Ben Highmore is Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex. He is currently working on the relationships between taste, retailing, urbanism, art and design, and domestic life as part of a major research fellowship for the Leverhulme Trust. His most recent books are Culture: Key Ideas in Media and Cultural Studies (Routledge 2016) and The Great Indoors: At Home in the Modern British House (Profile Books 2014). His book The Art of Brutalism: Rescuing Hope from Catastrophe in 1950s Britain is forthcoming from Yale University Press.
Small Worlds, Big Cities (Urban Poetics and Uneven Developments)
In this paper I return to 1964, the year that the term ‘gentrification’ was first coined by the innovative urban sociologist Ruth Glass. Glass saw gentrification as neither an exacerbation of ‘class cleavages’ nor their overcoming; rather she saw it as part of an urban process that resulted in ‘the superimposition of a criss-cross web of social divisions, which has as yet been hardly recognized’. In many ways Glass spent her career trying to recognise these complex webs of social divisions (she was an early exponent of the critical study of ethnic ‘zoning’ in urban space) and the way that they obscured social power. At the same time that Glass was writing, a major experiment in social housing was being rolled-out across most major urban conglomerations across the globe: the high-rise housing block and its attendant support systems (or lack of them). The 1960s also witnessed a number of urban experiments ‘from below’: communes, squatting, community action. In retrospect the 1960s look like it established many of the terms for future urban developments, yet this moment of flourishing innovations in urban creativity (on both a large scale and on much smaller scales) today is often looked at as a critical and social failure. What can be reclaimed from this moment? Given that ‘gentrification’ is often seen as the motor of urban change are there ways of harnessing its productivity (which is often first witnessed as a rise in artistic activity) in ways that are socially inclusive and don’t result in exorbitant rent hikes and exclusionary house prices? Are there energies to be recovered from the rejection of automobiles from mass housing schemes? And how, today, can we build on the energies of a ‘collectivity from below’?