The Barcelona planning board has done an excellent job of hiding parking, of making it invisible: on the inner courtyards of residential blocks, in middle-sized parking garages hidden behind the façade of some early-20th century Modernist building, tucked away underground, under the plazas and parks of Fort Pienc, Parque de la Ciutadella and Grácia. The only visible parking in Barcelona is the street parking; both sides of every one-way street lined with neatly-spaced Euro-sized vehicles, interspersed with Vespas and motorcycles.
That’s why I was astonished—appalled—to discover an actual parking lot in Barcelona. Maybe it was just an “inner courtyard” type of parking lot, and I somehow managed to wander through the gates, but either way, the sight destroyed the verisimilitude of Barcelona. Heretofore, it had been a city where cars were secondary, where pedestrians, cyclists and metro-riders ruled. But the brutal reality must come out: automobiles are everywhere, and their ravenous need for space still dictates the structure of our cities and our society.
The sight recalled my bus rides to and from the Seville and Barcelona airports. People often talk of Europe as a land of “city” and “country,” and a huge distinction between the two. As if there is a line that one crosses, and is suddenly in the pasture lands. As if there is no suburbia, no urban sprawl, no vast industrial landscapes. But on the bus ride out of the city center, the old beauty of the ancient cities dissipates into that which is least expected: residential slums, ragged apartment buildings, huge manufacturing districts, and that landmark of the modern age: the parking lot.
Yes! Rare as they are in the city, they predominate outside the municipal jurisdiction. It is a marvel to see such meticulous conservation of space within the city, and such flagrant disregard for such conservation outside. Parking lots abound, along with one- and two-story warehouses and manufacturing plants. To think what it would cost to build such a building in L’Eixample, to use up all that lateral space, and not expand it vertically to a six-story building! And between these buildings and the parking lots: empty space! Some of these abandoned fields, littered with scrap metal as they are, nearly resembled those one sees outside Detroit, or tucked within the cloverleaf of some Interstate exit ramp. Space that is no longer valuable, that has no use for construction or extraction.
That’s when it hit me: this is my people’s legacy. Not just my people the Americans, but even closer: my people the Detroiters, the exporters of cars and steel and coal and the relentless ethic of American industry.
That this sight recalled my home, a city falling into industrial decadence, here, in one of the cultural capitals of the world. That it should be my homeland that exported the technology and the lifestyle that would absorb every other nation in the Western world, and impose it on the rest of the world. That there should be no place untouched by the sooty hand of industry. That the green places, the country-side, the sea, the red sunset over the hills, should all be poisoned by the emissions of automobiles, the scraps of factories, the uranium and coal waste of power plants; by that black heat-mirror, that little square of desert, flat and sterile, upon which we park our cars.
But it is a process that we cannot end. We are forced to embrace it as well as we can, as our predecessors did. Perhaps by embracing it, we can change it. Perhaps. But it is no longer in our hands. The model invented and propagated by the British, Americans and Germans has been adopted and improved upon by the Indians, the Chinese, the Russians, the Japanese, and others. It will be these nations who decide the future of industry, and hence, of the physical spaces of humanity. It is they who will take up the chain, so that the inexorable gears of progress might turn within that marvel of clockwork that we call Civilization, on its indefatigable march towards the Future.
Will there be nothing left? These civilizations, as the Western civilizations, have adopted the mantra that “nothing is sacred.” Anything material is fair game. Humankind’s land, air, body: all of this can be acted on and used for the expansion of industry. It is omnipresent: in Mumbai, Shanghai, Rio, London, Detroit, Barcelona.
Where now can I turn?
Patagonia? Tibet? Sub-Saharan Africa?
But in these places, I will be flagged as an outsider. By my dress, by my skin, my mode of conduct and speech. The very places that I would seek for sanctuary, by their very nature as sanctuaries, would turn me away.
There is a chance that I will be welcomed. But then, only as a forerunner—or harbinger—of the arrival of the Grand Western Civilization.