The cat showed up the summer before last. A petite calico with a lopped-off tail and round, startled eyes—one look at the hard green of them was evidence enough that she’d never been touched. Her fear of us was so intense it was frightening. But I liked her, I thought her spots were pretty, and so I let her lick our empty tuna cans. Over time she gave up slinking away and began to linger on the patio near my chair, lounging on her side or having a bath in the sun. Even if she was still too feral to touch, I liked that in some vague way she felt like mine.
When the snow melted, the perennials I’d been carefully tending were reborn. No small miracle, since it had taken me three growing seasons to prevail over the rats, the squirrels, the contaminated soil, and the building shadows that turned most of the yard into a damp, slug-infested bog. I don’t know where the calico had gone to keep warm in the winter, but come spring she reappeared in her newly lush habitat with three friends in tow: a fat orange tom, a scrawny gray tabby, and another, rounder calico. Soon, my husband C and I were eating Saturday breakfasts with four pairs of eyes trained on us, eyes which no longer communicated fear. My friend Grace says they’re aesthetes; they could choose any of the backyards on our block—the square of concrete littered with discarded toys and rotting furniture or the dirt plot grown over with weeds. They prefer their manicured oasis, the scent of the flowers. It is not long, however, before the flowers’ best efforts are overpowered by the smell of shit, and every day I brush aside the leaves of roses, hydrangeas, and hellebores to discover neatly coiled turds.
Sharing is no longer an option. The cats have become just another of New York’s charmless pests, and I wish to banish them from my own backyard and into someone else’s—someone who doesn’t care in the way that I do. I employ a series of measures to protect what is mine, beginning with large containers of cayenne pepper sprinkled around the flower beds and a contraption that responds with unpleasant lights and sounds when it detects motion at cat level. None of this works.
As the great urban thinker Jane Jacobs so famously argued, a city cannot be a work of art. It’s a collaborative effort, to be reinvented with each new day. But Jacobs’s failure to address aesthetic considerations has always seemed like a gross oversight. She doesn’t answer the question of what is to be done about the impatient drivers who, every morning, lean on their horns while the school bus loads the wheelchair-bound students from the group home across the street. She doesn’t seem at all bothered by the litter clogging the drains; in fact, she gleefully reports that sweeping up after teenagers, who are forever dropping candy wrappers, has become a part of her daily routine. She does not refer to any sort of tragedy of the commons.
To create something beautiful, it’s as much about what you edit out as what you keep. A certain degree of control is required. Of course this maxim is intended for art, which depends upon a series of bold and sometimes ruthless choices, and not intended for natural ecosystems, which are beautiful precisely for the lack of any kind of authority over them. The trouble with urban gardens—and more relevantly, with cities as a whole—is that they seem to fall somewhere in between. Cities depend upon visionaries (and the investments they inspire) to designate parks, to provide affordable housing, to manage traffic patterns, to commission and protect museums and libraries and schools, but as Jane Jacobs noted, all this effort will come to nothing if the plans do not respect the freedom of the neighborhood’s organic movements, its “intricate sidewalk ballet.” In other words, the city must be designed to accommodate existing behavioral patterns, rather than expecting urban design to dictate movement.
There are things in New York I’d prefer to edit: the garbage strewn everywhere and the rats who feast on it, the dog shit plopped in front of the gate, the car alarms. I can’t help but feel that we all deserve better. I have taken to carrying wildflower seeds in my pocket, which I sprinkle in abandoned lots. Together with the block association, C, its secretary, petitions the city for trees and speed bumps. His involvement was something about which we debated when we first moved to the neighborhood: would it be a signal that we are engaged and willing to put in an effort toward helping the community meet its goals? Or would we—white people in an area where a historic Black community abuts a historic Hasidic community—be considered interlopers whose agendas were (understandably) suspect? In the end he was received with enthusiasm. But clearly even the block association’s vision for the neighborhood is not aligned with that of many others who live in it, and by what right do they—much less we—enforce that vision? Is the desire to create public beauty always and necessarily an authoritarian impulse?
Ever since C and I moved into our apartment five years ago, I have felt increasingly troubled by a conflict I began to perceive between my political values and my passion for gardening. Inside the gates of our front patio I spent my Sundays pruning and weeding, but I was uncomfortable that I had found myself devotedly “tending my own garden” while professing politics focused on improving conditions for the collective.
