3. Living for the City

(credits to Ed Cox for the amazing image of London docks pre redevelopment)

One of the most written about shifts supposedly catalysed by the pandemic is the looming urban flight of the professional classes. Mastheads from Politico to The Guardian and The Telegraph have recently run variants on the theme of the escape to nature with a particular focus, as is often the case, on London. There are a number of reasons why this is overly-simplistic and is unlikely to be the case. The partial uncoupling of ‘city–as-economic-unit’ from ‘city-as-physical-social-network’ will make London a more vibrant, more textured and perhaps less unequal place.

For many, London is a necessary evil. The lure of work, particularly ‘middle class’ professional jobs means that many people cram in for the economic opportunity that would rather be in towns or villages. I have known many people, grudging residents of London – not Londoners – who while away unhappy years never taking much advantage of world-class clubbing, or free ballet performances, 10-quid West-End show tickets or just a walk along the Thames. Now this ‘white collar proletariat’ has a chance to unshackle itself from those chains.

Of course, there is more to the city than it’s professional classes. But their departure will accelerate geographical diffusion of  the skilled service sectors – the baristas, barmen and brewers that keep London sane. We can already see vegan Deli’s in outer London suburbs; expect some of these London emigres to take their taprooms with them; urban tastes will mix with the de-hipsterfication of ‘nice things’ – no one wants bad coffee – finally ending the perceived urban monopoly on 11 pound pints and beard oil (anyone ever notice how self-consciously male so much of this stuff is?). This is nothing new; this was Brighton in the 90s, and more latterly places like Margate. Don’t be surprised if towns with great train links for 2 days a week in the office, great city centre housing stock and good quality schools such as Bedford or Basingstoke or smaller spots in the stockbroker belt like Oxted start to attract a younger, pre-family demographic in their late 20s, and with them, their cafes and sourdough bakeries, sitting comfortably alongside existing traditional (non-ironic) butchers and hardware ‘levelling up’ the locavore scene in these places. Less genteel  (‘edgy’) spots such as Gravesend or other Medway towns could provide alternative options for early-career workers, looking to make the most of first-job wages as they plan their next move.

Don’t however, expect this exodus to be one-way. As pressure is lifted from the city with the departure of the ‘have to be heres’ and their financial muscle, there is more scope for the ‘want to be heres’ to come. With reduction of office space and the pruning of the white collar work, there is a chance, with the right incentives to make the city more diverse. Artists, musicians and all those who benefit from cultural agglomeration effects of the city will have more scope to return; the kind of people that in the past acted as an accidental ‘thin edge of the wedge’ for scavenging property developers and ended up displaced by the cultural capital created by their own success.

As someone raised a Londoner, clutching an old paper travel card, who remembers 50p bus fares and the opening of the Tate, taking myself on the train to school (in South London, real London, there was and is no Tube) I am hopeful. I am looking forward to a more passionate and engaged London, where those who previously priced the willing out, buy themselves an exit instead. What I am hopeful for is a city with fewer residents who resent being here and more space to breath, financially, culturally and socially for those of us who choose to make it home.

A Very British Lockdown

A smartphone frames a fat grey London pigeon zig-zagging towards its camera. The afternoon sun casts shadows of branches above and the bird below across the paving stones. As the bird beats a path towards the lens, tacking right then left, the brown booted foot of the cameraman kicks out from below the frame. As the bird skitters away, we hear their reproach, laconic, direct, estuarine; ‘Two metres, Cunt.’
Welcome to a Very British Lockdown.

As the nation embraces panic-buying as a dynamic new format for a stolid old sport, a retail T20 set to revitalise traditional Test Match queuing, columnists poeticise the pleasures and sorrows of the ‘stay-at-home boozer’ (larger pours, fewer pulls) whilst weekend supplements cynically push recipes for homemade yogurts and sourdough-starters whilst Hackney is at its most vulnerable. Across the country, Wetherspoons branches are being vandalised as many take the opportunity to exact a long awaited vengeance on Tim Martin’s ‘Ryanair of Pubs’ and The Zoom Arms has become our Moon Under Water. My very own Hangout Tavern hosted its inaugural pub quiz last Friday, with competitors from places as far flung as Hong Kong, New Zealand and Cornwall. The winner – Team Corona Loner – walked away with a pack of Donald Trump toilet paper, delivered courtesy of our sponsors, Amazon Prime. But this is now in danger of turning into a parody of one of those very columns…

The experience so far of ‘Lockdown London’ contrasts sharply with that of Shenzhen, where until a few weeks ago I was based; like comparing Butlins to Belmarsh. In the Southern Chinese megacity, streets were ghostly empty and many friends had not left their homes for weeks. The only vehicles on the street were the ubiquitous Meituan electric delivery scooters, speeding silently across concrete overpasses like lost yellow ghosts in an oversize game of Pac-Man. After fear and repression turned Hubei province into a dumpster fire, the People’s Republic was using their most powerful tools to try and right that wrong; fear and repression. Red-arm-banded apparatchiks positioned at every apartment complex and building were taking the temperatures of anyone who did venture out, and were unsympathetic in removing the symptomatic. The indistinct but persistent threat of China’s social credit system, buzzing overhead like an unseen Reaper drone, ensured that few bothered; Xi’s digital panopticon at work. Ironically the coercion and compliance meant those that were out were relatively free to roam, leaving me starring in their very own post-apocalyptic short in the most future-imperfect of cities. But let me state now that this will not be an exercise in public health top-trumps, before Singapore, the Hitlerjugend Hermione Granger of international relations sticks up their hand to tell us the answer. No-one likes a swot, especially not one in jackboots.

