Cities of Tar

They are resealing the block today. The air reeks of tar fumes.

In my backyard, which we have spent so much effort in turning into some kind of oasis, disguising the fact that we are mere metres from the next house over, I can smell it and it breaks the illusion.

It is not an oasis, we’re on an island surrounded by rivers of tar. Tar that melts and sticks, that suffocates the potential for life beneath. Things do not grow on tar. You will not find the odd weed in these rivers, unless a grain of dirt has found a place to lodge itself or, by some miracle, the tar has cracked through its inches to allow some waves of light to hit the dirt beneath.

Still, it’s nice to have flat roads to drive on, but is it nice to drive? It’s nice to have roads to map and navigate, but is it nice to always know what is around the next corner? It’s nice to have sewers to carry all that water away, away – to somewhere where we don’t have to deal with it. Would it also be nice, though, for the water to soak into the ground, fill the acquifers, grow the plants, soak in and turn our clay into a sponge?

There is nothing gained without some loss. What is lost from the ordered streets, the hot black tarred rock, the council that comes like clock work to reseal our streets? Spontaneity, any kind of connection to our landscape, a little bit of dirt, water that stays and soaks and grows, responsibility to our immediate environments.

These streets do a good job of containing us into nice, orderly lines: rows going this way and that way at a certain speed. Places for pedestrians – though sometimes not – and when not then there is no place for them and they must behave as rabbits in the shooter’s spotlight, dodging into dark burrows and hedges.

The council sends us a nicely worded letter telling us that in three days time they will turn up, begin sealing, “please clear the roads of cars”, “there might be delays of 10 minutes”, “please be understanding” and then, overleaf, proceeds to tell us in an informative way (with pictures) the benefits of keeping these roads in spiffy condition. (They fail to mention the potential losses because, of course, there are always losses, we must remember that.)

Of course, we can not send the council a letter saying: “we are going to use our street for purposes other than driving”, “please do not interrupt us”, “or prosecute us”, “there may be delays of several hours” and then proceed to elucidate on the many benefits of the community gathering to talk, share, whirl, paint, gad about together in the village square known as the intersection….with three days notice at that.

No, in this world, our world, the relationship is unequal. The powers that be, whom we pay taxes to, are allowed, nay – expected! – to provide services, resealing perfectly fine streets, giving only a few days notice, calling for an evacuation of the streets…but we, the community who lives and breathes in those streets, are not permitted the same. Are not expected to lift a finger to do the same.

The renegade citizens of Portland have rebuffed such expectations and have lifted many fingers, big and small, to close down streets, bring out the paint tins and fling their brushes around into patterns resembling murals. Yes, street murals, with the idea that the streets do not belong only to cars and stormwater, but also to the people who live there. Their argument: that people need places to meet, lest we turn into cubicular people living cubicular lives in little cubicles called houses in front of the cubes (now very flat) of container entertainment pumped to us from the centralised Entertainment Distributors in a similar way in which our poo is pumped out to the centralised Poo Processors. Because we citizens are assumed to be as incapable of producing our very own entertainment as we are at processing our own poo. In fact all we are supposed to be good at is in making and spending money (I’ll post about that another day).

The experiments at, to begin with, civic disobedience, turned into civic action with the consent of a city ordinance, (good work, city authorities, in recognising a good thing when you see it), proving that  it is possible for our city streets to belong to all, be used by all and be cared for by all with just a little cooperation.