One cannot have failed to notice the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall over the weekend. Coupled with Remembrance Sunday, it has created a milieu of memorialisation over the weekend that has invoked process of grief, global strife, hegemonic power, activism & resistance, personal loss and spirituality. There has been a lot of pontification and media chin-stroking about the geopolitical wrangling and consequences of the fall of the Wall in the lead up to the anniversary, but what has always been present in the urban studies literature is the way in which the Wall acts very much within the urban geography of Berlin. I was lucky enough to visit Berlin last month for a very interesting and enlightening Workshop on Controversies of the Creative City, and given the content of my talk (which was, in a nutshell, a 20-min dash through the themes of my book) the inventible question I always seem to be asked is ‘what is the alternative’? If neoliberal capitalism is unjust, damaging and polarising, just what is the answer?** Given that we were in the city that symbolically saw the collapse of one viable ‘alternative’ it seemed like an apt arena in which to have the debate. With the workshop discussions pinging around my thoughts, I took it upon myself to practice what I so often champion which is the act of drifting à la The Situationists, something which can (can) begin to inculcate a more creative city. But of course, this is neigh-on impossible in the contemporary Creative City, so using the old line of the Wall (which is of course now, a recognised tourist route – Berliner Mauerweg, the Berlin Wall Trail), I walked from the SouthEast of the city centre to the North, keeping as close to the line as I could. This practice has been done elsewhere far more vividly that I ever could by Will Self (the flâneur of our time), and my photography skills have a lot to be desired (to say the least – click on the photos to see a larger version). But what follows is a photographic essay which speaks to the changing urban condition in Berlin from a city divided along geopolitical and revanchist lines, but which now has perhaps lost the former in favour of a more global city-inculcated version of the latter. Continue reading
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) is no doubt a classic film. It was technologically innovate, and spliced the detective film-noir genre with the comic, slapstick animation of classic ‘toons of the 1960s and 70s. Truly, a masterpiece of Hollywood cinema, and if you are not familiar with the film, you can read a great review of it here. One aspect though that often goes unnoticed is the urbanist narrative that runs through the film’s plot. It is set in 1947, and essentially, ‘Judge Doom’, the evil protagonist of the film, is plotting to destroy ‘Toontown’ (the suburb of Los Angeles where the animated characters live) and replace with a freeway. The film therefore is very much a critique on the ‘freeway-ization’ of LA, with overt glorification of the city’s transit-orientated past. Such a mantra is signposted early on in the film with the main hero ‘Eddie’ sitting on the back of a trolley car proclaiming, “Who needs a car in L.A.? We got the best public transportation system in the world!”
In his famous villain’s speech where he reveals his dastardly plan to the heroes, he claims that the freeways will revolutionise LA, and create a vast automobile-based city that will “be beautiful”. You can see his speech in the video below.
This short segment highlights one the film’s most overt social critiques, namely that of the automobile dominated city that Los Angeles had become in 1988, and still is to this day (relatedly, you can read about my day-long trip around LA by car in search of the film locations of The Terminator films here, and my ode to UK motorways here). With this narrative in mind, it becomes extremely obvious that ‘Judge Doom’ and Toontown are simply comic metaphors for the classic urbanism argument of ‘walkability’, most readily articulated by the battle between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. Continue reading
The show currently on BBC2, Mind the Gap, is well worth a watch as it covers many of themes that are important to modern urban geographical studies (you can watch it on the iPlayer, but only till 17th March), notably those being taught at undergradute level, not least by me for GG2053. The first episode ‘London and the Rest’, offered a useful insight into why London is a Global City, and what this means not only for the population of London, but for the rest of the UK and indeed the world. However, despite it’s rather glossy veneer and The Apprentice-style, helicopter, Gods-eye-view aesthetics that is so ubiquitous within mainstream documentaries, the program masked just as many important issues as it did illuminate. It failed to launch the visceral critique that its presenter threatened to do at times (his conservative approach masked an obvious desire to launch a tirade against this gargantuan urban behemoth), and in so doing presented a rather polemic, but no less informative pointer to why London has become the teeming Global City it is today. So I want to map out (using the traditional scalar model for clarity’s sake) a few points of departure from the episode that will help contextualise it in the wider relevant debates about contemporary urban studies.
