Tag Archives: transport

Young and Willmott on Leaving the Slums for the Estate

I know they are listed as Young and Willmott but that simply is impossible to roll off the tongue, I shall try and probably once again fail to write it this way in part two on Family and Kinship in East London (1957). From the densely woven networks of family described in part 1, held together in crowded rooms and turnings by living with parents or next door to them, by every day visits, shared meals, shared chores, shared lives, to spacious new council homes built on 44 acres near Epping Forest. This is how everything changed, and as Young and Willmott write, what better way to understand the importance of residence?

From Bethnal Green to Greenleigh (Debden)

Less than twenty miles away from Bethnal Green, the automatic doors of the tube train open on to the new land of Greenleigh. On one side of the railway are cows at pasture. On the other, the new housing estate. Instead of the shops of Bethnal Green there is the shopping centre at the Parade; instead of the street barrows piled high with fruit, fish, and dresses, instead of the cries of the costermongers from Spitalfields to Old Ford, there are orderly self-service stores in the marble halls of the great combines. In place of the gaunt buildings rising above narrow streets of narrow houses, there are up-to-date semi-detached residences. Bethnal Green encases the history of three hundred years. Cottages built for the descendants of Huguenot refugees, with their wide weavers’ windows and peeling plaster, stand next to Victorian red-brick on one side and massive blocks of Edwardian charity on the other. Greenleigh belongs firmly to the aesthetics of this mid-century. Built since the war to a single plan, it is all of one piece. Though the Council has mixed different types of houses, row upon row look practically identical, each beside a concrete road, each enclosed by a fence, each with its little patch of flower garden at front and larger patch of vegetable garden at back, each with expansive front windows covered over with net curtains; all built, owned, and guarded by a single responsible landlord.

Instead of the hundred fussy, fading little pubs of the borough, there are just the neon lights and armchairs of the Merchant Venturer and the Yeoman Arms. Instead of the barrel organ in Bethnal Green Road there is an electrically amplified musical box in a mechanical ice-cream van. In place of tiny workshops squeezed into a thousand back-yards rise the first few glass and concrete factories which will soon give work to Greenleigh’s children. Instead of the sociable squash of people and houses, workshops and lorries, there are the drawn-out roads and spacious open ground of the usual low-density estate. Instead of the flat land of East London, the gentle hills of Essex.

‘When I first came,’ said Mrs Sandeman, ‘I cried for weeks, it was so lonely. It was a shock to see such a deep hill going up to the shops.’ (121-122)

That gives such a beautiful sense of the differences, albeit a very particular view of them. But the scale is quite incredible.

Between 1931 and 1955 nearly 11,000 families containing over 40,000 people were rehoused from Bethnal Green on L.C.C. estates, many of them outside the county.’ (124)

People did, many of them, choose to come of course. Part of the study was to understand just why. The reasons were many, but not, for the most part, weaker attachments to their family.

lf the migrants did not have weaker kinship attachments than other people, why did they come? The main reason is {quite simple. The attraction is the house. Our couples left two or three damp rooms built in the last century for the ‘industrious classes ‘, and were suddenly transported to a spacious modern home. Instead of the tap in the backyard, there was a bathroom with hot and cold water. Instead of the gas stove on the landing, a real kitchen with a sink and a larder. Instead of the narrow living room with stained wallpaper and shaky floorboards, a newly painted lounge heated by a modern solid-fuel grate. And instead of the street for their children to play in, fields and trees and open country. The contrast is all the sharper because the new residents had, in the main, come from Bethnal Green’s worst houses. (126)

But the council in general had much more to do with it:

But, in general, the L.C.C.’s view of who needed it most decided who went. Our informants were mostly at the top of the L.C.C.’s housing list – they were living in the most overcrowded or the most unhealthy houses in the borough – and that is why they were selected. (127)

One of the tenants told them — ‘If we could take the house with us, we’d go back like a shot.’ (127)

For many, as with so many families, it was about the generations to come, not the generations they had left behind.

‘Everything seems quieter here, more calmer,’ said Mrs Vince. ‘The fresh air hits you when you come out of the station.’ Many people value the air and fields even more for their children than for themselves. Greenleigh is generally thought ‘better for the kiddies’.

So even where they left their kin with regret, the people were not deserting family so much as acting for it, on behalf of the younger rather than the older generation. (128)

But many did not stay.

Many migrants in fact decided that they had made the wrong decision, and left the estate, most of them to return to the East End. Altogether, from the opening of the Greenleigh estate until March, 1956, 26 percent of the tenants who had come there moved away again. (129)

The Family at Greenleigh

So what changed? Any friendly community feeling did not survive the scale of changing community. Everyone found the neighbors snobbish, stand-offish. Talked about the terrible loneliness. Some got part-time jobs just to survive it — one of those said ‘If I didn’t go to work I’d get melancholic.’ Her verdict on Greenleigh — ‘It’s like being in a box to die out here.’ (133)

The study found a great sense of loss, particularly women missing mothers. Most of the men continued to work in Bethnal Green as there were no jobs out near the estate, so suddenly they become the ones maintaining family ties. What made me most sad — it wasn’t distance or time that kept women from their wider families, but the cost of transport. In times of trouble they had no support, there was no one to lend money to tide people over, help when sick or pregnant, help with kids. Visiting was not a thing that was done.

