Tag Archives: Poverty

The economic crisis: A view from the Everyday

by Maria Kaika, Geography, School of Environment and Development. maria.kaika@manchester.ac.uk

February 2012, Working Paper. Copyright: Maria Kaika

Turning a public of Indignados into a public of Desperados: the making of Greece’s Nouveau Poor. 

A walk through the streets of Athens today, can be a confusing, or even alienating experience. If one walks around the Acropolis or in the upmarket shopping district of Kolonaki, one comes across a city buzzing with people eating in restaurants and cafes, oozing with music, laughter and joy. But if one ventures two blocks further towards the city centre, one encounters a different city; a city whose every corner, every niche, is occupied by homeless people, and beggars, and whose air is saturated with woodfire smoke, the result of people who cannot afford their gas or electricity bills.

This extreme polarization of the Greek society, and the radical changes in the city’s physical and social fabric took place over a very short period of time; just under two years. These two years saw the Greek economy imploding, as a result of a soaring public debt, which currently totals 340 billion EUROS, and the Greek society polarizing like never before as a result of a set of ‘austerity measures’, to which the Greek government committed itself, in order to continue receiving funds from its creditors. Indeed the 12 billion Euro worth of savings that the Greek government made in 2011 affected mainly pensioners and the salaried lower middle classes. The cuts were translated into 30,000 job losses in the public sector; 20-30% cuts in wages and pensions across the public and private sectors; and a rise in general unemployment by 40 percent. During the first quarter of 2011, the GDP fell by a further 7%, whilst the suicide rate increased by 40%. A quarter of businesses in Greece has gone bust, 20% of shops in the centre Athens are currently empty, and youth unemployment currently runs at 49%.

As today Greece counts 3 million people living at the edge of poverty, has the highest risk of child poverty in Europe (at 24%), and 25,5% of its population living in substandard housing conditions, it is hard to disagree with Paul Krugman, who recently termed Greece’s austerity measures ‘terminal’ for the population . Although the austerity measures did not delivered the anticipated economic results, they did deliver a new social and political situation in Greece: nouveau poor, and turned a public of Indignados into a public of Desperados.

Whilst the 1% of the Greek population still engage in conspicuous consumption and drive luxury cars, the most desperate amongst Greece’s nouveau poor have now joined ranks with illegal migrants, junkies, and alcoholics in the streets of Athens, begging, or rummaging through garbage for food. Yet, Athens’ new class of poor can be distinguished easily from Athens’ veteran poor;  junkies, alcoholics, or begging migrants. They are young or elderly, men or women, who, until recently, belonged to the middle classes, but were spat out from these ranks as they lost their jobs, took massive cuts in their salaries or pensions, or had their homes repossessed. They still wear decent clothes, and still bear in their eyes a sense of dignity. They beg whilst looking at you straight in the eye, as if they were asking for a cigarette, or for the time. Their body language as they search through garbage for food is erect, and almost dignified, because they are convinced they do not deserve what they have got. They have not reached – yet – the level of misery that turns human beings into wretched creatures (Declerck, 2006). They have not – yet – entered the terrain where their existence is defined only by their position as beggars in a country that appears to have no future.

This is the once aspiring middle classes come poor; this is our poor, our ex-neighbour turned homeless; and for being that, for being our poor, they deserve  – and receive – a level of compassion, and national and international media attention, like no other group of poor in Greece, or elsewhere in Europe has ever received. Everybody has read reports about Greece new poor; but very few are aware of the struggle for survival of Greece’s one million undocumented migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria or Iran. Many have seen the international headlines about the suicide attempt of the public sector worker in Athens; but very few have heard of the year long hunger strike of Afghan migrants in Athens, who arrived there in search of Europe and found themselves trapped in this city, unable to move forward or backward.

Caring for our poor: the affective consequences of a local debt crisis.

