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Monday, January 06, 2014

The Street Where I Live

It’s up to every individual to decide how they define success, happiness, and contentment. I’d like to think that my life in Spain will serve more of a purpose than just entertaining me for all of these years. On top of everything else that I’ve gained from this experience I feel that there is one essential lesson that I can take away from all of this as an American who was influenced in my late teens by Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and my own subsequent quest to seek out how to live my life. As much as I love the great outdoors I never looked to the wilderness as a place to suck the marrow out of life but rather sought to fight against the urban explosion which had been sending people farther out into the suburbs and away from city centers. After reading James Howard Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere I slowly began to learn the importance of our man-made geography, the way we make our cities, the way we live our day-to-day lives and I wanted to live mine better.

In fact, for a good portion of my life I never really had a good understanding of just what made up a city. For too long I defined it as simply a conglomeration of homes, and businesses, and schools, and everything else necessary in our lives, all stitched together by a fabric of roads. What really defines many people’s lives is the automobile although they’d be loath to admit this. It took me a long time to realize that something was wrong in my life, that something was missing, that I needed a change or possibly that I needed to change. Both the realization that something was wrong and the solution came about in increments and almost by accident over the course of many years and a few different time zones. Now it’s impossible for me to imagine living in any other manner.

What has become the most important aspect of my physical environment is now the street where I live, or more precisely, my block. Block is a nice word in English because it also defines the simplest element in construction. In New World Spanish they also refer to this city unit as a block, or cuadra. To refer to a city block in Spain they use the word manzana which many students of the language will recognize as a homonym of the word for apple although quite different etymologically speaking. Manzana appears to have come from the French maçon or mason and entered into common speech here in Spain only in the 17th century which explains the linguistic split of this word between Spain and the Americas. Even after all my years here in Spain I will sometimes betray my early education in Spanish by using the Mexican term for block.  Unlearning vocabulary is infinitely more difficult than learning new words.

You have countries and cities and neighborhoods but the block is the most vital element in all of these man-made constructions. City blocks are like individual islands within the city and the best of them are mostly self-sufficient. My block is a real beauty although it isn’t the least bit remarkable or extraordinary for Valencia. You wouldn’t think twice about it if you happened upon my block while traversing the neighborhood but to me it is the center of my universe, as it should be, as your block should be to you.

Before I show you my block we’ll begin with my apartment. I live on the fourth floor of a building with nine floors. I almost always take the stairs instead of the lift unless one of the following conditions is present:

1) I’m going up or down with my bike or with a heavy load of shopping (although I’ve been known to hump up and down the stairs with my trusty steed rather than wait).
2) I’m feeling lazy (very rare).

My fourth floor vantage is just enough to keep me a bit above the street noise yet low enough that taking the stairs is not a big deal (I doubt I’d walk up very often if I lived on the ninth). I don’t have much of a view in the conventional sense but I never tire of my street life panorama. In the front I look over a bustling, palm-lined street with plenty of traffic both pedestrians and vehicular. The car speeds are slower because of the traffic and signal patterns. There is also a nice bike lane all the way down my street. You have to go out on the front balcony and really strain to see anything other than city and then it’s just sky. No one ever promised me an ocean view and I don’t expect one, perhaps in my next life.

The back of my apartment looks out to what is called the patio de manzana which is the inside of the square of buildings that make up my block. Above the ground floor below is the roof of the supermarket which takes up the entire interior of the block. I have always loved the patio de manzana view because it’s like getting a front row seat to the lives of my neighbors. Many apartments have balconies facing this back area although for some strange reason Valencianos don’t like using them for anything other than hanging laundry and storage. I’m one of the few people who use the balcony as a living area. I think that this reluctance to use balconies is related to another curiosity I have noticed in Valencia which is that most people have their blinds closed all the time, winter, summer, day, and night. I've asked around a lot but I've never been given a good answer as to why this is. I think it’s simply a sort of stage fright or a desire for privacy. I wouldn’t consider myself to be an exhibitionist but I like having my windows wide open and my balcony is my favorite place in my apartment.

Most apartment buildings have this interior patio de manzana but I lived in a couple of places without this feature and I always felt like a kid who didn’t get a prize in his box of Cracker Jack. A less common feature of apartments here in Spain is something called a patio de luz which is an opening in the middle of the building. This interior shaft gives light to the inside rooms of a building which don’t face the street or the back area. Sometimes this shaft is only a small opening and sometimes it is perhaps four meters by four meters. The rooms that open on to this interior shaft can be a little noisy because you can hear your neighbors only a few meters away but it is yet another interesting aspect to Spanish life that I feel privileged to share—I also appreciate the light and fresh air they afford to these interior rooms of the apartment. My current place has both of these patios and a balcony big enough for a table and two chairs. I feel pretty lucky.

I’m also lucky enough to live right on the edge of what most people believe is the best neighborhood in the city. There is an absolutely ridiculous amount of good bars and restaurants as well as a fine market. The area is artsy and hip with a lot of cool, historic architecture. The last time I was forced to find a new apartment I was terrified that I might have to live away from this great neighborhood that I have come to know as home. But as great as my cool neighborhood may be it has to take a back seat to my block.  This is where I spend a good portion of my life because, well, this is where I live.

