John Stilgoe wants you to go outside and look at things a little differently.
October 11, 2007 8:28 AM   Subscribe

John Stilgoe is a professor at Harvard who teaches his students how to, among other things, mindfully observe the urban and suburban environments they inhabit.

Moving slowly and deliberately throughout the sprawl, one can (if properly trained) read the entire history of an area in the minute details of the overhead power lines, road surfaces, rail lines, survey markers and even drainage lines. He urges his students (and everyone else for that matter) to go outside, walk deliberately, and observe the spaces in and around their landscape. He wrote a book awhile back to help get you started, but it might not hurt to pick up a field guide or two before setting out to reclaim a sense of history and place in your neighborhood. By the way: he wants everyone to know that passing a picket fence at 11mph will render it invisible.

Stilgoe, previously.

(Special thanks to occhiblu who answered my question about Stilgoe in this AskMefi)
posted by jquinby (27 comments total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
All you have to do is go outside, move deliberately, and relax.

Nice work if you can get it.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:35 AM on October 11, 2007 [2 favorites]

I recall seeing the 60 Minutes report on Stilgoe. Since then I often challenge friends to tell me what they see when looking at the FedEx logo.
“I start by showing slides of things that they think they have seen, and it turns out they haven't seen. The white arrow that's on the side of every Fed Ex truck is a nice place to start. Almost everybody's seen a Federal Express truck, almost nobody's seen the white arrow,’ says Stilgoe.

If you don't see the big white arrow there's a reason for it, says Stilgoe. It's because your eyes and your brain have been conditioned to read the letters.

‘Before they've learned to read, toddlers will see the arrow. And I've asked toddlers, ‘Do you see the arrow on the truck?’ And they usually do,’ says Stilgoe. ‘The arrow is between the lower half of the capital E, and the X.’

Stilgoe says the arrow is just one of millions of things that are right in front of our eyes that we never notice.”
posted by ericb at 8:35 AM on October 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

Yay! I've been trying to remember the name of this guy and his book for years. Thanks!

His prose can be overripe, but his curiosity and his approach to the built environment is very, very cool.
posted by everichon at 8:40 AM on October 11, 2007

The thing with the cereal boxes and the little people that look down at the toddlers? That's freaking me out. Lots. I think I may have to stop eating Frosties, now.
posted by topynate at 8:49 AM on October 11, 2007

posted by Foosnark at 8:49 AM on October 11, 2007

There's a guy that teaches this?! Oh man, I have to read up. When I walk in "urban environments" I almost never people-watch. I environment-watch. "I wonder why that sign is in front of the other sign" and "it looks like there used to be something coming out of the sidewalk here and I see a new fire hydrant over there...I bet this was the old one".
posted by DU at 8:50 AM on October 11, 2007

Fantastic! I had never heard of Mr. Stilgoe before, this is a real treat. I do this all the time, everywhere I go. A few years back, I started carrying a camera around to document all these little bits of hidden beauty and interest. It makes me happy to see that other people are as interested in things like this as I am.
posted by ekstasis23 at 8:55 AM on October 11, 2007

Here's one: note that when you see an oily patch on the road, there will be a nearby dip in the road surface that shook the oil drops off.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:58 AM on October 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

Stilgoe's pretty awesome. I remember in the first lecture of his Core class at Harvard, he showed us the FedEx arrow. Then he showed us someone wearing a Yale sweatshirt: a large letter Y, with an embedded arrow pointing to the crotch between the two legs of the Y, and also coincidentally pointing to the wearer's crotch.

He then showed us a man wearing a white shirt and a green solid necktie. Another large arrow pointing at the wearer's genitals.

Amusing, and a little amazing. This kind of stuff is everywhere if you care to look for it - if the idea of a guy walking around with an arrow pointing to his cock is worthy of note, to you. If it's not, then it doesn't even exist in your world.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:13 AM on October 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

I don't get it. I took many an anthro class that were very similar to this and for good reason. How can a person observe a culture when they are unable to break away from their own cultural baggage? Of course if the point of his class is to simply instill new cultural baggage then fuck 'em.
posted by Pollomacho at 9:13 AM on October 11, 2007

I took many an anthro class that were very similar to this and for good reason.

