I spent ten days this summer in Basque country in Spain. The people were great, the food marvelous, the landscape gorgeous, and the towns and cities I visited—Santander, San Sebastián and Santillana del Mar—paragons of urbanity. There was a little detour to see a remarkable early house by Antoni Gaudí, one of those geniuses whose example throws me into indecision about whether to get back to work or simply give up. These places were wonderful not simply for their architecture and urban ensemble but for their thick habits of civility, the promenading and snacking and the fabulous scene at the beach, chock-a-block with all generations and with a body culture seemingly so unfetishized that it made me feel svelte.
It was my first visit to all of these towns. I’m still making up for lost time, as in my undergraduate hitchhiking days Franco’s Spain and junta-ruled Greece were on my index of forbidden places. I don’t regret my youthful scrupulosity, but my standards have, over time, become more elastic: I’ve visited Putin’s Russia, Deng’s China, Mubarak’s Egypt and Ceausescu’s Romania. That the proprietorship of civilization’s achievements so often falls to the tender mercies of fascists and other despots doesn’t diminish them, even though many are the attainments of cruelty. A visit to the pyramids is not a vote for the pharaonic style of governance.
And yet the view from the bedroom window at home, where I am writing today, makes me wonder. I had been intending to riff on a building that I’ve been watching rise for the past year. I hate the thing because, within the next few weeks, it will have grown so tall that it will almost completely occupy the view. Where once I gazed on a patch of infinite sky, I will now be obliged to look at architecture. This building—an interesting piece of design by the architects Herzog and de Meuron—will join a phalanx of overscaled structures like the windowless phone company behemoth by John Carl Warnecke that collectively form the Great Wall of Tribeca, an ornamented extrusion that not only boosts property values (a penthouse in the new apartment house has already sold for $47 million) but also subverts the idea of civility, the sense of collective responsibility in the shared environment. The new skyscraper usurps an uncodified but widely acknowledged right (for want of a better word) to the view.
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Visitors to Singapore are greeted by draconian warnings of death should they be caught with the wrong forms of drug. But many are probably more intrigued by one of the truly eccentric strictures in Le Kuan Yew’s fantasies of social harmony: the prohibition of chewing gum, first imagined in 1983 and imposed by a successor in 1992. This has been slightly relaxed in recent years—after legal pushback from Wrigley’s and the signing of a free-trade agreement with the United States—and you can now buy a few sticks in a pharmacy for “therapeutic” use. But bringing more than two packs into the country is still considered smuggling and could earn you a year in the slammer or a caning. The reasons for the ban have nothing to do with mastication per se but with vandalism on the rapid transit system and the costs of cleaning up housing projects—over 80 percent of the housing in Singapore is publicly built (Mayor de Blasio, take note!)—and sidewalks.
While I am a not infrequent consumer of Dentyne, I must admit to great sympathy with the effects of the Singapore stricture: the place is clean as a whistle. I find New York’s gum-dotted sidewalks and subway platforms completely disgusting, each trodden piece a signifier of failed comity, absent civility, an affront to the respect we should accord to spaces we share. It’s bad citizenship. On a continuum with dog shit on one end and graffiti on the other, discarded gum surely occupies a place close to the former: I can see no possible interpretation that offers it the status either of art or insubordination. Can we not subsume this affront under the “broken windows” theory? Must this be an eternal part of our public décor?