May Blog: Glass Ceilings

Glass Ceilings and other scenes from the life of a pioneering urbanist

(Note:this text was written for an event organised by the Urban Lab at UCL  celebrating the life and work of Ruth Glass)


I should begin by saying  that I never was a student or colleague of Ruth Glass, although I did come to meet her under circumstances  I will describe later. So all I can offer is an outsider’s view. I came across Ruth’s Glass’s work many years  before I met her in person. I was teaching urban studies at the Architectural Association in the mid 1960’s. It was the time of Archigram and plug in, throwaway, or as we would now say, pop up buildings.  Utopias were all the rage. I had one student who was designing an updated version of Atlantis on the assumption that we would all soon be returning to an amphibian ancestral state  and would need to build cities under sea- and this was well before the clouds of global  warming had gathered on the horizon.  Another was adapting Fourier’s model   of the Phalansterie as the basis of designing a new town in Suffolk . My task was to bring some kind of historical and sociological perspective to  bear on all  this  fevered imagination: to embed  these  New Jerusalems  in England’s not so green and decidedly unpleasant land. I did a series of lectures on urban protest movements and uprisings, starting  with the Paris Communes of 1848  and 1871, taking in the short lived moments of  the Kronstadt sailors  revolt and the Bavarian Socialist Republic,   dwelling longer in Red Pit villages and Red Vienna, and ending up with Colin Ward’s  do it your urbanism  and  the post war squatters movement. None of this went down very well – it all seemed to belong to another age  for these students who had ‘never had it so good’ but felt  that the future belonged to them and their generation. I had more luck with Jane Jacobs  ‘The Life and Death of Great American Cities’  and Herbert Gans  ‘People and Planning’    – here were some ideas , like spontaneous unslumming, and  popular  planning that  appealed to students  who were beginning to   think about   the role which architects might play in building a better, juster  world.  And then there was Ruth Glass  and ‘London- Aspects of Change’.

This became, if not my bible, then at least a constant point of reference, as I tried  to steer my students  away from  their headier  flights of fancy towards more grounded possibilities for urban change, related to the political, economic and social realities of  the time.

At the very beginning of her magisterial introduction to the book,  she has this to say :

‘London  can never be taken for granted. The city is too vast, too complex, too contrary and too moody  to become entirely  familiar.And there are moments when well known features of her townscape stand out surprisingly, as they might to a foreign tourist, or to the expatriate who ate last comes homes

From Kensignton to Kings Cross, early on a June morning, the sights and sounds of London just awakening have a novel clarity. The roads of Georgian and Victorian houses converted into flats  are still packed with parked cars; the Espresso bars are still locked up; the new underpass (or rather bottleneck) at Hyde Park Corner is still empty; the tall Hilton Hotel at park Lane, recently finished, stands  out clumsily. Marble Arch and Grosvenor Square,now deserted, where the American eagle is so conspicuous, are a reminder of days of international crisis, of protest demonstrations, of bewilderment  and fear.In this region of ‘high rise’  office blocks, apartment houses,genteel shop windows and an occasional supermarket, prosperity is freshly painted on:there is an air of expectancy. But all that is left far behind already ten minutes later  in the peeling plaster zone of Euston, where the monotony of  narrow back streets, grimy and dreary, is only rarely interrupted by a once-Italian  cafe or a more recent Indian restaurant; and then again by glimpses of a remarkable ‘vertical feature’- the Post office tower off Tottenham Court Road’.

In this characteristically  periscopic view, at once closely descriptive and yet distanced, Ruth takes us on a journey not only across London, but across a multiplicity of  sites and  structures of feeling  where the pulse of change is being registered  in   the urban fabric, and where  the juxtaposition of new and old,  the familiar and the strange signifies a whole gamut of   social tensions. She is surely the only urban  theorist who  ever referred to London as ‘she’  and who was  able to encompass  the whole spectrum of  its disfunctions  in a single paragraph. Of course  the metropolitan mise en scene has changed  dramatically since 1963: Euston is no longer a  grimy ‘plaster zone’ so beloved of Coldstream and  the other painters of the so called ‘Euston Road’ school; Drummond Street is now a thriving  multicultural neighbourhood, albeit one threatened by the planned expansion of Euston Station.  Yet many of these changes  she would surely have recognised, and in some cases at least, actually  anticipated. In re-reading  her Introduction after half a century I was struck again and again at how prescient  her analysis was, whether she is discussing consumerism, or  the growth of what Raymond Williams  called mobile privatism associated with car culture, time and again she hits the nail on the head. Of course her judgements were often coloured by post war optimism  about the impact of modernist town planning on the quality of working class life[i]. She compares the new estates rising from the ashes of the blitz and slum clearance favourably to the luxury flats and houses occupied by social elite. But in the next paragraph, as we will see in a moment,  she anticipates  the formation of  gated communities and ghettoes of the super rich  which have recently become such a topical focus. Like many  Marxists of her generation, like Eric Hobsbaum and Ralf Miliband, for example, she combined a dirigiste, command and control  view of political organisation and planning, with a more generous, democratic   appreciation of the vitality of popular cultural idioms and practice. It was at times an uneasy mix, but it was never boring.  Equally she held to the belief that social science  had to be based on  the ‘hard evidence’  provided by social statistics – she had no time  for what she regarded as the ‘anecdotalism’  of the material produced by much qualitative  research, and would have loathed   the cultural  turn in geography.

