Sharon Borthwick reviews Annan Minton ‘Ground Control: Fear and happiness in the twenty-first century city’
“Town-scapes are changing. The open-plan city belongs in the past — no more ramblas, no more pedestrian precincts, no more left banks and Latin quarters. We’re moving into the age of security grilles and defensible space. As for living, our surveillance cameras can do that for us. People are locking their doors and switching off their nervous systems.”
This is a J G Ballard character in Cocaine Nights talking, yet it couldn’t be a more fitting quote to go accompany Anna Minton’s, ‘Ground Control: Fear and happiness in the twenty-first century city’, first published in 2009 and reissued this year with a new chapter on the legacy of the Olympics. I kept expecting Minton to quote Ballard at some point in the book, but she is more concerned to give voice to actual people than to characters of dystopian novels. We travel with her on her research, getting off the tube at Canary Wharf, meeting young people and youth workers in Manchester, people in Salford, Edinburgh and London, Town Planners, experts in planning law… Lets take her encounters in, Manchester, our ASBO capital apparently, where the young people have been served an especially raw deal, not allowed into pubs before the age of 25 they are wandering the streets to meet, no clubs or anywhere they can afford to hang out. But here’s the rub, if they are seen congregating together on street corners they are told to go home. The police stop and search the boys for no reason. Dispersal orders are even preventing young children from playing out in the street, one mother saying her daughter was ordered home out of the kebab shop by a cop. AM asks a simple question, what if the money was spent on facilities for them instead of enforcement?
Fear of crime is the big narrative here, that and the selling off of public space to private concerns are making us the most unhappy people of the western world along with America from where so many of the misery making policies have been imported. Zero tolerance was thought to be an especially effective method, repeated by New Labour from Rudy Guiliani’s New York Mayorship, yet crime was simultaneously decreasing in other US cities that did not impose this method, thought to be the result of a drop in crack use. So we have Respect Action Areas! Always imposed in deprived areas, this super control is resulting in evictions and parenting orders. ASBOs in New Labour’s Britain criminalised non-criminal behaviour, ludicrous reasons given, like an 87 year old man ordered not to make sarcastic remarks to his neighbours. Health professionals noted that many under 17s served with ASBOs had mental health problems. It seems these are orders against standing out and difference. AM quotes Jane Jacobs from ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’, “Peace is not kept by the police but by the intricate, almost unconscious network of voluntary controls enforced by people themselves. In areas where public order is left to the police and special guards, they become jungles.” This is one of the main theories of the book, that the more you shut yourselves up in gated communities, the more CCTV cameras that are angled on us, the more security guards there are parading about the place, the more fear we have of each other, whereas without all these restrictive measures we naturally negotiate each other in the streets.
J G Ballard again, “Everywhere you look — Britain, the States, western Europe — people are sealing themselves into crime-free enclaves. That’s a mistake — a certain level of crime is part of the necessary roughage of life. Total security is a disease of deprivation.” We shudder as we watch the total lockdown of London as the Olympic farce draws so terrifyingly near: “Security forces are busily militarizing the urban terrain. Olympics security officials recently unboxed the military-grade Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), an eardrum-shattering weapon that has been war-zone tested in Iraq. There are plans to station surface-to-air missiles on the roofs of London apartment buildings. The Royal Navy’s biggest warship will sit along the Thames. Typhoon jets and Lynx helicopters will be ready for action. Scotland Yard has stockpiled more than 10,000 plastic bullets. Police are constructing mobile stations to facilitate swift bookings. And “dispersal zones” have been set up where police can freely ban anyone they deem to be engaging in antisocial behavior.” (The Nation, 21st May). This at a cost of 24 billion, a mere 2% of which is being funded by private concerns, in spite of former promises to the contrary. Yet the vile companies coughing up any cash are going to get their billboard heaven. Companies Like Dow Chemical, McDonalds, BP, Atos and all their despicable bloody histories. This Olympics was sold to us under the guise of regeneration for the East End, but what will it really mean for the people there?
Since the time of Thatcher and vigorously continued by Blair, the debt-fuelled approach has bulldozed through all our major cities. AM first ended her book on a note of optimism, thinking, TINA (there is no alternative) must surely have had its day. In this new chapter she concedes defeat. Common sense, decency, even the preservation of Capitalism itself has not led any of the playboy leaders to act differently. They continue the same finance capital that has brought all crashing down, the bankers still receiving super awards for their incompetence. No real thing is produced in this economy other than extensive sites bleached of character, mega shopping and business zones, ugly glass structures prick the sky, “the architecture of extreme Capitalism”. “Whose streets?” we shout on demos replying, “ours”, as it should be. But the people are written out of these contracts. Community groups like TELCO, (The East London Community Organisation), who helped win the bid for the games are disgusted that their opinions counted for nothing in the end. David Bedford, the original marathon organiser resigned, appalled that locals were excluded from the planning of the route, which will completely bypass the East End, running 3 laps of central London to take in the presumed telegenic sites, like the Mall and Trafalgar Square. That is as nothing ultimately, of course, but represents the complete snub to local people. The real concerns lie in what the developments spanning beyond Stratford City to Hackney Wick, Fish Island and South of the Olympic Park, Stratford, Three Mills and Bromley by Bow will really mean for local people. And this is not just the legacy of the Olympics but that enacted on all our all our cities. The most frightening aspect of all is that social housing will again be in the hands of private landlords. We are returning to nineteenth century squalor at an alarming rate. A man working for Newham council tells AM of ‘supersheds’ – 30 men to a room. He saw men paying rent to live in a fridge where meat is stored, so extreme a vision that later he wondered if he’d dreamt it.
This is the state that migrant workers often find themselves in. As for the original eastenders: well children who have never left their postcode before may realise that ambition, not by a visit to the seaside, but being displaced, “deeper into Essex”, where discontent in dispossession has led some to vote for the BNP. The attitude, not to pull together in the face of being smacked down by the powers that be, but to deem others lower than they. They saw no “trickle-down” when their former perfectly sound living spaces were wastefully bulldozed to profit the developers (developers receiving massive government subsidies), if they have been lucky enough to be re-housed in their same areas, they may not recognise the place. If they are not business-suited, they will not fit in with the glossy malls full of high-end merchandise. If they are teenagers, they will be moved on. If they are old people, there will be no benches inviting them for a sit down. If you would just like to hang, taking it all in, people watching, you will be discouraged. You are in our cities to work and shop screams the corporate architecture and if you won’t listen to the signals of the eternally replicated spaces, bearing their corporate insignia in branded bollards and fences, the security guards will tell you so. It is not likely you will protest when your public spaces, your very streets, are being sold off beneath you. You aren’t likely to be told, and if you do get wind, the language used to hide the real deals beneath will win your “social silence”, so many layers of obfuscation you are deliberately prevented from getting to the bottom. And once these places are built you will not be allowed onto them with your placards……………………………………………. Whose streets?