Poverty has a look. An aesthetic.
I am talking poverty, not destitution. What’s the difference? Poverty has just enough to build shelter, and survive, but not thrive and better. Poverty can still hope tomorrow will improve, but knows it likely won’t, and can see its demise into the next step, destitution. Destitution is the point past: the savage game of survival in which every moment is consumed by the need to provide for the next. That too, has its own aesthetic, and you recognize it from the most miserable places on earth: shantytowns, garbage heaps, refugee camps: places where death and disease cling tight to humanity.
Poverty doesn’t look so desperate, and it is its intermediary stage that made me see and live with it without actually seeing my whole life. But it, too, has its own distinctive aesthetic. One day I noticed.
It was on a drive through Moldova, early spring. With a GDP of just above $7500 as of 2019 (it was about half that the year I was there, in 2011) Moldova is the poorest country in Europe. (In case you’re interested: the richest is Luxembourg, at above $112,000; Moldova’s neighbor and my native country Romania, number 30 on the list of 40, is at $28,000). I was there working on a documentary about human trafficking, a direct result of this poverty, on the road between the capital Chisinau and the country’s second largest city, Balti (literally, Puddles). The minibus was crowded enough for a full Greyhound. The day was grey and cold and everything looked wet — soaked in a nondescript water that hinted at the very name of the town we were headed towards. Perhaps if it had been sunny and dry, and I could have seen the small buds just forming on scraggly trees, I wouldn’t have noticed. But it was not golden, nor blue, nor green. It was grey. And in the grey, I noticed: the smallness.
From my minibus (its size too matters), everything suddenly looked small: the villages we passed, the houses that made them up, their makeshift yards, the trees that lined the narrow highway, the occasional person walking along. The horizon itself managed to look small.
All these things. They lifted out of the earth but did not stand. Not straight. What they did was struggle. And that struggle kept everything small. The walls were improvised, the yards too, the crops, the vehicles, the very road. Everything made of and with materials not necessarily meant for them. I began to see every detail, unsure of itself, mixed into the others, hiding with a certain urgency. Once you see something, you can’t unsee it; it also opens your eyes to your own past. I had seen it without seeing for a lifetime and not only abroad but at home too, in America. I had lived with it, too. Wealth, by contrast, comes with sharp lines. It comes with clear demarcations. It is sure of itself. It stands, straight, claiming its place under the sun. You see it, and you know it when you do, and you can’t pass it by without noticing. Poverty, you can.
There is, of course, a certain poetry to it. There is charm and perhaps magic. The poor can make art out of the necessity for improvisation. But where poverty lives, and is not merely the dilapidation of the formerly wealthy but the creation by perpetual have-nots, it does have an aesthetic that I now recognize. That aesthetic is defined by smallness. I have traveled to many other places since, and walked down streets in my city of New York, and have never failed to see it again.