More on Grenfell

By Gareth Millington

Following on from my Grenfell related post yesterday I have compiled some of the most useful articles on this tragedy. Many in the UK will be familiar with these but I’m aware that most readers of the blog are from outside the UK and will be interested to read more about a terrible event that many agree is emblematic of the failings of neoliberal and austerity urbanism.

The first article tell the story of how The Labour Party won the North Kensington seat in West London just a week before the fire. This victory, seen by many as unlikely, was in large part due to urban tensions in the area.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/12/labour-kensington-general-election-london?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

The second article, published just days after the fire on The Sociological Review blog, is by David Madden, an urban sociologist based at the LSE. He sees parallels between Grenfell and Hurricane Katrina.

https://www.thesociologicalreview.com/blog/deadly-cityscapes-of-inequality.html

These two articles are from the City journal blog. Paul Watt has been charting London’s struggles over social housing for the last decade.

http://www.city-analysis.net/2017/06/23/those-people-in-there-like-the-phoenix-shall-rise-from-the-ashes-the-truth-shall-come-out-debbie-humphry/

http://www.city-analysis.net/2017/06/23/this-place-is-post-something-londons-housing-in-the-wake-of-the-grenfell-tower-fire-paul-watt/

The following articles are by the excellent architectural writer Owen Hatherley. The first talks of the institutional contempt shown for the diverse and generally poor residents of Grenfell. The second addresses predictable commentary from the right that focuses on the architectural design of London’s high-rise homes and argues that towers should be torn down. As Hatherley states, such a view is of course concomitant with the discourse of ‘regeneration’, whereby estates are demolished or made derelict by local authorities, the land sold and residents dispersed outside the city to make way for middle class residents.

https://www.dezeen.com/2017/06/16/grenfell-tower-fire-lethal-failure-oversight-opinion-column-owen-hatherley/

https://jacobinmag.com/2017/06/grenfell-tower-fire-uk-housing-safety

Here is an article, which I drew upon yesterday, by the critical criminologist Steve Tombs, concerning the increasing removal of protection from legislation under neoliberalism.

https://oucriminology.wordpress.com/2017/06/15/undoing-social-protection/?utm_content=buffer030f7&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

The final two articles are more visual in focus. Both powerfully capture the human extent of this tragedy and the solidarity that has been shown by residents—from across London—in its aftermath.

https://plutopress.wordpress.com/2017/06/28/grenfell-tower-a-photo-diary-from-activestills/

http://www.redpepper.org.uk/a-beautiful-message-to-the-grenfell-community-from-the-housing-estates-of-east-london/

 

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Running Plan: encouraging running in cities

Running is a burgeoning activity in cities across Europe. In some cities, it is a prominent activity while for others it is a nascent practice. In all cities running speaks to the desire to encourage citizens to adopt healthier practices as well as being part of a suite of ideas to foster more sustainable urban places. In Brussels, recently there have been calls for running to feature more prominently within the city. In the Brussels Parliament, Flemish Socialist politician Jef Van Damme introduced an initiative that brought together a broad coalition of colleagues to propose the implementation of a running (or jogging) plan. The idea is to help to promote running as an everyday practice by improving visibility and availability in public spaces. In addition, the plan will aim to make Brussels the running capital of Europe. Brussels has several parks that are popular for running this includes the Bois de la Cambre and Parc Cinquantenaire. The plan aims to improve running in places that are not as picturesque or attractive to runners. In recent years, the city authorities have renovated Parc Josaphat and the pathways around the Ixelles lakes which has opened these areas to more runners and people wanting to use the spaces to relax. These spaces are now friendlier for families and people of all ages with the addition on new surfaces, lighting, and regular maintenance. The aim of the plan is to encourage city authorities to improve public running infrastructure. This would entail providing signs for routes, improving lighting, and providing toilets, lockers, and fresh drinking water. If the plan is adopted it could become a blueprint for other cities across Europe.

http://www.lesoir.be/96346/article/2017-05-27/un-plan-jogging-pour-la-capitale

Brussels Runner Canal.BE

Photo courtesy of Canal.Brussels

On handshakes and aliens: two pedagogical lessons for the urbanist classroom

When you observe two people sitting at a park bench, or walking down a block wearing suit or a dress or jeans – what assumptions do you attach to their bodies? How do these assumptions inform how you read people in urban space?

When you think of a city you’ve visited or lived in, what adjectives do you think of? When you think of a city you’ve never visited before (I, for example, have never been to Cape Town, South Africa, and Berlin, Germany, and Buenos Aries, Argentina, and Hanoi, Vietnam, among many other cities) what adjectives do you think of?

