Getting Lost: A Chat with the Barber

The conversations one has with one’s barber truly are so great. I personally had never gone to a barber shop until this morning, and at home I tend to cut my own hair, so I can’t claim to be an expert on barbershops by any means – but I can say that this tiny shop on Drummond Street is wonderful, with friendly staff and interesting conversations.

My barber and I talked a lot about Edinburgh; since I’m a visiting student, he wanted to know how I liked the city and if I’d also been anywhere else. Having just gone to London this weekend, we took some time comparing the two cities, both of us obviously partial to Edinburgh, and he said something that fascinated me. Paraphrasing, “You can’t get lost in Edinburgh. Even if you try. There’s always a landmark, either Arthur’s Seat or the Castle or some church spire to redirect you and then help you find your way. So you can’t get lost.”

And he is absolutely right. Because of the multi-leveled character of the Old Town, the various and numerous landmarks scattered through the city, and the relative size of the city as a whole, it is very difficult to get completely lost in Edinburgh. Even the bus system can act as a repositioning tool – if ever hopelessly lost, hop on one of the buses and it will inevitably return to Princes Street. Princes Street, as part of the New Town, offers the comfort of wide and straight streets (a little breathing room, please!) and also gives a perfect view of Edinburgh Castle, Arthur’s Seat, or Calton Hill, depending on where you’re standing. Especially in the Old Town, you’re always a little higher and a little lower than somewhere else, broadening your potential line of sight.

London, on the other hand, is very easy to get lost in, as I found this weekend. It’s not even that it’s easy to get lost – it just isn’t easy to get your bearings. Part of that could be attributed to the remarkable lack of sun and thus any sense of east or west, but it is also because of the relative flatness of the city, its closely packed and winding streets, and the similarity in height of all the buildings. Unless you’re in the London Eye, there really isn’t a way to get above the city to see where you are in relation to everything else. I walked the streets trying to figure out which way the Thames River was (water has long been a direction indicator for me) or even Big Ben. I expected the famed clock-tower would be an easy and useful landmark for me; unfortunately “Big” Ben is hardly taller (if not shorter) than most of the buildings around it (some of which are impressive cathedrals with towering steeples), and even if it did stand out, I am definitely far shorter than any of the closely-surrounding buildings and thus wouldn’t be able to find it.

Edinburgh has something that London does not. Apart from the topography that allows people to be both up and down in relation to everything else, Edinburgh provides small visual breaks that subconsciously give our brains room to breathe and think. There are spaces that allow us to drop mental pins into the landscape for personal orientation within, around, and throughout the city. In an article on the history of DIY urbanism, Talen speaks of these “tactics of ’emphasis and suggestion'” that “focus on helping people make order out of the chaos around them in subtle ways” (Talen, 8). Talen was speaking to the different effects of large-scale versus small-scale interventions in the urban fabric, showing how many in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries believed that small change had to come from the bottom, from those small people physically occupying the streets. The layouts of both Edinburgh and London attest to this thinking, as both cities have squares, greenspaces, and small-scale “interventions” (such as alleyways, monuments, etc.) scattered throughout. Arguably, Edinburgh more effectively grants the urbanite a feeling of successful small-scale intervention, mainly because the rolling hills create a rhythm of being submersed and rising above the urban chaos. A square in London feels less effective because it is so immersed in the pandemonium that you don’t feel the relief until you are standing in the center of it, and even then it is brief.

Admittedly, it can be difficult to compare these two cities, as they are notably different in size; in 2015, the London metropolis had a population of over 8.6 million, whereas Edinburgh’s metropolitan area had just over 780,000. However, the idea of these small breaks is essential to how we experience cities of any size (and, indeed, any type of “-scape”). As Jane Jacobs pointed out, the underlying order of a city must be readable, otherwise we feel completely discombobulated: “emphasis on bits and pieces is of the essence: this is what a city is, bits and pieces that supplement each other and support each other” (Talen, 8). How successfully these pieces come together to create the whole, whether they work together or merely exist alongside one another, helps determine whether I feel lost or located. The degree to which the bits belong contributes to my feeling of belonging.

Amazing the thoughts that coalesce while sitting in a barbershop.

 

____

Sources

Talen, E. “Do-it-Yourself Urbanism: A History.” Journal of Planning History 14.2 (2014): 135-48. Web.

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