It was to this central conflict that my mind often drifted this summer, while I was walking postcard-pretty rock beaches, searching for undiscovered wild blueberry patches. My in-laws have a home in southern Maine, to which C and I periodically fled the city. The area has its own vernacular, but there are the same boring lawns, the same disregard for material, and the same obsession with scale over all else that I rejected in my own hometown when I was still very young. Underwriting this sameness, I know, is the familiar yet unspoken aesthetic clause in the social contract. Grass is kept in good health and neatly mowed, houses are painted within an accepted range of colors—I don’t have to tell you, because pop culture has instructed us all in the eerie uniformity of suburbia. Here, “tending one’s garden” is not selfish but rather a duty performed for the benefit of the collective, a little effort that each citizen pitches in to keep the neighborhood beautiful. It’s worth wondering at for a moment, though, after a decade of city life: how could cultural cohesion be powerful enough to so rigidly define what counts as acceptable behavior? And to find this sort of consensus in a nation known for its diversity and its prideful individualism?
Most of these places are governed not by any type of neighborhood board but simply by status anxiety and shame. There is a hard-to-explain obsession with the performance of community solidarity and a deep reverence for superficial considerateness, even as the behind-closed-doors culture of such places is often one of competition, each family looking for ways to ensure that the children outperform their classmates. Around the dinner table, common topics of conversation include the people down the block who park their eyesore of a boat in the driveway and those others across the street who, every December, inflate a veritable phalanx of blow-up Christmas figurines, leaving their house almost entirely obscured. It may seem at odds with the American interpretation of “freedom”—it undeniably is—but this particular form of social control is something I have come to think of as the paradoxical legacy of the white middle class. Upwardly mobile families of other backgrounds were heartily (if perhaps insincerely) welcomed to the neighborhood, so long as they got the picture: we did not leave sofas to molder on front porches, we kept all playground equipment concealed in backyards, we performed a minimum of landscape maintenance, and we pulled our trash cans in promptly each week.
I am certainly not the first to tackle public beauty as a political problem. William Morris, the Victorian designer most famous for his fabric and wallpaper prints, wrote extensively on the matter in the late 1800s, his flushed prose evincing the hopeful enthusiasm of the early days of Marxism. He’d come to Marxism by way of his fury at the abuses of the Industrial Age: labor abuses, yes, but also the dreadful, filthy mise-en-scène of working class London. This ugliness could not be understood outside the context of growing inequality, and neither could the two issues be addressed in isolation. He saw no political conflict, or at least if he did it seemed to him an easy fix. He defended beauty with a touching idealism. For Morris there could be no justice in a society that did not aspire to provide its people with “decency of surroundings” in addition to mere shelter. He saw that quality of life could not be distributed so easily as wealth, and thus beauty—which, under capitalism, would become accessible only to the powerful—was a separate provision to be managed via “general order,” “abundant garden space,” and homes that are not only “stoutly and properly built” but also “ornamented duly.” Well before we understood the threat of environmental degradation to public health, he demanded that it be illegal “to cut down, for mere profit, trees whose loss would spoil a landscape: neither on any pretext should people be allowed to darken the daylight with smoke, to befoul rivers, or to degrade any spot of earth with squalid litter and brutal wasteful disorder.”
I like how Morris frames beauty as though it were almost a human right, something to which common folk should have as much access as lords and ladies. But there are problems with his view. The limits he suggests to nefarious corporate behavior—behavior like darkening the daylight, befouling rivers—are all good and well, but one can intuit that maintaining public beautification projects might require the suppression of certain individual behaviors, too. Nearly any attempt at improving conditions for the collective will inevitably clash with the emphasis on individual rights that defined Jane Jacobs’s more organic or, if you like, laissez-faire approach to aesthetics. And if Morris was bothered by questions about who would decide what constitutes a properly ornamented home and what to do if people disagree with the standard of beauty set by authorities, he didn’t let on.
I romanticized cities for the same obvious reasons that all arty, “alternative” suburban teenagers do: because I wanted to know what it would be like to live alongside people with different experiences and perspectives, people who weren’t so interested in the rewards of conformity, people who had better things to think about than what type of mulch would be the most tasteful choice. Besides, I found suburbia terribly ugly. In truth I have thought of myself for some time as a lifer, rather than one of the many who come from the suburbs for short-lived New York experiments. But after many happy urban years, this summer engendered the first shocking strain on my relationship to the city, and a minor identity crisis to boot.
