Monthly Archives: June 2011

Performative urban spaces, democracy and citizenship in South Asia

Image – Street protests: an endemic feature of Indian cities. Here, a police officer charges on a group of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) party workers in Mumbai October 21, 2008. Police in Maharashtra arrested MNS chief Raj Thackeray on Tuesday after attacks on migrant workers, sparking violent protests and the shutting of some businesses in the financial hub of Mumbai. REUTERS/Punit Paranjpe (INDIA)

by Anindita Ghosh (History)

The city as a valid category of cultural investigation, planning and policy making has made a fairly recent debut in South Asia. It was the village that dominated the imagination of ideologues, academics and artists on the one hand, and planners and politicians on the other, until about the 1960s, when the Nehruvian vision gradually began to take its hold of modern India. As the focus changed, with cities emerging as the nerve-centres of the new democratic India, politics and citizenship came to be defined increasingly in competitive urban languages of belonging and rights, and collective public displays. Of course, there are antecedents within the nationalist period when mass movements such as strikes, picketing, marches, and even riots paralysed the colonial government in major Indian cities. Recent research has highlighted the connections between political populism and aggressive posturing and shown how the visual and performative aspects of popular culture have co-constituted political programmes in both historical and contemporary India.

Urban space is not just what is produced by planning, architecture and landscaping, it is also a social product, the end result of a series of negotiations between the state and its people. The post-1857 moment of British entry into town-planning in colonial India was to exercise social control, whereby civic planning was a ruse to re-establish order – through public architecture, sanitary regimes, and regulation of communication networks. It was to discipline a rebellious population into silence and complicity. But such programmes were fraught from the very start. In Bombay, many aspects of civic reform remained unimplemented due to fears of political repercussions. My own research on colonial Calcutta shows how there prevailed an on-going war between the residents of the city and the municipality over disposal of privy waste (1). The urban visions of technocrats and planners have been historically thwarted in South Asia by those very people against whom these ideas were aimed.

In its milder form opposition from discontented citizens can be represented by passive resistance of urban planning laws. At its extreme it can also metamorphose into spectacular displays of discontent against the administration or establishment. When a bust of B.R. Ambedkar (hero of Dalits or untouchable castes) in front of a medical college in Bangalore was vandalized in 1995, the state of Karnataka went under a violent siege for ten days with Dalit protestors targeting state property, burning buses and obstructing road and rail (2). Such collective enactments in public spaces allow a range of possibilities for self-definition through permanent and/or temporary occupations of city space in languages that are increasingly violent in South Asia. They re-territorialize cities and redefine public life in ways that challenge existing social and political leaderships, and unleash struggles over entitlements to space in the city in the political language of citizenship and rights. The massive response to the perceived insult of a symbol of caste assertion in this case, underlined the emergence of Dalits as rival political power pockets in the state. Newer communities can thus gain sudden and violent visibility through concerted public display, indicative in turn of the changing constituencies claiming access to the urban public sphere.

The city as a site of new and intensified forms of violence in India, and caste and communal violence in particular, has transformed the political scene in contemporary South Asia. Mass action in colonial India was usually orchestrated by political and union leaders, where loyalties and actions of the mobbing crowd could be in theory regulated by ties to local patron figures. But this changed rapidly. Styles of mobilisation of urban groups were forged later on that departed from those of nationalist and left-wing struggles. From more recent times, Thomas Blom Hansen has shown, in the context of radicalisation of religious and ethnic communities in Mumbai in the early 1990s, how radically newer possibilities of self-definition are offered by the urban-industrial settings of towns and cities in South Asia that are different from the loosely ideological and paternalistic modes of previous times. Taking urban violence as his starting point, Hansen shows how urban identities mobilize ethnicity and masculinity in the process of refashioning forms of assertion and notions of citizenship itself (3).