I have highlighted the distinction between our poor and these other categories of poor, and the difference in attention that that these groups receive, in order to argue the following: the shock waves that the social consequences of Greece’s crisis sends down Europe’s spine are directly related to the fact that, this crisis concerns our poor. This is the first time, after the Second World War, that a European Union member country is faced with a humanitarian crisis; the first time, since the establishment of the European Union, that European Union members are treated like Africans or Latin Americans; that is, the first time that Europeans suffer the consequences of a debt crisis like Africans or Latin Americans do. Technocratic governments; the demand for appointed ‘commissioners’ to govern the ungovernable Greeks; demands for austerity and asset privatization in return for cash flows; demands for constitutional changes to prioritize servicing the country’s debt over servicing the population’s basic needs; all these are long established practices in the debt ridden countries of the developing world. But when these practices are transposed into European context, they become, for the first time shocking and widely publicized. They bring the message of a debt crisis home. And they make it louder. And by bringing the message home, Greece’s nouveau poor generate in western populations and political elites a set of interesting affective reactions (Tsalikoglou, 2012) that have serious political and social consequences.

First, they generate a soothing effect: it is the Greeks who suffer, not us Italians, us English, French, or Germans; not me; I still have a job; I can still feed my children; I am lucky; I’m OK.

Second, they generate a reassuring effect: after a year or two of doubts, I now feel Greeks have actually suffered enough; they are now worthy of my compassion. And the fact that I can still feel compassion is reassuring; it means I am still a human being.

Third, they generate desire for geographical distancing: Their suffering is inherently linked to their ‘Greekness’. It is close enough to me but cannot touch me, because I am not Greek; it remains outside my own country and my own home, and I want to keep it this way; I want to distance myself and my country as much as possible from ‘them’.

This way, the shock of poverty and misery brought home by the Greek crisis becomes, at best, a focal point for display of human compassion, and, at worst, a focal point for the display of racism. When it takes the form of racism, Greeks deserve what they get, because they are lazy, crooks, incompetent, etc. When it takes the form of compassion, Greeks do not deserve what they get, because they are the ones who gave us democracy; they fought on our side during the second world war, etc.

However, although compassion and racism may appear to be at the opposite ends of the spectrum of political and social reaction to this crisis, they are in fact, part of the same, Janus faced type of politics which allocates justice or hatred, compassion or despise, only after it places human beings into unified categories. It is only after I can other all Greeks as crooks and lazy PIIGS that I can express racist views about them. But it is also only after labelling all Greeks as a deeply democratic and suffering people that I can feel compassion for them. Whilst racism transforms human beings into dehumanized bodies, compassion transforms them into dependent bodies. Both cases confirm that debt is the end of freedom (Graeber, 2011). And an un-free human being -worthy of compassion or not – is a de-humanized being; a human being that can no longer produce its own history.

Learning from global capitalism: Try again and fail BETTER next time.

If we take seriously Hanah Arendt’s (Arendt, 1998) claim that History is the making of meaning, and totalitarianism the production of meaninglessness, we are currently in a moment that produces meaninglessness. In this paradoxical moment, group, the economic crisis generated a proliferation of group stereotypes across Europe, whilst the salvage of the European project is left to a bunch of nationalistic political elites. Inside Greece, this nonsensical nationalistic rambling presents other Europeans as villains, and the return to drachma as the way to save Greece from the ‘evil’ grip of foreign creditors. Greece’s family run political elites have twice now failed to negotiate Greece’s debt properly, and have twice now chosen to default on Greece’s people, rather than default on Greece’s creditors. Still, they blame the evil Germans, rather than themselves, for the misery that the Greek population has to suffer. Outside Greece, similar nationalistic ramblings present the economic crisis as a problem predominantly linked to Greece, and argue that the solution to the crisis dwells in chucking Greece out of the euro or even out of the European Union, because it is a nation of crooks who will always fail to deliver their promises.

But, of course, the claim that all Greeks, Portuguese Italian Irish and Spanish are crooks and lazy PIIGS is a claim as non-sensical as the claim that all Germans are Nazis (Trivizas, 2011). And, of course it is convenient for Europe’s political and petty local economic elites to revert to nationalism. It keeps them in power by posing false dilemmas, and constructing straw enemies. For, whilst European governments become increasingly entrenched in petty nationalism, capital becomes increasingly internationalized. Capital has never been patriotic: this is why it survives and thrives over time. In the midst of the crisis, Greek capital invests in multi-million mansions in London, whilst major private European funds invest in making “Greece the Florida of Europe”; Chinese sovereign funds buy large parts of Greece’s main port (Piraeus), whilst Qatar invests 5 billion US dollars in Greek tourism infrastructure.

