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Here’s my situation: There’s a street in front of my house. Perhaps
you can relate.
Let me describe this street. It’s rather hard, mostly
smooth, mostly flat, made of some sort of composite material, beveled slightly
downward at the edges to accommodate rain runoff, pocked here and there with
lids covering access points to sewer and water infrastructure. We call these
access points “manholes,” though I assume women will also fit down them.
The street is connected to the houses lining it by a series
of umbilicals we homeowners call our “driveways.” This street is connected to some other
streets, which connect to still other streets, which connect to other streets, some
of which arrive at other locations within the city, others of which lead out of
the city, to other cities. Maybe you have a similar setup.
It’s the street where I live. This makes it my street.
I drive on the other streets, too. They’re lined with
houses. People live in those houses. I suppose the people in those houses think
of the streets I drive as their street.
Almost an unconscious thing.
I drive on their
streets. I don’t ask first. They’re very cool about it. They never complain.
And I pay their hospitality forward, too; other people drive down my street
every day, and they don’t ask permission either, and I’m extremely cool about
it, though my dogs are not cool about it.
|It's not very effective.
I use my street every day. It’s how I go places. If my street was gone, I’d miss it. I’d have to hunt for parking somewhere a block away, trudge out to my car whenever I wanted to use it.
If everyone else’s streets were gone, I’d miss them, too.
Interestingly enough, if all the streets disappeared, I’d miss everybody else’s
streets more than I'd miss my own. Moreover, if all of their streets were gone,
it wouldn’t really matter if my street were still there. I’d have to walk
everywhere, or get a vehicle that could handle cross-country driving, like an
F-Series truck, maybe, or a brace of oxen.
The value of my
street depends, intrinsically, on all of their
streets. And the value of their
streets depends, in part, on mine.
And, it seems, the collective mass of streets provides me more value—much more, in fact—than my own
The value and benefit of our streets are entangled with each
other, inextricably. You can’t take one away without diminishing the rest.
Each one by itself would be a bizarre curiosity. Together, they connect a community. Which leads me to a set of perhaps surprising conclusions: there is a community, that actually exists. And: I’m part of it.
None of this happened because any of us—me, my neighbors, you, your neighbors, and everyone in between—actively intended to
do it. It even happens if we don’t like each other. It happens pretty much exactly the same way for me and my neighbors even if we disagree with each other on literally everything—if fact, what we believe or intend or think has literally no impact on the benefit we receive from our street, or any inconvenience we would receive if the street were demolished. All that really matters, from a practical purpose, is that we are where we are, at this point in time.
Everyone I know has a street, in some manner of speaking.
I don’t know anybody who constructed their own street.
Question: Who put my street there, in front of my house?
Who put your
street there, in front of your house?
Who put my street there?
Have you ever wondered?
Literally, I mean. Who did it? Who’s the one person who is
responsible for my street?
It’s not a confusing question, but I don’t find the answer
Do you know who put your
I mean, I presume at some point there was a construction
crew, a group of people who did the actual labor of clearing the ground and digging
the trenches for water and gas and sewer and electrical hookups to the various
plots, then tamping it smooth, and grading it, and then maybe laying down
gravel, and then a layer of boroscite, and maybe then five layers of
muscelinated grist of various elasticities and torsions, and then the final
layer of toprock before planating the asphalt surface.
I would like to be clear: I don’t know how it’s done at all.
I am utterly clueless. In fact, I just made up most of those words I used.
But … the road crew knew. After all, they did it.
But I wonder: did any one of them know exactly every step of it? Is there any
one person among them who could, all by themselves, build the street?
After all, I assume they had a foreman of some kind, who had
the plan for the street, and understood each piece of it, and directed the
operation from start to finish. But could the foreman have operated each
machine used in the construction? Did the foreman have the actual physical
knowledge of each step and how to practically enact them? Put another way: if the
foreman had been left alone, could the street have still been built, however
slowly, and, if so, would it have been as skillfully done?
Even if the answer is ‘yes,’ can you say the foreman put the
street there? Did the foreman decide on putting my street there instead of somewhere else?
What about the plan the foreman followed? Did the foreman
make the plan? Probably not.
Probably there was some sort of city planner, a highly
trained civic engineer, perhaps an architect, who understood the proper way to build
the street, who drew up the plan, and the methods, specifications, regulations.
Perhaps the same city planner was even the one who coordinated the efforts, who
assigned the foreman and the road crew, who organized supplies.
But even in the unlikely scenario under which the city
planner did every bit of this work, could it be said the city planner built
First of all, could the city planner have done all the
labor? Would the city planner have been in possession of all the same tactical
practical physical knowledge as the foreman? Even if so, of course, you have
all the industries that made the materials and tools and equipment that came in
from elsewhere, which the crew used to build the street.
But even if you take away all that support … why did the
city planner decide to put the street there?