Their study of Bethnal Green showed just how much happened in public spaces, not private ones, and these were precisely the spaces missing in the new estates.

One reason people have so little to do with neighbors is the absence of places to meet them. In Bethnal Green there is one pub for every 400 people, and one shop for every 44 (or one for every 14 households). At Greenleigh there is one pub for 5,000 people, and one shop for 300.

They had no cinemas, so could not congregate there either. This combination of distance and television changed things. Young & Willmott write:

The growth of television compensates for the absence of amenities outside the home, and serves to support the family in its isolation. (143)

Rents were also higher there on the council estate, often by 3 times. That in addition to fares meant people were trapped there.

Keeping Themselves to Themselves

Willmott and Young found people in Greenleigh eager to talk about their neighbours, how unfriendly they found them, and they always compared back to their community in Bethnal Green.

At Greenleigh they neither share long residence with their fellow tenants nor as a rule have kin to serve as bridges between the family and the wider community. These two vital interlocked conditions of friendship are missing, and their absence goes far to explain the attitude we have illustrated. (150)

They believed this to be partly due to the fact that everyone moving in at the same time, and there was no existing community for them to integrate into. While Willmott and Young describe their expectations that things would have improved over the few years between interviews, nothing really had changed. They blame a lack of density — a bit of catch phrase these days.

One reason it is taking so long is that the estate is so strung out — the number of people per acre at Greenleigh being only one-fifth what it is in Bethnal Green — and low density does not encourage sociability. (153)

The new big homes reinforced a feeling of what people lack, rather than all that they had. They were spending more on filling homes with objects, rather than entertainment and going out as they had before.

There is also a facsinating aside on time and space — in Bethnal Green people tended to be very informal, did ‘not need a highly-developed time sense…because it does not matter greatly whether her goes round to Mum’s at 10 o’clock or at 11. If Mum is not there someone will explain where she has gone‘ (157). This was not at all true of Greenleigh. Much of the difference lay in how close things were in Bethnal Green, with everything walking distance. In Greenleigh, life required a car and a telephone to ‘overcome geography and organize a more scattered life into a manageable whole (158)’.

The impact of this was quite profound, particularly on mental health, and particularly for women. This should not have been stuck in a footnote really:

Footnote 1, p 158: The chief psychiatrist at a local hospital told us that the loneliness of the women on this and other housing estates was the immediate, precipitating cause of so many of them coming to his department for treatment.

This lack of relationships, of knowing people, meant both a growing formality, as well as increased reliance on visual clues for judging strangers.

In a community of long-standing, status, in so far as it is determined by job and income and education, is more or less irrelevant to a person’s worth. He is judged instead, if he is judged at all, more in the round, as a person … How different is Greenleigh…Where nearly everyone is a stranger, there is no means of uncovering personality. (161-162)

They continue

Their relationships are window-to-window, not face-to-face. Their need for respect is just as strong as it ever was, but instead of  being able to find satisfaction in actual, living relationships, through the personal respect that accompanies almost any steady himan interaction, they have to turn to the other kind of respect which is awarded, by some strange sort of common understanding, for the quantity and quality of possessions which which the person surrounds himself (163-164)

They also note the lack of forward planning in the planning process for the estate itself…it has been developed as a community where people cannot age. When people’s children are grown where will they live? Nowhere for them to move close by, almost certain that enough existing units will not become vacant over the normal course of things, and it was council policy to prioritise outside people from the list rather than children. Willmott and Young note the protest that this raised among residents, a local association writing of the LCC in 1955 ‘We are in opposition to the view that people are simply units to be moved around the face of the earth in line with the impersonal schemes of some “Big Brother”...’

W&Y continue

The method by which the council has eased the housing shortage in the middle of the century is bound to create a further shortage in its last quarter. (168)

They weren’t wrong.

Movement between classes

They wanted to check and make sure that this growing sense of the importance of geography was not in fact more a function of social mobility, which leads to a rather interesting way to better understand class. Again, Willmott and Young trace sense of loss and disintegration of a sense of community it primarily back to the geography of the built environment — as people tend to seek out larger houses, they must look elsewhere. The authors write:

The East does not provide ‘middle-class’ people with ‘middle-class’ places to live, and such migration may therefore be more common than it would be in districts with more of a mixture of classes. (172)

In conclusion, though, of all of it.

…very few people wish to leave the East End. (186)

While the houses were better, Willmott and Young look at the networks of support, and find they are absent on the new estates. They have the best description of  the daughters’ new plight,  engaged in the ‘arduous…puzzling…monotonous‘ work of child rearing, while older people were cut off from remaining useful and part of the family. Willmott and Young are highly critical.

It seems that when the balance of a three-generation family is disturbed, the task of caring for dependents at both ends of life, always one of the great and indispensable functions of any society, becomes less manageable. (196)

So one key recommendation is to support these connections rather than tear them apart. Central to that there follows the need to maintain communities intact, and save as many of the existing houses as possible, updating the fabric, giving people new bathrooms, lavatories and kitchens.

