Spatial Impacts of Office Buildings?

Urban space is shaped and re-shaped by many competing forces. Global cities have been marked to varying degrees by the grand ideas of planners, the whims of political will, and the machinations of capitalism. David Harvey (1985) is a prominent voice in theorising the spatial effects of capital. The essence of Harvey’s contention is that during periods of over-accumulation in capitalist production a shift occurs whereby capital moves from production into the production of the built environment. This occurrence is a method of diverting surplus capital and a means to deter a larger crisis (Christophers, 2011).

 

In London, during the reign of the previous Mayor (2008-2016), a shift in desire and thinking took hold, one that argued that London needed an iconic skyline of imposing skyscrapers. The city soon ‘boasted’ a cheese grater (The Leadenhall Building), a walkie talkie (20 Fenchurch Street), a Shard (Shard London Bridge), and even a gherkin (30 St Mary Axe [formerly Swiss Re Building]). This is not to mention City hall which is either an ‘onion’ or ‘testicle’ depending on your point of view. However, as Harvey suggests capital in times of crisis focuses on the production of urban space. For London, this has been combined with the desire for skyscrapers that offer premium office space in boom times and bust.

Images courtesy: CityAM, Architects’ Journal, Skyscrapers News

The EC3 postcode, in the heart of ‘The City’, is home to the major headquarters of the leading insurance companies. It is a district that is spatially configured and development to the tunes of the insurance sector. However, as new buildings are completed they are standing empty. The Financial Times reported recently that One Creechurch Place which is a modest 17 floors and boasts 272,00 square feet is completely unoccupied. New developments including the 59-floor tower at 22 Bishopgate and 24 floor 60-70 St May Axe with the sobriquet of “Can of Ham’, among others, are being completed without any pre-letting. Some of this due to more efficient use of space or changing working patterns and some is due to nervous businesses reacting to uncertain times. The search for new tenants is hampered by business rates, declining interest of banks wanting to be in this area, and new tech companies preferring a location closer to ‘Silicon roundabout’.

This leads to questions of the possible spatial impacts of Brexit and how this will play out in urban space. If companies move or working practices continue to be increasingly flexible then these high-rise projects could stand temporally as indicators to the uncertain flows of urban capital. However, as Harvey suggests, the tendency for destructive creation in a capitalist economy means that maybe these building will be more ephemeral than expected. At present the show still goes on. The Scalpel (Lime Street/Leadenhall Street) is under construction and two further buildings, at 22 and 100 Bishopgate respectively, are part of a projected extra 4 million square feet of office space that will available by the end of the decade. How much of this will stand empty and what will happen if they do are questions that will soon to be answered.

Christophers B. Revisiting the urbanization of capital. Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 2011;101,6:1347-64.
Harvey D. The urbanisation of capital:  Studies in the history and theory of capitalist urbanization. Oxford, Blackwell. 1985
Ralph O, Evans J. City of London skyscrapers rise just as demand heads down. Financial Times. 2017: https://www.ft.com/content/15cab8e6-f511-11e6-95ee-f14e55513608

Looking for intentional monuments in Berlin

Last week, I was exploring the topic of resistance during the Third Reich with my students in a German conversation and composition class. One student brought up the question of gender differences in the resistance movement, and explained a research project that she had worked on a few semesters ago about the Rosenstraße Demonstration (1943). In February 1943, police gathered some 2000 Jews (mostly men married to non-Jewish women) and held them in the Jewish community building at Rosenstraße 2-4. The partners feared that the men would be deported to one of the concentration campus. Over the course of several days, some 200 non-Jewish Germans demonstrated outside the building, calling for the release of the inhabitants. Ultimately, all but 25 of the prisoners were released. The protest was the topic of the 2003 film Rosenstraße (dir. Margarete von Trotta), which may have served to popularize it, but it is still relatively unknown. None of the other students in the class had heard of it.

Coincidentally, I have been rereading Svetlana Boym’s The Future of Nostalgia (2001), particularly the distinction between restorative and reflective nostalgia. Boym draws on Alois Riegl’s concepts of intentional and unintentional monuments. Both sets of concepts present an interesting framework for my research on the construction of monuments in the city of Berlin. There is a monument that commemorates the Rosenstraße demonstration, on a small side in the former Jewish quarter street near the Hackesche Höfe and in the shadow of Alexanderplatz, both of which are popular tourist destinations in Berlin.