I ask these questions to frame two brief pedagogical lessons for the urban cultural studies classroom. Each asks how discourse – produced knowledge that circulates – attaches to (urban) bodies and ideas of cities.

I learned the first exercise at a 2013 ATHE conference (panel: “The Games We Play”) and came up with the second exercise a few years ago. I have taught both, and shared and further developed both exercises earlier this month with input from other participants and under the direction of Professor Carrie Preston at the Mellon School of Theater and Performance Studies at Harvard University which had the theme: “Research, Pedagogy, Activism.” I offer these exercises here as in-progress pedagogical tools.

Handshake Exercise: “What do you see?”

Goal: To have students identify the type of assumptions attached to bodies and roles people play in urban space.

(pre-step). If possible, go to an urban setting such as a park bench or an area near a bus stop.

1. Ask for two volunteers from your class — lets call them A and B. When they come up to front of the classroom (or to the park bench, etc.), ask the two to shake hands.

2. As A and B shake hands, ask the other students “what do you see?” or “what type of assumptions might we make if we saw these two people shaking hands here?”

3. As A and B continue to shake hands, listen to responses from the class.

4. After a few moments, substitute out one volunteer for another such that A and C are now shaking hands.

5. Again ask, “What do you see?” and listen to responses.

6. Repeat this exercise several more times, such that different pairings of students are shaking hands (C and D shake hands, D and E shake hands, E and F shake hands, F and A shake hands and so on), and with each pairing, ask the rest of the observers “What do you see?” The combinations are often such that two men shake hands, or two women shake hands, or two people of the same or of a different race shake hands, or of similar or different ages shake hands, or similar or different heights shake hands.

7. When the exercise is over ask your students: “what didn’t you say?” The exercise ultimately asks what meanings do we have and make about raced, gendered, aged bodies, and combinations of those bodies, in urban spaces?

Alien Exercise: “What does it look like?” “How do you know?”

Goal: To explain the concept of discourse, and have students think about how and where knowledge about concepts (such as cities) is produced and circulated within society.

1. Ask students: “Draw an alien.” (Give students about 2-3 minutes to do so).

2. Next ask students: “Share your alien.” Give willing students a few moments to describe their alien.

3. Then ask: “Have you ever met an alien?” “How do you know what an alien looks like?” “Where have you seen aliens?” Use this prompt to make students name the specific sources where they’ve seen aliens (television, movies, magazines) that have influenced their ideas of what aliens look like.

4. Use their naming to introduce the concept of discourse. (Here are some sources: The Chicago School of Media Theory, University of Chicago; Michael Foucault, “Discourse on Language”; Social Theory Re-Wired, Routledge.)

5. Re-explain this concept of discourse, now through meanings we attach to cities. Ask students to describe cities they may or may not have been to: “How would you describe New York City?” (or another city if you teach in or near New York City).

6. Then ask students, “Raise your hand if you’ve been to New York City.” For those who didn’t raise their hands, ask, “where have you learned ideas of New York City?” For those who have been to New York City, ask, “how do those ideas compare to and contrast with what you’ve experienced in that city?”

7. Repeat with other cities.

8. Discuss how discourses of cities circulate in dialogue with and beyond the embodied experience of a city – and what this means for power/privilege (how discourses of cities center and privilege certain people and knowledge over others) and what this means for various methods (ethnographic, archival, aesthetic) of studying cities that may or may not address those differences in power and privilege.

I used this exercise last semester in my Urban Ethnography class, linking it to Michel de Certeau’s ideas of place and space.

What exercises do you use to have students think about how meanings are produced and circulated in urban spaces?

The right to protection

By Gareth Millington

I’ve been working with Henri Lefebvre’s formulation of the right to the city for a while now.  Recent events in London—I am referring in particular to the Grenfell Tower fire (14 June) and the death in police custody of Edson da Costa (21 June)—have driven home a doubt that I’ve long harboured. In short, Lefebvre’s conception of this right, which famously incorporates the right to difference, the right to habitat and the right to centrality, does not go far enough—for contemporary times—in encompassing the right to protection and/or the right to safety. In addition, it does not (cannot) account for racialized experiences of precarity in a city as unequal as contemporary London. Without ever wishing to lose the spirit of both fullness and openness in the Lefebvre’s original work, the issue of protection has become fundamental in understanding the right to the city in neoliberal cities where the threats of interpersonal violence, state violence, health and safety deregulation, pollution, terrorism and austerity budgets causing cuts to vital services are lived with by the majority as an everyday urban reality. As David Madden, co-author of In Defence of Housing, has written in the wake of Grenfell: ‘There are aspects of urban environments and everyday life that can kill, either swiftly through catastrophic failure or ecological disaster, or slowly through illness or poor health. But the chances of being subjected to these conditions are distributed unevenly.’

