Thursday, November 20, 2008

Triple Cage Match

Triple Cage Match:

Ladies of Pirita vs. Martti Preem

This week I witnessed a public hearing where a group of ladies from Tallinn’s Pirita neighborhood made their case before city planning officials about why certain zoning language was problematic and should be changed during the general planning process. “But you aren’t allowed to contest that until the detailed planning stage,” argued the city officials.

But the ladies weren’t having any of it. They brought forth examples of past instances where “developers” (the ladies would want that in quotes) were given an inch with vague language and then proceeded to steal a mile. The city officials denied the abuse, and then the ladies calmly recited a list of addresses.

The land under question is a hectare or so of seaside land which is owned, through subsidiary- or sister companies, by the friendly folks from Tallink. There’s no question the land will be developed, but the ladies of Pirita simply want it to be restaurants and kindergartens, rather than a modern version of Lasnamäe, Tallinn’s Soviet housing eyesore. The land’s official designation, “mixed use,” in historical practice, has meant developers build anything they want, despite the fact that the greater land may be zoned as sotsiaalmaa, or land intended to serve the community as a whole.

This feud has been going on years in Pirita, and I’ve been following it only the last couple. And through it all what I’m most impressed by are the ladies of Pirita. And I do mean ladies. These are a group of middle-aged Estonian women, some housewives, some professionals, who have angered quite a few Estonian businessmen and city officials by simply having the courage to stand up and fight for what they believe. The men’s attitude, in most polite, unimaginative terms, is that of “Won’t you silly women just get out of our way.” On several occasions I’ve seen developers and city officials be genuinely rude to the ladies, but the ladies never falter. They maintain their composure throughout it all.

At the last meeting, Ürmas Lind, from the developer’s camp, fidgeted in his chair, made paper airplanes, washboarded his fingernails together, made wisecracks when others were speaking—everything he could think of to disrupt the meeting without being asked to leave. Martti Preem, a city official, became so upset that he shouted red-faced at the ladies, saliva spewing from his mouth. At one point he let a “kuradi” or two slip, which isn’t that bad if you’re sitting around in the pub watching football, but entirely inappropriate for a public hearing.

While I support the ladies in their cause, as I sat in the room my mind was not drawn to concoct ways I might help them. Rather, I began to imagine the world they inhabit. Much has been written about Estonian men and many theories floated about the superiority of their women. (For example: In ancient times, Estonian men went to sea and women ran the home. In Soviet times, Estonian men went to drink and women ran the home.) There may not be agreement on why Estonian women are better than their men, but there’s no disputing that they are.

As I sat and watched the ladies of Pirita keep their composure in the face of such abuse, I couldn’t help but admire them. I had to wonder if anyone outside their own ranks was aware of their plight, their burden. But then I remembered Robert Graves:

"Why have such scores of lovely, gifted girls / Married impossible men? / Simple self-sacrifice may be ruled out, / And missionary endeavour, nine times out of ten. / … / Impossible men: idle, illiterate, / Self-pitying, dirty, sly, / For whose appearance even in City parks / Excuses must be made to casual passers-by…"

(And truly worth it: Listen to Graves read the entire poem here.)