Tuesday, October 23, 2007
The shock of the new
There are changes afoot in my neighbourhood, which have brought my concerns about lost gardens and space to the fore. When we first moved to to our area, it was touted in the real estate literature as "bohemian south" (bohemian = run down rental properties), now it is "on the fringes of the city" or "a short walk to the Paris end of Charles St" (Paris end of Charles St = two cafes and a bakery, with seating outside, how European!). One by one the houses along the streets leading to ours are getting paint jobs and the ubiquitous new french doors + back deck combo. The overlooked spaces are disappearing under big houses with teeny tiny yards, and generally, there's a lot of people drawing down their housing equity to tart things up a little. It is not an over-statement to say I hate it.
I do admit this response is partly because I am curmudgeonly and suspicious of change. Also, I'm frugal and am not comfortable with people drawing down equity, which isn't real money - just possible profit - to transform their perfectly functional houses into boring sameness, pushing up my interest rates in the process. In part, I like my space, any old space, but especially that which holds mystery and delight within it, and find I this is fast disappearing.
In part, my concern is aesthetic - I like the humble, the tumbledown, the rough around the edges (Lu said to me yesterday, sounding concerned, "I don't want to move in to a dump, Mummy", which isn't as crazy as it sounds - each dump for me holds great possibility; Lu on the other hand, likes impersonal motels and stainless steel - these kids, always rebelling).
But there are other more symbolic and less personal issues informing my grumbling about the McMansions across the way.
Richard Sennett - a deeply under-rated sociologist, but aren't we all? - talks about the city as a place for encouraging tolerance. As we move through the space, confronted in a real way by difference, we learn to live with and indeed look for diversity in our lives. In a time of great social change, with ongoing debates about who 'we' let in, and what 'they' should believe, every day in cities we come across the Other, the stranger, and on the street they become people, transformed from the bogeymen on our imaginations and political rhetoric.
But others have pointed to the rise in gated communities, high front fences and underground carparks, drive throughs, the reliance on cars, and even ipods as indicators of our growing reluctance to face difference in our communities. We barricade ourselves from threat, discomfort, distaste, and in so doing we add to, rather than protect, ourselves from the fragmentation of our social worlds. If we unplugged our ipods and took a bus, the world would seem a lot less scary place.
I'm thinking the same things about how we treat our surrounds. I don't like the big houses with their high fences and paved or pebbled yards because they refuse to acknowledge any world but the one they have created in their boundaries. Things are hard edged, clear cut, with no blurring between inside and out, then and now, wild and tame.
For me, they are the architectural equivalent of the bubble world that hides us from social interaction; the bricks and mortar protects the inhabitants from acknowledging we share our space with others: present others, past others, and others who are not people at all.
Where I live, when flash new houses are built, a piece of the past is erased. The footprint of an old house is destroyed by the earth movers, the previous gardens trampled, and the needs of current creatures - the birds and bugs and furry things - are utterly denied.
It smacks of a disdain for the history of the place, and a discomfort with the messiness of our environment. Little Jenny Wren mentioned in my last post an old rose that has been destroyed as new flats go up - is it hard-heartedness or a lack of imagination that allows people to deny that which has gone before? We all want to make our lots our own - a woman's home is her castle after all, and her garden her realm - but there's a decided lack of co-operation in how we go about this.
I know in our busy, busy lives there's not much time for gardening, but why does this translate into no interest in our space and those who share it? And the time argument's a bit of a furphy anyway. As I walked by a new lot of lego houses, scowling and muttering, I saw the shell of an in-ground pool awaiting installation. I've had the misfortune of house sitting places with pools, and the skimming, chemical-ing and creepy-crawling take up far more time than my garden does, and for no great return. I also raised my eyebrow at the idea of an in-ground pool in a town where swimming is only very for the strong (or well-insulated) and in a state in drought. The rest of the yard covers its shame in pebbles and paving - all of which will require a lot of up-keep and weed-killer to keep the green bits at bay -
- and there's no inch given for the birds and the bees. But somehow, it's just fine to install one of the most unnecessary and environmentally useless domestic features currently available to home owners. It's enough to drive a scruffy, organic suburban householder to tears.