The Abominable Snowman

Plus housing in Warsaw and the thump thump of oral history's heart

LOCATION Boerum Hill
RENT $1,290 [market]
SQUARE FEET 650 [floor-through over garage for street food vendors]
OCCUPANTS Janelle Gunther [architect, Coburn Architecture]; Michael Powell [Ph.D. student in anthropology, Rice University]

The abominable snowman. I can't believe I'm here because of what you call that platform covered with synthetic white fur. But it sounds so overpowering, like there would be footprints and magic realism.[Janelle] It's very polar.

And the orange wall, so early '70s.I told the landlord specifically not to paint over it.

Who was the former tenant?I think he was in some kind of law. We got this in June. As an architect, you don't have to decorate if you have a good space. Michael just got back from Warsaw. [Michael] I was just there for a year. I lived in a very small efficiency apartment. I was in this building with 20 or so other people. Never once, in the course of a year—nobody said anything more than hello.

Who were the people in the apartments?In Warsaw, you can never tell. You could be living next to a millionaire or an unemployed person. In America, most neighborhoods are divided by economics. If you go to the Upper East Side, you know everybody is going to be making a certain amount of dollars.

Wait, in New York City, because of rent regulation, youcan have sharp differences within the same building or on the same street. But then New York is different from the rest of the country. Norman Mailer just said so in a magazine. What are Warsaw buildings like?They're from socialist times. Also there are these rectangular buildings, the bloks. They were supposed to last 30 years. That was 40, 50 years ago. They're famous in Kieslowski films.

Oh, the concrete housing projects inThe Decalogue! Did you ever see the heartbreaking first one with the little boy, the professor, and the strange, godlike homeless figure sitting over a fire on the ice?A lot of people in Warsaw are living in those kinds of projects. [We discuss if there's a housing shortage. It's supposed to be getting better, though Poland's 2002 census reported 1.5 million out of 13.8 households without a dwelling of their own.]

Did you ever see Béla Tarr'sFamily Nest, set during Hungary's 1970s housing shortage? It's this claustrophobic film of this extended family living in this tiny apartment and they're just viciously fighting and then two of the men rape a dinner guest—everybody's so upset from being in cramped conditions. I think there's a canary in a cage. One couple's waiting years to get a separate apartment. The wife's begging this housing official. Their marriage falls apart.[Michael] I heard that in the old days in Poland, if you wanted a car or a washing machine, you'd have to wait in line for months, maybe years. Though before you got to a certain point in line, you could just check in, in the morning and at night.

You're originally from Lombard, Illinois. What did you do in Poland?I was doing mostly interviews on the new Freedom of Information Law, legal things, corruption. Poland is a relatively new democracy. I had so many interviews that lasted four or five hours.

An anthropologist friend said the more times a person tells his or her story, the more it breaks down. I was terrified when I heard that, though I guess interrogators know all about it. But I do think people want to tell you what they believe—their mother loved them, the abominable snowman is great. University of Rome professor and oral history expert Alessandro Portelli wrote that oral history is about the human heart. Itis more interesting to see how people want to perceive an event rather than the actual information.Some people I'd return to again and again. Sometimes they'd have completely contradictory stories. My topic was pretty political. You try to make the questions very general, open-ended.

Can you tell me about your orange wall?What do you want to know about the wall? What's the problem, you don't like the wall?

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