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Nature And Culture:

Urban Nature In Youngstown, Ohio

Images by Stacy Graber.

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In Today’s Post-Suburban Community Management, A Realistic Perspective Sees Redemption And Order In What More Narrow Views Often Define As Urban Decline


By Stacy Graber
Modern Times Magazine

Feb. 20 2014 — George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in their book Metaphors We Live By, describe metaphor as the basic vehicle of communication. They argue that people speak through elaborate networks of value-tinted comparisons. That is, the comparisons implied by words and phrases are coded as negative or positive contingent upon the value placed on them in culture.

For example, they write: “Health and life are up; sickness and death are down” and they provide the following metaphors to demonstrate this division: “He’s at the peak of health. He’s in top shape. As to his health, he’s way up there. He fell ill. He’s sinking fast. He came down with the flu. His health is declining. He dropped dead.” The authors’ point is that people describe their experience through figurative language and, in so doing, communicate a judgment about the world.

Lakoff and Johnson explain how health is coded as positive insofar as it is a reflection of power. Metaphorically, if something is described in the language of health it is perceived as thriving and vigorous. Conversely, if a thing is described in the language of sickness, it is perceived as weak and pathetic. Lakoff and Johnson’s examples include the phrases: “strong marriage” versus “sick relationship.

This is a common, personal illustration; but when a public thing is coded in the language of disease, like a school or a city, it sets up a negative relation with greater resonance. Take for instance the term “urban blight.”      

Some people use the term “urban blight” to characterize the landscape of the older, Midwestern cities like Youngstown and Detroit as if the words point to an unquestionable reality not subject to interrogation. They look at the uninhabited buildings, homes and lots in the process of transformation and see illness, disorder or death instead of one point along the historical axis of the city becoming something else.     

Framing a city and its inhabitants in a disease metaphor like “blight” says something damning about a place which is intrinsically biased against differences of class and race. It is to declare a place unfit by standards calibrated largely by white, middle-class values. The metaphor of affliction is a latent vehicle for marginalizing people of color and for stigmatizing lower-socioeconomic groups by terminally imagining the city as a giant leper colony. At the same time, the choice of metaphor is a refusal to capture a wide enough glimpse of what these places are and what they may yet become.

An older city is actually a uniquely animate place in which nature lives alongside man-made objects that have perhaps outlived their usefulness or which are morphing to suggest new uses and meanings. For example, many houses in the urban landscape are in the process of being repurposed by nature.

Routinely, on my way to Youngstown State University where I teach, I drive along Glenwood Avenue adjacent to Mill Creek Park and I see reclining bungalows half over-taken by greenery, raccoons and squirrels peering through glassless mullions, blue jays and cardinals angling through jags where the roof has given way to stars, and wild turkeys meandering across grass-lots. This looks anything but like disintegration. I propose it instead as folkloric. Tonally, the morphing structures suggest the feeling of a scene out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale which signs to a broader, more creative way of thinking about transformation and adaptation in city space outside of economic categories.  

What I am describing is the reverse of synurbization, a term Maciej Luniak discusses in the proceedings from the International Urban Wildlife symposium, denoting nature’s adaptation to urban development. In my reading of the cityscape, it is actually the urban artifacts that reorganize according to the dictates of nature, but on a much more extended timeline than any “reno project” dreamed up by the Property Brothers. This makes the process difficult to see because it is timeless.

Youngstown reveals the transcendent co-existence of nature and culture as opposed to the familiar opposition of nature or culture. Many of the homes and buildings, in varying stages of re-composition that would typically be viewed as tainted with blight, propose a new narrative for understanding change not written in the language of capital.

Remember what Henry David Thoreau most admired about his cabin in the woods besides its thrifty construction. It was the invisible threshold between his door and the forest. He saw that one space blended into the other in seamless transition. Today, apropos of that dissolved dichotomy, some homes are becoming trees and turkeys are winding their way home from work in the urban garden.

Stacy Graber is an Assistant Professor of English at Youngstown State University. Her areas of interest include popular culture, critical theory and semiotics.
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