Monthly Archives: October 2011

Shop a Looter: Renaissance style

by Stephen Milner, Serena Professor of Italian, School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures.

The outbreak of seemingly random violence and looting which marked the end of the summer continues to generate comment, analysis and discussion in the press and amongst politicians, policy makers, and academics as evidenced already in this blog. Causal explanations have been drawn from the full range of ‘–ologies’ made available to us by the social sciences whose own disciplinary roots lie in late nineteenth century attempts to account for collective violence, crowd psychology, and the relation of the individual to social structures. Many have blamed the loss of moral compass in the political and social realm by linking the street level opportunism of the urban dispossessed with the corporate opportunism of the financial sector and political opportunism of some MPs who continue to place private wealth before any common wealth and who view the state as a supplier of patronage for the benefit of friends and relations.

Yet unlike the complex and intricate investigations into covert political and financial malpractice, the very public nature of the recent riots and looting has seen the police deploy information collected from so-called ‘security’ cameras and surveillance technology to help identify participants. This ‘publication’ of the riots, in the sense of both using media to identify and capture participants and in calling on the public to participate in the policing endeavour, resulted in Manchester in the ‘Shop a Looter’ campaign: faces caught on camera were displayed on billboards together with the number of a confidential helpline for use by the general public when forwarding information.

As a historian of Renaissance Florence based in Manchester, I’m naturally interested in the analogy that was often made in the nineteenth century between the two cities. It was to Italy and to Florence as the cloth, wool processing, and financial capital of late medieval and Renaissance Italy that the industrialist entrepreneurs turned when seeking a cultural paradigm that fused capital accumulation with cultural production in a civic context. In the figures of the Medici and Strozzi, this new industrial class saw fellow merchants who demonstrated a high level of cultural discernment and civic pride in their roles as patrons of the arts and builders of the city’s architectural fabric.

Yet the analogy also encompassed the respective cities’ social inequalities, for both cities also had their underclass. Just as every mill-owner and merchant employed a mass of workers, so every Florentine mercantile dynasty employed numerous lesser guildsmen and wool-carders. The uprising and seizure of power by the so-called ‘Ciompi’ wool workers against their patrician overlords in 1378 is often given pride of place in western histories of social insurrection and industrial dispute as the so-called ‘popolo minuto’ sought wider political participation within the governance of the city’s affairs. The parallels with the Chartists abound. Behind the great palaces of both cities, the living and working conditions of the labouring poor were abject. Engels’ description of Manchester assumes a Dantean hue as he describes how his partner, the working-class Irish radical Mary Burns, acted as both Virgil and Beatrice in leading him through the slums of Cottonopolis and its ‘subterranean dens’ and ‘smokiest holes’.

But recent events, and specifically the ‘Shop a Looter’ campaign, reminded me of a more pertinent parallel between the two urban centres, albeit at over 500 years remove, a parallel which begs again the question as to how recent events look when placed in a broader historical context and what such a view may tell us about the enduring characteristics and dynamics of urban life. I’ve recently been looking at the Florentine town criers as mediators in the flow of information in Renaissance Florence having come across 500 written proclamations that were read out on behalf of the Florentine policing magistracy between 1470 and 1530. Proclaimed by the banditori, or criers, of the so-called ‘Otto di Guardia’ or ‘Eight of Security’, these documents are bound into communal registers. Significantly the bandi do not just proclaim the law on behalf of those in authority, they also call for information from members of what we might term ‘the general public’ concerning those who have transgressed. In fact they constitute a latterday form of ‘Shop a Looter’ or ‘Crimewatch’, publishing to a wider constituency what may have been known to only a few in the search for information. Just as contemporary viewers voyeristically scan the faces of looters or tune in to find out what goes on out there, so, I would hazard, contemporary Florentines awaited these proclamations with a certain relish, fascination and faux disgust.

