And where are the benches?
As most people do, I, too, live in an apartment building. We share a roof, an old elevator and many stairs. We bought a 49 square meters flat four years ago and I don’t know the name of half of the people living here. It is pointless to try to do so, as the rented apartments often get new tenants. I could blame it on students as there is a good University nearby, but the truth is that not all those tenants are scholars (I guessed it by their age). Some are regular workers looking for an affordable place in an ever-rising housing market.
A few weeks ago, one of the old ladies seemed to go missing. A friend of hers approached me and my husband at the door asking about her. It took me a while to realise who she was talking about as I had only spoken to her a couple of times. I said hi many times, but a real conversation never took place. No one in the building had seen her for a week and she wasn’t answering her home’s landline telephone or the bell.
We asked ourselves what could we do. Apart from the woman who claimed to be her friend, we knew nothing of children or any other relatives. The friend left, assuring us she would find out something from her card game group where she often went.
There we stood, my husband and I shocked at the fact that someone who lives so close can be, in a social manner, living so far.
Everything turned out fine. She is an independent woman and she went on vacation changing her plans at the last minute and taking longer to come back than some friends expected. There was never an old lady in danger, but it got me thinking. How is it possible that we didn’t see her for weeks and didn’t even realise until someone told us?
Most buildings have no space to create community. The corridors are a direct route to the elevator and are as narrow as they can be so the apartments can be bigger. We park our cars and, if we rush enough, we don’t need to see anybody until we enter our home. Who hasn’t gone up the stairs only to avoid sharing the lift? I’ve seen it. I did it.
Apartments with a balcony or terrace don’t need any other marketing, but these are often small, enough to take a breath or to pacify smoke addiction. Rooftops are closed because of their potential suicidal danger, which keeps growing due to an epidemic of loneliness forged in isolation. Ironic.
Of course, you can always go out and meet your friends somewhere else. That is an option for some, but going out isn’t cheap these days. If you walk around the city you are likely to see thousands of ads luring you to enter a shop. If you wish to sit down for a few minutes you must pay for a drink because sitting on a public bench is becoming a challenge or a luxury of the richest neighbourhoods. Benches are being removed to encourage consumption in hopes of improving the state of the economy. Though it sounds reasonable, it is classist. Spending four coins on a coffee doesn’t suppose the same effort for an engineer as it does for a warehouse worker.
Tall buildings are not all that bad. They are the most ecological option to house millions of people without destroying any more green spaces around the city. We do have to give them a chance. And probably a change. Perhaps one floor could be dedicated to an indoor garden or a play area for all ages. There are a few children in my building that would very much benefit from that. And the elderly too. I know for a fact that many fragile adults dread leaving their homes because of all the fuzz going on on the streets (cars that don’t stop at the pedestrian crossing, lack of access for walking aids, youngsters rushing in life…)
Having a comfortable community shouldn’t be something only accessible to young and middle age adults with extrovertive personalities. It shouldn’t be either a luxury for the wealthy. It is a human need that must be addressed in order to heal our society and build a bright future. I know I can approach my neighbours more promptly than before, and I’ll surely do, but I fear that individual effort is not the answer here. Individuality is precisely what led us to this point. During the last decades, we thought more about what is mine and less about what is ours. We have no idea what is the purpose of life in itself, we only think of our own purpose in life. We cannot afford to think of connecting with others because connecting with our own bodies is already a difficult quest. We only have brain cells for a dystopia, we no longer create positive and hopeful futures. Socialism seems a utopia for many people, not to talk about a post-capitalist world. The word utopia is already misunderstood as an impossible alternative. We forgot we need utopias to be able to think of better alternatives and build toward them.
Ursula K. Le Guin talking about our current socioeconomic system:
“Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words. "
Leisure has shifted from spending time developing creative works to consuming. Before you had imagination, now you have the illusion of choice. Cities are full of activities and services where you can spend your money on a superficial theatrical social dance that allows you to keep your head down and filled with fiction, whatever story of an efficient and productive lifestyle you are willing to believe. Some people are fortunate to see beauty in the urban chaos, but they must observe from afar and reject to involve themselves with these dynamics. Those are bohemians who practise the art of psychological distancing to the core and now, as if they are wearing some special kind of glasses, they cannot see the subliminal messages we are constantly broadcasted.
Photo: They Live (1988) — Source: IMDB
But those are rare people and they have to bare a very heavy toll, that of knowing the existence of danger and not acting upon it. I am not one of those, and most of us aren’t. Every time I step into the city centre I fall prey to the system, of the structure in which the streets are built, the lack of beauty and the excess of minimalistic functionality. Why would you want to baroque handmade water tap if a sober one will be cheaper? There are many reasons for that like it is better for the environment because mass production is not always as efficient as we are told, or because being pushed to buy things due to its cheaper price doesn’t mean they will give you any inch of happiness. And there is where I get to. We want to live happy lives, not wealthy abundant ones empty of meaning. Apart from love, which is the most common source of happiness we also have beauty, which nowadays is in crisis.
If we don’t create communities that hold people who are creative if we forget about our old ladies, we will run out of beauty in our immediate environment, and we already know what is happening with the natural one.
We can stop buying gifts and begin making them ourselves. We can start small, like offering a cup of coffee accompanied by a piece of homemade cake. We don’t need to be great artists to put our love and heart into the products we throw about and over the walls we surround ourselves with. Forget about the plain salmon living room, better paint a wobbly willow tree and admire the human soul it reflects, because what it’s inside a person is gorgeous only for being.
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