Urban Omnibus Writing Competition: Common Shares

311 Complainer

Last month, we published the winner of Common Shares, the 2014 Urban Omnibus writing competition. In “A Commons of Unwanted Things,” Frederica Hill relates a personal story of scavenging through her neighbors’ abandoned memorabilia in the semi-private, interior space of an apartment building basement. “311 Complainer,” by Keith Engel, is also personal, but is less confession than plaintive accusation, a catalogue of infractions that indicts a diverse group of parties — architects, real estate developers, restaurateurs, City agencies — for irresponsible stewardship of the city we share. As the character points fingers, Engel subtly brings to light some of the ironies of regulations, accountability, and blame in the cycles of urban change. As such, this piece offers a singular reading on the competition’s themes of common ownership, private property, and the sharing economy.

In a few weeks, we will publish the final winning entry from the Common Shares writing competition. All three, accompanied by original illustrations by George Bates, are collected in a printed volume. More information on purchasing this publication is available here. –C.S. 


I am a 311 complainer. I complain anonymously. I even have the app on my phone. I happen to walk by a construction site, I stop and scan for permits and observe the time and temperature at which concrete is being poured. I make faces at the ceiling and reach for my phone when a reveling gang of transplanted hipsters wakes me in the privacy of my bedroom during their travels through the public at 3 a.m. So you didn’t want to shovel the snow on your sidewalk and that old lady almost slipped? I complain. It’s April 1st, 7 p.m., and 52 degrees and I have no heat in my apartment. Am I the fool, you cheap bastard landlord? Joke is on you, I complain.

I get it from my mom. She always complained, but differently, because we didn’t have 311 in the Bronx in 1985. Someone parked his or her car in front of our house, she complained. My dad went out and busted the offender’s side view mirror. This was how we did things in the Bronx in 1985.

I suppose I’m a little less violent and a little less selfish than my parents — just a little.

Last year, you bought both the house and the adjacent empty lot at the end of the block. You’re now already trying to sell the lot? Separately? For double what you paid for both the house and the lot? As a development opportunity, you say. Let’s see what the Building Department website says. You’re filing a subdivision application to create all sorts of questionable geometries on the lot. Is that even allowed? Aren’t there minimum dimensions for lots in this zoning district? I’ll go look it up. There are. That’s why your application was disapproved. Good luck with that. If you get an approval, I’m going to complain. And you rented both apartments in that house to those damn hipster kids that woke me again at 3 a.m. I’m so going to complain. You’re an absentee landlord. Your tenants run amok in the neighborhood. And you probably don’t give your tenants enough heat. I will definitely complain. But I hope you’re not giving them any heat so they move the hell out of the neighborhood. How do I phrase all of these complaints when I complain?

As per the Department of Sanitation, my Christmas tree has been out on the sidewalk, free of ornaments and lights, for about a week. The Department of Sanitation mulch period is now over. I complain. Other people on the block still have their trees outside their buildings too. I complain on their behalf. I come home from work and my tree is still lying in sorrow on the sidewalk. All I hear are its plaintive cries, “Why did you do this to me? You left me out in the cold with no water and I’m dehydrated and freezing and what fate will befall me now?!” I can’t even give my tree a proper burial. You lazy sanitation guys, you said specifically on your website to put Christmas trees out during this designated time frame that I complied with. I can’t bear to look at my tree. And the other forlorn and abandoned trees on the street start sending up their laments. In despair, I run into the apartment and complain.

There’s a discarded, upside-down glue trap on the sidewalk next door. I think there’s a dead mouse underneath. That’s probably in violation of all sorts of health codes. I complain.

You’re opening a wine bar across the street from a public high school? Do you not see the public high school across the street there? In the Bronx, we only had White Castles across the street from our high schools. At least the students were able to participate in those establishments. Though, the halls didn’t smell too savory toward the end of the day. On principle, I’m going to complain.

You opened a restaurant adjacent to the Hasidic community. You named your restaurant “Traif.” Your restaurant’s name is offensive to the Hasidic community. What do I file this complaint under?

You’re leaning against the pole on the subway and no one can get their hands on it to steady themselves. You’re obviously a subway amateur. I would complain if I had phone service down here.

You with the construction site next door to me; your building’s entry door doesn’t swing in the direction of egress travel. Guess what? If it did, you’d have to recess it so it swings no more than eighteen inches over the property line. How are you going to fix that? I see from your broker’s website that you intend to start renting in two weeks. I see from the Building Department website that you have no construction sign-off. I see you also have no Temporary Certificate of Occupancy. Good luck with all of that. If I see anyone moving in, I’m going to complain.

You with the construction site on the other side of me; you’re a boutique architecture firm with something to prove. You’re doing a LEED “Titanium” building. Your website and your cute blog go on and on about how sustainable you’re going to be and how sensitive you are to the natural site features. Your website and your blog conveniently don’t show any photos of what I can see from the rear windows of my apartment — your contractor annihilated all of the trees that sprouted branches over your property line and these sawed-off limbs are now lying in a one-story tall pile underneath my window, collecting rats and tears. Are you going to repurpose these branches into scaffolding the way they do everywhere else in the world, but coin it as your own idea to try for Innovation in Design points, accolades amongst the design community, and a possible installation called “Big Branches” at the Met? At the groundbreaking, are you going to sharpen these branches and invite over the locals who you helped to displace and have them roast organic marshmallows as a token means of absolving yourself of any guilt because you believe that good design is responsible to the community? Probably not. This pile of branches are most likely going to be carted away and end up as landfill just like all those damn Christmas trees that are still lying around on the sidewalk. I complain.

You with the construction site across the street from me; you’re building a block and plank apartment building that appears to have obtained a large quantity of discounted bricks. Your guys are doing masonry work on a Saturday morning. I check the Building Department website. I don’t see any after-hour permits for today. I reach for my phone to complain. But I pause for a moment as I watch from the window. Your guys seem local. They probably have families. They’re out here because they need to work. They’re probably here because you have a need. Now, if I complain, I cost them a day’s pay. If I don’t complain, you shoehorn your building into this neighborhood against all time constraints and in flagrant disregard for the community that you will ultimately displace. If I do complain, you still get your work done eventually, but these guys go home today without pay. And I’m sure that they need the pay. Because, maybe, someone else is building a building just like yours in their neighborhood, and eventually they are going to be forced to leave their neighborhood because it is no longer affordable. The way I will be forced to leave this apartment. The way my mother was forced to leave the Bronx. I put down my phone.

Keith Engel is a registered architect and a writer. With a specialty in the affordable and supportive housing paradigm, he is interested in the complex intersections between urban environment, social fabric, migratory patterns, regulatory parameters, and built form. He is concerned for architecture’s ability to act responsibly, to affect, and to provide for meaningful experience and dialogue. A graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Keith has also attended CEPT University in Ahmedabad, India. Keith is a Bronx native and currently resides in Queens with his partner, their plants, and his twenty-seven coffee makers.