I cannot help but agree with them, and wish this had been policy for the past few decades so as to build on the strengths of working class communities, rather than the opposite.

Young, Michael and Willmott, Peter ([1957] 1979) Family and Kinship in East London. Manchester: Penguin Books.

Speck on Walkable Cities — But Who Will Walk Them?

13538794Jeff Speck opens Walkable Cities with this:

This is not the next great book on American cities. That book is not needed… We’ve known for three decades how to make livable cities — after forgetting for four — yet we’ve somehow not been able to pull it off. (3)

He’s talking about Jane Jacobs there, The Death and Life of American Cities. This made me want to like this book, as did the following two sentences.

What works in the best cities is walkability.

Walkability is both an end and a means, as well as a measure. (4)

But really, there are three main points here: (1) walkability is good, primarily in the ways that it supports the real goal of planners — (2) to increase property values, while also (3) improving quality of life for those who are moving back to the city or currently live in the suburbs and are driving too much, i.e. white middle-class people.

There are two broad currents in planning, the first is planning for justice and equity, the second is planning for property values and quality of life for those who can afford it. This is in the second strand, which I rather hate with every fiber of my being

This is the kind of book that in its erasure of issues of equality and lack of any acknowledgment of the results of past patterns of unjust development, disinvestment, exploitation and discrimination becomes a manual for extending the privileges of one (white, middle-to-upper-class) group while erasing everyone else  (the poor and people of colour) from the city neighbourhoods they currently inhabit.

I walk cities, walkability is the most important city characteristic to me. Yet to make anything in this book useful to those who care about making neighbourhoods better for those who currently live there, to ensure that planning interventions do not increase displacement and segregation, an awful lot of the framing needs to be discarded. Every time Speck talks about the ways in which interventions to make a city more walkable improve property values, it is clear that issues of gentrification and displacement must be grappled with for those who do care about equity.

When it keeps to analysis of the actual physical streetscapes and built environment, much of this is useful:

Outdated zoning and building codes, often imported from the suburbs, have matched the uninviting streetscapes with equally antisocial private buildings, completing a public realm that is unsafe, uncomfortable, and just plain boring. (4)

Or looking at the four main conditions of walkability:

Each of these qualities is essential and none alone is sufficient. Useful means that most aspects of daily life are located close at hand and organized in a way that walking serves them well. Safe means that the street has been designed to give pedestrians a fighting chance against being hit by automobiles; they must not only be safe but feel safe… Comfortable means that buildings and landscape shape urban street into “outdoor living rooms,” in contrast to wide-open spaces… Interesting means that sidewalks are lined by unique buildings with friendly faces and that signs of humanity abound. (11)

It is in parsing out what these mean that the trouble lies — especially around ideas of safety and comfort as they are shaped by historic patterns of racism, sexism and discrimination. You won’t find any of those complexities here.

But guess what you will find? For Speck, walkability is marketable. He quotes Joe Cortwright’s ‘Walking the Walk: How Walkability Raises Home Values in U.S. Cities’, which I suppose would be useful to look at. Likewise William Frey, whom he quotes:

A new image of urban America is in the making. What used to be white flight to the suburbs is turning into ‘bright flight’ to cities that have become magnets for aspiring young adults who see access to knowledge-based jobs, public transportation and a new city ambiance as an attraction. (35)

Bright fucking Flight. This is the planning whose entire goal is to attract people back to the cities from the suburbs without a thought to issues of community participation, equity, social justice, eradicating poverty, improving people’s lives through improving the city they live in or even a thought to all the talent languishing in the city deprived of quality education and jobs and hope — all the things that brought me to planning in the first place. This is the planning that fills me with nausea. I am ignoring it to focus on what is useful.

As an outline, the steps to a walkable city are useful and it is definitely a good list — the white devil is in the details.

The 10 Steps to a Walkable City:

THE USEFUL WALK

1. Put cars in their place.

This was full of useful evidence to prove that cities have been built for cars, and that wide lanes, multi-lanes, enormous left-hand turn lanes and cutting down all the street trees actually make people drive faster and more dangerously. Speck also lays out the evidence for ‘induced demand’, if you build it, the cars will come and traffic will not improve. Common sense, or research pioneered over 30 years by Donald Appleyard among others, has yet to hit the Department of Transportation. If Speck’s book can help that process of realisation in such departments and city governments, I might be glad he wrote it.

I do love this quote of Bernard-Henry Lévy on our autocentric lifestyle:

a global, total obesity that spares no realm of life, public or private. An entire society that, from the top down, from one end to the other, seems prey to this obscure derangement that slowly causes an organism to swell, overflow, explode. (102, from American Vertigo)

2. Mix the uses.

I like mixed uses. But then Speck makes comments about how

city properties often come burdened with a whole range of utility issues, easements and access challenges, not to mention pesky neighbors. Local banks, until recently all too willing to finance condo clusters on the periphery, shy away from investing in new apartments downtown.