There are good lessons to be leant from the movements of international capital. In a recent interview to Business Review, Niall Fergusson suggests that “the only way out of the current crisis —without disbanding the EURO—“ is to do as international capital does, namely “commit substantial resources to peripheral economies” (Blodget, 2012): But, for those who cringe to the sound of the word subsidies, we don’t even have to go that far. We could start by arguing for a more even-handed treatment of one Country towards another. As of January 2012, Greece actually runs a primary surplus (Krugman). This is a remarkable change that received little attention. It means that from now onwards, any new loan that Greece receives will only be needed to service its debt. Because part of Greece’s debt is served at 16,8% interest. Over the next couple of years, the European Central Bank is set to make a multi billion profit from interest repayments made by Greece. 5bn Euros of this profit is now earmarked to go back to the coffers of the countries that have contributed to Greece’s aid. Moreover, whilst France, the UK and Germany borrow at 0.25 interest or thereabouts, they still lend Greece at 3, 4 or 5%. In common language, this is called usury. In economic language, it is called aid. Why does Germany and France lending at high interest rates to Greece or Ireland, sound more outrageous than Bavaria subsidizing East Germany,England subsidizing Wales, or New York subsidizing Mississippi?

If we understood countries as the social historical constructs that they are, and if the economy were as ‘rational’ as it claims to be, interregional subsidies within the EU would make as much sense as interregional subsidies within the same country; and interregional lending at extortionate interest rates within the EU would sound as outrageous as the proposal of having Bavaria lending East Germany at 5%.

If we could see beyond the nationalistic parapets that Europe is building, we could also divert our attention to another remarkable fact: that the Eurozone’s greatest build up of debt is not with the governments of Greece Portugal or Spain; it is with the financial sector, whose total debt doubled from 155% of EUs’ actual economic output in 1999 to 222% in 2012. The financial sector’s debt currently runs at 20 trillion EUROS, but receives little media or political attention, compared to Greece’s debt of 340 billions which makes headlines across Europe every single day, and has claimed thousands of wo/man hours in the European and national parliaments over the last 2 years (Jones etal., 2012)

If, as a Greek passport holder, I wanted my understanding of the crisis to go beyond false dilemmas and the nationalistic rhetoric that Greece and the rest of Europe is currently stuck with, I should first and foremost remark that I am not Greek. I am not Greek, if being Greek puts me in the same category as 14,000 or so crooks who are now documented to have embezzled public funds in Greece, who drive around in SUVs and avoid paying taxes worth a total of 36 billion euros. I am not Greek, if that puts me in the same category as the thugs who beat up migrants in the streets of Athens in the name of ethnic cleansing.

But, at the same time, we are ALL Greeks. Like 99% of the Greek population, who did not embezzle public funds, we collectively foot the bill for bailing out indebted banks, or indebted countries; we collectively receive cuts in our pension funds, and we do not receive millions in bonuses, or Royal titles, for running banks that go bust, or for gambling with other people’s pension funds. If we take the rhetoric of the market to its full consequences, the fact that we are all consumers and tax payers, can form the basis for our commonality, as Bauman suggests (Bauman, 2012: no page). And if we wanted to take our commonality beyond the market logic, we collectively are the unknown people whose countless small actions, as Howard Zinn puts it, make history and produce change (Zinn, 1990).

So, addressing you as fellow global consumers, I would urge you to go to Greece for your next holiday. It will be an act of pleasure; you can enjoy the sun and the sea, and you don’t even have to face poverty if you stay clear off the main streets of Athens. It will also be an act of compassion: you will be contributing to a sinking country’s economy.