There are undoubtedly lessons to be learnt from the bloody aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition, the aggressive rallying of Hindu activists in Gujarat and Maharashtra, and the repeated terrorist assaults on Mumbai. But perhaps the South Asian city itself – with its unique mixed rural-urban morphology, strong ties of caste and community, and tremendous technological possibilities – lends itself to such stupefying anarchic moments. As Hansen notes again, The ‘assertive, often violent mode of being urban’ is a sign of a ‘full-blooded plebeian engagement with modern city life and its technologies of power’ (4). South Asian urban societies seem to be built out of an endless chain of chaos and order. Violence has become a way of life, almost a rite of passage for the emergence of newer political constituencies in the region as the sub-continent enters the twenty-first century.

1: ‘Calcutta: Scandals, Death and Crime in a Colonial City, c. 1850-1920’, monograph being prepared for publication.
2: Janaki Nair, The Promise of the Metropolis: Bangalore’s Twentieth Century (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005) pp. 287-90.
3: Thomas Blom Hansen, Urban Violence in India: Identity Politics, Mumbai and the Postcolonial City (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2001).
4: Thomas Blom Hansen, Urban Violence in India, p. 9

Explosive urbanism: fifteen years after 15/6

by Kevin Ward.

Manchester City Centre IRA Bomb

Image: Greater Manchester Police


It is a sunny Saturday morning in the centre of Manchester. I have just arrived into the city and I am heading from the bus station in Piccadilly Gardens to the train station. It is a ten minute walk. England are due to play football against Scotland at 3pm at Wembley, as part of Euro96. I have a ticket for the game against the Netherlands on the Tuesday. There are helicopters overhead. Why, I wonder. This normally only happens late at night when the police take to the skies. People are talking about the helicopters as I step off the bus, and begin to make my way, slowly, around the periphery of the Gardens. I am almost at the end of the street and about to turn right, to walk up to Piccadilly train station. Strange. The Gardens seem unusually busy. Last renovated in the 1970s they are not the sort of gardens you would want to spend too much time in, especially at night. Then there is a bang, a loud bang. A bang the like of which I have not heard before (or since). And then there is a hush. It is unnerving. Manchester city centre is never this quiet. And then there is noise and lots of it. People are screaming. Shop alarms are all ringing. And there is smoke where there shouldn’t be. I pause. Piccadilly Gardens is getting busier. I turn and walk to the train station. I know something has happened. I don’t know what. I figure I will find out soon. I do. My train is delayed by an hour. Not an uncommon occurrence of course. However, in this case the train instructor informs us this delay is due to an ‘unforeseen event’ in the centre of Manchester. Trains are unable to enter or exit the train station. People look at each other. No one says a word. A bomb has gone off in the centre of Manchester…

15 June 1996 and its aftermath

It is now fifteen years since a large explosion ripped through the heart of Manchester city centre. This was before New York and 9/11 and the images that accompanied it. It was before London and 7/7, the subsequent bombing in Madrid, and the more general growth in counter-terrorism urbanism. The viewing public was shocked by the scenes. Smoke was rising upwards while buildings were falling downwards. People were unsure where to run to, but had concluded that it was better to run than to walk. The three and a half thousand pound IRA bomb, left in a white van at the junction of Cross Street, Corporation Street and Market Street brought devastation to the surrounding area: literally creating a space. But what to do with it? In the immediate aftermath Manchester City Council, together with others, set about talking up the opportunities created by the destruction. While only a handful of buildings were structurally damaged, those in charge of the city would not be limited to pure necessity. They had their eyes on a bigger prize: a wholesale revalorization of a swathe of the centre.