The scenarios described are easily recognisable today. The vandalising of allotments; riot and the assaulting of police officials; breaking and entering; arson; street fights betwen gangs using slings and knives; drunken brawls and so on. Most take place outside the hours of curfew as established in the city’s statutes and chimed out by the city’s bells. Once such calls for information had been proclaimed, citizens were invited to pass information to the authorities anonymously by placing details on a piece of paper which they were required to deposit in sealed wooden boxes, known as ‘tamburi’, which were located at key points around the town. Judicial officials would then empty these boxes daily and were legally bound to investigate all denounciations. Amongst those sought for questioning are Niccolò Machiavelli and Benvenuto Cellini, neither of whom can be charactrised as members of an underclass.

Renaissance Florence was probably one of the most policed pre-modern cities in Europe. It certainly had a pletora of magistracies concerned with law and order. Yet what these documents show is that even within what, by current standards, was a small city bounded by a circle of walls, they still struggled to contain social unrest and crime, calling on fellow citizens to help maintain the rule of law and bring offenders to court. They bear witness to governmental anxiety concerning their ability to maintain order, to moments otherwise unregistered, to incidents behind which lie irrecoverable stories, to the traffic of the street, in sum to social practice beyond the ritualistic.

And it was in the streets that most of this action took place. Defined by the built environment, streets embody the networks that their social traffic constructs. At once place and space, they offer a literal ‘via del mezzo’ between the two foundational co-ordinates of sociology as a discipline, namely structure and agency: whilst the former prioritises the description of social structures and the institutions of social ordering, the latter foregrounds the agency of the individual as he/she negotiates a route through the conditioning (not determining) cultural landscape. On the one side stand figures such as Weber, Durkheim, Parsons, and the early Foucault on the other the likes of the voluntarists Gabriel Tarde, Walter Benjamin, Goffman, Bourdieu, De Certeau and Latour.

For it is the street in particular which provides a liminal space, physically and symbolically, in which the continuing dialogue is carried out between the binaries of society vs the individual, frames vs flows, and maps vs pedestrians. Indeed, it is precisely the inbetweeness of the street as an empty space which allows identities to be called into being, regenerated, challenged, contested and afforded a scene. They are also the prime urban site through which social energies are channelled. In the process they obviate in the clearest way the tension between the desire for liberty on the one hand and the need for security on the other. The street, therefore, can be thought of as a medium through which information flows, a way (via) of delivery and dispersal rather than a decisive factor in disciplining identifications. Unlike the ‘Other’ places studied by Foucault which marginalised and contained those considered a threat to the normative structures of potentially repressive political ordering, the streets and open spaces of the city are permeable, and as such ‘The’ places where such normative structures of social ordering are legitimated and contested. As practiced spaces, streets and squares have always been perennially receptive to the imputation of symbolic meanings and resistant to definitive closure. As sites of social centrality they are resistant to any form of political marginalisation. Consequently, they remain ‘places of invention’ for the individual and society, empty spaces through which the life-blood of communities flows. As sites of contiguity they generate community but conversely they carry the perennial threat of contagion. In the words of Friedrich Kittler, ‘The City is a medium’ and as such it constantly challenges us when seeking to read its message.

Between Two Rivers – Another Cairo

by Nick Jordan

Violence erupts on the streets of Cairo. Bricks and stones are thrown between opposing groups on either side of the street. Shots are fired, as armed police intervene to separate the two fighting mobs. But this is not the 2011 revolution in Cairo, Egypt. It is Cairo, Illinois, deep in the heartland of America, and the year is 1969. These are archive scenes from a new feature-length documentary, Between Two Rivers (, directed by myself and Jacob Cartwright. The documentary centres on Cairo, Illinois, a small city with a dark and turbulent history, located at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

Once mooted as a potential capital city of the USA, Cairo exists on the border between America’s northern and southern states, and is a city of marked contrasts and intense conflicts. Isolated and encircled by levees, the once prosperous town has been devastated over time by floods, racial violence, depopulation and severe economic decline. Mirroring the Ohio-Mississippi confluence, Between Two Rivers combines the past and present, connecting themes such as history, politics, economics and the environment, all to be found in a single location, here at the ‘Confluence of America.’

