores the relationship between demographic characteristics and urban planning. This relationship is explored through “PART TWO: Designing the Twenty-first Century Public Sphere” and is elaborated on throughout four chapters, each of which are specific cases. Prior to beginning his argument, Fleming makes the decision to display several pages worth of photographs of buildings in different locations. At first, these photographs are confusing because the only indicators of what they are or why they’re there are their captions. There is no other given explanation other than the sources that Fleming had obtained them from.

In the first chapter of this part, “Ghetto: Chicago, 1995,” Fleming pulls a quote from another figure. In this case, the quote is by Richard Wright in Native Son and it reads,

“Why they make us live in one corner of the city?”

This quote is especially telling because it serves as a lens through which to view the ghettos of Chicago. Throughout this chapter, he explains several instances in which architecture inadvertently shapes the way people behave. For example, multistory buildings keep parents from watching their children play on streets below and the abandonment of the grid street system prevents people from being able to navigate with ease. Fleming also makes a point that, whether or not these planning issues are intended, even though they may likely be, they have an adverse effect on the people in that location. Fleming also suggests that this is why as soon as people enter ghettos, regardless of whether or not they live there, an automatic understanding is to distrust others. He argues that this distrust fosters the increase in crime and the necessity of someone being able to mind their own business.

The remaining three chapters in this part of the book make similar styles of argument in uniquely separate settings. The other settings Fleming talks about are suburbs, cities, and the most interesting, home. Each chapter, like the first, is also introduced with a quote that serve as a means through which to view these locations from. It’s also interesting that one of the places he had included was home. When Fleming defines home, he defines it as a community, as an area, as somewhere to come back to and problems to come back to as well. Home is what people have made it, and Fleming has successfully established the relationship between demographic characteristics and location.

Not only do we affect places, but places affect us.