By comparison, Britain has been relaxed. Too relaxed at first it seems. Restrictions have steadily ramped-up in proportion to ‘our defiant spirit’, as many initially saw staying at home as ‘letting the virus win’. The problem with war metaphors is that they assume malice on the part of a lipid-coated strand of replicating RNA. Haters gonna hate, viruses gonna replicate; it’s not personal. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, our era’s own children’s party Churchill (‘we will fight them on the bouncy castle, we shall fight them in the ball pits…’) is finally having his chance to shine by putting a ‘freedom loving people’ under an increasingly restrictive house-arrest, fulfilling two classic Tory wank-fantasies at the same time; a good old fashioned national emergency, and the chance to incarcerate the poorest in inhumane conditions. Calling Covd-19 indiscriminate is disingenuous; it follows the ley lines of our own structural prejudice and past political decisions. Targeting those with poor nutrition, those who are badly housed or those in fuel poverty with laser guided precision. The pre-existing conditions that are key comorbidities are as likely to follow economic predisposition as genetic. The virus may not be animate, but it is alive to our iniquities.

The problem with the idea that we are ‘all in it together’ is that there is no ‘we’. There is a woolly belief amongst some that this crisis will be some kind of catalyst for the healing of the country, a ‘bringing together’ of a fractured nation. There is perhaps some cause to hope. As this ‘war’ places the NHS at the heart rather than the military, it is much more universal. The health service touches almost everyone’s lives at some point and is staffed by individuals from across the geographical, racial and class spectrums. It is in truth, the last common touchpoint that Britain has left in an increasingly dissociated marketplace of culture and ideas. Yet, as this emergency goes on, inequalities are more sharply exposed. It is hard to maintain an idea that we all stand together when we are told to stand two metres apart and every cough brings the suspicion that someone is a carrier. We can stand on our doorsteps and bang pots until we have beaten them into cymbals, but even in that moment, each household stands alone and faced with their own unique uncertainties.

In the first part of his essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’, George Orwell praises the English as a ‘highly differentiated’ people with a ‘respect for constitutionalism and legality. Orwell’s own description of a country where ‘the liberty of the individual is still believed in…the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen from above’ is echoed in Boris “Poundland Churchill” Johnson’s ‘freedom loving people’ schtick, but the perverse logic of this virus is that we are having those leisures and amusements dictated, as well as our movement restricted. And after initial resistance, many have embraced this new reality. Faced with looming uncertainty, many have been quick to welcome the false security of a world of reduced choices. But just as the virus follows the paths which our own societal choices have laid out, so has our embrace of unfreedom been stratified by class. For every white collar professional showing off their shiny new ‘work-from-home’ set-up, there is a family with two-bedrooms too few and a few bills too many, where school was the most important meal of the day and a trip to the shops meant getting out from under the shadow of home. Even China, where many crimes committed within a marriage are not criminal, reported a three-fold increase in domestic violence during the lockdown in Hubei. And that is just what was reported.

In this light, the situation takes on a particularly nasty edge. The loss of freedom is not a particularly hard cross to bear for those that have enough room to be fine with confinement. Waitrose baskets take on a jolly agro-millenarian air as trolleys stacked with cracked bulgur wheat and pinot gris waft back to the Range Rover. Meanwhile the oh what a lovely war attitude continues for those ‘isolating’ in second homes (weren’t they already though?), and in leafy outer-city suburbs, two-acre gardeners berate walkers flouting the two-metre rule, conveniently overlooking that we’d all be only too glad to stay at home if our homes looked like theirs. “Lockdown shaming” has all the ingredients to be the perfect palette cleanser for middle class authoritarianism, an entree to ‘Totalitarianism-lite’ (Slogan: ‘I can’t believe it’s not constitutional…? Can you…?’). Combining sanctimonious compliance, with armchair epidemiology, and a righteous defence of the NHS, our ‘one true faith’; It might just be the fascism that Middle England has been waiting for.

Across parks and commons, passive-aggressive distancing markers are neatly chalked along pathways. Some boroughs have relegated joggers to ‘off-road’ to make room for the more genteel pastime of dog-walking. Those with cars are freer to move whilst non-essential use of public transport is now seen as hacking great globules of spittle in the face of our ICU nurses – Literally – proving, for those who have forgone the urban luxury of owning a car, that no good deed does ever go truly unpunished. This weekend, whilst out cycling, I came to a car stopped atop a humped zebra crossing, it’s driver deep in conversation with a friend on the opposite side of the road. Whilst passing, I quipped ‘nice parking’ and was met with a string of invective outlining why I should not be out, and ‘how dare I’, clearly peeved at having their catch-up interrupted by the flow of traffic. As I rode that afternoon, I passed a number of ‘socially distanced’ doorstep cups of tea and G and Ts. Nice if you have a front door and a doorstep to call your own. There seems to be a lot of ‘how dare they’ at the moment, especially from those who are best equipped to implement these kinds of work-arounds which highlights the flaws in the ‘all in it together’ rhetoric as sharply as David Geffen’s Instagram. It’s worth noting there is a 6 point difference between ABC1 and C2DE on the matter of whether this crisis has united the nation or pushed us further apart. Expect this to widen.

As tensions increase and high street queues becoming increasingly fractious, and judgements about the actions and reactions of others to these strange times become less and less implicit, I can’t help feeling that there is a certain section of Britain who has been waiting a long time for this; an entitled subset who expect that we will all comply but is happy to take this opportunity to have the builders come and re-tile the roof; who will embrace ID checks at the train stations while driving the dogs many miles to take them on their favourite long walk; people who expect conformity to restrictions which may not be restrictive to them at all, and have little empathy for those who stray while just trying to stay safe or sane. It reminds me of the self-proclaimed ‘Riot Wombles’ after the 2011 London disturbances, the distinctly middle-class groups (#OperationCupOfTea #MugsNotThugs) who took to the streets with brooms to voluntarily help clear up; silently disapproving of the disorder and wilfully ignorant of its underlying causes, let alone the part they played in them. Because they were just ‘getting on with things’, why couldn’t everyone else?

