Can a street be an inhabited space?

This week, my train of thought, along with months (and psychologically, years) of planning and preparation have been trod over and stomped on by recent violence in the streets in Ethiopia. Pictures of burnt out cars and protests in the very city I was to be visiting and making new friends and meeting extended family has made me sad and angry.

It is in the context of all this that I found this passage from Thomas Merton particularly arresting. I reproduce the whole passage here as it doesn’t appear to be available anywhere else on the web in plain text.

An alienated space, an uninhabited space, is a space where you submit.

You stay where you are put, even though this cannot really be called “living.” You stop asking questions about it and you know there is not much point in making any complaint. (Business is not interested in your complaint, only in your rent.) “I live on X Street.” Translated: “X Street is the place where I submit, where I give in where I quit.” (The best thing to do with such a street is pull down the blinds and open a bottle of whiskey.)

Can a street be an inhabited space?
This question begins to take shape. We begin to guess the answer.
To acquire inhabitants, the street will have to be changed. Something must happen to the street. Something must be done to it. The people who are merely provisionally present, half-absent non-persons must now become really present on the street as themselves. They must be recognizable as people. Hence, they must recognize each other as people. (Business is not about to recognize them as people, only as consumers.)

They must be present on the street not simply as candidates for the local shell game, or for manipulation by loan sharks, or for a beating, or for exploitation, or for ridicule, or for total neglect.
Instead of submitting to the street, they must change it.
Instead of being formally and impersonally put in their place by the street, they must transform the street and make it over so that it is livable.

The street can be inhabited if the people on it begin to make their life credible by changing their environment.
Living is more than submission: it is creation.
To live is to create one’s own world as a scene of personal happiness.
How do you do that?

Various approaches have been tried.
For instance, you can tear the place apart.
This does, admittedly, have points. It is a way of reminding business, the city, the fuzz, etc. that you are there, that you are tired of being a non-person, that you are not just a passive machine for secreting indefinite amounts of submission. It may get you a TV set or a case of liquor or a new suit. It may even (if the operation is on a larger scale) get you a whole new building. (Though the honeycomb you live in may be replaced by a better one for somebody else.)
But the trouble with this approach is:
– It does not make the street any more habitable.
– It does not make life on this street any more credible.
– It does not make anybody happy.
– It does not change the kind of space the street is.
– It does not change the city’s negative idea of itself and of its streets.
– It accepts the idea that the street is a place going someplace else.

It accepts the street as a tunnel, the city as a rabbit warren. It takes for granted what business and money and the fuzz and everyone else takes for granted: that the street is an impersonal tube for “circulation” of traffic, business, and wealth, so that consequently all the real action is someplace else. That life really happens inside the buildings. But for life to happen inside buildings, it must first find expensive buildings to happen in – downtown or in the suburbs where the money goes along with the traffic.

Violence in the street is all right as an affirmation that one does not submit, but it fails because it accepts the general myth of the street as a no-man’s-land, as battleground, as no place. Hence, it is another kind of submission. It takes alienation for granted. Merely to fight in the street is to protest in desperation, that one is unable to change anything. So in the long run it is another way of giving up.

-Thomas Merton, Love and Living, p.48-50