The cost of a brick

Posted by: James on: Monday, 29th October, 2012

I have a recurring thought when I look up at tall buildings: how much would a brick cost? I’m not talking about a batch of bricks, or even a single brick bought from a building supplier: I’m talking about that brick right there – that brick in that position – how much?

Boston is all bricks, with a few exceptions: the John Hancock, which is black reflective glass to straighten your tie in; city hall, which is bunker of thick concrete slab inside and out; the front building of the library, which is pretty white stone. Even the pavements are mostly red brick, as if the house builders over-ordered spectacularly and thought they might as well not waste it.

But the thing with bricks is it always brings up this question for me: what if I could own that one brick. I wouldn’t do anything with it – it would be useless on it’s own and it would be irresponsible to try to move it, but I might look out for it – I might care if it started disintegrating; I might even pay for a new one to be put in its place when that old brick needed to go to the big clay oven in the sky.

Where am I going with this? Well I’ve been hanging out in the library a lot recently – it’s terrifically well stocked from the point of view of somebody without an internet connection, or a printer, or a book, cd and dvd collection. If you grab one of the few areas next to a plug point, you can even get your power free here, but even though it’s providing a pretty wonderful set of services free of charge, there’s a lack of care that permeates the whole place: people pluck a book from the shelves, dip in and then leave it on the table rather than put it back, and I saw the most depressing notice about people stealing graphic novels – some have pages ripped out. There’s a big carved slogan in the entrance saying that the library was ‘BUILT BY THE PEOPLE AND DEDICATED TO THE ADVANCEMENT OF LEARNING’, but a good percentage of the people in here now aren’t builders and they mostly aren’t learners either – they’re generally disillusioned, disenfranchised, out of work and even homeless.

And right in front of the engraving, a Boston Public Library souvenir stand.
Sign o’ the times, eh?

‘The People’ have changed a bit, which is fine – there needs to be somewhere the real people can go when every other system of society has dropped them or denied them access. These people, though, don’t own the building; they don’t have a claim on a single brick. I wonder what would happen if they did – if each library customer were given a thing that was theirs to care for. Would they end up like the group of squatters at Friern Barnet library, taking on the role of service providers to the community? Maybe they would refit some of the beautiful, but redundant rooms with bunk beds and showers.

Of course that won’t happen. My point is that if you feel you own something it changes your relationship to it. I’m not a great believer in ownership as it stands: I think it serves us better as a metaphor – if everybody owned a brick of a library, that would be the same as everybody owning the library, because what is your brick without someone else’s underneath, supporting it? It’s a jumping-off point; a way to see public institutions differently. And if you can apply this logic to libraries, why not to a whole city or a state or a political system? If people don’t ‘feel’ ownership of a public institution or service they will feel no responsibility to maintain it or, in a political sense, even participate in it cf. riots and voter apathy.

But when many people don’t own much; when they feel like ownership is the end they need to be constantly working towards, then ownership is no longer a freedom, but a slave driver; no longer a choice but a law that governs without giving. Sometimes, looking up at the bricks, I think the people should take back ownership, then give it away.

1 Response to "The cost of a brick"

Isn’t this what Thatcher has been saying since the 70s?

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A fairly loose blog about the places I go and the things I think. May also include left-leaning social commentary derived in part from video games.

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