Although it comes pretty close my block isn’t perfect but to criticize where I live would be like pointing out the flaws in a beautiful woman which is something that I’d never do. Let me take you on a walk around my block. You can even hold my hand. I hope you don’t mind walking down the stairs to the street below. My building was probably built in the late 1970s but even then they didn’t skimp on the majesty of the entrance-way foyer and mine has beautiful marble floors and a mirrored wall next to the lift. The street is a four-lane thoroughfare with a median area boasting a line of Washingtonian palms. There are wide sidewalks shaded with plane trees and a bike lane as I mentioned before. It’s a busy street but a recent redesign has made it calmer and better suited to pedestrians. Before I moved here the street was three lanes in each direction and it was truly frightful and ugly. This street represented a barrier for me as a cyclist and pedestrian, a sort of automobile Berlin Wall. I rarely ventured to cross it. It is much friendlier now and has opened the neighborhood up so that now I include areas on the other side of this thoroughfare in my pedestrian life which were once less accessible.  

One disadvantage to living in a city is that just a step out your door life can be painfully, sometimes embarrassingly public. I just took out a load of trash looking like a total slob who slept on a park bench (not a bad look for me). In the gauntlet of 25 meters between the front door of my building and the trash container I have to pass a supermarket and a bus stop. Believe me, you can definitely be under-dressed for a trip to the dumpster.

The ground floor of almost every building in the city is set aside for commercial and retail purposes so that every apartment building has at least one business on the first floor. As I turn right out of my front door there is one of the major supermarket chains shares part of my building’s first floor. I can’t think of a better next door neighbor than a supermarket. Just around the corner there is a thrift shop—a rather new development in Spain where people wouldn’t have thought of buying used items, and then came the crisis). I’ve bought a lot of books there and a few other odds and ends. There is a car repair shop, a hair dresser, two internet cafés, a tobacco shop, a couple of shoe stores, a dermatology center, an electric appliance store, a pharmacy, a news stand, two mobile phone company outlets, and two green grocers—all of this without crossing a street.

Directly adjacent to my block if you step just across the street the possibilities multiply exponentially. There are five cafés, a Chinese variety shop, another appliance store, a bank, and most importantly for me, a bike-share station. There is a bus stop right outside my door and there is a new underground line that was supposed to open just two blocks away but this metro expansion was mothballed because of the economic crisis. Cutting back on public transportation hardly seems like the antidote for the poison of an economic crisis brought on almost entirely by the financial sector but Valencia already has a great system and it is also a city easily negotiated on foot or bicycle.

For most of my adult life I have relied very little on the automobile for my personal use and here in Spain I have lived car-free. I rarely even ride as a passenger in a car—and then only grudgingly—opting instead for bikes, buses, and trains. While I would never tell anyone else that they should give up their car I can say that living without an automobile and all of the attendant issues has been pretty wonderful. It has also been a fantastically economical way to live. Unfortunately for a lot of Americans living without a car isn’t feasible because in most communities we gave up on public transportation a long, long time ago; in other suburban areas, in a complete failure of design, population densities don’t support mass transit.

Just why anyone would bother to own and drive a car in Valencia (or any major European city) is a mystery to me but I think that if cars were outlawed tomorrow most people here would get along just fine. Imagine that scenario in Los Angeles or Dallas or Atlanta. As much as a prohibition against cars would please me there is no chance of that happening but when it costs almost $100 to fill your tank in Spain it’s difficult to imagine anyone being able to afford to drive. Parking your dormant vehicle is another thorny and often expensive question. One thing you won’t see in my neighborhood is a surface parking lot. Many of the newer apartment buildings have an underground garage but none of the older buildings have this luxury. There are a few public underground garages but little in the way of street parking. The traffic isn’t nearly as bad as you will see in U.S. cities of this size but unless you have an assured parking spot wherever it is you are going you should expect to spend the time you saved driving looking for a place to leave your ride.

As oil prices move inexorably upward and the automobile gets priced out of the budget of middle and lower class families a car-free existence won’t provide much of a hardship in communities where most Spanish people live. In fact, as I have learned, living without a car will probably increase the quality of life for many people. In all of these years of not owning a car it would be difficult for me to say what has been the best thing about my car-less status. There is the fact that I don’t have a car payment, or insurance, nor do I spend money on petrol. I don’t waste even a moment of my life looking for parking or sitting in traffic. Although I barely remember the concepts what I really don’t miss are mechanical problems and break-downs. In all of last year I only had one flat tire on my bike which constituted my one and only bike failure. I doubt that life on Walden Pond was much simpler than that.

Bus stop and supermarket

The café isn't technically on my block but is only about 25 meters from the front door of my building.


  1. Human beings require human scale, human pace, and human contact in order to become fully realized as people. Too bad so few people (Americans) have reconciled that. I assume you have. But if you haven't, as I have not fully done so, at least you are traveling the right road, in the right way, with the right folks. I commend you for that. You inspire me, and I am envious. I hope to see you in the neighborhood someday soon.

  2. I have happily lived downtown in a large city for the last 15 years. I cannot imagine my life anywhere else. I live in one of the few major US urban centers that has extensive and accessible public transportation and is bicycle friendly. I have a 9th-floor loft with an amazing cityscape view, and everything I need to live life comfortably is within walking distance. Everything else is within biking distance. Is this the ideal life for everyone? I hardly care. But it is for me.

  3. I really enjoyed this. How about some pictures of your block?

  4. I will try to take a couple of good pictures when the block is busy. Speaking of mechanical problems, yesterday I had two flats on my bike ride and it rained. I limped home on a slow leak and had to stop every few blocks to pump up the tire.

  5. Sounds nice, and I would also not have a car if I lived in the City. However, I live in the campo, several kilometres from the shops, bars, and sundry attractions. Today, we went horseback riding. Sometimes, I take a long walk. The family car though - a nasty old rattletrap with no heating and an irritating and arbitrary self-locking system - gets a stretch almost every day.


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