During summer 2016, I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Berlin, and the view from my hotel room looked out onto the Rosenstraße memorial. Despite its proximity to popular attractions, traffic to the site is minimal. This prompted me to ponder why and reflect on what kind of memorial this might be.

As Boym explains it, an intentional monument tries to mark a specific moment in time and make it meaningful for the present. By contrast, an unintentional monument occurs does not seek to commemorate. Certainly, the Rosenstraße memorial is intended to mark a specific event from history. But the visitors I witnessed last summer did not seem intentional. Rather, it appeared that they had stumbled upon the site by accident. Nonetheless, I also witnessed their desire to learn and engage with the monument as well.

I invite readers to share their experiences about monuments and Berlin or their other favorite cities and to consider if these monuments do imbue the present with meaning.

 

Grey Matters: Urban Cleaning and Graffiti on the Streets of São Paulo

Here I will refer to some recent events in the city of São Paulo, Brazil, and the public backlash as street graffiti is erased by the recently elected Mayor João Dória. The decision started as part of a larger project called “Cidade Linda” [Beautiful City]. Consider some the video below showing some of the images of the art on the walls of the city (in Portuguese): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LE2HyBMy4NU

Screenshot 2017-03-11 15.52.41

São Paulo, a grey metropolis with high skyscrapers, has a history of street art dating back to the 1980s: please refer to Marcelo Pinheiro’s blog in brasileiros.com.br on the relation between graffiti, Hip-Hop, and the empowerment of the young generations from the poor suburbs of São Paulo, or the distinction between graffiti and pichação in the Cities Project, created by the Guardian with support from the Rockefeller Foundation. The relationship of the city with graffiti has also led in the past to a series of events called Bienal Internacional Grafitti Fine Art, in its third edition in 2015, and which brought about 60 artists from all over the world to the Parque Ibirapuera, in São Paulo.

My goal is not to initiate a dialogue on artistic merit of graffiti versus street writing, as many have already done (see the books Street Art: The Graffiti Revolution, Graffiti Worlds, Protest Graffiti, for example), but to probe the models of urban resistance that have been occurring since these very recent events. By cleaning the city center and eliminating undesired art forms, these institutions are initiating a strong process of commodification of protest art, specifying areas for that purpose, as well as “authorized art courses” to teach what the government is defining as such. Thus, the governmental discourse is engaging in a dangerous dynamic that determines that art needs first to be appropriated by mainstream discourse before being “allowed” on public space.

As background information, “Cidade Linda” [Beautiful City] was announced by the new Mayor João Dória on December 30th, 2017. A recent court decision from February 14th, 2017, will prevent Mayor Dória from erasing any more grafittis without authorization from Conpresp (Municipal Council on Heritage)(Gonçalves do Carmo, 2/14/2017). What the events have been pointing to is a perception of art, street art, and cultural intervention contributing to political programs of urban gentrification.

His twitter post erasing some walls in the city, dressed up in an orange jumpsuit, has also brought national attention, in this case due to the performativity (or excess) of the political action.

To further complicate how the decision-making of erasing the graffiti was done, in later justifications the Mayor equates street intervention artists with criminals:

“A prefeitura não vai ter tolerância com pichador. Não há diálogo com contraventor. Todo pichador é bandido. (…) Pichador não tem nada a ver com grafiteiro. A prefeitura vai gastar o que for necessário para proteger a cidade”

[The government will not have any forgiveness with street artists. There will be no dialogue with transgressors. Every street artist is a bandit. (…) We should not confuse taggers with graffiti artists. The city will spend whatever is needed to protect the city] (Folha, 2/17/17).

It is clear that a clear-cut distinction between certain forms of urban wall intervention called pichação (graffiti writing or tagging) from grafiteiros (graffiti murals) is being drawn. But as a result of the first interventions, “Secretary admits that Avenida 23 de Maio became ‘too grey’” (my translation, Diógenes, 1/24/17), now considering redoing other graffiti and promoting a festival to go along with it.

As a response to the erasure of the graffiti, another intervention was done on January 24th on Avenida 23 de Maio. This time, instead of the tagging of the street artists, we find an ironic joke with the signature of the Mayor, the artist behind the grey artistic intervention. It is unclear how the rest of “Programa Cidade Limpa” will affect public space, and whether the criminalization of graffiti will be carried out. What we know so far is that the decision is leading to a larger discussion that begs further examination of the relations between street interventions, public space, and city gentrification under the lenses of urban studies.

