To paraphrase Marx, Covid “weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”. We are living the diminishment of the world. It is getting smaller.
We are not travelling as much: internationally, but also within countries, under lockdowns, and even between city neighbourhoods.
With official discouragement against non-essential travel, the city itself is changing, becoming localised.
People are shopping in nearby stores. Councils are establishing cycle lanes; an ecological measure, but also arising from anxiety about catching Covid on public transport. This chimes in with Carlos Moreno’s concept of the “fifteen minutes city”: whereby all amenities -shops, schools, surgeries- would be a short walk away.
Adopted by Paris Mayor, Anne Hidalgo, this presages a shift in our understanding of the city-form. London too is often seen as a series of ‘urban villages’, only now the centre itself is under threat.
Cultural critics have often attacked the soullessnesss of consumer society. But with our economy dependent on consumption, we now see what happens when it is removed from the urban fabric.
Central London is empty. But nationally, the high street was already declining, as shopping migrated online. This trend was accentuated during the pandemic, threatening businesses and jobs.
But there is a countertrend. The high street may be revived, as people want to escape their homes for a while.
Our street corner in Islington, for example, is becoming a ‘foodies corner’. We already had a butcher and fish shop, which regularly had queues outside, and now stretch round the block. Immediately before lockdown, a coffee shop also opened, which now attracts similar lines of customers. Plus, two delicatessens are starting business.
The idea of the ‘local’ is turning into the ‘locale’, a destination place. Perhaps we are seeing a new ‘new urbanism’: instead of glamorous high-rise offices, life within limits, the desire for community.
This fresh conviviality, however, is the product of deep need. Those sitting on the pavement kerb, with their beers and take-out coffees, crave connection: desperately seeking, someone, anyone.
We must also ask, who does this development serve?
Not everyone, but the middle class gentrifiers, who can afford the prices in these new shops, which serve these new epicures.
Urban regeneration always serves class interest.
The slogan of the ‘common good’ is a useful barb to deploy against officialdom, but is also an ideological obfuscation concealing sectional interests.
These changes, stores which don’t stock anything useful for low-income families, plus the rising house prices, could lead to increased resentment against incomers.
In creative quarters, like Hackney Wick, hipster artists live uneasily alongside the working class communities they have infiltrated.
But besides this parallel city, exist cultural contradictions within the petty bourgeois hipster sub-stratum.
For instance, although they support ecological concerns, and transition to full-blown veganism, they also long for the return of air-travel, so they can attend music festivals and cultural trails abroad. Instead of the Postcapitalism, envisaged by Paul Mason, these artisanal creatives are merely the freshest flower on the refuse tip of capitalism.