But blanket statements such as these are thrown over the existing topographies of inequality like a rug over a pachyderm. The same terms and conditions result in very different outcomes, leaving those who are most free the most enthusiastic to embrace unfreedom. But if we really are in this together we should be considering how we created this socio-economic landscape in the first place, not gleefully berating those who are stuck in its deepest fissures. We need to reflect on why the NHS need such careful handling to balance such limited capacity. We need to ask ourselves why there are so many precariat ‘freelancers’ who lack even the savings to weather a month without work, or why free school meals are such a vital lifeline for many families.

A crisis is often the pivot around which history turns.
The question is which way we will turn during this one.

Malaysia as a Car Culture

Malaysia is a car culture.

Not a ‘driving’ culture, one where the act of movement itself is a sacred rite, but one where the motor industry and cars themselves have shaped the landscape and the place that in turn has shaped the society and the people.

 

Driving is more akin to breathing.

This is no more a driving culture than humanity is an ‘oxygen culture’

 

We are heading up country in a borrowed Honda, my partner and I, departing from her hometown of Rawang, a large, sprawling settlement in the state of Selangor, just north of Kuala Lumpur. Once a tin-pot tin mining town, whose output, like much of Selangor’s, was dwarfed by the larger lodes of ore excavated in neighbouring Perak, Rawang became more populous with successive waves of migration – first for the mines, then the plantations; first rubber, then palm oi.. More recently, as Malaysia has moved up the value chain (along the way, ceding it’s position as the world’s biggest rubber producer in return for birthing the world’s most fecund condom manufacturer) Rawang has diversified, with a large cement plant and several auto part makers, as well as a healthy trade in commuters, who brave the sluggish, stolid, slog of 23 kilometres, south to Kuala Lumpur. For those who know London, it’s a place is faintly reminiscent of a chaotic, post-colonial Croydon.

 

The Honda was one of those nondescript mid-sized saloons that are almost impossible to date now. Neither old nor new, it was built some time in the late noughties, destined to be driven some time soon into quiet obsolescence with little to mark it’s passing. For now though, it was comfortable in it’s late-middle age – stately, unhurried and reliable. We had stopped in the centre of town to find a cable to connect the car’s ‘Aux’ input – a headphone-jack-sized hole – to the C-type output on my phone which dated the car’s design to a time when people had already begun to carry their music with them, but before the expectation that they could beam it at will to any willing object nearby, a last bastion of the wired in this second age of wireless. The first arbitrary phone shop we found was able to oblige, and we were underway; the cable acting as a tether across time and space, documenting the quiet progress consumer electronics had made in the first decade of my fully-adult life. 

 

That this cable would be so easy to find on the nearest street corner begins to illustrate the car’s pervasive presence in Malaysia. The peninsula itself is as well endowed as it’s prophylactics makers, ringed with scruffy-beautiful sand beaches and spined by a range of jungle-covered mountains, their highlands littered with the kind of idiosnycratic mock-tudor bungalows that a certain type of adventurous Briton wistfully littered across the world during the early 20th Century during occasionally-indulged moments of homesic whimsy, peppering half the globe with a connect-the-dots simulacrum of Surrey, stretching from Sri Lanka to Sarawak. Century-old shophouses, skyscrapers, and one of the worlds most eclectic cuisines are just some of the other rewards you get here. Just don’t expect to get here without driving.

 

The first car factory in the Straits was in fact not in what was to become Malaysia, but on the island of Singapore; a confident Art-Deco building in Bukit Timah built in 1941 that was shortly to become the site of the British surrender of Singapore in 1942 to the Japanese. Car production in Malaysia itself was really established post-independence in 1967 when the government approved construction of 6 factories – 3 in Shah Alam, some 40kms south of Rawang, halfway between Kuala Lumpur and Port Klang. Initially assembling foreign cars, by the 1980s, the expertise and skills that these had acquired for the country helped launch the ‘National Car Project’, leading to the founding of Proton in 1983 and the launch of the bestselling Proton Saga by 1985. Annual sales of less than 100,000 units in 1985 had almost tripled by 1995 and were close to 700,000 by 2015.

 

But sales figures only tell half the story.

The intimate relationship was not just the car as a marker of progress, as is the case in many rapidly growing countries, but with the car industry as a symbol of national pride. By 2002, Malaysia had become only the 11th country in the world to be able to design, engineer and build a car from a blank page and the only one in the region. By 1999, Malaysia was hosting a Grand Prix and Petronas, Perdua and Proton were all part of a heady, high-octane cocktail fuelling modern Malaysian identity.

 

Since that early noughties high water mark for both Malaysia and the automotive industry worldwide – even US car sales peaked in 2000 – the wheel has turned. By the end of those intervening decades, the effect of having tied national pride so closely to the automotive has left the country lacking. This combination car-centric policy-making and the endemic underinvestment in other forms of locomotion that it precludes, spiced with a particularly piquant variety of local corruption has left Malaysia lacking. Few if any rail lines were opened between the 1930s and 1995’s opening of the first commuter line serving Kuala Lumpur – incidentally beginning as our journey did, in Rawang. In those intervening years, coinciding with Malaysia’s Asian Tiger’s leap, speculative property building followed road construction, slashing six-lane asphalt through the jungle, arteries bulbous with tumours of exurban growth that were heavy on driveways but light on pavements. 

 

This fundamentally affects the Malaysian way of being and doing. When you ‘go’ somewhere, there is really only one way to ‘go’. Even in central KL, the public transport system is too sporadic, too syncopated to be truly helpful, and in truth, with so many organs of state and offices of commerce, transplanted to new as well as heavily redeveloped and car-centric townships ringing the city proper; Putrajaya, Cyberjaya, Petaling Jaya; it’s utility is moot. In this respect, KL feels like the cousin of LA, caught in a specific glorious moment, sometime in the late 20th century, when car was raja.

