when you’re tired of london…

September 3, 2008

… it’s funny, because I’m really not tired of life, but god London is winding me up at the moment. It feels like a giant shopping mall stuffed full of chain stores and shoppers, where it never stops raining. Although Berlin has failed, comprehensively in my view, on their monumental architecture (Rogers’ dome on the Reichstag just didn’t do it for me), it has truly surpassed itself on neighbourhood life. JW and I spent much time discussing this and what made it possible. Clearly low rents and heavy subsidies to support new businesses fuels neighbourhood cafe culture. The whole vibe of the city, and people’s willingness to put quality of life ahead of pay packets, encourages it too. London lacks both the economic and the cultural drivers to create streets like Oderberger Strasse in Prezlauer Berg.

At a talk I went to by Marshall Berman, he was asked about consumer culture and how we could stop it. Berman’s answer was surprising and refreshing: he distinguished between commerce and consumerism, arguing that commerce – the buying and selling of goods, the agora – has always been an important source of art and politics. Far from being a social evil, commerce was a primary activity in the agora, where politics and culture were also negotiated in ancient cities.

Berman argued that one thing that distinguishes consumerism and commerce is the distance travelled between the thing being sold and the buyer. In ancient cities (and indeed, at least in Berlin cafes), culture and commodities were made nearby, an integral part of people’s lifestyle and income. For Berman, ‘an important part of being modern is being non-embedded’: culture and commodities are now made in far away lands and sold to us by global businesses.

It was Jane Jacobs who immortalised the importance of street life, where dirt and action and buying and selling and arguing were all tantamount to aliveness. London needs to recover some of this feel. Creating ‘faux’ versions of markets, like Spitalfields or the Brunswick Centre, is not the answer. We need fewer of the big statement buildings, and much greater investment in supporting local commerce. Local shops for local people. That would make me very happy. So long as they learnt to make good coffee and provide free wifi…


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