Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Gentrification of Urban Literature

I may not have grown up in an urban environment but I grew up as a writer as an urban writer. It was the only thing worth writing about if you came from the dullest of suburbs. The city was exciting. It carried on after dark (and in those days of restricted licensing laws, actually came back to life after dark after a six o'clock switch off), it threw all kinds of lives together in a melting pot, it had its own edgelands - abandoned estates or tower blocks where the police wouldn''t go.

The cityscape was an excitement that I couldn't avoid as a teenager, even if it came with danger and occasional fear, because it also came with opportunity. The music I loved took place there, both because bands themselves migrated to the cities and because that's where they played, and where I'd have to go to see them. The places they played might be swish nightclubs on a weekend, but would be handed over to guitar bands midweek; or more likely they were odd, scummy, barely legal places with sticky floors and unheralded entrances, down uninviting side streets.

As a teenager I quickly grew tired of fantasy and science fiction, and part of the reason  why was that the realism that existed in the city was equally as strange, equally as alluring. Whether drugs, sex, music or simply neon lights and speeding cars on rain-streaked streets, this was futuristic and fantastical to my mind. The hidden venue down a back alleyway, the first time down a darkened staircase, the opening out into a cramped emporium of sounds and sights for sore eyes? This was William Burroughs via "Blade Runner" and the Cantina-scene in "Star Wars". And it was in Birmingham or Manchester or Leeds.

Yet come out of these dives and the world was like the dystopia of "Blade Runner" or later "The Matrix" or "Strange Days." Our urban environment on film has been for  a long time a noirish nightmare of shadows. The abandonment of our cities - the no-go areas and slums - speaks of a traumatic human history, just as the great civic buildings, speak of their previous pre-eminency. And part of the allure of these urban spaces was the real story that took place there. After all I grew up during a period when cities were all but abandoned by our central government. With a critical election coming up in a few weeks, its worth remembering that the Conservative Party not only fails to win inner city seats, but has no real idea of what cities are except as speculative property plays. Like cartoon characters, the modern Conservative party makes it money in the city and then retires to its landed estate in the countryside. The riots of the Thatcher years; the long-running sores of the Irish "Troubles"; these held back cities from gentrifying even as elsewhere in Europe the city - which had never suffered quite so much of a battering as its blighted British or American equivalent - made a comeback.

Look around now, though, and a gentrification of our cities has taken place. The process of prettifying old manufacturing areas, and turning the old factories and warehouses into offices, shops and flats is close to completing in so many of our cities. Whereas spacious lofts might once have been taken over by artists in unsavoury parts of the city, nowadays its the property speculators who cut these spaces into multiple apartments, encouraging a new urban consumer - young, affluent, requiring to be near to work - into the city. Our gentrification is almost complete, and at the same time our literature surely gentrifies as well. John Lanchester's "Capital" for instance, which is less about "capital" as in money than our capital city, and takes place primarily in a rich suburban street. Or even Zadie Smith's "NW" where the council estate where her characters grew up is left behind, a place separate from the gentrified city. Our new urban literature is as much a daughter of "Sex and the City" and "Friends", a young urban middle class living in expensive rentals, defining themselves by shopping and lifestyle, as it is by their urban environment. Tao Lin describes the interiors or apartments and writes about lives looking inward to their computer terminals or mobile devices, but the external environment no longer matters, is no longer there. There would be little sense of a believable "fall" from the gentrified city to the slums, the kind of journey you used to find in "Bonfire of the Vanities", not when everyone is an Uber away from the yoghurt bar. The need to go down to Chinatown for your noodles is alleviated when a designer noodle or sushi bar has opened on every regentrified corner.

