Spaces We Once Inhabited

Lewis Mumford states in his seminal book on cities that civilization arose out of our ability to contain space. Vessels allowed humans to store things, which created continuity.

For Christmas break Mike and I piled our gifts, clothes and ourselves in the car and drove past calico landscapes of hibernation – black soil scattered with hues of browns and taupes – until we arrived in Kansas City. We’ve done this for the past three years – ever since we moved from Kansas City to Milwaukee.

I’ve put down roots in four cities: Saint Paul, Milwaukee, Lawrence (KS) and Kansas City (MO). And each new city I moved to meant I was leaving a city behind.

A couple days after Christmas Mike and I drove down the meandering, stately Ward Parkway through the Plaza and up Broadway – a route I drove almost every day for two years. Like a scientist I took inventory of what had changed and what stayed the same.

We passed the building where I used to work. There was a for lease sign in front and it was, by all accounts, empty. The tall, theatrical apartment building kiddy corner to my old place of employment looked the same with its art deco neon sign and its intricate cornices. It was the building I always looked at before I made my turn into the parking lot for work, not only because it’s a beautiful building, but also because it reminded me why I had undertaken a graduate education in urban planning – that beautiful, unique places are worth saving and making.

In Invisible Cities a young explorer, Marco Polo recounts and describes to the old, Mongol ruler, Kublai Khan, the cities he visited in the Mongol’s empire. The book is full of aphorisms that are clothed and embedded in physical descriptions of cities  – “you take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.”

We continued our drive north to the River Market, a market we frequently went to when we lived in KC, and found ourselves in the midst of closing time – vendors packing up their cars and a mostly empty parking lot. We ordered coffees in one of the stalls, and walked by the last of the vendors selling mounds of aromatic spices: anise, clove, turmeric. These were the smells I remembered. It was a few years before when a photography class I was in convened at the River Market. It was early morning and the vendors were just beginning to lay out their bounty. But that day it was not the smells I remember, it was the brilliant sun punctuating the human interactions that played out in front of my lens. It was me feeling, for the first time, free to be a documentary photographer – not as a profession but as an extension of my curiosity.

Many of the streets in the River Market were torn up so once we found a way out, we curtly made our way back to downtown. Like a skipping stone, it takes large (car-powered) leaps to go from the northern-most point in the River Market to the central business district to Westport and then to the Crossroads. I never liked the disjointed nature of KC’s greater downtown but on that day the time in the car had been fertile ground for remembering.

If déjà vu had a cousin I think it would be the moments when you repeat a routine you did years before. Driving down Broadway felt familiar in a visceral sense, and yet the reason I was there, my whole life, in fact, was completely different. For as long as I can remember, I’ve known that the passage of time is imbued in cracked paint, vacant buildings, new buildings, and torn up roads. But in the car I started to understand that time demands to be seen when we go back to the spaces we once inhabited – the places we once thought were ours in some small way. Those places are the vessels that contain our movement. They enfold the questions we once asked and spotlight the answer to those questions – ourselves.

We passed through my favorite intersection in Kansas City, Pennsylvania and Westport Road, and took a right on Pennsylvania and parked outside of Californo’s, the restaurant where we had our wedding reception. We went inside and were greeted immediately by a server. We told him that we had our reception here and could we look around? He showed us around describing the rooms and, again, I told him we had our reception here and were familiar with the layout. He continued his informational tour and I gave up on the expectation that going back to this place would feel like it was ours again, that it would feel the same. We were inside for maybe five minutes and then we pressed on as the sun set and we grabbed a drink at the new bar on the corner.


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