The Spaces Between – Eric Jacobsen

 

frome Volume 1, Issue 2, 2017

 

We began in the garden and now we are in the urban jungles. What do we need to know to help us navigate the spaces between the created world and the built world. As the saying goes … “Stop and smell the roses”. Enter into this conversation with EOF and the Reverend Eric O. Jacobsen as we discuss these topics presented in his book, “The Spaces Between”.

I have to say before I start the interview that I read The Space Between and it’s a great read. I found it very thoughtful and well laid out, and what I really liked about it is that it makes you stop, look around, and then think. I enjoyed it a lot. Thanks for writing it.

I appreciate it.

Who would you say is the primary audience for this book?

I think I was writing for thoughtful Christians; ones that think about their faith and some of the wider implications of their faith. In particular, those that may also be suspicious that we’ve been missing a few important questions along the way. Maybe especially those that think that when Jesus tells us to love our neighbors, He might mean the people that live next door to us. When Jeremiah told the exiled to seek the welfare of the city, we might be included in that audience, and take that to mean that we should care about the spaces outside of our front doors a little bit. Folks that are interested in those kinds of questions were on my mind when I wrote The Space Between.

Could you explain to the audience what “the space between” is, and why it would be important enough to write a book about it?

The Space Between is a pretty literal title, because the book is really about the space between the buildings, in particular, that make up our landscape. We don’t give a ton of thought to that space, other than as a kind of empty corridor for getting our cars from point A to point B, but traditionally that space was the public realm. People used that space for recreation and for social interaction and for developing relationships with people that would live near them. The book is really about trying to draw our attention to those spaces and what has become of those spaces, particularly in the post-war years when we were really focused on the automobile, and trying to remember; maybe wake up our imagination to the potential for that space. To be a place for recreation, for relaxation, for social interaction, all those other kinds of things that we do, not in our automobiles, but just as embodied creatures. That’s kind of a mouthful, but that’s the general subject.

Cars are a big subject in the book and you bring up walking or being embodied and upright and how we experience the world in that state rather than in a car moving fast down the road. Perhaps you could expand on that piece a bit.

I think one of the most natural things for us to do as humans is to walk. When we walk, I think we experience the world more fully with all of our senses. We see fine detail, we hear conversations or singing, we smell the smell of spring coming or what-have-you. All the things are more tuned as embodied creatures, when we’re walking. We experience things more slowly. In our cars, as we speed things up, less and less of our bodies are engaged in our environment. You can actually look at an example of the built environment and you can predict the speed at which you are intended to experience it. There are some places that are meant to be experienced at 30 miles an hour all the way up to 65 miles an hour. Think about the way it is laid out, the way the signs communicate information. You can see that they are engaging less and less of your body. On the faster end, you’ve got the Home Depot building, which is a huge space with an iconic color and an iconic font, that tells you there is a Home Depot there. You don’t have to even read the words “Home Depot,” you can just see a fragment of one of the letters and know that’s Home Depot. It’s not requiring a lot of you in terms of an embodied creature. Whereas, on the other end of the scale, a crowded farmers market (or if you’re traveling overseas and at a bazaar) where you have people selling stuff out there on tables and you can’t move very fast, you are really smelling and hearing and tasting as you are navigating that space. One of my thoughts as a Christians is that we were created as embodied creatures. When the Lord placed us in the garden and made things delightful for us as well as sustaining for us, my sense is that at least in that setting we were meant to engage the world in bodies. I think we have pulled away from that by putting ourselves in cars and designing environments for cars. We have convinced ourselves that getting to a place faster or more efficiently has been some gain. I think people are starting to wonder whether it really is a gain; whether we haven’t really lost out on some daily delights by spending so much time in our cars.

For the benefit of people that haven’t read the book, we’re not saying that the built space or the built arena is wrong, or the cities are wrong. The way we are going about building our places around us is not the right direction. We should build it where we fit in, as humans, not where our cars fit in. 

Right, absolutely. Building on the environment and making places to live, and making places to produce things, and continuing to develop the potentials of creation as part of our cultural mandate; that is good and faithful work. But we do it with the wrong sense of calibration for the automobile. I am not even opposed to cars, per se, I own two cars. Our family owns two cars, we use them to get from place to place occasionally. I think cars are best if they’re seen as a kind of luxury or a kind of add-on to what we could do otherwise. Traditionally, you would probably live close enough to do a lot of your daily errands without the car. You could walk or you could take a bus. You could take a bicycle or what-not, and if you needed to get there quickly you could jump in your car. What we have now, for most people really, is that they can’t do hardly anything without getting in their car. It is not an option to get there a little quicker, it is a necessity to do anything. That has come with immense social consequences that we haven’t really gotten our heads around. I don’t think I made a huge point about this in The Space Between, but earlier in Sidewalks, I made the point that retirement homes, which we just take as a necessary part of life, didn’t really exist prior to World War II. Prior to World War II, when you had walkable communities, you could get too old to drive and still function rather independently in your neighborhood; walking to hair appointments, walking to your groceries, and all that. But since we made driving a necessity, people who got too old to drive couldn’t function any more. We had to put them in special places. It is the same for soccer moms. Kids used to be able to walk to the neighborhood park and really start to participate as junior citizens in their neighborhood relatively independent of their parents. Once we made driving the necessary way of getting around, it became moms’ and dads’ job to transport kids from point A to point B and kids became more and more passive in their environment.

I remember that when I was growing up. My kids always ask me; did I drive over there or do that, and I say, “No we got on our bikes and rode all day long.”

Yeah.

You brought up Sidewalks in the Kingdom.  You discussed in that book, as well as toward the end of The Space Between, the loss of community which we have alluded to and how one actually becomes a stranger. Could you expand on what community used to be and what it has turned into now that we have zones?

One of the impulses behind the post-war building practices (when I say that I am referring to the suburban experiment which is a highly automobile-based, segregated environment where you separated houses from retail and from office parks, and then you separated the houses again from large houses to small houses, to condominiums and apartments creating all these separate zones) that form of development was highly privatized in the sense that it really tried to maximize how much private space you could afford, meaning a house that is large, and it turned those houses around, sort of oriented them towards the back yard without front porches or prominent front doors for residents to sit out front and interact with people. It really provided a kind of setting that is focused on you either alone or with your family or maybe with close friends entertaining in your home and sold us on that as a sort of the picture of the good life. What it left out was interaction with strangers or people you don’t know very well in the community. It didn’t provide hardly any sense for which you could develop a relationship with someone you didn’t already know. I think one of the consequences of that is it created these kinds of neighborhoods or subdivisions which people who live next to each other or near each other may not know each other very well at all because they don’t have any natural ways of interacting. There are lots of exceptions to the rule of course, but the setting, the way it was laid out, was not to develop any kind of relationship. One of the ways you can see that really clearly is when we think about what happens at your front door. Somebody knocks on your front door and you open that door. There’s a very brief, tense moment where you have to determine whether the person on the other side of the door is a friend or a family member or a stranger. You have to use kind of stripped categories there. If they are family or a friend, you invite them in and everything is fine, but if they are not, the next question is: “What do you want?” “What are you trying to sell me?” “What do you want me to find?” It is a very awkward conversation because they remain a stranger throughout that whole interaction.

 

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