I’ve stood there so many times on my way home. A place that had been a foreign, maybe even hostile land throughout my youth at the other end of Odense. A place that was outside the sphere of my understanding – a gateway to a whole other world inhabited by doctors, local football legends and other fabulous creatures whose existence I could barely imagine.
On the corner of Hunderupvej and Læssøegade, under the enormous oak that – I always note – quite meticulously twists and turns each of the yellow tiles placed over its giant roots. A sort of slow wrestling match between civilization and nature, where nature decides to move another brick every time the mason turns his back, just to see if he’ll keep coming back to sprinkle the sand again. Sprinkling sand and righting the lines.
I’ve stood there again and again – waiting for green at the crosswalk. The time is never so long that my thoughts untether from my senses, but just enough that impressions become something other than clear-cut observations. A grounded dream world.
I look up along Hunderupvej. It’s a damn good space. I think that every time. A space for people.
If it is a warm evening – regardless of the day of the week – the windows at Carlsens are slightly ajar. Often helped along by a shoe or a shirt instead of the traditional clasp. As if to somehow skirt the fact that the closest neighbors can hear everything that gets said, shouted or laughed inside. The windows are dappled with pearls of steam and a soft light shapes the sidewalk and the hundreds of bicycles that have brought night-roused beer enthusiasts to the pub. On the stoop that faces the city there are often a couple of men smoking, or friends, waiting for other cyclists to arrive from one of the other corners of the world. Arms are thrown aloft, hugs clog the sidewalk, smiles are shared.
When I’m standing there waiting, there’s just time enough for irritation. About Barfoed’s ugly zinc pennant logos, which – infuriatingly – have appropriated the space and the history swaying over the two distinguished buildings on the corners of Hunderupvej and Læssøegade.
The light turns green and I walk up Hunderupvej. I look up at the roof of the street, where the false acacias - or Robinias, I think they are – tower. These are trees that green late and shed their leaves early, but regardless of the season present a picturesque crown that grants the urban space a roof and an even more human character. When I walk there in the early summer, I am overwhelmed by the sweet and lightly perfumed scent from the trees’ giant clusters of white pea-flower looking blooms. An aroma that is even more present because I know its time is so brief. Then the flowers are carried away by the wind and down onto the street. Here, they comprise a fine white runner, which frames the street’s dance, where the stories of passers-by are briefly woven together. It reminds me of Jane Jacobs’ image of the good city’s streets, where people meet one another in an improvised ballet:
"This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance — not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any once place is always replete with new improvisations."
I walk past Carlsens and arrive at the crook of Hunderupvej. On the right, the sidewalk is wide and the buildings shaped by everyday necessities – simple, but relatively nice, with high basement windows, each telling its own story. Most are rental units. On the left side are the majestic, decorated perimeter-block buildings – both sides engaged in a quiet conversation about red bricks. Successful integration without assimilation.
I think about the Hunderupvej of days past. Back when the cable car carried cheerful weekending Odensians up the street to Hunderup Forest. Back when front yards filled most of the now-broad sidewalks.
And it reminds me that the tall cellar windows are on the right side because it was here that the noises and smells of trade abounded, only troubling the commoners upstairs. Like J.P. Jensens Butchery and Meats on Hunderupvej 23, which later housed a camera shop. Or the little greengrocer’s that sold milk for Sanderum Dairy in number 29. Back when day-to-day life was the street and the street lived day-to-day.
The left side of the street was free from this sort of thing, because it was populated by the upper class (it probably still is). The left side of the street, where every single building still manages to strike an almost symphonic harmony between unique, beautiful ornamentation on the individual units and an architectural sense of wholeness throughout the block. Noblesse Oblige. Old money that doesn’t shirk its responsibility to the town that made it. Like Anton Rosen’s protected building from 1902 at Hunderupvej 34, erected in tile, sandstone and cement. Perhaps a bit too decorative, I think. Though still with a copper pennant which reads 1902 instead of Barfoed.
And on the highest balcony, I sometimes see a couple of young men hanging out in their work clothes. Drinking a beer and talking about girls, I imagine. They really don’t belong there on the left side, I’ve often thought, and wonder if they live there, if they know that they are sitting on a balcony that was designed by one of Denmark’s finest architects? And then again - it’s kind of a moving thought, I think.