Ruth Glass was writing at a time when London was losing not gaining population  and although she was ever alert to the implications of immigration and demographic change, she could not have foreseen how utterly  it would transform   the social  geography of London  or that the suburbs would one day become front lines of racial tension as  working class white  flighters  from the inner city encountered the new Asian and Black middle class  moving into’their  manors’.

In all these ways she was a woman of her times. And perhaps it is worth remembering that these were  pre-feminist times; there is no doubt that much of her well noted  embattled stance  towards   colleagues and superiors   drew its  raison d’etre  from the prejudice she faced  as a  woman intellectual in a  still male dominated Academy. She never became a professor, despite her eminence in her field, and she undoubtedly hit her head against many brick walls, not to mention glass ceilings, only a few of which were of her own making. Like the city she so identified with, and onto which she  projected so many of her hopes and anxieties, she was’ too complex, too contrary  and too moody’  for her achievements to be easily pigeon holed, or her life summed up. She was a diasporic  Jewish intellectual who,like so many, fled persecution and death in Europe, and who  made herself a second home from  home, but who was never entirely comfortable in her adopted country and who continued to look at its social and cultural life with an outsider’s eyes.

Gentrification and all that

Ruth Glass’s name is forever associated with the concept of gentrification. It  would be interesting to  follow the uses of this term as it migrated out of the  academic lexicon into the political rhetoric of urban social movements  and thence into mediaspeak and  common  parlance and the accretion of  meanings, many of them contradictory, which it has acquired en route. For Ruth Glass, in  her famous study of Islington, it  simply  meant, as she graphically put it ‘the invasion of many working class quarters of London by the middle classes’.   As has often been noted the Chicago  ecological model of urban change with its phases of invasion, succession, dominance, undoubtedly influenced her characterisation of the phenomenon,  although as a Marxist the key drivers  for her were socio-economic  and political, not some  Darwinian or Malthusian competition  over scarce  resources[ii].

Gentrification has today  become  a portmanteau word- it is applied  not only to processes of social displacement  but  cultural marginality, to their   ethnic as well as class articulations, to the impact of large scale regeneration  and  small scale neighbourhood renewal,  to the role of the State in reinforcing and harmonising social inequalities in the inner city and to strategies of civic Imagineering  which treat indigenous populations as so much local colour while stripping them of much of their social and cultural capital.  What   the term  has lost in  conceptual precision, it  has gained in rhetorical power.  It  continues to be a rallying cry  for  historically  disadvantaged communities  facing the onwards march of property developers, finance capital  and the global knowledge economy.     As Rebecca Solnit commented in a memorable image  ‘Gentrification is just the fin above the water,” “Below is the rest of the shark.” The shark being a “hollow city” with an economy where “most of us will be poorer, a few will be far richer, and everything will be faster, more homogenous and more controlled or controllable”[iii].

To bring the story closer to home, In Islington, where I currently live on one of the earliest Peabody Estates, a recent report  predicted   that in ten years time only the super rich, and the destitute underclass will remain.  The kind of middle classes which Ruth Glass identified as  ‘the gentrifiers’  will no longer be able to afford to live there. The new gentry  will not be the middle class  professionals, so beloved of David Cameron’s vision of the Big Society,  who teach in schools, run local charities, champion  local causes, volunteer and raise funds to  support  public amenities. The new gentry will work in the higher echelons of business, banking and  government, will have second if not third homes  and be too busy making money or advancing their careers  to concern themselves with what is happening on their doorsteps, unless, of course,  they become targets of street crime, or rioting, as may well happen.

A tale of two cities

I mentioned that ‘ London-aspects of change’  anticipated much that was to come.,  How is this for a piece of prescience :’London may quite soon be a city  which illustrates the principle of the survival of the fittest (Darwin again, but then she adds quickly!)- the financially fittest, who can still afford to live and work there. Thus London, always a unique city may acquire a rare complaint – it may soon be faced with an embarrass de richesses in her central area.’

