February Blog :There goes the neighbourhood

FEBRUARY BLOG :THERE GOES THE NEIGHBOURHOOD – AN URBAN TRIPTYCH

‘The neighbourhood is that part of town you have no need to go to because you are already there’ -George Perec

1)  Chic by Growl

I recently moved into a new neighbourhood in Islington. My flat is  in  a large Peabody Estate, off the Essex Road, quite close to the area which Ruth Glass  made the object of her famous study on ‘gentrification’. I am living in one of the earliest ‘ model dwellings’  built in the 1860’s for the ‘industrious working classes’ by  the great Canadian philanthropist and which  became  an inspiration for the  development of social housing in Britain. Today the estate’s inhabitants are a cross section of all those  who cannot  afford to buy or rent in the private housing market, and increasingly this is including middle class professional people  like myself. A recent study of local housing conditions concluded that by 2020  you would have to be either very rich or very poor to remain in the area at all.  Ironically, given the association with ’gentrification’, it is the middle classes who are being squeezed out by London’s rampant housing boom.

By no coincidence, as housing has  moved rapidly up the political agenda, the theme of the ‘squeezed middle  class’  has become a major  focus of political debate. It is, of course, this fraction of the electorate  where swing voters are concentrated and which will  decide the outcome of the next general election. Ed Milliband has  raised the spectre of  insecurity  amongst  ‘hard working families’  who are unable  to buy their way into the property owning democracy, unless or until  they inherit   a house from their parents.  The coalition government countered with a scheme to assist first time buyers, but this only served to fuel house price  inflation, given the chronic   under-supply of affordable homes. They then raised the definition of ‘affordable’  up to 80% of market value, so that in desirable neighbourhoods  only people on middle incomes  could  afford them. They also  imposed a ‘bedroom tax’ on lower income families who were supplementing  their meager earnings or benefits by renting out a room to lodgers, thus  effectively destroying one of the key   support structures in working class  communities. The  war on poverty  really has turned out to be a war against the poor.

Much less commented upon is the impact of the housing crisis and austerity measures on the  urban fabric and, in particular on the quality of neighbourhood life.  For some commentators, the ‘neighbourhood’  in the sense of a place with a distinctive reputational  identity, comprising a shared territory of belonging   associated with a residential community, no longer exists. Such urban bonds have melted into the thin air of post modernity, and been replaced  with  de-territorialised, largely virtual communities of interest and  association,  constituting non-place  realms of  networking conducted  through new social media.

Certainly , for many people ‘the neighbourhood’ is not just  an area within walking distance from home, but also comprises a more extended and flexible navigational space.  At the same time there has been a process of re-territorialisation  in  which physical, social and cultural geographies  become ever more impacted , and post codes take on an ever more  site-specific  meanings, for example as marking property hot spots, or  gang ‘turf’.  So, for example,  young people’s sense of neighbourhood may be based on a virtual peer network that extends across  the city or even the globe, but the real space they inhabit may be increasingly circumscribed by lack of economic opportunity or social constraint.  You may be able  to talk to mates on the other side of town, but  you may be too poor or too scared , to actually  go and visit them.

My neighbourhood  is traversed  by Essex Road,  a busy artery  that marks  a boundary between the heavily gentrified  area to the west  abutting on to Upper Street, where  expensive boutiques and restaurants  rule OK  and  the  large concentrations of  social housing to the east. But if it is a front line, it is not one characterized by social tension, but  rather by a pattern of co-existence   between  the relatively affluent and those on  low incomes. The two groups  go to different shops, use different facilities, have  different life styles. So an art gallery, a designer bike shop, a Peruvian restaurant, a specialist fishmongers, a taxidermist, an  art deco  furniture shop  and a luxury  bathroom showroom  jostle  next to a cost cutter, a chippie, a bookies, a traditional bakers,  a pawnbrokers, and  an internet  shop patronised by people who cannot afford a computer.  The public library  which is only open every other day,  thanks to the cuts, is housed in a very distinguished Victorian building,  and  functions like informal  social club   for the unemployed, the retired, and others with time on their hands. There are a few places, like the local Co-Op  where the classes mix, or at least  share the same check out, but otherwise it is a case of ‘ chic by growl’ : the young trendies  swish past, often in jogging mode,  while the poor, the desperate  and the sick  grumble amongst themselves as they trudge to and from the low price shops and caffs.

