It is a well-made argument in critical urban studies that cities such as London concentrate both global capital and inequality. With this has come a remodelling of the built environment.
What Haussmann did to Paris in the 1850s we are now seeing on a global scale: from the demolition and removal of marginalised communities from city centres, to the branding of skylines with ‘starchitect’ silhouettes.
Cities are mopping up surplus capital in a process of ‘creative destruction’, as David Harvey argues in his latest book, Rebel Cities.
In my neighbourhood of Hackney, east London, for example, proximate to both the City and an Olympic host borough, property prices rise, as Harvey predicts, and new apartment blocks are built over the sites of former social housing and factory warehouses.
The remnants of the area’s industrial past are now stylised and used in Olympic sponsors’ corporate advertising. To ameliorate what could be a wave of pessimism, Harvey makes a call for ‘a right to change and reinvent the city after our heart’s desire’, based on a revitalisation of ‘the commons’.
Examples are offered of ad hoc alliances as forms of resistance, but eventually, like many social scientists before him, Harvey comes up against the problem of scale. How do we extend the work of grass roots activism to national and international politics?
For example, as a thought experiment, if my neighbourhood rebels and declares itself the Free Republic of Hackney, disengaging from the power relationships that mark demolition and gentrification in the locality today, would we be any better off?
Unfortunately there is no guarantee that localism or autonomy will translate into justice for all, as Harvey acknowledges. While social activism is seen in associations of precariously employed and unemployed, guerrilla gardeners, the arts and community organisations, establishing a wider sense of communalism in the midst of residents’ atomisation remains a predominant anxiety.
More evidently, Hackney has its own internal tensions where the ethos of ‘public mixing’ that marks the borough’s diverse relationships falls down, according to Susanne Wessendorf in Superdiversity and Everyday Life: Living Together, Dwelling Apart, UK.
Ironically, one of the offending parties in this disjunction is the young, creative, cultural producers who now live in the area. Satirical public art is generated throughout the borough, often opposing the capitalist model of economic production that dispossesses some residents.
Yet the same cultural producers can, en masse, appropriate public spaces also effectively depriving residents in the process. London Fields on a sunny summer’s afternoon is thick with the smoke of barbeques and interactive art projects. The local ‘pie and eel’ shop is fighting a rear guard action against an influx of trendy restaurants by introducing a vegetarian option.
I am also one of the offending parties. I live in a gated community in a wharf redevelopment surrounded by social housing marked for demolition. I drink coffee in streets increasingly ‘pacified by cappuccino’ (as Sharon Zukin says in Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, UK), where I meet fellow academics to talk about critical urban studies.
We are not oblivious to the word hypocrisy, nor to the tensions inherent in the idea that both utopia and boredom would be a city created in our own likeness.
So our Free Republic of Hackney cannot indulge in the nostalgia for an open commons or an economy of affection. To reinvent the city, or in this case a locality such as Hackney, ‘after our heart’s desire’, will require much negotiation and final resolutions formed in various states of fatigue and compromise.
Perhaps the best we can hope for is to generate a process of managing change, managing the impact of globalisation and neo-liberal development.
This can already be seen in disturbances in urban space that do not seek to challenge the dominant discourses of the Global City, but rather demarcate themselves explicitly as ‘not political’. These disturbances generate a different idea of a locality, rooted in the banal, material practices of urban life, that, like urban redevelopment itself, become excessive.
For example, guerrilla knitting, naked cycling, the wedding party that drunkenly spills out of the pub to dance on the street. Centred on play, these myriad tactics can ameliorate creative destruction with creative resistance, generating a ‘million mutinies’ (V. S. Naipaul) each day in the process.
If nothing else, this unpredictable arrhythmia can irritate the impulse to order by urban authorities, perhaps creating enough chaffing to soften the edges of planning edicts.
More importantly, this process, rather than its outcomes, highlights that low incomes do not equal sparse intelligence or a lack of love for the space we live in, no matter how grimy its exteriors.
So in the liminal moments and interstitial spaces of the Free Republic of Hackney, we will not always at all times be choreographed according to an other’s image of the city, and we will try our best not to bump into anyone else.
While this rebellion will not bring down governments it may offer a chance to free ourselves from the ubiquitous binary of ‘left’ and ‘right’ that Harvey also uses to demarcate the politics of the city. Instead, alternative connections can be sought that operationalise terms with greater meaning in everyday practice such as justice/injustice or fair/unfair.