Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Pocket ‘Hoods

I had a “kibbutz moment” this past Saturday.

It was the last weekend of September, and fall was definitely looming. One of the neighbours on our cul de sac had the brilliant idea to suggest a street party for that evening. We’d had one party, usually an impromptu annual event, earlier in the season. However, new owners had moved into houses sold over the summer and pair of younger longtime residents were moving out of their parents’ homes at the end of the month. It would be a good chance to say hello and goodbye at the the same time.

It turned out to be a perfect night: likely the last warm, breezeless evening of the year. We pulled out a barbecue and tables and chairs and spread out a huge potluck (heavy on desserts). Our kids chased each other (and huge bubbles) around the cul de sac and drew chalk drawings across the pavement. Names were put to new faces. Recently departed neighbours, already much-missed, were invited for a noisy reunion. In the distance, a soundtrack from the Rifflandia Festival drifted from Royal Athletic Park. It reminded me why we had moved here in the first place and then undergone the trauma of renovating our house, when it seemed too small for two kids, rather than moving elsewhere.

The street party evoked memories of the barbecues and bonfires we had on the kibbutz, in the scrubby commons in between the volunteers’ quarters, drinking beer and swapping stories. It also echoed many of the themes and ideas and values I’d been reading about in a wonderful new book by Ross Chapin, an architect from Whidbey Island, Washington, called Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World. In this compellingly written and beautifully designed volume—an eye-pleasing coffee-table book with the intellectual urgency of a political manifesto—he lays out the historical precedents of and design principles for human-scale developments, built to promote communal interaction rather than enforce privacy and facilitate car travel, what he calls the “pocket neighourhood”.

A "pocket" get-together in Umatilla Hill, Port Townsend, Washington, designed by Ross Chapin
Chapin and his firm have purpose-built a number of these “pocket neighbourhoods” in the Pacific Northwest. At the most basic level, the ideal pocket neighbourhood consists of a number of key features:
  1. first and foremost, a central grassy common area or open courtyard, into which all of the houses (and their covered porches) face, connected by shared pathways and gardens;
  2. a central commons building, including a kitchen and dining area, in which indoor group activities (during rainy weather, say) can take place and shared equipment can be stored;
  3. smaller homes—one or 1.5-storey cottages, rather than mammoth monster houses that dominate the sight-lines;
  4. low or no fences, rather than high barriers between neighbours;
  5. and—very important—cars and other vehicles shunted to the margins, kept to adjacent lots or back alleys, so that houses aren’t dominated by garages and common spaces intimidated and interrupted by traffic.
In other words: Build a ‘hood that encourages what Chapin calls a “web of walkability” and the serendipitous encounters that occur once you free your ass from your car seat.

The book provides a wide array of sketches and photos from the developments that Chapin has pioneered, complemented by historical antecedents (Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard; Hofje almshouses in Holland; Forest Hills and Sunnyside Gardens, both in Queens, and other neighbourrhoods inspired by Ebenezer Howard’s “garden city” vision; Village Homes in Davis, California; SoCal's bungalow courts; floathome communities); contemporary examples of and ideas for creating pocket-like features in existing neighbourhoods (traffic-slowing lanes and woonerfs; backyard cottages; “defencing” backyards; “sagine communities” for retirees; cohousing projects; Earthsong in New Zealand and Christie Walk—an “urban eco-community” in Australia; Swan’s Market in Oakland; community gardens, cul de sac commons—and potlucks!—alley greening; intersection painting in Portland… on and on!); and short profiles of visionary architects, planners and neighbourhood activists (Mark Lakeman of Portland; Karl Linn, a kibbutz founder who went on to teach landscape architecture at UPenn; Jim Leach—no relation—the largest cohousing developer in the U.S.; Paul Downton of Ecopolis Architects; Jan Gudmand-Høyer, who studied the kibbutz movement and then pioneered Danish cohousing models; investment advisor Catherine Fitts, who invented the “popsicle index” of community health; Judy Corbett of the Local Government Commission; Hans Moderman, the counter-intuitive traffic engineer and woonerf pioneer who realized that to calm traffic you had to confuse drivers).

So many of the key concepts outlined in Chapin’s “pocket neighbourhood” vision have been part of the philosophy of kibbutz design for 70+ years. In fact, using some of his tips to turn any street into a “pocket neighbourhood” would be a good example of what I’ve been calling “kibbutzing your ‘hood”: that is, integrating the connections essential to community life right into the built space. Best of all, you don’t have to be a radical socialist to live in a pocket neighbourhood; they are designed, in Chapin’s perspective, to balance our desire for personal privacy with our innate human sociability. These more closely interconnected streets and neighbourhoods also create what he calls (on his website but not in the book) a network of “shirt-tail aunts and uncles”—neighbours who watch out for each other, who have a stake in the safety and healthy development of the children (and adults) around them. (We're lucky enough to know several.) It takes a village. Or at least a pocket neighbourhood.