I’ll set the scene: New York is being ravaged by COVID-19, and I am pregnant with my first child. C and I are “non-essential,” so we gratefully stay at home, he making furniture in the middle of our living room and I hurrying to finish my book against the deadline newly imposed by my body. When the protests against police brutality begin to unfold, we watch with appreciation but fail to get involved beyond sending money; an ultrasound has detected a birth defect, itself treatable, that has raised questions about whether there might be some more serious, even terminal, disease at fault, and we are absorbed in a private drama of exhaustive testing and inadvisable Googling. Anxiety and the nightly din of protest-related sirens and helicopters have already induced a period of mind-bending insomnia when a brutal, endless month of fireworks begins.
These are professional-grade fireworks, massive booms that not even earplugs and two different white noise machines can defeat, beginning every day before sundown and concluding around four in the morning. Twitter pundits argue that fireworks have always constituted a part of Brooklyn culture (true, although June 311 fireworks complaints were up 80 times compared to the same period the year before), and that gentrifiers therefore have no right to be upset. I am skeptical of this casting of “Brooklyn culture” as something about which everyone was in agreement until white people disrupted it, and indeed I am friendly enough with my neighbors to easily dismiss the notion that there is not plenty of frustration among historic residents, too. City life is a study in conflict and in competing ideas about what is and is not desirable; city life is defined by feeling powerless to insulate oneself against individual behaviors one finds disturbing, unpleasant, or antisocial.
The insomnia and the stress of living in what sounds very much like a war zone are perhaps what finally drive my mentally fragile neighbor over the edge. She loves the feral cats and has for some time put out food and little shelters for them, even powering space heaters with an extension cord running from her bedroom window (this undeniable fire hazard providing an uncomfortable daily reminder of the way our fate is bound up with hers). She has, I can only assume, noticed our efforts to keep the cats out of our own yard. The trouble begins with interrogations she shouts from her window—are we doing anything to harm the cats? are we aware that if we catch them and turn them into the city they will be killed?—but soon it becomes clear that she is suffering delusions, believing us to be sadistic freaks who entertain ourselves by torturing her pets. The doorbell rings at all hours; sometimes it is the neighbor come to call us murderers, and sometimes it is the police, whom she has summoned to interfere. She lives alone, and we don’t know where to appeal to ensure she is getting the care she needs. After a particularly troubling incident and a lot of subsequent handwringing, I call the city’s mental health line. The next day a very kind man follows up, reporting that she has declined their services and that there is nothing now for any of us to do. I am as powerless to stop her from harassing me as she is to stop her hallucinations.
Between ultrasounds, C and I drive up to Maine once again, where I sleep in great long draughts, the window open to the sound of the ocean. I walk for hours by myself, hoping to calm my rattled nerves. I reflect, frequently, on the good fortune of having this escape available to me. I also reflect on the good fortunes of having no racial stressors and few financial burdens to compound the psychological pressure of living in (what I can’t stop myself from thinking of as) the hell of other people. But despite my dutiful perspective-taking, there I am one day, admiring everyone’s beach roses, when to my horror I regurgitate, from deep within me, some undigested bit of my early conditioning. Feeling spiritually defeated, I think, wouldn’t it be nice to know what to expect from other people? Wouldn’t it be nice if my primary conflict with my neighbor was her refusal to maintain her hedges?
In reaction to this thought I repeat an exhortation I have often seen on social media, meant to urge white people to reconsider their reliance on authorities to referee personal disagreements. It is this: “Abolish the police in your heart and mind.”
I see shades of Morris’s naïveté and maybe even (it is plausible) his good intentions in what has come to be known as “broken windows policing,” a theory that emerged in the 1980s, which proposed that more serious crimes could be prevented if minor aesthetic and quality-of-life infractions were strictly controlled. The ruling class had the idea that improving “decency of surroundings,” as they understood the term, would have such a salutary psychological effect that it would curb rates of violence. The actual result, of course, was that police were given free rein to harass, arrest, and abuse people of color and generally chose to focus their efforts on infractions such as loitering, public urination, graffiti, noise complaints, open-air drinking, and drug possession, even as murder cases were tragically neglected.
It is astonishing, truly, that anyone could have such an unshakeable faith in the value of order and niceness as to believe that these could serve as a substitute for the social safety net, which was being aggressively dismantled as “broken windows policing” was gaining ground. The 2020 movement to defund police is a far more logical corrective. It argues that the way to prevent violent crime is to provide adequate social services such as mental healthcare, poverty reduction, improved educational opportunities, and community-led crisis intervention. Which, obviously. One would have to be very much estranged from the problems of the working class not to come to that conclusion. It’s also not outlandish to imagine that an improved social safety net might lend itself naturally to renewed interest in aesthetics; remove much of the stress and pressure of precarity—that is, improve the quality of people’s lives—and they may find it in them to care a little more about so-called “quality of life.”
