My sister has asked me what my perspective is on the death of thousands of refugees in Europe this summer. Herewith.
There is obviously a spatial aspect to the immigration crisis unfolding in Europe. The question is whether there is also an answer to be found in the framing, forming, and allocation of space.
Some in the U.S. today have proposed following the examples of the former East Germany and Israel by enclosing the space it considers theirs. Hungary would like to do the same thing, building a fence towards the border with the former Yugoslavia. History teaches us that such restrictions only work if they are part of a regime of oppression in which the state completely controls every room and nook of daily life. Spatial control has to be complete or resistance will form both at its edges and in the cracks where the inner life of the self connects with others to open up a social space.
The irony is that the nascent united countries of Europe have in recent years come to resemble the U.S. in their erasure of spatial boundaries. On a positive note, there are no more borders in most of Europe’s heartland. Only when you hit the United Kingdom do the endless lines at the airports and train stations remind you of what it used to mean to travel across the continent. Free space is not just a question of those edges, though. The unification of rules has also broken down the barriers between neighborhoods and districts, creating the beginning of the kind of multicultural mix of public and private space that enriches so many of America’s largest cities.
On the downside, these same forces have also created something else America has had for a long time: ghettos where people from one background or place gather together through a combination of economic and social coercion and self-defense. These spaces define pockets with a set of spatial and visual qualities, but find it difficult to define boundaries and nearly invisible controls on economic and social freedom. The other side of that particularization is the spread of homogeneity across Europe, so that every Main Street now looks the same and has the same stores with the same layout.
In other words, the united states of Europe are becoming like the United States of America, for better or for worse, in a physical sense. What happened this summer is an acceleration of this process that has produced human suffering and death at a level that we in the U.S. have not had to confront.
I would hope that Europe would learn from what made the U.S. great: the continued influx of people from other places who brought their talents, their dreams, their ability to work, and their culture here to become part of what makes this such a diverse place. We once had a simple grid that housed all of that vibrancy, and a sense of democratic space that extended to the construction of simple houses out of that grid (using “stick construction”), open office spaces, and campuses’ public space where everybody could become part of a shared culture.
Despite what some think today, the open spaces from sea to shining sea worked well to accommodate all of us—until we decided that some immigrants were different and did not deserve access to those spaces. It not only would be disappointing if Europe and the U.S. both would fail to learn from the American Dream and the space it provides, it would be a crime against humanity made real in the space of the closed trucks where immigrants die.