The third in a series of essays on the other reasons why density and cities are important.
Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, Huis Clos, is probably best remembered for the phrase, “l’enfer c’est les autres,” often translated as, “hell is other people.” In the play three people arrive in hell and are locked in a room for all eternity. Upon arriving the first “guest” is surprised not to find any devils with pitchforks or any devices for gruesome torture. The torture, instead, will be coming from his roommates who have yet to arrive. Once they do, the real pain begins.
There is no doubt that to be locked in a room with other people forever would be hellish, even if they were people we liked. The other is hell because other people can create all kinds of discomfort. The other is hell because he can be, for example, someone that reflects the failures of our own economy, society, and social order. Homeless people, visible and on the street, are a finger pointing at our way of doing things and a voice saying, “it’s not working.” The other is a thorn in our collective side. The other is hell because she can mirror what we like least about ourselves, our fears of what we were or what we might become.
But let’s turn to another phrase in which the other is featured, the Golden Rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” elegantly sums up a simple moral imperative. Other people are annoying, yet we need them. Other people are the way we learn to understand and challenge ourselves. Other people can threaten, cajole, and confuse us. What does it mean to treat others the way we’d want to be treated? And if we did, what kind of world would it be?
If we want to solve the pressing issues of social and economic disparity the best place to do that is in the city. Only in the city can we find the rich and poor, the sick and healthy, black and white, all living so close together. How can we really decrease the impacts of poverty, for example, if the only poor people we see are on television or in a newspaper story? How can all schools get better when those with means are only willing to send their children to “the good schools” in sprawling suburbs or high end neighborhoods?
It’s easy to vote for Obama and contribute to the World Wildlife Fund, but what happens when a halfway house for newly released offenders is going to be located in your neighborhood? Rather than fight it, shouldn’t you welcome it and in the end won’t having such facilities located close to you improve your knowledge of the issues faced by people newly released from jail? Wouldn’t those issues fair better if neighbors, like you, rallied for more funding and support for those people rather than battling against the facility because it would hurt your property values, or because you are scared?
Jesus of Nazareth wandered the countryside performing magic tricks and telling rustic parables about sheep and mustard seed, and it can be easy to think that his vision of heaven or the Kingdom of God as he often described it, as somewhat remote or inaccessible—or maybe even rural. At one point someone asked him to sum it all up. His whole point, he said, was to encourage people to love God, and love their neighbors as themselves. That’s it. Jesus left very few directives to his followers, which perhaps accounts for the 2000 years of heated argument about what Jesus really means.
Perhaps, though, Jesus was a density advocate. If we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, it’s awfully hard to do if we have no neighbors. Living in a city means having lots of neighbors and encountering otherness every day. How we deal with otherness, our neighbors, shapes how we deal with issues of public spending, priorities for policy, and how we organize our society. Our tendency can often be to push each other and unpleasant things away. Cities make that harder to do, turning the problems of other people into our problems.
Other people are hell when they make noise, smell bad, talk to themselves, take your parking spot, or wait in ridiculously long lines for the latest food fad. However, we humans can make the best of our short lives when we try to learn from and love one another; and what better way to do that than have lots of people close together? Maybe when Jesus talked about heaven or the Kingdom of God, he was thinking about a big, dense, crowded city.