There are some real neighbourhood characters who bridge the gap. There is Moshe who cycles in from Dalston everyday to open his record shop. And it is a record shop – he has several thousand vintage  Vinyls  for sale. He began by building on his own collection – he is an aficionado  of 60’s  indie rock, jazz and blues – and now must have one of the most comprehensive in London. He grew up in the old Jewish East End, before it turned into Banglatown, but  unlike the rest of his family he didn’t join the diaspora  to Ilford and Golders Green, preferring to  go on living in the street, and the house where he was born.  He sits in his  higgledy piggle emporium, wearing an elegant blue suede yarmulke, ready and willing to chew the fat with whoever  comes in and  wants to pass the time of day; even if they don’t make a purchase, they get to hear a lot of great music while arguing the toss about politics, sport, or religion.

And  then there is Mister Hello. Mister Hello can be found standing outside the bookies, come rain or shine, dressed in a large woolen overcoat that has seen  better days and which he wears even in a heatwave. He does’nt exactly beg, but if people stop and pass the time of day with him, which many do, he usually asks them  if they can spare a few bob because he has just that morning got a sure fire tip on a horse; he will, of course, pay you back as soon as he collects his winnings, and even buy you a drink or two to celebrate. He sure  has the blarney and it’s a pleasure to part with a pound just to hear the lilt of his voice as he extols the virtues of the nag he has pinned his hopes on.  It is not clear whether he ever actually bets  any of the money, but the next time you see him he will wave you over and tell you the most elaborate and often hilarious story about why he was let down by the horse. He is a  great gossip  and a mine of information about what is going on in the locality.  To be acknowledged by Mr Hello, and he reserves his ‘hello’s  for his regulars, is to be  recognized as fully belonging to the neighbourhood.  So although from one standpoint he might be regarded as a tramp, a beggar,a con man  and a social parasite, he plays  an important and entirely positive role in sustaining the moral economy of the neighbourhood, whether as raconteur, news reporter, or stand up comedian. His presence makes possible those small acts of generosity and concern which we understand by  ‘neighbourliness’  and without him life would be less rich, even and especially for the poor.

Moshe is worried  that his landlords are going to increase his rent to the point where he will no longer be able to afford to stay there. In a time of recession,  the middle class cut back on their hobbies and although he has his loyal customers who travel from all over London and beyond to browse his ware, business is not good. And there is talk that William Hill’s, the bookmakers, may close and be replaced by a new Sainsbury’s or a Café Nero. Many of the other amenities on which the less well-off rely  are similarly threatened. If, one day  we find  that Mr Hello  has disappeared and been replaced by a security guard, then  we might really say ‘there goes the neighbourhood….

2) Lines of Desire

There  is a school of   radical urbanists, inspired by the French situationists who celebrate the city, and in particular its streets and public spaces as   adventure playgrounds,  sites of   strange encounter and chance association  which open  up new human possibilities and subvert the  rational ‘lines of desire’ imposed on the human traffic flow by the planners. These  metropolitan optimists see the city as offering the potential for a  different, more heterogeneous, and fulfilling set of relationships  than is afforded by the private domestic sphere.

They are opposed by an ever more vociferous and powerful group of metropolitan pessimists who see the city as a site of  danger and degradation,  and  have  elaborated  a whole genre  of precautionary tales  about the terrible things that happen to people  who come to them. This position unites   anti-urban  romantics like Blake  with his inveighing against ‘London Babylon’     and conservative moralists who long to return to  an organic society’ in which there is  a place for everyone and everyone knows   their place.