Addressing you as fellow human beings, I would still urge you, to go to Greece for your next holiday. But I would advise you to walk off the beaten tourist track; walk the main streets. It will be an act of comprehension; it will bring home an understanding of why compassion and charity cannot work as a tool for social change. Because they are predicated upon the construction of divisive lines and divisive identities. Charity is for the middle classes. The only tool left to the poor is Politics. But, at this moment, when centre, right and left party political elites revert to primitive forms of nationalism, politics reverts to its rawest and most desperate form; politics as rioting. The recent burning of historical buildings in Athens during rioting was an act as nonsensical or as desperate, as the burning of the African American ghettoes in the 1960s. It was an act performed within a political moment that produces meaninglessness and fear. Today, we are all numbed by fear. Fear that our country may be next in line, our household next on fire, our children next to suffer. Fear of failure of any new attempt to think differently about the world or the economy.

However, this moment of meaninglessness and social disarray, is the best moment for transformative thinking. It is the moment when new radical imaginaries stop being an intellectual exercise, and become a social necessity. If we take seriously Cornelius Castoriadis’ conceptualization of history as the creation of new meanings and new social imaginaries (Castoriadis, 1987), there is no better moment than now for this type of creativity.

It is the moment to counter pose divisive stereotypes and fear of failure with Samuel Beckett’s (1983) aphorism that, if you have ever failed, try again; and fail again. But try to fail better next time. In fact, this is exactly what global capitalism has always done: constantly trying and failing and trying and failing again. And it is still here, perpetually transformed, and more powerful than ever. We should learn from global capitalism! We should dare to think differently, think beyond divisive lines; dare to try again and dare to fail again. In the process, we may create new meaning.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Arendt H, 1998 The human condition (University of Chicago Press, Chicago; London)
Bauman Z, 2012, “The left that ressembles the right” Eleytherotypia, Sunday 18th December 2012
Beckett S, 1983 Worstward ho (John Calder, London)
Blodget H, 2012, “NIALL FERGUSON: Okay, I Admit It—Paul Krugman Was Right” Business Insider
Castoriadis C, 1987 The Imaginary institution of society (Polity, Cambridge)
Declerck P, 2006, “On the necessary suffering of the homeless”, in Divided cities : the Oxford Amnesty lectures 2003 Ed R Scholar (Oxford University Press, Oxford) pp 161-176
Graeber D, 2011 Debt: the first 5,000 years (Melville House, New York)
Jones S, Oakley A, Watkins M, 2012, “Bond investors face euro reckoning” Financial Times
Krugman P, “The Greek Vise” The New York Times 6th February 2012
Trivizas E, 2011, “Trivizas on PIGS“,  last accessed 2 March 2012
Tsalikoglou F, 2012, “The homeless as medicine” To Vima, 29 January 2012
Zinn H, 1990 The politics of history (University of Illinois Press, Urbana)

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Telescopic Urbanism and the Poor

By Prof. Ash Amin, 1931 Chair in Geography, Cambridge University

Prof. Amin will be giving a lecture at the University of Manchester on Wednesday 14 March, as part of an afternoon of global urbanism lectures and events. All welcome!

Slums, Mumbai - image wallygrom on flickr

As globalization turns cities into complex, stretched entities with multiple geographies of affiliation, it becomes easier for some to make the self serving argument that any internal integrity to cities disappears, that there is no innate reason why their parts – social and geographical – can or should hold together.  The result is a divided optic – a telescopic urbanism – that projects only parts of the city, eschewing any need to think the city a field of shared life and common rights and obligations.  The city returns only as a space of discrepant juxtapositions and severed obligations, a provisioning for some and not others.

Two powerful projections reinforcing this optic, I wish to claim, have risen to the fore, one from a colonising minority with powerful allies, and the other from advocates of a bounded majority, both ironically tracing similar subjectivities of survival and reward.  One is the ‘business-consultancy’ projection, supported by powerful allies, for whom the urban poor are a mere encumbrance and embarrassment, while the other is the ‘human potential’ projection, sold to the poor by their allies that the only way forward is to build capabilities and other means of entrepreneurial advancement.  My argument is that such telescopic urbanism is centrally involved in preventing the growing scale and severity of human struggle, particularly in the cities of the South, from being seen as anything other than a problem of autochthonous development.

