Standing Back to See What’s There

Today, I started reading The Ghost Map, Stephen Johnson’s book on the cholera epidemic in 1850’s London and how John Snow’s approach to the disease changed the way we think about many things, not just cholera specifically, or even disease, but the development of cities, and about scientific inquiry.

I had only read the first chapter when I decided to get a look where the area he was writing about was. Generally, I know Soho, but I wasn’t sure in relation to other places in London. Johnson writes about how in Victorian London wealthier suburbs developed near slums, but even though only separated by a few blocks, some areas were nearly inaccessible from others. Here is one of the several ways in which Google Earth is helpful.

After pinpointing on the map the area I wanted, I zoomed out to get a broader look at the city. Because I’m easily distracted by bright shiny objects and other random thoughts, I decided to pan the map up towards where I lived for a semester in 1980. Although I didn’t immediately recall the exact address, I knew the street and blocks and could trace on the map the route I would take from the Warwick tube stop to my temporary London home — a large row house that housed about 25 students. At the time I knew that there was a green behind our “hotel” but we were not permitted access. It was the kind of neighborhood at that time where you would have a student hostel — cheap housing, not the best amenities in the neighborhood, a few pubs (where in London, are there not a few pubs?), relatively safe, accessible to The Tube — but it was basically a long-established residential neighborhood, and while I didn’t like not being able to go into the “park”, I can see now why it would have been frowned upon by those homeowners whose homes abutted the green; it was their property, not ours.

About ten years ago, my son and I were in London, and one evening I decided that we would take the Bakerloo Line up to the Warwick stop to see where I had stayed during the most memorable semester of my college career. International travel has been commonplace for my son and his peers. He didn’t understand then that it had been an unusual thing to travel abroad when I was 19. I don’t think that I knew anyone who had spent that amount of time outside of the US back then.

We exited the Underground and I was immediately taken by both how familiar and how strange was the corner where I stood. Oh yeah! I exclaimed. I remember that! What is that building? Oh, that used to be a church!. That sort of thing continued as we walked the two blocks towards Sutherland Avenue. What had been a long-in-the-tooth neighborhood had been gentrified. BMWs lined the streets. Most of the crumbling porch steps had been replaced, the bars on the windows upgraded to add ornament to the security function, several of the pubs now selling curry and catering to a much different crowd than the old geezers who stood at the pub drinking Guinness 20 years before. As we walked around the block, the gate to the green was slightly ajar. I remarked to my son that I had always been curious about the green space. In many walks through London, that year, and on all of my subsequent trips, I always crane my neck just a bit to get a peek into these hidden gardens.

It wasn’t until today, though, when I looked at the area on the map that I realized how big the green was. Sometimes you need a birds-eye view to understand the lay of the land. I probably never walked completely around the block more than once — the Tube or the bus, my transports to anywhere too far for my feet to take me, where in the opposite direction. Since all of the streets were angled, I didn’t realize what space was hidden behind the rows of houses. Since my room overlooked the street, I rarely had a glance out the back windows. All I had remembered were seeing some trees, not yet in bloom in the early Spring. I doubt that I’ll ever walk through this particular garden, but maybe someday I’ll walk through some similar private green space, hidden behind rows of houses, on a future trip to London.

Arrowing showing approximately where I resided

As I read further in The Ghost Map this evening, I smiled when I reached chapter 4 where Johnson discusses how Snow had to take a birds-eye view of the city to understand what was happening with the spread of disease. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re looking at until you step back, even if it is three decades later.


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