Names vs The Nothing

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
There’s this 80’s movie that I have a real soft spot for. I saw it in the theater, in fact. Now I get to show it to my kids. It’s a good one, which is a good thing because when your kids like a movie, you end up watching over and over again. It’s called “The NeverEnding Story.”

[THE NEVERENDING STORY? WHAT’S THAT?!]

Roman Mars:
“The NeverEnding Story” is a tale of a boy adventure named-

[ATREYU!]

Roman Mars:
He and is luckdragon named-

[FALKOR!]

Roman Mars:
They’re trying to save the world from the onslaught of a terrible force called-

[THE NOTHING!]

Roman Mars:
But the story also takes place inside of a book that’s being read by a present-day boy. A boy named…

[BASTIAN!]

Roman Mars:
Pretty much all the dialogue in the movie is written with exclamation points. Anyway, so Bastian, the reader, realizes that he is actually written into the story and it’s up to him to save the storybook world.

[THUNDER]

[MAYBE HE DOESN’T KNOW WHAT HE HAS TO DO!]

[WHAT DO I HAVE TO DO?!]
Roman Mars:
Bastian winds up defeating the Nothing – spoiler alert – by giving the empress of the fantasy world a new name…

[HE HAS TO GIVE ME A NEW NAME.]

[THUNDER]

[HE’S ALREADY CHOSEN IT. HE JUST HAS TO CALL IT OUT.]

[MOONCHILD]

Roman Mars:
It’s really hard to hear but he names her “Moonchild” there. I didn’t know that for like 20 years. The power of one child’s imagination saves an entire world! Seriously, it’s a great movie. Anyway, there is a reason why I’m telling you this story. I want you to hold on to that idea. That a name can defeat a Nothing. With that in mind, here’s our producer Sam Greenspan.

Sam Greenspan:
Hey, Roman.

Roman Mars:
All right everyone in Listener-land, Names vs Nothings.

Sam Greenspan:
When I was a kid growing up in South Florida, there was this beautiful green place where I always wanted to go play. It looked perfect for a kid to run around and throw a ball. It was a flat, mowed lawn that just stretched into infinity, but my parents wouldn’t ever take me there.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, but with good reason.

Sam Greenspan:
It was inside of a giant highway interchange. My 5-year old self would never have been able to convince my parents that this would be a good place to play because no responsible parent takes their kid to play catch off the side of I-95. But I don’t think I would even have known how to ask them to take me there because this place isn’t really anywhere that we think of as being a place. There’s no name for it.

Roman Mars:
Let’s call it, a “Nothing.”

Sam Greenspan:
As a kid, I couldn’t look away from these perfect grassy areas, but as I grew up and became a driver, I learned to ignore them like everyone else.

Roman Mars:
So, what happens when you give that Nothing a name?

Graham Coreil-Allen:
That’s totally what I’m doing. Giving things a name.

Sam Greenspan:
So, this is my friend Graham.

Graham Coreil-Allen:
My name is Graham Coreil-Allen.

Sam Greenspan:
Graham is an artist in Baltimore and he has this project where he’s trying to categorize and classify all the different kinds of invisible public spaces that we overlook. He published a field guide for how to spot them. It’s a part of a bigger project called, “New Public Sites.”

Graham Coreil-Allen:
New Public Sites is… it’s an investigation into some of the invisible sites and overlooked features of our everyday public spaces within cities that are not traditionally framed as public space. It’s important to name these places because by giving these places succinct and fun and poetic names, we can help start a discourse about our public spaces and how we wanna envision them for the future. I’m reminded of “The NeverEnding Story.” Bastian, you must give me a name!

[CALL MY NAME!]

Roman Mars:
See?

Sam Greenspan:
Graham gives this tours where he puts this language to use, describing incredibly boring pieces of the Baltimore landscape.

Graham Coreil-Allen:
This is the first site along the tour. In here we have a void. I remember the building that used to stand here, it was painted blue. Passing through it, you can imagine how us, as ghosts – should the building be standing here – would have to actually be invisible to pass through these walls and now it’s the reverse. The building is the ghost and we’re passing through these walls.

Roman Mars:
So, Graham is really giving the tour of a vacant lot.

Sam Greenspan:
“Vacant lot” is one way to put it, but notice what Graham called it.

Graham Coreil-Allen:
A void.