If  Ruth  were alive today I think she would be doing a research project in Kensington and Chelsea into the Russian olygarchs and other plutocrats that have turned whole neighbourhoods into ghost  towns. Here ironic use of ‘embarrass de richesses’ is typical of her style, using  a phrase which indicates   the confusing abundance    of consumer capitalism to refer to   the spatial concentration of inherited or accumulated   wealth and en passant mischieviously  alluding to their  conjuncture.  In terms of sensibility I have always thought Ruth Glass’s writing   about metropolitan culture is closer to George  Simmel’s  acerbic wit   than Antonio  Gramsci’s  more ponderous prose, which is perhaps why she has been spared   the indignity  of having a large luxury hotel named after her.

Even nearer home and perhaps closer to the bone, the picture she drew  of Notting Hill Gate in the  early 60’s, of   squatters, artists,  students  and newcomers to London moving into run down  neighbourhoods,  putting them  on the map as part of the  urban buzz, only to then be  supplanted by richer bohemians  and members of the  creative class, while the long  established  working class community is priced  out  by a pincer movement of  rising housing costs and loss of affordable amenity , this pattern  has been  be   repeated  over and over again in the past half century, not only in London, where Hackney Wick  is  the latest  example, but all over   Western World. And beyond. The impact of the Olympics on its host communities, whether in London, Rio, Beijing or Barcelona   is a case in point[iv]. Perhaps one of the reasons why gentrification continues  to be such a bogey word  for advocates of ‘trickle down’ models of regeneration, is that it  gives the lie to all their pretensions of ‘levelling up ‘or ‘convergence’, not to mention their protestations  of innocence when it fails to happen. Why after all should  poor people have to wait for the arrival of the affluent  before they get adequate schools, health care and social facilities?  For  all these reasons ‘gentrification’ remains an important part of the  conceptual toolkit of radical planners and  community activists  and one which, for example  has been  central  to our thinking as we begin to work  with  residents and young people living and working in and around East 20, to co-create with them an alternative map and narrative of what is happening in  this area[v].

Strange Encounters

On a more personal note, I first met Ruth Glass in the early 1980’s, when after a strenuous stint as a squatter  in Central London I  got an actual job, or rather a research grant to investigate changing forms of youth culture and their relation to  the state restructuring of  the school to work  transition. I  moved to  Basil Bernstein’s   Sociological Research Unit in the Institute of Education, in Gordon  Square, a short tricycle ride from where I had grown up in the 1950’s. It was an interesting time in education, when the intellectual  impetus behind radical pedagogies and Marxist analyses of the school as an ideological state apparatus, which had for a time influenced sections of the teaching profession was  faltering; in its place there was  the new vocationalism – based on the presumption that the task of  schooling was to train up working class kids with the new technical and social skills  demanded by the post Fordist  and service economy. And as I  was to  discover this shift  in educational   thinking away from the comprehensive ideal also pre-occupied Ruth Glass.

Shortly after I moved in I noticed considerable activity on the ground floor of the building as teams of workmen carried large boxes of what I took to contain books into  what had been the main department office .They were being directed, somewhat peremptorily,  by a short, stubby woman in her seventies who  was wearing a severely elegant all black outfit  which I took to be less a fashion statement  than a sign of mourning.   Ruth Glass  had not only lost her husband, but her academic position and Basil Bernstein, an old friend, had offered her to relocate, lock stock and very large library, to Gordon Square.  I heard on the grapevine that she was looking  for a secretary, and my partner , who had some secretarial  experience, was looking for a part time job. I am not sure it was a perfect match. Ruth, it turned out  was a  very demanding person   to work for, and Jean, who was, and still is, a radical feminist, was in no mood to be ordered about or treated as  anyone’s skivvy.   Ruth may have been variously categorised as ‘feisty’ or a ‘battle axe’ by her male colleagues who were not used to a woman behaving in such a commanding way. But she was no sister to her female colleagues.

Jean  tells me that in her better moods Ruth could also  be very warm and generous, and remembers being introduced to Eric Hobsbaum on one of his many visits.  I only recall one conversation I had with Ruth Glass at this time, in which she asked me what I thought were  the reasons why working class kids  formed  counter cultures  in school,   and I tried to explain to her my theory of territoriality  and its relation to working class youth subcultures  and gang formation[vi].She was not at all  convinced by my somewhat stuttering attempt to introduce  elements of Gramscian and Althusserian theory into   an analysis of  the production of    corporatist  urban space, which turned on the notion of a class imaginary, but she was very polite about it  and suggested that I might like to read Engels  The Condition of the Working Class in England  and Robert Robert’s The Classic Slum, to get a somewhat  longer and more material  perspective on the issue.