The documentary sets Cairo’s tumultuous past against the backdrop of the latest crisis to afflict the community: the record-breaking floods of spring 2011, when the rising Ohio & Mississippi rivers threatened to engulf the town.

In editing the documentary, which we researched and filmed over a four-year period, we decided to combine our own cinematography with historic film clips, including remarkable archive footage from Cairo: City in Turmoil, made in 1969 by Southern Illinois University. Unseen for over 40 years, City in Turmoil captures the town at the height of racial tensions, when Cairo witnessed the last pitched battles of the American civil-rights movement.

Our collaborative practice often explores the relationship between cultural and natural history, and Between Two Rivers looks closely at the unique natural environment that encircles the town. Cairo is positioned at a biological midpoint of the USA; a region of natural diversity where numerous species and terrains meet at the limits of their northern and southern range.

We originally came upon Cairo by chance, whilst working on a series of short films based on the writings of the 19th century American frontiersman and ornithologist John James Audubon. After filming in neighboring Kentucky our search for somewhere to stay in the area lead us to Cairo. The town’s name conjured up notions of civic grandeur and pioneer ambition. We imagined a clapboard river town, where the old world converges with the new; an exotic, old Americana, offering a welcome antidote to generic motels and chain-food franchises.

We arrived at night to find the town in a state of ruin. Commercial Avenue, once the main mercantile thoroughfare, was lined with the crumbling facades of 19th century stores, banks, abandoned warehouses and saloons, some littered with police tape and bullet holes. Adjacent streets were punctuated by burnt out ‘shotgun’ houses, deserted churches and gutted mansions. Cairo’s troubles were all too evident. It was only later that we discovered the scope and nature of its baleful history: from booming river trade, lavish opera halls and lively juke-joints to mob-lynchings, curfews and armed vigilantes.

At a time when the “99%” majority, who paid trillions to bail-out the financial markets, are left shouldering the burden of higher taxes and food prices, public service and welfare cuts, job losses and a huge drop in living standards, the small, isolated and largely forgotten city of Cairo graphically represents the pressing social problems facing western economies today, with gross levels of wealth inequality, rising poverty and environmental pressures. Candid in its representation of severe economic and social failings, we hope that our film also highlights the dignity, faith and optimism of the people of Cairo, many of whom are proud of their community and yet feel that they have been left behind.

The film will be released to festivals and wider distribution from January 2012.

There will be a special, non-public screening of the film at Cornerhouse, Manchester on November 7th, 2011. The screening is free and will begin at 4pm. If you would like to attend please e-mail to secure your place.

Nick Jordan, Director

For further trailer, clips and further info please visit:

Nick Jordan is an artist/film-maker based in Manchester ( He also works for the University of Manchester, making educational training videos in psychiatry and psychology.

Manchester, Abolitionism, and Frederick Douglass

by Dr Natalie Zacek, English and American Studies, University of Manchester

Manchester had since the seventeenth century been a centre for radical movements, and many of its people in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries devoted themselves to the abolition of slavery. Although it was never a slaving port, Manchester was tightly linked to the African slave trade because, beginning in the seventeenth century, the “coarse check” cloth and the silk handkerchiefs its mills produced were one of the principal goods which English traders exchanged for captives on the West African coast. Moreover, as the global demand for cotton clothing boomed in the eighteenth century, traders brought ever more slave-grown cotton in to be processed in the Manchester mills.

Visiting abolitionist activists found Manchester a fertile ground in which to spread their message and raise funds for their cause; important visitors included Thomas Clarkson, the founder of the British abolitionist movement, who on 8 October 1787 gave an address at Manchester Cathedral which effectively kicked off the parliamentary abolition campaign. Nearly 11,000 people (more than one fifth of the city’s total population at that time) signed Clarkson’s petition in favour of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. Another visitor was the former slave Olaudah Equiano, who came to Manchester in 1790 to support the abolition campaign and to promote his recently published autobiography, whose first-hand account of slavery, particularly of capture in Africa and survival of the dreaded “Middle Passage” to the Americas, had a profound impact on the abolitionist movement.