My gaze drifts back to the right side. Maybe history isn’t so far away, or maybe it moves in circles. In the basement of number 29, some of the inhabitants have opened a little shop where they sell their own art and will sharpen your knives for you on special fine-grained whetstones and leather straps. They also have a little table and a couple of chairs where they sit when the sun approaches noon – where they join the dancing street. They don’t understand why so many people choose to sit in their back yards, they’ve told me – and they’re quite right. Here on the street there’s room to be yourself and become a part of others at the same time.
100 meters of street where people meet. A ballroom with a green roof for pedestrians. A portal between two worlds. 100 meters of street that tell stories about the daily life of past times and perhaps about the future. Maybe this little patch of street is a reminder about possible futures for other streets in Odense, where it will be possible to live, exist, trade, meet and drink a drop of fellowship on a warm summer’s evening. Where high and low can live side-by-side. A street where life is lived in urban spaces, built for people.
This is the endpoint of my journey. This is my home. Even though I still tell people that I live by Carlsens, and not on Hunderupvej.
The last few years it has been possible to detect a growing criticism of - and perhaps even outright negativity towards - the transformation our city is undergoing. Byens Ø, T. B. Thriges gade, etc. The article Bygges Byen Bedre? (Can the City be Built Better?) from earlier this year is just one example of this, while a group like Bevar Siloøen (Preserve the Silo-Island) is an example of a group that might be termed actively critical of transformation itself.
A few months ago, I attended a series of talks about civic activism and urban transformation with a focus on architecture. First of all, I learned a lot by being there. But I also became aware of a dynamic that I hadn’t noticed before: That those who take a critical stance toward modernization and transformation of city spaces are unfairly expected to provide alternative solutions along with their critiques.
The Demand For An Alternative?
By which I mean to say that while a group or individual who opposes a particular political decision may well have a stronger case if they are able to present an alternative, it cannot become a prerequisite that in order to be allowed to criticize a decision, a citizen or citizen’s group must at the same time also be able to formulate a solution which has measurably better outcomes than the original proposal.
There are a lot of good arguments to support this stance, but I’m going to present two that I hope can set a proper tone for discussion the next time two conservative city councilors sneak in the back door and hijack an article about urban transformation in order to score a few cheap points on the citizen-engagement-scale.
My ambition with this article is to inspire reflection about political engagement. Regardless of whether the debate concerns our surroundings or the infrastructure and service we get for our tax kroner, we have a right to an opinion about the city in which we make up the population.
The Sudoku Lover
Imagine a random person; or perhaps rather imagine an average person. This average person has an array of skills, among which are an ability to solve Sudokus. It turns out she isn’t entirely average, however, because she loves solving Sudokus and spends 3 hours every weekend solving these Japanese math puzzles. Her constant training has the effect that she is now a mid-level Sudoku-loving Sudoku- solver.
This average Sudoku-lover subscribes to her paper precisely because it has made space in the back pages for no less than 3 Sudokus. She buys the paper Saturday and Sunday and as a result spends a half hour reconfiguring numbers in the squares of each Sudoku over the course of a weekend.
One Saturday morning she discovers to her great disappointment that the three Sudokus have been reduced to one, in favor of an expansion of crossword puzzles over her beloved math puzzles.
She immediately sits down and writes a complaint to the newspaper she had otherwise enjoyed for so long. In this mail she declares that she is prepared to find another paper if they don’t reinstate the three Sudokus and immediately banish the imperialistic word game to the corner which had been good enough for it all these years. On Monday morning, the paper answers that the change is due to a notable drop in the number of Sudoku-solvers among their readership and that crossword-enthusiasts once again outnumber Sudoku-solvers.
Support and Facts
The slightly cheeky customer support employee who is manning the keyboard this particular Monday morning tells the Sudoku-lover that she is very welcome to come up with a better alternative, which he can pass on to the back-page editor. The Sudoku-lover naturally declines, feeling that she has a lost cause on her hands.
But what neither the employee nor the Sudoku-lover know is that recently a number of newpapers and weeklies have been in the process of an aggressive marketing push specifically targeting the Sudoku-solving segment because they actually represent a larger customer base than crossword-enthusiasts.
