Lies, Damned Lies…and Cities

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A short post about cities and statistics:

Cities are remarkably hard to define. You would think otherwise, given the amount of data we have at our disposal. There are few cities on earth that have not been comprehensively mapped and photographed. But certain problems of definition remain: even in a single context, let’s say the United Kingdom, the definition of a city’s limits might vary from one case to another; we often compare apples with oranges. I was reminded this in recent coverage of a survey which measured the relative ‘vibrancy’ of different UK cities. I didn’t think much of the survey (it was a ‘fucking bag of bollocks’ according to the architectural journalist Ian Martin). One reason I didn’t was that its definitions varied according to city. So ‘London’ was, strictly speaking, the Greater London metropolitan region, with a population of 7.5 million or so. Its ‘Manchester’ was the political city, which is to say, a constituent part of a much larger urban region. Its 510,000 population makes it more like a big London borough. In this particular case, smallness played to Manchester’s advantage, and it came it top. For this exiled Mancunian, of course that’s good news, but I still recognise it as a flawed comparison.

I explored the problem a little more in a class today. I showed the group a list of population figures, all of which define ‘Manchester’ correctly:

‘Old City’ (1800 boundary)                                          25,000
Political boundary city 2013                                       510,000
Urban core, including Salford and Trafford            1,200,000
Greater Manchester, political boundary, 2013       2,600,000
Postcode city including all GM codes                     3,000,000 (estimate)
Travel-to-work city                                                  3,500,000 (estimate)
MUFC supporters worldwide, 2012 estimate      659,000,000

Manchester City fans will want to discount the MUFC stat immediately, which is fair enough. It does however give an indication of the potential importance of a non-resident population, all of who, arguably have an interest in what goes on in the city. Anyway, put that figure aside. We still have a remarkable discrepancy between the core city population of 25,000 (up from a historic low of 250 in the 1990), and what is arguably the ‘real’ city, the travel-to-work city of 3.5 million. It’s a differential factor of 140. Even if we were to take the ‘low’ figure as the 2013 political city, 510,000, we’re still looking at a factor of 7.

Manchester’s far from alone in its discrepant representations. Buenos Aires seems to suffer a similar problem. Is it a European-scale large city of 3 million? Or an emerging-market megalopolis of 16 million? Well, both, and neither. It just depends who is speaking and what they are trying to prove. That is the lesson for all of us, and all cities.

NOTES:

Vibrancy survey by Experian, reported in FT (9 October 2013)  http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/2bc0e682-2f50-11e3-ae87-00144feab7de.html#axzz2iSUwJSb1

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‘Judas’ at the Free Trade Hall: memories of Dylan in ’66

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Bob Dylan’s 1966 British tour is remembered primarily for one thing: the moment at the Manchester Free Trade Hall gig when a man in the circle yells ‘Judas!’. Some brief banter with the stage ensures, and then Dylan turns to his all-electric band and instructs them to ‘play it fucking loud’, before launching into the last number of the night, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. The story has been told countless times. In the most recent biography of Dylan, by the journalist Ian Bell, it actually is the defining moment if the singer’s career: a version of it opens the book, and Bell’s somewhat baroque analysis spills out over twelve pages, the leitmotif of Dylan’s life. The interpretations of the ‘Judas’ moment are legion: the defeat of folk, the triumph of sex, the birth of punk, the death of God. You name it, it’s been said.

Like just about everyone else, I only know the moment through heresay, and more recently Martin Scorcese’s 2005 documentary No Direction Back. The ’65-66 tour was a the subject of D. A. Pennebaker’s film Don’t Look Back, which impressed me the first time I saw it aged 15 or so. I happen to have known the venue, Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, very well. An extraordinary transplanted Florentine palazzo, it was the frame for any number of crucial performances, from the Halle Orchestra to the Sex Pistols. A truncated Hall now serves as the entrance portico of the Radisson Renaissance Hotel.

By chance, I met Susan Grey who was at the Manchester concert in 1966, and understood my desire to know more. Susan is a clinical psychologist, based in London; she grew up in the south Manchester suburbs in the 1960s. I wanted to know more about the Dylan gig, but also what she felt about it all now, looking back. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, very little edited:

RW: You said these were your first gigs.

SG: The first was in 1965, when I was 14. The second was 1966.

RW: Fourteen’s quite young. What was the appeal of Dylan to you at that age?

