A Treatise Against the Underground
I’d like to offer the beginning of a thesis against the tube, and its map. As a semi-adopted Londoner, these words are treasonous, and if I’m deported next week under suspicious circumstances we will all know the reason why.
The tube map, originally designed by Harry Beck, has arguably been one of the most iconic images of London since Beck first was inspired by electric circuitry to square off the sprawling metropolis into a more easily understood system. The tube itself is a symbol for London, almost as much as the Queen is a symbol for England. It represents mobility and modernity. It housed Londoners during the Blitz (one of the most important psychological scars upon any Londoner, no matter how young).Tube strikes and the suggestion of removing the river from the map are two of the most reliable controversies, both for their inevitability to crop up every once in a while and their ability to pull the brakes on London as a whole.
But here’s the thing about both the map and the actual underground: they present barriers to citizen’s ability to experience the city in the most meaningful ways.
“Sometimes we are lucky and we learn the name of the thing after we learn the thing itself.” -bigBANG Studio
When I think of Brixton I think of a few different things. I think of my Immigration class, and the Windrush generation. I think of my professor who lives there. I think of the tall Persian-Caribbean Oxford student with a shaved head, goatee, and low voice who grew up there. I think of Franca Manca, home of some of the most banging pizza in London. I think of gentrification. I think of a new nightlife scene.
Names, in a way, ruin our perception of a place we’ve never been, giving us all of the notions that other people have experienced and reported back to us. When we travel by tube, we don’t travel to places. We travel to names.
“I've been thinking that I love public transportation but that it creates a fragmented city where a continuous one would better serve. Getting on one place and getting off another and never really knowing what's in between seems, somehow, to be cheating. To be picking and choosing the city we pull around us at night instead of allowing the city to be its own being.” -me, in a letter to a friend from Vienna
Yeah, I know, it’s cheating to use a quote from me. But the recipient just emailed it to me, isolated from the whole, and it really just fit too well not to recycle.
If the tube map matched the actual route of the tube it would be a ridiculous mess of squiggles going every which way, utterly impossible for anyone to use. It squeezes some things together and pulls other things apart in the interest of presenting a legible whole. The underground itself does the same thing, really, warping our perception of distance and disregarding the things in between. The city comes out like your favorite sweater badly washed, lumpy and shrunken in some places.
I don’t have a way to end this, except simply: walking shoes are nice, busses are cheap, and if you really can’t find your way home, ask someone