[tangents on cities / multiple realities]
I’ve been doing my bit recently to help keep public libraries open by stocking up on novels at Bristol Central Library. One of the books I finished in the past few weeks was China Miéville’s The City and The City.
A detective story set in a fictional central European country, the story follows inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad, who is investigating the murder of a young woman in his home city of Besźel. As the case becomes more complicated, he has to travel to the twin city of Ul Qoma, unmasking a political conspiracy in the process.
The thing with Besźel / Ul Qoma is that the cities actually inhabit the same physical space, but are completely different social, cultural and political entities. The citizens of each city have learned to ‘unsee’ each other, sometimes having to step round each other in ‘crosshatched’ areas (where one house or street is in Besźel, the other in Ul Qoma). Any interaction between denizens of the two cities is strictly forbidden and if a resident of one crosses into the other, they are dealt with severely by a shadowy force known as Breach.
As a metaphor, it’s hard to visualise. But it somehow manages to communicate the ways multiple realities can exist side by side in cities. It could be used as a way to think about urban segregation; the way that homeless people are made ‘invisible’, or as a way to understand the increasingly polarised mega-cities of the global south – Mumbai, Rio or Johannesburg, as well as the highly stratified cities of the North – London, New York or Paris.
I’ve been thinking a lot about cities recently: the social tensions and contradictions that define them, the overlapping sets of realities rubbing uneasily against each other. It’s these tensions that lead to higher rates of mental illness – depression, anxiety and a host of other disorders brought on by the pressures of urban life. Yet, cities are also refuges, sites where misfits and outsiders can congregate, places for people of various diasporas to gather, reformulate and forge new identities. The ethnic and cultural diversity of big cities make them generally more interesting places to be. And in some ways, although few like to admit it, these very same tensions can fuel creativity.
One of my favourite producers, Kevin Martin aka The Bug, has spoken about how his music is a conduit for chaos and feelings of anxiety and dread. He describes needing what he calls the ‘friction’ of the inner city to do what he does, and feels that the hyper-gentrification of London is leading to cultural flatness and dullness – a threat to underground music culture in the form of a “pacification in the middle mass”.
Bristol is full of its own tensions and contradictions, social, racial and economic. Since moving here I’ve worked in a couple of different environments. I hard a short-term contract working in Clifton, the affluent end of the city that someone once described to me as ‘the slave-masters quarter’. I then spent a year working in Barton Hill, one of the more deprived parts of town, down the road from where I live and only a mile or so from the city centre.
I’ve recently started a part-time job in an organisation based in Stokes Croft. I lived close by, in St Paul’s, when I first moved here, and I know the area well. It says a lot about Bristol – creative, independent-minded, anarchic. But it’s also one of the areas where the city’s social tensions are most acute: rapidly gentrifying yet also home to a large homeless community and a large drug economy, where people beg for change outside trendy cafes.
I find myself passing through this two days a week, working for an organisation full of lovely, progressive, politically-conscious people. But despite being literally on the doorstep of one of the city’s most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods, the office where I work is overwhelmingly white. I sometimes struggle with the contradictions of such a space and wonder whether, despite all good intentions, it is part of the same dynamic that risks turning the area into the type of nullifying “yuppie paradise” that Kevin Martin describes.
My mind is forever warring with itself: trying to understand the underlying reality around me without giving into a kind of nihilistic dread, an admission that, as Martin puts it “life is just one big kaleidoscopic mess. It’s too fucked up to really understand”.