Courtyard Life

A deep box with its four sides made by the adjoining buildings of the city block, overlooked by their rear windows, floored with garden plots and fruit trees, benches, a fountain, wash pump, and flagged paths and places for play, this was a private realm in the old style, sex-segregated. Elsewhere men ran what they ran; women ran the courtyard. Cool in the shade of blue-green lilac bushes two stories tall they’d sit and watch other women hang laundry. Every so often a faint lilac after-fragrance would reach them from the last bright blossoms withering as contentious blackbirds shook the branches.

I live on a courtyard. The windows of my apartment in Brooklyn overlook a deep narrow canyon that runs through the middle of a block of apartment buildings like my own. At one end, trash comes and goes outside the back entrances of a row of stores on Brighton Beach Avenue which face a stairway entrance to the elevated subway line. The apartment block are all six stories tall and built of brick; the courtyard is floored in concrete; sounds get in there, bounce around, amplify. Since the avenue is busy and the trains run 24 hours a day (though the automated stop announcements go mute overnight), it’s noisy. Every once in a while, it’s unbearably noisy. An alarm on one of the utility sheds on the subway platform used to go off with some regularity, an ear-splitting triple buzz—UUEEHH-UUEEHH-UUEEHH–that played non-stop for days when the power came back on in the neighborhood after “Superstorm” Sandy, and later in made its way into LAMENT.

Courtyard of Jewish Museum of Odessa; Wikimedia Commons

One thing my courtyard doesn’t have, is any human element. Laundry usually hangs from a window or two, but courtyard life at ground level, at least for tenants like me, is nil. (We’re not allowed on the roofs, either.) Sometimes out my bedroom window I’ll see people who work in one of the restaurants on the avenue; one of them comes out on mornings during the summertime with an inevitable weed whacker to go after anything green that’s managed to sprout from the concrete. There are cats, of course.

Sad to read, Odessa’s courtyard life that I tried to capture in LAMENT looks like it’s on its way to some final extirpation. This 2017 article from The Odessa Review gives a picture of a city quickly losing its architectural heritage to big-money developers and ground-level unknowing indifference–a potent combination that appears to be sweeping the globe.