Pleasant surroundings make a huge difference in people’s lives–especially poor people
Let me start right away with a confession.
This morning, when I really should have been working hard on this column, I was out riding my bike. It was lovely summer day here in Minneapolis, and I couldn’t resist the call of blue skies.
Aimlessly (and joyously) pedaling wherever my instincts took me, I discovered a corner of the neighborhood I had never visited before. And I soon realized why. It must be one of the bleakest spots in town: A zone of grim brown apartment buildings located right next to a roaring freeway, surrounded by a barren desert of parking lot.
It is not a slum nor one of the United States’ notorious public housing projects. It appears to be constructed of good materials and is well-maintained. It is just plain ugly. The owners must assume that Americans want nothing more out of life than a roof over their heads and a place to park their cars. But people, even the poor people who wind up here, aspire to enjoy some beauty in their lives. That explains why the owners of this apartment complex are having such a hard time leasing units, judging from the huge “welcome” signs hanging everywhere to entice prospective renters.
It’s the same story all over the country: poor people always live in the ugliest places. Even a lot of the middle-class housing I see going up in the newest suburbs—boxy houses painted in dull shades of beige and gray— lack any outward signs of pleasantness. This helps explain the noticeable obsession about getting rich you see all across American society. It seems the only way to escape a life surrounded by uninspiring drabness.
While the political right might be expected to believe that poor people don’t deserve anything nice, even progressives don’t speak up for a more equitable redistribution of beauty. They generally view aesthetic amenities as frills that cannot be afforded. The old slogan of the American left, “Bread and Roses,” seems to be half-forgotten.
Steinar Bryn, a professor at the Nansen Academy in Lillehammer, Norway, who researched American life for several years, remarks, “When I was in Minneapolis, there was a big debate about what children see on television. But there was no debate about what landscape they see. Where’s the vision of a strong social fabric, the vision of peace and tranquility when you have a noisy, dirty highway running through the middle of your neighborhood?”
Of course it’s not uncommon around the world for wealthier people to live in more desirable places. But in my travels, (and I really do make a point of wandering through working-class neighbourhoods wherever I go; my wife Julie still hasn’t forgiven me for dragging her to the Karl-Marx-Hof housing project on our last evening in Vienna 15 years ago) I don’t see the same stark absence of anything bright or beautiful. Even in shantytowns of Latin America and the Caribbean, someone often takes the time to plant flowers, paint their shack in cheerful colours, or cultivate a small garden in any unoccupied space.
In the U.S., however, unoccupied space is usually abandoned and strewn with litter. The only place I’ve seen urban wastelands on a similar scale to the U.S. was Russia in the days under Communism, which means that America’s indifference to beauty is probably less a function of capitalism or consumerism than the consequence of a huge nation that takes plentiful land for granted. Why worry about sprucing up this place, when we can just build something new somewhere else. Leave it for the poor— they have more important things to worry about than aesthetic amenities.
But Gus Newport, a prominent African-American activist and former mayor of Berkeley, California, notes, “I think planners take it for granted that poor people don’t need… beauty. If you had those things in inner cities, you’d have a lot less crime…. Beauty—no matter how small it is, just a few flowers—is what matters most.”