Posts Tagged ‘inequality’

3776Photograph: OST Collective
A Brussels nonprofit that reactivates abandoned buildings offers “free space to whoever wants to organize regular activities that are open to all.” Here you see young people practicing capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art, in one of the free spaces.

When I had lunch with Kai recently, we talked about his work investing in real estate for a publicly traded Chinese company. Progressive by nature, he tries to ensure that any gentrification of an urban neighborhood honors the needs of the local community. It’s not always easy.

I thought of Kai when I read about a Belgian approach to managing space during the period between abandonment and development.

Laurent Vermeersch writes for the Guardian, “When industrial activity moves out of central urban areas, property developers tend to move in quickly to build high-end housing. But things don’t necessarily have to turn out this way. With financial support from the city authorities, a group of enthusiasts in Brussels turned exactly this kind of site into a socio-cultural activity centre to benefit local youth.

“ ‘Young people need space. Space to play, party and express themselves, but also to experiment, fail and learn. The problem is that access to space is not democratic,’ says Pepijn Kennis, a 27-year-old member of Toestand (meaning ‘state of being’), a Brussels non-profit that specialises in the reactivation of abandoned buildings and places. ‘We give free space to whoever wants to organise regular activities that are open to all.’

“Toestand’s biggest project yet is Allée du Kaai, a complex of several warehouses and open space along the Brussels canal, a rapidly changing part of the city. Just across the street is Molenbeek … which suffers from high levels of poverty and unemployment. Although much of the area surrounding Allée du Kaai is marked by deprivation, with families cramped into tiny housing units without access to good public space and services, there are also pockets of gentrification. … Toestand’s goal has been to bring together different population groups in a city facing growing inequality.

“The Allée du Kaai site has been active for about two years. … Walking around it on a busy day, you can feel a sense of creativity and potential in the air. There’s a bike repair workshop taking place, as well as a cooking class. Elsewhere kids are skating, or learning to print on T-shirts. A local band is rehearsing in a back room. There is even a tiny cinema in a former city bus. Others are playing ping-pong, strolling on the waterfront, or just hanging around against the backdrop of big graffiti walls. …

“Toestand is actually paid by local authorities to manage the site. ‘We have a contract with the Brussels Region Environment agency,’ says Kennis. ‘They are planning to make a park here, but that’s not going to happen anytime soon, so in the meantime they wanted to do something meaningful with the place.’ …

“As is the case in many other cities around the world, pop-up culture has taken root in Brussels – but many examples tend to be very commercial. … The kind of social calling that Toestand brings to the table, however, can probably only exist with support from city authorities. Private owners are usually extremely reluctant to make buildings public, even if they’re abandoned. They fear the temporary occupants won’t vacate the place as soon as more lucrative plans take shape. Allée du Kaai is also exceptional in the sense that the land it occupies will remain wholly public after Toestand’s activities move on, because the buildings will give way to a park. …

“To bring together different people in Allée du Kaai, Toestand decided to work together with associations active in local communities, but at first it wasn’t easy to engage people from the neighbourhood and build a network. The skate park, however – as well as hip-hop and breakdance events – proved helpful in attracting a variety of young people.

“Another people-connector are the rabbits on the site. ‘They were brought here by Ismaël, a local teenager, and his dad,’ says Kennis.

“ ‘They were keeping rabbits on the balcony of their tiny flat and asked to bring them here as soon as they heard about our space. One day the chef de cabinet of the regional minister of environment was visiting and started talking with Ismaël. Turned out they both know a great deal about rabbits, so they talked for quite some time about how to feed them. This is at the heart of our philosophy: creating a space where people can meet and interact. Even people who’d probably never cross paths in the normal world.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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The Concord Museum has an exhibit on dollhouses right now, and I walked over to check it out. I’ve always liked dollhouses and even sought out one for Suzanne  when she was in utero.

At the museum, children were playing happily with the sturdy contemporary dollhouse they were allowed to touch, but I suspect the people most intrigued by the glassed-in displays from the Strong Museum and various private collectors were the adults.