‘pesky neighbors’ has been code for poor people, immigrants and people of colour since the 1930s and 40s with the federal governments’ Home Owners Loan Corporation and Real Estate industry guidelines that gave rise to redlining back when deeding your house to be for Caucasians only was widespread and encouraged. Speck continues:

This contemporary version of redlining is a significant reason that downtown housing often cannot be built without municipal support. (107)

and then

…most American cities do not need more affordable housing in their downtowns. Most American cities have too much affordable housing downtown. Or, more accurately, too much of their downtown housing is affordable, since everyone but the poor was able to join the suburban exodus. (109)

He doesn’t mention that despite this ‘fact’, many cities are in an affordable housing crisis where affordable housing is needed by a majority of city residents including teachers and firefighters, that he conflates the poor with people of colour long discriminated against in any attempt to join the suburban exodus, that such redlining might have contributed greatly to generations of poverty, or that affordable housing is now being erased from all downtowns and nothing built to replace it. Millions of people currently homeless and with not even a fraction of the shelter in existence necessary to house them even for a night also go unmentioned.

Some of his biases can be seen in an uncritical passage on resistance to granny flats:

They are typically opposed by neighbors who are worried about property values. An old college friend of mine from Los Angeles put it succinctly: “We are afraid that nine illegals will move in.” (111)

Nothing could make more clear where Speck is coming from. In response Speck notes they will rather

introduce affordability in a dispersed rather than a concentrated way, avoiding the pathologies that sometimes arise from the latter. (111)

As if the pathologies lie in poor people rather than the forces which maintain their concentrated poverty. I suppose he simply joins a long tradition of blaming poor people for poverty here.

3. Get the parking right.

Ah, Donald Shoup from UCLA, stop subsidising things, raise the cost of everything. It makes some sense, until you start thinking about how this will impact people differently. Then questions of equity come to the fore and it is harder for me to support without a lot more thought on how equity will be addressed in a city so car-dependent as LA. I’ve sat through Shoup’s classes, so I know that he failed to impress me on that. Still, better transit, less parking.

4. Let transit work.

I agree. If only he had stopped there, but instead he waxes poetic on improving public transit:

In some of these locations, the bus is destined remain the “loser cruiser,” the mode of choice for those who have no choice: the elderly, the poor, and infirm. As such, it will always be underfunded and struggling for survival, like any social service.

If it is to become widely used, transit has to be ruthlessly reconceptualized as a convenience, not just a rescue vehicle. Or, more accurately, while certain rescue routes must remain — from the old-age home to the health center, for example — the system needs to focus on those rare opportunities where it can offer a superior experience to driving. Those few line should be earmarked for a higher level of service… (155)

The loser-cruiser? Yet this is in fact the current approach of transit experts, it’s why courts have found LA transit, for example, to be racist and discriminatory and put them under a decades long injunction to improve bus routes serving South Central.

In Europe public transit is seen as a right, as an essential part of a city for ALL of its residents. I think it might be better to start there. There is also, of course, a long tradition of work around environmental justice in the US around improving cities that begins there as well.

We return to planning for property value rather than public good. On Bus Rapid Transit versus trains:

… the biggest criticism of bus systems, that they lack rail’s permanence: how can you drive real estate investment around transit if transit might leave? (157)

I don’t even have words for that sentence, and the pathologies of development it describes.

THE SAFE WALK

5. Protect the pedestrian.

6. Welcome bikes.

I’m all for protecting pedestrians and welcoming bikes, but yet again, we see planning for profit:

In contrast to widened roads and other highway “improvements,” new bikeways actually increase the value of nearby real estate. (194)

THE COMFORTABLE WALK

7. Shape the spaces.

I did like this:

Traditional, walkable urbanism is grounded in figural space. It believes that the shape of the spaces between buildings is what matters, because this is the public realm — the place where civic life plays out. (216)

8. Plant trees.

THE INTERESTING WALK

9. Make friendly and unique faces.

Not faces of diversity and enjoyment of space, faces of buildings and parking structures. Again, back to profits, though I have no objection at all to less parking, and what parking exists to be hidden:

Enlightened developers…know that hidden parking boosts retail sales and property values. (238)

10. Pick your winners.

I like this list. My critique is really a critique of an entire point of view that makes improving property values the goal of planning. In that sense, this book did manage to give an outline of how to create a walkable city, but also highlighted very different ideas of who the city is for, and where the interventions will do most to push out and displace current residents without a larger vision and planning process around justice and equity.

For more on building social spaces and better cities…

Save

Save

Save

Save

From Mines to Market Gardens — The Tamar Valley

Sovereigns, Madams and Double Whites: Fruit and Flower Pioneers of the Tamar ValleySovereigns, Madams and Double Whites: Fruit and Flower Pioneers of the Tamar Valley is a wonderful book I found in the library here. It emerged from a 2001 project to uncover the market gardening landscape, and is full of oral histories and quite wonderful photographs. It is the story of the long-gone smallholdings up and down the Tamar valley. They were built up and down the steep south-facing hills for the earliest flowers and strawberries.

Almost all of them have now become grazing and farm land, or woods.

