The Gated Community

DSCN9429Courtyard gate in Petersburg’s Central District. Photo by the Russian Reader

Behind a Fence
Dmitry Ratnikov
Delovoi Peterburg
September 27, 2018

Remember the golden days when you could walk into any courtyard in central Petersburg and get a taste of the city’s flip side, or simply shorten your way from one alley to another by taking the backstreets? Yes, you would find yourself in the midst of unsightly façades, graffitti, and smells. But these things have not gone away, while navigating the city on foot has been made more complicated by endless gates and intercoms.

After the terrorist siege of the school in Beslan, large numbers of educational institutions suddenly fenced off their grounds, as if the cause of the tragedy had been the absence of a fence. Consequently, the numerous footpaths in the bedroom communities which ordinary folk had used for decades to shorten their way from subway to home, for example, vanished.

It was not only schools that hid themselves behind bars. Nearly all state institutions did the same thing. The Russian National Library is a vivid example of this. Its old building on Moscow Avenue can be freely approached, while its new building on Warsaw Street is protected by a metal fence that cuts off the library’s paved footpaths. I would urge the library’s director, Alexander Vershinin, to remove the fence. No one is planning to steal your books. It’s stupid.

ratnikov-warsawkaRussian National Library building on Warsaw Street in Petersburg. Photo by Dmitry Ratnikov. Courtesy of Kanoner

Fenced lawns have been proliferating at an incredible rate in the yards and on the streets. The lawns are not protected from wayward drivers, but from planned footpaths. People find it convenient to walk directly from a traffic light to a store, but thanks to thoughtless officials, they have all instantly become potential lawbreakers, because planners designed a path with a ninety-degree angle.

And what do you make of the fences around gardens and parks? One would imagine these are places of public access, but no, entrance is strictly limited. Why is a fence now being erected around the park of the Orlov-Denisov Estate in Kolomyagi? People got along fine without it. Why was the grille around the Upper Garden in Krasnoye Selo restored? Why is the garden outside Vladimir Cathedral nearly always closed to parishioners?

“To keep drunks from staggering around there,” a female attendant at the cathedral once told me.

The argument is absurd. What is the percentage of drunks amongst those who would enjoying sitting on a bench in the cathedral garden? It’s tiny.

gate-2Courtyard gate in Petersburg’s Central District. Photo by the Russian Reader

There are other cases when public green spaces are completely fenced off from the public. You cannot enter Edward Hill Square, for example. The question begs itself. Why did Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko endow the square with that name when there was an intercom on the gate? You cannot get into the little garden on the corner of Kirillovskaya and Moiseyenko Streets, or the little square at 6 Svechnoy Alley. How do local officials respond to these problems? They either postpone making a decision for years, as happened in Svechnoy Alley, or they make a great show of opening the gate during an official inspection, as happened on Moiseyenko Street.

There are also positive examples, however. The unauthorized DIY fences at 3–5 Troitsky Avenue have recently been dismantled.

A scandal has, allegedly, erupted in the new, densely populated area between Kushelev Road and Laboratory Avenue. The local property owners association voiced the desire to erect a fence around the perimeter of its grounds, thus cutting off the way to the local school. Ultimately, the locals report, they would have had to take their children more than a kilometer around the fence instead of walking a few hundred meters in a straight line, as they do now. Residents wrote things like “If they put it up, I’ll cut it down at night with an angle grinder” on the local internet forum.  This is not to mention the stupidity of the planned fence. It is no problem to gain access to the courtyard due to the huge numbers of residents going back and forth through the gate every thirty seconds, if not more frequently.

kushelev-laboratoryA satellite view of the new estate between Kushelev Road and Laboratory Avenue, in the north of Petersburg. Courtesy of Google Maps

In southwest Petersburg, a petition is making the rounds to close the entire courtyard of a new residential complex to cars. But what does that mean now that many developers are themselves advertising such monstrous car-free courtyards? You wonder why I have used the word “monstrous”? Because developers should solve the parking problems in their new estates, not the municipal government. If developers build a hundred flats, they should provide a hundred free parking spots. Due to the fact that Seven Suns Development erected a huge “anthill” on Krylenko Street, featuring a “car-free courtyard,” all the lawns and clumps of land in the vicinity have been turned into a single hefty parking lot that has made it difficult to drive down the street to boot. Why should the city permit a commercial firm to generate a problem from scratch that the city will have to solve, for example, by spending public monies on parking barriers?

seven suns krylenkoAn artist’s rendering of the “anthill” on Krylenko Street. Courtesy of Kanoner

And what kind of fences do we build at our summer cottages? Instead of pretty, cozy hedgerows, many of us prefer sheets of corrugated steel without a single break in them.

Given our maniacal, senseless desire to hide from the world around us, what will become of us? Are we headed towards the city-state depicted in Zamyatin’s novel We?

Dmitry Ratnikov is editor of Kanoner, an online newspaper that indefatigably reports on developments in architecture, city planning, and historical preservation in Petersburg. Translated by the Russian Reader

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