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Leaving the compound

Both update and thoughts on the psychology of housing construction.

Yesterday I left the compound for the first time. What do I mean by that? My current home isn't that big -- house is a decent size but not huge, grounds feel comparatively small, though given that there's like four contour levels the square meterage may be higher than it feels. Still, not that big. But there's an opaque wall all around the property, with the house inside. There's sightlines to high parts of neighboring houses, and to the lower parts of the city -- we're on a hill, see countour lines -- but still, wall. Wall and gate to the street.

So it's rather easy to go Outside -- open a sliding door and step onto the patio and into the sun, or even out onto the grass, to childish cries of "but you're not wearing shoes, Damien!" -- but whichever way I go out, I'm still in private, domestic space. And it's full of light and companionship. Whereas going Out, into public space, means going through the wall as well, and there's not much of immediate interest out there. So it is that on my last visit -- albeit over holidays, with friends I hadn't seen in 3 years -- I got out on my own once in ten days, and I think late into the time at that. This trip, I made it Out on only the third day! And I can't even credit schoolday, because the kids were back by then, and I'd happily slept through the morning.

But still, it takes effort, and even S notes that for herself, which got me thinking about contrasts...

The walled area design is nearly universal here, though sometimes it's just a fence instead of full wall. I saw a bit into a gated community, and there you have individual walls inside the community walls. I think this is common in old Mediterranean architecture, for whatever reason, though I've heard more than once of Arab or maybe Egyptian design of presenting a blank exterior so as to not attract tax collectors. I also recall that S grew up in LA on an even larger area, fenced and maybe half-walled off, so she's used to one's land being an airlock or moat between the house and the world.

By contrast, I grew up with a high fence around most of the back yard, but if you went out the front door there was a 10 foot walk and some shrubs to the sidewalk. Many other houses were similar, though with grass instead of shrubs, though some did have front fences -- often more decorative or dog-repelling than functional, though, since if you needed to knock you'd just open the gate and go to the door, rather than pressing a buzzer out by the sidewalk. Anyway, go outside one way, and you're still private, but go out the front door and you're Out, and conversely the public can come right up to the front door. In san Francisco, there wasn't even then 10 feet; go out the front and you were on the sidewalk, though you might have a long backyard hidden away. (Really hidden, given that homes were wall to wall leaving no space for peeking through.)

Southern style in Atlanta seemed similar, with the addition of an open porch, inviting a mixing of a relaxing homedweller with public traffic. Bloomington has that too sometimes. Bloomington also has a fair number of homes where even the backyard isn't fenced off, it's just open rolling lawn, and I've now identified why that felt so odd to me. I'm used to half-walled property, so fully walled feels antisocial, but no-walled feels overly open and exposed, and very trusting.

Then there's apartments, where you often have to get your shoes and keys just to go Outside for some sun and fresh air. So there's more incentive to cave up, but if you do get Outside you're automatically Out as well; you're either a total recluse or unavoidably public.

I should note that the "antisocial" bit above is a bit of illusion on my part, or rather the idea that we were any better kind of is. We didn't have a front wall, but we had an enclosed porch used for storage; mostly, we weren't public any more than we had to be. The two exceptions are my playing on the sidewalk as a child, and the fact that someone wanting to get our attention could come up to the door. Then again, that last bit feels like a big deal; places where the door is accessible feel less intimidating to me than ones with a wall, or even an unlocked gate. Especially if the resident has to come out all the way to see you, vs. shuffling down to the front door. Of course, that's what intercoms and these days probably camera screens are for, but still, it feels like Money and Reclusiveness to me.

Tangentially, I recall the apartments I was in in Paris and Madrid, with basically multiple airlocks of gates, with the Madrid ones likely to kill you in a fire because you literally couldn't get out without a key. My Oakland residence was simpler, just an outside fence with gate and intercom.

Nothing much to say from my walk itself. I found a few places, managed a bit of sub-pidgin communication, and found a chocolateria selling bon-bons, though these weren't the ganache-filled truffles I was expecting. Makes sense I suppose, given $4 for 15 or 18 pieces.


Damien Sullivan

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July 2018


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