Leaving London

It’s been almost 6 months since my last fresh blog post. My rolling list has 10+ pieces on it that I want to write and I have two, potentially never-to-be-published draft pieces on Singapore, rights and liberalism sitting on my desktop (One with the working title ‘ Just Because Your Paranoid’ and the other ‘The Pragmatism of Principle’- for those I know personally, if you want to have read, drop me an email). This very personal piece was drafted on a fast train London to Bristol to present my final UK debrief for a while to the marketing department of TSB (appropriately branded as ‘Local Banking for Britian’). And the High Contrast remix of Adele’s ‘Hometown Glory’ has come on shuffle… the last song I listened to before I flew home temporarily two months ago. So bearing that in mind, you will excuse my indulgence in writing this piece rather than ‘The HDB Social Contract’ or ‘The Uniformity of Cool’ that are both still unwritten

Two months to close-up shop in London has been both quick and slow- the length of time I needed practically, but a strange, testing stretch. By the end, people in my office were commenting that they thought I had left already. Too short to get back into the rhythms of London; long enough to drink away the decent fitness I developed in 7 months of clean(ish) living in Singapore. Long enough to see the people I love and care about, but not long enough to do more than catch up and reminisce. And then back those relationships go into an odd kind of suspended animation, aging at a fraction of the speed of life.

So I am leaving London. Parting company with a city that is inextricably linked to my sense of who I am, and always will be. There are selfish reasons for this (smaller office, better career trajectory in a more placid talent pool), frivolous reasons (no reason not to gallivant round SE Asia for a few years of cheap sun and easy living) practical reasons (better wages and lower cost of living) but I want to talk about my philosophical reasons for the great love of my life and going ‘on a break’ while I have a fling with the Singaporean City-State’s great social experiment. Perhaps what follows is an intellectual alibi rather than a reasoned decision, but I think it doesn’t make the points any less valid.

I would like to caveat this, with the genuine belief that London still remains the cross the board leading global centre. There is a toughness and a care, a beauty and depravity, a blend of high culture and low morals, international ingredients marinated in local flavor that make it the accomplished all-rounder. New York lacks the self-effacement, San Francisco lacks the past, Paris lacks the Future. Sao Paulo the concentration of  ‘Stuff’. Berlin lacks the work, and Singapore in truth, lacks the Play. I will always be a Londoner. And I will always give you a reason why ‘my town is better than your town’, even if I have never been to ‘your town’. But I have been privileged enough with this job to go to a lot of your towns and see the insides of your museums and markets and bars, not just the boardrooms and Business districts. And my town IS better than your town.

The problem is that London’s ‘better’ is no longer ‘good enough’ to justify the Faustian pact that you enter into when you top up your Oyster or sign your next Assured Shorthold Tenancy. The rent’s too damn high, the tube doesn’t work, it rains a lot; at rush hour it feels like a seething, stewing brooding ball of thinly suppressed resentment. You feel tough because you are part of it. As a do-eyed newcomes you suck it in and after 18 months call yourselves a London ( you’re not…just FYI… if your teen years involved being ferried by car to friends houses, then you just aren’t). If you grew up and/or started your professional life, anything else feels like a holiday, a dilettante indulgence. An unreality. Working 60 hour weeks in Singapore, I still felt like I was on holiday. I felt guilty. I rode my bike every morning. I read the weekend paper on the beach. I took a clean, seamless underground rail network to work that cost 35p a single journey. (Singapore is NOT expensive if you have lived in London; the Economist cost of living index is skewed by always including car ownership. Which is ridiculous as there is nowhere to drive and a Taxi all the way across the island is little more than a tenner) Singapore is in particularly stark contrast and I have my own reservations and thoughts, which remain in those unposted articles for the same reasons that they outline within them (consider the ‘message in the (lack of) medium’ in this instance) but my ex is in Glasgow now working as a neurosurgeon and she lives in a beautiful central neighbourhood in a two bed tenement flat for little more than her share of our old London rent. There is an art school, some museums, a vibrant music scene, great restaurants, local produce, Whisky. But every major city has some of this. And by major, this is not about global Alpha cities. There is a beauty amongst the Betas too. Yes, of course its easy to cling to the idea that London is better. Because it is. Better clubs, better galleries, better plays, better parks (that one is debatable) attracting better global people, forging better global links, hosting better businesses. But are any of these good enough to justify the structural issues. The creaking infrastructure and its vast expense? The lack of housing, exacerbated by (irony or ironies) Singaporean dentists and Russina Oligarchs alike buying flats as a new class of Global bond asset.

Unless I become a dotcom millionaire, I can’t see myself ever being secure and settled (and that could mean long term tenancies, not just ownership) in my hometown. Either you work in finance, are part of the global super-rich, or you persuade your parents to give you the deposit you have no chance. Raise your hand if you own in London. Good. Keep it raised if did this WITHOUT family money. Great, anyone left? Okay, and now keep it there if you don’t work in FS. Anyone there? Hmmmm…..

So the tense, (un)holy trinity at play here….’Variety’ (of people, things, everything), ‘possibility’ and (I am loathe to admit) ‘money’ made London, as I knew it, possible. Now money is choking out the other two. It is turning London into ‘London™’, a theme-park city that starts publicizing its own myth as ‘Greatest City on Earth™’ whilst forgetting what made it able to claim that. This is of course where I get accused of being one of those inverse snobs who is anti-nice things. I am not against change, I am against displacement. When Londoners don’t feel that there is a London for them. That everything that the city creates is as (a)overpriced, and (b)designed with a certain audience. These young, upwardly mobile, easily bored 20 and 30-somethings (and their middle-aged imitators), have the economic leverage to suck the air out of anything that isn’t an ‘artisnal’ ‘pop-up’ ‘street food’ ‘warehouse’ ‘craft’ crap-monger.  This dystopian village is some way off, but it starts to look like whether by accident or design, that is the position that London will come to occupy in the global firmament. And to me, that isn’t London.

