What Is to Be Done? Part Two

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

In my last post I borrowed some arguments from a few of my favorite thinkers to make the claim that people depend for their sense of individuality on the consciousness of other people. We rely on others to reflect images of us back to ourselves and develop our defining characteristics. These reflections constitute who we are. We are, in a sense, other people.

Even if you flinch from that bold conclusion, insisting, for example that a lone frontiersman or a prisoner in solitary confinement would nonetheless remain a human individual, you must admit that humans can only achieve their full range of flourishing through interaction with others and enmeshment in a civilization. This is what Aristotle meant when he said (at the beginning of Politics) that the human is a social animal.

I was not much of a social animal–or didn’t think of myself as one–until I was married and had children. I began to notice it in the playgrounds of Skopje, Macedonia, where I lived as a new father. I discovered that I loved taking my kids to the main local playground, which was situated astride a walkway between two rows of mid-rise apartment buildings. Depending on the time of day, you would find fifty or sixty kids playing there, attended by parents or, just as often, grandparents. Teenagers played hoops at an adjacent basketball halfcourt. There was always a crowd.

Working people cut through the playground, usually on their way to bus stops on either side of the surrounding apartment blocks. There were shops, pharmacies and banks at each end of the walkway, so lots of folks were headed to those as well. There was also a utility office about five minutes away where I used to walk to pay the bills once a month. They thought I was interesting because of my American accent.

Despite the basic foreignness of the place, my neighborhood in Skopje quickly became very comfortable to me. It was not just home, but in many ways a more practical and commodious home than any I’d lived in before. It was dense with human activity, and just about anywhere you could see or walk to from my apartment was interesting or useful.

I recently read a fascinating book, Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life, by the sociologist Eric Klinenberg. Among other things, Klinenberg gave me a useful term for summing up the experience of the built environment I enjoyed back in Skopje. One of the many reasons Americans never walk anywhere anymore, Klinenberg writes, is that there is nowhere “compelling” to walk to. You can walk around the block or possibly to the school bus stop, but you damn sure can’t walk to buy groceries, pay a bill or attend a PTA meeting.

To function in our society, you must get a driver’s license and buy a car. People in the suburbs have to drive places many times each day.

Put a pin in that idea. There are other, interlocking reasons why we don’t walk anywhere anymore, but the lack of accessible destinations is one I want to come back to. First, though, I want to shift the scene to a crowd of sweaty, (mostly) unlovely human bodies packed tightly around a swimming pool, picnicking and speaking languages I don’t comprehend. I, a misanthrope who hates crowds, despises prickly heat, fears skin cancer, and panics two seconds after  my kids disappear from view, should hate everything about the crowded swimming pool scenario. But I came to love it. It’s a puzzle that calls for reflection. It all happened in Griesheim.

Griesheim was the utterly unremarkable town of 29,000 people in south-central Germany where we moved after Skopje. We would live there for 12 years, and I would have several other experiences of communal life there outside the swimming pool that would challenge my idea of who I was. Just like back in Skopje, I would be remade by the people around me.

But the pool was memorable thing. Its meaning crept up on me over the course of many hot summer days, surrounded, as I have indicated, by a thousand or so of my overly warm fellow citizens. Entrance didn’t cost much, because the city wanted everyone to be able to afford the pool. Hence all the languages. Griesheim is a middle class town, with the offices of doctors, architects and lawyers dotting main street and quite a few professionals commuting 25 miles northward to Frankfurt. But it also has numerous of the less wealthy–Turkish speakers, whose parents or even grandparents came as early as the 1950s or 60s, a handful of Italians who came in the same wave, a large number of former Yugoslavians who fled wars in the 1990s, Polish and Hungarian vegetable pickers, and, more recently, about 400 Africans and Arabs.

The pool itself was big and serviceable but not lavish. The city had clearly sunk quite a bit of money into the facility’s construction and upkeep, and it had given a nudge to all its citizens to congregate there in the form of subsidized entrance fees (I’m fairly certain). What did Griesheim get as a return on this investment?