What might be better for our life - though one wonders about this as well, so dependent on debt-culture, so much of it being speculative property plays, so much of it fuelled by a shifting workforce - where our inner cities have gentrified, and the "problems" are either dispersed or ignored, also has a damaging effect on our art. For the artists studios get moved out. The dive bars and venues close down (The Roadhouse in Manchester being the latest to announce its closure), the marginal areas like London's Soho become inhospitable to anything other than mainstream culture. And with it goes our urban literature. The problems mostly still remain: just count the homeless on our streets as the refuges and hostels get closed down in the name of "austerity". When Galbraith talked of "Private Wealth, Public Squalor" did he envisage at time when even the public area would be privatised for profit, and the "squalor" would become outsourced to those who are least able to resist it? If our cities become walled estates, then so to does our urban literature.

Yet literature has to remain its relevance. We see how contemporary writers seem to struggle with the issues of the day - see the rash of post 9/11 literature, few of which have enhanced the writers' reputations. But even our urban crises are giving out different stories that literature has to find a way of telling. The riots in Manchester in 2011 were the opposite of previous rounds of rioting which tended to happen in marginalised areas of the cities; this was an imported opportunistic riot that grew via social media and disappeared almost as soon as it had begun. For the ongoing narrative in our urban environment is about gentrification and speculative property development. Forget that  Manchester had a record low number of new house starts in 2014, for the cranes in the city centre are rising again. I go round Europe a lot and in Amsterdam, Brussels, Barcelona, London and elsewhere I've rarely seen so much building work going on - large civic projects like Crossrail and HS2 are in some ways land clearers for the private developments that come in their wake. Old London has survived many things, from the Luftwaffe to urban blight, but its finding itself helpless at the onslaught of sovereign wealth funds as they offer a "scorched earth" policy for non-productive assets, such as the music shops around Denmark Streets or the night time economy in SoHo.

On the one hand one can't be too upset at losing illegal brothels, condemned buildings and fire-risk underground cellar venues, but its what they are being replaced with that shocks. Privatised public spaces, with security barriers; expensive rabbit warren apartments; empty office blocks sold off between developers as corporate property ploys; and much of it dependent on the infrastructure of public money that is being squeezed out of services and thrown at infrastructure projects as right wing austerity policies have calcified the economies, and old style Keynesian pump-priming has been required instead. But if earlier recessions got rid of bloated or unnproductive firms and companies, this new model seems to be bolster the fortunes of the property and finance sectors, where the former's tangible asset props up the latter's intangible one.

For an urban writer the story becomes more difficult to tell. Do we interiorise so our characters spend all their time looking at their tablets and moving between restaurant and coffeeshop like the world has reduced to the set of "Friends"? Or do we try and tell the story through its new institutions - its zero hour contracts, its passive non-unionised workforce, its hidden armies of contract cleaners and security guards, its call centres and marketing companies. Its a grimmer prospect for a writer than the squats and slums of Hulme or the crumbling urban heat of Brixton. A Martin Millar or Irvine Welsh or William Burroughs would surely struggle here. The crumbling nowheresville of urban loneliness has been exported to small towns and provincial suburbs, in the hidden lives of those refused benefits  or sanctioned for missing an appointment.

If urban literature offered something other than an exciting colour, it was because it was the place where society interacted, came into touch with each other. Our contemporary solipsism, where the girl down the corridor from me puts on her headphones even as she throws out the trash in order not to have to say hello to anyone, is the endgame of this debt-led economical model. For all the problems of the urban wastelands I grew up with, they were also creative hotbeds of possibility - designed and adapted by the young, the marginalised, the new, and the uncomfortable. Our current world offers up a consumerist panacea....we don't need something like Google glasses - we are already living it.

As the empty tower blocks fill up with temporary agency staff; as the bars get more expensive and the restaurants heap up the calories on mega burgers or speciality pizzas, as the drugs get taken behind closed doors by burnt out accountants and marketing consultants... as the last dive venue puts up the "For Sale" sign and the last second hand shop moves out to the declining highstreets of suburbs and districts, we need new words for our Bourgeois-opolis, our Google-towns. The world's problems are increasing, yet our urban centres are becoming Westworld-style theme parks away from the reality. How to write that? How to read that?

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