I assume the city planner decided to do that because she was
assigned to do it. And she was probably assigned to do it because there were
going to be houses put there. So there was zoning and registration and
parceling and all of the civic activity that’s necessary to have construction
come out and build houses to which a street might be connected, to connect to other
streets, without which the houses would have little value to the city.
I presume it’s because the city decided there needed to be a
The city decided? The
A city is a collection of buildings, isn’t it?
Who is “the city?”
Who put my street there?
I’m being coy, of course.
We know what is meant by ‘the city,’ when it comes to zoning decisions, and it isn’t a
collection of buildings.
We know why the street is there.
My street is there because somebody decided to build houses
there, and houses need streets.
Someone decided to build houses there because somebody
decided they wanted a house there, either to live in, or to sell to someone to
But they wouldn’t have wanted to do that, I presume, if
there hadn’t already been streets and houses nearby—would they? I mean,
conceivably, the construction crews that put the houses on my street could have
put those same houses in the middle of one of my state’s many forests, but they
I'm only speculating here, but perhaps it's because out in the middle of the woods, the houses
would have had very little value. Likely nobody would have bought them. And no
city would agree to build a street for them. They’d rot away, unlived in,
unknown, a bizarre and eerie curiosity for a hiker to find, or a wolverine.
The city agreed to build a street for those houses because
the city decided there would be value to adding to the city, in the form of more
people. And people need houses. And houses, of course, need streets.
And so the street was decided upon.
But we know it wasn’t the city. It was the people in the city. They decided.
But we know it wasn’t all
the people. It was the people appointed to the task of making those determinations.
They decided. When we say the city decided, we actually mean them. Those people, in that
moment … they were the city; a brief and
targeted manifestation of our collective will.
Our? Of course. All of us. We decided on them to be “the city.” At least, those of us that participated in that decision making process did.
Or those of us who were allowed to.
And then there were others of us, who perhaps were too busy or disinterested or disaffected or disenfranchised to participate directly, but who nevertheless hold a certain set of opinions about what is good and desirable, and that set of opinions lends itself to a general and shared knowledge set, which we might call "common knowledge" about what is good and desirable, which would inform our appointed decision-makers decisions in many ways, some of which they probably wouldn't even consciously think about.
And then they decided. And, if they were good at being the
city, they listened to what the "common knowledge" thought of that decision, and also remembered
previous similar decisions, and tried to replicate what had worked for the most
people from those previous decisions, and tried to avoid what hadn’t worked for
most people from those same decisions.
And in that way, as best they could, they represented our
A collective will. And streets are a delivery mechanism—one
of many—for that collective will. Streets are how the collective will delivers transportation to itself.
And then the city planner, drawing out the plans for the
street, became a brief targeted manifestation of our collective will.
And then the foreman, and the workers.
And then, finally, me.
Because our collective will decided that a street should be
there, for people to live in.
And they were right. There are people living in those
houses. I’m one of them. We live in the houses, connected to the street, and we
drive on the streets, and we give value to the city. We don’t live there in order to give the city value, but we
give it value all the same. Nor can we not give the city this value, unless we
choose to move away, and give some other city our value.
But of course, there was a time before any streets were
built, when people decided to live here instead of there. It
wasn’t a random decision. Some natural confluence occurred that people
recognized as providing some sort of natural value. In my city’s case, as with
so many cities, that confluence was something human beings naturally understood: water. Water sustains life. It
allows agriculture. It allows easy transportation to other cities down-river,
who made the decision to settle here instead of there for the
exact same reason we did. For my city, as with so many cities, our first street
was one we had no hand in building at all—a river.
Nobody did anything to get the river. The river was there,
delivering its value, and so people came to it, and from that natural delivery
system, we built more systems of our own to deliver value to those living
there—things like barges, docks, locks, fish ladders. And houses.
And streets. In a very literal sense, my street can be seen
as a branch off a river.
My street … at its very origins, it wasn’t something
purchased or earned. It was a natural gift. It’s natural.
But, if I and my neighbors weren’t there, the houses would
have no value and meaning, nor the street—unless others came and lived there.
If there were no people living in any of the houses, the city would have no
value, no meaning. It would be a bizarre and eerie curiosity.
We need there to be a community. A community needs there to
be us. And so it comes to be.
The street is there on my behalf, because it was decided
somebody should be there on everybody’s behalf, and that somebody turned out to
be me and my neighbors. If it hadn’t been us, it would have been somebody else,
unless nobody else came, in which case the houses, unlived in, would eventually
cease to exist, and so would the street.
We need there to be a community. A community needs there to
be us. And so it comes to be. And so we come to be. Because we are humans.
A street is a part of a natural human system. And I
am a human. Thus, I exist, in a very observable way, within a system. To
perceive it I just have to walk out to my mailbox and look both ways.
Who put my street there?
A.R. Moxon is a writer. His novel The Revisionaries, is available now, with the paperback edition releasing December 1, 2020.