The impetus for remaking the city centre wasn’t new or solely a result of the bomb; Manchester had already been undergoing redevelopment. To the south of the centre Hulme and Moss Side had been rebuilt. Nearer the centre, a series of new apartments had been built in Castlefield, next to the canal. All around the city centre old and disused exchanges and warehouses – remnants and reminders of the City’s industrial past – were being converted into apartments. New builds were emerging, as the price of land in the centre and to the south of the city continued to rise sharply. Gentrification was at full throttle. The ‘Northern Quarter’, adjacent to the centre, and the ‘Gay Village’ to the south were being constructed as sites of cosmopolitanism and difference, open and tolerant and ripe for marketing and exploitation. The City Council together with other city, regional and national agencies had taken a lead on the revalorization of the city centre and neighbouring areas. Capital had begun to return to the city, and people were not far behind it. That was the point. Those governing the city already knew what kind of city they wanted: theirs was a model borrowed in part from elsewhere but partly a product of Manchester.

Yet, some areas of the city centre had not kept apace. At the time there were concerns about what to do with the Arndale Centre. A prime example of all that is great about modernist architecture to some it may be but to many others it was viewed as an absolute eyesore. Next to it Shamble Squares was considered to be a magnet for social undesirables. Their behaviour, together with that of the alcoholics, the punks and the others that gathered there day in and day out was considered a threat to the project the Council was overseeing. Piccadilly Gardens, right in the centre of the city and organised loosely around a set of public gardens, showed signs of neglect. You took your chances if you walked through it at night. I was chased more than once by a group of alcohol-charged youths. That they failed to catch me said more about their drink consumption than it did about my turn of pace! In a flash at 11.15 on Saturday 15 June 1996 the future of each of these sites became up for grabs.

No sooner had the dust settled – literally – than plans were afoot to undertake a significant redevelopment of the retail core of the city. This unfolded over the following months. Speed was of the essence. The Trafford Centre was nearing completion in the neighbouring borough, and Manchester City Council were keen the city retained its share of what Harvey (1989) terms ‘the spatial division of consumption’. That it did and over the subsequent decade and a bit saw almost unbridled growth, as Manchester created a niche for itself as the regional retail centre. And the Council’s ‘silver lining’ story stuck. The following is not uncommon amongst those who write now about the city centre: ‘The IRA did the city a favour by forcing large-scale rebuilding of an area spoiled by the bad retail architecture of the 1960s’. So, the Council successfully packaged the post-Bomb redevelopment as an opportunity to radically overhaul the city centre, allowing them to pursue a narrow and aggressive consumption-driven agenda.

15 June 2011 and the current situation

Fast forward and what sort of city centre does Manchester have? Well it is one that certainly looks better. It consists of, amongst other things, cleaned up Victorian buildings, some new funky architecture, the odd piece of greenery, and a sprinkling of ‘public’ spaces. The core is punctuated by expensive clothes retailers of many sorts. It is awash with designer names. It has a Selfridges together with a Harvey Nics and the largest Marks & Spencers in Europe. It is also not possible to go far without coming across a bar, restaurant or pub. There is no shortage of hotels, at both the lower and the higher ends of the market. So, those consumer tourists who visit Manchester have somewhere to store their purchases, and don’t have to stumble far after a night eating and drinking. The Arndale Shopping Centre continues to be gentrified, although it may have reached its limits on that front. It retains a notional nod to its working class roots, while a growing proportion of its outlets seek to capture more of the middle class market. Piccadilly Gardens has been completely re-sculptured. There is now a water feature in the centre, and it is both a bus and a tram stop. At the corner of the Gardens is a large development, consisting of offices and bars and restaurants. This is an altogether more private ‘public’ space. As if to reinforce this, the area is now under the auspices of CityCo, a public-private partnership responsible for managing the city centre. This arrangement is emblematic of a new culture of ‘authoritarianism and control’ according to Anna Minton (2005: 40).

Piccadilly Gardens_EH Smith

Image: E H Smith

CityCo and its approach to urban ‘public’ space perhaps embodies the kind of centre Manchester now has in 2011. It is one made in the image of residential and retail consumption. The core is a business, the city centre an experience to be packaged and sold. It is about stakeholders (or is shareholders) rather than citizens. The over reliance on residential consumption was brought into sharp relief recently. The over-supply of apartments that had accrued in the preceding decade left the city centre housing market horribly exposed as the economic winds of change blew through the city during 2008 and 2009. Many apartments simply could not be sold and a series of incomplete building sites remain testament to how quickly capital can flow out of a city. When the sums don’t add up, capital cuts its losses and runs. While many bars and restaurants have remained viable businesses during the recession, others have not been so fortunate. Empty outlets have begun to pop up around the centre.

Whether the city centre model pursued so vigorously by an alliance of the City Council and various representatives of capital is robust and resilient enough to survive the next couple of years is a moot point. On a number of indicators those in Manchester are set to get a whole lot poorer. With more public sector employment cuts on the horizon and a private sector that is just about muddling through the omens are not good. And remember, this is already a city that is one of the poorest in the UK. Perhaps that is to miss the point however? Maybe the City Centre we have not is not for the citizens of the city. Somewhere along the line it was wrestled away from us and we did not even notice. The Council together with a number of other stakeholders placed all their bets on a particular sector of the economy, a decision which raises questions about the Centre’s very sustainability.

The Centre seems to be for those who come from elsewhere, those who can continue to engage in one form of conspicuous consumption or another. For sure the city centre remains busy. Are people spending enough money though? Perhaps out of the next couple of years will emerge a realization that there should be more to a city centre than consumption? A rebalancing to the debate might open up the possibility for a reinsertion of ‘the public’ into the city, as problematic as that term remains. We live in hope.

Harvey D (1989) The Urban Experience. John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, Maryland.
Minton A (2009) Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty First Century. Penguin Books: London

When Work Dies: Detroit’s post-industrial decline

Ed Granter - Gas Off, Burslem Port, Stoke on Trent

Ed Granter - Gas Off, Burslem Port, Stoke on Trent

Guest blogger Edward Granter (MBS) reviews two books documenting Detroit’s post-industrial decline and addresses some of the implications of deindustrialisation for cities in general.

Books reviewed:
Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre (2010) The Ruins of Detroit, London: Steidl.
Andrew Moore (2010) Detroit Disassembled, Bologna (Italy): Damiani and Akron (USA): Akron Art Museum.

Deindustrialisation isn’t unique to Detroit. Drive around Stoke on Trent in the English Midlands and the impact of factory closures is all too evident. In Burslem port, around Dimsdale Street, houses are tagged not with the name of the local graffiti artist, but with ‘gas off’ – the better to expedite final, total destruction. Surrounding wasteland provides a sort of postmodern boulevard for the odd human victim of dereliction, in animated conversation with themselves; and yet nearby, working families build their lives in tidy, red brick bungalows.

The comparison is somewhat facetious of course, the product of genetic local pride, even in decay; what is demonstrated by these two volumes of photography by Marchand and Meffre, and Moore, is the sheer scale of the devastation in Detroit, Michigan. For Stoke it was ceramics, for Detroit, motor vehicles. Both took on the world in a do-or die battle of industrial production; both lost.

And so Detroit becomes a ne plus ultra – none more so – of post-industrial decline. Both of these books provide an engaging, sometimes stunning catalogue of tumbledown mansions, abandoned offices, gutted factories, and near empty streets.

Detroit, more than any city perhaps, illustrates industrial production’s power to shape society. To build cities, communities, human worlds, lives – and to destroy them. Anyone who saw Julien Temple’s excellent documentary Requiem for Detroit (Films of Record 2009), or read any of the slew of broadsheet articles that followed, knows the story of the rise and fall of America’s Motor City. How Detroit grew to be the fourth biggest city in the USA, workers flooding in from across the country and beyond. How Americans couldn’t match the 2 second per minute ‘down time’ of the Japanese auto workers, though they’ve caught up a lot since – too late for Detroit.