As a matter of fact, it got almost every piece of social capital to which Klinenberg  refers in the subtitle of his book–an antidote to inequality, polarization, and the decline of civic life.

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The Griesheim swimming pool (Image: http://www.hessen-luftbild.de)

The citizens of Griesheim from all rungs of the socioeconomic ladder met one another face-to-face at the pool on equal terms. If you had 2,50 € you could get in, and who didn’t have that much? They might have been from the lowest-rent apartment block or from a deluxe 2 million € custom built home on the city’s forest edge, but at the pool they jostled for the same picnic space, stood in line for the same water slide, overwatched their toddlers flank-by-flank, and of course, did it all for fun.

Here is something special I loved about the pool: there was no body policing. While the town’s lithe young princes and princesses of course showed up to parade as required by standard mating rituals, for everyone else, there simply were no aesthetic standards to live up to. New moms looked like new moms, not like Hollywood starlets back in bikini shape four weeks after childbirth. Over-the-hill Greek guys looked like over-the-hill Greek guys. And so forth. People showed up in all ages and forms.

Why did this matter to me? Because it saved me a huge amount of work trying to teach my kids to resist the tyranny of mass culture and especially the impossible aesthetic hierarchy it imposes on our judgment. I might have them read about such things in books some day, but I don’t have to. Because of the Griesheim pool, my kids accept other people’s presumptive right to enjoy themselves in public without bowing to standards set by trash culture.

Robust civic life is based on the principle of equity among citizens, and it reinforces that principle in as many ways as possible. The pool at Griesheim did precisely this for me and my family. I love this principle so much that I came to love the sweaty, noisy crowds who taught me a new aspect of it.

A few months ago I ran past a new housing development in the suburban neighborhood where I live now. As sign boasted of its amenities, which included a “private park.” My hear sank at how bleak that sounded. I see a lot of signs like that–private pool, private playground, keep out. They are indicative of a low-grade war on civic life.

Tooth and nail, we are clawing back the public spaces where it was once possible for Americans to meet as equals. Everywhere we go requires a car, and in my city 30 percent of the people don’t own one. How equal is that? Everywhere really worth going requires money, and most places vie for a special level of exclusivity defined by income bracket. From our schools to our churches to our shopping areas, we set an unspoken price of admission based on our private wealth. That admission price says to everyone else, “Don’t come here.”

Which brings me back to the ideas of accessibility and “compelling destinations.” Back in Griesheim (as all across Germany) kids are trained to walk to school, from the first grade. I say “trained” because the experience prepares them to walk other places they will soon need to–the doctor’s office, the library, the sports club, the ice cream shop and so forth. In this way they learn that their town belongs to them and to whoever else can move through its streets and squares. If you tried to talk to someone in Griesheim about compelling destinations, I doubt they would understand. When everywhere is a compelling destination, and they’re all accessible, none of them really stands out.

When German kids are in the fifth grade and start attending secondary school, they might go to the next town over, as ours did. No problem. They get on the bus or street car with dozens of other kids, and off they go. Without applying their young minds to any particular issues of political ideology, they are re-learning and expanding the lessons they absorbed walking to elementary school–the space around them belongs to the public, and everyone has a presumptive right to use it for reasonable purposes.

With our talk of private parks and other abominations. Americans have set forth on a doomed project. We wish to transpose all the features of the private sphere to the public sphere. We wish to be kings or queens of our own castle. We will either fail in this project because no one can survive, still less thrive, alone, or we will succeed and commit some new and interesting kind of national suicide. “America stopped believing in the public,” future historians will write, “and of course you can’t have a res publica–the public thing–without that basic mode of community.” So it goes.

I opened this argument with a bold abstraction: we are other people. I continue it with a concrete notion that many people might find just as strange: we must build an environment that prioritizes the public sphere over the private one. Building the right physical stuff is the key to the future. If we fail to advance the public sphere, we may lose the thing we’re trying to protect, human individuality capable of flourishing.

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