There is so much here of England’s industrial and agricultural history that is long forgotten. It is so strange to think of this area as a centre of copper mining, much less arsenic refining, but so it was:

For a brief period of twenty years in the mid nineteenth century the Tamar Valley became the copper centre of England, the river crowded with shipping carrying ore to be smelted in South Wales. However by 1868 the largest mine, Devon Great Consols, was nearly exhausted and metal prices slumped putting hundreds of families out of work. Arsenic refining took over but in turn was abandoned. By the 1930s mining was dead leaving a strange and dramatic landscape of waste tips and ruinous buildings half hidden in lush woodland and intricately mixed with villages, farms, riverside quays and market gardens. (1)

Apart from copper, the Tamar Valley was known for cherry and apple orchards, and had the earliest strawberries in the country — that was where the money once was. Early strawberries and the famous Tamar Double Whites, a lovely fragrant daffodil planted here by the thousands and their remnants now left forgotten in hedgerows and bordering fields. But the market gardens along the slopes here reached their height in the 1950s, when they supported an industry of 8-10,000 people, more than the entire population today. Special tools to work the hillsides were invented (a special dibber!), and diggers to move soil up slopes.

It is amazing to think smallholdings could provide so much work, and that they once sent flowers and fruit all over the country. Somehow it pleases me greatly to imagine early daffodils from Devon arriving to bring joy in Birmingham.

Also fascinating is the role that changing transportation links played in this story. In many ways this agricultural revolution was due to the arrival of the Great Western Railway. It reached Plymouth in 1849 and bridged the Tamar to Saltash in 1859 — before this, the river Tavy had been the main way of transport. But the trains allowed a much faster movement of fruit — allowing it to be sold within 24 hours of picking. Because of the warm micro-climates here in Devon allowing the very early growing of fruit, the possibility of transport opened up new possibilities just after the waves of lay-offs from mining.

In the change to market gardening, many followed the pioneer James Lawry. On a visit to Crystal Palace in London in 1862 (I do so very much love accounts of Crystal Palace), he heard of Covent Garden market. Visiting it, he discovered their earliest strawberries arrived in June, while back home in Tamar Valley their crop was much earlier. Upon learning the  difference in price for Strawberries in London as opposed to Devon, there seemed little to lose. He started sending his fruit to a Mr. Israel in 1863.

Lawry helped establish not just strawberries, but also punnet-making, and thus began a thriving networks of smallholdings and associated employment for the whole family.

In 1966, Beaching’s cuts to train services and closure of multiple stations ended what was left of this industry as transportation costs became too high, fruit could no longer arrive to markets within 24 hours at a low enough price. I already felt like spitting whenever his name is mentioned. Of course, globalisation, and the flying in of fruit from countries around the world did not help either.

In 1971 there were still 250 viable holdings, by 1979 only 140 growers left, and the extreme slopes fell out of cultivation for the easier flats where mechanization could be brought in. Now they are all but gone.

We probably won’t be able to fly in strawberries forever, so perhaps this shall be full of smallholdings once again. Interesting thought.

The oral histories are short–a few paragraphs of key memories–but so interesting. Alan Rickard’s father had been to Canada to work in the mines there, then returned to work five acres growing cherries, dahlias, rhubarb, irises, strawberries and daffodils. This was apparently true of many families, John Snell’s father went to the mines first, then Ford’s Detroit plant and then returned home. Almost all of the gardens sold a similar variety, though most seemed to specialise in one or two. There are a few fishermen, who gardened on the side. Others seemed to be more gardeners who fished. A few German POWs who remained after the war. A number are still in the business, generally where their children and grandchildren have taken over — though in large modern greenhouses or polytunnels.

One of my favourite quotes from Alan Langsford:

When I was a little boy I wanted to be a Dutchman when I grew up. [The bulb-salesmen] all wore suits, drove nice cars and didn’t work outside on the land! (142)

Save

The Dickensian City Limits, and the People Who Crossed Them

Dickens - Oliver TwistLondon was so much smaller in 1838 when Dickens published Oliver Twist. What struck me, apart from the rank sentimentalism and the vile descriptions of Jews (on which I shall write more later) was mostly how everyone below a certain income level walks.

They walk everywhere.

Country folk come walking to London to make their fortunes. And from London, thieves walk to the country to steal theirs.

Oliver walks from the town of his birth (originally named as Mudfog, about 70 miles north of London) and tired and hungry arrives finally at the city where he is taken in by the Artful Dodger. This same journey is made by the coffin-maker’s apprentice who has run off with his servant, Claypole and Charlotte.

They describe the arrival at Highgate as it once was, with London still a good way before them (also exemplifying the need for feminism):

they passed through Highgate archway; when the foremost traveller stopped and called impatiently to his companion,

‘Come on, can’t yer? What a lazybones yer are, Charlotte.’

‘It’s a heavy load, I can tell you,’ said the female, coming up, almost breathless with fatigue.

‘Heavy! What are yer talking about? What are yer made for?’ rejoined the male traveller, changing his own little bundle as he spoke, to the other shoulder. ‘Oh, there yer are, resting again! Well, if yer ain’t enough to tire anybody’s patience out, I don’t know what is!’

‘Is it much farther?’ asked the woman, resting herself against a bank, and looking up with the perspiration streaming from her face.

‘Much farther! Yer as good as there,’ said the long-legged tramper, pointing out before him. ‘Look there! Those are the lights of London.’