SG: If I had to pick one thing it would be the words. But I think it was much more complicated than that. I remember hearing the buzz about a Pete Seeger concert that some friends of my elder brother had been to. Some of them played the guitar, banjo or harmonica and they started up an evening folk club at school, so I used to go to that. They played a mixture of traditional folk and the newer Pete Seeger style of songs. But there was one boy who used to turn up and do Bob Dylan songs. I liked pop and rock music –  I’d spent years listening to Radio Luxemburg and Radio Caroline. When folk came along it was an introduction to a whole new genre – especially the political and protest songs. ‘Little Boxes’, or ‘We Shall Overcome’, for example, challenged the accepted order of things and couldn’t have been more different from what was usually in the charts. Dylan had that folk sound, but was a bit different – sometimes bluesy, poetic and often rather mysterious. Songs like ‘Masters of War’ were incredibly powerful and like nothing else I’d heard before.

RW: Did the political context matter?

I think the context was important. As children in the 50s we’d heard a lot about world war – supposedly as a thing of the past. But now we were seeing very shocking images of the Vietnam war on television night after night…we forget that in those days media coverage wasn’t managed the way it is now. Not long before we’d had the Missile Crisis and extremely alarming talk of World War 3. Protest movements were gathering momentum, not just about the war, but also about civil rights, apartheid, nuclear weapons etc. Young people were questioning the establishment. There was also beat poetry, pot and jazz – and I was on the threshold of all that.  So for me I think the folk revival in general and Dylan in particular represented an entry into something very exciting and grown-up, both musically and in terms of involvement with bigger issues.

RW: What did your family think of him? He’s an unkempt, rebellious character in Pennebaker’s film.

SG: My parents didn’t think much of him – especially his singing voice. But they were pretty tolerant and didn’t stop me monopolising the family record-player.

RW: That sounds familiar. My folks never ‘got’ Dylan because they couldn’t understand what he was singing. Anyway, back to ’66. Who liked Dylan in Manchester back then? Who was the audience?

I think they were mainly youngish people. People who were excited by songs with a message. It was about entering a much more serious and grown-up world.

RW: The second gig, when Dylan ‘went’ electric – how did it strike you? Was the music a shock?

SG: Yes, it was rather. I wasn’t aware of what he’d been doing over the year between ‘65 and ’66. In 1965, at 14, I was absolutely enthralled. I’d never experienced anything like this before. He came on stage and stood in the spotlight – just a slight figure with guitar and harmonica.  He said very little, just worked his way through all these wonderful songs. Everybody loved it. Afterwards my friend and I went round to the stage door with a dozen or so other people in the hope of seeing him and getting his autograph. Of course he didn’t appear, so eventually we had to accept that the evening was over and get the train home.In 1966 I suppose we expected more of the same – and this time I knew more of the music. The first half was fine then the second half was a real surprise. I didn’t know what to make of it. It wasn’t just that he’d added the band and electric sound, the arrangements were different as well.

RW: Did you identify with him, this all-new, ‘electric’ Dylan?

SG: Part of me felt cheated that he’d changed his style and we weren’t hearing what we expected to hear, but I was intrigued too. I didn’t want Dylan to give up what I thought were his principles, but also I didn’t want to give up on him. It didn’t take me long to get on board and I bought the single ‘Like Rolling Stone’ as well as the album, ‘Bringing it all back home’.

RW: The electric band’s so rough – it sounds close to punk now. God knows what it was like in ’66. Can you say a bit more about your reaction? 

The quality of the sound? Well, the electric set was noisily dramatic. Very loud in comparison with the accoustic set – and the words were hard to follow, as much as anything because we couldn’t hear them properly. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed the electric numbers – but it was still Dylan and, after all, you had to work at it a bit with some of his accoustic songs too. So for me it was a case of waiting to see what happened next.

RW: When the guy upstairs shouted ‘Judas’, you told me you earlier that you heard him loud and clear. What went through your mind?

SG: I thought – did he really say Judas? By that time there’d already been plenty of noises from the audience – slow-handclapping and so on – so it was clear not everyone was happy.  Dylan was clearly not happy. After ‘Judas’, he said ‘I don’t believe you, you’re a liar.’ There were some other comments at various points but they were difficult to hear.

RW: Did you think you’d witnessed something historic at the time?

