It begins with small homes lived in by hard working people. They work locally in factories and warehouses and live with their families in small rooms. Some of them are good people and some of them are cruel people. We imagine they have a nobility and a stoicism. We assume their values were honest if a little crude and possibly intolerant. In black and white photos they smile in the sunshine and we marvel at the fact that they look so much like us.
When I lived for a year in Canada I shared a house with a guy called Graham on a side street, the name of which I don’t remember. Last thing at night I used to roll a small and poorly made joint and sit out on the cold front step and smoke it in silence, gazing at the empty street. With hindsight I think it was less to do with getting stoned (which if I’m honest I didn’t generally enjoy) and more to do with remembering how to breath slowly.
Cars arrive and trucks and suddenly it makes no sense to have factories and warehouses in the middle of cities, where the space is expensive and inaccessible. The factories close down and move further away or simply disappear altogether. The goods in warehouses are relocated to depots glimpsed briefly from motorways. The small homes sit empty. They become occupied by poorer people, often immigrants. They try to find work of any kind. They construct some small reminders of the things they have left behind.
When I get to a new city I walk. I walk for miles. Like a hamster in a new cage, I want to learn it so that I don’t fear it.
Young people arrive. They are the grandsons and granddaughters of those that left. They have been brought up in cleaner more open places. These places have given them time and space to think and they have decided they want to be great artists and thinkers, they believe passionately that the world is not right as it is and that they have a responsibility to change it. They like this neighbourhood because it feels authentic and the rent is cheap. They feel embarrassed about their privileged upbringings when they look around them. This only strengthens their belief that change is needed. They treasure their poverty. They carry discarded junk and cheap hardware supplies up to their rooms. They are pleased that they are making art but it doesn’t look like they are making art.
A study by the Department of Social Ecology at the Free University of Brussels placed fifty cockroaches in a dish with three shelters that each accommodated a maximum of 40 insects. The result was that 25 cockroaches would collect in one shelter, 25 in a second shelter and the last shelter would be left totally empty. If you then increased the size of the shelter so that it could accommodate 50 cockroaches, then all 50 would collect in one shelter, leaving the other two structures totally abandoned.
This energising wave of radical young people has transformed the neighbourhood. It is filled with music and art and romantic political gestures. Other people are inspired by this articulate expression of creativity and community. It appeals to them. It is what is missing from their lives.
One of my favourite kinds of photograph is the reversal angle photograph of everyone pretending to prop up the leaning tower of Pisa. I wonder who the first person to pretend to prop up the leaning tower of Pisa in a photograph was. I wonder who was the first person to notice in front of the tower a lawn full of people frozen in the same pose.
The neighbourhood has now become very popular. It has been written about in guide books and newspaper articles, captioned by photos of large-scale graffiti art. Its popularity has become a grimly ironic joke amongst many of those that live there. Plush fair-trade coffee houses and high-end vintage and designer clothing boutiques have opened up expressly to cater to the visitors who arrive in the expectation that this is what they will find. Rents have increased and now only those with a stable income and the independently wealthy can move here. They spend a lot of money to imagine the eccentric style and habits and mannerisms of those people that until very recently lived there. They are pleased that it looks like they might be making art when they are not in fact making art.
I want to write a book in which the pages can be put together in any order and still make coherent sense. A breathless panorama of a modern city, reshuffled and reimagined with every copy that is printed. It might have to be a short story otherwise this could get pretty exhausting.
As time goes on life in the city becomes totally untenable. Terrorism and paedophilia are constant fears. Rising sea-levels pose a threat to any environment close to rivers or the coast. The break-up of the major banking institutions has turned financial districts into ghost towns. High streets disintegrated as first books then groceries and music and cinema and finally clothes and luxury items were bought almost exclusively over the internet. Our neighbourhood lies abandoned. It has become the home only to thousands upon thousands of Magpies. They smash skylights and balcony windows, breaking into houses and filling them with objects from across the city. Coins, bullets, bits of glass, rings, paperclips, bicycle chains, car tyres, CDs, table lamps, laptops, executive stress toys, footballs, candle holders, religious relics, signposts, wheel clamps, mannequins, step ladders. At night they gather on the roofs and sit quietly, staring at each other, occasionally stealing glances at the empty city beyond.