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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Innocent Pleasure of Trespassing

Liberating ourselves by treating the world as a free place to roam.

I first discovered the joys of trespassing one night several years ago when I was living in Saigon. The dry season was coming to an end, and the air was warm and pleasant. We were sipping watery Bia Saigon and chain-smoking cheap local cigarettes at a street food restaurant, as we did most Saturday nights, when my friend Ed asked, “Hey, do you wanna see the best view of the whole city?” 

I declined, since in my mind this was synonymous with spending the equivalent of $20 on a mediocre cocktail (plus a hefty cover charge) to hang out at a glitzy rooftop bar while surrounded by the most insufferable assholes in a 10-kilometer radius. No matter how great the view itself might be, it didn’t seem like the kind of thing I was likely to enjoy. Life experience had taught me to associate the kinds of places where you find “the best view of the whole city” with paying a lot of money and feeling self-conscious about clothes and manners.

But as my friend explained, there was another way, and it didn’t involve paying a single dong. Nor did it require violence or malicious deceit, and it wouldn’t hurt anything except the feelings of our friends who’d see the sick-ass mementos of our triumph on Instagram. It was, I had to admit, a pretty convincing argument. 

Photos by Nick Slater except as noted

A short while later, as we stood in the elevator of one of Saigon’s fanciest hotels on our way to the third-highest floor (it’s best to get off and take the stairs from there, to avoid security or hostile penthouse guests), I stared at my friend in disbelief. Was it always this easy? Could you really just walk into the fortresses of the rich and politely but firmly bullshit your way into seeing sights that were normally reserved for paying customers? Not always, he said, though you’d be surprised…

There were certain tricks that would help your chances, like dressing nice or being white (the latter was especially useful, as it is with many endeavors), but the most essential thing was confidence: You had to carry yourself like someone who expected to pass by the gatekeepers without a second look, like someone who knew deep in their bones that they had a right to be where they were. Because, as my friend explained, we did have a right to be there, even if we couldn’t afford the $700-a-night junior executive suite or even the $85 lobster breakfast frittata.  All human beings had the right to see what we were about to see, regardless of how much money they might have in their pockets. 

And then we were standing on top of the city, gazing down at the endless sea of lights beneath us. Slow-moving snakes of red and white inched their way through the streets, while every monument and palace shone like a bright forest of gold. To our left, dancing spotlights traced lazy figure-eights across the sky, and to our right, lonely ship beacons bobbed in the darkness of the river. The wind that blew strands of hair into my eyes was warm and gentle, and the silence that surrounded us felt not like the absence of sound but the presence of all the world’s wonders at once, each trying to cram itself into our ears at the same time. 

Photo by Ed Weinberg

On the surface, there was little to distinguish that moment from the many other moments in my life where I’ve stood on top of a very tall building and gazed down upon the world below. And yet at the same time it did feel different, because there was no transaction, whether direct or indirect, that I’d made to be there. It was an experience, not An Experience™. There was no line for us to stand in, no security guard to move us along. There was no gift shop we had to exit through. We did not ask permission, nor did we beg forgiveness, and the end result was that we felt deliciously alive.

Going where you please without paying a fee or requesting permission, or “trespassing” as it’s often called, is good and we should all do it more often (though, admittedly, it’s a riskier practice for some people than others). Exploring the world around you is not a crime: It’s a natural human impulse, an affirmation that we are alive, a cheerful middle finger waved in the scowling face of power. Although most of us have been taught to regard trespassing with tremulous indignation, the only people with any real reason to oppose it are those who seek to control the lives of others and accumulate enormous fortunes for their own selfish pleasures. In today’s increasingly lock- and camera-infested world, trespassing is a courageous demand for freedom, and it also happens to be fun as hell.

Why you should try trespassing? For one, it will make your world suddenly seem much more interesting—a broken window will fill you with curiosity rather than fear. When you see the world with new eyes, you’ll start to explore much more of it, too, and you’ll find that many of life’s noblest pleasures are not found in a bar, gym, church, or even a museum of antique sex toys. In the course of this process, you may (nay, certainly shall) even discover something about yourself.   

