Friday, 29 March 2013

Something I wrote recently. There is a short film it accompanies, which should follow soon...

Cleansing: The Silicon Roundabout
The Clash of Myth, Gentrification, and Community 

The drive to ascribe a near mythical status to the cluster of new, creative companies in East London has grown to a cacophony There is an explicit political and economic motive to have the area around Shoreditch viewed as the place to be for companies perceived to be brave, trendy, and cutting edge, and to some degree it is working. Whether the chicken came before the egg is debateable, but there is now a concentration of both indigenous start-ups and vast multi-nationals like Google and Facebook trading on the capital of the Silicon Roundabout.

Shoreditch, which accidentally found itself to be the heart of London’s creative and artistic scene in the 90’s, was until recently a firmly working class community, and its industrial past is still present in the converted loft apartments, open plan ‘studio’ offices, and the ‘industrial chic’ of so many of it’s restaurants and bars. These re-invented spaces reflect the huge demographic evolution of the area, which has caused many to stop and question the narrative of inevitable improvement that accompanies these waves of gentrification in urban areas. 

One such person is Robin Bale, an artist, poet, performer and local resident who has taken particular interest in developments. His first work to directly reference the changes occurring was titled ‘A Circumvention of the Perimeter of Hackney Council’s Designation Orders’ (2009), in which he led a walking tour/performance of the soon-to be no drinking zones in “Designated Public Places”, reflecting what he perceives to be the institutional social cleansing of the indigenous working class population for the benefit of the new ‘consumers of surplus value’ that now inhabit the area. Bale, with his appearance mirroring that of a street drinker himself, is trapped between the two worlds, and doesn’t appear to fit naturally in either. He could be taken as a metaphor for Hackney itself as it grapples with the opposing forces of community, authenticity, creativity and cold, hard economics. A recent theme in Bale’s work is the relationship between data and financial flows; what he perceives to be the only two remaining forces in the area. 

The dominant current of cultural theory resolves around the conception of networks as the defining social relationship of our time, and all the rich metaphors they produce. Through this lens, we must end our treatment of cities as places, and begin to understand them as process, one in which people, spaces, and cities define each other by their relationship to one another. This ‘space of flows’ as Castells sees it, is defined by layers of material support for the accompanying social practice: the base layer is grounded in materiality, and constitutes the infrastructural support for all else from cables and wires to jet planes. The top layer is constituted by our new techno-financial-managerial elite, and is manifest in the homogenised spaces they occupy. The middle layer is the glue that brings it all together. It is the space of social practices that define society, and the link between physical spaces that enable economic, political and cultural functions.  By this rationale, areas with high concentrations of networked, successful companies create a momentum and a force of their own, becoming key nodes in “The Network”. There is an argument that the reality of the cluster isn’t even important; the idea of a cluster can be enough. True or not, what is clear is the political drive to brand this particular part of east London as one such node. And the residents of the node need space, space that is currently occupied by thousands of local residents living in one of the poorest areas of the UK. Since the birth of the modern city, the middle class need for ever more space has been abated by moving into previously undesirable areas.

It is estimated that as much as 40% of Hackney’s working class population has left the area in the last 15 years for reasons including evictions, demolitions, rent increases, and the transfer of vast swathes of council housing into the hands of housing associations. This is part of an openly pursued policy of gentrification by the local council. The borough is scarred with derelict and almost empty housing estates, many of which only hold off demolition due to the occasional stubborn leaseholder or – the irony is not lost – the credit flow of developers in these straightened times.  The developments that replace them are contractually bound to provide a percentage of ‘affordable’ housing in return for the planning permission and tax breaks they receive for their apparently benevolent role in the community. However, by the governments own – if unloved – research, the classification of ‘affordable housing’ refers simply to a specific type of home, rather than one that is actually affordable in any kind of economic sense or understanding. Of the half dozen housing developments underway, that average about thirty stories, in the immediate vicinity of Old Street, none are expected to have homes available at anything less than £200,000. Thus regeneration has in fact served to accommodate the theft of the city from its own occupants, re-engineering areas for young middle class consumers and their Macbook pros. This is particularly manifest in the no-drinking zones, and it is clear why Bale took quite such exception to them. 

It comes down fundamental ideas about how we understand our relationship to the city. Public spaces are just that: public. Streets, parks, squares and roundabouts are spaces to be used simply by whoever happens to be in them. In Hackney’s no-drinking zones, the rules applied in ‘Designated Public Places’. Who is in charge of the designating? We then find ourselves having a ‘Designated Public’; those members of society that behave in a manner constituent with the bylaws in those spaces. Clearly it will not be the occupants of the new developments (on top of the old estates) that break the rules; the rules are designed to differentiate acceptable and non-acceptable ‘publics’. All this arrives at a time when choice is the overriding mantra of the day, when it seams the creation of choice is all a leader needs to get elected. But we can’t choose to drink a can of lager in the park if we so fancy. And the opposite of choice is dependency, the discursive validation of the social cleansing we see. Dependency reaffirms our notions of worthy and unworthy poor. These are all themes that rise and fall like the tide in Bale’s improvised performances, much to the chagrin of the trendy young things around him on the streets and back alleys of Shoreditch; he gets quite animated. Can’t anyone just get a Frappuccino in peace around here anymore?

The myth that is the Silicon Roundabout is about to produce a brutal glass and steel metaphor of itself. Recently, David Cameron and Boris Johnson gleefully announced funding for a £50m ‘renovation’ project for Old Street roundabout, the concrete underpass, shopping centre and tube station on the junction between London’s financial district and the Borough of Hackney which has, by default, come to represent the concept of an East London ‘tech hub’ in the minds of those lacking much semblance of imagination. The council itself describes the roundabout as “disparate in form, scale, age and materials with very little that is memorable”, but all that is set to change. This edifice will take the place of the misguided steel sculpture that currently occupies the space, and is most often taken for an elaborate billboard frame; recent history’s attempt at ‘Public’ art. This new ‘civic’ space will contain areas as fantastically useful as a  ‘Sandbox’, a ‘Fab Lab’ and a ‘Think Garden’, amongst others. Unfathomable names for intangible assets. When civic space is so explicitly exclusionary how are we to make sense of the community it is said to be provided for?

Is it possible to create ‘community’ if we wish it hard enough? We had better hope so, as the wholesale destruction of existing communities has already begun in order accommodate the new. The diagnosis of the city as existing in a web of nodes and networks holds its strength, but we cannot live entirely in abstracts. Indeed, we can agree with Benedict Anderson that communities are discursive constructs, but that does not make them any less real, and it does not negate our responsibilities to those that happen to reside where we desire to construct the next one. 

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