I know this second point is new and probably needs more explanation, but my train is pulling in soon, and any cogency of thought that I may have had is collapsing rapidly. This theme park London thrives on a confidence trick that supports the Cultural Ponzi Scheme that is ‘Greatest City on Earth™’ as well as an actual ponzi scheme that is the housing market (purchase and rental). I worry Theme Park London is far too profitable to be stopped, and will soon be ‘too big to fail’

If I were a braver man, I would work in a planning department of the GLA; I would join a think tank or work in social research. But I am a coward. So I am running away from home for a few years. It will always be home. I just don’t know if I will recognize it.

The City as Social Network

The Internet is going to save us all.

Or some would have us believe…

Urban life is increasingly being defined by technology. But then again it always has. The exurban sprawl of the great American (non) cities built for the motorcar. The civic monuments to capital of the North if England, secular cathedrals to the dark satanic mills. Defining tools have shaped our environment, built it, formed it, transformed it and deformed it.

There are two defining features of our current Urban environment, the Internet and surveillance culture (isn’t that one featured? Ed. (Snowden). Between them, they are killing the city as we know it.

The city is the original social network. Economic realities drove most of the last 13,000 years of civilisations push towards urban living, particularly during the worlds industrialisation and after, but what it created as well as a concentrated workforce for the factories was the first social networks. The move to cities created zones of free exchange, where information travelled as fast as the speed of sound. It widened gene pools, allowing people to find partners that weren’t their cousins. It brought wider competition, co-operation and collaboration, creating new ideas, inventions and intrigues. Urbanisation started revolutions and undermined religions. Driving all this is one key idea, the thought in which the power of cities lie- it is the reason that despite the pollution, the lack of space and the expense people flock to them- Serendipity.

The concentration of so much difference creates a space for the unexpected- rubbing along so closely with a panoply of other creates sparks. It is the connective tissue that links the Roman Forum and Greek Agora to Speakers Corner and Leicester Square. And it is this same cord that is being cut while we sit glued to our smartphones.

Web evangelists will tell us that the world is shrinking and that we are now all connected- one global village. Social networking gives us the proximity of the polis with global reach. We exchange ideas tout tweet with Lagos and La Paz. But both us and our neighbours are narcissists, recycling the same stale thoughts in an intellectual echo-chamber with all the fresh theoretical air of plane cabin at the end of a long-haul flight. Those we friend or follow are on the most part flattering reflections of pieces of ourselves- rather than holding a mirror to the world, we hold one to ourselves. Same school, or same university or same political affiliation or hobby, the wider our reach the narrower our encounters- as paralysed by choice we return again and again to the same 2 news sources, or the same 3 blogs or the same 5 sites. The links that get shared with us come from those who share our privileges (or lack thereof) and also share our prejudices

The internet is an inferior alternative to the city as a truly powerful social network- it is a useful auxiliary, but lacks that one thing that the built urban environment has- Serendipity.

At the same time, Serendipity is being removed from our cities. Gated communities, CCTV and privatized public space are undermining what made cities so powerful while we settle for an inferior alternative. Local pubs close and we pick partners based on their proclivities through Match.com rather than locking eyes across the bar. New developments gate nervous yuppies into identikit flats in Canary Wharf, fenced off from the deprived wards of the Isle of Dogs and Poplar. CCTV culture makes us wary of strangers on a street at night, whereas human company in fact means safety. We have never lived in a safer time, yet perceptions of criminality has been increasing steadily- those with the highest security dwellings are the most fearful and believe it has worsened the most. New ‘quarters’ create branded zones in towns which give the illusion of public space, but manned by high profile logo-ed security guards, these areas are blanded, with the high-viz brigade moving on anyone who doesn’t conform to the profile that that fits their area’s image. The chance of the unexpected is being systematically removed from the built environment at a time when we need it most. Cities have never been less genuinely creative or more lonely.

We pay a vast premium to live in these cities, yet so many of us choose to shut ourselves off from so much of what they offer, staying within the comfort zone of an inferior alternative, rather than using it as an auxillary it to agitate for public space, mixed zoning, social housing.

Wrestling with Gentrification

The estate agents have been circling, and a few people sent a link my way, knowing it would ignite a theme that they knew would end up with me writing a piece that would inevitably make no attempt to ground an argument, and instead offered my own externalised version of a discussion that I have been wrestling internally. Thanks to Matt Thompson, and latterly Oliver Cox as catalysts for this

The article they sent me from the evening standard, was about my own neighbourhood, Brixton, and included this passage

Charlotte Ryder, 21, said Brixton Market was one of the main reasons she chose to move to the area after graduating in politics last year.

She said that she was instantly attracted by the “multi-cultural and friendly” atmosphere, as well as the vibrant nightlife and transport links.

Miss Ryder, an associate campaign executive for Diffusion PR, said: “I’ve just got back from Thailand and Brixton Market really reminds me of it.

Apparently the neighbourhood is now the go-to place for those who want to pretend their gap-yah never ended. The area is becoming an attractive inner London dormitory for London’s young professionals.The problem I have with that is that I am both one of them and they are also everything I hate. The case for- I moved to Brixton 2 years ago with 2.1 from a Russell group university, a job in an ad agency, a vintage trenchcoat, and ray-bans reading glasses. The case against- I grew up down the road in a one-bed flat in Streatham with no central heating and my single mother surviving on benefits. I am also mixed-race, (white/afro carribean) though this is less important to the story here in Brixton or in London as it is in neighbourhoods in the US where this has been happening– though not irrelevant.

The Jerk Chicken place at the back of the Granville Arcade (Time Out readers  will know it as “Brixton Village”) seems somehow less vibrant. Two years ago it was packed every night, soundsystem blarring the yard packed with sometimes three generations of families, eating and gossiping, but the middle class crowd that dominates the new eateries in the back of the market has affected both rents- as many of the storeholders will attest to- and importantly the local community’s desire to spend time at some of the more long-standing establishments, and the place seems noticeably less lively.Look at it, and its nearest next-door restaurant, the Thai much lauded by Jay Rayner, and it seems like a segregated dining area, separate and unequal.

