My Space and Everyone Else's

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Yeah, I'm back--back in Pennsylvania, back in the blogosphere. I've been away for a long time but I had stuff to do--some of it important, some of it pleasant, some of it not.

I've found it hard to start blogging again, not because I haven't missed it--I have, and some of you have been nice enough to tell me you've missed me too--but you know how it goes when you get out of the habit: you lose the rhythm and it seems marvelous and incomprehensible that people can come up with something to say almost every day, and that moreover, I was one of them! But I'm going to try to pick it up again.

As a way of easing myself back in, here's something I first drafted months ago in a conversation with a friend about public/private space.

I guess my relation to place is probably different from many people's, because I grew up someplace rural, and aside from those eight years in Iowa, I have spent most of my time in the west, where space is just dealt with differently, in part because it looks and feels different: the dry air means the sky is wider and feels further away, even when buildings press close.

I need wide open vistas, I need them, in ways other people need a lot of social interaction. I can feel a touch claustrophobic in places that might make others feel they're lost in some endless barren terrain. I'm not saying I can't function in some urban setting, but my skin starts to crawl and my head feels crowded if I don't get a dose of a horizon bereft of buildings from time to time (John Ruskin wrote, "It does not need much to humiliate a mountain; a hut will sometimes do it" though I think the very expensive homes in Sedona do a decent job of humiliating that landscape too) and I prefer to commune with said horizon on my own. Nothing ruins a nice view like someone else's head. I am not so rugged and woodsy that I have to go hiking in someplace remote and inaccessible--I like well established trails just fine--but the idea of barbequing in a crowded picnic area or swimming on a crowded beach holds little appeal for me.

As for city scapes and building areas in them, well, a mall is a different kind of public space than a street with shops. Universities are a kind of public space, and parks are another kind. Hmm--do specific shops count as public spaces? Of course they do.... but they're regulated and patrolled in ways streets and malls and campuses aren't.

I really hate crowds. I prefer public spaces when most of the public has decided to be elsewhere. When I lived in the dorm (a semi-private space, I guess), I LOVED the fact that we got really cheap tickets to football games because absolutely everyone on my wing would go to the games, leaving me blissfully alone with the laundry facilities and the really long, deep, perfectly sloped bathtub nobody but me and my sister would use anyway, because everyone else took showers. I remember spending a lot of time in London in small parks along the river that were too far away from anything significant for most people to mess with them. But that was precisely why I liked them. And I sought such places out because they were special places, in and of themselves. I would go there to be THERE, and away from other people.

As for my private space, I focus on routine and comfort and security, and I don't think about it once it's how I like it, though I know that when I clean my house thoroughly, I always feel happier and like my house better. Actually sometimes I don't always think about it when it's not quite how I like it. I noticed again while I was staying in various houses that weren't mine, and then returned to my own, that people are able to get used to things in their own homes that bother them a lot when they encounter something similar in other people's homes: paint peeling in a corner of the kitchen ceiling due to water damage from the bathroom above it; a broken front door knob that can only be opened with just the right touch, so that whenever someone who isn't used to the door knob wants to go outside, they have to ask to be let out. (I found it dreadfully inconvenient but supposedly it's really good for keeping adventurous three-year-olds out of the street.)

I think I have the sense that I am interacting with space most immediately and unmediated-ly when I'm in a certain kind of public space, because I've gone there because I want to be IN that space. I want to be in the park; I want to sit on a bench and watch the river or the sky or something. Whereas when I'm home I'm mostly thinking of it as an extension of me, instead of a space I inhabit.

7 Comments

Hey! I'm so glad you're back! I know what you mean about space - I don't think I like the totally empty like you do, but I hatehatehate (I can't even write that word enough times to express how MUCH) crowds, and I try to go places at odd times so they'll be empty-ish. Beaches? Only at night, or EARLY in the morning. Your dorm story made me smile, because I always felt exactly the same way (only I never lived in a dorm, so it was more for my apartment building, which isn't really the same thing but whatever).

I'm totally hijacking your post with my lame comments (YES! I AGREE! I AM SO THE SAME WAY!). How irritating. But I'm still glad you're back.

I agree about the space thing sometimes. I live in a house that is set lower than the street, and is built in such a way that in order to see the sky, I have to actually go outside. I'm surrounded by other homes higher than mine, and big trees, and I've discovered I have a real need to be able to see the horizon. I need it. Sigh.

Crowds can be that way for me, shopping in Christmas crowds sucks the double, hairy, big one. But I don't mind it when I'm on a crowded train or bus...there is some kind of anonymity to that that appeals to me. I don't know why.

Glad you're back.

Great to see you back!!!

My situation is probably a bit different, but when I was growing up -- and through my mid-twenties -- my dream was to live in an isolated cabin in the woods by a lake, where I could enjoy perfect peace and solitude in a natural setting.

I'm not sure if this comes through in my Internet persona, but in real life I'm extremely introverted and anti-social. That's why I spend so much time on the Internet... ;-). So I always loved to be away from the eyes and ears of the crowds, enveloped by privacy.

But since I've gotten a taste of life in the city, I don't ever want to leave!!! Maybe a quiet vacation now and then, but I've discovered that I love being surrounded by people, and I'm a voracious people-watcher. And if they're watching me too -- and most likely thinking I'm a little off ;-) -- it doesn't matter. There are so many different types of people you cross every day in the city that you hardly think to judge an eccentric.

Strangely, it amounts to a different type of privacy...

It’s great to be able to read my favorite blogger again – welcome back!