Sam Greenspan:
And if you pull up his book that Graham published, sort of a field guide to these new public sites, you’ll see… alright, hang on… Okay, I don’t have the book handy but here, this is the PDF. I’m gonna do Command F. V-O-I-D. Okay, page 14. “Void: A framed open space imbued with the psychic presence of a former mass-”

Graham Coreil-Allen:
…endure the profound immersion of seductively infinite nothingness.

Roman Mars:
That certainly is a “something.” To find out more about these invisible public spaces, Graham and Sam rode bikes to the edge of East Baltimore to look at a few, like the one Sam pined for as a kid.

Graham Coreil-Allen:
It looks like there’s a small parting that you can actually see through. Right now we’re at the foot of a small embankment that’s probably 15 feet tall or so, we’re gonna walk up to the edge of this embankment and meet a low-lying concrete wall that will safely separate us from the cloverleaf of traffic. Right beyond this on-ramp onto, we’ll be able to hopefully actually look into a freeway eddy. So, let’s do that right now.

[TRAFFIC SOUNDS]

Sam Greenspan:
“Right now we’re darting across the street during a huge volume of traffic.”

Graham Coreil-Allen:
“So, we’re looking at… there’s this curved highway exit ramp coming in front of us and maybe a 15 ft or 20 ft ahead of us, there’s kind of this almost like a wilderness area. Fenced in, it says ‘No Trespassing’ right by it, ‘Maryland Transportation Authority.’”

Sam Greenspan:
“Correct.”

Roman Mars:
With the invisible public space and site Graham turns to his field manual.

Graham Coreil-Allen:
“Freeway Eddy. An interstitial fragment of space between intersecting curves of highway pavement.”

Sam Greenspan:
And there you have it. That grassy, non-place I always wanted to hang out in as a kid, now has a name. A Freeway Eddy.

Roman Mars:
Graham’s field guide to new public sites is full of new identities for these kinds of places.

Graham Coreil-Allen:
“So, here we have Median Refuge: A liminal zone of linear respite between parallels of churning traffic.”

Graham Coreil-Allen:
Enlightened Elevation: Supple terrain providing the ideal incline from which one may gaze from a wide-viewing distance.

Graham Coreil-Allen:
Monumental Isolation: Big, loose-parts. Movable materials that invite playful reconfiguration. It is actually an architectural term. “Big loose parts.” It’s a pretty fun-sounding term if you ask me.

Graham Coreil-Allen:
Triangle Crossing: A three-sided, concrete platform or asphalt zone providing solace for street-crossing pedestrians.

Sam Greenspan:
“I don’t see too many pedestrians.”

Graham Coreil-Allen:
We have Aural Saturation: The overwhelming occupation of a surrounding soundscape by site-generated droning noise.

Graham Coreil-Allen:
Medium Refuge: A liminal.. pause of restraint.

Graham Coreil-Allen:
Empty Signifier: a post or a poll absent of its original sign and/or meaning.

Sam Greenspan:
If there’s a common theme connecting these sites, it’s that they’re mostly the empty, left-over spaces from car-centered city planning. It’s an odd celebration of these nothing places. Listen to how Graham describes them.

Graham Coreil-Allen:
Beauty that one can enjoy. Spectacular and sublime. Quite beautiful. This is a really beautiful spot. We’re actually standing right now in a long strip of sunlight that is created by the space between these two elevated highways. We’re at the Chinatown bus stop across the street from the Baltimore Travel Plaza, miles outside of the city. Perhaps the most unglamorous way to enter Baltimore and yet it’s a gateway for hundreds a week and it’s a quite beautiful space.

Sam Greenspan:
“Here’s where I gotta draw the line, Graham, because there are some trees, there are some birds, you know, I guess there’s some intent of landscaping this area around here. But it’s basically a big parking lot with some trucks with diesel gas across the street, there’s a subway, there’s a bus stop. What are your grounds for calling this beautiful?”

Roman Mars:
Let’s be clear here. You can call that grassy patch of a highway, a “Freeway Eddy” all you want, but I’m not gonna take my kids to play ball in one. A highway exit ramp by any of their name is still just as unattractive and dangerous.

Graham Coreil-Allen:
“This is beautiful because it’s a space that’s shared by so many and yet it was completely undesigned. This space was designed as a parking lot and it’s become this huge nexus for people coming in and out of Baltimore. So, it’s not necessarily what it looks like, it’s more about what it represents.”

