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Art & Social Space
Suburban Thoughts : Part 1
by Maria Angélica Melendi

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The suburb is pumped water and alleyways, but it is also the balustrade of Heaven and the honeysuckle yet to be and the cage with the canary. As the gossips say, "Attentive people"...


Every work is the model of a changeable world. Every work, no matter how critical or negative, passes through that changeable world stage, because therein one finds elements that are usually separated.


I. On the suburb

The concept of suburbs — a word almost extinct — has been confused during the past few years with perphery. The prefix sub, in classical Latin, has both a spatial and a temporal meaning. In the former, it indicates something which is underneath; in the latter sense, it signifies after, until, at this time. In ancient Rome, where the term originated, suburbia was the city surroundings, a place no longer the urbs — metropolis — but not yet achieving the status of rur — the rural region. In fact, a place-in-between, a space of passage, a place which could be not be fully urban nor fully rural.

In contemporary cities, the suburb appears and disappears, generally like an oil stain, closing in upon and asphyxiating. The merger of one suburb with another destroys that territorial gap forming the border between urban and rural. For this reason the suburbs are today, more than ever, places of transit, where battles take place for housing rights or housing conditions; they are the outposts of minority cultures, of social and ethical mixtures, or of transitions between religions and laicisms.

There is a suburb, however, which is everywhere, even in the heart of the urban centers, which denounces a life not lived and nevertheless obliges us to live it. It is for that reason that we cannot consider it a periphery, because a periphery is born from social exclusiveness, both localized and marginal.

In that suburb everything is mixed and everything is transformed, because this concept of the surburban is a way of life, existing, being. Marginal, not because it is in the margin, but because it is always moving between one margin and another — center/suburb or suburb/center — the suburban being is, perhaps, the only one who manages to enjoy the city in all its plenitud and in all its risks.

One must, therefore, circulate in those places (those suburbs) and try to create connections between what is safe and everyday and what is uncertain, unknown. This process gives rise to a sensation of displacement, a state of apprehension leading to a perceptive intensification which announces the imminent possibility of a discovery, a sudden fear of an unwanted meeting, the moment in which, suddenly, space takes on a meaning, a glance becomes penetrating, the ear is ready to listen.

As collective subjects we should investigate these territories, paying particular attention to the marginal areas and the urban vacuums, spaces which have been abandoned or are in the process of transformation. These represent the negative side of the built city, they are borderline areas where anything can happen. Concentrated there are the memories removed by the unceasing development of urban systems. There one finds the space of conflict and contamination where organic and inorganic, nature and artifice are merged.

At some moment in the twentieth century, the idealization of the suburb was affirmed as a topos of Latin American culture. The suburb was a pleasant place and, above all, real, where immigrants and emigrants, the workmen necessary for the recent industrialization, lived — the humble people of the Chico and Vinicius song. Simple houses, tenements, bars, the neighbors talking in the doorway, the men at the bar table, the children playing on the sidewalk. Jorge Luis Borges whose work, in great part, is based on a certain fictional memory of the suburbs of Buenos Aires, declares:

Suburb is an apprehensive word, an exaggeration by Man who is afraid to lose the last train. No-one tells us “I live in the suburb of So-and-So”— they prefer to say in which district.

That use of words for generic localization — the center, the district, the parish — seem to serve to affirm an identity which is still in the process of negotiation. The words of distance — the suburb, the outskirts, the pampa — are linked, according to Borges, to a barbaric denotation. His vision of the suburb is completely opposed to this. In these places — the suburbs, the outskirts — we will find the involuntary beauty of the city, much more authentic and expressive than that of the works manufactured to be, deliberately, beautiful.

The writer reminds us, however, that that suburb is a projection, almost an illusion, created by the work of some poets and artists who, by imposing their own vision of the suburb on the reader, modified the consistency and sense of the real suburb. I vindicate that idealized and unromantic vision of the suburb, today, in order to counter the notion of periphery. Because if the suburb, despite being problematic, still comes within the metropolis and participates in the urban concept, the periphery, torn loose in a whirlwind of misery, violence and fear, appears at the same time to deny and emphasize all the qualities of the city.

Paradoxically more urban than the urbe itself, the suburb takes shape, barely, based on the fictional reminicences of unlived times. There exists in all of us a nostagia for a certain suburb which belongs to us and which is always on the edge of an imprecise past, at the edge of a time which, we believe, was better.

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