Sunday, October 02, 2005

Trash Talk

We're back from a September in the Netherlands and the Var -- a week visiting extended family in The Hague and Friesland, two weeks walking the country dikes, forest paths, and magnificent heather of Friesland and the northeast Netherlands, and a week car-touring the best and least-toured corner of Provence.

Last night we drove with friends to Berkeley, there to see the Mark Morris Dance Group in a bill I'd even come home early from Europe to see: intelligent and entertaining dances to Milhaud's La creation du monde, the fourth Bartok quartet, and my candidate for the signal work of musical theater of the 20th Century, the Stein-Thomson Four Saints in Three Acts.

But it's not the sheep pastures and mixed forest of the Netherlands, the pines and vines of the Var, or the stunning humanity of Morris's choreography that I contemplate this morning. It's the amazingly trashy thing my native city has become.

Driving the length of University Avenue, from freeway to campus, is a revelation of the triumph of litter, neglect, exploitation, and utter unconcern for human comfort and civility that has become the accepted background -- foreground, actually -- of contemporary urban American life.

This results, of course, from the prevailing American view that private gain trumps public responsibility, that one can do what one wants with one's own property regardless of the resulting deterioration of the setting in which it participates -- whether the ecology of the physical environment or the temper of the public mood.

I heard earlier yesterday of the pending legislation to "compensate" property-owners for potential profits hypothetically lost because of ecological priorities such as the preservation of endangered species. The arguments referred to the property-owners "rights," but never once contemplated the civic and social responsibility that comes with the ownership of property -, the extent to which such ownership entails stewardship.

Cities are pre-eminently for people, for the people who live in them, work or study in them, visit them. Context affects content, and to condemn the citizenry to live in physical squalor and confusion inevitably condemns them to anxiety and stress, to their own confusion and disorder.

I don't think it's too far-fetched to suggest the unconcern for order and tranquillity is related to the prevalent American unconcern for maintenance and prevention. The urban American eye is on details and the dollar, not the long term and stability.

It's time to find a way to persuade planning and zoning commissions of this, but also to demand greater collective responsibility from developers, architects, landlords, and shopkeepers.

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