Monday, December 28, 2009

Where I Live (2 of 3): Neighborhood

In order to understand why St. Petersburg neighborhoods (of which there are 18 in the city proper) are they way that they are, you have to understand the Russian housing system.
In Soviet Russia, housing essentially owned you. You, along with some family, and maybe some strangers, were "assigned" to an apartment ("kommunalkas" were and are apartments shared by several families, with a communal kitchen, bathroom, hallway). As city populations (and individual families) grew, residents could be assigned to housing in newer block-like apartment buildings. Think of Cedar-Riverside in Minneapolis. Think of the literal meaning of Einstürzende Neubauten. Some Soviet neighborhoods were built thematically to create housing for workers at a specific factory near-by. Or, for example, the area serviced by the Akademicheskaya subway station was the neighborhood in which many academics were housed. This has had an effect on the social-class that lives in those neighborhoods now. Generations of prolies tend to produce, you guessed it, more prolies. Bask in the USSR, everything was state-owned.

Then, the state collapsed. In the 1990's, housing was privatized. Essentially, residents were given the ability to own the apartments or rooms in which they were living. Many people still live in those apartments to this day. Many younger adults don't move out until they move in with someone. Owners in apartments generally only pay utilities. When people buy an apartment, they can change their residency, or be "assigned" to that apartment. It is preferable to own rather than to rent. People who rent are either those who move out on their own, or move to the city. Where they rent is largely determined on budget--rent for an entire apartment could be the equivalent of a month's salary.

Simplified--the closer to the center of the city, the more expensive. Although, some wealthier Russians are choosing to live in single-family homes or town-houses outside of the city. A large number of modern and high-class apartments have been built in outer-laying neighborhoods. However, because housing in Russia is expensive to the utmost, there isn't as much freedom to move, or a culture of moving based on a specific cultural affiliation. There also really isn't a long-term lease. Consequently there isn't a cluster of businesses that cater to a specific demographic--there isn't a Chinatown or a hipster neighborhood. Some of the historically worker neighborhoods are classified as "hoods" and it is advised to avoid them at night.

You are assigned to social services (clinic, tax-office, housing authorities, tuburculosis dispensary) in the neighborhood of which you are a resident. Even "sleeper"/commuter neighborhoods have grocery stores, crap-electronics stores, clothing stores, pharmacies, eateries, etc. Most clubs, bars, stores, and entertainment locations are in the center of the city--which can be a drag if you live far or in an area separated by a bridge that gets drawn at night.
This, essentially, is the housing situation in St. Petersburg (and generally in most Russian urban areas).

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Where I Live (1 of 3): City

I guess the explanation of my living situation can be broken up into three parts: City, Neighborhood, and Apartment. This is by no means a comprehensive or a historical description, just a few tid-bits that I think may help you place me on a contextual map.

At 4.6 million people, St. Petersburg (SPB), is the second largest city in Russia. About 6 million people live in the vicinity. The metro area is 1439 sq. km, which means that the density is 8,389.5/sq mi. This means that the density of the SPB metro area is greater than that of the New York City metro area. Architecturally, it's quite European, having been founded by Peter the Great in 1703. It's a port city on the Baltic and is Russia's "northern capital." Roughly a six-eight hour drive from Moscow, Helsinki, and Tallinn. The center of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Cite.

Basically, it's a gorgeous city with a lot of people in a small geographical area and a lot to do--museums, theaters, and lots of parks. There's a huge interest in photography here, which I don't think is coincidental. SPB gets compared to Moscow, a lot--it's inevitable. But I won't go into any detail and will just say that many see the two cities as the only worthwhile cities in Russia. I will let you deduce what comes with this: housing prices, immigration, stratification of society, traffic, pollution, etc. If I was forced to compare SPB to US city, I would choose Boston--sizable, coastal, historical, green, educated, expensive. Except there's more to do here and the pace is quicker.

The city has excellent public transportation and is extremely walkable. However, the central neighborhoods were never built for the amount of traffic they receive. Makes me think of the oldest versions of SimCity, except that you can't plow down historical buildings. (That's a popular topic in itself as the governor is purported to do exactly that). Buildings are not supposed to exceed a certain height (another questionable current topic).

One of SPB's nicknames is "Venice of the North," because of the multitude of canals. Romantic? I always think of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, where the plague spreads through the canals, but yes. SPB was built as a number of islands on a swamp and the chemically-treated tap water is not recommended for drinking (although you won't get sick like you would in Mexico). Pretty? Sure. A boat-excursion trap for tourists? Undeniably. A way to get stuck far away from home if you miss the bridges being drawn at night? Yeah, that too. More about that in the discussion of neighborhoods.

For some basic info I recommend the Lonely Planet page and good ole Wikipedia. I recommend looking at as many pictures as possible, although they won't be able to convey the feeling of awe you get trying to comprehend that you live in such a gorgeous place.

So this is where I was born and where I am, again, living.

*Population, area, and density numbers from "St. Petersburg in Figures."

Thursday, November 12, 2009

News isn't News Everywhere

Recently, I have drifted back to reading the New York Times (NYT) on, at least, a semi-regular basis. That I read the NYT is, however, less important than what I chose to read and why I read it.
Not living in a country limits your exposure to it's media. Sure, I see some headlines in Russian newspapers and websites: "DC Sniper Executed in Virginia" or "Mike Tyson Arrested in LA Airport," but they can be easily ignored. I think back on the 35W bridge-collapse--one of my initial thoughts was "F-, this will be the only news for months." I was not wrong--the same story saturated the Twin Cities media for months.
I am not a news junkie and my interest in political news is lackluster at best. Don't write this off to ignorance or apathy. I like to know what is going on around me, but I am choosy in what I read and watch. I am thankful that living outside of the US better allows me to filter US-related information. What's going on with health-care reform? I can unabashedly say that I don't know. Currently, it affects me, personally, just as much as the discovery of the lost army of the Persian King Kambiz II in the Sahara. I can read about both when I chose to, because I think it's important to know what's going on in the world around us, not because it's crammed down my throat through repetition.
So what have I been choosing? Oh, a little bit of everything: the Vatican inviting conservative Anglicans to join it, slide-shows about different types of electric connectors, announcements of upcoming shows and exhibitions. It feels like I'm staying in touch with a friend through following what he's doing, reading, listening to, etc.
Although, it's not like being there. My resurgent interest in the NYT, as a repository of societal happenings, is concurrent with my waining commitment to pop-culture blogs. Sorry Look At This Fucking Hipster, Bike Snob NYC, and A Softer World. I am becoming and will most likely further drift away from current US internet trends. For better or worse.
What made me write all this? Something that has more to do with cultural context, actually--a funny quote I recently found in the NYT:
"Ghostface Killah sings along to Billy Joel, refuses to smoke pot because it kills his mojo and hates ladies with rock-hard calves: these were the surprising facts we came away with when we sat with him in his car for an interview recently."

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Catch Up Post: Communication Failure

My bff regularly posts what he calls "catch-up posts," in which he lumps together everything of interest that he’s encountered in the past x-weeks. There is absolutely no way for me to catch-up on everything from the past three months. What would that sound like? “So, I’ve moved to a different country, have a different job, and everything about my daily routines is different. Other than that, not much to tell.”
Drastically changing your life is overwhelming. My current inability to multi-task in my personal life is evident. If you have tips for how I can to find the time to write to people about the life I’m living here if what I’m so busy with is living that life please let me know. Also let me know if you can assist with existential questions, cultural adaptation, reevaluation of goals and interests in a new context, etc.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Blah Blah Blog

It's official. Months of procrastination have conceived and birthed a blog. Not much to say about it.