Impressions on re-entry

We landed at Logan Airport on October 9, just over two years since we had left the States for Spain. And then on the 14th we got to Newark Airport and New York City, which had been our home for the previous 30 years or more. Nothing seems to have changed. It feels like it always did, but maybe a little better because we're older and freer and because the weather has been so exceptionally good. We plan to be here until December 14, when we return to Madrid and then to our new home in Carboneras, Spain (for pix, see blog below for October 13).

We had lots of reasons to return. We have to get our possessions (mostly books) out of storage and decide which to ship to Spain and which to give away, arrange for the shipping, settle some accounts (financial, not personal grudges), apply for official Spanish residency (you have to do it from your home country), and see old friends. And we just wanted to renew the feel for the place and get a sense of what's happening in this country in this year of turmoil and, for us Obama supporters, exceptional hope. And of course to vote. The reason for going first to Boston was the 45th reunion of my Harvard graduation class. That's Harvard Square in the photo above. In better shape but still recognizable as the place I used to cross a dozen times a day 49 to 45 years ago.

Our Harvard and Radcliffe re-uners all lodged at a beach-side resort inn in North Falmouth on Cape Cod, close to Woods Hole which I'd never before seen. This was a very gentle way to return to the U.S. The trees were all turning beautiful colors, the Atlantic air had an enlivening smell, the New Englanders were all full of smiles and greeted strangers with a bright "Good morning" of "Afternoon" as the case called for. The area felt much as it did when I first arrived at Harvard 49 years ago, only without all the freshman anxiety. I saw many good friends from the past and made a few new ones, and also we got to spend some time with my older son and his family, in nearby Walpole. Then on to the Big Apple, for more serious affairs.

The news from Wall Street (not to mention from Afghanistan, Guantánamo and many other places) has been alarming, but our on-the-ground experience so far has been altogether normal, calm and pleasant. The subway is still ugly, noisy and crowded, but efficient. The people all involved in their personal projects but quick to respond to any new interruption -- much quicker than, say, people normally in Carboneras. We like New York culture, that quickness, that ability to turn one's attention to a new event, quickly appraise a situation and react and, unless it's really exceptional (9/11, for example), immediately drop it and turn one's attention to something else. It's what we expect in big cities, including Madrid or Buenos Aires, but here people are especially quick. Not necessarily smarter than smaller town people, just quicker to react and -- a true virtue -- quicker to drop something that doesn't deserve more attention. In Carboneras (pop. 7000), as in many other small towns I've known in the U.S. and in Latin America, nobody ever drops anything, no matter how trivial, hanging on to grudges and remembered favors for years or even generations. People seem always to be looking back instead of to where they're going. Maybe because they don't think of themselves as going anywhere. Here, it's "What have you done for me lately?" Or more accurately, "What are you going to do for me now -- or what can I do for you?"

So why, you ask, do we choose to live in Carboneras? Because it is so comfortable, comforting even. Not just the climate and the sound of the waves (we're on the edge of the Mediterranean), but also because the slower pace of life has its virtues. People don't respond to you instantly, and they also don't turn away from you to some other matter instantly. Slow to accept, but also caring and concerned once they've made the attachment. And by now, after two years of continuous residence, following earlier extended stays, we have become very strongly attached to many people there. We know their children's names, ages and interests (and are careful to get appropriate birthday and First Communion gifts), their own concerns and desires, and we get together with many of them just for the pleasure of it and not for any business or professional concern, far more frequently than we ever did with friends in New York.

And when we feel an urge for the hecticness of urban life, we can always go to Madrid, just under 600 km. away, where we have a tiny apartment right in the center. It's not New York, but it too has busy people, full cultural agendas (with theaters and concerts much more affordable than in NYC), and a highly varied multi-ethnic population (Africans, East Europeans, Latin Americans et al.) with their varied cuisines and rhythms and dress.

But now we're in New York City and looking to take full advantage of its opportunities in these two months, not just to settle our pending affairs (old business) but also to advance our writing and intellectual projects (facing forward, into the future). Susana has to prepare a lecture she's scheduled to give a week from Monday at Notre Dame University and I have to finish the re-write of the novel I've had underway for a long time. And we both have to make progress on the book we have under contract on the history of the built environment (architecture and urbanism) in Latin America. The bookstores and the New York Public Library will be a big help here. So now that we are settled into the apartment we've rented on the Upper East Side, and have got our Internet connection adequately established, we have to get to work. And of course, see old friends, and shows (last night we saw the Icelandic circus version of Woyzeck at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a wildly inappropriate, amusing and terrifying version of Georg Büchner’s surreal tragedy which deserves a separate blog), and galleries, and generally have a good urban New York time.


Algarrobico & the perils of decentralization

In his latest blog entry, Winnipeg-based urbanist Christopher Leo asks, URBAN GROWTH AND MULTI-LEVEL GOVERNANCE: ARE STRONGER LOCAL GOVERNMENTS ALWAYS THE ANSWER? Here Chris examines examples of successful planning in Ontario that challenge his usual enthusiasm for decentralization.

As I told him, I'm glad to see that he continues to rethink his positions, keeping from getting locked in a box of his own devising. Anyone who has been watching urban misdevelopment in Spain is aware of the perils of extreme decentralization of authority. In our immediate vicinity, our little town (pop. 7000) of Carboneras has been making national headlines over a hotel allegedly (and I believe in fact) constructed on protected parkland and onto the supposedly protected coast. Aspects of approval authority are split among municipality, provincial government (in this case, province of Almería), and the Junta, or regional government, of Andalucía (a region covering seven provinces including Almería), above all of which is the national government and its several, sometimes bickering, ministries.

Here in Carboneras, town hall appears to have fiddled with the map of the park boundaries so as to evade regulations, with the connivance of the provincial government, and granted all the necessary permits for a hotel developer (including participation of George Soros) to build the monster. What was in it for the locals was, first, opening up more of the surrounding parkland to their own development projects (hotels, golf courses in this waterless land, luxury summer homes), and secondly (useful for political purposes) the employment opportunities the new hotel would supposedly bring (the wives of fishermen could become chambermaids), as well as the shorter-term building contracts of local companies. So they tore into the mountain and built the multistoried hotel on Algarrobico beach, practically up to the water line.

Only Greenpeace and a local pro-ecology group raised a cry while this thing was going up. Finally, when the structure was all up and they were just finishing the interiors, planning to open for business this past summer, the central government took notice. In a whole series of court decisions (each one challenged and requiring a new hearing) the whole operation has been declared illegal, the junta (Andalucian regional government) swallowed its embarrassment and demanded the thing be torn down, and found provisions in Spanish law saying they did not have to compensate the builders because their permits (never before challenged by the junta) were all illegal. Carboneras town hall, the mayor in particular, refuses to admit defeat however and they and the developers are still mounting challenges.

For a video of the Greenpeace action (12 August 2007) where they painted the word "Illegal" (ilegal in Spanish) on the façade of the hotel, see this article in El Mundo.

On a personal note, Susana & I are now in New York City, until Dec. 14, so I'll be reporting from here when I get a chance. The interruption of my blogging was due mainly to having to give all our attention to finishing the building project in Carboneras (see previous blog for photos) and getting ready for this trip.


Our castle in Spain

Our 8-unit condominium, designed by Susana Torre with the collaboration of Carboneras architects DA-3 Estudio (Carmen Alcaide, Paco Caparrós and Enrique Bejines), is now (nearly) completed. Click on image to see 17 photos taken last week by Chantal Le Lièvre.