Like every child growing up I became increasingly aware of spatial difference and inequalities within the city where I was raised. This is basically a fancy way of saying that I became aware that there were some areas that were richer, sometimes dramatically so, than others.
Slowly realising the implications of this was one of the ways in which-for better or worse-I figured out who I was and what my place was in scheme of things. Without ever explicitly being told it I came to realise that I was “at home” in the well established, left-leaning, middle class suburb where I grew up. Differences of taste, appearance and yes; implicit notions of fear and threat, served to mark out the boundaries of where I wanted to go, where I could and couldn’t go.
My middle-middle class, middlebrow intellectual mindset semi-consciously marked out other parts of the city as “posh”, “boringly average” and “rough”. Places to hurry through at best, avoid at worst.
Despite liking to think that I am a fairly critical individual, in possession of a fair bit of empathy and imagination I admit that a lot of this went unchallenged in my mind until I was eighteen and left where I grew up to attend university in York.
York is a predominantly prosperous city, with the peculiar character of having a large transient population. Even out of season it’s population is swelled by thousands of day trippers, tourists and conference delegates. Their number is complemented by tens of thousands of other semi-permanent residents students, soldiers and agency workers posted there for a fixed period of time, many of whom will leave when they get their degree scroll, next deployment or a better contract. A tier above them sit the academics, civil servants and technicians, not really rooted anywhere, who swoop in to work at the universities, DEFRA, English Heritage, Network Rail one of the building firms, financial services companies or technology groups who make York their home. A tier beneath them sit a raft of people who gravitate towards York’s bright lights, some have just left prison, some are homeless.
Mushed together these different groups give the impression, once you’ve been there a little while, that York is a city in a steady state of flux. The experience of this, very clearly implanted in my mind the idea that everybody experiences cities in a different way. There isn’t one York, there isn’t one Birmingham, there isn’t one Tallinn or Bogota or anywhere else. At the most you can say that there are “kind of cities” that certain groups experience urban life in a certain way and enjoy a certain type of shared communal experience.
That this is the case struck me on days when I used to walk around York’s old city. It became obvious that my experience of York, as full time student at the pre-92 university to the south of the city, was very different from that of one of the shopkeepers on Stonegate, or a white collar council worker buying their lunch opposite St. Leonard’s Place. And that their lives and experiences of the city were as different again as that of the tourists strolling the walls with cameras slung round their necks, were from that of the beggars sat strung out along the pavement from the Railway Station to the Minster.
This impression, essentially a moment of clarity, was only further reinforced a few years later when I briefly worked as a local journalist in York, getting to know and working to represent, a very broad cross section of the city’s people.
When it finally dawned upon me that this was how urban experience worked it made a really powerful impression upon me. An impression that has stayed with me, and I hope, made me a better denizen of the urban realms that I have inhabited (and indeed written about) since.
The idea that an individual’s personal situation shapes their urban existence has, after a period of abeyance (at least in mainstream discourse), recently become a hot topic of much interest and debate. Yet the very suggestion that it is something that we should be concerned about still has the potential to provoke.
This article, about how women are structurally disadvantaged within the built environment was published a couple of months ago on CityMetric, one of my favourite “wonkish” websites. CityMetric, whilst noted for its love of maps, charts and stats, typically takes a highly humanistic approach to issues that impact upon those living urban lives.
Here’s a few choice quotes:
“Last year, councillors for the city of London, in Ontario, Canada, spent 90 minutes discussing a 12 word addition to a document. The contentious sentence read, ‘Consider a gender lens during the development and execution of new policies’.”
“…some… male politicians felt the line impugned their honour. Bill Armstrong, representative of Ward 2 since the 90s, accused Maureen Cassidy, the councillor who introduced the offending line, of ‘questioning the integrity of our administration and suggesting they were doing practices that would be discriminatory’… ‘Plain and simple,” he concluded, ‘all people are treated equally, so it doesn’t have to be said.’”
The article goes on to state that:
“…treating people equally has a long rap-sheet when it comes to achieving equal outcomes. That is to say, treating people equally often translates as treating people like men.”
CityMetric’s piece is talking about policy making in the here and now, and of course, in the near future. But it helped me formulate something concrete from a sea of considerations-hunches if you like-that had been swimming around my subconscious for a long time. If, and unlike the London, OT Councilman Anderson I do not consider this contentious in the slightest, an individual’s experience of the city is subjective and highly shaped by who they are, then surely someone’s memory of the city, the way that it interplays with their psyche is just as conditional and subjective?
The claim that a person’s experience of a city is inedibly marked by who they are is nothing new or in of itself especially novel. A memorable and well known example is the section in the Road to Wigan Pier where Orwell writes about how as a middle-middle class child his access to the city was curtailed by the injunctions, entreaties and vignettes of disgust hurled by his parents and other adults; at the residents of working class parts of the town where he grew up that they were “dirty”. This created a psycho-semantic field of disgust that remained with him into adulthood. In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie a novel set during a similar period to the one in which Orwell sets his autobiographical reflections, Muriel Spark uses Brodie’s decision to take her class on walking trips around the moody, decrepit tenements of Edinburgh’s Old Town (still decades away from any kind of “gentrification”) as an illustration of how she is striving to lead her class into other kinds of transgression, transgressions of both morality and decent.
Both of these literary accounts, one essentially fictional, one a bit less so; present the bourgeois experience of urban life’s mental boundaries. Boundaries which as Seth Koven shows in Slumming it can be exciting to transgress. What then of those people whose position in society lacks the comparative privilege afforded to the middle class?
In City of Dreadful Delight a brilliantly political work of history that works an extended essay illuminating the parallels between the Jack the Ripper killings of the 1880s and the Yorkshire Ripper Murders of the 1970s, Judith Walkowitz writes about how the perils of navigating late Victorian London governed the movements of Victorian women. By examining the pages of the Pall Mall Gazette in the 1880s she uncovers a fascinating series of exchanges between “ladies” and “gentlemen” frequenting the parks and shops of the West End. The letters, spanning a period of time, are a loose dialogue between women who experienced harassment and unwanted attention from men in public places and men who felt that it was “their right” to stare at, comment upon, and in some cases touch, women who were out in public.
This fascinating dialogue-which shows just how long standing the roots of contemporary concerns about, and struggles against, street harassment are, comprises part of a wider section of the book which explores the impact of increasing numbers of women using public spaces upon late-Victorian London. An experience, which many women at times found unpleasant, and which many men found unsettling. Experiences which-as Walkowitz shows-shaped emerging codes about how women should behave in and approach public spaces.
Returning to the present day it is worth exploring some contemporary manifestations of how personal situation and personal experience shape people’s urban existences. In Reading the Everyday, a book that must rapidly be becoming a classic, Joe Moran provides a fine example of how matters like class shape urban existence.
Partially taking his cue for LeFebvre, partially taking his cue from cultural studies, Moran focuses on the political meanings and decisions that structure our built environment at the most basic level. For instance: the privileging by both planners and popular culture of the motorist (more middle class, more masculine) over the bus passenger (more working class, more feminine).
I believe that just as attention has turned, once more; to the inequalities inherent in our built environment and the urban realm more widely so it is possible to explore how particular patterns of thought and preferences are shaped by people’s interaction with of experience of particular urban environments. I will be returning further to these themes in due course.