There are many ways to build community and we as a society – especially as urbanites – spend a lot of time debating the best way to go about doing it. I’ve found that often, for the sake of the elaborate plans and extravagant efforts to create authentic unity, we neglect the tiny mundane and mindless ways we are connected within the urban environment. Arguably, simply walking along the same road, entering the same store, using the same crosswalk, and frequenting the same pub as someone else are all ways to relate to our fellow human beings.
It gets even simpler when we think about people being connected on the basic level of the senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. It is on this last sense that I want to muse. The urban environment is fascinating because it is a tangible, touchable manifestation of ideologies, hierarchies, and individual expression. Our ability to physically interact with different built structures can create a community that spans across time and circumstance – especially when that touched thing is fixed.
Two iconic ‘must-touch’ pieces of the urban environment are the nose of the Greyfriars Bobby statue and the toe of the statue of David Hume. The story of the faithful little terrier who stayed by his master’s side even after the man had passed away has turned the tiny dog into an icon so famous he has his own statue out in front of Greyfriars Kirk. The nose of this statue has now been rubbed golden by tourists who believe it brings good luck. Similarly, David Hume, a famous eighteenth-century philosopher in Edinburgh, is immortalized in a large statue on the Royal Mile, the big toe of which has been rubbed gold by philosophy students who decided it would bring good luck for exams. Hume, a staunch realist, would probably find this sort of superstition appalling, but such an assumed sentiment has not dissuaded students – philosophy or not – from rubbing, or at least lightly touching, the toe as they pass, with many even making intentional ‘pilgrimages’ to the statue. Ironically, both of these statues are dealing with maintenance issues – read these particularly amusing articles on the Hume and Greyfriars Bobby statues to learn more.
Superstitious or civic-minded or not, these statues create yet another opportunity for a community to emerge woven into the very fabric of the city. Iconic touchstones, if you will, create within a city memorable if not incredibly brief moments of community that are over practically before we know it yet remain with us. If in twenty years I come across someone who says, ‘I’ve rubbed the nose of Greyfriars Bobby,’ I will undoubtedly reply, ‘Wow! So have I!’ A small connection perhaps, but a connection nonetheless.