Rich in Space

Atlanta is rich in space. What happens when a culture is rich in space? Is it similar to what happens when a culture is rich in other resources like food or oil? Where there is abundance, there is waste and greed. Where there is plenty, there exists little motivation to practice efficiency, conservation or communal use. Being rich in space, Atlanta is both blessed and damned.

How a particular culture uses space is linked to economics and history. Our particular habits come from a hilly and expansive geography, unlimited by coastline or mountain bluff, relatively undeveloped until recent times. By world industrial standards, this place has been tread lightly upon. Native American Indian civilizations were here for over 15,000 years, preferring exterior natural spaces to large interior built environments: ancient, fierce Mound Builders, then Creek and Cherokee Indians. After their removal, the next civilization responsible for development of space was feudal in nature. Full blown plantation culture built wealth based off the production from large swaths of land (and cheap slave labor), not crowded factories in dense industrial environments. In economies based across large distances, transportation as well as privacy (and resulting isolation) were determining factors.

So, it is no surprise that Atlanta’s current phase of cultural identity which defines our use of space is now car-dependent suburbia. The production of the suburbs is an industrial business that processes space. It provides a product (a home, a neighborhood) that is affordable to the mainstream middle classes, who have been convinced of their desire for separation from inner city realities of shared space. It’s a manufactured dream of protection, privacy, and entitlement to space, only a hop skip and a jump from the interconnectivity of highways. Yes, “present day capitalism has lead to a fetishization of home, of ‘our’ space. (that’s housing as a commodity, not as a human right or artistic practice).”

But perhaps we are blessed to be a suburban city. The term suburb, now a hopelessly pejorative term, can be distilled (Its meaning will alter many more times in the future). Its essence is not entirely Machiavellian. It’s a contemporary living arrangement in-between countryside and urban, separated from vacation and from work, a palatable middle ground. Its current American mythology is branded milquetoast, missing the zest or the risk of either end zones. But no one ever said city space has to be wall to wall cement phalli. No one said suburbs have to be mediocre and culturally oppressive. As far as our roots go, suburban space is a luxurious allotment for a city to maintain. The aesthetics of suburbia might be commercially droll, mass produced and bourgeois at the moment, but landscaping and time can magnificently conquer these negatives. Undoubtedly as the population fills out, our rights to spaciousness may become altered. If we are accustomed to more private space than the average city dweller, we may find innovative ways to preserve this feeling. In the meantime, there’s a lot development of space going on in the present. It’s a corporate builder’s wet dream. The statistics have been accumulated: gasoline is expensive, traffic is frustrating, there’s social isolation, ozone depletion, drought caused by pollution, global warming ... Resistance to density is futile. The well-to-do in the suburbs are being mobilized back to the newly safe city centers, repackaged just for them. Values of intown development focused on that ubiquitous buzzword: “upscale.” Intended or not, the economically middle to low end (racially diverse, culturally mixed, high in creativity and eccentricity) are migrating, squeezed away from precious intown.

The advertisements say buy intown lofts while they last, but a visual tour shows something else—a lot of unused spaces. The observable ones intown, sit boarded up or plastered with junk ads, some of their front windows display tantalizing availability yet the rents or purchase prices are totally inaccessible for alternative or independent citizens. The real estate industry sits on this emptiness, rather than taking a civic-minded risk to do business with low-browser needs—potential users could be artists, musicians, experimental chefs, dancers, social clubs, etc. who could make good temporary use of our raw, underachieving, available spaces. The payback could be unique cultural development. Instead of causing physical separation bases on economics, this progressively inclusive techinique might encouraging bizarre mixtures of the brand new with the humanistic and funky. Density of population is not something Atlanta’s particularly used to, visually or socially. It may not always be a neat, tidy or comfortable adjustment, like an unquestioned interior design, but if it were to occur with conscious room for authenticity, it could flower into a way of sharing instead of excluding.

However, observable in the shifting suburbs are also a lot of temporary empty spaces. And, perhaps these are more affordable ones to pursue. Creatives, immigrants and other subcultures may not compete so much with developers for this space—some of the older ones are quite abandoned by the mainstream’s attention. This is a most wonderful opportunity of which space hungry locals should try to take advantage while it lasts. Whether it means squatting in empty lots, performing in front of for rent signs, negotiating and signing respectable short term contracts or waiving insurance concerns for temporary use, we shouldn’t let these spaces go to waste.

HERE IS A LIST OF POTENTIALLY USABLE EMPTY SPACES:

  • empty office buildings
  • empty fast food restaurants (or other small commercial buildings often along lost highways)
  • old subdivisions and suburban houses (old houses are nice, too)
  • parking lots & garages
  • gas stations
  • boarded up commercial warehouses
  • empty floors in executive parks
  • vacant live-work developments
  • spaces between highway architecture
  • off-season hotel rooms
  • blank signage

There are unused space movements in other places. In the Toronto Star this fall, space advocates reported buildings and spaces that are sitting around unused or extremely underutilized which could be expropriated by the city and turned into affordable housing or community centers. There are such things as “use it or lose it laws.” In the London borough of Islington, a dedicated officer can force landlords to sell or lease their properties if they are becoming derelict.

In the Netherlands, if a building is not in use for twelve months and the owner has no pressing need to use it (such as a rental contract starting in the next month), then it can be legally squatted. (When a building is squatted it is normal to send the owner a letter and to invite the police to inspect the squat—in legal terms this means there must be a bed, a chair, a table and a working lock in the door.) In Berlin after the German reunification, many buildings were vacated due the demise of former state-run enterprises and migration to the western parts of Germany, some of which then were occupied by squatters. Now “squats” have become communal housing centers in desirable areas full of the educated poor. Abundance of usable space has helped Berlin create a formidable artistic culture.

Here in Atlanta, industry and big business intimidate the small, frail independent flesh. (No wonder we need the metal armor of a cars, or if biking, metal wits.) Private properties provide escape and protection, but only a certain section of the population can afford to have their own. Sharing public space is a kind of a rarity here—if you don’t count being together in traffic or at the mall. However, unused space is abound, exorbitantly priced, often nostalgic in design or decade or shabbiness, marked by graffiti, awaiting the developer’s sickle or the negotiating skills of the creative class.