‘They’re a good two mile off, at least,’ said the woman despondingly.

‘Never mind whether they’re two mile off, or twenty,’ said Noah
Claypole; for he it was; ‘but get up and come on, or I’ll kick yer, and so I give yer notice.’

Finally they get to the Angel at Islington:

In pursuance of this cautious plan, Mr. Claypole went on, without halting, until he arrived at the Angel at Islington, where he wisely judged, from the crowd of passengers and numbers of vehicles, that London began in earnest. Just pausing to observe which appeared the most crowded streets, and consequently the most to be avoided, he crossed into Saint John’s Road, and was soon deep in the obscurity of the intricate and dirty ways, which, lying between Gray’s Inn Lane and Smithfield, render that part of the town one of the lowest and worst that improvement has left in the midst of London.

It is hard, now, to imagine London beginning in earnest at the Angel. It is impossible, now, to imagine British people trudging seventy miles carrying all of their worldly possessions. Sadly I can still imagine the woman being asked to carry the heavier burden.

I think of getting to the country now in terms of recreation, of space. It was certainly far less of a walk back then to get out of the city, into the fresh air of the country. Hampton, for example, has now been well swallowed up by London to become a suburb. But once upon a time:

They turned round to the left, a short way past the public-house; and then, taking a right-hand road, walked on for a long time: passing many large gardens and gentlemen’s houses on both sides of the way, and stopping for nothing but a little beer, until they reached a town. Here against the wall of a house, Oliver saw written up in pretty large letters, ‘Hampton.’ They lingered about, in the fields, for some hours. At length they came back into the town; and, turning into an old public-house with a defaced sign-board, ordered some dinner by the kitchen fire.

The kitchen was an old, low-roofed room; with a great beam across the middle of the ceiling, and benches, with high backs to them, by the fire; on which were seated several rough men in smock-frocks, drinking and smoking. They took no notice of Oliver; and very little of Sikes; and, as Sikes took very little notice of them, he and his young comrade sat in a corner by themselves, without being much troubled by their company.

I do not yet know Hampton, but here it is a world away from the slums of Holborn, through countryside and ‘gentlemen’s houses’.  A walkable world away, and yet… not a pleasant day trip for those on foot and without business here.

This is still a world where easy movement between town and country for pleasure is still the province of the wealthy. Where trips tend to be one-way for the poor — seventy miles walk is no small journey. As we escape the underworld with Oliver, swept up in carriages belonging to the good, the kind and the beautiful we also find the ability to more easily escape the city. It is still for longer periods of time, one season spent in London, the summer in a large house in the countryside.

It is only the thieves that move easily and regularly between the two.

It is also the thieves and the outcast that fill the edges of the city. There are some amazing descriptions of Rotherhithe in here. Concentrations of poverty form another kind of limit in a way, rather like the slums around Field Lane. Yet the South Bank of the river was always seen as different, somehow outside — and for a long time formally outside many of the restrictive laws belonging to London proper.

Near to that part of the Thames on which the church at Rotherhithe abuts, where the buildings on the banks are dirtiest and the vessels on the river blackest with the dust of colliers and the smoke of close-built low-roofed houses, there exists the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London, wholly unknown, even by name, to the great mass of its inhabitants.

To reach this place, the visitor has to penetrate through a maze of close, narrow, and muddy streets, thronged by the roughest and poorest of waterside people, and devoted to the traffic they may be supposed to occasion. The cheapest and least delicate provisions are heaped in the shops; the coarsest and commonest articles of wearing apparel dangle at the salesman’s door, and stream from the house-parapet and windows. Jostling with unemployed labourers of the lowest class, ballast-heavers, coal-whippers, brazen women, ragged children, and the raff and refuse of the river, he makes his way with difficulty along, assailed by offensive sights and smells from the narrow alleys which branch off on the right and left, and deafened by the clash of ponderous waggons that bear great piles of merchandise from the stacks of warehouses that rise from every corner. Arriving, at length, in streets remoter and less-frequented than those through which he has passed, he walks beneath tottering house-fronts projecting over the pavement, dismantled walls that seem to totter as he passes, chimneys half crushed half hesitating to fall, windows guarded by rusty iron bars that time and dirt have almost eaten away, every imaginable sign of desolation and neglect.

In such a neighborhood, beyond Dockhead in the Borough of Southwark, stands Jacob’s Island, surrounded by a muddy ditch, six or eight feet deep and fifteen or twenty wide when the tide is in, once called Mill Pond, but known in the days of this story as Folly Ditch. It is a creek or inlet from the Thames, and can always be filled at high water by opening the sluices at the Lead Mills from which it took its old name. At such times, a stranger, looking from one of the wooden bridges thrown across it at Mill Lane, will see the inhabitants of the houses on either side lowering from their back doors and windows, buckets, pails, domestic utensils of all kinds, in which to haul the water up; and when his eye is turned from these operations to the houses themselves, his utmost astonishment will be excited by the scene before him. Crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half a dozen houses, with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud, and threatening to fall into it–as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations; every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage; all these ornament the banks of Folly Ditch.

