Saturday, June 04, 2011

Victims of The City

Edwin Heathcote of the FT wrote an article called Liveable vs. Lovable on 6 May. Had he not announced Istanbul as the most lovable city in a later article ('Liveable, lovable and lauded'), the Turks on Facebook, and hence I, would have never become aware of his existence to start with.

Heathcote makes the point that cities like Vancouver, Copenhagen and Munich, which top the lists of "most liveable cities," are not nearly as dynamic and attractive as the likes of London, New York and Istanbul. Heathcote says that these cities are not bounded by their "beauty;" their ugliness and chaos gives them the space to constantly transform themselves. People from different ethnic and social backgrounds co-exist and interact within the realms of the city. At one point he quotes Descartes, who, "writing about 17th century Amsterdam, said that a great city should be the 'inventory of the possible.'"

So far, so good. And Heatcote is probably right that Munich or Paris are not as liveable for immigrants as they are for their bourgeoise residents. I agree that the criteria of the "most liveable" indices are too rational and too based on middle-class values of safety, beauty, comfort and predictability. They don't take into account the joy, pain and possibilities that make a city alive. A city is attractive so far as it is unpredictable and chaotic enough to allow for chance encounters with Nassim Taleb's "good black swans." Of course, the overwhelming majority of the city's residents won't make that jump on the social ladder, but the possibility and the stories of those who made it are always there.

This sounds familiar, somehow. The minute possibility of making it big.

But then Heathcote makes some awe-inspiring remarks, that show how little sympathy he has for those who lose out:

"Whether in New York's SoHo, Chelsea or Brooklyn, in Berlin's Mitte or London's Shoreditch, Hoxton and now Peckham, it is at these moments of radical change that cities begin to show potential for real transformation of lives, or for the creation of new ideas, culture, cuisine and wealth. Once gentrification has occurred, bohemians may whinge about being priced out, as they always have done but, in a big enough city they are able to move on and find the next spot."

"Yet it is proven again and again that the biggest cities are in fact the greenest. Their density, the close proximity in which people live and the minimal amount of land they occupy - compared with largely suburban Vancouver, for example, makes for a far smaller carbon footprint. Mumbai is probably the greenest big city there is - slums like the million-strong Dharavi use minimal land, energy and water. And, of course, without wishing to patronize, it is undeniable that there are happy people living surrounded by their families in Brazil's favelas and millions living lives of drudgery and lonely despair beneath northern Europe's leaden skies."

Then I suggest Mr. Heathcote move his family to Brazil's favelas, or even better, to Dharavi, where he and his family can minimize their carbon footprint?

Post-modern thinking gave a big excuse to capitalists all over the world: That we don't have to feel bad for people stricken with poverty, because those people perceive the world differently; they may even be happy within the bounds of their small worlds! Amartya Sen, on the other hand, warns against subjective accounts of happiness. "The indigent peasant who manages to build some cheer in his life should not be taken as nonpoor on grounds of his mental accomplishment."

Sen talks of empirical studies in post-famine Bengal in 1944, where widowers complained of their "indifferent health" but widows made no issue of it. Whether one feels happy and content depends on one's dreams and expectations from the world. People find ways to cope with difficulties. But this does not mean that they don't deserve better lives and chances to do bigger things (and clean water and sewage systems and public transportation, for that matter.)

I shouldn't leave you without a few comments on Istanbul, the most liveable and loveable city according to Heathcote and his readers. The Turkish government gives their gentrification projects the name "city transformation project," a name Heathcote would surely approve. On one hand, "happy bohemians" are pulled out of their neighborhoods and placed into new social buildings in the outskirts of the city. Those who try to preserve their homes and lifestyles raid the art galleries that have just been opened by the "urban sophisticates."

On the other hand, new office buildings and "residences" spring up everywhere, soaking up the capital surplus that has accumulated legally or illegally. Every other TV ad is trying to sell a real estate project. Developers take pride in "selling what's real" and "being in the business for ten years." The creative destruction of the "built environment," in David Harvey's words, is one of the most convenient ways to burn money. Banks lend to both project developers and buyers. To me, all this sounds frighteningly like the real estate bubbles in the U.S. and in Spain.

If you are an "urban sophisticate," who has the money but who is bored of the middle class values and ways of life, you would surely want some variety and dynamism around you. So that you could enjoy new ideas, culture and cuisine. But those people are not there to inspire and amuse you. Their purpose in life is not to create the most exciting city for you. A deeper analysis than airy ramblings about the beauty and possibilities of chaos would have been welcome.

1 comment:

Timur said...

Irmakçım, kalemine sağlık.

İki noktaya değinmek istiyorum. İlk olarak bence post-modernist düşünce için apologetic bir retoriğe gerek yok, çünkü kapitalistlerin bu multi-culturalist bakış açısını use değil abuse ettiğini düşünüyorum, bir "end" yerine "means" olarak kullandıklarına inanıyorum.

İkinci olarak da, eğer okumadıysan Bourdie'nün "Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste"ini bu yazdıklarının üstüne şiddetle tavsiye ediyorum.

"Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar, in which their position in the objective classifications is expressed or betrayed."