Further Reading:

Gonçalves do Carmo, Sidney. “Justiça proíbe Dória de cobrir grafite sem consultar órgão do patrimônio.” Folha de São Paulo. Feb. 14, 2017. Web. Feb. 25, 2017.

Folha de São Paulo. “Doria diz que pichadores são possíveis ladrões de celulares e serão vigiados.” Cotidiano. Feb. 17, 2017. Web. Feb. 25, 2017.

Diógenes, Juliana. “Secretário admite que a 23 de Maio ‘ficou muito cinza.’” O Estado de S. Paulo. 24 Jan 2017. Web. 15 Feb. 2017.

Juliana Luna Freire (Ph.D). is an Assistant Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Framingham State University.

Cities that want to breathe: Clean air protests in Brussels and Sofia

Europe has a problem with air. The levels of air pollution across the continent are getting worse and one of the main contributing factors is motor vehicles. Brussels and Sofia are two cities that have high levels of air pollution and a growing concern among citizens. In Brussels the quality air and the volume of traffic is linked to the tax free status of company cars that are offered to employees as part of reward and recognition processes. In Sofia the large increase in cars following the end of state socialism and the growth in private transportation is connected with coal or wood used in homes for heating and in industry. In both city’s local resident’s have become increasingly concerned over the health implications that include a growing prevalence of childhood asthma. Throughout Europe as many as 402,00-432,000 deaths are caused by the poor quality of the air per year. This raises questions of what to do for those concerned. In Brussels CleanAIRBXL (http://www.cleanairbxl.be) is a pressure group that is working to highlight the issues of air pollution. The group has staged several protests in visible places around Brussels to inform others and promote the cause. The latest protest on18/02/17 was involved placing safety masks on statues around the city with slogans to help drive home their message. The day ended with a mannequin challenge outside the Magritte Museum in the heart of Brussels. For a video report follow this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5RHPOiYv3K4.

Images courtesy of @cleanairBXL

In Sofia a similar protest saw famous landmarks co-opted into the cause (for a photo gallery follow this link

http://m.dnevnik.bg/photos/2017/01/31/2909605_fotogaleriia_emblematichni_pametnici_v_sofiia_osumnaha – this site is only in Bulgarian). As well as drawing attention to an important cause and one that draws on urban sustainability, mobility, culture, and health the clean air protests also work to raise question of the different techniques groups have for influencing policy. In this instance, it is a case of big visible demonstrations.  Alternative or accompanying style are small acts of everyday alternative practices that include choice of transport, ways of living in cities, or concerted efforts at animating political action. The use of iconic urban space is key tool in the urban protesters arsenal. The clean air protests are an attempt to engage residents in activism for more sustainable urban futures.

85123Image courtesy of novinite.bg

Walking the Divergent City: on Euclid Avenue in St. Louis

murals-on-page

Murals on Page Ave by Christopher Green

As our bus turned right—east—onto Page Avenue, a major thoroughfare, we saw single-and multi-family homes alongside boarded up ones. Something (unexpected to some) adorned the latter: murals upon murals upon murals full of images of famous black St. Louisians. There was one of Jamala Rogers, activist, author, and columnist for the St. Louis American (black-owned weekly newspaper), and another of J.B. “Jet” Banks, former Missouri State Senator, who served for three decades.

After a stretch of Page, our bus turned left—north—onto Kingshighway, a heavily trafficked major thoroughfare. We continued north and approached the next major intersection at Natural Bridge, where White Castle, McDonald’s, and Rally’s stood as the places to eat. A right turn on Natural Bridge, and then another right turn on Euclid led us to our first destination: Euclid Avenue near Greer. We exited the bus and stood briefly on Euclid, near North Side Community School, a charter school. Across the street from us: Handy Park, named after W.C. Handy, the black composer and musician who wrote “St. Louis Blues.”

From our post on Euclid Avenue our charge was simple: walk south until Maryland Avenue, some two miles away. The only other directions: be mindful and observe. These observations formed the assignment due days later: jottings with initial impressions and composed fieldnotes about the experience of walking along Euclid Ave.