In Jacob’s Island, the warehouses are roofless and empty; the walls are crumbling down; the windows are windows no more; the doors are falling into the streets; the chimneys are blackened, but they yield no smoke. Thirty or forty years ago, before losses and chancery suits came upon it, it was a thriving place; but now it is a desolate island indeed. The houses have no owners; they are broken open, and entered upon by those who have the courage; and there they live, and there they die. They must have powerful motives for a secret residence, or be reduced to a destitute condition indeed, who seek a refuge in Jacob’s Island.

These long, weary journeys on foot, these marginal spaces where the poor crowd together and struggle to survive are also well documented in the accounts of reformers and early social scientists. Margaret Harkness describes wandering through the city looking for work, Maude Pember Reeves too notes a number of men who regularly walk distances of many miles to their employment and back.

Mary Higgs herself goes ‘on the tramp’ to study the conditions that women faced on the road, particularly when it came to finding shelter. The absence of provision for the thousands of people criss-crossing England’s countryside — cut loose from traditional employment by enclosure and industrialisation and desperately seeking work — is appalling.

Dickens obviously walked these ways himself — perhaps not the seventy miles from ‘Mudfog’ to London — but he certainly tramped the city from one end to the other and his marvelous descriptions of it  bring to life what is now long past.

I like to walk, but this is a kind of walking as far removed from my experience as this level of poverty, an experience of the city and how you live in it that I can only catch glimpses of through imagination and weary feet. How transformative has the change in transportation been?

Save

Cairo Drive

Cairo-Drive-MotorcycleCairo Drive was fantastic. Part of the Barbican’s fall 2014 season City Visions, I saw it as a double bill with Cairo as Seen by Chahine, and the filmmaker Sherief Elkatsha was present as well. This was a brilliant film exploring a city through one of its primary forms of transportation – driving. The official blurb fills in the background:

Cairo, Egypt. 20 million people. 23,600 miles of road. Two million cars. Taxis, buses, donkey carts, and swarms of people, all jockeying to move through the obstacle course that is their daily lives. Sitting at a cultural intersection, Cairo is a city unlike any other, where different faiths, races, and social classes all share a few clogged arteries of tarmac.

Cairo traffic is a chaotic experience where rules are constantly challenged: an elaborate dance of leading and following, flow and resistance, and impeccable, almost miraculous timing.

But it’s the following quote opening the film that fully captures the experience of traffic there:

Cairo is an essay in entropy…but order is nevertheless maintained, if barely.
— Maria Golia, Cairo: City of Sands

So different from London, where driving isn’t important. So different from L.A., where driving is all-important. I love thinking about the relationship between this and the city and how we live in it. The dialectical relationship between a culture as a whole and individuals and how they move through a city every day, their patterns of behaviour and feelings.

Cairo Drive is shot by Elkatsha himself, filming from the side of the road or sitting in a passenger seat as he is driven through traffic by taxi drivers, ambulance drivers, friends, and family all discussing, well, driving. But this daily activity, this act of traversing the city,  opens up multiple other avenues of discussion: patience and attitude, bribery and corruption, the nature of the city, what it means to be Egyptian, the experience of moving through urban spaces as mediated by culture and gender and background and class. I loved too that it was begun before the massive uprisings in Tahrir Square, documents the volunteers directing traffic in lieu of the police for a little while during the uprising itself, and then the return of traffic as normal. But not quite, because some of the fear had lifted. For a view of massive social upheaval, using the prism of traffic is a fascinating one.

As Elkatsha noted in the Q & A after the film, this is above all about communication; possibly my favourite set of conversations was on the elaborate language of horns. I hear a horn in this country and I just think ‘asshole’, but in a moving heaving roadway where there are as many lanes as you can make room for and every space must be filled, horns fulfill a much more nuanced function.

Cairo

I also loved the way that some drivers opened up conversations with other drivers, the way that others joined in the conversation being filmed in the car. There is no anonymity, a very different sense of space than we are accustomed to in the US or the UK. A very similar sense of space to what I have experienced in Mexico, El Salvador, Bangladesh — almost that old binary except really I think it may just be an Anglo reserve taken on by the USA wholesale. I quite love Q & A’s, loved hearing that many people told him to just focus on a few stories whereas there are many different people speaking in the film (good choice in my opinion); that he shot over 200 hours of footage and edited as he went along, but in the end raised money to hire an outside editor to help with the final cut; that his father wanted this film to be about solving the traffic problem. With the fear always present under the Mubarek regime, Elkatsha said that people were often very reluctant to be filmed, particularly discussing politics. But a film about driving, a discussion of driving they felt was inoffensive and safe, though without fail this came back to politics. The first thing you learn in planning school is just how political anything to do with traffic and parking and roads is, so that is hardly surprising.