I should probably clarify: When I speak in praise of trespassing, I’m not talking about breaking into your neighbor’s house at 3:00 a.m. to rummage through their stuff for drugs or money. This is the mental image that most of us probably associate with trespassing—a noise from downstairs in the middle of the night, a shadowy menace lurking just a few steps away, a terrifying confrontation in the one place you’re (theoretically) supposed to be safe. Needless to say, this kind of trespassing is usually bad, unless you’re breaking into one of Jeff Bezos’ homes. But while it’s hard—though not impossible—to defend trespassing on personal property, it’s much easier to make a case in favor of trespassing on private property (trespassing on public property comes with its own set of considerations, which we’ll get to later).

Aren’t personal property and private property essentially the same thing, though? No! There’s a difference between things that are owned by persons and things that are owned by entities, and although that difference has been obscured by over a century’s worth of “corporations are people” rhetoric from the right, it’s still an important one. Scale matters: It might be reasonable for Bob to say I can’t go hang out in his backyard gazebo while he’s on vacation, but it’s far different for The Bob Corporation to say that I’m not allowed to set foot in a certain forest, beach, park, shopping mall, or abandoned soap factory.  

The leaders of capitalist regimes in America and elsewhere do their best to blur the lines between personal and private property for the same reason they attempt to equate household debt with national debt—to make ridiculous comparisons seem like common sense, and to make ordinary people feel personally invested in the defense of a system that could not care less whether they live or die. They would like you to believe that if your family can’t get away with spending more than it earns, neither can the government. Likewise, if you have the right to insist that strangers stay off your property, so should corporations like Brookfield Asset Management.

Photo by Ed Weinberg

But this is nonsense, because while you’d be more fortunate than most if you had a four-bedroom home to call your own, Brookfield Asset Management owns more than 400 million square feet of real estate in almost every major city in the world. According to Forbes, not only is Brookfield the biggest office landlord in London and Los Angeles, it “quietly owns entire city skylines in places like Toronto and Sydney.” In New York, it owns the massive World Financial Center complex (whose real name is Brookfield Place) in Manhattan, along with the enormous skyscraper at One Liberty Plaza (which was built atop the bones of the Singer Building, the tallest building ever torn down). Brookfield also owns Zuccotti Park, the heart of the Occupy Wall Street protests (if you were wondering, “Did they write a whiny letter begging the NYPD ‘to help clear the Park’ of protesters by whatever—presumably skull-cracking—methods the Department saw fit?,” the answer is yes, and how).

Corporations aren’t the only ones to stake exclusive claims to massive chunks of the earth’s surface—other private entities are just as covetous. The Catholic Church, for example, owns nearly 276,500 square miles of land around the world, which, if all put together, would be significantly larger than France. Or take American cable tycoon Ted Turner, whose personal holdings of more than two million acres could comfortably fit Delaware, Rhode Island, and Washington D.C. with plenty of room left over. He may be but one private citizen, but he takes up a lot of space—to quote Jay-Z, in this regard Turner is a business, man.

Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of human beings are being herded into smaller and smaller areas, and losing whatever tiny scraps of personal property they once held. In the 10 years after the 2007 financial crisis, there were more than 7.8 million foreclosures in America alone, and today fewer than half of black and Hispanic households own their home (41.6 percent and 46.6 percent, respectively). 

Regardless of race, you’re much less likely to own property now than you would have been if you were born a few decades ago. According to a 2018 report from the Urban Institute, one of D.C.’s most venerable and well-funded think tanks, while 45 percent of Baby Boomers owned a home when they were between the ages of 25-34, only 37 percent of millennials can say the same today. 

At the same time that owning personal property is becoming an impossible dream, our public spaces are shrinking. In their place, cities are being overrun with “privately owned public spaces,” which resemble the parks and plazas of yesteryear but whose use is limited (whether implicitly or explicitly) to those with the “right” kind of bank balance and/or skin tone. Even the most eloquent defenders of these areas, like Jerold Kayden, a Harvard professor of urban planning and the founder of Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space, can’t make a convincing argument that their unchecked proliferation is a good thing. They might create value, but not for the people who need it the most. The end result of the trend, as Kayden told Here and Now’s Jeremy Hobson, is “a feeling that we’re not really all in this together. That there’s not a level playing field. There are areas for wealthier people, and then there are areas for poorer people.”

As an intellectual concept, this should offend you. When it’s expressed in statistics like this one from The Trust for Public Land—white neighborhoods in Los Angeles have 31.8 acres of park space for every 1,000 people, compared with 1.7 and 0.6 acres for black and Hispanic neighborhoods, respectively—you should be appalled. And when you see examples of it put into practice—like the spiked doorways, slanted benches, and other types of “defensive architecture” that are intended to deny homeless people the slightest bit of warmth or comfort—you may feel enraged enough to throw a brick through the window of the nearest luxury real estate office.

