:: Article

Urbicide: Life on the Street

By John P. Houghton.


Restless Cities, Matthew Beaumont and Gregory Dart (eds.), Verso, 2010

The concept of restlessness can be understood in one of two ways. As a yearning curiosity to see and feel new things. Or as an antsy, irritated frustration with the world.

The first is the restlessness of a child or, to follow Matthew Beaumont’s essay, of a recovered convalescent alive again to the pleasures of life after a numbing illness. The second is the restlessness of the sulky teenager, unable to take pleasure from their environment or summon the energy to change it.

Thankfully, most of the contributions to Restless Cities fall into the first category; curious, engaged, playful explorations of the patterns and rhythms of city life. A few fall into the second category. And a few more still fall into neither category and stand alone.

The book’s purpose is to “trace the patterns that have defined everyday life in the modern city and its effect on us as individuals”. The method of exploration follows, inspired by Henry Lefebvre, is to “apprehend the characteristic rhythms of the city, for analytical purposes; but at the same time it abandons itself to them”.

Each chapter explores a particular urban activity – ‘Commuting’, ‘Dreaming’, ‘Recycling’ etc – from the personal experience and intellectual perspective of the sixteen contributing essayists.

There are references to a wide and very diverse range of essays, films, novels and other artefacts, so urban enthusiasts are likely to leave the book with a long list of further reading to track down.

The editors’ aim is that, taken together, the chapters should form a “series of brief ‘city symphonies’”. It’s to Beaumont and Dart’s credit that they can largely claim success in such an ambitious undertaking.

The best contributions to the book embody that sense of critical engagement and surrender to experience. Rachel Bowlby finds absurdity and fascination in ‘Commuting’, bringing Woolf, Dickens and her own preoccupation with commuters’ reading material into a meditation on how regimented daily travel has shaped city-dweller’s perception of time and conformity.

Matthew Beaumont’s ‘Convalescing’ adopts a similar approach to the exploration of the “poetics of convalescence”. He notes how Poe, Baudelaire and others framed an aesthetic around illness and recovery, the characteristics of which seem essential to the exploration of urban life. The convalescent is “acutely sensitive to the life of the streets but at the same time oddly anaesthetised to it”.

Marshall Berman’s ‘Falling’ is a more personal affair, charting his re-engagement with the destroyed and re-developed South Bronx neighbourhood of his childhood. A short contribution, but one which includes reflections on T. S. Eliot, the narratives of “urbicide” in Greek literature and Talmudic prophesy and the lyrics of Grandmaster Flash.

The contributions which fall into the second category follow a very different approach, suggesting little curiosity or excitement about metropolitan existence.

The tone of Chris Petit’s ‘Bombing’ is a mixture of contrarianism and naïve melancholy, with references to the supposed good old days “when the municipal dream was still alive” and the “old model” of public service broadcasting was still cherished.

It’s difficult to take seriously the views of an author who is reminded of shopping malls when considering concentration camps: “in that the camp and mall are all about the processing (and exclusion) of people and require similar minds for their design”. Bluewater as Auschwitz? Really?

Iain Sinclair’s ‘Sickening’ shares similar traits. The lower sixth form tactic of proving or disproving a point by comparison with the Nazis and Sinclair’s dated obsession with New Labour are both present and correct – “The Goebbels-influenced spinmasters of New Labour, adept at burying bad news…”.

The needling contempt for “mainstream culture” runs throughout the essay. Where Bowlby found fascination in commuting, Sinclair sees only a mass of faceless Londoners “in their viral torpedoes: coughing, spluttering, wired to Nuremberg headsets and implant earpieces”.

Sinclair’s method of circumnavigation has become a circumscribed “loop of tedium”, as the author goes around in ever decreasing circles, moaning about things for which he can only feel revulsion or contempt.

A few contributions to the collection sit in their own category. Geoff Dyer’s ‘Inhabiting’ is the greatest (albeit the only) exploration of urban familiarity and strangeness through the search for the perfect donut. It ends with a wonderfully bizarre vision of “a world community of donut lovers living in peace and harmony”.

Patrick Keiller’s ‘Imaging’ offers an insight into the personal experiences and intellectual provocations that nurtured his fascination with spaces and places where one can not see just see things anew but re-imagine them as sites with transformational potential in “moments of historical transition” – like the one, he hints, which we might be living through now.

Keiller’s essay is a good point at which to conclude a consideration of Restless Cities. The potential for organic transformation and regeneration, in its broadest sense, is one of the most exciting elements of metropolitan life. Social structures, technologies and ideological assumptions are constantly forged, destroyed and re-made in the cities, as they are subjected to new and ever more diverse demands.

At their best, cities also lay claim to the symphonic quality which Beaumont and Dart sought for their collection; a diversity of elements and sounds within a general concordance of movement.

No book can ever capture that organic and constantly churning quality of a city, but many of the contributions to Restless Cities provide brilliant examples of how an engaged, curious, even a convalescent, mind can perceive and convey the exhilaration of modern urban living.

John P. Houghton is a writer and adviser on neighbourhoods, cities and social exclusion and is the author with Prof. Anne Power of Jigsaw Cities.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, August 8th, 2010.