Your anthro classes taught how to read oil stains on the roadway? Damn, I missed out some interesting classes!
posted by DU at 9:19 AM on October 11, 2007

The road article tells the story of America: The automobile ruined everything.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 9:23 AM on October 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

the urban and suburban environments they inhabit

Students from rural environments are, of course, not allowed at Harvard.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:31 AM on October 11, 2007 [2 favorites]

Students from rural environments are, of course, not allowed at Harvard.

Very nice mindful observation!
posted by Pollomacho at 9:34 AM on October 11, 2007

I too had a wonderful experience in Stilgoe's core course, which was lovingly nicknamed "Gas Stations."

Pollmacho, the border between humanistic cultural geography and cultural anthropology is very porous, and has been since Boas went to the Arctic for the first time. Even more so today -- as an anthropologist myself I am often convinced that the best cultural theory and ethnographic research is coming from geography these days, as anthropology eats its own historical tail.

Stilgoe played no small part in making me an anthropologist.
posted by spitbull at 9:52 AM on October 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

I read a lot of his columns in the Globe because he lives on the South Shore and often writes about many of the issues that I work on (salt marsh dieback, seawall problems, ocal arguments about moorings and boat ramps). He doesn't always get the science right but he makes up for it with a great deal of passion. I love his Shallow Water Dictionary.
posted by nekton at 10:15 AM on October 11, 2007

Anyone that is trying to get people to think mindfully about their surroundings and life gets a thumbs up from me.
posted by agregoli at 10:21 AM on October 11, 2007

The west coast analogue to Stilgoe is UC Berkeley's Paul Groth a brilliant professor, who teaches a year long course called American Cultural Landscapes in the Geography/American Studies department. His class covers a lot of the same material as Stilgoe and both professors seem to base a lot of their theories on one of my favorite landscape interpreters, J.B. Jackson, a lover of vernacular architecture and one of the first theorist to take a long hard look at the America that was being built outside of the urban centers after World War II. I look forward to reading some of Stilgoe's books and seeing how they match up or diverge from Groth's theories. So thanks for the link.
posted by crystal.castles at 11:45 AM on October 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the link to Paul Groth - he does, indeed, look like the analogue. Reading about stuff like this really makes me want to go back to school.
posted by jquinby at 12:07 PM on October 11, 2007

Thank you so much for this. As an architecture student taking a break between undergrad and grad, this sorta thing really gets me pumped about returning to school.
posted by inqb8tr at 1:01 PM on October 11, 2007

This looks like a book I will just HAVE to read. Thanks for the link.
posted by wittgenstein at 1:02 PM on October 11, 2007

2nd agregoli's thumbs up
posted by MNDZ at 3:16 PM on October 11, 2007

His work seems to be at least as much sociology as architecture. This is fascinating, I'll look his books up. Thank you.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 4:20 PM on October 11, 2007

There is a sequence in the movie "Crumb" where the cartoonist describes how he looks at the landscape when he is drawing which is very similar to this. It is one of the best parts of that movie.

One of the first photo blogs I ever saw on New Orleans (~1999) had some great shots of fading signs painted on old buildings in the Warehouse District "Colored Entrance" and what not. I wonder if they are still there.
posted by bukvich at 5:33 PM on October 11, 2007

The roads article was very interesting. Looks like I'll have to read through the rest of the links too. Good post!
posted by Harald74 at 2:31 AM on October 12, 2007

(Special thanks to occhiblu who answered my question about Stilgoe in this AskMefi)

You're welcome! Nice post.
posted by occhiblu at 4:26 PM on October 12, 2007

Very cool. I took Groth's course during my final year at school, on a whim, and it changed the way I see the world. Best class I ever took. Can't wait to read Stilgoe's work.
posted by estherbester at 10:44 PM on October 12, 2007

« Older Crusty Row, Thompkins Square Park, Lower East Side...   |   Epicurean Delights of the State Fair Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments