Tag Archives: cities

Where Do You Sleep?

17 Oct

I sleep at home, on my bed. I sleep in my dorm room. I sleep (only on rare occasions, parents, I promise) with my chin propped up by my hand during lecture. What kind of a question is that? It’s something even a toddler could answer.

Except for these toddlers. 42% of homeless children nationwide are under the age of six. 700 children were served by the non-profit New Haven Home Recovery just in New Haven last year. For these toddlers and their mothers, the answer to that question is not simple at all.

I learned these statistics and more at an event called the Sleep Out that the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project (YHHAP), a non-profit that I am on the board of at Yale, hosted last night. For the third year in a row, members of the group joined with other students on campus to raise money and awareness on behalf of the homeless community in New Haven, members of which are in danger of freezing to death on the streets this winter without the help of the shelter system. We put tents up on Old Campus (in the center of Yale’s freshmen dorms) during the day on Saturday; hosted a speaker, a singing group, contra dancing, s’more making, and community sing that evening; and then slept out in those same tents overnight. We raised over $1,300 this year, a record number. But why?

 

A few of the tents as dusk fell

 

Here are the facts. On any given day in New Haven, 700 people are homeless. And even this number is probably a low estimate – as someone who has walked the streets at the end of January to help with the CT Point-in-Time Homeless Count in 2009, I completely agree with my friend Matt, who says of the government-sponsored count, “It is guesswork done by smart, caring people…but it is certainly not a science.” Some of the homeless come from the greater New Haven area to concentrate in the city, which is the only place around with a variety of social services. Some of them are veterans, some mentally ill, some battered. Some have records and, despite having served their time, can’t find employers willing to take them. Others are homeless as a form of escape – many of the people who fit in this group grew up with some form of abuse. (For more stats and info, check out YHHAP’s website here.) But the vast majority of the homeless population – those who are not “chronically” homeless, or homeless for more than a year – are people who have had some success in life, but lately their luck has been a little too little and a little too late. They are neither all male nor all older; in fact, the reality is much the opposite – the NYTimes reported that there has been a rise in the number of families in New York shelters in this article (linked) just a month ago.

The difference between the perception of homeless people and the reality is one that Pat Mellion knows all too well. Mellion is the treasurer of New Haven Home Recovery, a non-profit serving homeless women and their children (check out their website here), and she came to speak to attendees of the Sleep Out last night.

NHHR has always served a large number of people in New Haven. They run a long-term shelter for women and children (meaning that instead of staying for only one night and then having to leave in the morning, which is how overnight shelters work, these families can actually have a home base and stay steady — soooo important for kids who need to be in one place so that they can attend school!) and manage 130 units of supportive housing in the city, with two more buildings slated to be added this year. The average stay at their shelter is 151 days (91 for those who are part of a government-sponsored rapid-rehousing program), with the end result being a housing unit that NHHR has found for that mother and child. They get referrals from 30-40 different agencies in New Haven and, between July and September of 2010, had already served 93 children. Because they focus on rehousing families and finding them supportive housing, they are our nation’s best chance at finding a long-term solution for homelessness. Yet even they are overwhelmed by the recent spike in need.

 

"It's overwhelming," Pat Mellion, Treasurer of the Board of Directors of New Haven Home Recovery (nhhr.org), said of the situation for homeless women and children that the organization doesn't have space for.

 

NHHR has had to turn 535 people away from its shelters just since July of this year. This number is up 25% from prior years, and only refers to those whom the agency has officially had to turn away. As Mellion put it, “If somebody knocks on the door at night, we will not turn them away…even if we put them in a sleeping bag on the office floor.”

So, in response to this crisis, what do we do? What can we do?

In my mind, the two questions are different. What do we do? Well, we try our best to fill in the gaps. The shelters are in immediate need of funding (in order to keep the overflow shelter open this year, New Haven’s government took money out of the budgets of every other shelter in the city instead of adding anything new, so NHHR alone is down $62,000 this year in its shelter operating budget.) The $1,300 from last night is a start, and the two incredible fundraising coordinators for YHHAP have raised several thousands of dollars from local businesses to add to that. Next up is the YHHAP Fast, the project that I, personally, am responsible for with my co-coordinator. We organize Yale students to give up their meal swipes for one day each semester (this term, it will be this coming Thursday, October 21!), and the money that isn’t spent on food is instead donated to local organizations. (Yalies, if you haven’t signed up yet, yale.edu/sis -> Dining -> Hunger and Homelessness -> YES.) Last spring, almost a third of the undergraduate student body donated their swipes and we raised close to $12,000. It’s not enough, but it helps.

 

Joe and I looking super stylish at the Sleep Out. If we look sleep-deprived, it's definitely not because we were actually, y'know, sleep-deprived or anything. Go team.

 

But besides what we feel compelled to do, there is another answer here. What can we do? For some people, the answer is “nothing.” Homelessness is someone’s “own” problem. I can understand that point of view. After all, I don’t believe that housing is an inalienable right in the way that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness happen to be. But I think that there is something to be said for the preservation of all of our human dignity by supporting a society in which even when someone hits “rock bottom,” that bottom still treats them like a human.

For most of us, the first time that we encounter homelessness is during childhood. We look at someone on the sidewalk and are confused, upset, scared, and full of questions. We’ve long-since lost that feeling. Now, we walk by with our hands on our wallets and continue our conversations. And we do nothing wrong by walking by.

But in an ideal world, I think we would still be filled with those childlike questions, because in America today, homelessness still doesn’t make sense. We would see this person as one story out of many (and a story, indeed – how often do you wonder what this man or woman or child originally wanted to be like when he or she grew up? Not a panhandler, with almost complete certainty), and even if we don’t give physical change, we would push for change of some other kind. This doesn’t have to come from the government – I don’t mean for this to be a politicized message. These things we can reach for on our own. A change in respect, whereby we say “hello” while walking by. A change in understanding and assumptions, whereby we recognize that the faces of homelessness are varied – and, often, are women and children, too. And a change in the solutions that we are content to give as a society – not just a short-term fix to get someone off the street, but a longer-term set of checkpoints between “here” and “there.”

 

Insert big metaphor about looking out into the future here. Effective, no?

 

On Citizens and Police

6 Oct

It feels like abuse to me.

It feels like abuse because watching the video and hearing an officer, post-tasing a student, yell “Who’s next?” causes the center of my stomach to clench in a tight and painful ball.

(Warning: college student language here)

It feels like abuse because I listened to the radio interview with two arrested students (both of whom I know), and they told me that not one of the arrested students had his (they were all male) rights read to him – in fact, in several cases, it sounded like the opposite.

It feels like abuse because – let’s be honest – I’m used to conceptualizing police as there to protect me, or, in the occasional moment, to protect me from hurting myself or from hurting others (isn’t that really what enforcing laws is supposed to accomplish?), and these images of SWAT teams and semi-automatic guns charging into a room full of dancing students challenge those conceptions.

And it feels like abuse because even if I trust that the Yale students involved will be okay – that the university will help them to hire lawyers and share the full story of what happened at Elevate – I know that if this happened to us, it is also, most likely, happening to others around the city and state. And they, unlike us, may not have the resources to pursue justice, whatever that justice might entail.

Okay. So. We’ve established that I’m uncomfortable with what happened this weekend between NHPD officers and Yale students. And if the dozens of comments on the YDN, New Haven Independent, and New Haven Register articles are any indication, I’m not alone.

But I’m also not done thinking this through. Yes, my initial reaction is straight-from-the-gut sadness at what I’ve heard. But I’m also in disagreement with many of the sentiments coming from members of the Yale community, things like: “This is why Yale should leave New Haven,” or “How stupid are they to come after underage drinking?” or “Yalies deserved what was coming to them — they all think that they’re better than the law,” or even the most typical teenage rebellion of all, “F&%* the police!”

Because let’s face it — the police did something wrong on Saturday night, even if there is more to the story (which is to say — even if we did things wrong as well). Maybe they went on a power trip, maybe they did indeed feel some class dynamics, or maybe they just felt threatened by a room full of people who were probably both scared and nervously laughing under their breath. But on other nights, members of that same police force – and so many other public servants around the country – are instead responsible for doing so much right. This story of police officers from the same New Haven Police force saving a man’s life is the reality far more often than the Storm Trooper parallels that are being drawn about Saturday night, and it is only by acknowledging the good intentions of the vast majority of officers that we can move forward from this.

But move forward to where? And how?

On our end, we need to recognize that the police have every right to enforce laws in our city, whether they be laws about overcrowding, underage drinking (even if they only found one person this time around, let’s not roll our eyes and pretend it’s not a legitimate target for their authority), or, at the extreme, murdering another person. We need to recognize that when they come dressed for combat, often that is because these cops actually deal with combat — and that the violence outside of city nightclubs won’t go down without their help and without them being willing to put their lives on the line to make our streets safer. We need to recognize that they are patrolling an urban area with enormous disparities in age, wealth, background, and criminal records. And we need to recognize that before we criticize their jobs, we ought to consider whether we would be willing to give them a try instead, even just for a night or two. In my case, the answer, though it makes me a bit embarrassed to admit it, is no. I, at least without an enormous amount of training and selflessness, could not do what they do. All it takes are a few reads of the Indy’s “Cop of the Week” profiles for me to know that.

And before you jump on me for leaving your – our – side of this out, let me take a seat on the other side of the debate table for a moment.

From the perspective of a student and a citizen, even as we recognize your job as policemen and women and commend you for it, we ask that you respect us in return. Even as you wear gear that prepares you for the worst possible scenario, is there a moment in which you could allow us to act our best? We, in almost all instances, want to help you. We value you, we want to cooperate, and – yes – we are terrified of your guns. So help us! Instead of blazing through the doors of a club of students with your guns waving and not explaining the reasons for your presence, take a moment, assess the lack of resistance, and talk to us. Tell us why you are there. Tell us what you expect from us and what we can expect from you in return. Treat the situation like we both belong to the same community (because – and I feel so so strongly about this – we do) and have some goals in common – goals like everyone in the club abiding by the law and leaving safely, goals like citizens doing their job by informing police about potential trouble and acting as stand-in vigilantes as necessary, goals like the city in return valuing the police force enough to agree to a raise in union wages. Perhaps these questions sound, to you, naive. But I ask you to take a moment to remember that, when we first grow up in our communities, we are all naive about what it means to interact with an officer. It does not come naturally. We see and hear conflicting messages from the media, from American history, from our friend’s dad who works in the station. We don’t know what to expect when we really, truly are asked to confront you for the first time. And for many of those Yale students, the raid at Elevate was their first time in direct contact with you. That’s a precious moment, and we can either leave it the way that we did on Saturday, disillusioned, hurt, angry, confused…or we can leave it understanding your job and why you asked us to act certain ways in your presence in order to make doing that job easier.

Hand-in-hand with our naivete and thus nervousness comes this desire to document your actions. A beautiful thing about this country is the way that it allows its citizens freedom of speech and of the press – a freedom that makes the old adage about the pen being mightier than the sword actually have a chance at verity. Yes, you have the right to carry your guns – we know that. It makes us both grateful and terrified, depending on which way they are pointing. But in return for us respecting your right to control the boundaries of our interactions through your weapons, you need to understand that our powers of observation are our own way of ensuring our safety and comfort during our meetings together. Both tools are dangerous — a trigger finger on a gun or on a camera has the power to change someone’s life within seconds. Your bullets are more immediately lethal, but a well-crafted article (or, I should say, a few seconds of video like those shown above) can have consequences with an even farther reach – one that moves beyond just the people present in that moment and into a national or global public sphere. So if you agree to be trained to use your weapon, let us, in turn, have a moment for self-defense. If we are not impeding you during your investigations or arrests and are merely observing, let us reinforce our eyes with gadgets. If you are doing your job, let the record show it. If we aren’t doing ours, let the record show that, too.

These are difficult issues and dialogues that all too often happen in terms of individual cases. In those scenarios, someone will always be seen as the “victor” (Yale students if they are acquitted, New Haven police if they can indeed prove that they were provoked). So before any of this happens again, let’s do more than hold press conferences trading anecdotes across newsprint and Twitter feeds. Let’s do our best to get some real conversation going, through our public remarks, yes, but also by encouraging our campus leaders to enroll in city-sponsored initiatives like the New Haven Police Citizens Academy. A course designed to increase communication, understanding, collaboration, and respect between New Haven citizens (and again, yes, this INCLUDES Yalies) and New Haven police officers sounds like the perfect place to start.

The New Haven Field Trip Society

5 Oct

At the beginning of this year, I gathered friends, crayons, and panlist members and started something new. (Perhaps, one could argue, I started something “new…Haven.”) It is a field trip society. It tries to move the boundaries of our self-defined “community” so far outwards that neither we nor local residents notice them anymore. It seeks to make us get up, go, learn, meet, explore, and then, perhaps, belong. And when someone asked me a few weeks ago to write them a piece explaining our mission, I did it like this:

Some people call them crazy. Some call them time-consuming, escapist, exhilarating, or nostalgia-inducing. I, however, simply call them “field trips.”

Remember those? The museums, the mountain hiking, the parental permission forms, and that one day free of the classroom when we earned our “real world” stripes (oh, the days when helping a historical reenactor lead a town meeting was enough to gain you street cred.) It was kind of cool, those few hours of exploding the familiar and singing bad ‘90s pop songs on the school bus. And then it disappeared.

Until now. This fall, I and a group of other quirky, adventurous, wanderlust students decided to do the unthinkable: bring back the field trips. Bring back the sense of discovery and the connection to places and people outside of our normal daily circuits. Bring back the magic. And with that, in August, 2010, the New Haven Field Trip Society was born.

Its mission is simple: to facilitate field trips from Yale’s campus into the wider world, most specifically the greater New Haven area. On top of this, NHFTS aims to make interesting people and places collide with each other. That’s why, in addition to having a huge array of potential destinations, we have a huge array of members, and our favorite trips are the ones that begin with introductions. It’s not all that many organizations that collect spontaneous people. We’re one of them.

So far, we’ve gone on a sunset schooner-ride in the New Haven Harbor, tried homemade pepper jam and fresh-picked blueberries at the Downtown Farmer’s Market, painted murals in Fair Haven at a service event with people from the neighborhood, and jammed at the CT Folk Festival. We’ve invited members to ribbon cutting events more than a half an hour away from campus and neighborhood parties just around the corner. And that’s just the beginning. Our “explorganizers” (no self-respecting society is complete without some tongue-in-cheek board titles) have suggested master classes with area metalworkers, tours of the city’s old baseball landmarks, midnight canoe rides, joint service days with local organizations, and undercover missions to the homes of local celebrities. Not to mention the culinary conquistadors out there; we have a list of area restaurants to fill every spare minute of our days…and every free inch of our stomachs (yes, Mom, even our second stomachs.)

Row, row, row your...schooner?

There is a lightheartedness to all of this, of course. A sense of frivolity, even, in the freewheeling expeditions that we lead. We are the Ivy-League equivalents of the Lost Boys, marching off into the sunset with funny-looking caps on our heads and leaving our Yale responsibilities behind. And that, in itself, is a beautiful thing: to take our resume-laden self-presentations down a notch (or several notches) and force us to interact under more unfamiliar settings. We regain playfulness and break away from our expected social packs. We even, on occasion, laugh so hard that we make new friends and adopt new places as our own. In the most elementary-school way, it’s extraordinary.

It’s also extremely important. As Yale students, we come from hometowns to a campus and expect the two to be roughly equivalent. After all, just like the neighborhoods we left, Yale hosts events, fosters relationships between suites, and builds monuments to its own history. Because of this, for many students, being a scholar and being a citizen may seem like the same thing. But there is so much that they miss. The city outside the university is not “outside” at all, in the sense that it only exists beyond our doors; it envelops us, we are a part of it, spatially if not mentally. This campus is just one portion of a metropolitan area that has its own uniqueness, its own depth and struggles, its own government, its own favorite places and local yokels and neighborhood activists. We would be fooling ourselves to think that the world begins and ends at Phelps Gate, and we would be depriving ourselves of a whole lot of fun. The New Haven Field Trip Society exists to knock down those walls around campus and expose the city for what it really is: our home. And if that sounds like a cool mission to you – or if you really want to live out the adventures that you crave – I invite you to join us. No permission slip required.

If I can't rope you into joining me, can I hula hoop you into an expedition? Not even if I do it in front of a whole festival full of bemused people?

Welcome to the Society (and, for future purposes, email me to get on the panlist or click here to read more.)

Yours in urban questing,

J

Last Stop, New Haven?

26 Aug

For the past week, I have been one of the leaders of FOCUS on New Haven, a pre-orientation program at Yale meant for rising sophomores and incoming transfer students. I, along with my fellow leaders, organize, transport, counsel, and challenge the 60+ participants in the program through panels, discussion groups, project sites (Ronald McDonald House of Connecticut for the win!), alternative tours, and even a scavenger hunt containing some New Haven-related quests created by yours truly. As a participant, I found FOCUS to be overwhelming, thrilling, full of no sleep and instantaneous friendships. As a leader, insert all of the above, with the addition of a self-consciousness with regards to my choices and wording during my time as a conduit between these students and the city around them and the subtraction of several more hours of sleep.

This being a program about New Haven, it is something that matters a lot to me. This being a program about service, political awareness, and the dirty, time-consuming process of forming opinions about local issues, it is something that matters to me. This being a program that clashes some of the most open student minds against their surroundings with often spectacular results, it is something that matters to me. In short, in case you haven’t caught on yet (repetition alert!), FOCUS as a program matters very much to me.

Tonight, I spent some time thinking about what I would want to share with participants if given the opportunity. What do I have to say – even for just a few minutes – about New Haven? About this program? About experiencing a city from my point of view?

Here are some thoughts, in speech form, for starters. I’d better eat my Wheaties to prep for this one.

I want to take a moment, after a week of being a FOCUS leader, to tell you what scares me about New Haven.

For a lot of people, the scariest part about this city is the crime map. Where violence takes place, what might happen to them. For others, it’s the statistics, like the number of students who graduate without adequate levels of literacy. And for still others, it’s those moments of coming face to face with someone they don’t know how to deal with, like Daksha’s encounter with a homeless woman, that make them, on some level at least, afraid.

That’s not it for me. Instead, I am scared, scared beyond anything else, to leave. Scared to find a job in another city, to change my homepage from the New Haven Independent to a different local paper, to fulfill what I think is an expectation of Yale students that we haven’t talked enough about during this week: the expectation that we will not stay, that we are transitory, and that our work, however well-meant, is rooted more in our conscience than in our physical place. The expectation, in short, that despite diving into urban affairs with all of the verve of a neighborhood activist, we will eventually cut ties and move away in a way that a homeowner here never could. I don’t know when this tie-cutting might be. I don’t even know if this will be – some of us may well settle down right here. But I can’t know that for sure, and that uncertainty at my core changes me from a resident to a traveler.

This is something that I want to share with you because it is a voice in the back of my head that I don’t acknowledge very often when I am out in the community, the voice telling me, “But what about when you are gone?” Instead, I work harder with all of you each hour, each minute, to prove how committed we are in the number of questions we ask in panels or meals we serve at the Ronald McDonald House. I don’t let myself ask why I am putting all of this effort – why all of us are putting all of this effort – into a community that we may not belong to in two or three years from now, into the absorption of localized knowledge that won’t apply to any other grid of streets. But what if, for a moment, I do allow myself to ask that question: the “why?”

This is what I thought about last night, and this is what I want to talk to you about during this morning charge.

There are generalized answers, of course, reasons that are completely valid and, in many cases, very powerful. Here, I think of our innate desire for justice, our sense of reciprocity and service, and our eagerness to belong to a group and to contribute value to that community.

But the specific answer that I have settled upon, at least so far, is one that acknowledges our potential transience by stating, simply, that as much as we are students and citizens of the city, at this moment of our lives we are also travelers by nature. I don’t mean to imply that we are jetsetters, though perhaps some of us are, or that we live out of our suitcases. I merely mean that in a very concrete sense, we have not yet committed ourselves to a “home” in this world, and until we do (perhaps by buying a house, accepting a long-term job, or running for local office), we remain travelers.

Well, this is not helping, Jess, you are thinking. I was having such a nice cereal breakfast before you undermined my entire relationship with New Haven. I understand what you are saying. But bear with me on this for just a few more moments.

I choose the term “travelers” very specifically. The word actually comes from the French verb “travailler,” which, roughly translated, means, “to work.” And it is in this etymology that I find my answer about engaging with New Haven.

In this context, traveling is not merely observing. It is not just taking classes and walking by the Green every once in a while or writing cutesy blogposts about the PechaKucha nights in town (though, incidentally, the one that I attended tonight was pretty darn cool). It is, instead, the act of WORKING, of putting your own energy into your physical surroundings, of expending effort to make connections and to leave each place better, safer, happier, brighter than how you found it when you first arrived. In other words, traveling in New Haven, for us, as Yale students, ought to be seen as our job.

In this light, FOCUS and other New Haven outreach programs make all the sense in the world. Despite the fact that we can move away and leave this city – perhaps because of that fact – we, as travelers and visitors of both the physical and intellectual kind, have a responsibility to work while we are here, to earn our hospitality and our right to call ourselves members of this community for even the shortest time.

This is what I want you to have in mind during today, your final day of project sites. This idea of you having an identity in the city that does require thinking, hard work, moments of forcing yourself to go that extra step, to make the awkward introduction, to do the obvious service like tutoring but also the less obvious outreach like saying hello to everyone you pass on the street in an unfamiliar neighborhood. This whole scholar-citizen thing isn’t easy; it requires work. But that same work acts as a legitimate retort to the stereotyped  here-today-gone-tomorrow assumption about Yale students, and it is a large part of the reason why I, at least, feel responsible for and excited about doing as much as possible with the citywide community, whether it will prove relevant to my future life or not. So over the next twelve hours – our final twelve hours – see what you can do with your traveler identity. What can you give, how can you leave your site better off for the next arriving traveler or the people who live there, how can you choose to approach your day in a light that moves you from outsider to included participant? I can’t wait to see what you’ve got. CHARGE.

I’m Feeling Those Good Migrations

10 Jul

At approximately 9pm on Thursday, Ashley and I learned that we were trapped in Genova. Genova, the city of Colombus, of explorers, of port-induced wanderlust, became our captor just as quickly as it had been our vacation destination.

More specifically, we learned that all of Italy’s transportation workers had gone on strike. For a full 24 hours, from 9pm on Thursday to 9pm on Friday, not a single train ran through Genova Brignole station…including the train that we had planned on taking to Bologna, our next destination, where we had pre-booked and paid for a hotel for that night.

For a moment, we allowed ourselves to worry and to descend into a flurry of “this could never happen in the U.S.” thoughts. Then, we laughed, long and hard. Sure, a national train strike would be much more unlikely in America, but so would the three hours of lingering each morning over our caffe lattes, and the full day of hiking between mountains and sea that we had done the day before. Italy has its quirks (strikes, the lack of breakfast food beyond cornettos and coffee, the fact that each business closes whenever the owners deem it necessary without regard to its scheduled hours…), but it also has a magnificence of presence that I’ve never felt anywhere else.

That being said, we still had to deal with the strike. And we had to deal with it without Italian skills other than food words (knowing how to ask for extra extra EXTRA parmesan cheese doesn’t get you very far at the ticket counter) and without access to Internet, because we did not bring our computers along for the trip. So, we decided to take the first train to Bologna after the 9pm reopening of the station, and, after a brief layover and four hours of traveling, arrived at our hotel at 3am in the morning instead of noon the day before. In the meantime, we used our unanticipated (and, honestly, given the city, a bit unnecessary) time in Genova to do the things that most people don’t make enough time for on vacations: have a two-hour lunch (of PESTO), window shop, wander the streets, buy lingerie (I kid you not…we surprised even ourselves with that purchase, but we had been seeing stores everywhere for six weeks, and we decided that it was time to invest in a different type of Italian luxury), drink glasses of prosecco with aperitivi outside on sunny tables, purchase new books (we are both on our second one in a week; I have finished a total of 1135 pages since Sunday), and read for four hours with our empty glasses in front of us. It was a day of surprising vigor, and one that worked out in our favor, as I write this now in the morning from our hotel in Bologna.

I also write this in the middle of the trip that Ashley and I are on through the north of Italy. It is the first trip I have ever planned alone, and the first with such little contact and great independence. All we have are our backpacks for these ten days — that, and a determination that we will take these moments, paid for in part by money that we have been saving since we were ten and had our first change in a piggy bank, and out of them mold experiences that we can return to again and again for the rest of our lives. We have been grateful, adventurous, and scared. And we have been doing, every moment we have been doing: climbing the dome in Florence, renting bikes and cycling through tiny hill towns in Tuscany, hopping trains up the coast, wine and olive oil tasting in medieval fortresses, hiking between all five towns of Cinque Terre, deciphering statues in Genova, taking goofy pictures at every opportunity, feasting on local fish and wines or having our own quiet picnics of fruit and peanut butter, devouring recommended books each night before bed, swimming in desolate rocky coves along cliffsides, and, in just a few moments, exploring Bologna.

We still have this city and one more, Venice, before we return to Rome and then to the place and people that we miss dearly back in America, and I promise to write the entries that this trip (and the end of our Rome course) deserve when we get home. Until then, kisses from the road; go have some adventures of your own.

Work It

1 Jul

I woke up this morning, rolled over to face my windows, and was buried in sadness. I will only wake up here, in this bed, in this apartment, in Trastevere, in Rome, on two more mornings. I have had this feeling before, leaving Andover for good at graduation, but then I at least had been preparing. I counted down the days and, with friends, savored the last moments. Here, though, this way of life has become so natural (and we have been kept so busy) that I forgot to mark time. The fact that I would need to leave slipped my mind entirely.

I do have some buffer trips to take the edge off of my departure; on Saturday, I will set out from Rome on a 10-day set of adventures around the north of Italy (more info on that to come). But as I wallowed in my sheets a few hours ago and thought about my last two classes (today and tomorrow), I realized that I haven’t shared almost anything about the work that I’ve been doing while here. Somehow, my bakery‘s cannoli managed to steal the day.

So here’s a tribute to the work that I’ve done, and to this class – the reason that I am here in Rome in the first place. Through “The City of Rome,” I have met two knock-your-American-socks (or, more accurately, your American flip flops!)-off professors; had three guest lecturers who are all experts in their fields; read the vast majority of 16 different books (page count to come later); seen one parade and one set of fireworks; visited about 35 different assigned sites around the city outside of class (never mind the ones during class); written three writing assignments; and (drum roll please) completed a final project and its corresponding 14-page paper. In other words, for those who have been secretly assuming otherwise, yes, I have been doing work.

Final project, you say? What was your final project, Jess? Well, that’s a great question, because I am a very big dork and would love to tell you all about it. However, I am telling you now, if you are NOT a big dork (or are merely reading this blog to laugh at me and my cross-cultural foibles and fumbles), STOP HERE. THE LAND OF ACADEMIA IS FAST APPROACHING. U-TURNS FULLY ALLOWED. You can’t say I didn’t warn you.

Anyways, as I was saying, each person in the class had to do a big research project that culminated in a 20-minute-long presentation and a large paper. We had a lot of leeway about our topic with the major stipulation being that we had to study something that could not be easily learned outside of Rome. In other words, the place and the physical resources of Rome had to be integral to our work.

From the beginning, I was torn about what to do. I researched everything from modern politics and social services to graffiti and the histories of specific roads. I then proceeded to rule out all of my initial options because we were either already covering them as part of our seminar or because they were too hard to do with my minimal skillset (in other words, without speaking Italian). I ended up between two ideas — one, a complicated retracing of Rome as a literary landscape through the words of some of my favorite poets, and two, an urban studies zeroing in on one particular moment of Rome’s urban planning. My professor made the final decision easy from there: I would get to do a mini-presentation on Byron during the fourth week of class (thus my late night expeditions with Childe Harold), and I would focus on my urban studies approach.

I researched feverishly until I narrowed down even further — I decided to do my project on the urban planning that happened in Rome as a direct result of it becoming the national capital of unified Italy in 1871. Prior to that time, Italy was just a collection of disparate regions and Rome was known as the Papal States; after it, Rome was once more on the international map. In truth, though, I chose the city planning underdog. Almost no one agrees with the decisions that were made during those years, and even fewer like the monuments erected to the new nation within the city walls. So I set out to make them care about it anyways.

I was the second person out of our group of thirteen to give my presentation. I did it on-site, right in front of the Victor Emmanuel II monument, a huge and generally abhorred building in the middle of Rome commemorating the national unification and the second king of the new Italy. I used that building as a jumping-off point to explain the rest of the urban planning changes between 1871 and WWI; you might remember it as the huge white building from the day of the parade. It made for a pretty impressive backdrop.

Me in the process of presenting. Note that no rotten tomatoes have been thrown at me yet - a clear sign of success.

And, again with my warning firmly established, I am attaching here a full version of my 20-minute-long class presentation. These were my notes. Obviously, I lightened them up, made a lot of silly hand gestures, departed from the script in many places, and answered questions as they occurred, but if you are at all interested (or if you need something to read to help you fall asleep! My blog is happy to help in ALL situations), here’s the gist of my research during these five weeks.

For this presentation, I’m going to ask all of you to do something a little cheesy, perhaps, and move with me to the year 1871. I can now address all of you, as citizens of Rome, for the first time since the days of empire as “friends, Romans, and countrymen,” for you are all now part of the newly unified nation of Italy. You are also already residents of the nation’s capital city: that is to say, Rome.

You’ve been anticipating Rome’s new status for a while now. After all, you heard the reports from Cavour’s speech to the Florentine House of government back on March 25, 1861, in which he said:

“The choice of the capital has been determined with great moral reasoning. Here, oh gentlemen (and ladies), agree that in Rome there occurs all the circumstances of history, intellect, and morality for it to be determined as having the condition of the capital of a great State. Rome is the only city of Italy whose memories are not exclusively municipal, as all the history of Rome, from the time of Caesar through the present day, is the history of a city whose importance extends infinitely to all the territories; of one city, that is, destined to be the capital of a great state. I am convinced, deeply convinced, of this truth.”

In fact, despite your pride in your home city, you may have laughed in hearing that. For as noble as your history is, you also know the truth of your hometown, and that is one of grime, decline, and an insular way of life. In fact, just last year, on December 27, 1870, the Tiber had its worst flood in a long time, so intense that it was recorded on the walls of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva and 46 other buildings with red lines at the high water marks, a calamity that our dear Pope Pius IX called divine punishment for the sacrilege which had deprived the Church of its worldly possessions. When our king, Vittorio Emanuele II, entered his new and shining city on December 31, he found it with flood waters covering the low-lying streets, stinking with mud and refuse. A police officer from Genoa, one of the first government servants to arrive in Italian Rome, came with high expectations during his first visit, and left sating, “The impression [the] environment made on me was disastrous. I was confused to see the entrances of the [train] station full of filth, the streets leading to the centre almost dark and blocked by ruins and hedges of vegetable gardens, people laying on the steps of the churches.” You also know the truth of its size – the fact that it no longer reaches anywhere near to the Aurelian Walls, that most of you live crowded in the bends of the Tiber, and that, despite the recent construction of a transportation station called Termini far away from you, most of the surrounding area is full of farmland and ruins; there is a cattle market in the Forum. And then there’s the fact that Rome is only the fifth largest city in Italy at this point without much in the way of infrastructure; because the physical reasons for making this into the capital city are so lacking, you know already that it is the symbolic weight of your city that has propelled it to a position of such importance.

Alright, so why start my presentation at this moment? Why ask you to think as a Roman?  Why do a presentation on Rome turning into the capital of unified Italy at all? As an urban studies student, I knew that I wanted to research Rome at a point of physical transition. The changes made to the city after unification fit that criteria, but they also appealed to me for other reasons. First, unlike perhaps the changes under emperors, popes or Mussolini, they happened without the guidance of one central ruler and instead were the results of a series of compromises among various parties. Second, and probably more importantly in my own mind, the vast majority of the literature on Rome’s urban planning treats this time period as open space, junk time, a mere filler between the Church and Il Duce. I disagree. I find this to be one of the most interesting eras of Roman planning because it catches Rome right in the act of juggling its multiple identities – here, a mere municipality with the responsibility to house and feed its citizens. Here, a ring around the newly retreated center of Christendom that needs to deal with a void of authority. And here again, a national capital with international import that needs to live up to its history on the world stage.

During the years that we are talking about today, Rome tripled in size – from a little pocket of 212,000 people in 1871 to a bustling and sprawling city of 660,000 in 1921. On the bottom of the first page of your handout, you can see some of the proposed changes during that time, and get a sense of the overall volume of growth.

This is the second draft of a plan for Rome, made in 1883. All of the shaded areas are designated for construction. This shows you just how tiny Rome had become under the popes and how much it was about to grow in its quest to become a major European capital city. (Wait? Serious and scholarly captions from Jessica on her blog? Yes, indeed. The world must be ending.)

I’d like to spend today talking about what else changed in the city during that time and the ways that those changes broke with tradition, sometimes to the detriment of the native Romans. I want to argue that the city changed from one thinking about its own immediate well-being to one concerned more with the nation’s ambitions, and articulate some of those ambitions more specifically. I will do this through the lens of this monument and, though the changes that were made here, extrapolate about the changes going on in other parts of the city.

The monument that I studied.

We have talked about this monument before in class and referred to it by its proper set of names – Vittorio Emanuele II, Il Vittorio, the monument to Victor Emmanuel II. But outside of class, we have also heard it referred to by a different set of names: the wedding cake, the typewriter, the confection, the eyesore. Even our beloved Blue Guide calls it “rather ugly” and states, “It can only be described as a colossal monstrosity.” Now, assuming that no nation aims to have its core monument be compared to a pastry shop, let’s step back from our criticisms for a moment to examine why anyone thought this structure was a good idea in the first place. Let’s think about the message that it is trying to send.

When Vittorio Emanuele II, the king of unified Italy, died in January of 1878, a commission was immediately established to raise a monument in his memory. It held an international competition, which, the first time around, was won by a French architect who proposed an arch of victory close to the new train station. Cries of dismay from citizens about the fact that a Frenchman would be designing the Italian national monument quickly led to a revocation of his victory and a reopening of the competition in 1882.

This time, just to be safe, the commission put forth a set of requirements for the monument, all carefully thought through. First, the monument had to be situated in Piazza Venezia, the piazza we see in front of us now, and located on the northern slope of the Capitoline Hill. By doing that, the monument was guaranteed to sit – thwump! – right next to all kinds of symbolic centers of the Roman empire such as the Forum and the Colosseum. Not to mention the importance of siting it on the Hill itself, the place that had hosted the unsuccessful Roman Republic in the mid-fourteenth century when it tried to resist the Papacy. The national government was establishing continuity between the monumentality and success of the Roman empire and the monumentality and success to come of the unified Italy, and it was also creating a clear divide between its own rule and that of the papacy. Sure enough, other aspects of the monument’s location also help to minimize the Church’s authority over the city. It quite literally severed part of the city’s attachment to the Church by demolishing the medieval cloisters of the church of Ara Coeli to allow it better access to the hill. This is one of the instances where we can see a trend across the city during this point in time of church buildings being commandeered, converted, or razed for nationalist planning under the Expropriation Act of 1865, which awarded the municipality of Rome with about 17,000 acres of Church land and about 80 buildings. When the Vatican registered its formal complaint against this practice during the public debate over the city’s Plan of 1873, stating that because churches were public spaces, they were not subject to that law, the council ignored it.

To further illustrate its superiority over the church, the monument placed itself in the main travel artery, Via del Corso, that pilgrims traditionally used to get into Piazza del Popolo and across to what was now the independent Vatican. This reminded pilgrims, or so thought the king, of the secular power of the Italian government before they came into contact with the claimed temporal supremacy of the Pope and provided a tall, corner-filled alternative on the skyline to the dome of St. Peter’s. The monument quite literally put the history and goals of the new Italy on the map.

This placement on the roadways also did something very clever to the overall balance of the city. If you’ll look at the second page of your handout for a moment, you can see the traditional axis of power in Rome under the Church – the cross of the basilicas and the Pope’s major seats in the city.

The cross-shaped axis of the major sites of Papal power in Rome.

Now, look below it. Look at where members of the government choose to place their new buildings – as a direct challenge to the prior axis. Here, we have a trinity that recenters the city with Victor Emannuel at the center, government buildings in the East, including the Quirinal Palace, which the government took from the pope, and Palazzo di Giustizia near the Tiber, right on the heels of the Vatican.

See how the nationalists built into the corners of Rome (see the Vittorio Emanuele in the south, the Quirinale Palace in the East, and the Palazzio di Giustizia or Palace of Justice in the West)? Does anyone else think this is SO INTERESTING??? No? Okay. Well, I guess this is why I am one of very few people concentrating in urban studies...Trust me, though, it's actually pretty crazy. (DORKFEST)

This new axis was reinforced through the building of roads; Via Nazionale, which was originally begun by Pope Pius IX as Via Nuova Pia, made a large pathway between the area of the government buildings and the train station and the monument, while Via XX Settembre, converted from another road started by Pope Pius, would create a similar radius across the city. These roads did much the same as ancient Roman roads in reminding the populace through improved traffic and strategic redirection of the power of the authorities. Further infrastructure was built as walls along the Tiber, which I won’t talk much about now but am happy to answer some questions about at the end if you are interested, and bridges across the river, and there were excavations and recovery of many antiquities along those roads. This is the beginning of this monument as the center of traffic in the city. As a sidenote, this is also a great moment to talk about one of the negatives of these changes for the residents of Rome itself; Via Nazionale was the result of a lot of land speculation by the Belgian cardinal De Merode, who acquired these lands in about 1867 and then came up to the Italian administration to suggest building a road there. This kind of speculation went unregulated by the overwhelmed municipal authorities and meant that many of the basic services that the populace needed, like affordable housing, went unbuilt.

When we look at the actual monument itself, we immediately observe the aspects of it that remind us of ancient Rome. The statue on the horse, which Ashley began her presentation by referring to, indeed echoes a series of heroes in Roman culture, and this is not an accident – the commission required that the monument contain “an equestrian statue with architectural backdrop and suitable stairs.” Giuseppe Sacconi, the Italian architect who ended up winning the commission, recognized this as a desire for a return to Roman ideals and set up the remainder of the space in a massive echo of the most successful monuments of years past. On the first level, he places an altar to Dea Roma, the goddess of Rome, in a nod to the same figure on the top of the Capitoline Hill. The second level continues that acknowledgement of Michaelangelo’s design with the equestrian statue. On the third level, he brings back the portico and columns that mirror those in the nearby Forum and inscribes secular declarations saying “Of the citizens” and “Of the nation.” There is purposefully no inclusion of God here, nor saints; instead, at the top of the columns, where the saints stood in the piazza outside of the Vatican, a series of classical figures in togas strolls by. And, since we have talked so much about building materials, I have to mention that the whole building is made out of white Brescian marble, material quarried in Italy and going back to the blazing white color of the old monuments in the face of hundreds of years of colorful medieval and Renaissance streets. Local materials, local architect, local symbols – this is pure nationalism.

The irony of the architecture is that much of it comes from a Beaux Arts style that was all the rage in Europe at the time. This mixed Renaissance, Baroque, Greek, and Italic motifs in an over-the-top fashion that can be seen here as well as on the Palazzo di Giustizia. Thus, despite the authorities getting into a tizzy over accidentally letting a French architect win the first contest, this “authentic Italian monument” still ended up being an agglomeration of other nations’ influences.

Once they were in the process of building this monument, Italian officials began immediately to think of how best to show it off. After all, as we mentioned before, if you want to make the new state of Italy the center of everyone’s thoughts, the best way to do that is to place it at the center of their physical space. Prior to this monument, Rome was a city with several concentric hubs of activity, all pushing forward at different periods in time – St. Peter’s Basilica crossing over to the other three major churches in the city, the Tiber River, the Forum, the Capitoline. When the committee in charge of this monument opened their second competition, they knew that they wanted to do from a city planning standpoint what they had already done politically and unify the corners of the city into one place. This needed more than the aforementioned roads – it needed a red carpet runway that would emphasize the grandiosity of the space. To create that, they took what was little more than a narrow opening in this space and started demolishing with a vengeance. They knocked down much of the immediate district, including a medieval tower of Pope Paul III. They took apart the Palazzo Torlonia and the Palazzo Venezia, both of which stood in the area of the desired Piazza Venezia, and rebuilt them with the Torlonia on the eastern side as a mirror of the Palazetto Venezia, which was rebuilt brick by brick one hundred yards to the west. The only two buildings that survived were a part of an ancient tomb on the northeastern corner and an old House of Giulio Romano. Both structures are ancient Roman in origin and thus we can see that through their choice of what to preserve, the new leaders of Italy wanted to establish that line between themselves and the last days of strong and vibrant government in Rome.

It is important to note, once again, the negatives of these choices. For the Romans lost, rapidly and without any kind of collective permission, much of the city’s character during those years, and much of its antiquities. Rodolfo Lanciani, an archaeologist who served as Director of the Excavations of Rome in the 1870s, admitted in response to the disappearance of porticoes, temples, basilicas, and villas across the city, “It would be of no use to deny that all these great conquests in the artistic and scientific field have been obtained with a certain amount of loss and sacrifice. But we must always remember that Rome has always lived at the expense of the past.”

This is the note on which I want to begin ending my presentation – right with that statement of ambiguity. Indeed, Rome has always had to stand over its own shadow, and this monument was just one more attempt at a specific moment in time to conquer the past and make it serve the present. Why did this particular monument fail to inspire? I’ve thought a lot about this, and a lot about why the urban planning happening around the monument also failed to make the impact that the nascent Italians were hoping for. Certainly, part of it has to do with the fact that it seeks to establish continuity not with its neighboring time periods or buildings, those of the medieval period and the Renaissance, but with the ancient empire; thus, its use of white marble, which would have been so appropriate back then, sticks out like a sore thumb. One article called this inability to create continuity with the historical pieces around it the monument’s “myth of a unified past underwriting a unified future.” It reminded me, in fact, of ill-fated Cola di Rienza in his attempts to revive an old glory that ended in failure with him memorialized halfway up this neighboring hill. Moreover, this monument is one that seeks to try to prove something not just to its citizens but to Europe at the time; it wants to fit itself in with a collection of changing capital cities, especially Paris with its famous boulevards and triumphal arches, and for this, it gets constructed in a style that is too overwrought for its size. It made me think of Hadrian’s villa, and his understanding that his worldly influence could go wild in his own space but must be tempered in his other buildings to fit in with the urban landscape; I don’t think that Giuseppe Sacconi had this insight. Third, despite being placed on the Capitoline Hill, the monument is just that: a lump of decoration placed on top of a hill. Unlike the famed fountains of Bernini, which used the varying elevation of the city to create different types of fountains, or the Capitoline Hill, which makes space with Romulus and Remus visible right next to a view of the city, I don’t feel as though this monument works with the natural landscape or the topography of the city well at all.

The "lump" of the monument as seen from above. Note how it doesn't fit in with the surrounding landscape, and also check out its strategic positioning in the imperial core of the city, with the Forum and Colosseum right next door. Mussolini would later take advantage of this and build a road from the monument straight through to the Colosseum as a sign of empire.

Finally, I’d like to argue that much of the frustration with this building started with frustration with the national government at the point in time when it was built. As Rome’s municipal authorities were working to put forth two city plans, the second in 1883, the national government refused to give them the necessary funding to carry out the changes. Instead, it paid only for the buildings (such as the palace of justice) that it desired and not those that would benefit the city as a city instead of the city as a capital. You can see this sense of frustration echoed in a contemporary cartoon depicting Rome being raped by the national government:

A personified Rome being stripped of its dignity by the national government

This, combined with the land speculation that I mentioned above, meant a lack of affordable housing, at least forty thousand slum dwellers who had been driven off by clearing, and a sense of minimal progress on the larger city picture. All of this as this monument and the destruction preceding it was taking place right before the city’s eyes.

I want to conclude by reemphasizing my belief that this small chunk of history, the period between 1870 and the start of World War I, is a time of crucial change for Rome. Through this monument, we can see that even the smallest choice was ripe with reasoning and consequences, and we are reminded that urban planning – and the planning of monuments – is one giant attempt to turn space into power.

Mi Casa, Su Casa, What Casa?

20 Jun

I don’t understand homelessness here, and I hate it.

Whoa! You are saying. Whoa, Jess! I was expecting another cute post about flowery villas! What’s the deal with homelessness?

I agree with you. I was expecting another post about villas, too. And then I saw a man outside, sleeping in the rain, and now I am writing about homelessness.

First of all, it exists here. This is an obvious statement. But I realize that in my (well-deserved) hyperbolic raptures about fresh olive oil and charismatic guest professors, I have yet to mention this. This is, in part, because it impacts my own life very little. I have a beautiful apartment and enough money to cook a nightly feast. It is also because my last international trip was to India, and seeing a single beggar on the street every three or four hours does not smack me across the heart the same way the slums full of children with no shoes and sand-caked hair did – that is to say, the difference on the scale of poverty between the two trips is immense, and without being conscious of it, it has dulled my shock. But, more than anything else, it is because of the specific way that I am approaching this city.

I do not come as a citizen, and as a scholar, I come only to study the past. I am here as a guest — a guest who, out of politeness, should not go rummaging around in the medicine cabinets of my host the first chance I get to see what ails her. Complexity is for class discussion. (Tiramisu is for dessert.) And Italy is, for me, an academic vacation.

Which doesn’t mean that I’ve been avoiding tough issues entirely. I have had four-hour-long discussions sitting on the steps outside of Santa Maria Maggiore about the role of the Church as a political entity as opposed to a religious institution. I watched a military parade and thought hard about the proper values for a state to celebrate. I’ve heard from experts about preservation, demolition, and the ethics of displaying restored or commandeered pieces in museums. As a student in the course “The City of Rome,” I can even tell you about why there was a public housing crisis after Rome became Italy’s capital in 1871 (in fact, that’s part of my final project…details to come.) So it’s not the fault of the course – one that specifically looks at the history of the city and ends right after the fall of Mussolini – that I don’t know about homelessness.

It’s the fault of me. I use the term “fault” loosely here, and not in an accusatory sense. “It’s my own doing,” might be a better way of phrasing it. I decided before coming here that I would treat Italy, as mentioned above, much like a fascinating, school-filled vacation. I was not moving somewhere for five weeks; in my mind, I was just residing there. Unlike India, where we paired with a non-profit and worked for them for half of our total stay, my time here would be very much a one-way absorption of culture. Unlike New Haven, where from day one I tried to memorize the names of elected officials, here I delight in picking up phrases in Italian for a few minutes and then letting them slip out of my mind that night while sleeping. And unlike my time in New Hampshire, where I pull over to ask workers why they are out in front of a grocery store striking and then phone in a tip to the local paper, I pay more attention to the scores of World Cup games in Italy than to national headlines.

This is probably not an awful thing. Even if I am not learning the location of every government meeting, I am doing a different kind of learning. I am using all my energy to study more abstract things (have you ever been able to figure out the history of a church just by deciphering papal insignias and the placement of statues, and then used that history to extrapolate more details about the state of Rome at that point in time? or stood in front of a building and unwrapped its epochs by knowing which windows must be medieval and which carvings would only have been added in the late Renaissance? these are learning experiences that i will probably never have again), and to learn how to take care of myself within a new city. I know how to get around, I know the neighborhoods, I know the rules about how to weigh vegetables properly in the grocery store so I don’t get frustrated looks at the register.

But it does teach me something about myself, and the way that I would like to approach cities in the future. I need a point of modern entry; some portal to make me feel a bit more as if I am straddling two worlds instead of just looking into one from the outside. I’ve tried that, briefly, here; during our long walk down Via Appia Antica, I caught the professors while they were alone and asked them what the state of social services is in Rome. I mentioned that my first afternoon in Piazza Santa Maria di Trastevere, I had seen a half dozen men sleeping outside of the church in the square. And I wondered out loud about the interaction between Church and state in caring for them.

I was right in my hunch and observations, they told me. The Church has historically had a huge role in caring for the destitute, which is one of the main reasons that it grew so fast, and that church in particular offered a regular soup kitchen. But as for more specifics, they told me they didn’t really know, and that, as with everything in the Italian government, the whole situation is complicated.

Well, I guess I want complications. More than that, I want knowledge. This is, of course, a controversial statement in itself; the mere fact of knowing where the shelters are does not mean that I am helping society any more than before. And I do believe that information can be a false comfort, one that makes me, as an individual, feel like a better citizen without having had to get off my butt and actually do something. Because, of course, I can’t understand homelessness to its full extent, no more than I can fully understand any other aspect of the human experience without living through it myself. But it’s a start, and from now on, when possible, I want to connect more with the daily complexities of anywhere that I go for longer than a month.  I think it’s enormously important to have a hometown that I understand, and to stop ignoring inner questions just because I’m not a local. After all, these women with the thousand years of lines on their faces and outstretched palms are vagabonds, too; both types of us, tourists and beggars, without proper roots here, both of us coexisting in a world where we are constantly bumping into strangers.

After I wrote this post, I spent some time researching services for those without a home in Rome. This is a very surface-level list, but if you, too, are curious, here are a few links to check out:

A NYTimes article on the homeless in Rome in 2000, after the government renovated the city’s train station

The Pope’s visit this year to a homeless shelter

Contact information for many social services in the city

An old news blurb with some statistics

Men sleeping outside of my local church the morning that I arrived in Rome.

And sometimes, you find paradise.

19 Jun

I’ve gotten good at this. Finding paradise, that is. It’s not all that hard when I’m in Italy. It just requires letting go of my normal thoughts for a moment – the physical aches of my shoulders and feet or the technological zips of Facebook alerts – and letting my senses take over. No planning ahead, wearing watches, or using maps. Just wandering, observing, touching, and trying to consume as much as possible in real-time memory-making.

Urban studies has a term for this method of approaching cities: the dérive. Students abandon their normal methods of navigation and, it is hoped, their native misgivings and instead journey based on instinct and emotional response to their surroundings. If a certain street looks inviting, they walk down it. If they turn back and switch direction, they note it and later try to determine why. Why enter this piazza? Why not put your hands in that fountain? Why are some parts of the city magnetic and others repulsive? It is a technique that gives weight to the individual experience within the context of the urban whole.

I bring this up because I have spent several of the past few days going on my own dérives. Finally, I feel as though I have gotten to the point where I don’t need a map here (which doesn’t mean that I know my way around, it just means that I’ve gained a certain familiarity with the north-south-east-west bearings of the landscape), and I’ve started taking some solitary afternoon walks (mainly to the computer repair shop, which is how I am typing again. YAY.). From this perspective, the city feels completely different. I pay no attention to street signs and instead orient myself based on gut feeling (“where is the Tiber? where should I be in relation to the river right now?”). I don’t take pictures. I don’t slow down to read the plaque on every building. Instead, I make eye contact with the trees and the drivers, and I shake my head with a smile at all of the “bella! bella! ciao, bella!” from Italian men, and I let myself be drawn into the everyday bowels of this eternal city.

But back to paradise. The one that I visited most recently was a series of villas during our big class day-trip to Tivoli yesterday. Tivoli is about an hour away, so we were on the bus at 8:30am and back in Rome by 7pm. Within that time, we visited Hadrian’s Villa, Villa d’Este, and Villa Gregoriana, and the best way of describing the landscapes that I saw is to think back to those old puzzles – yknow, the ones with vibrant greens and distant mountains and always a waterfall, that have at least 500 pieces in them that all blend together because everything is so lush, and you are convinced it’s just a painting after all? yeah, those puzzles – and imagine walking through them, and realizing that they are real, and that your feet – those same dirty feet that played soccer on New Hampshire fields and tottered for hours the night of prom – are touching that painted earth. It is a landscape that forces poetry or prostration, perhaps both. If you are ever in Rome with the chance to take a day trip, this is it. The big and beautiful kahuna.

First, Hadrian’s Villa. We just finished reading an exquisite book called “Memoirs of Hadrian” by Marguerite Yourcenar – one of my all-time favorite books, please please go add it to your list – and so I had some background heading into the day. I knew, for example, that Hadrian had been a Roman emperor right after Trajan, and that he lived from 76-138 AD. I knew that he was an extremely well-traveled man who barely spent any time in Rome and instead slept at the edges of his empire, trying to keep it secure. I knew that he had a love affair with a young boy named Antinous, of whom he had many statues made. And I knew that he was rumored to be an amateur architect.

What I didn’t know was that his villa (and here’s an important point – unlike our connotation in English, the word “villa” in Italian does not refer solely to a house, it refers to an entire estate) is cradled by hills out in the countryside, and that he had built houses, as the guide said, “capable of architectural flirtation.” I didn’t know that his admiration of everything Greek led him to build pools that reflect water in moving ribbons across marble columns, or that I would be surrounded by the remnants of curves and shadows, pillars and grids. “Get drunk on art,” the museum there encouraged us. And so I did, imagining what the tumbling down brick halls looked like when they were first painted with their frescoes or lined with colored marble statues. And we all did, as we delighted in Hadrian’s ability to fuse the organic and the constructed by building man-made fountains in the natural curvature of a valley.

