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  • Anna Au

Social infrastructure: take II

Take I

I will never forget the look of that guy’s face. He was a big guy. He had a bottle of beer in a hand while the other was moving about nervously. He tried to compose his feelings like one trying to open a shaken-up bottle of beer ever so gently. But I could still see the continual swelling of feelings on his face, and my friend who was hanging out with me that evening could see that too. He was standing at the door of the small Chinese restaurant opposite my first apartment in Berlin. He momentarily sent off pleading glances emanating the reluctance to part to the couple who owned the restaurant and were busy serving other customers. That was the look we always see at train stations, ferry terminals, long-haul bus stations, airports, graduation days, and farewell parties.


That was the last night of operation of the restaurant.


It was bustling. It was the only food outlet that opened into the evening at that time on that street. My friend and I were eating inside along with a dozen of Cantonese-speaking people we have never met before. They filled up the restaurant and exchanged daily life encounters with each other and with the owners. They were was unexpected by the owners, but that was a heart-warming and happy surprise as the couple were beaming with pensive smiles while going back and forth between the kitchen and the tables. I timidly chimed it and introduced myself as the person who informed the online expat group of the closing of the restaurant. I fitted right in. Although my friend did not speak Cantonese, she seemed to understand the sentiment.


Several customers went in to order take-out and their food that night was seasoned with inexplicable feelings. That guy at the door was taking all these in as well. The couple tried to exchange a few words with him in between their hustle. I did not know how the farewell wrapped up at the end as my friend and I sent our sincerest wishes to the owners when we left at about 9 pm.


The next day at noon, I went across the street and tried to see if the couple were there. They were there, cleaning up and packing up. They were wrapping up this chapter which was a long, long one as they told me some time before. They kindly shared with me their memories in the decades they have lived in Germany and also the time before they moved here. What a life they have led! As we were talking, the florist on the same street came bid her best wishes too with a bouquet of flowers. Another guy who seemed to be living in the neighbourhood at that time (as I have seen him passing by every now and then) came in and asked if he could buy the furniture. That seemed to be a physical action to make the couple’s transition to the next chapter of their life just a bit easier.


The couple told me that their restaurant has been there for a very long time. They remembered what each customer’s usual order and asked them, “the same?” when they walked in. They also told me that since they have been in operation for so long, they saw the younger customers as their children and I am sure the guy from the previous night saw them as his neighbourhood parents as did plenty other customers too. Moreover, my relationship with the couple did not end here. That same year, my friend and I had a Christmas dinner with them before they went to Frankfurt over the holidays to visit their son’s family, particularly the new-born grandson. Their joy lit up the room when they showed me photos of their grandson.


That was one of the most significant experiences I had in my early days in Berlin. At that time, I still have not learned the term to call a place like that restaurant. I only knew that as a neighbourhood fixture. I knew that it was a fixture not only because of its food, but more because of what seasoned the food – the social encounters that came along. The restaurant was a shared, physical environment where people could meet and interact with each other, no matter it was with the owners and/or with their own company. It fostered meaningful social bonds.


As I read and learned more later, I discovered the set of terminology to describe a place like that.


A place like that is essentially what social infrastructure is – a shared, physical environment that fosters social bonds in the public life. Social infrastructure could be any place ranging from cafés, restaurants, convenient stores, markets, to office kitchens, community gardens, courtyards, to parks, playgrounds, streets, public libraries, museums, or theatres, etc.


Some of these places are commercial where we are expected to spend money there. They are business establishment where this expectation is displayed front and clear when people enter. I, personally, was a regular customer in a café in my second neighbourhood in Berlin. Sometimes, I carried my work to that café and hustled away. My stern look of concentration must have seared an impression on the baristas there – the rotation of all the baristas there. Every time I walked in, they asked, “a big Americano, right?” Yes, that was my regular order. I also had my regular table – the centre one at the wall where I could take in the whole café and look through the big window to the street and to the ice-cream place across. I began to recognize other regular customers too although I never learned their name. But knowing that the familiar, friendly faces would be there offered me a sense of certainty. We did not bother each other, but we knew each other would be there. It was like having co-workers that were not my actual co-workers. On some days, I brought a friend or two to the café to work on our individual tasks with exchanges of opinion on each other’s work while sharing a piece of sweet treat.


And then there were days where I spent my time in the public library in my neighbourhood. If I was not doing my tasks at the café, I was doing that at the library. Despite having lived in several cities, I always find my way back to libraries. From the school library and public library in my childhood, to the university library that opened from early morning till late into the night every day, to the public library in Macau where I wrote parts of my Master’s thesis, to the Berlin State Library, and to the public library in my neighbourhood in Berlin, they have always been the place I can count on without a doubt.


My neighbourhood public library was very popular. It opened from 10 am to 9 pm on weekdays and with shortened hours in the weekend. Flocks of people began to congregate at 9:30 am and I was one of them. As public libraries are free of charge, all sorts of people would go there. Like in that café, I began to recognize familiar faces. One particular patron struck in my memory. He seems to be a middle-aged man. His gait was brisk and deft. He knew exactly where his aim was – and I knew where that was too. It was the piano room. And my regular table, a table at the multi-media stacks looking out to the lawn, is on the way leading to the piano room, so I took the same route he took in the library every morning.


