Sunday, April 26, 2009

Three Human Cities

By Alan Waxman

A human city could be defined by the frequency and quality of meaningful encounters on a human scale. The following is examples from three kinds of cities: an East Bay park (EBMUD), San Francisco, and a suburb.

Walking in EBMUD or other large East Bay parks is an experience full of meaningful encounters at a very high frequency. The whole scene is constantly changing all the time: wind ripples through grass, trees shake, clouds move about the sky. Throughout the course of one day, shadows stretch across the ground and temperature changes (although that is true anywhere in the Bay Area). Paths are not straight; always there is new scenery and perspectives, colors, shapes and textures. The whole scene changes with each season, from green to yellow to golden brown to gray to green again. With each season there is a different smell. I encounter various plants, animals, and rocks that have meaning- oaks, redwoods, pines, tule, grasses, coyote brush, bays, poison oak, seasonal flowers, cows, turkeys, coyotes, bobcats, crows, rabbits, skunks, stones, cliffs, mud, barbed wire fences, and buildings, to name a few. These encounters become more and more meaningful as I become more educated about them and encounter them in different contexts. My means of experiencing these things are visual, auditory, and also bodily. I walk everywhere, up slopes, down slopes. I have to avoid poison oak and bushes carefully. Every few feet requires me to remain riveted. These are all reasons that EBMUD and the East Bay parks are a city of the most interesting kind.

Likewise, San Francisco is also full of meaningful encounters. SF is effected by changing temperature and weather constantly during the day and according to season, just like the East Bay parks. Also, there are many different buildings, each with posters and people near them, the people change according to time of day, and their clothes change according to season. Some people wish to speak to me, sell things to me, or even rob me. There are foods and smells and music in and around the buildings. There are also bookstores and libraries, among other things. Since most of the time I have to walk around the city, I feel slopes of hills in my muscles and the texture of pavement and grassy parks.

The suburb is a city with more distance involved. The house I might live in has seasonal plants, shapes, and colors. The television or computer also provide constantly changing pictures and stories. Drive- the streets aren't so interesting up close, but from the car window I can look at large vistas. I can no longer feel the air in this state except for on rare occasions, so weather is not such a meaningful encounter, only an obstacle. Danger is much more of an issue, so stress level is higher and it is more difficult to enjoy distant scenery. Watch the road at hand. Arrive at the supermarket. The supermarket itself is not so interesting a building but it is full of sounds and smells and people. However, these do not change according to season, only very vaguely, like with Halloween pumpkins or Christmas trees. Arrive at the office park. The office park has some plantings, lawns, and a few deciduous trees. The trees do change according to season, but the lawns don't. The building itself is not so interesting. Inside the building is an environment that actually never changes. Tinted windows obscure the view of the changing world, if I are lucky enough to have a window with a view. Air conditioning keeps a solid temperature, no need to change clothes; in fact, there is a dress code. Depending on my job, I might never actually do different tasks, only vaguely seasonal ones: data entry during the winter, cataloguing and phone calls during the summer. Most of the time spent experiencing this city is from the sitting position- in front of the television, in the car, at the computer or maybe even in an occasional bus. There is very little actual tactile experience of an interesting kind, only at the park or at home while cooking. The muscles are rarely used except if I go to the gym.

No wonder that when I grew up in a suburb I spent as much time as possible in the East Bay parks. EBMUD was located only a 5 minute walk from my house. I can also understand why so many suburban kids spend as much time as possible in cities like San Francisco or Berkeley.

Waste of Humanity

By Alan Waxman

At the University of Oregon there is currently a demonstration going on about slavery. On the grass in front of the Knight Library are hundreds of little flags, each meant to represent 6000 slaves. In total, demonstrators claim this represents 27 million slaves, the number of slaves in the world today. But as I experienced by watching Gomorra at the Bijou theatre, perhaps the number is far higher. The recent award winning Italian film, Gomorra, is directed by Matteo Garrone and based on the non-fiction book by journalist Roberto Saviano. By demonstrating forms of modern slavery and modern waste, the modern waste of humanity is vividly explored.

The final scene of the film uses the revolting metaphor of wasted food to show the way current system has perverted relationships between people and the land. In the final scene, Roberto, working for a toxic waste disposal corporation, visits the home of elderly land owners because it is on their land that the corporation will bury the toxic waste. Roberto's boss, Franco convinces the land owners that they need to bury the waste in order to cover their debts. After the discussion, Roberto wanders outside where he encounters an old woman in her garden. She says, "Luca, Luca,"she says, "I'm not Luca, I'm Roberto" he says, but she continues, as if her mind were in another time, "Luca, this garden is so dirty, it needs to be cleaned." Roberto and all the viewers of the film know that the garden, literally, and as metaphor for the entire society, is very dirty and that the system is only making it more and more poisoned. The old woman represents human responsibility to one another, to the past, the future, and to the land itself. As Roberto and Franco leave, the old woman gives him a box of peaches. Driving down the country road, Franco stops the car and exclaims, "Throw out the peaches, can't you tell they smell horrible." Roberto, just a cog in a wheel, steps out onto the land and dumps out the peaches on the side of the road, wasted. For him, as a man, this is the final and most revolting act. He quits his job and walks alone down the country road, leaving his boss and the corporation. There were several truly revolting scenes in the film depicting abuse and waste of humanity, but for some reason this final scene is one of the most powerful.

I think the film suggests that modern life is just as much a form of slavery as pre-modern life was for serfs and peasants, only now coupled with modern waste. Living amidst the decomposing rubble of modern architecture, people are isolated and their only choice is what corporation to become slave to. In Gomorra, Roberto acts as slave to Franco's toxic waste corporation until the final scene; Pasquale, a tailor who sincerely loves his work, is slave to his boss until he survives an attempt on his life and becomes a truck driver (another kind of slavery); and Toto, a 13 year old boy, becomes slave to one of the warring gangs. The only characters who refuse to be slaves are two boys, Marco and Ciro, who youthfully fantasize that they can be boss. As result, they are eventually lured into a trap and murdered. Modernity originally caught on among average people because they saw it as their way out of slavery as serfs and peasants. But as this movie vividly shows, people gave up one sort of slavery for another. And now, the organizations themselves, corporations, have become monsters of global proportions with incredible and poisonous waste.

I think it is fitting that the slow food movement originated in Italy. In Italy, love for food, land, and people is truly palpable for many, natives and tourists alike. But, as Gomorra details, what needs to be conserved in the slow food movement is the relationships between free people. This sort of democracy is one based upon care for people and land. But, is this different from corporate care or the care between master and slave?? You can taste the difference, and that is what slow food, and real democracy, is all about.