Then, we piled onto the bus and back out at Villa d’Este. Built much later and with the ruins of Hadrian’s Villa in mind (and in hand – many of the decorations at d’Este were in fact stolen – er, scavenged – from Hadrian’s original structures just a few miles away), Villa d’Este is a place where luxury and whimsy gave themselves permission to run rampant across a hillside. It is home to sun and shade and oasis and retreat and olive trees (with the most unbelievable, gnarled and time-wizened trunks) and above all, WATER. Edith Wharton wrote about the gardens here, as do the guidebooks, because of the fountains within them. More fountains than you can imagine, about 500 individual jets of water, all celebrating their surroundings through reflections. I am aching with the beauty of the space before I even make it down the first staircase. This is a planned place, a scripted place, meant to be romantic and evocative, and it succeeds; there is a marking in the exact center of the gardens, and when I get there, I lay down on my back and closed my eyes, and when I opened them, I said something silly and romantic and exactly like what the architects wanted me to say, something like, “I am waking up from a dream and seeing through my heart.” I was actually exhausting myself with my lofty odes. We picnicked in Villa d’Este and ate a cake we had brought with us for someone’s birthday, and as we left, I spoke with someone about how much more disciplined this villa had seemed than the crumpled one before. “That’s true,” she agreed. “But think about it – even with this planning, the water is still slowly wearing down its stone fountain containers every second of the day. At some point, it, too, will go back to nature.” And it’s true – in one hidden corner, I found a dormant statue so covered with moss that it seemed to be clenched by the greenery. It all circles back into itself in time.

Finally, we arrived at Villa Gregoriana. Unlike the other two sites, Villa Gregoriana has no house within its walls; it is a villa of nature, but is well-known for human engineering in addition to its beauty. That engineering diverted the Aniene River from its normal flood path (right through town) and to a safer set of tunnels and pools within the hills. Pope Gregory XVI turned the space into a public park in 1826, and Pliny and Goethe, to name just a few, both mentioned it as one of the most beautiful spaces they had ever seen. I have to agree, if only because so many of the signs used the term “grotto,” and that word in itself connotes a place of splendor, doesn’t it? Either that or the Little Mermaid, who would have been proud of the way I clambered down rock steps and over barriers to dip my feet in waterfall pools.

In all of these places, we wandered. Yes, we talked, and at Hadrian’s Villa, we were taught in a linear fashion by our on-site professors, but we were walking differently than normal, allowing our feet to drag just a bit longer in the ancient dirt and actually reaching out to touch the evidence around us. In the boys’ case, of course, this also meant reaching out to touch every lizard and bug they could find, but it was all part of the classroom experience. Again, if you get the chance, go see them. And if you don’t, well – here it is in pictures. My little slice of paradise.

Hadrian’s Villa

A guesstimated model of what Hadrian's Villa looked like during Hadrian's lifetime. My reaction: "Well...I guess I wouldn't mind living here. If I HAD to..."

The class at Hadrian's Villa. Our professors are the two women in sunglasses.

Olive trees. I am beyond positive there are mythical creatures living within these trunks.

I am a pillar of strength! Also, a dork.

Villa d’Este

The entrance hallway at Villa d'Este

Me in front of the first fountain I encountered. And no, you are not the first one to poke fun at me for not being able to touch my feet to the ground.

Mo' fountains.

Group fountain photo! These are the best girls. We explored together (read: splashed each other with water) all afternoon.

Villa Gregoriana

First view of the Villa. Can you really blame me for my overt romanticism in these situations?

There were rainbows. No pots of gold, though. But definitely rainbows.

And there were waterfalls. (Hearts and stars and horseshoes, clovers and blue moons!)

Annie and I on the descent. Note the backdrop.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood...and I, I took the one - well, I took the one that gave me the viewpoint over the Valley of Hell. And that has made all the difference.

A Note for a City – One City in Particular

24 May

The world is a very big place until something happens at home, and then, somehow, it all shrinks down. Down from the country to the state, down from the state to the city. And, in my case, down to one teacher and one classroom program in the City of New Haven.

When I first met Marcella Flake, I felt like I was truly in the presence of what a teacher ought to be. She led the classroom by demanding respect from the students because she gave it to them in return; she didn’t treat them like children and she didn’t tolerate childish behavior. “Do you think someone who is drunk or drug-addicted and homeless still deserves help?” she asked them bluntly. “Tell me what you think.”

And slowly the stories came out, and the critical thinking. One student relayed a time when his dad had given money to someone on a street corner and the personal story that had resulted, concluding, “I’m glad he helped.” Another, from her eighth grade perspective, just couldn’t understand why anyone would be stupid enough to drink in the first place. And so the conversation shifted there. Throughout it all, Ms. Flake called on the students by name, probed even further into their assumptions with follow-up questions, and shared with the classroom her own beliefs in respecting and helping every human being, simply because we have no idea what they have been through. “Does any child ever dream of growing up to be homeless?” she asked them. “Did any of you? What are your dreams for yourself? Do you ever think you might stumble and need a helping hand?”

I was there with my friend Joe as a representative of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project (YHHAP), a community service umbrella organization that I’m on the board of at Yale. Ms. Flake had contacted us and asked us to come speak to her class about hunger, homelessness, and service during a week of awareness that she was planning, and so we arrived armed with a few handouts, some heartwrenching statistics (they are still heartwrenching now), and an exercise that I had rewritten from my high school days about the varying conceptions of service. We were impressed by this teacher and program before we even walked through the doors – after all, who else organizes outside visitors to teach middle schoolers about complex social issues? – and we left even more energized by the discussion and by the program. Several weeks later, the students organized and held a huge fundraiser with the help of their teacher and donated the proceeds to social service organizations in New Haven. From this one little corner of the city, citizens were being made.

So why am I writing this now? This spring, Joe and I were invited back to the classroom to give another presentation in preparation for another big fundraiser: this time, a karaoke contest pitting a local TV station against YHHAP board members, one college’s students against another, policemen against students. It was a rip-roaring good time and both an intellectual and financial success, and at the end, we wrote an appreciative email. “We can’t wait to see you next year!” we concluded. This was quickly become an eagerly anticipated YHHAP Board outreach tradition.

And then, last week, we got it. The email from Ms. Flake that begins: “Unfortunately, there may not be a next year for us.” Due to budget cuts by the mayor of New Haven, the city is cutting all support for its Talented and Gifted Program, which is what Ms. Flake (among others) organizes. These kids – ones she has known since they were in the very beginning of grade school, the same ones she worked tirelessly to challenge and to engage, to open up and to inspire – will go back into the regular New Haven classrooms full time, at a level above those of their classmates but without any extra support to keep their minds working. For her part, Marcella Monk Flake is worried about gifted students turning into at risk students because of boredom. For my part, I am watching the critical future citizens of New Haven – the ones who are confident and informed enough to speak out, who can lead their friends and neighborhoods – lose an enormous set of opportunities.

Mayor DeStefano announcing the budget cuts, courtesy of Thomas MacMillan and the New Haven Independent

I don’t pretend to know everything about Talented and Gifted programs elsewhere in the country. Maybe they are, indeed, a form of fluff. But I do know about this classroom, about this crazy and all-encompassing New Haven program that brought in two Yale professors to teach eighth graders biomedical engineering and forced students to articulate their hopes and dreams. And I know it shouldn’t be lost. I’m writing a letter to Mayor DeStefano today to say so and to attempt to turn rant into change.

And again, why write this here? First, because it’s weighing heavy on my mind, and I think it’s something that everyone ought to be aware of. Because this is a problem not just in New Haven but in almost every city across America. There is just not enough to do it all, not enough to do even half of it all. This cut comes alongside less policing and the elimination of community celebrations like the annual tree lighting and Fourth of July fireworks. Cities are gasping for air and funds, and they can’t raise taxes but they also can’t keep pulling funds away from their futures in an effort to contribute pennies towards their rickety present. And if I’m truly going to learn how cities work, this is where it happens – in the giant gaps between what ought to be and what is.

I’m also writing this because, no matter how much traveling I do, I still belong to these communities. I’m rooted right here. My homepage will remain The New Haven Independent, and I will still take good note of the cupcake truck’s latest location. In today’s world, I think this is a balancing act that a good amount of us have to learn: how to fold ourselves into every inch of a new destination while keeping home somewhere at the top of the compass.

So for today, even as I pack suitcases for Rome and drive around the streets of New Hampshire, my mind is sitting up straight in a chair in the front row of a certain classroom. Let’s keep that kind of education alive.