A lot of the people in the audience clearly knew Cairo, asked about the geographies shown in the film. The centre did feature quite a bit simply because it was central to getting from here to there — much of this was simply filmed as part of daily life. But Elkatsha didn’t want it to be about certain neighbourhoods, rather for the built environment to be simply the backdrop to these flows of people. Really for him the film was about the people and the city, the city that is the people. This echoed Chahine, and I wish more planners and architects took this definition of the city a little more to heart. Instead they were trying to change behaviour after the fact — there were some amazing shots of children in school being taught traffic safety, role-playing correct behaviour both as drivers and as pedestrians, singing safety rhymes like ‘red means stop’ even if you’re in a hurry. But really, there is so much to critique about the role the State has played in this mess, the layout of the roads themselves, the immense danger caused by enormous roads cutting through populated neighbourhoods without adequate crossings or subways, and clearly there is a lack of public transportation. The entrepreneurial and unregistered vans making up for this lack have only intensified the traffic problems, stopping anywhere to pick people up and drop people off. I have some love for cars and driving through the American Southwest’s vast spaces, but this film made me want to scrap them all, both for the planet and for society.

Of course, Cairo Drive doesn’t show too much of this bigger critique of planning and etc, it focuses on the actual experience of driving in ways that are both thoughtful and hilarious for the most part. It is the most enjoyable documentary I’ve seen in ages, the football fans stuck in traffic on their way and holding their babies out of the car windows? That had me shocked but laughing out loud and is something I will never forget, as did the wonderful woman who was just like my aunt Ruth — or what she would be if she drove in Egypt. There is a brief look at the cost of this roadway anarchy where anything goes, all the dangers and risks caused by drivers pushing it as far as they can and I’m sure regularly dying in the attempt. But probably not enough. It all seems quite benign as portrayed here, yet I imagine the death toll is horrific. It leaves you to just imagine that for yourself, really, so on the whole this is a feel-good film that illuminates a city and a culture and a key aspect of daily life, that makes you think about traffic and movement and its relationship to society and the city itself. Go see it.

Save

Nicholas Dreystadt, Cadillacs & African-Americans

So. I have always vaguely wondered about the rather unique love-affair between African-Americans and the Cadillac. I stumbled across this story of Nicholas Dreystadt in a book called The Chrome Colossus by Ed Cray, while doing some research for my dissertation…

It is 1932, and GM is actually at the point of abandoning the Cadillac forever…what was on the cutting board? This beauty of an automobile:

Nicholas Dreystadt, head of the Cadillac division, breaks into the meeting

As Cadillac service manager, Dreystadt had earlier discovered that the car was very popular with the small black bourgeoisie of successful entertainers, doctors and ghetto businessmen. A surprising number brought Cadillacs in for service–surprising because corporate policy was not to sell Cadillacs to blacks at all; the Cadillac was reserved for the white prestige market. “But the wealthy Negro,” business critic Peter F. Drucker recalled, “wanted a Cadillac so badly that he paid a substantial premium to a white man to front for him in buying one. Dreystadt had investigated this unexpected phenomenon and found that a Cadillac was the only success symbol the affluent black could buy; he had no access to good housing, to luxury resorts, or to any other of the outward signs of worldly success.”

Overwhelmed by Dreystadt’s audacity and bemused by his proposal, the committee gave him eighteen months in which to develop the Negro market. By the end of 1934, Derystadt had the Cadillac division breaking even, and by 1940 had multplied sales tenfold… (Cray 279)

It is one side of the story to be sure, a comfortable retelling of an atrocious racism prevalent in this most American of institutions. And all of America. There must be so much more to it of course, but what a fascinating glimpse from a very corporate angle. Turned around, in spite of the fury it inspires, it seems to say that African-Americans saved the Cadillac from extinction. What did they save again?

God damn. I know it’s conspicuous consumption, but I continue utterly smitten with the craftsmanship and beauty of something such as this.

But there is more. I continue reading and 50 pages later I find this story from the WWII years:

Dreystadt had accepted a contract to produce delicate aircraft gyroscopes. despite mutterings on the fourteenth floor that the job was a killer and needed skilled hands unavailable. The dissent turned to outrage when Dreystadt and his personnel manager, Jim Roche, hired 2,000 overage black prostitutes from Paradise Valley–uneducated, untrained, but willing workers. Dreystadt hired the madams too, blithely explaining, “They know how to manage the women.”

Dreystadt himself machined a dozen gyroscopes, then produced a training film detailing the step-by-step assembly process. Within weeks the women were surpassing quotas, and the outrage turned to chagrin on West Grand Boulevard. Jokes about Cadillac’s “red-light district” angered Dreystadt. “These women are my fellow workers, and yours,” he insisted. “They do a good job and respect their work. Whatever their past, they are entitled to the same respect as any one of our associates.”

Dreystadt knew he would have to replace these women at war’s end–returning veterans had job preference, and the United Auto Workers, heavily white male with a southern-states orientation, wanted the women out of the plant. “Nigger-lover” and “whore-monger” Dreystadt fought to keep some, pleading, “For the first time in their lives, these poor wretches are paid decently, work in decent conditions, and have some rights. And for the first time they have some dignity and self-respect. It’s our duty to save them from being again rejected and despised.” The union stood adamant.

When the women were laid off, a number committed suicide  rather than return to the streets. Nick Dreystadt grieved, “God forgive me. I have failed these poor souls.” (Cray 318-319)

Again, only one side and a highly problematic retelling of what is truly a remarkable story by any measure. And again, racism in bucketfuls. But who was this Nick Dreystadt really? And where are the other sides of this story to be found? I shall be looking, no fear…

Save