Sam Greenspan:
Yeah, there’s no denying the experience of being in these new public sites is actually pretty terrible. But for Graham, the beauty is in their potential.

Roman Mars:
Sometimes, every day unremarkable spaces can become something more simply by virtue of people being there.

Sam Greenspan:
It’s worth noting here that Zuccotti Park in New York City, the birthplace of the Occupy Movement, was a privately-owned space and not a public park. So, if your goal is finding new spaces for engaged democracy to happen, as it is for Graham, then you need a way to redefine the places in your neighborhood and that kind of activity can happen.

Graham Coreil-Allen:
And I think it’s important not to fetishize public spaces as only existing in town squares or Yosemite or Yellowstone or something like that. Not just the National Mall in DC for example, but any place. Our everyday public spaces. You know, the spaces that we all share. It’s everywhere and we all have access to it. These spaces are the places where this happens. It doesn’t just happen over the Internet, it happens in physical spaces. New public sites are these physical spaces that we can appropriate, that we can make our own. If it’s only for a temporary demonstration then so be it, but maybe it’s for a farmer’s market, maybe it’s for a community garden, maybe it’s simply for a playground or a place where we need to add a few benches to make it a better bus stop, but nevertheless, there’s potential there. And by giving it a name and by starting that conversation, we can kind of get these ideas moving into reality.

Roman Mars:
So, it all comes back to a name against a nothing. When you give a nothing a name, you can re-imagine as a something.

Graham Coreil-Allen:
If we can create terms for these otherwise invisible experiences and places and things that we all share, that we all of us share, in these public spaces, these new public sites, then it’s a starting point. It’s a starting point for that conversation. By giving it a term, we can then talk about it and we all know what we’re talking about, then that’s the first step. The second step is envisioning, “Okay, well, how does this need to be improved?” And the third step is, “How do we do that?”

Roman Mars:
The naming is where it starts. I don’t know if I’d name anything “Moonchild” though.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Sam Greenspan with help from me, Roman Mars. It’s a project of KALW 91.7 local public radio in San Francisco and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco. Support for 99% Invisible comes in part from the Facebook Design Team who believes that design can bring positive change to the world. Visit them at facebook.com/design. Support is also provided by Pixate, changing the way mobile apps are writing. Creating beautiful native applications for iPhones, iPads and Androids shouldn’t be hard. Imagine styling your entire app in realtime all in CSS. Designers can help kickstart this project now and help bring more beauty into the world. Go to pixate.com.
We are distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Making public radio more public. Find out more at prx.org. You can find the show and ‘like’ the show on Facebook. I tweet @romanmars. To find out more about Graham’s project and his mobile app which will help you identify and even make up new names for your new public sites in your own backyard, check out our website. It’s 99percentinvisible.org

Sam Greenspan:
“Hey, this is Sam Greenspan, producer at 99% Invisible. I’m sending you this from a rest stop off of I-40 in western North Carolina. I’m making the 3,000 mile drive from Baltimore, Maryland to the San Francisco bay where I will be working more closely with Roman on not just 99% Invisible but also the Public Radio Remix. And this is only possible because of you. The support that came in from the Kickstarter campaign was just incredible. I’m moving out west to get you more episodes in Season 3. We’re going to get a website. So many things. And it’s all thanks to you. So thanks.”

[SOUND OF PASSING VEHICLES]

Sam Greenspan:
“Wow, oh my gosh. That was a semi-truck towing a semi-truck, towing another semi-truck towing a pick-up truck! The things you see on the road.”

  1. Kevin

    My favorite word for these spaces is “Spandrel”: the space between two arches in .

    Stephen Jay Gould also adapted the term it in the context of evolutionary biology. “Evolutionary biology needs such an explicit term for features arising as byproducts, rather than adaptations, whatever their subsequent exaptive utility.” So do places!

  2. Adam L

    I was fortunate enough to visit Edinburgh, Scotland, recently, and something that surprised me was that most of the roundabouts (of which there are many) had small parks in them. And much to my surprise, there were people in most of them, and it seemed like in many cases people were actually just hanging out there. I’d never seen anything like that in my native US.

  3. Eva

    Thank you for confirming Sebastian yells Moonchild (his mother’s name, right?) I had never been able to confirm that. Always bugged me (someone told me it was Fantasia which sounded silly). Well moonchild sounds silly and dated too but good to know.

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