I’ve recently moved. I moved from a small flat to a house to accommodate a growing family, but in order to afford to do so, we had to move out of the area we were in, to a smaller town/village nearby that has a large traveller community, a significant Nepalese diaspora and soon to be homeless service men and women once the neighbouring barracks are torn down and replaced with mock town housing. As an urban geographer I’d like to think that I’m aware of some of the nuances of urban processes including gentrification, and as such, I was acutely aware that, as a middle class, white collar academic from the heartland of Surrey, I was potentially a gentrifier of the area. In upsizing for a growing family, my situation is typical of a myriad of academics who find themselves looking for alternative accommodation on an (often) meagre income, and as a result, looking in more diverse areas of ethnic communities and/or lower social-economic class.
On the 6th March this year, I tweeted about plans to redevelop the South Bank in London. The following day, the full extent of these plans were detailed. The new ‘Festival Wing‘ development includes “the under-used spaces from the undercrofts” being turned into retail outlets, and the creation of a “new riverside area for urban arts”. This translates as the reconfiguring of the iconic skateboarders ‘mecca’ (known simply as the ‘undercroft’) into a row of shops, as it is a key site of entry into the new Festival Wing. Moreover, the plan is to create a new site in which the skateboarders and graffiti artists can go, situated a few hundred metres further west, under the Hungerford Bridge (more details here).
For me, this exemplifies many of the problems associated with current urban redevelopment policies. Not only is it a case of a consumerism that is predicated upon a rarified notion of urban culture trumping a subcultural community, but the notion that the skaters (and associated activities) can be ‘rehoused’ in a designated area shows a complete lack of understanding of how such activities work, and what they can bring to a city’s cultural offerings. There are many (inter-connected) reasons why I am in such staunch opposition to this particular part of the development, but for the sake of clarity, I have delineated them into 3 key points…
Having given two lectures in a week that featured a long, detailed analysis of the creative class, it was perhaps with a little bit of cosmic timing that I came across this article that same week in The New Republic, on the ‘real’ problems of gentrification. The process of gentrification (and all it’s subsequent ‘real’ problems, more on that later) is obviously mechanistically linked to the inward migration of the ‘creative class’ into any given area of the city – which is essentially any of those places that are ‘cool’ and ‘bohemian’ this week (which is, now, apparently, it would seem, the suburbs). On first reading of the New Republic article, the genuflection to Jacobs and her ideals rang true enough, the championing of street culture and the lamentation of homogenized urban development is clearly in the vein of the much lauded Jacobsian urbanism. However, while it was commendable that the article was highlighting the ‘sterility’ of contemporary urban aesthetics, this is where it’s derision toward gentrification was focused – this, the article claimed, is the ‘real’ problem of gentrification. Continue reading
Apparently, the High Line in New York City has been quite successful. It may have passed you by as there hasn’t really been anything about it in the press or the television or all over twitter, but it seems that many people quite like it and now every city worth it’s salt is engaging in ‘blue-sky’ thinking and coming up with ever-more ‘creative’ and ‘innovate’ ideas. From ‘Lido Lines’ to ‘Low Lines’ to ‘Insert-generic-antonym-here Line’, cities are now investing in revitalising old disused infrastructures to create new public spaces that the public can engage with. ‘Re-imaging our cities for the 21st century‘ is how one article put it. This really was the straw that broke the camels back for me, and now, the High Line mania, it seems has well and truly ‘jumped the shark‘. The problems with the viral-like spread of the High Line-like phenomena are multi-faceted and I would wager than different people will have their own particular issues with it. But there are two main problems that have ‘surfaced’ because of city’s scramble to enact a High Line-like policy; first, the rush to gentrify with gimmicks, and second, the diversion of scarce public funds to do so.