Clarkson and Equiano’s visits encouraged the formation of a number of anti-slavery organisations in Manchester. Around one quarter of the subscribers to the Manchester Abolition Society were female; many were Unitarians or Quakers. But if the Abolition Society was open to women, it was less so to the city’s working classes; the annual subscription rate ranged from one to five guineas, and thus was unaffordable to many people. The leaders of the Manchester abolitionist movement tended to come from the ranks of the educated elite, and included leading physicians and ministers, such as Samuel Bradburn, who encouraged his fellow Methodists to abstain from sugar because it was “a drug comprised of the slave dealers’ sin and misery.”

While the abolitionists were overjoyed by Britain’s abolition of the Atlantic slave trade in 1807, many felt that much remained to be done. Manchester cotton goods were used as a trade good in the now illegal slave trade, which persisted for several decades after 1807. Of far greater concern was the fact that it was slave-grown cotton from the American South which was the principal raw material for Manchester’s textile mills.

One might expect that, once Britain abolished slavery in its colonies in 1834, the British anti-slavery movement would end, but it became more fervent than ever, not only because Britain traded extensively with the American south, but because American activists looked across the Atlantic for a moral example. Both white and black abolitionists made repeated visits to Britain to meet with British campaigners and raise awareness of and funds for their cause. Many black anti-slavery campaigners were ex-slaves who lived in terror of the American fugitive slave laws, so some of them chose not only to visit but to settle in England.

Many of these people came to Manchester, the most famous of whom was probably Frederick Douglass, who was born in Maryland in 1817. He lived with his grandmother on a plantation until the age of eight, when he was sent to work for his owner’s brother in Baltimore. The man’s wife defied state law by teaching him to read, and the adolescent Frederick gained both artisanal skills and knowledge of the wider world, and thus of the possibilities for escape, working in the racially-mixed shipyards of the great port of Baltimore.

In 1833, after seven relatively happy years in Baltimore, Frederick was returned to the rural Maryland plantation on which he was born. After years of comparative liberty, he found it extremely difficult to re-accustom himself to life on the plantation, and resolved to escape. In 1838, posing as a free black sailor, he escaped by train to New York City, where he changed his name to Frederick Douglass. He wrote of his escape: “I have often been asked, how I felt when first I found myself on free soil…A new world had opened upon me. I lived more in one day than in a year of my slave life.” He later moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he worked as a labourer, and began active involvement in the anti-slavery movement.

After hearing Douglass speak in 1841, William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the fiery anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator, arranged for him to become a lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society. Douglass was a great success, and in 1845 the society supported the publication of his autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, a classic narrative of slavery and African-American autobiography.

After the book gained considerable popularity for its dramatic story of suffering and escape its graceful and forceful prose style,, Douglass was afraid that his new-found fame might result in his recapture by his owner, and so embarked on a lengthy trip to Britain. Struck by the passionate agitation against the Corn Law which he observed on visits to Birmingham and Manchester, he became active in the anti-Corn Law movement, and was intrigued to learn about the economic theories of the “Manchester School” (a group of liberal intellectuals committed to free trade and opposed to mercantilism, led by Richard Cobden and John Bright), which defined his views on many social and economic issues for the rest of his life. He was extremely impressed by the degree of political engagement he observed amongst the English working classes, and particularly, in Manchester, by the fact that, although many workers’ livelihoods depended entirely on the continued availability of slave-grown cotton, they nonetheless empathised with the sufferings of slaves.

Douglass visited Manchester in 1846, speaking at the Free Trade Hall at a meeting of the Anti-Slavery League, and stayed for several months in St Ann’s Square. Notoriously, Douglass was said to have been spotted exiting a Manchester brothel. Douglass was furious at this charge, and sued for libel the Free Church of Scotland minister he suspected was behind the rumour. Douglass had angered the Church with his “Send Back the Money” campaign, which urged it to reject the donations of Scots-descended slaveholders in the United States. He eventually extracted an apology from Reverend Smyth, but the tactic of playing upon Douglass’s sexuality would be a constant weapon in the arsenal of his antagonists.