SG: This individual hostile exchange was quite dramatic, but I think at 15 my sense of history was limited, so I’d have to say no. Obviously I was aware of the fuss in the press afterwards, but I don’t remember that particular incident being singled out until the official album came out years later and Andy Kershaw wrote about it, and interviewed the chap who shouted ‘Judas’. I remember thinking ‘Ooh I was there!’ But looking back it was only one of many turning points for him. He turned out to be even more versatile and extraordinary than he seemed in the 60’s.

I think some people in the audience felt that we might have lost a hero for no good reason – other than his own wilfulness. – and I could relate to that. In retrospect it’s clear there were a lot of unwarranted assumptions being made about his interests and motivation. But at the time we were at a loss as to how it would all pan out – would he continue to be interesting and sing songs with a message, or would he become just like any other rock and roll band? After the concert a small crowd of people sat down on the floor in the foyer in protest. My friend and I hung around for a bit to see what would happen, but nothing much did. We knew by now that stage door appearances were not Dylan’s style, so we headed off for the train. Such antagonism between a performer and the audience was all very strange. But it was exciting to be there when things were happening that people cared about. Sit-down strikes and protests were like a new language for young people, so it seemed like a natural way to react.

RW: What do you think of the Pennebaker movie ‘Don’t Look Back’?

SG: I didn’t see that film until many years later. I think it pretty much showed how Dylan and others in that scene behaved at that time. I’d followed all the coverage of Dylan’s tours in the newspapers, so I knew he liked to be challenging or contrary with interviewers. I’d like to have felt I knew more about him, but that didn’t make me any the less fascinated.

RW: The Free Trade Hall was an extraordinary place. What else do you remember about it?

It was good that it wasn’t a very big venue, so you could always see. By today’s standards it was quite intimate and they even had seats on the stage behind the performer. As far as I can remember the tickets were reasonably priced. I don’t count them as a gigs, but I’d been there a couple of times as a much younger child with my family to see our next-door neighbours’ Scottish Country Dancing Nights, so it was familiar. The venue was near to Oxford Road station and concerts always ended in time for the train back to the nearest station in Cheadle Hulme (RW: southern suburb, ten miles south). If my parents had any concerns about me going to a gig in town at 14 they didn’t say so.  I’m not sure how interesting it is to read lists of names, but over a few years following the first Dylan gig I saw acts like Simon and Garfunkel, Julie Felix, Incredible String Band, and Donovan. One gig had a young David Bowie doing a mime act supporting Tyrannosaurus Rex. Then there were acts like Manitas De Plata with his flamenco guitar group. I collected a few autographs as some of them were stage door friendly and didn’t mind chatting with a few of us who stayed behind after the show. The Free Trade Hall was also home to the Halle orchestra – where I saw Daniel Barenboim, Vladimir Ashkenasky and Jaqueline Du Pre. There were a couple of other gigs I went to during those years – The Beatles at ABC Ardwick, and I think Charles Aznavour was at The Palace, but those venues didn’t have the intimacy of the Free Trade Hall.

RW: There’s not much left of the original Free Trade Hall – it’s just the foyer of the Radisson. How did you feel when it was redeveloped?

SG: I remember feeling dismayed by a newspaper story that the Free Trade Hall might be demolished or developed in some way. So, although I knew the battle had already been lost, when I was visiting Manchester a few years ago I felt compelled to go into what’s left of the building to have a look. I stood in the foyer and felt quite bereft. I had to go over to the receptionist and tell her how sad it was and how much those concerts meant to me growing up. She was very nice and friendly and said they understood. In fact they’d tried to acknowledge these events by naming rooms after some of the artists. So that was it. Not much else to be said. I felt stupidly emotional and my eyes were welling up a bit so it was time to leave.

Very many thanks to Susan Grey for sharing her experiences.

REFERENCES

Ian Bell, Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan (London: Mainstream, 2013)

D. A. Pennebaker (dir. ), Don’t Look Back (1967)

Martin Scorcese (dir.) No Direction Home (2005)

Trouble at t’Mall

IMG_0353Something’s up with cities, as recent articles in The Economist and the FT attest. In the rich world, for decades we’ve held the notion of cities as basket cases to be endured rather than enjoyed. Few really believed in regeneration, if pushed: tidying up old docks and factories was, most of us believed, a cosmetic exercise. Our future was inexorably suburban. That set of beliefs held true until about a decade ago, underlined by relentlessly gloomy demographics, nlot just for celebrated basket cases like Detroit (61% population loss), but otherwise wealthy and successful places like London (-25% from its peak). We read Joel Garreau on the exurbs and imagined, mostly with trepidation, a Californian future. Cities were what the  developing world did – they weren’t for us.