I wrote a piece last year, berating many of the more long standing members of the community for not using these new facilities- my own response to the three young men, two black and one white who walked through Granville laughing and shouting ‘this is Brixton, where the fuck have all the black people gone?’. But for many long-standing residents what they seek when they have an unstable life is stability. The constant novelty and change, and the pace and way in which it has taken place in the neighbourhood has not brought the community along with them. The constant novelty and change panders to a new influx who seek it as a counterpoise to their stable white collar world- it is not being done in a way that feels expansive, inclusive or ambitious for all.Charlotte Ryder is my current bete noire. But the pull quote above reflects my same desire to move here. Maybe that’s why in my head I have vilified a 21 year old who I don’t even know. I grew up in South London, and to me, that always was the real London. And coming in with my middle class job and wage and predisposition towards interesting music nights, eclectic restaurants and locally sourced food, I knew that these things would be there already in the community here, not in a sanitised, pre-packaged form, neatened up with the kind of shabby-chic, easily digestible pastiche of ‘realness’ that characterises so many other ‘edgy’ places.

I used to shop in the market for mangoes as a child, I used to convince bouncers to let me into Drum and Bass nights when I was 16 at Mass and Fridge and BugBar. Grandparents and Great-grandparents of mine had lived here when they first came over and got off the boat. I felt (still feel) very attached to the community. I didn’t want to move here for farmers markets and pop-up dining experiences. I wanted somewhere on the tube where there was a market and some vibrancy and most importantly there weren’t people like me. The traditional
professional dormitories such as Clapham and Balham or Finsbury Park in the north, or even 9in fact, especially) the Bow-Soho adland fixed-gear commuter corridor had little attraction. How can I ever possibly improve at a job that demands that I understand how to sell trainers to 16 year old kids on estates one day and the emotional connection between housewives in the midlands and their condiments the next if I spend my whole time surrounded by a liberal mono-culture. On a personal level, it may be what I look like, or what I do, but it isn’t who I am or where I have come from, or for that matter even, where I want to be. I want to go into the local pub and talk to retired builders, ex-cons, bankers and shop clerks and everyone inbetween. I don’t just want to talk to PR girls, graphic designers and corporate lawyers that dress like them.

So how do I feel? Conflicted. Excited to see a new area on the rise, especially one that I have always felt so close to, but apprehensive about how unevenly that rise is happening, with quality of life rocketing for some, and others feeling shut out of the party. The ‘Charlotte Ryder’* idea of a multicultural neighbourhood is a restaurant filled with clones but just enough colour beyond the plate glass to make it seem ‘real’.

Not much more than a decade or two ago, those on middle class wages were fleeing to the suburbs and beyond as fast as they could, leaving behind those who could not afford to flee. So many of these communities did what they could do get through as best as they could, studiously ignored by councils and governments. Open a couple restaurants and suddenly the flow reverses, and in run all the kind of people who would have turned their back on a neighbourhood like this even three years ago. And in they come, pricing out locals, alienating rather than integrating, as if to say, ‘Thanks for holding the fort, but you poor people can all fuck off now.’

*apologies to Charlotte Ryder for becoming my own Milquetoast or Mitty for the purposes of this piece…

Me old China, you’re the Drama Queen

There is a school of thought that suggests judgement on China Mieville’s essay on ‘apocalyptic London’ should be reserved until Monday, when a longer version is posted to the sensationally-titled website www.londonsoverthrow.org. Depending on the thread that the ‘extended version’ navigates this may be a response to bad editing on the part of the NYT rather than the author. But with a URL like that, one would imagine that breath-holding isn’t advised.

Mieville’s authorial flânerie through contemporary London seems at once both melodramatic and undirected. The essay is bookended by public sector protests and ends with an excerpt from an interview with Lionel Morrison which he uses as a device to cast a tone over the whole of what has gone before. That in itself is misguided as the two quotes from Morrison and weaved together with a consummate storytellers deftness of touch to add a new intentionality that seems it is the authors as opposed to the interviewee’s.

Morrison doesn’t sound despairing. But he does sound tired. “Every time you do something and nothing goes any further, it eats at you,” he says. “It starts this bitterness.” It can break people down. Make them hopeless, or worse. When none of their efforts to improve anything work, some, he warns, will stop fighting. They will say, “Let us just wait for things to — for chaos, really, to take place.”

In fact, the  question is whether the second quote comes from Morrison at all or one of Mieville’s shadowy half-formed pseudo-literary characters that seem to guide us through his London. David Lindo, the ‘Urban Birder’, is twisted to imbue London’s Fauna with portents of the cities impending decay. According to Mieville, of London’s wild parakeets, he ‘eye’s them with dislike’, yet there is no word from his source that even intimates this. The dislike is instead authorial, in order to pick up where the fox, ‘agent of animal chaos’ leaves off, with a ‘flock of feral parakeets’ across Wormwood scrubs. Mieville could have chosen Richmond park, which has a significant parakeet population, but that frankly may have rang with the wrong kind of poetry.

In what we must assume is an intentionally disorientating gallop we take in Cameron, the Mittals and the Olympics, Boris Johnson, the two sides of Tottenham, the Riots, via a quick pop at the Guardian, before launching into ASBOs, Islamaphobia and the new far right. Still with me?

Mieville offers little insight on any of these. Instead we are given heavily coloured observation that moves Op Ed into a new territory of creative license. He manages a primary-school level jibe, ironically the least eloquent part of the piece at the Guardian’s ‘reading the riots’ a relatively heavyweight piece of sociological research, but simplifying the conclusion to the point of absurdity.

What they discovered, through extensive research and interviews, was that what motivated many of those on the streets was resentment of the police and a deep sense of injustice. Eyes roll with the duh.

The parts where we are offered something approaching constructive comment is elementary, though it is somewhat lost amongst the literacy insensibilites. Lack of new council houses and resulting flight of the poor to outer London=Bad. Multicultural London=great from a culinary point of view. Far right parties= do well amongst disaffected groups in a recession. At this point as a reader, you can feel ones eyes beginning to ‘roll with the duh’. He goes on to touch upon deaths in police custody, but not before he has drawn a cheap comparison between last years riots and 1981 in Brixton and 1985 in Brixton and Tottenham.