As I type these words, I have become so furious that I’m struggling to spell things correctly. There’s a memory that keeps making my hands twitch: I’m standing outside a Manhattan skyscraper, slowly spinning in circles as I look at the little blue arrow on my phone’s map. As I orient myself and start walking down the street, I glance to my left and see something strange in the corner where two buildings abut each other—a few feet off the ground, diagonal metal bars connect the two walls, creating a neat little triangle of empty space that doesn’t seem to serve any discernible purpose. 

And that’s when I realize that the purpose of those metal bars is to keep poor people from huddling in that corner to seek shelter from the wind. 

Any society that denies its most impoverished members access to outdoor corners is a profoundly sick and cruel one. Both cities and rural areas around the world (but especially in America) have long been the battlegrounds of a one-sided class/race war, and the forces of capitalism/white supremacy have already conquered huge swathes of territory. Like any occupying army, they have an overwhelming superiority in terms of money, technology, and firepower. However, they face the same problem that all occupiers face: Seizing land is easier than controlling it. 

Trespassing is an act of resistance against this slow strangulation of our living spaces. Human beings should be free to wander where they please—indeed, for much of our history, this has been taken for granted. Nomadic and semi-nomadic civilizations like the Plains Indians or the Turkic tribes of the Eurasian steppe weren’t the only ones to prize freedom of movement; those who insist such a concept is incompatible with the property-loving values of Western civilization may be interested to know that “the right to roam” has been ingrained in the cultures of many Northern and Central European countries for centuries. It’s a longstanding tradition everywhere from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia to Austria, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic. The Nordic countries of Finland, Iceland, and Norway protect the right to wander where one pleases, while Sweden’s tourism website boasts, “Sweden has the freedom to roam. This is our monument. We have no Eiffel Towers. No Niagra Falls or Big Ben. Not even a little Sphinx.” 

Many of these countries even have formal laws that protect public access as vigorously as American laws protect the right to exclude. The Scottish Outdoor Access Code, for example, ensures that “everyone, whatever their age or ability, has access rights…. over most land and inland water in Scotland, including mountains, moorland, woods and forest, grassland, margins of fields in which crops are growing, paths and tracks, rivers and lochs, the coast and most parks and open spaces” for a wide variety of purposes, including recreation, education, non-intensive commercial activities, or just going from one place to another. There are a worrying number of easy-to-exploit loopholes (like the one that stipulates these rights don’t apply to “visitor attractions or other places which charge for entry”), but the laws still protect public access rights far better than anything in America, where former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke pushed hard for the privatization of the country’s national parks and nearly succeeded before he was forced to resign in disgrace amid investigations into his personal business dealings with land developers and fossil fuel companies. 

There are many reasons why people like Zinke—and the institutions they control or support—seek to limit our access to physical spaces, but two of them are particularly insidious. The first one is simple: They don’t want us to see what they’re doing there, whether it’s having an extravagant pool party or slaughtering defenseless animals by the millions. Many states have “ag gag” laws that are intended to prevent people from entering factory farms under “false pretenses” and sharing evidence of the outrageous cruelties they witness there, like baby chickens having their beaks burned off or pigs with needles shoved into their eyes. The justifications for limiting our ability to access the panoramic rooftops of a city’s high-rises are somewhat different (here, a nebulous appeal to public safety or corporate secrecy is often invoked), but the intention is the same. You, the citizen, must keep your nose out of the business that’s happening around you. 

The second reason for elites’ attempts to limit the public’s access to any space that’s not strictly essential for work or consumption is also simple: They hate us. They consider us filth. They wish we would just disappear, especially if we happen to be poor, dark-skinned, or both. When Ronald Reagan ranted about “welfare queens” ruining America’s cities, when Donald Trump raves about “animals” pouring across America’s borders, when Silicon Valley innovators like Greg Gopman ponder removing all the “human trash” to “regional retirement communities” in remote areas where they can live out the rest of their drug-addled days, everybody understands exactly what they’re saying—wouldn’t it be nice if it was just us here, with us meaning prosperous white people (and perhaps a smattering of minorities who share the values and social behaviors of prosperous white people) who don’t make a lot of noise or get sick in public. 

