The following is a story that has been circulating across the internet for some months, and from which I build some observations on urban lives:
An old Italian lived alone in New Jersey. He wanted to plan his annual tomato garden, but it was very difficult work as the ground was hard. His only son, Nino, who used to help him, was in prison. The old man wrote a letter to his son and described his predicament.
I am feeling pretty sad, because it looks like I won’t be able to plan my tomato garden this year. I’m just getting to old to be diffing up a garden plot. I know if you were here my troubles would be over. I know you would be happy to dig the plot for me, like the old days.
A few days later he received a letter from his son.
Don’t dig up the garden. That’s where the dead bodies are buried.
At 4 a.m. the next morning, FBI agents and local police arrived and dug up the entire area without finding any dead bodies. They apologized to the old man and left. That same day the old man received another letter from his son.
Go ahead and plan the tomatoes now. That’s the best I could do under the circumstances. Love you, Nino
This story says several things about urban life. First, you could obviously consider Nino’s actions as a kind of deception. He puts in motion actions that are suppose to dig up the truth about a particular event, an event that is not yet resolved—that is, locating the missing bodies in a crime that Nino seemingly has been imprisoned for. While the problem of the missing bodies in the end remains unresolved, Nino is able to ensure that the garden for his father’s tomatoes will have been prepared for planting. Additionally, Nino has claimed to know where bodies—truly missing in the eyes of the authorities—are located. But is this the crime for which Nino has been imprisoned?
In other words, without the evidence of the missing bodies, has Nino indeed gone to jail for this crime? While we don’t know for sure, what we do know is that there are various deceptions at work. Nino has convinced the authorities that he knows the location of bodies, and though he may actually know the “real” location of the missing bodies, his ability to get the authorities to take the action they did—digging up the back yard—did not rely upon whether he really knew that they were dead bodies and that they were missing.
What this tells us is that in all of the efforts we make to accomplish things—to make something happen, whether is to affect other people, set in motion a chain of events or create the life conditions that we want—is that much of this happens indirectly. We have to go around other people’s expectations of what they want from us, what they think we capable of doing, and what they think we want from them. As soon as we put any initiative into motion, we face misunderstandings, resistance, competition, and sometimes threats. In face of these constraints, we can change our minds, try and adapt what we want or try to change the attitudes and behaviours of those around us. We could compromise, make deals, tell others we will do this and that for them if only they will accommodate all or some of what it is we want to do. We can make our cooperation with others contingent upon their willingness to ensure that we get a piece of the action.
In these games and deals we tend to prioritize what is really important. In all of things that we want to make happen, we often have to decide how to rank things, fix the value of each thing in terms of its relations to others. Of course this happens all of the time. With limited opportunities, we have to decide upon our own needs or those of our loved ones—who will get to go to school, who will get to have extra opportunities, who will get the bulk of our time, our effort and resources.
Cities are full of things that did happen—aspirations that reached fruition, lives that created spaces of maneuver, opportunities to accumulate resources and experience. And when you look at the history of how things that happened—neighborhoods built, households with money, individuals with a lot of knowledge about things, people with authority—they often did not get to be that way, to get where they are now by going at their goals directly. So often, people have set off to do things—with objective, plans, and working procedures in mind—only to find out that they operated in an already crowded field with others trying to put in motion their own plans. Too often they found that if they put all of their eggs into one basket, if they committed themselves too much to one idea, one objective, that might not only lose everything, but get so discouraged they would settle for almost anything or convince themselves that what others wanted from them is what they, in the end, really wanted for themselves.
To avoid discouragement and capitulation, many urban dwellers did a little bit at a time. In fact, for many, the idea wasn’t to come up with a plan or to have an overriding aspiration. Rather they just tried to do something, anything, and see what happened, see how the waters got stirred, who was paying attention, who got excited or upset, who cared a lot about what they were doing and who didn’t care at all. If one could do a little bit at a time, you could often manage to stay under the radar, not draw too much attention to yourself—not make others jealous or provoke them to go after what you were trying to do because they either had more friends, power or money to take it away from you.