Well, all that seems to have changed. The last set of population statistics for the UK were remarkable for what they said about cities. Greater London we knew had got bigger, but what was a surprise was how quickly it had regained its peak size. Down to 6.5 million in the 1980s, it was back up to 8.5 or so, 30% growth in 20 years. Even more startling in some way were the figures for such perennially shrinking cities are Liverpool (now up 5%), or most amazingly of all, Manchester (up 25%), with accompanying gains for their hinterlands. Across the Atlantic, as Gallagher has recently argued, the same trends are much in evidence. Washington DC hums with life these days in a way inconceivable a decade back. And in al these places, real estate values indicate a shift back to the  central city, and the decline of suburbia. However you do the maths, there is only one conclusion: cities are back.

In a funny way, no-one saw this coming. In fact the professional literature around regeneration is miserable. You can’t research the area without developing a deep sense of gloom. Academics invariably focus on the bad news; builders worry about money; policians argue incessantly about the benefits. Hardly anyone seems to believe it when push comes to shove. They should. The ‘project’ of regeneration, whether it’s through Richard Rogers’s advocacy in London, or Mike Bloomberg’s in New York, has been on its own terms, more often than not, a huge success. Cities have returned in a big way, dense, busy and vertical, just as their advocates wanted.

That success brings with it some old – basically 19th century – problems. In 2004 I speculated about this in The Anxious City, looking at Richard Rogers’s envisioning of London. It seemed (still) unattainable; it also seemed a transparently bourgeois city. Surely we would see through this (admittedly seductive) play of urban surfaces? Surely we would see it for the fantasy that it is? Well apparently not, for it’s come to pass not only in London, but New York and Washington, and with it, the embodiment in stone and glass of a most astonishing set of inequalities. The urbanist’s rhetoric from Richard Rogers to Richard Florida to Charles Landry is of equality and democracy. The built reality – just look at London – is anything but.

This leaves suburbia hanging. Suburbia will always be with us, but like the inner cities of the late 60s and early 70s, it may well become the locus of dissolution and decay. That might be good for urban innovators – we could conceivably see an exodus of poor, but creative youngsters to Metroland in search of space and time and relative freedom from the market. But those people, so prized by Florida and Landry, may choose to leapfrog the city altogether, and abandon it to the rich. Who knows. But cities have irrevocably changed this past decade, and we will have to deal with the consequences.

Sources:

D.K., ‘Mapping Gentrification: The Great Inversion’, Economist (9 September 2013) http://www.economist.com/blogs/blighty/2013/09/mapping-gentrification

Gapper, J., ‘America’s Heart is in the City Once Again’, Financial Times (8 September 2013) http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/0e8cc084-1652-11e3-a57d-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2fF0L7D9Y

THE CREATIVE CITY: A CORRECTION

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Since posting, Paul Morley published this piece on the Salford and Media City, which is connected. Most accounts of Media City have been unfavourable – sometimes simple snobbery, sometimes a failure to understand the landscape and its history.This discussion is more nuanced, and well worth reading. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/f5cc1646-c90b-11e2-9d2a-00144feab7de.html#axzz2VEXeJU4s

We hear a lot about the creative city these days. For city managers in the industrialised world, creativity is the way to go, meaning a rebalancing of urban economies away from manufacturing, and even financial services, towards advertising, the arts, culture, web design and so on. The chief advocate of the creative city is Richard Florida, a most entrepreneurially-minded sociologist. Florida is everywhere, and his concepts have been accepted by city leaders the world over. Good for him. His work, however, is predictive and future-oriented; there remains a notable deficit in the literature of the creative city as built, the ‘real’ creative city.