I’m hoping to talk to the author in person at some point to learn more about the theory and practice of pocket neighbourhoods, and perhaps compare notes with my own research into the principles of kibbutz design. In the meantime, I’ve been inspired by his optimism that we can create a more rich and sociable community on our own—and also a little envious of those developments he has already created, in which neighbours have been given a central traffic-free commons in which to come together, every day, and build a community one conversation at a time.

Ross Chapin. Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World. Taunton Press, 2011

Friday, September 23, 2011

Book review: Amos Oz and the gossip economy

Amos Oz has claimed that there is no such thing as a “kibbutz literature”. Yes, there are books written by kibbutzniks and books written about kibbutzniks. However, even after 100 years of kibbutz life (and nearly as long writing about it), no motif or technique unifies all these spilled words other than a setting. "The kibbutz," Oz has argued, "has not inspired any 'mutation' in Hebrew literature."

I won’t disagree with Oz: He is Israel’s most-famous author, a (former member of Kibbutz Hulda for 30+ years, and a widely quoted authority on matters literary, communal and political. (Would someone give the man a Nobel Prize already?)

That said, if there were a kibbutz literature, Oz’s first novel (and second book, after his debut collection of stories, Where the Jackals Howl) Elsewhere, Perhaps deserves a place of honour as the classic text in the transitional period from the “heroic age” of the kibbutz to its modern depiction as a complex, troubled microcosm of the greater world around it. 

Oz’s dedication (to the memory of his mother) tries to throw off the reader by demurring: “Do not imagine that Metsudat Ram”—the book’s fictional kibbutz, near the Syrian border and the Sea of Galilee—”is a reflection in miniature. It merely tries to reflect a faraway kingdom by a sea, perhaps elsewhere.” Oz has said, several times, that he had been inspired as a writer by Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, to realize that literature could find universal resonance even within the confines of a small, otherwise nondescript community. That stories didn’t need to happen in New York or Paris or Moscow to matter. Kibbutz Metsudat Ram becomes Oz’s Wineeburg.

As it tells the story of this settlement, from the multiple perspectives of different kibbutzniks, the novel draws tension from a trio of love triangles: one that has happened and left a bitter fallout; another—in part a consequence of the first betrayal—has become the recent focus of kibbutz gossip; and the third melodrama develops and concludes over the course of the novel. Socialism and Zionism may be the ostensible philosophies of the kibbutz, but the urgings of the heart (and lower regions of the body) drive many of its members’ actions. The howls of the jackals and the unseen, unnamed “enemy” in the jagged hills beyond the wire fence of the well-ordered kibbutz suggest external forces of chaos that threaten the community, and yet human impulses within its gates—the casual adultery, the malicious whispering, the vandalism of bored youths—prove more corrosive.

The timing of the novel’s publication is significant. It was published, in Hebrew, in 1966, the year before victory in the Six Day War (in which Oz fought in the Sinai campaign) transformed the young nation of Israel in ways that it is still reckoning with. Before 1948, the kibbutz was the pre-eminent form of settlement in pre-state Israel, the pioneers who helped lay down the borders for the future nation; after 1967, their reputation as nation builders diminished and was overshadowed, controversially, as religious and right-wing settlers began to move into the occupied West Bank and Gaza. (A few secular kibbutzim were built beyond the “Green Line”, but the movement otherwise remained focused on growing its existing communities and building new ones within the 1948 borders.)

Beyond this historical context, though, Elsewhere, Perhaps suggests a distinct technique of “kibbutz literature” through its narrative voice. While Oz drifts into the consciousnesses of various characters, the book begins and ends and speaks throughout in the collective “we” of the kibbutz as a whole. It is a subtly ironic “we”, a slightly naive “we”, though, a voice that, while trying to justify the ways of the kibbutz to readers and other outsiders, doesn’t always recognize the flaws in the community or its residents that are there to be read between the lines. The “we” sounds a bit like first-person plural narrator of Jeffrey Euginedes’ The Virgin Suicides (told in the collective voice of the boys who observe the mysterious lives and deaths of the Lisbon sisters on their suburban street) or the “downstage narrator” of a Tom Wolfe essay or nonfiction novel, which takes on the verbal tics and biases of a group rather than an individual character. 