While in England, Douglass raised the funds to establish his own anti-slavery newspaper, the North Star. This led to his break with Garrison, who opposed the formation of a separate black-owned press, fearing that the abolitionist cause would be weakened if it divided along racial lines. But Douglass felt that his time in England had transformed him: he wrote to a friend, “I seem to have undergone a transformation. I lead a new life.” He began to move away from what he increasingly came to see as the paternalism of the American Anti-Slavery Society and other white-dominated American abolitionist groups, and became determined to strike out on his own after this “liberating sojourn.”

Where We are on Transport in Greater Manchester

David Campbell (author) is a Transport Partnership Officer at the Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation (GMCVO), and in this piece he follows up on an earlier piece he wrote as part of a wider discussion pre the 2010 General Election on the transport challenges facing the Manchester city region.

Manchester Piccadilly

THIS is the age of…

…‘sustainable transport’ – ? The White Paper and supporting Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF) is seeing a drive to focus transport policy and investment on twin objectives of economic growth and reducing carbon. Increasing alarm about the economy is seeing the Government urge transport authorities to prioritise growth supporting measures.

Previously I wrote about how while Greater Manchester’s economic miracle transformed much of the conurbation, some residents and communities fortunes changed little, or even declined. The transport network tried to keep pace with the rapid increases in demand for travel from many quarters, and struggled to maintain or improve levels of access for isolated, deprived communities, where car ownership was lower and other transport options were fewer.

The significant deprivation remaining around the core of the conurbation, in isolated & outlying areas, and in pockets across the districts is reflected in all aspects of life including employment, education, health and quality of life. It prevents many residents and communities from fully taking advantage of the opportunities that the city-region can offer. It inhibits GM’s productivity through persistent worklessness and sustains a local and national benefit cost burden.

A renewed effort to tackle this problem is a critical priority for GM’s governance. Encouragingly, the latest Local Transport Plan (LTP) identifies a clear role for the transport network, in better connecting deprived and isolated communities to centres and transport hubs to improve access to employment, training, education, services and support.

The Greater Manchester Transport Fund, drawing together £1.5bn of funding from different sources, has allowed GM to proceed with measures prioritised according to their potential value to the economy. The long-planned Metrolink extensions are now under construction or funded. While expansion to key employment sites and more affluent suburbs have come at first, routes connecting the older industrial areas to the east and north, and Wythenshawe (and ultimately the Airport) to the south will follow.

The LSTF bid hopes to accelerate specific LTP priorities, and GM is in a strong position to progress its bid. Walking and cycling or ‘active travel’ will be promoted as a practical travel choice for many more people, particularly around commuter cycling. ‘Smart’ technology will be used to transform and de-mystify public transport ticketing, information (including real time), promotion and marketing. Work will continue building the capacity of the not-for-profit community transport sector to provide enhanced accessible, demand responsive and door to door services for deprived and isolated communities, especially where conventional public transport services are limited or declining.

However, the weak recovery, uncertainty, and radically reduced availability of public funding has presented new challenges, with tough decisions facing the Combined Authority and its new ‘Transport for Greater Manchester’ structure for implementing transport policy.

Bus remains the predominant mode, and non-commercial services ‘subsidised’ by public funds for social reasons have been critical to maintaining access for communities where travel demand is lower – often deprived and isolated communities. Falling passenger numbers and reduced public funding has threatened services, leading to a service level reductions and in some cases complete withdrawals. Highly unpopular changes to concessionary fares have been made, with the argument that older people and schoolchildren may have to pay more, to ensure there are still buses for them to get on. There is a growing political acceptance that in many situations the existing model of continuing to subsidise scheduled bus services is not sustainable, and demand responsive transport (DRT) can be a more efficient and effective option. A significant proportion of evening services in Rochdale have already switched to DRT. There is also a view that long standing issues stemming from deregulation inhibit the growth and development of the overall bus offer, which are examined in the Competition Commissions recent report.