One writer to take it seriously is Richard E. Caves, a Harvard law professor with longstanding interests in copyright. His book The Creative Industries – although published a decade ago – is a compelling, and still rare, analysis of the creative city as it exists and functions, rather than as a fantasy yet to be built. Caves’s argument revolves around a set of principles, which he says, describe unique behaviours of those working in the creative industries. These include (1) ‘nobody knows’ – no-one has the least idea of the likely success of a creative product, with no predictable connection between the capital investment in a project and its likely profitability; (2) the ‘motley crew’ – the necessity for an extremely diverse set of skills to realise projects, most likely supplied by a flexible, self-employed labour force; (3) ‘time flies’, the principle that once underway, a creative project will require absolute subservience to its timetable; (4) ‘art for arts’ sake’, in other words the principle that the actors in creative enterprises are not motivated solely by financial gain, and in many cases will work for the sake of the work itself. The sociologist Sharon Zukin described something similar, the AMP or Artistic Mode of Production, in her celebrated book Loft Living. Caves’s book is underwritten by the detailed knowledge of two cities, LA, focused on the experience of the movie industry, and New York, with a concentration on the art scene, at (I would note) a moment of great transition.

Caves’s principles, if we accept them, have severe implications for the nature of the creative city, indeed the city in general. It is widely assumed that the creative city is intensely sociable. The theme of sociability runs all the way through Florida’s work, for example. Creative types are by their nature gregarious, we are led to believe, and visibly so. They spend all day in cafes, yacking away to each other, tweeting their friends, making deals. That image is widely, and popularly understood; it drives real estate markets, provides fodder for TV, informs fashions in food and clothing and gadgets. It’s immensely popular with city politicians and managers too, for obvious reasons.

But it’s misleading. Caves’s principles imply a city that is far more anti-social than you might expect. Firstly, the creative industries are hopelessly profligate (‘nobody knows’), so they have en enormous amount invested in storage of all kinds. Materials, talent, ideas – most of which, most of the time remain unused, but must be kept available. Storage means space rather than sociability. Secondly, creative workers by and large are not working together, but as individuals who come together on a project-by-project basis (the ‘motley crew’). They’re subject to fits of intense socialisation to get business, but their work, most of the time, is not sociable. Thirdly, ‘time flies’: the creative city sublimates everything to the ‘now’ of the project, cutting across the normal time and space of city. It makes people subservient to the project, not the community. And so on. In summary, if you buy Caves, you buy into a world view that is arguably as anti-urban as it is urban. I don’t present this as a criticism at all, merely an observation. We have choices, after all.

Here is an example of why I think Caves’s analysis is right, namely the large, impressive media complex in Salford, Manchester, MediaCityUK, opened in 2012 and home for a substantial portion of BBC activity. You arrive at MCUK by newly-built light rail at a public plaza defined by glass buildings. There are outdoor TV screens everywhere; coffee and food abound; there are constant ‘events’ of one kind or another. It’s a relentlessly sociable place, almost exactly as the developers imagined. They must be delighted, and rightly so. Walk a few hundred metres to the north, however, and the sense of civilised urbanity falls away, and you find yourself in a warehouse zone, all blank walls and razor wire, seemingly uninhibited. Before MCUK, it was perhaps the definitive landscape of this part of Manchester. Many of the journalistic accounts of MCUK have focused on this disjunction, as if it were a fault. Yet on closer analysis, MCUK merely describes in built form the nature of the creative city. It’s sociable, but only intermittently so. The vast majority of its revenue-producing business comes from things beyond public view. Those warehouses look abandoned, but they house production facilities, sound stages, sets and props, as well as a huge range of informal workspaces. MCUK’s plaza is the public performance, as it were, of the creative city. The real work happens elsewhere.

MCUK was a purpose-built facility, a set piece. In form it reiterates the landscape of arguably the world’s first creative city. It’s an industrial-looking sprawl, dotted with pockets of frantic socialisation. The movie industry, which defines so much of the city, made it like that. The studios are epic in scale, but necessarily inward-looking and anti-social; their public faces, like the attractions on Hollywood Blvd., are designed, quite purposely, to direct attention away from their real business. So it is with all the other motors of the creative city. Far from being drivers of sociability, these businesses are, for most of the people involved in them, most of the time, deeply anti-social. That’s not, as I say, a criticism. But it’s worth pointing out that if sociable cities are a priority, then ‘creativity’ may not be the way to achieve it.

Richard E. Caves, The Creative Industries: Contracts Between Art and Commerce (Cambridge, Mass.:Harvard UP, 2002)

Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class (New York: Basic Books, 2004)

Sharon Zukin, Loft Living (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1989)