And so it is clear: We are under attack, and we must fight back. We must resist being crammed into ever-smaller boxes. We must refuse to trudge through life with blinders on, paying attention only to the pre-approved, highly monetizable sights that are set before us. Most of all, we must remember that trespassing is one of the most thrilling and rewarding things you can do with your pants on. 

Seeing the place you live (or even one you’re just visiting) from a raw, unmediated point of view has a way of changing your outlook not only on your physical surroundings, but your daily existence within them. For example, in 1861 Walt Whitman visited the abandoned Cobble Hill Tunnel, through which a train had once run all the way to Downtown Brooklyn nearly half a mile away. After walking through the entire tunnel, he was impressed enough by the experience to write, “It might not be unprofitable, now and then, to send us mortals—the dissatisfied ones, at least, and that’s a large proportion—into some tunnel of several days’ journey. We’d perhaps grumble less, afterward, at God’s handiwork.”

It’s debatable whether Whitman had his fellow humans’ happiness in mind when he wrote that. He did, after all, describe the tunnel as “dark as the grave, cold, damp, and silent,” and his logic seems to go something like: Well, if you spend long enough in the most depressing place on earth, anything looks good after that! On the other hand, and it’s fair to point out that this is perhaps an overly charitable interpretation, I’d argue that Whitman was endorsing not a baptism into the church of hard knocks, but a radical realignment of one’s perspective in general.

Few activities are as well suited to such a task as recreational trespassing. For one thing, you tend to gain an intimate appreciation of just how tenuous any hold on power really is. To illustrate, several years ago I was traveling through Bulgaria when I came across a massive, flying saucer-shaped monument jutting from a hilltop like a concrete toadstool. It was Buzludzha, the former Monument House of the Bulgarian Communist Party, and less than 40 years after being built, it was already crumbling. Though it was closed to the public and its doors had long ago been sealed, it didn’t take long to find a subterranean access point (a fancy way of saying “a hole wide enough to wiggle through with a long piece of rope-like plastic and slowly lower myself down”). Once inside, I saw that the seemingly solid exterior bore little resemblance to the rampant decay within: Many of the beautiful stone mosaics had been stripped, and its roof was collapsing piece by piece. In the main chamber, the portraits of several prominent Bulgarian communists were slowly being chipped away, with one of them already gone, replaced by the shakily spray-painted words, “it’s just A HEAD.” This building had been one of the crowning achievements of a mighty empire that was supposed to last for hundreds of years. Regardless of your personal inclinations toward tankiedom, its rapid deterioration is an encouraging sign that the other dominant political force of the 20th century might soon meet the same fate.

Not only can trespassing restore your faith in the impermanence of exploitative power structures, it can also restore your faith in the cleverness, kindness, and beauty of the people around you. Too often, we’re accustomed to seeing people at their most dull and obnoxious: They’re obstacles to dodge at the grocery store, annoyances to ignore as we walk down the street, assholes to honk at as we waste yet another precious hour of our lives sitting in traffic. When our only interactions with those around us are like the brief gratings of tiny cogs in a vast dick-punching machine, it’s little wonder that we come to despise both our environment and each other. But should we meet under more pleasant circumstances, we’re apt to feel differently. At various points during my time within the bowels of Buzludzha, I encountered 1) a pair of Chinese youths who had found photos of the monument on Baidu, the country’s Googlean search engine, decided to fly halfway around the world to take selfies in it, and were kind enough to offer me a toke of their joint; 2) a group of Bulgarian, German, and Romanian antifascists who were on their way to a Rainbow Gathering and were also quite generous with their drugs, plus; 3) a flashlight-waving stranger who helped me find my way back to the access point instead of murdering me in the darkness, as I’d originally feared when I first heard their footsteps. I have nothing but the fondest memories of each of these people, and would be proud to one day give them a ride, attend their wedding, and/or testify on their behalf in a court of law.

Trespassing, then, is not simply a matter of seeing a sign that says “Do Not Enter” and having the courage to enter anyway (though that is often an important part of it). It’s a radical expression of freedom, hope, and humanity. When you trespass, you are striking a blow against hierarchy and capitalism and uptight motherfuckers everywhere. It can’t be overstated how important this is for our prospects of a livable future. So go forth, dear friends, and trespass—as a great philosopher once said, there’s treasure everywhere.

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