Thursday, 26 November 2015

In which a Guardian writer bemoans the lack of slums...

Or so it seems:

In this mix of complexity and incompleteness lies the possibility for those without power to assert “we are here” and “this is also our city”. Or, as the legendary statement by the fighting poor in Latin American cities puts it, “Estamos presentes”: we are present, we are not asking for money, we are just letting you know that this is also our city.

It is in cities to a large extent where the powerless have left their imprint – cultural, economic, social: mostly in their own neighbourhoods, but eventually these can spread to a vaster urban zone as “ethnic” food, music, therapies and more.

All of this cannot happen in a business park, regardless of its density – they are privately controlled spaces where low-wage workers can work, but not “make”. Nor can this happen in the world’s increasingly militarised plantations and mines. It is only in cities where that possibility of gaining complexity in one’s powerlessness can happen – because nothing can fully control such a diversity of people and engagements.

OK, our writer - one Saskia Sassen - doesn't actually use the word 'slum' here because that would load a whole lot of negatives onto her narrative. This narrative is filled with the popular "everything is being bought up by huge corporations" line - as if the buildings in London, New York and Berlin were all owned by collectives, co-ops and interesting old couples who've lived there since the place was built. There's also a slightly worrying 'and lots of the money is Chinese' as if this is necessarily a problem (a decade or so ago the bad foreigners with funny names were Japanese).

Now the point about slums is that they allow people to do those capitalist things away form the gaze of the authorities occupying expensive real estate in the city proper. And our writer is perhaps right to be concerned about the squeezing out of these places:

"Arrival cities are known around the world by many names," Saunders writes: "slums, favelas, bustees, bidonvilles, ashwaiyyat, shantytowns, kampongs, urban villages, gecekondular and barrios of the developing world, but also as the immigrant neighbourhoods, ethnic districts, banlieues difficiles, Plattenbau developments, Chinatowns, Little Indias, Hispanic quarters, urban slums and migrant suburbs of wealthy countries, which are themselves each year absorbing two million people, mainly villagers, from the developing world."

But Sassen is also wrong because the arrival of those grand developers, the imposition of those gigantic regeneration schemes, and the suborning of public space to private use doesn't stop those migrants coming. They still fill up the cracks, occupy what space can be found that's too marginal, contested or contaminated to attract those rich foreigners with funny names and their millions. And Sassen seems overly bothered by the location of public buildings filled with regulators and controllers - as if these people are either the friend of the slum-dweller or their places of work truly public spaces.

In The Arrival City, Doug Saunders talks about Istanbul - not the old city of tourists and old architecture but the far suburbia where the rural migrants settled illegally and built the fastest growing, most dynamic communities of Turkey. And this is the pattern in all our cities - the success of those at the margin makes the success of the city, a success achieved in the teeth of government opposition, eviction, regulation and distrust.

But they stay in the city. I remember selling a magnificent hand-stitched quilt to a middle-aged Jewish lady in Mill Hill. She and her husband were rich, living in a multi-million pound house in a desirable North London suburb. Asking the woman why she wanted the quilt she told me that she 'wanted an heirloom, our families came here with nothing and we want our families to have something'. Those families didn't come to Mill Hill, they came to London's East End and lived in a couple of cramped rooms from where they made their way in the world.

We look at slums and see squalor, dirt and disorganisation. The leaders of these places speak of poverty, exclusion and prejudice. But those new arrivals aren't staying in those slums - the best summation of what drives them is this quotation from Marco Rubio, one of the men seeking the Republican nomination in next year's US Presidential election:

Many nights growing up I would hear my father’s keys at the door as he came home after another 16-hour day. Many mornings, I woke up just as my mother got home from the overnight shift at Kmart. When you’re young and in a hurry, the meaning of moments like this escape you. Now, as my children get older, I understand it better. My dad used to tell us — (SPEAKING IN SPANISH) — ‘in this country, you’ll be able to accomplish all the things we never could’. A few years ago, I noticed a bartender behind the portable bar in the back of the ballroom. I remembered my father, who worked as many years as a banquet bartender. He was grateful for the work he had, but that’s not like he wanted for us. You see, he stood behind the ball all those years so that one day I could stand behind a podium, in the front of a room.

This isn't a defence of slums, just an observation that, for many of those who live in urban poverty, their life is better than the one they left behind. And they also know their children's lives will be better too. I guess only a conservative would really understand this though.


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