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/

 

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

 

 

The City Outside the Window

By Gareth Millington

Recently I have been thinking about two images. Gustave Caillebotte’s painting Young Man at his Window from 1876 and Jeff Wall’s colour photograph A View from an Apartment from 2004-05. In both works, the city (Paris and Vancouver respectively) is framed by an interior window within a domestic setting. Caillebotte’s painting is especaillebottecially significant for its time because it is an urban rather than a ‘natural’ scene that can be seen through the window.  The painting portrays Caillebotte’s younger brother René rising from his chair to nonchalantly stare, hands-in-pockets, at a female figure in the street (at the intersection of rue de Miromesnil and rue de Lisbonne). Rapetti (1995: 148) states of Caillebotte’s painting that it ‘stage[s] a confrontation between interior and exterior’. Moreover ‘[…] the modern world, and not only its exterior aspect: modern iconography was to go hand in hand with a modernity of feeling, with evocations of the effect produced by the new environment on individual human lives’ (ibid).

 

Jeff Wall’s photograph (below) also stages a combination of inside and outside.  It produces two pictorial worlds in a single image: the domestic interior occupied by two women, one reading a magazine in chair and the other attending to domestic chores; and the panorama of the port of Vancouver that is seen through the window. The household objects that are scattered, or cluttered, around the room provide the picture with a sense of everydayness that contrasts with the view from the window. As Wagstaff (2005: 18) comments, it is a ‘commonplace scene that functions as a quiet iconography of modern life’.

wallThese images are fascinating because they offer an insight into the relationship between the interior of urban homes and the boredom, desires and despondencies that are intertwined within this private space and the city outside—an element of urban enquiry I have come to think is under explored. More importantly I think, these two images, produced over a century apart, offer a remarkable mediation upon presence or being in the centre of the metropolis. In this way, interiority gains a triple meaning; the subjectivity of the lens and the actors, the domestic interior and its geographical location in the heart of the metropolis buttress each other to provide glimpses of an existential space; a haven that is a retreat from the modern world outside, but is also itself modern. These two images are not, at least relatively speaking, products of the gaze of the alienated; of a flanêur who is confined to the margins. The quiet, everyday quality of the presence depicted in these images is, as we now know, historical; it is no longer something to be complacent about, such are the centrifugal effects of rising rents and staggering property prices, not to mention forced relocation and dispersal from great metropolitan centres. There is also the issue of a generalised urbanization that has slowly erased the distinctiveness of the city and the metropolitan experience. Each image—Caillebotte’s in the style of high modernism and Wall’s photographic invocation of a late modern ‘urban lifestyle’—provides a reminder of an epoch of urban modernity that, we might argue, is eroding before our eyes.

I’m sure this contention will be too strong for some, such is the enduring vivacity of the city-image in common sense, popular culture and political discourse; a trend I have recently called ‘cultural cityism’ (Millington 2016). And yet, the easy, commonplace attitude of ‘nothing much in particular’ that pervades these artistic works—which prioritise interior tension over the exterior, materialist tension of ‘dialectical urbanism’ (Merrifield 2002)—provides a deep sense of uneasiness (that strange mix of desire and melancholy that Walter Benjamin saw combined in the ‘wish image’) when contrasted with the increasingly exclusive rights to urban inhabitability that are predominant in cities today; which is, of course, the place from where we view these images today. And yet, I am often wondering how the privations of our current urban age are being/ will be depicted. The nagging doubt, as Marshall Berman (1982: 24) once put it, is that maybe we have ‘lost the art of putting ourselves in the picture, of recognising ourselves as participants and protagonists in the art and thought of our time’. I’m not an art historian so I would genuinely be interested in receiving recommendations of art works from the last few decades that do convey a contemporary sense of displacement, loss or the new blossoming of urban life in unexpected places.

 

Berman, M. (1982) All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. New York: Verso

Merrifield, A. (2002) Dialectical Urbanism: Social Struggles in the Capitalist City. New York: Monthly Review Press

Millington, G. (2016) ‘Urbanization and the city image in Lowry at Tate Britain: Towards a critique of cultural cityism’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 40 (4) 717–735

Rapetti, R. (1995) ‘Paris seen from a window’ in Distel, A, et al (eds) Gustave Caillebotte: Urban Impressionist. Paris: Abbeville Press

Wagstaff, S. (2005) Jeff Wall: Photographs 1978-2004. London: Tate

Archiving the City/ The City as Archive

archiving-the-city-symposium-poster

Registration is now open for this event in the UK, co-organised by Gareth Millington (University of York) who is also an assistant editor of JUCS:

Archiving the City/ The City as Archive

Thursday 16 March 2017, University of York, UK 10.00am-6.00pm

Confirmed keynote speakers: Sharon Macdonald (Humboldt), Paul Jones (Liverpool), Rebecca Madgin (Glasgow) and Graeme Gilloch (Lancaster).

