Finding Our Way

Finding Our Way

            The dream always begins in a crowd. Susie and I become separated. She cannot find her way and I cannot find her. I wake up. She died thirteen years ago. The crowd may be in a theatre, department store, airport concourse, or a traffic jam. People rush by on either side of us, looking for seats, bargains, flights, or a way around us. Sometimes our cars are separated in a parking lot or on an interstate highway, where missing an exit is a moment of terror. In these dreams, I relive the terror of knowing that she was lost in a crowd or car and unable to help herself as Alzheimer’s disease was shutting all the doors and windows of her mind.

            This dream is also about anyone helpless to find a way through our unforgiving infrastructure. Some of the lost are people with early-onset Alzheimer’s, like Susie, terrified by the flashing lights in the concourse and unable to use cell phones or to make sense of the internet, if it is available. Others do not speak English or are too young or old to find their way. Some may have lived in an area for generations but no longer recognize the highway-sliced community and fragmented habitat. Some rely on wheelchairs or special devices blocked by curbs, steps, narrow passages, or electronic interference. Others are simply visitors to a strange city’s heaped towers, road-mazes, off-and-on-ramps, warning-signs, flashing lights, dead-ends, one-ways, and relentless pushing from all sides.

            In a village during the late Neolithic or Medieval periods—or even, in most places, during the nineteenth century—a confused person with dementia would probably have been able to find her way around. Multiple support systems were available to help her—that is, all the other villagers. We like to believe that we are better off than those villagers—who were victims of drought, pestilence, invasions, and famine—but when we dug irrigation ditches, rolled out highways, and strung telegraph wires, we made some compromises.

            What dreams do planners have? Do they imagine structures and transportation systems for the confused, blind, nonnative speakers, walkers, native animals, the deaf, the native plants, bikers, children, brightly reflective surfaces, homeless wanderers, legless veterans in wheelchairs and elderly with walkers, absorptive blacktops? Do they imagine the invisible structures of waterways, sewers and storm water conduits, electric and communication cables, cell towers and wireless transmissions, gas lines, and  routes and communication needed for emergency services?

            Multiple grids overlie our cities and landscape. They do not fit together neatly. Federal, state, and municipal boundaries, jurisdictions, waterways, easements, property rights, zoning restrictions, mitigation areas, farm and pasture land, energy sectors, historic and environmental reserves—all intersect in conflicts and speculative competition.  The many grids are not accounted for in the geographic information systems programmed to manage them. In fact, some of the most powerful grids are even more invisible than the streams and rivers re-routed under city streets: grids of racism, commercial speculation, and of the legal structures needed to maintain them.

            Whose dreams shall we honor to help each other find our ways through the world?

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