“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary…”Edgar Allen Poe, “The Raven,” 1845
Here, during London’s lockdown, we’ve seen many ravens. My wife, Fiona, recently reminded me of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” the much-adored lamentation for the lost and unknown. Repeatedly, a raven tells Poe’s protagonist that what’s gone is gone and that the departed Lenore will never return (nor, by extension, will he ever know what might have saved her).
I fear that Poe (who as a boy went to school just 18 miles away from my desk), may have left his stubborn raven behind. Here, in London, a voice akin to Poe’s raven haunts me within public spaces emerging from lockdown—an existential caution that comes not from physical places, but from the underlying narrative they reflect. Consistent with Poe’s message, I hear stern warnings about what we may have lost, in some countries more than others. Is this truly “Nevermore” for caring and community?
I’m finding improvised bike lanes and sidewalks to be places of hope and harsh reality all at once, full of both excitement and trepidation. These provisional, transitional, and recalibrated places bring out unresolved societal divides and show a paradox between the ideals of community and the selfishness of ill-informed shortcuts and rule-bending.
We hope for a reinvented future, where people first work together to institutionalize physical distancing necessary to safely re-emerge. This recalibration will, for the moment, require the vast majority to follow new rules of interaction. But what if they don’t, I ask, again and again. Meanwhile, back in the United States, protests, violence, and curfews suceeding lockdowns remind us that in a national emergency, the stubborn persistence of the raven’s message transcends COVID-19.
But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke onlyEdgar Allen Poe,”The Raven,” 1845
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said “Nevermore.”
For me, the past few days have not been easy, neither existentially nor as a cheerleading urbanist. Not only are many people refusing to stay two meters away, but car traffic in Greater London has increased dramatically. More horns are honking at we cyclists (I’ve not owned a car for three years). Within pre-existing bike lanes or reconfigured streets, roughly 30% of cyclists and pedestrians do not appear mindful of their actions.
Social media’s celebrations of urban “safe streets” for bicycles and pedestrians hardly tells the whole story. With public transport limited, auto-centric London boroughs are very much alive.
Recent headlines are not happy. Scientific advisors suggest the UK is coming out of lockdown too soon. Government decision-making reflects economic realities and touts honorific language of common-sense compliance. Yet ministers seem well-aware that lockdown requirements are often honored only when convenient.
Questions linger. Will contact-tracing work? Will a second wave of infections occur in the Fall? Is the raven correct?
On Friday, I indulged in my daily dose of post-pandemic predictions—this time from a Zoom conference on “Pandemic Urbanism,” broadcast from Seattle. I heard the raven’s voice from the noted American sociologist Eric Klinenberg, through commentary that ventured beyond COVID-19 and its uneven societal impacts. He referenced a perfect storm of a pandemic, Presidential miscues, and renewed police brutality in Minneapolis.
Klinenberg—a much-cited expert on “social infrastructure” and the decline of civic life—summarized his (and my) biggest fear: a squandered opportunity for community collaboration that transcends far mere redesign of cities to affect social distancing. In other words, plexiglass and bike lanes alone will only go so far.
In the United States, a Time Magazine story explains agent-based modeling of reopening Virginia Beach, and allows the reader to experiment. Try it, and see the impacts of people who squeeze between others in bottlenecks, and how failure to maintain six-foot distances magnifies the potential spread of the coronavirus:
As desperate as the U.S. is for some form of normalcy over the warm summer months, every model we ran suggests that, without general acceptance of a new reality in which public spaces will need to be less populated, the health risks could be significant.Chris Wilson, Time Magazine, May 29, 2020
Here in England, there are readily accessible places of history and memory. that predate Poe’s poetry, and yes, ravens abound in their vicinity.
Old Isleworth is a twenty-minute walk from our flat; parts are intact remnants of a Thames River village standing for hundreds of years. On Friday night, I walked there for a historical perspective, to see the memorialized plague pit aside the Church of All Saints. It is a place memory for COVID times, a burial ground from 1665, where 149 local victims from another time illustrate another disease that disproportionately affected the urban poor.
We don’t know the stories of those who have been here for close to 400 years. Nor do we really know what will happen next in our time, to the novel illness, the ill social infrastructure, or reconfigured public spaces where people are still relearning the commons. Hopefully, this time, the stubborn gloom of “Nevermore” will actually fly away.