It’s an apartment living problem—or perhaps more specifically an urban problem. To live in a building such as mine—built around 1915, three stories, 14 units—in a neighborhood filled with such buildings, is to live in a dense “community.” If my apartment structure is on a lot ¼ of an acre in size, then that means the equivalent zoning representing this density is R56—a very high density indeed, very urban.
Numbers, however, explain relatively little. Density—so vaunted by urban planners as a solution to so many problems—does not in fact produce “community” at all. Of the inhabitants of the other 13 units in my building, I know none of them. Oh, sure, sometimes I catch sight of someone in a window in the hallway’s interior light well—a woman one floor down who works on a laptop at a kitchen table, covered in yellow check oilcloth, another woman straight across from my unit who is cooking something. Sometimes, when I am coming home at night, I can see from Telegraph Avenue below some snippets of my neighbor’s lives—a television screen blasting blue a ceiling; a spice rack through a kitchen window; a set of festive holiday lights set up far in advance of any commonly observed day. For the most part, though, we are strangers to each other.
Now multiply that by the two-story building next door, or the sprawling Art Deco apartment behind me, or the odd, ham-fisted Spanish Colonial multi-units down Alcatraz Avenue, and the story becomes exponentially grown. Recently, in a class I am taking, the subject of where we live came up, and it turned out that one of my fellow students lived on Alcatraz, too, just a few buildings away—and yet I cannot ever recall having seen them, and I still have not encountered them on the street.
This is, of course, one of the benefits of urban living. For almost as long as there have been cities, there have been people who sought them out not because they offered more opportunities for interaction, but because they wished to escape the surveillance that comes from small town and rural life. Not knowing my neighbors means my neighbors not knowing me, means not having to explain or be consciously evaluated, means that home becomes a haven from the very sort of things that traditional homes, being bastions of family, are laden with—the expectations, the potential for disappointments, the possibility of guilt. While such pitfalls have been rare in my family—I am more fortunate than most in this, I suspect—the specter of such minor disasters is stubbornly present in my mind. Perhaps it is something deeply evolutionary, a kind of holdover fight-or-flight mentality once useful to organizing society? Certainly logic cannot defeat it, yet space seems to at least push this mental monster from immediacy.
In a strange way, then, we urban apartment dwellers do become a community, but a community that is defined more by a shared experience than by interaction. Put another way, we commune alone together. When the evening is near, and I look out my side window across the built landscape and out to the Golden Gate, I sometimes catch a solitary window lit at the back of some other house, some other apartment building, and I wonder who is there, and what they are thinking, and what they are like. I recall a story from E.B. White’s Here is New York, in which he recounts how many different people and different events had occurred within just a few blocks of radius from where he was sitting on Manhattan; perhaps such stories would not be as glamorous in a similar radius around this, the border of Oakland and Berkeley, but still I often wonder what they would be.
Golden Gate in Red. Watercolor and gouache on paper, 12 x 16 in, 2016