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Musical Interlude: Arcade Fire, Part II (letters)

Musical Interlude: Arcade Fire, Part II (letters)

the-wilderness-downtown-arcade-fire

About a year ago, as I was preparing to move from Kansas City to Savannah, I began rummaging through the boxes and boxes of nonsense that I’ve kept over all of my 40+ years. Most of it was easily sent to the recycling bin. Did I really need to save every program from every event I attended as a kid? Really? Catharsis. But through all the digging, I did find some gems, and even found a box of objects so foreign to life in 2011 that I had to stop for a few hours and enjoy. Letters. A whole batch of old letters in fact that I’d saved from my childhood through college.

Those of us old enough to remember letter writing probably can remember how completely different that communication style was compared to today’s instant, always-on, emoticon-filled life.  Imagine – actually sitting down to compose a thought before writing it? How many of us remember writing one draft of a letter, and then rewriting it so the actual words could be what we wanted, and sometimes even just to have better handwriting? Imagine – not being limited to 160 characters!

I found letters from old girlfriends, from best friends, from family. One letter from my brother I particularly enjoyed had him lamenting the Royals chances of winning in the summer of 1985 because of a weak lineup. (they won the World Series that year). Several letters I found from my early college years were especially great to read, and some quite touching. It’s amazing how heartfelt we can all be when we allow ourselves the page space to truly express our emotions.

What does this all have to do with urbanism? Well, not much directly, but perhaps something indirectly.

But first I’m going to digress. This whole experience of mine was amplified when I discovered the band Arcade Fire.  (http://newurbanismblog.com/?p=1371)  One of the most captivating songs on their latest album, The Suburbs, is called We Used to Wait. Not surprisingly if you’ve read this far – the song is about writing letters, and what the experience of that was compared to today. Here’s a piece of the song:

I used to write

I used to write letters

I used to sign my name

I used to sleep at night

Before the flashing lights settled deep in my brain

But by the time we met

By the time we met the times had already changed

So I never wrote a letter

I never took my true heart, I never wrote it down

So when the lights cut out

I was lost standing in the wilderness downtown

Now our lives are changing fast

Now our lives are changing fast

Hope that something pure can last

Hope that something pure can last

Now it seems strange

How we used to wait for letters to arrive

But what's stranger still

Is how something so small can keep you alive

We used to wait

We used to waste hours just walking around

We used to wait

All those wasted lives in the wilderness downtown

We used to wait

We used to wait

We used to wait

Sometimes it never came

We used to wait

Sometimes it never came

We used to wait

I'm still moving through the pain

I'm gonna write

A letter to my true love

I'm gonna sign my name

Like a patient on a table

I wanna walk again

Gonna move to the pain

A truly great way to experience the song is to visit a site created by music video director Chris Milk, called The Wilderness Downtown.

http://www.thewildernessdowntown.com/

It’s an incredible interactive video, where you can input an address and it combines Google imagery with music video imagery. It’s no doubt one of the most amazing experiences I’ve encountered on the Internet in years. Go there now if you haven't already.

The song itself truly captures for me something important that we’ve lost. Don’t get me wrong, I'm no luddite. Every communication tool has its tradeoffs. But with each step of technology, we seem to take one step that’s further removed from actual human contact. Humans don’t prosper in isolation, and yet each progression in communication – phone, email, text, twitter, etc.  is a step in actually distancing ourselves more. Sure, we communicate more in sheer volume, but our communication is less and less personal, and by extension less meaningful.

So again, how does this relate to urbanism? Like I said, perhaps not much at all. Letter writing is a dying (if not dead) art, and unlikely to come back. We seem doomed as a society to return to cave man communication – all thumbs and abbreviations, with occasional pictures thrown in for explanation. But it does beg the question – why this topic, and why this song on an album called The Suburbs? What’s the relationship between our disconnected physical society and our increasingly distant communication? If we had better-connected communities physically, would we feel such an impulsive need to tweet, to text, to Facebook? Let me know your thoughts. Or better yet, write me a letter.

Repost: the ASCE Infrastructure Cult

Repost: the ASCE Infrastructure Cult

Musical Interlude: Arcade Fire, Part I (the Sprawl)

Musical Interlude: Arcade Fire, Part I (the Sprawl)

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