My claim is that the urban imaginary will need to change radically for things to be different, and a start would be to think the city once again as a provisioning and indivisible commons.  It would be easy to dismiss such a premise as unworkable let alone too idealistic, by pointing to the omissions that follow from entitlements being defined by the legal rather than existential status of urban inhabitants (therefore excluding the majority city of illegals and non-citizens), the biases arising from hamstrung, inefficient or corrupt public authorities captured by the rich and the powerful, the organisation of elites, interests and communities who benefit from the apportioned and appropriated city, the sheer magnitude of need in the city of endless migration from the countryside and increased reproduction.  But without an optic that sees the whole city, and as a shared commons, the rudimentary response of telescopic regimes to a 21st century problem of bare survival for a very large chunk of humanity on the urban fringe will remain unchallenged.

Thinking in this way leads me to suggest that the state of the world demands once again a politics of large-scale social engineering, but of a distinctive sort.  Junking the totalising ideals of old-style socialist modernism or the brashness of modern capitalist colonisation of desire, a place to start is to commit to the universal distribution of the basic staples of human development and association, from access to shelter, clean water and sanitation to the means to access the rest of the city and its public goods.  Without extending the ‘infrastructural’ rights of the poor, business consultancy urbanism will take over the city, as it has already begun to do in parts of the world aspiring to world-class city status.   Here, the elites are on the march, bent on clearing slums and people of an unpleasant bearing to make way for business-consultancy city, with its shiny buildings, glitzy consumption, fast highways, clean and safe streets, plentiful real estate, a pro-business state, global connectivity, and an investment-tourism-consumption-knowledge friendly environment.

In aspiring world-class cities such as Delhi and Bombay the cleansing elites are already getting their way.  Here, even the affordances of the concessionary state to the poor in response to their organisation as a claims-making rather than rights-bearing body, are being choked off, fanned by a paranoid rhetoric from behind gated communities of bad life in upgraded slums whose real estate ought to be handed over to the prosperity-bearing middle classes.  Other cities of the post-colonial world will choose to follow suit as rumours of rich pickings from business consultancy urbanism spread.  They too will want their place in the sun in the unfolding post-occidental modernity, by letting the poor roast in the sun.  It may be time to rove the telescope to police the colonising urban elites, to insist on the basic infrastructural rights of the poor, without qualification.

Prof. Amin’s  book Land of Strangers, which examines the biopolitics of belonging in the contemporary West, is published in 2012 by Polity. An interview with Ash about Land of Strangers can be found on podularity.com.

Nicaragua: the road to ‘pacification’

The transformation of Managua’s road system should be seen as a case of “infrastructural violence” which is intrinsic to a broader regime of injustice, argues Dennis Rodgers (BWPI).

Managua has undergone many metamorphoses during the past half century. The reasons range from a devastating earthquake in 1972 to the utopian urban planning of the Sandinista revolution during the 1980s, and subsequent attempts by right-wing post-revolutionary governments to erase these material and symbolic traces of Sandinismo. Since 1998, however, Managua has undergone a remarkable and wide-ranging makeover, which has fundamentally changed the metropolis’ morphology in an unprecedented manner.

From a ramshackle, sprawled out, and impoverished city widely nicknamed “la ciudad caótica” (“the chaotic city”), the metropolis has been completely re-organized, its transport network improved, new buildings erected, and it now has numerous expensive restaurants, bars, night clubs, hotels, casinos, designer stores, and malls. Although these transformations can be linked to the post-1990 market economy suppressed during the Sandinista period, the city’s makeover has also been the result of a very purposeful process of state-led planned transformation.

This is especially obvious when considering the striking transformation of Managua’s legendarily abysmal road infrastructure over the past decade and a half. As late as 1997, potholes were a chronic driving hazard, traffic was chaotic, car-jackings frequent and there was no discernable logic to the city’s byzantine road infrastructure. By 2000, the Managua municipality had carried out a large-scale programme to fill in the potholes, resurfaced and widened the major arteries of the metropolis, built a suburban bypass, and replaced traffic lights with roundabouts.