“Our village is built in a spirit of optimism,” this narrator tells us, and yet optimism seems hard to come by in the settlement of Metsudat Ram. Perhaps, notes the narrator, readers have an overly nostalgic, romantic image of village life: “The object of the kibbutz is not to satisfy the sentimental expectation of town dwellers. Our village is not lacking in charm and beauty, but its beauty is vigorous and virile and its charm conveys a message. Yes, it does.” One of the most telling passages (and most relevant to my own interest in the history of the kibbutz) talks about the vital power of gossip on the kibbutz. The narrating “we”, in many ways, is gossip personified—is a reminder that perhaps all storytelling, all literature, begins as gossip, as tales traded between neighbours: 

“Gossip plays an important and respected role here and contributes in its way to reforming our society. … Gossip is simply the other name for judging. By means of gossip we overcome our natural instincts and gradually become better men. Gossip plays a powerful part in our lives, because our lives are exposed like a sun-drenched courtyard. … Gossip is normally thought of as an undesirable activity but with us even gossip is made to play a part in the reform of the world.”

As a money-less, anti-authoritarian, utopian settlement, the kibbutz is based instead on a “reputation economy”. As the narrator reminds us toward the end of the book: “The community can neither exercise brute force nor hold out promises of material gain. Our system compels us to rely entirely on moral sanctions.” Those “moral sanctions” consist of the raised eyebrow, the cold shoulder, the awkward question, the whispers that circulate around the dining hall—a complex semaphore that signals a community member's rising or falling social standing. Gossip holds the kibbutz together, as the narrator makes clear. But the novel also asks: At what cost?

Amos Oz, Elsewhere, Perhaps. Translated from the Hebrew [Makom aher] by Nicholas de Lange, in collaboration with the author. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966, English Translation 1973.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Famous Kibbutz Volunteers

Over the past century, more than 400,000 volunteers from around the world have worked on a kibbutz for at least a couple months. Some found love (or other good reasons) to stay for good. Most returned home, changed in ways small or large. Inevitably, given their numbers, a few of these gangly teenaged volunteers and globe-trotting twenty-somethings went on to greater renown as authors, actors, academics, as politicians and pundits.

Novelist Arthur Koestler (best known for his anti-Stalinist parable Darkness at Noon) was one of the first volunteers to put his memories to paper. He had abandoned his university studies in Germany in 1926, acquired a visa to Palestine and arrived in Haifa with plans to work on a kibbutz, to be a true settler—even though he was an aspiring writer from the city with little taste for physical labour.

He was shocked by the primitive conditions on Kibbutz Hephizibah, which he described as a “rather dismal and slumlike oasis in the wilderness”. He had expected hardy log cabins, like those of the American pioneers. Instead he got ushered into “ramshackle dwellings” that reminded him of the poorest slums of Europe. Kibbutzniks the same age as Koestler looked decades older, their cheeks jaundiced from malaria and sunken with hunger. Their austere teetotalling routine of  near-endless labour made the bon-vivant-ish Koestler feel like he had accidentally barged into a monastery on a pub crawl. He proved hopeless at fieldwork or farming, failed at stone removal and fruit picking, and his fellow communards struggled to find chores suited to the German bookworm in their midst. In the end, he was voted down for membership—which proved an immediate disappointment but ultimately a relief to Koestler. He would claim to have stayed several weeks on the kibbutz; another letter suggests that only managed to tough it out for 10 days.

Twenty years later, a much-admired journalist and novelist, Koestler returned to the kibbutz and admitted to its members, at a party hosted in his honour, that, yes, he had been a total failure as a settler and deserved to be shown the door. Still, while his restless curiosity had taken him elsewhere, he experienced a pang of nostalgia for the commune that had evicted him. “When I neared the kibbutz,” he wrote, “I felt that, despite the darkness, I had returned to the specific location in the homeland that I could refer to as home.” On that same trip, he visited a number of other kibbutzes to as research for a novel. Joseph, the hero of Thieves in the Night, would share the ironic distance of the author but prove to be a hardier kibbutznik. Through his character, Koestler would get to both relive and rewrite his stillborn experiences as a bumbling volunteer.

Linguist and political critic Noam Chomsky—later a vocal opponent of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza—stayed for six weeks on Kibbutz Hazorea, near Haifa, in 1953 with his wife, where he found a “functioning and very successful libertarian community”. In the years before Israel’s independence, as a young man, he had been deeply interested in anarchist, left-wing politics, and in the socialist vision, shared by many kibbutzniks, of Palestine as a binational state for both Arabs and Jews. He harboured vague aspirations of moving to Israel, joining a kibbutz, and working at Arab-Jewish cooperative efforts. He had no plans, at the time, for an academic career, and his brief stay on Hazorea was a test run for possible immigration to a kibbutz. He worked the fields and found much to admire in the simple life of the commune, as well as the intellectual discussions with the German founders of the community. 