A multiple legacy   

What then has been Ruth Glass’  legacy?  She was not  always well served by her  obituarists, partly I suspect because in 1990  Thatcherism  ruled more or less OK and Marxists were widely regarded as dinosaurs. Certainly someone  needs to update the very perfunctory notice  in Wikipedia as part of a wider reappraisal of the continuing relevance of her work both within the Academy and outside.

As an urban ethnographer, turned cultural geographer, turned critical cartographer, fields which have emerged to prominence only in the last two decades, and which she probably would not have had much time for,  I would say that her work reminds us how important it is to embed the analysis of urban politics  or policy  in a comprehensive critique of the mode of production of   spatialities. Although we now tend to think that it was Henri Lefevre, then Maurice Castells, and David Harvey who pioneered the conceptualisation  of this approach, at least within a neo-Marxist  framework, I think it was the work of the Centre for Urban Studies  that first indicated and partially mapped out  the need  for an  approach that attempted to grasp the forces at work in the city as a totality. You can still find echoes of  this intellectual project  not only in the work of the Urban Lab, but  in the LSE’s Cities programme, in the thrust to continually interrogate  London’s  political economy  and its every changing  forms of contradiction; you can find it in the revisionary work of Tim Butler,  Loretta Lees, Paul Watt  and  many others who have refined and sophisticated the concept of gentrification, and it was certainly an influence when some of us set up the London East Research institute  at UEL ten years ago.[vii]

We should also not overlook  the influence of her analysis    on the radical Community Development  programmes  and Popular Planning Units inaugurated in the 1970’s  which brought together academics, trade unionists, tenants and community activists  and  attempted  with some local success to embed a culture of civic participation in democratic decision making about urban futures. A similar spirit animated   the Urban and Environmental Studies  Centres which sprang up  over the same period and which worked with schools  and  community organisations, to open up new ways of thinking and studying   the city, promoting an active and critical pedagogy  which broke with the  arid one dimensional approaches to geography  which then dominated the curriculum. And today echoes of this style of work  can be found in  the projects of the  Building Exploratory in London, the Bureau des Etudes in Paris,  and many others.

But to leave her,  as is fitting, with  the last word, here is another passage from her introduction  to London-Aspects of Change, in which she displays her dazzling gifts as an encyclopaedic observer of the city she loved, depicting so vividly its kaleidoscopic topographies of wealth and poverty, hope and despair:

‘ Wherever we go, we can get glimpses of the many unfamiliar worlds in this one metropolitamn constellation. We can see them in the  mean streets,in luxury flats,along the roads of suburban ribbon development;in places like Eel Pie Island  where various cliques of teenagers congregate;in jazz clubs, coffee bars, Soho joints, and expense account restaurants; in the withdrawing rooms of earnest religious and political sects; at speakers’Corner in Hyde Park or the Earls Court Road; at meetings in Trafalgar Square; in public libraries,senior common rooms, and at soirees of the Royal Society.We get an inkling of the existence of other remote and yet nearby worlds  through migration statistics’ through fascist newssheets and  ‘nigger baiting’scrawls on the walls of back alleys; through unsavouring court cases  or co0mplaints before rent tribunals;on reading press items  about witch rites,ghost hunts, visits from Martians  and take over bids. And then again we may hear of the ‘hidden’societies through reports of hospital almoners, NSPCC inspectors or social workers who bring ‘meals on wheels’ to  lonely old people.It is an amazing, still largely obscured panorama that thus begins  to be visible…… ‘


[i] See Owen Hatherley  Militant Modernism (Pluto 2009)  and Ben Campkin Remaking London( I B Tauris  2013)

[ii]  See Ken Plummer (ed ) The Chicago School :critical assessments  (Routledge 1997)

[iii] See Rebecca Solnit   quoted in Guardian article November 12  2013

[iv] See Phil Cohen  On the Wrong side of the track? East London and the Post Olympics  Lawrence and Wishart 2013. A forthcoming collection of studies, edited with Paul Watt ‘ A Hollow legacy?’ to be  published by Palgrave in 2016, will examine the 2012 legacy in a longer term comparative  framework.

[v] See  Living Maps website  for further information :

[vi] See Phil  Cohen  ‘Rethinking the Youth Question: education,labour and cultural studies’  (Palgrave 1998)

[vii] See for example  Loretta Lees,Tom Slater and Elvin Wyly   ‘Gentrification’ (Routledge 2000); Tim Butler and Paul Watt   ‘Understanding Social Inequalities’ Sage 2007; Tim Butler and Chris Hamnett ‘Ethnicity,Class and aspiration:understanding London’s new East End’(Bristol Policy 2011); Tim Butler ‘Gentrification and the middle classes( Ashgate 1997);Lance Freeman ‘There goes the hood:gentrification from the ground up (Temple 2005)