And so the factories closed, with Ford, General Motors and the like often relocating where labour costs were cheaper, where workers wouldn’t expect their own home, their own car, garden, health insurance. Now the factories, once veritable cathedrals of capitalism, lie abandoned and ripe for photographic exploration. A canvas for graffiti artists, an income stream for scrap collectors, a shelter of sorts for humans who have themselves fallen into dereliction. Underneath the visual impact of these photographs lies an almost unconscious awe at the waste of it all. Millions (billions?) of tons of steel and concrete, hours of engineering in human thought and human labour… abandoned. But capital knows no sentiment, and if it is cheaper to abandon than to reuse or rescue, then so be it.

Once work disappears, so does the infrastructure that supported it. Notable in this respect is the Michigan Central Station. Marchand and Meffre, and Moor feature this vast testament – once to entropy, now to atrophy. Housing too; both books, similar as they are, covering all three points of the work/civil society/family triangle. Mansions overgrown with ivy, intrepid families still hanging on to their listing wooden home, grand red brick buildings that once hosted American Associations of This and Worshipful Companies of That now little more than doorways in which the broken people huddle – those broken people again.

It seems that the authors of these two books have visited many of the same sites; a number of their subjects are the same. The melted, Dali-esque clock in an abandoned Cass Technical High School, the Aurora Apartments, the detectives’ room at Highland Park police station. This latter particularly poignant. We see case-posters of ‘Vickie Truelove’ and ‘Debbie Friday’, whose names can be linked through a brief web-search to the serial killer Benjamin Atkins. And what of ‘Jacob’, aged 11 (Moore: 177), his parents’ plea and his suspected kidnappers’ mugshots still pinned to the noticeboard?

So what is left for Detroit? Urban farming and young ‘alternative’ artists and musicians, it seems, although neither are represented in any depth by these books. In Detroit, as elsewhere, the Global Financial Crisis has focused minds on ‘alternatives’ to traditional ways of living and working – something similar happened in the 1980’s in Britain when unemployment rocketed and inner cities looked to be on the verge of collapse. Back then, commentators talked of ‘the possibilities of work beyond employment’ and artists sketched drawings of ‘collectivised gardens’ (See Pym’s essay and Harper’s drawings in ‘Why Work’, 1990). In a city as vast and half empty as Detroit, urban gardening has taken off with some vigour. Charities and volunteers do it to help feed the poor, the poor do it to help feed themselves, and now, illustrating Marx’s dictum that history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce, ‘one of the last remaining wealthy white financiers living in the city’ (Harris: 2010) leads Hantz Farms into a new dawn of urban agricultural production and employment.

Ed Granter - Factories near Burslem Port, Stoke on Trent

Ed Granter - Factories near Burslem Port, Stoke on Trent

Architect and commentator Karl Sharrow has already pointed out that urban farming in cities such as London may not be quite as viable – given than many people can hardly afford to live there themselves due to the lack of space, and an attempt at urban horticulture in Brighton recently ended in a melee of bailiffs and diggers. This seems unfortunate, but the industrial trajectory of Detroit, ably captured by Marchand, Meffre and Moore, and the apparently positive elements of the aftermath of greening and growing, raise uncomfortable questions. Will the residents of post-industrial cities (still cities?) live in a developed, comfortable, stable society, or a semi agricultural, marginal one? Will we occupy the interstices in industrial capitalism’s wreckage, or something more dignified? And who decides? Urban gardening/farming as a hobby can be extremely rewarding, as increasing numbers of British city dwellers are discovering. Urban farming as a source of nutrition or employment for the human flotsam of industrial collapse may be a reasonable, temporary response to a crisis, but these crises just keep on happening. Poverty is reinvented in some new form with every cycle, at once elegiac and grotesque. Something leaves a strange taste in the mouth – we thought industrial capitalism had taken us beyond Americans and Europeans having to grow food or go hungry. Has it?

Harris, P. (2010) ‘Detroit Gets Growing’, The Observer, Sunday 11 July 2010. (Accessed 9 June 2011)
Richards, V. (1990) Why Work? London: Freedom Press.
Sharrow, K. (2010) ‘Urban Farming: The future of food or Arcadia on the cheap?’ (Accessed 9 June 2011)

Multicultural cities don’t matter; continuing ethnic minority disadvantage does

Chinese Lanterns outside Manchester Town Hall

Dr Yasminah Beebeejaun is a lecturer in spatial planning interested in urban planning and equality.