I don’t doubt, however, that there is a certain psychic burden to filth and excessive noise, as well as to the inevitable clashes they provoke between neighbors. I admit to still having a lot of questions about how we collectively decide, despite wildly divergent opinions, on the kind of society we want to build together, and on the ideal role of government in bringing that society about. I believe in defunding the police; I believe in redistributive economics and in dismantling the state’s mechanisms of control over people of color. Any arrangement that prioritizes systemic, proactive solutions over the policing of individual behaviors is an undeniable improvement. And yet, try as I might, I cannot conjure enough faith in humanity to imagine a world in which human behavior is so evolved that there is no longer any need for adjacent systems to mitigate our worst impulses.
The official leftist doctrine underpinning these proposals has it that the wealthy are universally depraved, while the poor are fundamentally good. Our problems are congenital in the first case and merely circumstantial in the other, and the source of the first group’s spiritual rot is supposed to be the solution to the second’s entirely understandable antisocial activities. To me it seems much more likely that the problems in both cases stem from the same sources: a dehumanizing capitalist system (reformable) and the eternal flaws of human nature (absolutely not).
We should not need to believe that people are saints in order to fight for them. Building a better society means designing clever systems that influence us to act in service of the greater good while preempting the possibility of acting against it. As Cathy Gere wrote recently in an article about environmental management, “utopian assumptions about human behavior” are hardly useful to politics. “If history has one clear lesson to offer, it is that building a new society on the assumption that humans are natural communards leads all too often to disaster,” she writes. “The assumption of selfishness is a critical analytical tool.”
An update on my pest problem: I installed many yards of a product called “Cat Scat,” which consists of little plastic spikes that are meant to be uncomfortable when stepped on. It is unsightly and does little to deter our mean city cats, who have surely endured far worse. Now the turds are just skewered on top of the spikes. C takes to spraying the cats with the hose every chance he gets. For my part, I refuse to become the sort of person who spies through the blinds.
But lately the temptation has been great, because the most recent threat to our garden is a plant thief. Twice, under cover of night, the thief has come with garden shears I can only assume they brought from home for the express purpose of cutting several woody flowering bushes to the ground and stealing away with the blossoms. Subsequently, several packages of live plants I ordered, the boxes labeled clearly as such, were ripped open, their contents taken. On the surface it seems that this sort of behavior cannot but be explained by cruelty—how likely is it, after all, that the thief has made any permanent use of these? How likely that they have a patch of dirt with identical sun exposure? How likely that they went to the trouble of propagating the Japanese andromeda branches with rooting hormone before then giving the seedlings out to friends and neighbors? Did this person really value the forty-eight hours of enjoyment they might get out of having the branches in a private apartment over the years of beautification they might have provided to our block?
Grace wonders what is so wrong with the poor stealing from people like us, anyway, and I point out that we don’t know that our thief is poor. I say that I have always thought of the flowers as ours rather than mine, and I am immediately embarrassed. We are walking along in Dead Horse Bay, where a landfill that was covered in the fifties spits up pretty old bottles every time there’s a storm. I listen to the glass shards tinkling against one another as they roll in the tide, and I pick up useless bits of painted porcelain or amber glass, arranging them on my palm like a mosaic. I remember more desperate times in my first apartment, I remember the days when I ripped photographs out of a ten-dollar calendar and pinned them all around. I remember pulling wild wisteria vine off the trees it had wrapped itself around, how the flower clusters hung like grapes from my curtain rod, how my sinuses swelled in response, how I chased out the bees who’d caught a ride on the blossoms. I feel sure I stole my share of flowers from someone else’s yard, just to put them in my hair. I am certain I stole ripe figs, from a woman who turned out to be very kind—she caught me in the act and, as I was fleeing, she urged me back. Don’t go, please. Take as many as you want. In the spirit of that nice lady I consider some kind of peace offering, maybe a sign on the gate that says, “If you would like some flowers from our garden, please ring the bell.” I also consider a security camera.
