Durable Growth

Unintelligible caterwauling embraces urbanism

100724004 555 Hudson StreetToday’s post was planned to be about the “missing middle housing” in my neighborhood, the incremental housing units that add residents, thereby supporting walkability, without detracting from the feel of the neighborhood. Unfortunately, a rainstorm arrived ahead of schedule, before I could collect the final photos I planned to share. I’m not complaining about the rain, only its hasty onset.

In the absence of the photos, I’ll juggle my schedule and write instead about opera. It may seem an odd fit for an urbanist blog, but all will soon be clear.

My sister loves opera. One of her great joys in life is spending a Saturday in an ornate downtown theatre, watching a simulcast from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.

Personally, I don’t get it. I find enjoyment in most forms of music, often having a broad range of music playing as I write these posts, from jazz to blues to rock to classical. (My December playlist is a farrago of holiday music ranging from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Bing Crosby to Jethro Tull to Big, Bad Voodoo Daddy to the Puppini Sisters.) But opera leaves me cold, most often sounding like unintelligible caterwauling even when in English.

I’m not making fun of those who enjoy opera, such as my sister. I’m sure there’s value in opera. I’ve known too many folks who loved opera and whose judgments I otherwise trusted. They surely couldn’t have all been wrong. It’s probably just that, much like with cricket, I don’t choose to spend the time educating myself to find the value in opera. I’d rather ponder land use.

However, I may need to temper my thinking on opera because it and urbanism are about to meet.

I’ve written too often in this space about Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs to tally the mentions. But this is my review of “The Power Broker”, Robert Caro’s master work about the decades that Moses wielded power in New York City, often unscrupulously, transforming the city to accommodate the automobile.

This is my review of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, Jacobs’ master work on how walkable urban neighborhoods work, written in her New York City home, shown above, at the same time that Moses was dominating the city.

And this is my review of “Wrestling with Moses”, Anthony Flint’s account of the clashes between Moses and Jacobs over plans of Moses that would have trampled New York City neighborhoods held dear by Jacobs.

(Note: All three posts were written in the early days of this blog, so give an opportunity to judge if my compositional capabilities have improved. Personally, I find that my writing style and my ability to conceive and articulate complex, nuanced thoughts have both improved, but neither as much as I would wish. Self-improvement is hard.)

The Flint book documents battles of titanic wills, a kind of stories that often attracts opera and now has.

As described by Sarah Goodyear in CityLab, a creative team with histories of past successes is developing an opera, “A Marvelous Order”, based on the conflict between Moses and Jacobs. A preview is planned for the spring, with a full run then scheduled for a theatre in Brooklyn.

The structure of the opera is a love triangle with Moses and Jacobs both vying for the affection of New York City, although with the two figures not as towering ideals, but as real people.

However, the team seems to have more affection and respect for Jacobs. As described by the director, “It’s more interesting artistically to see them both as human beings with strengths and weaknesses. We are figuring out how to do it with Moses more easily. Jacobs is more difficult. She is just so darn right, so much.”

If the concept intrigues you, watching the video embedded in the CityLab article would be worth your time. However, the operatic singing still doesn’t work for me. I know it’s in English, but it still comes across as unintelligible caterwauling to me.

Given my apathy toward the art form, I won’t be booking a flight to Brooklyn to see “A Marvelous Order”. But if the opera is successful enough to tour, or to offer a simulcast, I’ll partake, especially if I have a chance to review the libretto in advance so I’ll have a clue what’s being said.

Even if I never see “A Marvelous Order”, it still makes me smile to think that urbanist battles are now thought worthy of the operatic stage. It’s proof that others see the value in the questions that matter to me and hopefully also to you.

In my next post, weather permitting, I’ll return to missing middle housing. And if the weather doesn’t permit, I’ll figure out something else.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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