Thus, the Sudoku-solver had in fact unknowingly presented a better alternative, but since none of the involved parties could evaluate the proposal in light of relevant data, this never became apparent.
Another, more academically based line of argument takes its genesis in sociologist and political theoretician, Jon Elster’s concept of Adaptive Preference Formation, which denotes a mechanism in the human cognitive system.
In an oft-paraphrased anthropological study supposedly stemming from the middle of the 19th century, a group of scientists note that slaves in the American south’s cotton fields don’t seem to have a burning desire for freedom. When asked about their wishes, most answer – quite contrary to expectations- things like more food, better sleeping arrangements, etc..
The study has since been taken to show how we humans adapt our desires so that they exist within a more realistic framework. And thereby, that our circumstances determine our desires, which combined with the aforementioned study explains why slaves weren’t able to formulate a desire for freedom until their outer circumstances changed enough to allow it to be experienced as an actual possibility.
The veracity of this supposed anthropological study has been called into question many times, but none the less it serves to illustrate the mechanism which Jon Elster brings up, and which he quite convincingly argues exists in us all.
When you have to make a decision, you do it from an incomplete list of possibilities. If, for example, I have to move because I am being evicted from my current apartment, I make a list of possible solutions in my head and take my immediate choice from it. In spite of the incompleteness that characterizes this list. I hadn’t considered the possibility of living in Odense’s harbor before someone built apartments there and I hadn’t thought of the neighborhood around Skibhusgade before a friend of mine showed me that this was a place you could actually live; Just to name a couple of banal examples.
I haven’t mentioned Elster merely to point out that we make choices from incomplete sketches of our possibilities, but to bring attention to the fact that there are systematic flaws in the sketches themselves. When in a given political discussion we are asked to propose an alternative, we have to be aware that this alternative - according to Elster – is very rarely visionary, because visionary solutions are by nature unrealistic alternatives.
Obviously it can’t be my duty as an ordinary citizen to have to show the tax ministry how to run its affairs, in order to be justified in criticizing it. And it cannot be my job as an average person to construct a local development plan that ensures reasonable construction in Odense’s harbor, in order to have the right to say that they currently have the wrong priorities. It is without a doubt my right to present objections toward any – from my point of view – unwise proposed solutions.
And that is precisely the point. Because the slaves who weren’t able to conceive of freedom– whether or not they were fictional – were no less deserving of it. It has to be ok to voice a criticism, without single-handedly being able to propose your own alternative solution.
The hope is that the Visionary one day hears this cry and helps to formulate a viable alternative. But in order for her to hear it, it is important that the critique be allowed to ring out, loud and clear.
It has become a tradition that my siblings, our common friends and I, sail our ship to Odense during the Harbour Culture Festival (Havnekulturfestival). This year's trip in through the canal was quite a ride through the narrow inlet which ended in 20 minutes of circling in front of Odin's Bridge, while dancing salsa to an awesome MØ remix. We docked at the Byens Ø, sent snaps and group text messages, and the evening tired around quickly. The boat filled up with lots of happy people in no time. With about a ton of guests on board, the sonar was reading 0.4m and the Danish flag was licking the tips of the murky harbour water. But the captain is not worried, nor is the crew. Thousand robbery stories, kisses and hugs later we all fall asleep, arm in arm, wrapped in wooly blankets and kapok pillows.
When we wake up in the morning, the festival has already begun. It smells of barbecue and samosas. A steady stream of paddle-boarders, canoes and yellow water-bikes pass by during our morning status meeting, while we fix a broken guitar string, eat cheese bread and smear factor 30 on each other's backs. The harbour master also drops by for a chat, a cup of coffee and a MobilePay. He is not so busy, because even though there is a harbour festival, the docks are not close to being fully booked. Someone went out and found a festival program and we were surprised at how much there was to experience. And then the days go by. Too fast. Concerts, skateboards, scrapes and bumps guarantees a boat filled with snores every night. It is quite amazing to have a small base in the midst of the harbour, just as permanent residents of the big flat buildings all over the harbour, but something special happens when boarding the boat. All food and drink was shared, new people greeted and stories exchanged of what has been unavoidably missed around the harbour.
We raise our glass to the Harbour Culture Festival. And now back on the rough sea, rocking gently and reading a little more by Troels Kløvedal, this summer's cheesy guilty pleasure.