The disturbances of the 80s had a shape and direction that was lacking and there were social immediacies that were being addressed, (especially with regard to an even more strained race relations landscape) albeit in a very imprecise and extra-legal way. The problems now are of the same nature but different in character, though this is not the place to go into it, (though it would make a great comparative follow-up to FailToPlan’s undergraduate thesis on 1981 in Brixton).

The critique of the changing nature of housing in London is particularly irksome as the return of the middle classes to central London and the associated investment has meant that London has steered away from the path that at its most extreme version is represented by US donut cities such as Detroit where flight from the centre has left the heart torn out. It is in fact London’s increasing inner city rents and inability to build more social housing that is symptomatic of this move back to the city from suburbia. No doubt if the net flow was the other way also, Mieville would still be criticising.

Perhaps there is a question of audience. Published in the New York Times, the piece gives the impression of a steam-punk maze, a disjointed fantasy landscape where foxes roam wild on building sites and global near-future tournaments are built on old industrial sites for the entertainment of the violent masses by a privileged cabal who run government, desperate to keep the citizens from looting and rioting out of sheer boredom and wanton destruction. Which is probably exactly what you want to hear abut London if you are New York. The reality, at least in my opinion is very different, and my own thoughts on New York, here, reflect actually the ways in which London has developed and changed in a way that the its big sister across the pond seems unable to do, trapped in cultural aspic as a paean to the 20th century. Mieville’s dystopian London is a great story, and part of me can’t wait to read the book. Just make sure you file under fiction.

Reflecting on the London Riots

Many people have been guilty of a vast misjudgement. This blog has already somewhat missed the point in posts earlier this year that bragged of integration, regeneration and the cultural vibrancy of Britain and the capital in particular. Though an article ten days ago here covered the other side, a warning as to what could happen if the wealth and increase and cultural exchange in London is not inclusive, the post was both prophetic and too late. There is an alternative London, an alternative Britain that co-exists in the same space at the same time, yet is never seen, a shadow nation completely disenfranchised from society. And it is the ignorance of the chattering classes, a complacent and misplaced belief that everything is getting better for everyone that has created this.

Everything has got better for some people, and so relative deprivation has increased. Those who have not been included in the wealth creation that Britian has seen are also those who have no voice, who lack the articulacy to find one and the channels through which to express it. I cannot condone looting, but I think I can understand it. If you can feel so marginalised that society, which we all need to partake in in some capacity for it to function, it in your mind something for other people, then why would you not simply take to the streets in this directionless outcry. It’ll ruin your job prospects- so what? You will go to jail- so what? It’s not the done thing- all my friends think it is! If that is the mindset, then there is nothing left to lose. They have nothing, or rather they feel like they have nothing. Why should they be expected to rally round civil society when they feel that civil society has nothing to offer them. When a job is about nothing but money and has nothing to do with pride or purpose, why would you bother unless your rich or famous in working one. The most eloquent image for that is the girl in the Curry’s uniform outside the Brixton branch where she worked, arrested for looting.

Frankly it shatters so many of my myths about progressive, multicultural, cross class London- if the urban poor are feeling so disconnected, if the trickle down effect is such a lie, then we have serious issues- people are dissatisfied and so inarticulate and angry and disconnected from what we call societies norms that instead, for want of an eloquent way to express themselves, they have taken to the streets stealing from the most obvious symbols of what they believe is fucking them up- the shops and the chain stores and the retailers selling the things they are trained to want and can barely have. It’s very very sad that we have created a situation where this level of opportunistic criminality is acceptable. What kind of level of disenfranchisement, voicelessness, hopelessness and frustration leads people to think that that kind of behaviour is okay. We have a serious problem on our hands and it isn’t one that is going to be fixed by water cannon and a glazers bill….

I was in my local pub in brixton the other day and there was a guy braying that there was no recession in London and it made my blood boil. Go and tell that to the kids on the estates, go and tell that to the almost 20% of under 25s who are unemployed. The criminality is unforgivable and they must take responsibility for their actions But part of the cause was our collective complacency and we all need to face up to what we need to do to stop allowing people to be marginalised.  And stop calling them chavs scum or thugs, if they are this, then we gave them the opportunity and often the title for them to live up to- it is a smug, nonconstructive and over simplistic view. And how do I feel about this as a planner? Just maybe, maybe we have added too much fuel to the fire of consumption and it has reached some kind of flashpoint?

Regeneration and disconnection

Apologies for a very UK-centric post, international readers, please get me on @alouneou to clarify any too-obscure UK references.

I live in Brixton. Prior to this, I lived in Norbury, and before that, from the age of 6 months, (the age I moved over from West Palm Beach FLA – yes I am technically American) I grew up in Streatham. Barring an intervening three years in a second string British city for university, I have spent my entire life in London, a city which completely skews ones view of the British Isles (here), but also one of the most multicultural, amorphous, evolving places in the world. Urban renewal has done London well- the city arguably could have become a donut by the end of the 80s- save for the City of London itself, but investment in the 90s gave London another chance. Inner city areas that were once no-go areas have become desirable places to live. But this economic narrative isn’t what this post is concerned with.

I suppose this is the point where I set out my stall, and possibly make what could be seen as an incredibly awkward conversation. For the record I am of mixed descent (or for our American audience Anglo-Jamaico-scottish-Irish-Puerto-Costa-Arawak-Londonish) so in some ways, and probably wrongly so, it partially absolves me of the the misconstruction that some may build of this.

I was going for lunch one afternoon in Brixton Market, where a previously derelict section has turned into a vibrant, multi-use commercial space, thanks to London’s largest renewal project, initially kickstarted by Spacemakers. Craft shops, artists and photographers and designers studios and a lot of very cheap, very very good restaurants have sprung up, and in the last year, you can see the Saturday afternoon North London ‘tourists’ down to check the place out.