Both schools of thought agree on the risky, potentially transgressive nature of metropolitan life, although they invest it with opposite meaning and value.   Take for example   the   recent ‘right to be naked in public’  campaign. These ‘urban naturists’   seems to be engaged in a classic strategy for  hiding  in  the light ( pace Dick Hebdige). Certainly from a psychoanalytic point of view  exhibitionism  represents a cover story for what has been inhibited, not an act of liberation. If the campaign is cited by  conservative moralists as an example of the kind of    things people get up to if left to their own devices,   it is because it appears to transgress so dramatically the public/private distinction. But just as I think  it could be argued that in fact it does no such thing,  so too the scandalised   response  does not so much  transcend these oppositions as restate  them. The assumption is that  the domestic world  is a safe haven whose intimacies have somehow to be extended into the public realm. But the fact is  that  the realm of  domestic life is  far  more dangerous and  open to public inspection than we would like to think. Nosy or noisy neighbours, and poor sound insulation ensure that for many people, especially those living in the worst housing conditions,  the ‘private’   is all too public. And, of course,  most of the violence  and abuse   that goes on   takes place indoors.  If you are  in this situation, you  may indeed want to escape  into   the safety of crowded  thoroughfares or shopping malls to enjoy some sense of  freedom  and privacy. Another    way of hiding in the light.

My unease at the underlying premises  of the city- as- transgression argument goes beyond these particulars and concerns exactly whose experience of  public/private space is being referenced here. Many of the discussions are curiously non class, age, gender  and ‘race’ specific. I think this may be partly  because they remains primarily philosophical  and at least for my taste, are not sufficiently grounded in sociological reality principles.

In this tradition of writing, the flaneur, the poet, the artist, the postmodern  ethnographer, make the running as the key ‘interlocutors’ of the urban experience ;  all  of them,of course,   feel most at home, literally and figuratively, in  the  kinds of  metropolitan spaces and places  where cultural and social mixes are at their most glamorous and flamboyant.  So the  democratic challenge seems to be to find  hints of  cosmopolitan life style or  exotic otherness in less promising milieux – like suburban high streets  or  market towns, or  run down public housing estates. We become motorway flaneurs,  conoisseurs of parking lots, collectors of invisible signs of the times. Wherever there are muppies ( multiculturalised   upwardly mobile young people) you  will find evidence of people looking to  create or consume this kind of do it yourself  urbanism, even if  no amount of mobile phoning is going to get the rest out of their familiar ruts !

The fact is that  issues  of  safety and danger, adventure and precaution, intimacy and exposure, are highly  specific to  particular conjunctures of  people and places in  a way that defies ready  generalisation about public/private space. Perhaps  to get our bearings  on these micro territories in a less socially abstracted way  we need a comparative urban phenomenology supplied by local inhabitants  themselves. Consider  for example the  varieties of  hopes, fears, expectations   and actual  strategies of circumnavigation being enacted along  the High Street on a bright Spring Saturday morning  by :

  •  A toddler in a push chair
  •  Two teenagers looking for their friends
  •  A Family shopping expedition
  •  A party of sightseers  from an American air base
  •  A chronic sciatica  sufferer
  •  An agoraphobic
  •  An elderly woman who has been the victim of street crime
  •  A homeless schizophrenic

It seems unlikely  that  the range of such experiences will best be captured by using  abstract philosophical language viz ‘being like through being other’  or ‘making visible the non public’ (Taussig). When it comes to setting these accounts  against one another, we  need some alternative way of establishing the limits/ conditions under which each could be  somehow accommodated within  a  single, if multivocal, narrative  frame. That is the task we have set ourselves in Living Maps in creating a   new Atlas of East London consisting  of maps made by groups of local people in areas undergoing  rapid   social and demographic  change. It is an exercise in citizen social science  that offers a different way of  generating innovative urban policy based  on locally situated  knowledge  but operating within a wider   trans-local frame.

 

3) Grist to the Mill ?