As usual, you make me think again about things I thought I understood. For example, I kind of agree with you about crowds. I despise shopping malls, especially during the holidays, because they are so packed with people and because they are such manipulative environments. But even as I write these words, I can’t bring myself to say that I hate crowds. I hate the crowds in the malls, but then some of the most profound experiences of my life were in protest marches and demonstrations. I once was in a demonstration against the military government when I lived in Santiago, Chile in 1986, in the Parque O’Higgins, where around 750,000 people came together to repudiate Pinochet. It was a festival: everyone had a common purpose but unlike holiday shopping, there was a lot of space for self-expression and like-minded people around you appreciated your self-expression, joined in with you, or invited you to join them. And what a crowd it was: that was about one in six residents of Santiago at that demo. That really was what democracy looks like, even in the middle of a military dictatorship. Even in the anti-war demos in Toronto in 2003, I couldn’t bring myself to feel cynical enough not to get swept up in the tide of emotion – though my favorite chant was: “what do we want?” “New chants!” “When do we want them?” “Now!”

The point about different kinds of crowds points to the issue you raise about public and private space. I think people have a need – a real need – to have these be distinct but it’s not always clear to me how we ought to draw the distinctions. The usual way in politics is to distinguish between the agora – the open space at the centre of the city from which it is ruled – and the household. But this wouldn’t really work for you: your engagement with the Western landscape strikes me as intensely personal, on the one hand, and yet the pressures to make that space “private” have to do with making them exploitable for private gain, though development, mining, etc. You raise the question of whether the shops or the malls are private or public spaces; they are kind of both, which is why people get thrown out of malls for wearing anti-war tee shirts. The interior of our homes are almost quintessentially the private realm, until I think about how intensely we monitor and regulate family life. “Public” seems to me to be where a collective can form – Barbara Ehrenreich has a new book out entitled Dancing in the Streets – and that carries with it both the possibility for nasty kinds of oppression and control (Nuremberg rallies and shopping malls) but it also has the possibility for the defence against that nastiness, the festival. But evidently not all of our needs or desires can be expressed or met in public; we need private space too, even if it also carries the threat of oppression or alienation.

England is a crowded island, but I’m fortunate enough not to live in the crowded South but near the least densely populated part of the North, in Cumbria and Northumberland. Unbroken – and breathtaking – landscapes are a decent bicycle ride away, and Scotland is an easy drive. There are huts, sometimes, but they don’t look like an insult to the land to me. Often they are old enough that the built environment (for example, Hadrian’s Wall) comes to feel like it is the landscape, like the Anasazi ruins do.

I’m still trying to think about your last sentence. It’s kind of become an axiom for me that we produce space, in part by inhabiting it. Space isn’t just a container for us or the world of objects; it is an extension of us, of what we do and how we do it – or perhaps the necessary initial condition for what we are and do. Maybe the key part of the last paragraph is how you experience space, rather than what space is. Maybe that’s also key to the way we distinguish public and private space.


I'm glad you're back, too Holly. I find your observations on outdoor space very interesting, also... Having seen the views you grew up with and been on the mountain you visited often as a child I can begin to understand how you do NEED to see a big sky, you do need to see the milky way at night, you do need solitude.

One of the most amazing things I observe whenever I fly out of Brussels, where I live, is that the country I live in is one of the most densly populated in the world; every single square centimetre of land has been touched by human development - it's a fascinating and oddly frightening thing to see - especially when you can compare it to the vast open spaces of the western US, which I can.

And these kinds of things do have a huge effect on culture, on individuals, what we value and eventually our own personal moral beliefs - the solution to problems in Belgium is always a compromise, always a solution that allows you to get on with your neighbour, that allows you both to prosper. In the western US there are other choices and the emphasis is more on personal freedom, on being independent enough to do what you want to. I think these attitudes are connected to the land and to the cultures that the land has produced.

Having moved around a lot as a child there isn't one particular landscape that I call homely, not one that feels familiar enough for me to be able to know I like it. Having said that, I lived close to the sea, and for long enough, to know that I do like the seaside and I do have to see it and experience it regularly, and it is a huge source of comfort and wellbeing and can be amazingly restorative... I guess just like the big sky and mountains you miss living in the city.

Hey everyone--thanks for commenting! I agree that crowds offer a certain kind of anonymity/privacy, because people maintain certain boundaries--hence the discomfort and awkwardness when someone weird (or even not so weird) starts talking to you on a train and won't leave you alone with your book or whatever. My dislike of crowds has nothing to do with privacy and everything to do with convenience (like not having to wait in line for a toilet) and sheer physical comfort (like not getting jostled of having my foot inadvertently stepped on) and other people's bad manners--hell, I even hate crowded movie theaters, because the increased number of people increases the likelihood that someone didn't bother to turn off his/her cell phone.

Matt--you are quite right, I think, about the fact that one's interaction with landscape affects the way one interacts with the people in it. People talk about the character of the west--I think in many ways I am not only someone who loves the landscape of the west but a westerner at heart, in all the ways you mention.

Spike--I like your accounts of various rallies and the distinction about what those crowds are like as opposed to crowds in shopping malls. I also participated in anti-war rallies in 2003; I can't say I enjoyed it but it wasn't oppressive, either.

As for this issue--your engagement with the Western landscape strikes me as intensely personal, on the one hand, and yet the pressures to make that space “private” have to do with making them exploitable for private gain, though development, mining, etc.

I'm fully aware that I'm talking about enjoying public space in solitude. I really doubt I'm ever going to own a private beach so any beach I enjoy alone is going to be some public beach everyone else has decided to stay away from. That's why I said "I prefer public spaces when most of the public has decided to be elsewhere." I like keeping odd hours partly because I like staying home when everyone else is out and going out when most other people are stuck at work or whatever.

I'm glad you're home again, I missed you. Now I'll give you your space.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on January 16, 2007 6:05 PM.

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