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A City Apart

August 15, 2011

I’m quite ignorant of politics in general, and even more ignorant of politics in other countries, but recently I’ve been wondering about the riots in England. To an American who knows nothing of the context, it seems quite puzzling. But reading some articles online, it seems to make more sense:

Edinburgh might wall off its poor in Muirhouse or Leith, and Oxford might try not to think about Blackbird Leys, but in London, Manchester/Salford, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol, Nottingham—the cities that erupted on Monday 8th August—the rich live, by and large, next to the poor: £1,000,000 Georgian terraces next to estates with some of the deepest poverty in the EU. We’re so pleased with this that we’ve even extended the principle to how we plan the trickledown dribble of social housing built over the last two decades, those Housing Association schemes where the deserving poor are ‘pepper-potted’ with stockbrokers. We’ve learnt about ‘spatial segregation’, so we do things differently now. Someone commenting on James Meek’s great London Review of Books article on parallel Hackneys mentioned China Miéville’s recent science fiction novel The City and The City, where two cities literally do occupy the same space, with all inhabitants acting as if they don’t. Miéville set it in Eastern Europe, but the inspiration is surely London.

This is illuminating.  But is this situation any better than over here, where we mostly segregate the poor from the rich so as to avoid conflict?  That is equally disturbing. Neighborhoods are cut off from each other, in little pockets of comfortable isolation. Less conflict, maybe, but also less awareness.

Reading about the riots has reminded me of a great passage in The Tanners by Robert Walser that I was reading just yesterday:

How reprehensible it is when those blessed with commodities insist on ignoring the poor. Better to torment them, force them into indentured servitude, inflict compulsion and blows—this at least produces a connection, fury and a pounding heart, and these too constitute a form of relationship. But to cower in elegant homes behind golden garden gates, fearful lest the breath of warm humankind touch you, unable to indulge in extravagances for fear they might be glimpsed by the embittered oppressed, to oppress and yet lack the courage to show yourself as an oppressor, even to fear the ones you are oppressing, feeling ill at ease in your own wealth and begrudging others their ease, to resort to disagreeable weapons that require neither true audacity nor manly courage, to have money, but only money, without splendor: That’s what things look like in our cities at present (p. 172)

Walser writes in a stylized hi-falutin manner (often for comic effect), so there is a jarringness, at first, to his diatribes that sound exaggerated when taken outside the context of his books (the speakers often waffle back and forth between hilarious extremes, i.e. he usually delivers a completely opposite speech the next day), but ultimately there is something very truthful in what is said.

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