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.
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…
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.