Monday, April 9, 2012

the (living) world according to Elly Scott

Most of the local press in my town doesn't really speak to me. I am simply not their target audience. It was a great and welcome surprise, then, when I ran into this bi-weekly column written by a friend on the periphery of my life.

I have always thought that how you or I see the world says more about each of us than it says about the world. We edit what what we see and say based on our own (necessarily) limited experience. In some respects it is a pre-cognitive decision. The incomprehensible (what we can't or won't understand) remains out of focus or invisible. A really simple example of this is the way that we interact with the sick and homeless on our streets. We simple don't see them. When I lived on the streets as a runaway - when I asked for money, or directions, or a ride, or when I just said hello - everyone's gaze was a thousand yard stare. I can't imagine what they saw, but even when they looked at me, they seemed to focus on something else, way behind me, through me. To them I was invisible.

I like to imagine that there are whole parallel worlds just beyond what most people can see, where others make a life, alter their environment, and build tiny and beautiful communities in forgotten neighborhoods.

In her column  A Living World , Elly Scott writes about these people and places, and the traces they leave behind. Once at a bar she mentioned to me that what she is writing about is architecture. I was confused at first. She tends to write about people. She tells anecdotes about locals who effect their world in small but meaningful ways.  One of my favorite columns is about a homemade bus stop in South Knoxville.

Photo courtesy of Elly Scott
Another one is about squatters making a home in an abandoned house.  But as I thought about this architecture idea, it began to make more sense. She is writing about how the peripheral spaces of our town are adjusted and made beautiful and made to work for people, by the very people who live there. And that should be the goal of all architecture and design.

As she puts it, “The title [of my column] paraphrases the architect Christopher Alexander who writes that a living world allows citizens to be free to take care of their own development. A living world is full of rough comfortableness, people responding appropriately to the world around them.”

Hers is a deeply independent and anarchist vision of what makes a community worth living in, especially when that community develops in spaces that have been forgotten by the main structures of power and commerce. She tells of rope swings over the Tennessee River,

Photo courtesy of Elly Scott

of wild local resources like mulberry trees,

Photo courtesy of Elly Scott

of anonymous artists whose paintings briefly humanize the forbidding walls of over-passes, and so on...

Photo courtesy of Elly Scott
It's a very nuanced and dual message. On the one hand her column speaks to power: pay attention; get this right; we live here. The implication is that the rest of the world should learn to see the spaces they willfully forget, plan for where community can develop on its own, make our towns more friendly and accessible to people and creativity. On the other hand she seems to embrace the results of the oversight and recklessness of a planning ethos whose primary goal is the facilitation of the movement of automobiles and commerce. It's as if she is saying: you should pay attention to us, but if you don't we're still going to make the world in our image, for ourselves, into “something small, something humble, and a little dirty that people could actually use.”  I would add: something beautiful.

In her opening column she writes of an abandoned building on the edge of Park Ridge: “For the good of the community I will advocate to see this old Mill as a artist’s co-op like the Flying Monkey Arts Center in Huntsville, Al. or an indoor local food market, or something useful that gives back to the people. But in my heart, I love it exactly how it is.”   Me too.   Let's hope that when developers and the city get around to doing something with it, it doesn't actually become an urban Wal-Mart.

Photo courtesy of Elly Scott
And she seems to be inspiring the rest of us to act for ourselves and take steps to make our forgotten little corners of the world more livable. 

Photo courtesy of Joanna Bajandas

If I am right and the world we each see is really a reflection of who we are, then we are fortunate to have a person, writer and citizen like Elly Scott in it.

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