Grenfell-tower-2-1550x804

Of course, Paris in 1968 (where and when Lefebvre wrote La droit de la ville) provided a very different context. As a Marxist (of sorts) in a country dominated by an authoritarian Gaullist state, Lefebvre understandably favoured self-organisation and self-determination (autogestion) among urban communities. He was justifiably wary of eradicating dissent, desire or play from the city. He was worried of the influence of planners, technocrats and the police—in fact any agent of the state—seeing them as responsible for ‘urbanism’, a nebulous ‘science of the city’. I think it’s fair to say that Lefebvre didn’t want or trust the state to have much to do with ‘protecting’ its urban citizens. He wanted city dwellers to learn how to do this for themselves.

The Grenfell tragedy with its intimations of criminal negligence demonstrates how an alignment between critical criminology and Lefebvrian urban studies is perhaps overdue. Critical criminology—with its Marxist roots—is concerned with who in society has the power to criminalise. It seeks to explain the aetiology of crimes of the powerful and identifies the social harms that state and corporate actors are responsible for (Grenfell, in a manner that is characteristic of ‘neoliberal’ tragedies, blurs boundaries between the two). Critical criminology seeks to make more visible these social harms, to pinpoint their causes and to pursue means through which both legal and social justice may be achieved.

An important concept in critical criminology—one which was misappropriated by the New Labour government (1997-2010)—is that of community safety.  Originally, this notion encompassed much more than protecting citizens from crime or anti-social behaviour. It was never intended to divide the working-class between ‘roughs’ and ‘respectables’.  In fact, it was devised as a way of critiquing governmental concern with street crime over and above the other harms that blighted the lives of the urban working-class. Community safety argued for a radical, pan-hazard approach to improving urban lives that involved tackling domestic violence, poverty, diet, health and road safety and so forth on an equal footing to crime. It also advocated a horizontal multi-agency approach to setting an agenda for protection that was necessarily derived from deep and continuous engagement with the urban communities most at risk. One aim, in the wake of inner city riots and a loss of trust between police and black communities in the first half of the 1980s in London, was to develop a more consensual mode of urban policing.

While Grenfell has shown that listening to communities (and taking their concerns seriously) remains more important than ever, it also reveals the ‘cry and demand’—to use a lexicon familiar to readers of Lefebvre—for a renewed social democratic state that is willing and able to protect citizens from the harms caused by failing, delegitimised neoliberal urban policy. A re-worked conception of community safety, most likely under a new rubric, can help to identify, act upon and neutralise the hazards of urban living that have been created and exacerbated by decades of rolling back the remit and influence of the state. Indeed, in the context of austerity, many urban dwellers are angrily demanding adequate protection, especially when—in a marketised society—they have no means of securing themselves. As the response to Grenfell shows, the organic forms of spontaneity and convergence that Lefebvre so admires do exist. People in this diverse and degraded pocket of North Kensington (London’s wealthiest borough) were quick to organise (more so than the threadbare local authority) and to demonstrate compassion and support for each other—but they, like millions of other urban citizens, also deserve recourse to safe and secure public housing, legal aid, information on the safety of loved-ones, a non-racist police force and a fully resourced fire service.  The right to the city must surely comprise the right to protection.

An excellent piece on the Grenfell tragedy from The Independent can be read here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/grenfell-tower-tory-austerity-class-war-outsourcing-inequality-kensington-corbyn-may-mausoleum-a7805666.html#gallery

 

 

Considering Homelessness, Drug Addition and Reurbanization in São Paulo

For this month’s post I have been reading about the case of the drug addicts removed from urban centers and the specific case of São Paulo’s Cracolândia (Crack Cocaine Land). When coming across the discussion, I could directly relate to a video from the Spaniard Victor García León. The title is “Las Barranquillas”, and is part of the multi-director documentary “Hay Motivo” (2004), which was part of a political project that discussed socio-economic concerns of the Spanish society just before the General Elections. This specific video focused on the Spanish drug users abandoned in that area in the outskirts of Madrid, living with little sanitation or social assistance, but with intense drug trafficking. The setting resembled a war camp, with tents and barracks sent up on dusty, non-paved streets, and lack of infrastructure. The video is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgi0tK8_nfI. The final message was the difficulty of presenting solutions.