On the other hand, urban dwellers often did things, anything, to let others know that they were willing to take some risks, to put themselves on the line to change their conditions, to work with others—so it did not much matter what people put forward as their projects—whether it be to fix up the house, add a few rooms, start a small business, pool some money with others to buy something on the cheap. What was important was to indicate a readiness to move, to get going. The specifics of what you put forward were not the relevant thing here. While residents did indeed often want to get somewhere specific, accomplish something concrete and tangible for themselves and their families, they were often also willing to let things happen, to allow themselves to end up in circumstances they never expected and then learned to call those unfamiliar even strange conditions “home”, or, at least a temporary home.
In addition, many realized that the impact of any single initiative could be increased through its becoming an aspect or component in the initiatives of others—not by virtue of being locked down in contractual relationships or mutual obligations. Rather, it was a way of making whatever you were doing something that could be made use of by others. Collaboration among residents then covers a whole lot of different options: Sometimes residents would simply pay attention to what each other was doing in order to do something else. At other times, there might be collective discussions among relatives, friends, neighbours, co-workers or colleagues about how to put different skills or contacts together in order to support what remained largely individual projects.
Sometimes neighbors would silently agree not to interfere with each others efforts. Still, at other times, residents would run smoke screens for each other—pretending that certain conditions, events or projects were not underway when they were in order to control how much attention outsiders paid to them and to ward off any harmful intrusions. In all of these practices and strategies, more than one thing is going on at once, and often what looks to be the reality of situation is really something else. People look like they are cooperating but in reality they are just acting as if they are doing it in order to win themselves the freedom to do their own thing; or conversely, people may look like they are running all over each other, stabbing each other in the back, pursuing their own strong-willed aspirations when in reality they are implicitly learning from and adjusting to each other, affecting each other without it looking like they are doing so.
These so-called deceptions then are at the heart of urban life, and as such, we can’t take all that much for granted—things are not what they seem to be. Many urban neighborhoods look like they are a complete mess, in a total state of disrepair. But something else is often going on—for behind the mess may exist complex local economies full of different trades and activities silently working together, and where their ability to work together requires that there be no one with sufficient authority to say that this particular activity or object has to go, has to be cleaned up.
In ramshackle, messy environments, people often ask why improvements are not made; why residents do not simply get together and pool their resources to make their communities nicer. Piles of materials—bricks, old refrigerators, pieces of wood, old tin roofs, wrecked cars— sometimes accumulate for years with apparently little use and that seemingly could be easily discarded. Yet they hang on as if exerting some magical power.
Of course, communities work hard at “community improvement.” Even when they do not, it is not a matter always of a lack of resources or cooperation, but rather a sense of letting histories run their course, of retaining memories of all the ways a particular space and deteriorating object or infrastructure has been used. And this can become important because it lets people know that the neighborhood and all that is within it—its people and objects— are available to be used in many different ways by many different combinations of people. These are environments that not only show the excess of past use, but convey to the outside the world that their efforts to impose their orders, their ways of doing things, their attempts to straighten things out, and get people to behave all proper are not going to work here.
Over time initiatives—incremental, individual, collaborative, short or long term—have had a substantial impact on the urban built environment. In some areas of Jakarta, for example, every street and lane is characterized by mixtures of the old and the new, the single and multi-storey, with all kinds of materials and design styles being put to use. While districts may contain mixtures of residences, single rooms for rent, commercial, storage, recreational spaces, churches and mosques throughout, these mixtures take their own particular forms and emphases block by block.
Residents thus live in a built environment that allows or constrains particular comings and goings, visibilities and vantage points, soundscapes, inputs and evacuations of raw materials and waste, and public exposure and private containment. In other words, these are city spaces where there many different ways to get something done, many different alternatives to accomplish things when the way that you are familiar with or prefer isn’t possible just now—and people who live and work in these places, know this. How do they know this, because the way these places look—full of different ins and outs and different kinds of stuff and different places where you can put your body. All this reminds them of these possibilities every day. The city authorities and other outside powers may come into these places and look for the missing bodies—for all the casualties, the bad influences, the sickness, immoralities, and damages— but instead may only find a hundred varieties of tomatoes.