This event, hosted by the Centre for Modern Studies and supported by the Department of History and Department of Sociology at University of York, considers the cultural forms through which the modern city is archived. It critically examines the different ways—via institutions, public art, collective practice, and more—in which urban history and memory are organised and presented in contemporary culture. It also engages with how the spaces and architecture of the city may themselves present as an archive, offering up reminders of social and cultural processes, imaginaries, struggles and events.

The symposium engages with Henri Lefebvre’s (2014) argument that the reign of the city is ending; that the city now only exists as an image and an idea. In addition, the importance of heritage in gentrification processes and the museification of the historic urban core reveals, at least in part, the sense of loss through which that the modern metropolis is remembered. This connects more broadly with Derrida’s (1996) notion of ‘archive fever’, which, he understands, is part of a compulsive, repetitive culture; a ‘homesickness’ born of a ‘nostalgic desire to return to the origin’ (ibid: 167). Through keynote speakers and panels the symposium will explore perspectives that make links between contemporary archiving processes, city museums, visual culture, heritage urbanism, ‘authenticity’ and the cultural regeneration of historic urban spaces.

Registration costs £10.00. You can book your place here: http://store.york.ac.uk/product-catalogue/centre-for-modern-studies/conferences
a

‘Urban society is the battle ground for new forms of radical and progressive politics: it has to be’: Andy Merrifield on fifty years of the right to the city

Andy Merrifield is one of most cogent and absorbing writers on the French sociologist and philosopher Henri Lefebvre. I have fond memories of reading his chapter on Lefebvre in the excellent collection of essays on Marxist thinkers on the city that Merrifield published in 2002, MetroMarxism.51c1w4lefel__sx335_bo1204203200_

I was coming towards the end of my PhD thesis at the time–in which I’d drawn upon Lefebvre a great deal–but I was still unsure whether my interpretation was ‘correct’ or whether it had any place at all in a thesis about racism on the periphery of the city and how some of the answers to overcoming this lie in urban space itself. Andy’s chapter provided the reassurance I needed. He is that kind of writer.

Just a few days ago Andy published another excellent piece on Lefebvre, this time celebrating (and commiserating) the 50th anniversary of the publishing of Right to the City. It’s an insightful and hopeful read in these worrying times and you can find it here:

https://andymerrifield.org/2017/01/22/fifty-years-on-the-right-to-the-city/

Another new JUCS assistant editor: Introducing Gareth Millington

Hello, I’m Gareth Millington, another of the new assistant editors on Journal of Urban Cultural Studies. I’m a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at University of York, UK. An urban sociologist ‘by trade’, I’m a member of CURB, University of York’s Centre for Urban Research and I also co-convene a research stream with David Huyssen in the University’s Centre for Modern Studies called Archiving the City.

gareth%20pic

My work thus far has focused on ‘race’, racism, migration and urbanization. This culminated in my 2011 book ‘Race’, Culture and the Right to the City (Palgrave Macmillan). I have also written about urban protest and resistance, notably papers on the 2011 London riots (see ‘I Found the Truth in Foot Locker’ in Antipode last year) and a paper on resistance to territorial stigmatisation in a Parisian banlieue (co-authored with David Garbin and published in Urban Studies in 2012).

race-cover

My theoretical inspirations have tended to be authors such as Henri Lefebvre, Marshall Berman, Iris Marion Young and Paul Gilroy although more recently I have engaged considerably with the work of Jacques Rancière on the relationship between politics and aesthetics. (A short article on Berman, titled Right to the City (if you want it) was published in JUCS in 2015.)

In recent work I have attempted to examine some of the neglected cultural dimensions of so-called ‘planetary urbanization’. A paper from 2016 (published in IJURR) considers the clash of city images found at a recent L.S. Lowry exhibition at Tate Britain. My most recent book, published late in 2016, is the most significant product of this work. Titled Urbanization and the Migrant in British Cinema: Spectres of the City, the book closely examines the urban ‘content’ of a series of independent films made about migration during the late 1990s and early 2000s, arguing that together they comprise an incipient aesthetics of expansive urbanization; a mondialising aesthetic that differs radically from and counters that of the ‘classic’ mid-century metropolitan way of seeing the city.

51oli1de6dl__sy344_bo1204203200_

My current projects include a study of urban aesthetics in interior design magazines during the ‘long’ pre-Crash decade of 1997-2008 (using a cultural political economy approach) and a revisit of the territorial stigma study in La Courneuve, Paris with David Garbin, taking into consideration recent developments such as urban renewal, increased Islamophobia and the resurgence of Le Pen’s far right.

Anyway, that’s a quick-ish introduction. More from me soon!