When asked to describe your city to a curious stranger, what stories would you tell?
Nearly sixty years ago, Jane Jacobs wrote an extraordinary book called “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” The book celebrated the daily life of ordinary citizens in ordinary city streets, parks and sidewalks, particularly focusing on her own Greenwich Village and New York neighborhoods. One of the most significant legacies of her narrative is the way it reframed the mixed-use neighborhoods that many perceived as slums. Instead Jacobs exposed them as vibrant centers of community life, while being true to the many significant problems related to decay, criminality and economic disinvestment. This book highlights the power of good storytelling in shaping the image of a city and the way it is perceived by those who live in them, and by those who want to learn about them.
This is also the message in the stories about cities and people created by The Global Grid contributors from all over the world. Similarly, it is the aim of the SF Urban Film Festival (SFUFF), an annual event that focuses on cities and civic engagement through films, documentaries and accompanying panel discussions and conversations. According to founder Fay Darmawi, modern cities face many challenges and possibilities and a meaningful way to communicate these issues and get people involved is through great storytelling. In this sense, filmmakers, “the best communicators in the world,” play an essential role due to their ability to frame complex, even controversial, information and issues into compelling stories that people can understand, relate to and remember. The festival’s hope is that compelling stories can help shape urbanist ideas, practice and project implementation to improve our cities.
I attended the panel “Adventures in Urban Storytelling,” held at the headquarters of SPUR (San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association), a non-profit organization that promotes good planning and governance through research, education and advocacy. The first presentation highlighted Velo Visionaries, (a series of video interviews focused on global bicycle culture created by filmmaker Kristin Tieche, and specifically on Bibliobicicleta, a donation-based mobile bicycle library created by San Francisco-based school librarian Alice Tapia,) whose objective is to “promote a love of learning and literacy, page by page, book by book, pedal by pedal.” The Bibliobicicleta is inspired by unique free libraries around the world such as the Little Free Library Movement, Weapon of Mass Instruction (Buenos Aires, Argentina,) the Biblioburro, a mobile donkey library in rural Colombia). The Bibliobicicleta also prefers to visit open public spaces in San Francisco, such as the Golden Gate Park and a variety of Farmers’ Markets.
The next speaker was Renée Elaine Sazci, creator of The Global Grid, which specializes in “hyper-local news” created by a diverse team of writers, photographers and editors spread all over the globe who contribute stories from the places where they live. I was one of these writers from 2013-2014, when I wrote about my native Lima, Peru and its rickety and quirky public transportation system, cinemas turned churches, and friendly monumental archaeological sites. It was a real joy to finally meet Renée in person! Renée emphasized that sharing hyper-local stories from all over the world is the way The Global Grid contributes to creating more just cities.
The audience was then treated to a segment of “One Day in the American City,” produced by Winnie Wong and created by Rebekah Fergusson. This part of the three-part series focuses on how people are transforming their cities and starts by asking three questions: What are your city’s biggest challenges? What do you want to see in your city in the next twenty years? What are the solutions that your city needs to implement?
We then see how ordinary and extraordinary people are working every day on challenges and opportunities for their city. Ranging from the paramedics working the night shift in San Francisco, an inmate social rehabilitation project in Boston that involves working with animals and cuddling bunnies, a cleanup effort on a river that runs through Los Angeles, and the Heidelberg Project in Detroit that aims to create art and beauty out of decay and abandonment. When posed the question about creating more just cities and what issues are most urgent, the responses were similar in all cities: the need to serve the underserved; the need for more affordable housing; food that is affordable, accessible and healthy for everyone, with a lower carbon footprint; the need to create cities that are more sustainable, resilient and that facilitate ways for people to connect and build trust.
The last speaker was Scott Samuels (aka, SCS), a Hip-Hop artist and founder of Richland Records, who comments on challenges facing cities and the country through words and music. After introducing himself, Samuels spent the rest of his presentation in the form of three songs performed live, including a commentary on the disappearance of affordable housing in San Francisco (Our city’s fast becoming a playground for the rich in “Housing Crisis”) and even the current crisis in Standing Rock, (Lest we forget that water is life in “Standing up for Standing Rock”).
This was an evening of storytelling featuring words, moving images and song, all used to make statements, describe innovative projects and initiatives to improve the lives of people and cities. A time to highlight the work of the people who work hard, often unseen and unheard, to make the city function each day: how to promote a more just city through the power of communication and engaging stories that will encourage people to get involved.
Who are your city’s main storytellers, and what narratives are they creating? How do these stories affect the way you perceive and relate to your city? Have one of these stories ever transformed the way you understand your own city, or another place? Share your thoughts and your city's stories in the comments area below.
Save the date: The SF Urban Film Fest will take place November 6-12, 2017.