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Dirty Spaces

How the lack of clarity over public spaces leads to a lack of cleanliness too

By James Palmer Updated Jul.9

Every time I move in Beijing, I hope that this is the last apartment I’ll ever live in China. It never is; with clockwork regularity each place gets sold out from under me as the temptations of the housing market or the need to put a relative in the right school district become too much for even the most well-intentioned landlord.  

Most of my adult rental life has been centered around two cities; New York and Beijing. Both of those have a combination of super-high housing prices and an influx of newcomers every year. So I’d gotten used to thinking of the rental process as a matter of tangled Byzantine politics; referrals through a friend of a friend, places disappearing at the last minute for no reason, the ever-present danger of getting scammed.  

It took my wife, a Washingtonian, to remind me that that’s not the case in most cities.“I just used to go to the housing complex, talk to the manager, and then they’d show me what they had. No agents, no fuss, no guanxi.” We’d been tramping round the city all afternoon looking at places, after the original place we wanted was given to a friend of the landlord’s at the last minute.  

And at every place we’d looked, I’d been reminded of one of the things I find strangest and most depressing in Beijing. No matter how nice the interior of an apartment, the outside – the staircase, the courtyard, the shared hallway – will always be filthy. Mops and broken bricks, covered in dust. Piles of bricks and discarded rubbish. Crumbling old furniture chucked out a decade ago and never removed. I used to have an occasional photo series that I called “Fallout 4 or Beijing.” Fallout 4 is a game set after the apocalypse; the scenes are often a little prettier and more organized than Beijing compounds.  

What’s so strange about this is that Beijing has a very vibrant outdoor life. Everywhere you go, whether it’s on an alleyway or inside a compound, there’s clusters of retired people sitting out, playing chess, talking, walking their dogs or gossiping.  

And inside, any honest dama would be shocked by the thought of things getting that untidy. So why do they put up with it in shared spaces? There’s lots of countries where this isn’t the case; on holiday in Budapest in the 1980s – much poorer than today’s Beijing–every shared space in the Hungarian capital’s apartment compounds was immaculate. The same goes for some of the poorest South African townships.  

My friend Guo – herself a neat freak, and a middle-aged householder – speculated about it. “People are afraid of being held responsible,” she suggested, “They think if they take up the responsibility of cleaning, they’ll be taking on more than their share, and others will automatically assume that when it’s not clean it’s now their fault. It’s like when old people fall down and nobody wants to help them up for fear of being blamed for the fall.”  

Mr Zhang, one of our neighbors, had a different explanation. “Look,” he said, stroking the back of his old yellow dog – the two of them wearing something of the same gloomy expression – “Everything in Beijing gets demolished eventually anyway. So nobody wants to make things better, because they know it’ll just get torn down.” He gestured around him to the skeleton of a former building, just demolished as part of the capital’s central “clean-up” campaign. “And they know if they clean out the garbage, somebody else will just dump more garbage.” “Plus the city is covered with dust every year,” his friend interjected, “So much dust! I used to work in Hangzhou – the south isn’t like this.”  

And yet, here’s a doubly-weird thing. Beijing’s little parks – the miniature green spots that cut inside highways and to the sides of compounds – are almost always immaculate. I’ve seen Western parks strewn with rubbish, and yet Beijing’s are almost always fantastically pristine; tiny paradises in the middle of the gray city.  

It was one of those parks that persuaded us to take the place we eventually rented this time – a strip of fantastic green. As we strolled through it, I saw a woman stoop to grab a piece of plastic that had blown out of a garbage can and put it back in.  

Sitting on the roof of my soon-to-be new house, looking out at the pagodas in Jingshan Park, I thought about how spectacularly beautiful Chinese public spaces can be. Then I looked into the courtyard of the house next door, and saw a picture of domestic neatness and harmony. Then I looked at the shared alleyway of the two houses, and saw a pile of dirt, a broken chair and a bucket full of filthy water.  

“Parks are properly public spaces,” Guo explained.“So you can behave well there and nobody will hold you responsible for the future. We Chinese – if it’s a purely private matter, then we’ll do the right thing. And often if it’s totally public or anonymous, we’ll do the right thing. But if it’s somewhere in between, that’s where the really bad behavior is – where there’s enough fear, but not enough trust.”