 

I would like to take a space-time shift and take a brief look at urban process as we are currently witnessing in 2017 in São Paulo’s discussion on Cracolândia. Instead of a dry, garbage-filed clearing occupied by homeless drug addicts such as the Spanish version mentioned above, the space in Brazil that I would like to contrast is downtown, surrounded by some modernist buildings and historic neighborhoods in the city center. The region affected is close to Luz, a metro station in the center of the capital, and those illegally occupied areas have been a constant concern for authorities. It is also part of the program of street cleanse started by the Mayor of São Paulo since the beginning of 2017. There is public support to the forced removal of the drug users from the occupied areas (Instituto Paraná Pesquisas, showing 77.5% approval ratings), even though the removal experienced in May 2017 has been considered by media in general as chaotic.

 

Land space has high value and is expected to increase more, despite the region not being gentrified yet (with expectation of speculative value with the changes). Projeto “Nova Luz” (2011) and a series of urban reforms planned to take place until 2025 will most probably lead to that increased value of the land.

 

In the metropolitan region of São Paulo, addiction to crack cocaine has been fought intensely this decade with few results, in areas away from the city center but ALSO within it. Some of the actions tried controlling or removing drug dealing. The whole operation took place on May 21st, 2017, when Metropolitan Police (Guarda Municipal Metropolitana) was accused of violent and arbitrary intervention and removal of drug users, drug traffickers, homeless people, and small commerce owners indistinctly. At the aftermath, officials renounced, the courts allowed forced hospitalization of users for treatment, and the health department was accused of not supporting drug addicts. Another administrative issue was the removal of current residents without documentation to later relocate them to another region. But the bulk of removed individuals ended up moving to another occupied square that immediately got called “New Cracolândia”.

 

This removal, then, is part of a repetitive process. Identical news reports exist about addicted people “invading” other neighborhoods after police interventions from 2015, during the government of the leftist Fernando Haddad (PT). The presence of those individuals in the urban space in São Paulo is yearly a concern for authorities, as visible in the continuous reference to the removal of the cracolândia on news reports.

 

Photos from Folha on the recent situation in São Paulo: (http://www1.folha.uol.com.br/cotidiano/2015/04/1623007-viciados-se-instalam-na-vizinhanca-apos-operacao-na-cracolandia.shtml)

 

References

“Narcotráfico se dispersa em São Paulo após violenta operação na Cracolândia.” Conectas Direitos Humanos. 5/25/2017. http://www.conectas.org/pt/acoes/midia/noticia/48257-uol-narcotrafico-se-dispersa-em-sao-paulo-apos-violenta-operacao-na-cracolandia. Web.

Ferreira, Wilson Roberto Vieira. “A Cracolândia e o documentário ‘Arquitetura da destruição.’ 5/28/2017. http://www.revistaforum.com.br/cinegnose/2017/05/30/1993/. Web.

Jackson, Emma. Young Homeless People and Urban Space. Fixed in Mobility. New York: Routledge, 2015.

“Viciados se instalam na vizinhança após operação na cracolândia.” 4/30/2015. http://www1.folha.uol.com.br/cotidiano/2015/04/1623007-viciados-se-instalam-na-vizinhanca-apos-operacao-na-cracolandia.shtml.

“Projeto Nova Luz: São Paulo, Brasil.” Jul 2011. http://www.prefeitura.sp.gov.br/cidade/secretarias/upload/desenvolvimento_urbano/arquivos/nova_luz/201108_PUE.pdf

“Ministra de Doria renunció a su cargo después del polémico desalojo de Cracolândia.” https://ladiaria.com.uy/articulo/2017/5/ministra-de-doria-renuncio-a-su-cargo-despues-del-polemico-desalojo-de-cracolandia/

Musings on travel and terrorism

Summer is the time for vacations. For academics, especially those of us in language, cultural and area studies, it’s a time to reconnect with our objects of study. For me, that means Germany, most specifically Berlin. I’ve lived there multiple times since 1990, that tumultuous year when East and West Berlin started relearning how to be one city.

Berlin always feels unfinished, an attribute that even art historian Karl Scheffler noted back in 1910. It’s that edginess, that constant change, the unexpected surprise around the corner. I feel at home in Berlin, which is an odd statement, since every time I visit, I first have to reorient myself, for given its transitional nature, there is always some kind of change since my last visit. Since I spend the majority of my time in the historic center, still being (re)constructed, this is no surprise.

But there are also parts of Berlin that have undergone fewer changes in the last decades. Here I think of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedaechtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church) and the Breitscheidplatz, the public space that was rocked by terror last December, when a truck plowed into pedestrians enjoying the Christmas market there. How will this space have changed? How are such acts of terrorism changing public spaces in London, Nice, Paris, Brussels…..? And how do the consequences of these acts affect our relationship to these spaces?

For now, I don’t have any answers. Stay tuned, for my next installment in July….from Berlin!

Works cited:

Scheffler, Karl. 1910. Berlin. Ein Stadtschicksal. 2nd ed. Berlin: Erich Reiss Verlag.