Friday, August 2, 2013

Meeting our neighbors

Sometime last winter we saw a notice by our door inviting us to a neighborhood meeting about a proposed parking garage to be built behind our house, cutting into our yard. We thought we ought to attend, but we already had travel plans and we forgot about it until this week. On Tuesday people started walking around in our yard with architectural drawings, directing other people to put up a temporary fence showing our new boundary line. Suddenly everybody in our building became alarmed at once.

The one guy who had attended the first meeting drafted a petition for us all to sign. While it wasn’t exactly what we would have said if we had more time to think it over, it made the point that the project appeared to be proceeding without normal governmental approvals or authority and it discussed the ecological ramifications of cutting down a big stand of healthy trees in the center of the city. Many of us got together in the yard that evening to sign it.

At the big gathering, I suddenly learned names to go with the faces we passed month-by-month going and coming. The guy who never smiled at me cracked a smile. People from other staircases introduced themselves. And everybody who knew something about ecology, bureaucratic processes, law and publicity shared what they knew. I also learned that a former Prime Minister of Belarus lives in our building. He didn’t come to the meeting, and somebody suggested that somebody else should go and knock on his door. Alla volunteered, running home first to get a copy of a book he’d written. The Prime Minister read the document carefully, and asked for some changes before he would sign it. Unfortunately, this came late in the process so everybody else signed a different version.

Some neighbors began to inform the media about the story, and by the next day photographers and TV crews came to see us. Alla met another famous neighbor, a wrestler who won gold medals in three successive Olympics and numerous world championships, and she talked to a reporter who turned out to represent a Polish station. Next thing we knew, she featured prominently in a news story cast as a battle between two elite factions, the residents of our building and the Committee on Investigations. (The Committee on Investigations took over a museum-building project and converted it into a palatial office for themselves next door. The parking lot is for them, and they’ve managed so far to skirt the city’s generally-strict environmental regulations because they consider themselves exempt.)

I don’t know what’s going to happen to the trees. To us it’s a large quality-of-life issue because the trees at stake are enormous and they’re a bit of an oasis in a city growing more and more dense every year. In addition, we see it as an opportunity to support the rule of law and the city’s well-intended environmental regulations. Unfortunately, however, we arrived at this point late in a powerful process. It’s going to be interesting.


  1. Aw, man. This is called "уплотнение", google it up or ask Alla to explain it for you. This is a serious issue in the city that expands in population more rapidly than in size. You just felt some of it.
    Here's a glimpse of the picture for you:

    By the way, I saw you a couple of days ago in town. You didn't look that much American, but... Yes, you've made yourself a name.

  2. Thanks for reading, and thanks for sharing some more information about what seems to be a more common problem than I realized.