The Concord Museum is a history museum, and so I was less troubled by the accurate recreation of inequality in the miniature scenes than by the lack of relevant commentary in the placards. I couldn’t help thinking, for example, that some of the black schoolchildren who pass through the museum might be troubled by one dollhouse and might appreciate some discussion of the life of the servants in the attic and kitchen. But the placard was silent about wealth, poverty, and the legacy of slavery.

Another aspect of social history that seems fundamental to a discussion of dollhouses involves the many women who created them as a hobby.

Women who had servants in the attic and the kitchen were not folding the laundry. They were not cooking or tidying up. They were not raising their children. They did not have jobs. In short, they had almost nothing useful to do — a recipe for depression.

I often wonder about the psychological constraints that kept such women from giving themselves permission to go out into the world, as Jane Addams or Beatrix Potter did, each in her own way.

If making exquisite little worlds at home gave the dollhouse creators and their friends and families pleasure, that is a great thing in itself. If it represents a determination to create something fine when hardly any meaningful activity was allowed, then that is an even greater thing.

The dollhouse exhibit is up through January 15. Related events may be found here.



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Global Envision is part of an effort at the nonprofit Mercy Corps “to foster a richer conversation about global poverty.”

Last fall, Global Envision’s Erin Butler set off to investigate technologies that help schools in impoverished parts of of the world.

“For some students, hopping on the school bus is hopping into the classroom. Four communities are using solar-powered mobile classrooms to overcome inaccessibility to the power grid.

“Last week,” writes Butler, “we looked at a bus in Chitradurga, India, that brought modern computer technology to students in energy-poor rural schools through solar power. SELCO, a private energy company, engineered the bus with 400 watts of solar modules, 10 laptops, fans, and lights.

“Circumventing the area’s erratic power supply with its solar panels, this bus provides much-needed modern computer education and exposure to the advantages of solar energy. Motoring through rural villages in Chitradurga since January 2012, the bus has reached ’60 schools and 2,081 children,’ the New Indian Express reported in early September. …

“Where there’s more water than land, boats replace buses, and with rising sea levels, low-income Bangladeshi students have difficulty getting to school altogether.

“Pushed to inaccessible riverside settlements that lack basic infrastructure, students often can’t get to school due to monsoon flooding. Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, a nonprofit organization started by Mohammed Rezwan, rides the rising tides with his solar-powered floating schools.

“Trained as an architect and personally experienced with soggy school disruptions in Bangladesh, Rezwan rode a brainwave that led him to floating schools. Combining the best of traditional boat design and modern sustainable practices, the organization’s 54 boats have been operating since 2002 and have served over 90,000 families.”

Read about the other solar-powered schools here.

Photograph: Jayanta Shaw/Reuters/File
Students in Kolkata, India, check out their solar sunglasses as they prepare to watch the transit of Venus across the sun. The sun is being harnessed in India and Africa to power mobile solar classrooms for students.

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Philip Levine, 83, is a poet laureate for our times. He expresses, as the NY Times puts it, the “gritty voice of the workingman.”

“Half an hour to dress, wide rubber hip boots,
gauntlets to the elbow, a plastic helmet
like a knight’s but with a little glass window
that kept steaming over, and a respirator
to save my smoke-stained lungs. I would descend
step by slow step into the dim world
of the pickling tank and there prepare
the new solutions from the great carboys
of acids lowered to me on ropes — all from a recipe
I shared with nobody and learned from Frank O’Mera
before he went off to the bars on Vernor Highway
to drink himself to death. A gallon of hydrochloric …”

Read the Times article.

Levine’s appointment as poet laureate feels timely to me for several reasons.

While income inequality in the country has become increasingly pronounced over the last few decades, public attitudes toward the labor unions that worked to level the playing field have become markedly negative. Are unions really no longer needed? Certainly, there have been abuses of their power: for example, the way some teachers unions have protected bad teachers. And weak government officials in Central Falls (RI), having routinely succumbed to the demands of public safety workers, now find there is no money to pay the promised benefits. This summer Central Falls filed for bankruptcy.

But intensely hostile antilabor actions in Wisconsin, Ohio, and even Maine are like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

A balance between workers and other stakeholders seems to make more sense. Workers are still sometimes abused, after all. That’s why I was happy to see unions helping out foreign “cultural exchange” students to protest conditions at a Hersey’s plant in Pennsylvania last week. (I blogged about that here.)

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