These works ostensibly aimed to speed up traffic and reduce congestion, but when considered on a map, a definite pattern emerges whereby the new roads predominantly connect locations associated with the lives of the urban elite, for example linking the (newly re-modelled) international airport to the Presidential palace to malls to the “Zona Rosa” of restaurants, bars, and nightclubs to the exclusive Las Colinas and Santo Domingo neighbourhoods, and so on. This particular road network has enabled the urban elite to move safely between the different points of their lives, no longer impeded by potholes, congestion, traffic lights, or crime (roundabouts considerably reducing the risk of being car-jacked).

As such, Managua’s pattern of road development has been the keystone of a veritable process of socio-spatial “disembedding”, whereby a whole layer of the city’s fabric has been “ripped out” from the general patchwork quilt of the metropolis and constituted as a “Nueva Managua” (New Managua) that is exclusively for the rich, who now live in what could be termed “splendid segregation”. At the same time, however, the process arguably goes further than this, with the road building also constituting a means of actively “pacifying” the poor, as the view from barrio Carlos Fonseca highlights well.

Barrio Carlos Fonseca is a settlement of approximately 1,500 inhabitants and about 180 households in the South-East of the city. The neighbourhood has little to distinguish it from other poor neighbourhoods in the area, except for the fact that the pista Cardenal Miguel Obando y Bravo extends through it. The pista is a four-lane highway that cuts East-West across South-Central Managua, and was built in three stages for a total cost of US$5.6 million, or about 10% of the Managua Municipality’s budget.

The first two stages of building the pista in 2006-07 involved widening and improving pre-existing roads. The third stage, in 2008, involved literally bulldozing throughbarrio Carlos Fonseca. This affected 40 households in the neighbourhood: 16 houses were completely destroyed, and 24 were partially destroyed. The details that emerged about this process from interviews that I carried out in the neighbourhood in 2009 suggest that there was very little consultation, differential compensation, and also likely instances of corruption. None of this is very surprising, however –political clientelism is a well-established practice in Nicaragua, as is corruption, and undermining possibilities for organized resistance through “divide and rule” tactics makes eminent sense.

The consequences of the pista’s construction for local barrio life have been devastating, however. Many of those whose houses were affected but not completely destroyed have found themselves living in cramped conditions. In one case, there were 19 people living in 3 rooms instead of the 6 they had previously had. Only 3 of the 16 families whose houses were completely destroyed accepted re-location outside the barrio, and the Municipality re-settled the rest in a baseball field in the neighbourhood, providing them with materials to build houses that were generally not as spacious or solid as their previous ones.

The baseball field had moreover until then constituted a primary focus for neighbourhood socialization, and the re-settlement consequently eliminated thebarrio’s primary area of public space. As a local inhabitant called Don Victor told me: “Where are the youth supposed to meet and play ball now? They used to get together in the park all the time, and we’d all gather to watch them, and you would be able to chat to other inhabitants of the barrio. Now you just talk to your neighbour, and even then, hardly ever, because everybody stays locked up in their homes due to the crime and insecurity, so it’s just hello and goodbye whenever you’re coming or going…”

The pista also literally cut the barrio in half, significantly changing local attitudes and behaviour patterns. As Doña Angelina explained: “you go less to the other side, you don’t see people anymore, there’s no exchange… If you go to the other side, they say to you, ‘but you’re from the other side’, which never happened before, we were all from barrio Carlos Fonseca, now it’s like you have Carlos Fonseca 1 and Carlos Fonseca 2.”

Although negative views about the new road were widespread, there simultaneously existed a clear acceptance. A local youth called Mungo for example responded to my critiques by saying “hey maje, this road, it’s progress, and you can’t stop progress, we’ve gotta keep on moving forward to improve things in the city…” Similarly, Doña Angelina once told me: “you know, I don’t mind living next to thepista. It’s beautiful at night, when it’s all lit up. There are no street lights in the barrio, but here yes, and so you feel that here you have progress, you know.”

Such discourses reflect a socio-psychological process of “pacification”, in the sense developed by Norbert Elias in The Civilizing Process, wherein he traces how the assimilation of a particular discourse can condition the world view of individual social agents in ways that lead them to conform. Individuals become “psychologized” into a dominant value system, even if it is oppressive and unequal, and Doña Angelina or Mungo had clearly internalized a vision of Managua’s infrastructural development that led them to believe in the inevitability – and indeed, the necessity – of transformation, irrespective of its negative impact on their lives.