Cities are the most visible places of difference that we have. As the world’s population becomes increasingly urban we live alongside people of different nationalities, ethnicities, sexualities and socio-economic circumstances. While this diversity has the potential to heighten conflict, it is equally possible to imagine that cities can be places where difference is mediated and even enjoyed. Manchester, for instance, enjoys a far more positive and cosmopolitan reputation for ethnic relations than neighbouring towns, such as Oldham and Burnley.

However, what concerns me is not simply the existence of difference and diversity in cities, but the ways in which that difference is represented. Just because people of different cultures physically inhabit a space does not mean that it is automatically a place of toleration or freedom. As a planning academic, I know that both city marketing and official plans acknowledge difference; but they often do so in a way that venerates ethnicity, yet divorces it from other concerns.

Planners have a tendency to give a great deal of attention to participation: they worry about getting minorities to collaborate in policy-making, or about recognising physical manifestations of difference through spaces such as the ‘Curry Mile’ or ‘Chinatown’? Along with many great planning ideas, this approach is well intentioned but flawed. The problem is that it sees minorities through a prism that sets cultural diversity as the most important difference affecting them. While race and ethnicity are hugely important, they cannot be divorced from wider political claims about representation, power, and equality. In other words, cultural difference is important, but cannot be separated from pressing issues of social, economic and political exclusion.

The result is that our cities fetishise and commodify conceptions of ethnic identity, whilst downplaying the gaps in power and socio-economic status. Though urban policy in the sixties worked to ameliorate racial discrimination and related economic disadvantages suffered by minorities, today’s policies do not recognize the structural and institutionalized nature of racial discrimination, and therefore fail to engage with its economic and political consequences.

In Manchester, this blindness to the importance of institutional representation can be seen in the membership of the Local Economic Partnership. LEPs are new, important bodies, which will guide economic development, housing, employment and other key infrastructure decisions in the city-region. They consist of local authority spokespeople and businesspeople, but excludes representatives from the voluntary or community sector. The Fabian Society recently sounded an alarm, noting that LEPs seemed to have negligible numbers of ethnic minorities on board (Sloane, 2011). Manchester’s LEP is no exception: it would seem none of the current members are from an ethnic minority background. What is more, the LEP’s focus on an agenda dominated by fiscal cutbacks has allowed it to drop a commitment to equality from its agenda altogether. In a climate where only 10 of Manchester City Council’s 96 councilors are from a visible ethnic minority (Manchester City Council Website), we should worry about the impact of this lack of institutional presence at every level of decision making.

To make matters worse, the situation of disadvantaged, ethnic minority communities has deteriorated in recent months, due to the effects of reforms enacted by the Coalition Government. These threaten to exclude minority communities not only from membership of political and administrative institutions, but from having a say over their own communities. The Coalition’s sustained attack on the planning system has put the future of communities in the hands of local people with the potential for limited planning powers to be given to local areas. While this sounds democratic, in practice it will work to the advantage of wealthier communities who are capable of developing their own neighbourhood plans and accustomed to representing themselves in the public sphere. Poorer communities, and particularly those with a large proportion of people from ethnic minorities, will struggle as professional technical expertise and funding has to be provided from the community.

Since their inception, cities contain potential for realising human happiness; but equally for human misery. Valuing cultural difference will only be credible when explicitly related to ending discrimination and increasing the political voice and power of minorities. Manchester must cease to view ethnicity in isolation from economic and political issues, and instead put itself back at the forefront of a movement that is capable of mounting a coherent attack on economic disempowerment, racial discrimination, and political exclusion.

Manchester City Council, Councillors by Name, Available at [] (Date accessed 3 June 2011)
Sloane, N (2011) ‘How the Tories are embedding inequality’ Fabian Review, pp.20.-21