Say you live in Barcelona. It could be anywhere, but let’s say it’s in the old part of town – the Barri Gòtic, and to give it a touch of realism, let’s say it’s near the Plaça Reial. The apartment is in the corner of a corner building and thus you have windows in every room and they give out onto two streets. One of those streets is so narrow that if you are standing in it and even if you are only 5’3” you can, with the tips of your fingers, touch the buildings on either side.
Now let’s say you have neighbors who make too much noise. They could be individuals who live in one of the nearby apartments – maybe even one in your building – or they could be businesses below, perhaps a bar with clients that spill onto the street where in their drunken delirium, they shout, pee, and generally carry on. Barcelona has ordinances for the permissible level of noise, and it also controls, by licensing, the bars that can have outside terraces. The bars below do not have that license, probably because the streets are too narrow and possibly but improbably because there are people living above. People live above pretty much all the outside terraces and that doesn’t stop the city officials from giving out licenses left and right.
In that part of town, police surveillance is done by foot. You might think that when the patrols come by and see or hear an infraction of a city ordinance, they would take action. But no, they don’t. It is up to you, the citizen, to call the police and complain if someone is doing something that is not only annoying, but also illegal.
So you call to say that your neighbor has their stereo on as loud as a disco, or that the bar downstairs, that can accommodate maybe 20 or 30 persons, has 80 people and they are out on the street drinking and shouting. When the police arrive they can see and/or hear for themselves what is amiss, but even so, even though they know city ordinances better than you do, they will ring your bell and you will have to sign a complaint if you want the matter to be resolved. Thus you show your i.d., as required, and you sign.
The police will then go and tell the offending party that they are disobeying a city ordinance. They will be asked to turn down the noise and perhaps get rid of the extra clients, and maybe they have to sign something. But there will be no fine imposed and nothing else will be done about it. And the next , or the day after, you have the same problem.
If you call the police a second time for the same problem, you will be met with the same procedure. You will have to sign a complaint, even if the police, who surely have eyes and ears, can see for themselves that someone is not obeying city ordinances. No fine, no action. If it happens a third time it will be the same. And so on for the fourth, fifth, tenth, hundredth, possibly two-hundredth. I have seen on the news where some legal action was finally taken against a bar or disco that had more than two hundred complaints formerly filed.
The question is, do you want to sign four or five or a hundred complaints? Will that neighbor or bar-owner get angry enough with your interference to seek some sort of revenge? They know who you are and where you live.
In a similar way there is the problem of the squatters or ocupes. Let’s say that on the side of your apartment where you overlook the very narrow street, the building across that alley, the one you can touch when you’re on the ground, is empty – seemingly abandoned. The door is boarded up, windows are hit or miss, and there are weeds growing on the roof and from some of the crevices in the stone walls that up to a certain point in time had given you the feeling that you were living in a village instead of a big city. But no longer. Now an unsavory bunch of people have moved in. For the most part they are hidden in the shadows, except for when they hang out the window, talk to and leer at you when you’re in your bedroom just across from them. Although they are probably drunk or high or both, you still worry that they could simply jump across to your balcony. In any case, your privacy is gone.
So you call the police to say that someone seems to have entered and is living in an abandoned building and give them the location. They ask you if you are the owner. No, you’re not. Well, only the owner can complain about squatters.
After a couple of months the ocupes, in their ignorance or stupor, start a fire. It doesn’t take long for you to smell the smoke and then to see the flames – flames that soon enough are billowing out their window and almost entering into yours. Immediately you call the emergency number to report a fire. The firemen come quickly and end up using your apartment to spray water through the window of your bedroom into the window from where the squatter was disturbing your peace and privacy.
When it’s all over, you are grateful that the fire did not spread into your building. Soon afterwards some workmen come to do a better job of sealing up the door and all openings at street level. But in the end, the squatters came back, hoisting one another up to the second floor windows.
It was at around that time that I decided that if I didn’t move from there, I would have a nervous breakdown. All the ordinances in the world didn’t protect me from uncivil neighbors and illegal squatting that invaded my privacy and endangered my property and my life. In fact, the system seemed designed to protect those who are committing illegal actions and leaving the average person to his own devices. My device – my only option, as far as I could tell – was to get the hell out of there.