When viewed from this perspective, a case can be made that Managua’s makeover constitutes a case of what might be termed “infrastructural violence”. This goes beyond seeing infrastructure simply as instrumental to instances of oppression and domination, but rather considers it as intrinsic to a broader regime of injustice. In other words, the issue here is not so much that political economy and infrastructure are inevitably interrelated, but rather the way a particular articulation of the two can come together to purposefully produce outcomes such as “pacification” in barrioCarlos Fonseca.

This is important because much recent writing belonging to the so-called “infrastructural turn” has adopted a view of urban infrastructures as complex “assemblages”, that is to say highly contingent, unplanned, and often temporary material configurations. This arguably obscures the way in which infrastructural development can constitute an intrinsic basis for oppressive forms of domination in cities. The concept of “infrastructural violence”, on the other hand, provides a lens through which to capture this. When seen from such a perspective, Managua’s makeover emerges unambiguously as a deliberate reengineering of metropolitan topography by an urban elite aiming to both segregate and manage the poor in the city. Both in terms of intent and consequence, such a pernicious process merits being labelled “violent”, but doing so also squarely situates blame and responsibility, and as such is the first step towards trying to transform this profoundly unjust reality.

This article was first published on OpenDemocracy.net (8 November 2011)

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 (www.betweentworivers.net), 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 mail@betweentworivers.net to secure your place.

Nick Jordan, Director

For further trailer, clips and further info please visit:
www.betweentworivers.net

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

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.

Tough on rioters, tough on the causes of riots?

Bansky street cleaner - Chalk Farm

by Alan Harding, Director of the Institute for Political and Economic Governance.

Question. What do Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Hackney, Newham, Tower Hamlets, Southwark, Lambeth, Nottingham, Islington, Haringey, Salford, Sandwell, Leicester, Greenwich, Lewisham and Camden have in common? Two correct answers that I’m not looking for are, firstly, that they all recently suffered the worst rioting seen on British streets since the early 1980s and, secondly, that a depressingly large number of them had witnessed similar scenes thirty years previously. These observations should nonetheless give us pause for thought, especially when politicians and opinion formers have been so keen to emphasise that ‘this is not a repeat of the 1980s’.

At one level the talking heads are right, of course. Poor relations between ethnic minority youths and police, exacerbated by the indiscriminate use of stop and search powers, was much less of an issue this time around, even though the flashpoint in Tottenham rekindled tragic memories of deeply troubled police-community relations. And there’s little doubt that the desire to loot, whipped up via social messaging, drove many a discriminating contemporary rioter rather than became an additional temptation once more spontaneous acts of destruction had begun and the police had become distracted. Just as it would be foolish to argue that the rioters of 1981 were a more noble, politicised breed, though, so it would be churlish not to ask what parallels exist between now and the early 1980s.

Had Harriet Harman asked Michael Gove, during their celebrated stand-off on Newsnight, why he thought this scale of urban conflagration isn’t commonplace, he might have argued that mass outbreaks of ‘pure criminality’ are inexplicably cyclical. He might, however, have acknowledged that there seems to be something about the combination of a national economy in or near recession, high unemployment, eye-watering levels of youth unemployment and a further fading of the already-poor prospects for the young in our poorest communities that seems to require relatively little – a few days of good weather, a distant tragedy, a local incident, a Blackberry – to trigger mayhem.

There may also be a further factor. What if there’s a perception, amongst the recent perpetrators of violent destruction and theft, that nobody cares about their lives? Time to answer that original question with an unfortunate fact. The local authorities that cover the seventeen named areas each appear in the list of the top thirty authorities that are having to implement the largest net cuts in local spending.

Within months of Margaret Thatcher promising, in 1981, that her government would never reward rioters, we had the Scarman report, which ushered in a sea-change in community policing, and Michael Heseltine introduced his famous ‘it took a riot’ Cabinet paper to kick-start a new phase in urban policy. This time around, the recently-appointed Minister for Cities, Greg Clark, is said to have until Christmas to dream up a new cities strategy. Unless he’s confident that he can conquer global warming and produce cooler summers, he’s going to need all the help he can get.

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?

References
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)