Cualquier semejanza con la Ciudad de Mexico y la sociedad mexicana, es mera coincidencia? o es producto de identicas politicas publicas estatistas, aplicadas por los gobiernos ‘revolucionarios’ durante 75 años de gobiernos del PRI y 13 años de gobierno de sus clones del PRD, que han hecho que el ciudadano irresponsable y comodino asuma que es el gobierno el que debe arreglar todo y proveer todo.
For Release Saturday, September 17, 2011 Citiwire.net
SOFIA, Bulgaria — Residents of this graffiti-pocked capital awoke one recent Saturday to find their controversial Monument to the Soviet Army had been painted to look like Superman, Santa Claus and other American pop-culture icons.
Reactions ranged from delight at the anti-authoritarian creativity to finger-wagging at vandalism to a dour scolding from the Russian embassy. Was it freedom of expression — a witty political statement? Or was it just hooliganism — another example of a culture of disrespect for the city’s deteriorating public spaces?
More than 20 years after the fall of communism, Sofians confront one of the intrinsic tensions found in any democratic society: How to support the creative messiness of individual freedom and free expression without losing a sense of collective order? It’s a tension American society hasn’t yet resolved after 235 years of self-government.The monument-painting itself highlighted a long-simmering disagreement over the fate of the 1954 commemoration of the Soviets’ 1944 “liberation.” But the vandalism (or artistry, take your pick) also can be viewed as a symptom of a debate that’s less monumental, if you will, but with more significance for Sofians’ daily lives. It’s the city’s inability to find the wherewithal, or the private support, to care for the public places its residents use daily. Many of Sofia’s public places are a shambles, a result of either civic disregard or vandalism — or both. This, too, echoes conditions in too many U.S. cities.
Sidewalks in Sofia can be minefields for the unwary, with crumbling pavers and ankle-deep potholes. Many motorists eschew parking lots in favor of parking right on the sidewalks, the vehicles blocking pedestrians and cracking pavement. (Might Sofia’s mayor take a hint from the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, who for a stunt video in July crushed an illegally parked Mercedes with a tank?)
In central Sofia’s numerous parks, benches are as likely to be broken as to offer respite. In some places weeds are knee-high. Along the pedestrianized Pirotska Street, crumbling concrete installed only a decade ago betrays both shoddy workmanship and slipshod upkeep. Graffiti is ubiquitous.
“Sofia is a beautiful city, but it is shabby and poorly maintained,” city architect Petar Dikov told a group of visiting European and U.S. planners from Johns Hopkins’ International Urban Fellows program. Dikov was ebullient over the charms of the mountain-rimmed city, but frank about the challenges. A factor even more important than municipal funding, he said, is Sofians’ attitude, built over years of socialism. The Soviet era taught Bulgarians to wait for the state to do just about anything, he and others said.
Under communism, public spaces were well maintained but tightly controlled, explained Sofia architect Ivo Panteleev. Rigid orderliness repelled the informal social activities that in freer societies enliven (and sometimes make messes of) public spaces. Communism’s end introduced that messiness, along with the ragged inequity of free enterprise and a city government struggling with maintenance costs.
The unkempt result in Sofia, to the visitor’s eye, can mirror the slovenliness found more and more often in U.S. cities, as governments in the grip of anti-taxation and anti-government conservatives find themselves too strapped to afford even routine maintenance. In those circumstances, a do-it-yourself ethic can be a welcome, if random, palliative for severe budget cuts.
Some of that optimism and a nascent “do-it-yourself” spirit is on display in Sofia. Dobromir Borislavov, 32, is unpaid executive director of the nonprofit Friends of the Doctor’s Garden, which aims to improve a century-old former botanical garden. As we walked past a towering boxwood and Borislavov pointed to ginkgo trees and other specimens, he described a generational split. Under communism, he said, “People weren’t even allowed to make a joke about the government. A person was nobody. You weren’t allowed to make any proposals.” Some older Bulgarians, he said, retain those attitudes. To them, repairing a bedraggled park seems like a government responsibility.
Coincidentally, during the Johns Hopkins planners’ conference, a Sofia-born New York planner from the nonprofit Project for Public Spaces led a two-day workshop on improving Bulgaria Square. It’s a concrete expanse surrounding the 1981-vintage National Palace of Culture. A volunteer group of architects had made a cold call to PPS’ New York office, and the call landed on Elena Madison’s desk. Madison, who visits Sofia yearly to see family, is optimistic about the venture. “I’ve been trying to get someone interested,” she said. “It never had any legs. This time around I didn’t even initiate this.”
Madison sees more Sofians stepping up to care for the city’s shared public areas; she described how residents where her parents lived had fixed up and planted flowers in a common area. But she, too, railed at the crumbling sidewalks and scofflaw parking.
It’s clear that solving systemic problems requires more than relying on individuals and can-do volunteerism, however welcome those efforts are. Either the government must step in, or it will in effect abandon parts of the city to weeds, broken benches and unwalkable sidewalks.
In that way, Sofia already resembles parts of too many U.S. cities. My own city, the formerly booming banktown of Charlotte, now fights an unemployment rate that’s been in double-digits for three years running. The public is in no mood for “frills” such as park amenities. When a new greenway park opened last year, Charlotteans grumbled about “waste” because of its clock tower, kiosk and fountains. Rather than raise property taxes, the elected county commissioners over a period of two years chose to slash the park department’s budget by 40 percent and chop its library system almost in half.
Far from Sofia and its battered sidewalks and broken benches, our U.S. sidewalks and streets and parks grow shabby. The other day, on a busy street in my neighborhood, I saw a robust wild grapevine growing in the street, in the sediment at the curb that had accumulated from a lack of regular street sweeping.
In the U.S. our disheveled public realm doesn’t result from any lingering socialist belief that the state will support us. Rather it stems from misplaced faith in free markets — a fundamentalist belief that, regardless of evidence to the contrary, cutting taxes will inevitably spark growth.
Meantime, in schoolyards and street medians, the uncut summertime crabgrass grows waist-high, evidence of our domestically nurtured culture of civil disrespect.
Mary Newsom is a longtime journalist and associate director of the nonprofit UNC Charlo
tte Urban Institute in Charlotte, N.C. Disclosure: The Johns Hopkins International Urban Fellows Program paid her travel expenses to Sofia.
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