This assignment was part of “Urban Ethnography in St. Louis,” a course I am teaching this semester at Washington University in St. Louis. My charge: train students in ethnographic field methods and the important work of observation, field research, interviewing, and documentation; and teach genealogies of urban ethnography especially related to Anthropology and Sociology as well as to American Studies, Performance Studies, and Urban Studies. Do this all situated within St. Louis with particular attention to how spatial racism, segregation, poverty, processes of displacement, gentrification, neoliberalism, and cultural and expressive practices have shaped culture in the city. The walk south on Euclid Ave. would bring students from and through majority black St. Louis neighborhoods to a majority white St. Louis neighborhood.

Two homes on Euclid Avenue

Two homes on Euclid Avenue

Salvation Army, Church, and Homes on Euclid in North St. Louis City

Salvation Army, church, and homes on Euclid in North St. Louis City

On the first part of our walk, students observed buildings and businesses including Salvation Army, Dollar General, and Family Dollar. Much was much boarded-up like Euclid School, a former public school now for sale by the city, farther along our walk. One student observed a run-down brick house with a beautiful structure that he assumed could be easily, if not inexpensively, rehabbed. As he got closer to it, he heard the sound of what seemed like 100 birds chirping inside of it. But much was also inhabited and cared for, like lawns where residents lived or immaculately cared for churches.

Euclid School

Euclid School

"For Sale" sign at Euclid School

“For Sale” sign at Euclid School

Falling down home on Euclid Ave.

Falling down home on Euclid Avenue

They observed streets and sidewalks, often full of litter. Many spoke about the tactile feeling of walking on the uneven sidewalks made more so by shards of broken glass and an array of litter—some which moved slowly in the wind—of different sizes and weights. One student named the objects she saw on sidewalks and grass—empty soda cans and fast food wrappers—as indicating someone’s past consumption.

They observed the people: initially mostly black. Residents entering or leaving homes; children whizzing by on schools buses; the rare passerby who would sometimes say hello; the group of black men elevated on ladders, moving bricks from a boarded up home onto a pallet; the one white woman, who many students ascribed a role other than resident, talking with a black man on his porch. They observed sounds of school children bantering, men talking, cars driving by and blasting music, birds chirping, the gentle wind.

Along Euclid Avenue

Along Euclid Avenue

They observed themselves: a group of 18 mostly white undergraduate students at the top research university in St. Louis, and their professor (me, a black woman), walking in a clump on the sidewalk initially in mostly black neighborhoods. Many had smartphones in hand and backpacks on their backs. (Washington University has garnered negative attention for having the largest share of students whose parents make incomes from the top 1%.)

After the fieldtrip, I explained where we had walked. We started in Kingsway East, a North St. Louis City neighborhood bounded by Kingshighway, Natural Bridge, Marcus Avenue, and Dr. Martin Luther King Drive.

I cited demographic information from Mark Groth, whose excellent St. Louis City Talk blog documents most of the city’s 77 neighborhoods. According to Groth:kingswaye

4,322 residents of Kingsway East were counted in 2000.  That is a 14% decline from the 1990 census count.  It’s 98% black.  There were 2,162 housing units, 80% of which were occupied, 52% renters, 48% owners.

We continued our walk through Fountain Park, a neighborhood centered by a beautiful park with a fountain and a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. According to Groth:fountain-park

The 2000 census data counted 1,804 residents (down 23% from 1990’s count) of whom 99% were black. There were 1,010 housing units counted, 75% occupied (32%/68% owner/renter split).  2010 census data counted 1,484 people, another 18% loss, down to 17 white people, 1,445 black people, 7 Hispanic/Latino and 1 Asian

As we crossed Delmar Ave, we entered the Central West End. From Mark Groth:cwe

The 2000 census counted 14,144 residents (4% decline from 1990s count) of whom 56% were white, 36% black, 5% Asian and 2% Hispanic/Latino.  9,572 housing units were 89% occupied, 26% by owners and 74% by renters.  The Central West End was one of a handful of central corridor neighborhoods that actually gained residents in the 2010 Census count (2% increase).  Racial counts from the 2010 Census yielded 58% white, 28% black, 11% Asian and 3% Hispanic/Latino.

Most of my students had previously visited the Central West End; a metro stop connects the neighborhood with Washington University’s main campus.