This is undoubtedly a good thing. But a group of three guys, two black and one white came walking through while I was having lunch, and one of them turned round and shouted, part to his friends, part to himself, and part to those of us around ‘Where have all the black people gone- I thought this was Brixton. What the fuck?’ And in fairness, he had a point of sorts…

Brixton was, along with Notting Hill (!) one of the areas in the 50s and 60s that the Black community settled in. In 1981, it was the first place on mainland Britain to have petrolbombs thrown during the riots against police oppression of the community, and it has always been an important touchstone for black Britain. Yet almost all of those dining and milling around were white middle class. My first reply would be that the businesses were run by the local community, of all colours, and in a proportion far more reflective of the community. But why wasn’t this regeneration of the market being used by all the residents, rather than the new influx of those from Mosaic’s ‘Urban Intelligence’ section of the population. It wasn’t cost- It isn’t expensive. To eat at most of these places costs the same as a chicken based meal from a reputable ( or disreputable) outlet. Even if you prefer takeaway, surely you want to try something new?

Apparently not is the answer. And I think of our exasperated individual in the market’s question should have been ‘where are all the less socio-economically well off people?’ There is a serious fallacy in the idea of social mobility if we have a culture where, though the museums are free, it is primarily the middle classes who benefit. Or where you can get a 5 poundtheatre ticket to see world-class actors at the NT, but still, every time I go, the audience is the same combination of 50-somethings and drama-school kids. This is a theatre that sits in Lambeth, one of London’s most deprived boroughs. What are we doing to make sure we don’t just make sure doors are open, but that people want to, and feel they can, walk through? If we don’t, we are going to have an uneasy detente with areas like Brixton, or Hackney, or Shepherds Bush or any other place where we are seeing a migration by young professionals back to these lively, gritty, vibrant urban centres, and one that could flare up as we face a long hard grind out of this recession. We are being told that London is a world-leading cultural hub, I just hope it can be that way for everyone.

Stagnating Cities and Rotten Apples

It was great to be in New York again, the last time I was there, it was only for 48 hours, coming down from Boston to meet a friend who had come up from DC for the weekend, blasting through town in taxis from party to club to brunch to bar. It was the ideal way to see the place, we had the living room of a friend’s hotel suite and use of a rooftop swimming pool, and everything seemed to happen in a ‘New York Minute’. This visit was a little longer and left me a little more time to contemplate the city.

It is an incredible place, one whose every street corner feels like a paean to bustling industry, the American dream, the great hope of immigrants to the new world, a shining beacon of the West and its fight and victory against the grey conformity of the Soviet alternative. Buildings as tall as mountains line every corner and a busy optimism that seems to urge in its actions the very inscription that is borne by the Lady who guards the harbour. It’s a city whose symbols are world famous, Liberty herself, the Empire state building, Times Square; a city that has been immortalised in song. But all these qualities support the sneaking suspicion as you walk round the place, the niggling feeling that after being the Beacon of the West, and symbol of Victory and the unipolar moment, that this is a city that has started huddling round its own myths, a place that has become reflexive, concentrating on its own legends rather than its impending obsolescence. By concentrating on what made it great, it is, ironically speeding up its own decline, underlining its position as what Steve Grant terms, ‘20th Century-land’. As Amsterdam embodies the 18th and Paris the 19th, so New York may be choosing to become an artefact for the 20th. The leitmotif of New York for the 21st? The destruction of the World Trade Centre buildings, the beginning of a very different reality. Strangely, the city now feels like a pale imitation of Shanghai, which itself was, whether consciously or not, originally aping the Big Apple.

I would argue that London, having had to accept the decline of ‘the West’ much earlier, with the collapse of empire and the inflated sense of ego it had historically provided coupled with the poverty that lay everywhere in the ruins of the Blitz, became a city, albeit through a very difficult half century, that is characterised by change and regeneration. The only place I have been that feels more fluid, more dynamic, is Berlin. Accepting that it was not longer the centre of the world allowed London to become a world class city. I am not saying that this is a process that New York will not go through- the signs of a dialectic around this are there in the Village, along the Highline, (though I would argue not in the hipster hangouts of Williamsburg) but there is a danger that if they concentrate on what was great, they may be in danger of not allowing that evolution. This isn’t helped by residents who move to the city because of these myths, some fictionalised ideal-type of ‘New York ‘and the ‘New Yorker ‘that they become, believing that on arrival their life must be transformed into a Jay McInerney novel (or for that matter, whichever other author and his myth-perpetuation that you have decided to buy into).

From a career perspective, I feel as though it is a developmental gateway through which at some point I must pass- a year or two in an agency out there, but I have other reservations about the city- limited social mobility through the knock-on effect of the lack of both health-care and access to culture (20 dollars for a museum!) and that public monuments are created by private men- Trump, Rockefeller, Whitney, Frick, Vanderbilt. (Yes, I know, Tate, before you call me out on it)

So to remain great, do not simply venerate what was great, those laurels will decay and so will those who rest on them.

In San Francisco, I was talking to a friend who has been involved in architectural projects for Apple. Designing an Apple store in Houston, the company has been adamant that the architects stick to the template for Apple Store designs- the light, airy, signature glass boxes that have characterised their retail experience. In the middle of the Texan desert. The store manager has apparently quipped that for every one iPad on the shop floor, they have three others that they cycle it with because they overheat and have to be swapped out and allowed to fully cool and recharge. It is an unpleasant retail experience and and unpleasant work environment – exactly the opposite end result to that which was intended by the stores design. When the process, rather than the result for the end-user becomes more important, you move from being innovative to being dogmatic. Just as apple’s closed system easy usability made it great, people now expect that usability with a greater level of customisation and use. What made it great is in danger of becoming a liability. But maybe dogma is okay if you are the Catholic Church of technology. Simply perpetuating what made you great in the past is no indicator of future success or relevance, for a city or for a brand.