But some of the members’ ideology didn’t sit well with the free-thinking young Chomsky, especially how the hardcore Marxists in Hazorea defended the anti-Semitic show trials then going on in the Communist Eastern bloc. Still, Chomsky figured, after returning to the States, that he would return to the kibbutz—his wife did, for a longer stay. But then a research opportunity at MIT and the chance to explore his linguistic interests kept him in the States. The kibbutz lost a bookish fieldworker; the world gained a scientist who would transform our understanding of the human acquisition of language.

Years later, in an interview, the hyper-rational Chomsky sounded ambivalent, even wistful—or as wistful as he must get—about the lost promise of the kibbutz and his brief, youthful experience as a volunteer. “In some respects, the kibbutzim came closer to the anarchist ideal than any other attempt that lasted for more than a very brief moment before destruction, or that was on anything like a similar scale. In these respects, I think they were extremely attractive and successful; apart from personal accident, I probably would have lived there myself—for how long, it's hard to guess. But they were embedded in a more general context that was highly corrosive.” Even anarchist utopias couldn’t protect their ideals from the outside world.
Borat models 80s-era kibbutz couture

The nation of Israel changed, irrevocably it now seems, in 1967 in the aftermath of its lightning victory over the massed Arab armies in the Six Day War—and the persistent dilemma of what to do with the Palestinian territories it then occupied. That year also changed the kibbutz movement, by swinging open the gates of these communities—which had always sworn to rely only on the labour of its own members—to volunteers from around the world. Army-aged members had been called up into reserve service during the tense prelude to the war; their positions in the fields and the factories needed to be filled, or the kibbutz economy—and much of Israel’s—would slow to a crawl. The first wave of patriotic Jews from the Diaspora were later followed by hordes of adventure-seeking non-Jews, hippies who had heard rumours of communes in the hills and the deserts of Israel, young Germans burdened by the collective guilt of the Holocaust, and then other backpackers over the next two or three decades.

Actress Sigourney Weaver joined the wave of young volunteers who came to Israel’s aid from America, Britain and other countries in 1967—although her experience on a kibbutz didn’t quite match her imaginings. “I dreamt we’d all be working out in the fields like pioneers, singing away,” she remembered. “We were stuck in the kitchen. I operated a potato-peeling machine.” That assignment nearly ended her acting career before it began; one morning, the peeling machine started coughing and then erupted, showering her with potato shrapnel, as cockroaches swarmed the sudden windfall. “It was one explosion after another,” the star of Ghostbusters and the Alien movies later recalled. “It should have put me off science fiction forever.” Fortunately, it didn’t.

British actor Bob Hoskins, then 25, also volunteered in 1967, and fell in love with the physical work, the sound of  the bird calls at sunrise, the romance of rural life. He wanted to remain as a member—except for one hitch. “I was happy being a kibbutznik but they said to me, ‘You gotta join the army’ and I said, ‘But I’m not Jewish’, and they said, ‘It don’t matter’, so I left.”

In 1971, a reedy-limbed, bespectacled, 17-year-old Jerry Seinfield did two months on a kibbutz near the northern Mediterranean coast on a get-to-know-Israel summer program. He hated it. “Nice Jewish boys from Long Island don’t like to get up at six in the morning to pick bananas,” he later recealled. “ All summer long I found ways to get out of work.”  

A year later, Sandra Bernhard had a more positive experience as a young volunteer. She spent eight months on Kibbutz Kfar Menachem, which she claimed helped to toughen her up for the shark pit of auditioning in L.A. (Nearly 30 years later, she performed a cabaret show of songs, comedy and conversation called “Songs I Sang on the Kibbutz”.)

Simon Le Bon, later the lead singer of Duran Duran, kipped for three months in Kibbutz Gvulot in 1979 (and later penned a song called “Tel Aviv”), and his dorm bed was later preserved as a shrine for fans of the dreamy-eyed, swooping-haired, new-wave icon. 

Sacha Baron Cohen had been raised in an Orthodox family in London and came, with fellow members of a Zionist youth group, to volunteer on Kibbutz Rosh Hanikra, where Israel’s Mediterranean coastline meets the border with Lebanon. I like to imagine what the kibbutz’s Purim Festival was like when the prankster who became Ali G, Borat and Brüno lived there. Alas, he has never dropped his many personae to talk about his kibbutz experiences, nor has any video evidence surfaced of his stay as a volunteer there.