But numbers tell only part of a city’s story. Walking allowed students to observe affect. Some said they initially felt uncomfortable walking along Euclid, visibly out of place. For many, comfort set in for many after we crossed Delmar Ave. At Delmar and Euclid, many-spotted Lofts @ Euclid, a six-story warehouse turned renovated apartment building. Images of healthy, beautiful black models graced advertising on the building; some commented a pleasant shock seeing black rather than white faces in the advertisement.

Lofts @ Euclid

Lofts @ Euclid

But for some, crossing Delmar produced a new discomfort. Shiny, exciting Central West End now seemed dulled as students had just experienced a plethora of litter and neglect blocks away. The walk animated what we’d studied: the effects of a century of racist policies in St. Louis that displaced and dispossessed black residents, invested in white neighborhoods, and produced St. Louis as a highly racially segregated city. The walk attuned some of my students to how St. Louis could be more equitable. At basic levels, a lot of students wanted better trash clean up in North St. Louis City.

As we walked further south, now in the Central West End a majority white neighborhood familiar to most, we also saw the unofficial trademark of St. Louis: the private street. We saw little to no litter on the sidewalks. We observed restaurant upon restaurant and shop upon shop including Pi Pizzeria and Mission Taco, two local gourmet St. Louis chains, and Left Bank Books, arguably the city’s best bookstore. When we finally ended our walk at Starbucks, artisanal restaurants surrounded us.

Private Street

A private street in the Central West End

A shop in the Central West End

A shop in the Central West End

Mission Taco, a popular restaurant, in the Central West End

Mission Taco, a popular restaurant, in the Central West End

St. Louis is often called the divided city. Delmar Ave. slices St. Louis City into two halves, North and South. Many refer to the “Delmar Divide,” that is between North St. Louis City, which is 98% black, and South St. Louis City, which is 70% white. The next week we read J. Rosie Tighe and Joanna P. Ganning’s 2015 article in Urban GeographyThe divergent city: unequal and uneven development in St. Louis.” They frame St. Louis not as the divided city but as the divergent city. They evidence how displacement and dispossession in majority black North St. Louis City are very much linked to investment and growth in majority white South St. Louis City. The walk animated this: how dispossession in majority black St. Louis is linked to growth in majority white St. Louis, and how policies of dispossession and alternatively investment influence the experience of walking and being in various parts of the city.

The idea for this walk developed from two past experiences. First, in October 2016, I participated in Neighborhoods United for Change, a St. Louis Association of Community Organizations (SLACO) program that pairs residents from a North St. Louis City neighborhood with residents from a South St. Louis City neighborhood. Residents meet each other and tour each other’s neighborhoods as a way to breakdown structures and cultures of segregation and inequity. (I wrote about the experience here). After participating, I knew I wanted to have students engage North and South St. Louis City in dialogue especially as Washington University’s main campus is on the very western edge of St. Louis, and feels palpably different from much of the city. Second, later in October, I participated in Bob Hansman’s tour. Hansman, an artist and Wash U professor from St. Louis, offers monthly tours centering St. Louis and racial inequities. The tour goes to where Mill Creek Valley, a thriving black and white neighborhood, once stood and was torn down in the 1950s; the forest in St. Louis where the Pruitt Igoe housing project, torn down in the 1970s, once stood; and the Ville neighborhood and Sumner High School, where Arthur Ashe, Chuck Berry, and Tina Turner attended. During the tour, Hansman mentioned how he often has students walk along Euclid Ave to observe how the city changes.

Many undergraduates at Washington University experience the “Wash U bubble,” rarely leaving campus or merely exploring the nearby “Loop” neighborhood, the unofficial hangout for Wash U students full of fast casual restaurants, cafes, and bars. (A new, expensive residential development in the Loop marketed to Wash U students offers a shuttle directly from the apartment to campus). The walk animated lives in St. Louis beyond what many of them know and led them to ask questions about how policy frames the lives of others as well as their own lives.

I write this all to offer an imperfect methodological exercise with questions about race, ethics, and impermanence. What does it mean to bring a majority white group—headed by me a black professor—into a majority black neighborhood? What does it mean to bring a majority white group into a majority white neighborhood? How do we respectfully observe and document, and enter and exit another’s space? What does it mean to experience, observe, and document space produced by policies of dispossession and alternatively policies of investment? I’d love to hear thoughts about how others teach about urban ethnography in respect to processes of spatial racism, dispossession, and inequity. What are best practices for walking, observing, and engaging cities?