On rail, additional capacity (carriages) to tackle overcrowding has arrived this year with more anticipated, and GM continues to lobby hard in this area, which of course has a national dimension. The Government has emphasised it recognises the importance of this kind of infrastructure, not least in its support of High Speed Rail – though there are major concerns that the argument for HSR is based on some fundamentally mistaken assumptions about Britain’s economic geography. On conventional rail it is likely investment will be limited in the short term, particularly given the Government’s commitment to sticking to its deficit reduction strategy. There are however encouraging signs around the northern rail ‘Hub’ which could deliver a step-change in rail services across the whole north.

However, the most effective way of managing travel demand – is to reduce the need to travel. Critical priorities for GM’s governance are the integration of spatial and transport planning, improving access to services at the local level, extending fast broadband coverage, facilitating more remote working and promoting flexible and tele-working and encouraging the design of residential areas that give priority to walking and cycling – and promote access to public transport.

Cities and Climate Change adaptation: Can we learn from each other?

By Melanie Lombard, Hallsworth Fellow and Alfredo Stein, Lecturer in Urban Development, both at the Global Urban Research Centre.

Image: Household adaptation measures to severe weather, 29 de Octubre Barrio, Estelí, Nicaragua. Source: Global Urban Research Centre

The United Nations’ selection of Cities and Climate Change as the theme for World Habitat Day is a significant and welcomed event. Although climate change has become increasingly prominent on the international development agenda, historically the focus has been on the effects it has on rural environments and agricultural production. This is slowly changing. Given the fact that more than half of the global population now lives in urban areas and that the majority of urban growth this century will take place in low and middle income countries, the effects of climate change on cities are likely to be high up on the development agenda for the foreseeable future.

Many cities are already experiencing the effects of extreme weather disasters generated by climate variability, exacerbating existing patterns of urban vulnerability caused by poverty and inequality. Settlements constructed on flood plains or in landslide zones by low-income residents faced with no alternative housing options present a highly visible risk. Less noticeable but no less severe are the effects of severe weather on shack housing lacking basic services, such as heat stress, heavy rains and recurring storms.

The UN Climate Change Conference held in Copenhagen in 2009 signalled the importance of moving from a focus on mitigation – in other words, interventions to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases – to adaptation, or how socio-economic systems can cope with and build long term resilience to the effects of climate change. Adapting cities to the effects of climate change requires a commitment from city governments to allocate and invest resources in infrastructure and technology. Such a commitment may be hard to conceive in situations where resources are scarce at the local level, and other needs require urgent attention.

However, rather than seeing this as a zero sum equation, city governments could instead mainstream climate change adaptation into urban policies more generally. Recent research undertaken by the Global Urban Research Centre in Nairobi, Kenya, Estelí, Nicaragua and Cartagena, Colombia, shows that in many cities of the global South, poor communities, households and small businesses are already adapting their assets through small, incremental measures to changing weather patterns. This suggests potential for urban governments to recognise and build on these innovative, low-cost responses already taking place in vulnerable neighbourhoods and incorporate them into broader settlement upgrading programmes.

But the potential for learning from the poor goes beyond the city level. While global problems suggest global responses, they also provide an opportunity for transnational learning. In cities of the global North, governments are responding to the need for climate change adaptation through existing planning frameworks and infrastructure networks, applying the latest technology usually through top-down frameworks. Meanwhile, in the global South, communities are developing their own adaptation strategies, often without central and local government support. What would happen if the two approaches were brought together? Applying community-driven adaptation responses from the global South to a Northern context could facilitate greater citizen participation, flexibility and ad hoc responses. Meanwhile, transfer of planning processes and infrastructure knowledge from the North to city governments of the South could strengthen their capacities to support existing community driven efforts to adapt to climate change. As well as being one of the biggest development challenges of this century, climate change thus also offers opportunities to improve the way we plan – and participate – in cities.