One of the most succinct and intelligent descriptions of 'urban regeneration' was a film by Jonathan Meades called On the Brandwagon. It begins with the 1981 riots in Liverpool, a city whose population had halved and whose dockyards had closed down, then moves through the government's attempts to put a sticking plaster over the wound. First, ineptly, through the Garden Festivals bestowed on the city, alongside the first 'enterprise zone' version of Regeneration; then more dramatically through New Labour's abortive attempt to turn our chaotic, suburban-urban cities into places more akin to, say, Paris, that riot-free model of social peace. The middle-class return to the cities, adaptive re-use, luxury apartment blocks, Mitterandian Lottery-funded grands projets, loft conversions in the factories whose closure brought about the main problem in the first place. The film ends in Salford Quays, its gleaming titanium a ram-raid's distance from some of the poorest places in Western Europe. The likely result? 'There will be no riots within the ring-road'.
We've long congratulated ourselves, in London, of the fact that we have no banlieue. We applauded ourselves especially smugly when zoned, segregated Paris rioted a few years ago. It's not like it's untrue—give or take the odd exception (a Thamesmead, a Chelmlsey Wood) our poverty is not concentrated in peripheral housing estates.
Edinburgh might wall off its poor in Muirhouse or Leith, and Oxford might try not to think about Blackbird Leys, but in London, Manchester/Salford, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol, Nottingham—the cities that erupted on Monday 8th August—the rich live, by and large, next to the poor: £1,000,000 Georgian terraces next to estates with some of the deepest poverty in the EU. We're so pleased with this that we've even extended the principle to how we plan the trickledown dribble of social housing built over the last two decades, those Housing Association schemes where the deserving poor are 'pepper-potted' with stockbrokers.
International Garden Festival 1984, Liverpool. Image: Benkid77
We've learnt about 'spatial segregation', so we do things differently now. Someone commenting on James Meek's great London Review of Books article on parallel Hackneys mentioned China Miéville's recent science fiction novel The City and The City, where two cities literally do occupy the same space, with all inhabitants acting as if they don't. Miéville set it in Eastern Europe, but the inspiration is surely London.
All of us, all along—if we're honest for a microsecond—knew this was a ludicrous way to build a city, to live in a city. I, like most of the people now waving brooms in the air and representing the 'real London', was not born in London, and I know only two or three people who were. Occasionally, during the 12 years I've lived in the city, I'd often idly wonder when the riots would come: when the situation of organic delis next to pound shops, of crumbling maisonettes next to furiously speculated-on Victoriana, of artists shipped into architect-designed Brutalist towers to make them safe for Regeneration, of endless boosterist self-congratulation, would finally collapse in on itself.
Like most thoughts of this sort, it stayed in the back of the mind, and I'd almost forgotten about it when it finally happened. When it did on Monday night, I wasn't in the country; I'm still not now, so I don't truthfully know how things are on the ground. I do know that the nearest rioting to my flat above a shop—the looting of a retail park in Charlton—was nearly a petrol bomb's-throw away, so I'm not completely unqualified. I understand and apologise if anyone's irritated by a writer pontificating from a safe distance. What I don't understand is how absolutely anyone in any large British city could possibly be shocked by all this.
Cabot Circus, Bristol. Image: Jongleur100
Look at the looted, torched places, look at what they all have in common. Look at Bristol, a port where you could walk for miles and wonder where its working class had disappeared to, which seems to have been given over completely to post-hippy tourism, 'subversive' graffiti, students and shopping. Well, those invisible young, 'socially excluded' (how that mealy-mouthed phrase suddenly seems to acquired a certain truth) people arrived in the shiny new Cabot Circus mall and took what they wanted, what they couldn't afford, what they'd been told time and time again they were worthless without.
Look at Woolwich, where the former main employer, the Arsenal, is now a vast development of luxury flats, and where efforts to ameliorate poverty and unemployment centre on a giant Tesco, just opposite the Jobcentre. Look at Peckham, where 'Bellenden Village' pretends to be excited by the vibrant desperation of Rye Lane. Look at Liverpool, where council semis rub up against the mall-without-walls of Liverpool One, whose heavy-security streets were claimed by the RIBA to have 'single-handedly transformed Liverpool's fortunes'—as if a shopping mall could replace the docks. Look at Croydon, where you can walk along the spotless main street of the central privately owned, privately patrolled Business Improvement District and then suddenly find yourself in the rotting mess around West Croydon station.
Look at Manchester's city centre, the most complete regeneration showpiece, practically walled-off from those who exist outside the ring-road. Look at Salford, where Urban Splash sells terraces gutted and cleared of their working class population, to MediaCity employees with the slogan 'own your own Coronation Street home'. Look at Nottingham, where private student accommodation looming over council estates features a giant advert promising 'a plasma screen TV in every room'. Look at Brixton, where Zaha Hadid's hedge-funded Academy has a disciplinary regime harsher than some prisons, and aims to create little entrepreneurs, little CEOs out of the lamentably unaspirational estate-dwellers. Look at Birmingham's new Bull Ring, yards away from the scar of no-man's land separating it from the dilapidated estates and empty light-industrial units of Digbeth and Deritend. This is urban Britain, and though the cuts have made it worse, the damage was done long before.
With his customary haplessness, Ed Miliband says that 'there must be no no-go areas', but these places are nothing of the sort: they're parallel areas occupying exactly the same space. Any urban theory stuck in the problems of an earlier era, fulminating against the evils of mono-class estates and rigid zoning, is helpless even to begin to describe what's going on.
Watts Riots, LA, 1965. Image: Julian Wasser
That isn't to say that all insights from history are useless. Over the last week ex-punks, chroniclers of rebel rock, 'Situationists' and 'leftists' have decided that these riots are somehow different, somehow apolitical, compared to those that went before. The bizarrely romanticised Gordon Riots, in which Catholics were massacred. The Watts Riots of 1965, where corner shops were burned and ransacked with as much intensity as they were on Monday, only with more firearms. Neither were corner shops spared in the riots of 1981. The 1992 LA riots, where innocent truck drivers were dragged from their vehicles and killed.
Riots always start with an immediate grievance—a hugely corrupt police force shooting a man to death, this time—and become a free-for-all, where people exploit the absence of the law, in which the people who suffer are often innocent. Rioting is a politics of despair, but to claim that these riots are somehow different, somehow 'neoliberal', because of the allegedly novel phenomenon of mass looting, is asinine. It would be infantile to cheer on rioters against corner shopkeepers trying to defend their already small livelihoods; but equally so to pretend that this had nothing to do with the demonisation of the young and poor, nothing to do with our brutally unequal society and our pathetic trickle-down attempts at amelioration. Then we line up with those who think that looting Foot Locker is worse than the looting of an entire economy.
Something has snapped, and it has been a long time coming. Listen to what those few rioters to have got near a journalist have said: 'the whole country is burning, man', 'we're showing the rich people we can do what we want', 'they're screwing the system so only white middle-class kids can get an education...everyone's heard about the police and members of parliament taking bribes, the members of parliament stealing thousands with their expenses. They set the example. It's time to loot'. It's an excuse, sure, but it's also a truth. The right will not waste the opportunity to treat this as a meaningless outbreak of thuggery, needing the smack of firm government, but that doesn't mean we should do the same. Over the last few years, the ruling class has kept trying to commit suicide—financial crisis, expenses scandal, News International, the Met, financial crisis mark two—and most of us won't let them. We'd rather Keep Calm and Carry On. These kids, venal and stupid as some of their actions obviously are, don't want to carry on. They want to see the whole bloody thing burn.
This piece was originally published on VersoBooks.com.