In his book Celebration, Thomas Merton asked: what is a city? “A city is something you do with space.” The city is not neutral; it does things. The city might oppress or uplift. “The quality of a city depends on whether these spaces are ‘inhabited’ or just ‘occupied.’ The character of the city is set by the way the rooms are lived in. The way the buildings are lived in. And what goes on in the streets.”
I speak to Brazilians who have lived here all of their lives. They say the streets near us used to be neighborhoods where kids played on the streets and there were no walls surrounding individual houses. Now, these same homes are fortresses with high walls topped by barbed wire.
For Merton, it’s not about what the city is, but what we do with it and how we live in it. The difference is between occupation and inhabitation. The street ceases being an oppressive, alienated space when its occupants realize their cooperative participation in the city. In practical terms, this realization is one of ownership and stewardship. That is, it is a realization that the streets are ours to use and to care for.
Here in Brazil, the rich care for their personal property, building lovely homes and gardens, tending to their own needs, and ignoring the needs of the city. Ask any Brazilian and they’ll tell you the same. There seems to be no real sense of community, of doing for the greater good. Behind the high walls are glorious havens, gardens of order and color.
Outside the walls are disorder, chaos.
Merton writes: “A street where there are thousands of people in this condition [passive, oppressed occupants, not inhabitants] is an alienated street. It is a street in a foreign country: yet all the people on it may be natives . . . Such a street is always somebody else’s street. But whose? Somebody says the street belongs to the city. It is everybody’s public street. All right. Is it? You can move around in it under certain conditions. But the conditions are such that you do not feel it is your street, because you are not safe, you are not wanted, you are not noticed, you are not liked, and in the end you may just not be allowed.“
Instead of submitting to the street, people must change it. Instead of being formally and impersonally put in their place by the street, we must transform the street and make it over so that it is livable.
The street can be inhabited if the people on it begin to make their life credible by changing their environment.
Living is more than submission: it is creation. To live is to create one’s own world as a scene of personal happiness.
Cities lend themselves to celebration by their structures. Celebration happens in community. Again, writes Merton:
“But celebration is not for the alone. It is the creation of a common identity, a common consciousness. Celebration is everybody making joy.”
When we laugh, when we celebrate, when we make our lives beautiful, when we give one another joy by loving, by sharing, then we manifest a power that others cannot touch. We can be the artisans of a joy that others (those who would have power over all) never imagined.
We can build a fire of happiness in this city, and other massive cities around the world, that will put to shame those who would hide behind walls.
I think that’s why Twitter and FB are so popular. I know that many people scoff at the use of social media, and say that Facebook and Twitter are a waste of time. I disagree. They allow us to connect with others on a daily basis, to feel a part of something larger than ourselves. To find community.
It is through these connections that we unite, and ignite … love, joy, and a sense of belonging.