I do not know whether it was his intention to radiate this eagerness to start the day, but I was definitely impressed. Seeing the enthusiasm in people in the morning was truly a great delight and that added an additional ripple of motivation in my coffee to kickstart my own productive day. Sometimes I even imagined the library staff, the security guards, the baristas at the library café, and the patrons as a transient community where people went about their own day while keeping each other company with a tacit pact of civil inattention to co-exist. I think the reality was not too far from that. Besides, being in the company of friendly strangers makes me feel not so lonely as we, human beings, feel that sometimes and it is normal. I feel that I am a part of the community, a part of the society and I belong somewhere. I feel welcomed and free. It is a positive feeling. I think this is one of the reasons why I am drawn to public libraries like a magnet with the opposite pole.


If one spends a whole day at the public library and observes the comings and goings of people, which I have several times, they could see that our society consists of a wide diversity of people and the library welcomes all of us. It is a welcoming, non-judgemental, and safe place where people are not expected to spend money in order to use the facility. I sincerely cannot think of another institution that could do this while offering access to its space and facilities, learning, information, knowledge, services, internet, and programmes. These are channels people can access for free to participate in society if we look into the deeper layers. The public library, hence, is not only a social infrastructure itself, but also a nexus that connects people to other facets of the public life. It would be an immense loss to humanity if public libraries were to cease to exist.


In front of the American Memorial Library
In front of the American Memorial Library

Take II

Sometimes social infrastructure is the thing that people least expected, did not notice, or have taken for granted. When the thing is gone, they may finally realize what has been the backdrop of their public social life and find themselves in a state of social isolation.


I believe most of us have experienced at least some form of isolation in the COVID-19 pandemic as our public life is limited and that is the sacrifice we have to make for the greater good of public health. As a public health professional, I know limiting physical contacts and maintaining physical distance is the rational thing to do, but this knowing is still not enough for my brain to override the yearning for social contacts and I found myself pacing in my apartment like a caged animal at the beginning of the pandemic. I was on the verge of being stir-crazy. That is what isolation did to my own mental health.


(I am not alone in this you are not alone in this either. If you are feeling overwhelmed, reach out to the people you trust. Asking for help is brave.)


We lost access to a lot of shared, physical space for the public life we used to know. We cannot spend time in person with people not in our household like we used to do. This loss we are experiencing is the gradual thinning of our social well-being and that is detrimental to our mental health in the long run, so we move our interactions online through video-calls as we yearn for social contacts.


Many organizations put their services and events online. Some work quite well and connect the digital with the physical. Let’s take the public library system of Berlin as an example. The different libraries in the system put their own events online. The ones with their own makerspace create programmes that utilize common household items and materials, so that more people can take part in the activities and feel included. The library system has also expanded its digital collections in early 2021, including not only more e-books and magazines, but also audio-books, learning resources, music, and films, and made them readily accessible for the general public. All the while, it does not lose sight of the significance of in-person services. Following the prevention guidelines, the public libraries do not allow seating, but adjusted the in-person operation to make sure the public can still safely access the physical collections and library services. Essentially, it is an optimized hybrid format of library services. It is not perfect as some people are still left behind by the digital divide and people do get tired from looking at screens. It is no replacement for the normal physical access, but that is the best the public libraries could do so far.


When we get tired of the screens, going to a leisurely stroll, bike ride, picnic, or limited in-person event together in an outdoor public space is an amazing feat. (Of course, with diligent compliance to the local prevention guidelines.) Streets, parks, and playgrounds then easily become more prominent choices as social settings. Benches on sidewalks, walkable streets, greeneries, and bike, wheelchair, and stroller-friendly street design and network are some features that make an outdoor experience pleasant. The lack of such, thus, becomes very noticeable when people are just desperate for any location for a safe and somewhat pleasant physical meeting while carrying the weary and dreary state of mind known as the human condition in the pandemic.


Benches and chairs at a section of Bürknerstraße
Benches and chairs at a section of Bürknerstraße
People strolling at Carl-Herz-Ufer
People strolling at Carl-Herz-Ufer

I, personally, am fortunate to live in an area with good access to the great outdoors and me being me, I made a video to demonstrate what social infrastructure can do for another project last year in August. To my surprise over the span of the pandemic, some big and small changes have been made in my usual activity area and some of which is captured in my video project. A temporary, dedicated bike lane was allocated on Kottbusser Damm, a busy collector street in the district of Kreuzberg, Berlin and advocacy groups are voicing the support to make it permanent. The chaotic intersection at Hobrechtbrücke (Hobrecht Bridge) was finally assuaged and the biking and pedestrian experience became less of a stressful event.


So we can see that although a crisis is certainly not a glossy and rosy affair, it does not always have to be gloom and doom either; it can be an opportunity to execute the ideas in our head and test how far we can catalyze changes for good that outlasts the pandemic. When the pandemic comes to an end, which it will, these experiences could build a compelling case to make good social infrastructure a priority for our well-being.


Never waste a crisis, right?

Related episode: The coolest librarian in Poland

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