Place - Body - Story - Structure
A majority of accidents between cars and pedestrians happen on a handful of Denver’s streets. In virtually all of these spots, streets were built for cars. Colorado Department of Transportation and Denver Public Works are governed by laws and regulations, written out of a set of assumptions carried in the minds of their leaders and regulators, that dictate the built form of curbs and sidewalks and street corners and turning radius and sidewalk width and and buffer zones.
The story (streets are for cars), led to the social structures (public institutions, laws, cultural practices), that produced the physical place (street corners that allow car to turn at speed with little separation from pedestrians), which in turn impacts bodies (soft tissue and bones crushed by thousands of pounds of metal moving at a high speeds).
It is not a linear process, but rather starts from each point and all points, moving toward the others and back again. Each reinforces the other so long as an equilibrium can be maintained. Bodies grow used to speedy movement through place in vehicles, and so come to adopt the story of streets for cars as “common sense,” demanding roads that lend maximum efficiency to their cars, leading again to structural rules that reproduce yet more streets for cars.
Conversely, places can tell stories — all places tell stories. Someone who grew up in the suburbs having never seen the narrow, winding, slow moving, pedestrian laden streets of North Boston; the streets split between tram, bike, and car with broad sidewalks and tree buffers in Portland; the pedestrian-only zones of Florence or Paris; for those who have not seen such places, the only story implanted will be of streets for fast moving cars. There will be no imagined or perhaps even yearned for alternative. Their place told them their story.
Because places and bodies are continually changing, continually shaped by the forces around them, and continually shaping those forces in return, attention to their presence and performance dissolves the classic gulf between the abstract and the material. The abstract and the material always fully penetrate one other. Seemingly ephemeral ideas and systems always manifest on the physical plane and are discerned in and on place and the body.
Ta-Nehisi Coates delivered one of the most memorable lines on these relationships, highlighting the relationship between ideas and bodies:
“All our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” - Between the World and Me
Take any phenomenon and you can watch the four-part pattern repeat.
Prison offers a clear example:
Story: justice comes through punishment, safety and the protection of private property is our supreme end, we must be tough on crime, criminals are mostly Black and Brown, crime is principally what poor people do (“white” collar issues are generally not jail-able offenses), criminals should be isolated and removed from view or social contact
Social Structures: Judicial systems with only the power to punish are established with decision making power to determine punishments, Departments of “Correction” with the power to execute punishment are established, slates of laws to determine adequate punishments are written, revenue streams and management systems are created, police are given purposes and quotas
Place: the prison with stark walls and barbed wire enters and expands as a dominant member of the built environment (including and especially in rural areas) & offers visual reinforcement that there exists a dangerous element from which the population needs protection, majority People of Color neighborhoods are thick with police cars and thin on public investments like education and infrastructure and business development and quality housing
Bodies: a rearrangement of bodies in and between places occurs as Black and Brown bodies are confiscated from homes and neighborhoods and contained within prison-places, state violence (of justice through punishment) adds to the cycle of violence in oppressed communities, redoubling the physical and emotional scars in and on bodies, stress hormones rise as the pressure of policing and the absence of loved ones held in prison rise, health outcomes drop, and too often people are killed entirely as bodies who share a common humanity are set against one another in the state’s determination to perceive dark bodies as criminal and take control of their bodies for just punishment
Or consider immigration.
We believe in things called nations and think these things need something called a border, a firm geographically marked line designating the end and beginning of a nation next to another nation. That border should be very difficult for bodies to cross (at least for dark bodies to cross into; white bodies should be able to easily come and go for business and vacation), fairly easy for us to export goods through for money-making business, and absolutely nonexistent to the global movements of finance capital trading on international markets. To accomplish that goal, we write laws governing who and what can and can’t come in and out, who can stay once they’re in and for how long, how people should and shouldn’t be “processed” upon entering or trying to enter, make financial appropriations, and create all kinds of institutional systems to implement the system’s rules and goals. Out in the actual place that was decided to be a border at some point in history, walls are built and expanded, points of entry are erected, prison-like holding facilities are built, and a whole strip of the world is militarized. Attempting to get around walls through deserts, thousands of bodies die of thirst and starvation. Other bodies are put in cages. More bodies wait in camps. Another set of uniformed bodies patrols the land. And the symbolic image of the border grows, in different ways, in all peoples minds.
Some of my early thoughts on these interrelationships came while looking out the window of a plane. The landscapes of America are a patchwork of urban, rural, and wild places, shaped with remarkable specificity. Two pastures side by side, separated in a straight line by a fence, both grazed by cattle but with two ranchers who practice their craft differently, can have differences in the health and varieties of their grasses you can see from 30,000 feet. Of course, the idea of building straight-lined fencing around squared-off land is rooted in whole worlds of western stories — geometry over ecology, latitude and longitude, private property ownership. These are remarkable reflections of how ideas, places, systems, and bodies interact to create the conditions for one another.
One of the most striking historical examples I’ve run across comes from Edward Baptists book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.
In a series of maps he uncovers multiple layers of transformation across the landscape of the South as stories of Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, and plantation capitalism roared in the minds of white Americans. The first map shows the colonization of places by settlers, with the subtext of the exclusionary removal of Indigenous bodies (and the physical harm they suffered) and the inflow of white bodies (and the material wealth they gained). Subsequent maps show the ecological transformation of the region as native ecologies were replaces with the monocultures of plantation-based cotton production — again with the subtext of Black bodies viewed as property, as thing, as machine, scoured by whips across the countryside and whose forced labor made these ecological and economic transformations possible.
I believe sitting with these maps and reflecting on them until the untold relationships between place, social system, body, and story slowly emerge is necessary and generative work for those of us who yearn for shalom.
There is good news.
The four-way pattern of place, body, story, and structures shows us that each point, when seen and approached for its interconnections with the others, is a valid and effective point of influence for generating transformation.
It also becomes more apparent that the interconnectedness of these factors requires a careful and tenuous equilibrium to sustain in their current condition. If the story begins to feel too far off from the observed realities of the real world of place and body; if the negative impacts on bodies becomes too widespread and the ties between those impacts and a society’s systemic structures are revealed; if a new and better story takes root in the popular imagination; if a place can display the all-inclusive health and goodness of shalom and begin to spark new ideas and desires; if a policy rooted in a genuinely new paradigm can pass; each of these beginnings hold the seed for genuine, lasting transformation.