Dying of curiosity (over the motive more than the culprit) I turn for the first time to the contentious app Nextdoor, a hyperlocal network most often used for crowdsourcing surveillance, to see if anyone can furnish an explanation for these strange crimes. There do appear to be other victims of a plant thief, though they are as confused as I. Once I’ve begun scrolling I find myself absorbed in the ongoing conflict between vigilante-minded gentrifiers bent on getting “justice” for their stolen packages and sardonic anti-capitalists who retort that they live in the city now and should take better care of their stuff if it’s so important to them. I learn that there is a man in my neighborhood who regularly tries to sic his pit bull on other people’s dogs. I encounter a very freaked-out post from someone seeking to understand what message was supposed to have been conveyed by the goose—not a ready-for-dinner goose, but a fresh corpse, with head and feet and feathers still intact—that has been impaled on the rails of her front gate. This is when, curiosity well sated, I delete the app forever.
Shortly after the pandemic hit, the city moved some 300 homeless men to the Upper West Side’s Lucerne Hotel as a strategy for containing the spread of the virus within shelters. Residents of the neighborhood, the vast majority of them liberals, soon began to complain that the men were threatening pedestrians, openly using drugs, and shitting on the streets. Some residents’ fury was unsparing; the New York Times reported that in a Facebook group called Upper West Siders for Safer Streets, one member commented that “animal control” should be called in. More tactful residents claimed to have no problem living near the homeless, saying that it was their behavior rather than the fact of them that was upsetting. There was a brief moment in early September during which de Blasio pledged to have the men evicted before, in classic de Blasio fashion, he then realized the unpopularity of the move amongst activists and retracted his earlier commitment.
It does not take a great deal of political enlightenment to see the callousness of these Upper West Siders’ response. Don’t they get it? We are in a crisis! This is about survival, who cares that you’ve been temporarily inconvenienced? It also does not take a great deal of insight to predict this exact sequence of events. Throughout history, privileged groups’ “right” to beauty and order and niceness has again and again been prioritized over other groups’ right to exist. Near the Upper West Side, for example, there is a very big park—you may have heard of it—a grand refuge to New Yorkers of all stripes, but particularly to those who can afford to live closest to it, and this park was only made possible because Seneca Village and other settlements of free Black people were violently removed.
Beautiful public spaces and clean streets and general courtesy and even a good night’s sleep are all secondary; justice and equality must come first, though sometimes I struggle to remember this. And for as many times as I have argued that those in power benefit tremendously from our insistence on squabbling over personal fault-finding, our insistence on seeing our problems as the results of individual failings, some days I admit to feeling an almost uncontainable rage at the person who spit their gum on the sidewalk for me to step on, rather than at the city that can’t seem to provide enough trash cans for my neighborhood. Or at the careless assholes whose gender reveal party pyrotechnics set this year’s record-breaking fires out West, rather than at the corporations whose abuses created our climate disaster.
But even if cool intellectualism could prevail over my pettier emotional responses, the pandemic has complicated even the most steadfast dedication to the systemic view. Our leaders may have failed to correctly influence Americans’ individual behaviors, but individual behaviors have nonetheless resulted in a staggering and preventable mortality. Personal freedom in this case has been less a matter of “quality of life” and more a matter of life and death, and I have never felt so afraid of our lack of a collective identity and shared societal vision. On at least two occasions, I encountered that phrase again, “abolish the police in your hearts and minds,” being used as a defense against criticism for social media photos depicting obviously COVID-unsafe activities.
Another quintessential urban experience, I have found, is the violent swing between extremes of optimism and pessimism regarding the state of humanity. Chance exposures to selfishness and violence tend to loom larger in the imagination than everyday kindnesses ever could; it’s easy to focus on the callous group of Upper West Siders and forget about the masks on the subway, the mutual aid, and the millions of small sacrifices in the form of canceled plans. On the whole I think it’s harder now than ever for me to maintain picturesque notions about societal improvement, but on the worst days I remind myself that throughout this pandemic, New Yorkers have proven themselves much more willing than the bulk of Americans to look out for each other when the chips are down. No policing required.
As the weather cools, a greater sense of peace returns. Everything seems to be just fine with the baby, the supply of fireworks has been exhausted, and our refusal to answer the doorbell has put a stop to our neighbor’s abuse of it. Through some clever adjustments to our fencing, we seem to have defeated the cats. But the neighbor has also thoroughly defeated us. Too tired of being yelled at, I keep to the inside of the apartment as squirrels dig up the beds, weeds grow wild, blight overtakes the roses, improperly pruned and watered plants grow leggy and sick, and falling leaves begin to blanket everything. The garden returns to a state of nature, resembling something more like an urban jungle, where every organism seems to pursue its own interests over those of every other. Oh well, I think. I tried.