I recently had the experience of meeting a young historian  who was working on a PhD  about the politics  of urban regeneration. He was interested in showing how  neo-liberal policies were being implemented  and in the process much of the radical  thinking about  community development and its relation to popular planning which took place in the 1960’s and 70’s were in danger of being consigned  to the dustbins of history. He was an Oxford  graduate, now  based in Berkeley, and seemed very knowledgeable  about urban social movements; in particular he was interested to find out  about  campaigns  in  East London  against  the London Docklands Development Corporation  in the 1980’s  and the more recent  anti-Olympic movement.  He had read my book on East London and the Olympics and was fulsome in its praise, but I should perhaps have been forewarned of what was to come when he said that it had created a new kind   of ‘academic  space’.  Of course  I knew what he meant : the book tries to address  a set of issues that are normally wrapped up in a heavily theoretical  discourse   using an idiom that is accessible to people who do not  have a PHD in Cultural Studies.

However as he went on talking  I realized, with a sinking feeling, that  in addition  to being  ferociously intelligent, he was enormously ambitious and however much he protested that the purpose of  doing the thesis  was ‘political’ in fact it was mainly  to advance his professional career. Of course  there is always a trade off, and the sublimation of political ambitions in academic  ones has a long history,  not least  amongst 60’s radicals like myself.  But what I found depressing  was the fact that  he had no real feeling for the  struggles  he was researching.  They were simply so much grist to his academic mill. For example, the people involved in the campaign  against  Canary Wharf  were largely dockers, or rather ex-dockers, who had seen first their livelihoods and then literally the ground under their feet  destroyed by Thatcherism. But as far as this  young man was concerned   their only significance was that they were pegs on which to hang his  argument  about neo-liberalism.  He wanted to get his hands on archive materials  about the campaign, but it never occurred to him to go and actually interview the people  who had organized it.

I  expect this young historian  will  write a brilliant thesis, will get a post in a prestigious university   and be launched on a career which he will pursue with great energy and determination, to  become a professor at an early age. You might say, well  what else could he do?  Academic life  has always  been highly competitive  and individualistic,  and in the age of  the ‘neo-liberal university’ the   public intellectual  culture  which supported critical theory and socially engaged research, and  sought to embed  this work in projects of direct benefit   to local communities, has all but withered away. Moreover  long term commitment   to protracted struggles  is very difficult to sustain, especially amongst young people whose precarious economic situation   predisposes to  short termism, if not outright opportunism as they seek to find a niche for themselves in the world. My young historian mentioned a friend of his who had been involved in a  campaign against the austerity cuts, using social media to mobilize protests. Was the campaign still going, I enquired. No, the leader had gone off to China  to get a job  and the campaign had folded.

Contemporary urban politics  is about  the way  the power of capital   is ever more highly concentrated  and the power of the State in civil society   ever more widely disseminated, especially through the new technologies of surveillance  which operate through social media. It is a double whammy which  makes it  very difficult for urban social movements, like the campaigns  in East London, to find an effective and sustainable  point of purchase, to  leverage  additional resources and amenities that will have a real redistributive effect.  Despite all the talk of ‘empowerment’ and ‘ convergence’ (i.e. that the life chances of children born in East London will in the future  be the same as those born in Kensington and Chelsea),  the spatial distribution  of poverty and  powerlessness becomes both more intensive, concentrated in specific  neighbourhoods, and  regionally specific ( viz the North/South divide)  while the engines   of wealth creation remain in ever fewer,  unregulated hands.

There is no magical way to unlock  this set of contradictions, no amount of ‘critical thinking’, however dialectical  will do it, but it is still possible to glimpse  the possibilities, if we remain alert enough  to  what David Graeber  has called ‘actually existing communism’. By this he means the cultures of mutual   aid   that install themselves  wherever  a hiatus occurs in the apparently seamless integration of the production, distribution, circulation and consumption of commodities. We do not have to believe, like the old anarcho-syndicalists or council communists, that we  can build a whole economy and society on these  fragile instances,  but we can, nevertheless, glimpse in   their continual re-invention,  the conditions of a different, more egalitarian  and human society. Which brings us full circle  back to Mr Hello.

The PowerPoint file that accompanies this Blog can be found here:  THERE GOES THE NEIGHBOURHOOD