Earlier this year I was asked to speak at an Architects for Peace event in Melbourne, where they screened Andrea Luka Zimmerman’s Tasķafa: Stories of the Street (2013). This film, or ‘documentary essay’ as Zimmerman calls it, is loosely based on John Berger’s novel King: A Street Story. Zimmerman herself describes this book as ‘a story of hope, dreams, love and resistance, told from the perspective of a dog belonging to a community facing disappearance, even erasure’.
In contrast, in Taşkafa, she writes, ‘this voice is gifted to a wider network and range of perspectives: to dogs, a city and, finally, to history.’ It is most of all a film about redemption, tenderness, and the strays that occupy present-day bustling Istanbul. It touches on the sordid history of exile events that occurred in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries involving the mass deportation of dogs to isolated parts of the city. These have, as the film reveals, tainted hound-human relationships in Turkey ever since. And in some ways, we can understand the street dogs as being early victims of the modern Ottoman state; the Armenian genocide following shortly after.
The last of these evictions took place in 1910, and involved the relocation of some 80,000 street dogs to a small island called Sivriada in the Sea of Marmara. Eerily reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s recent Isle of Dogs, Istanbul’s strays were abandoned far from sight, with no access to food or water. An internet search reveals a black and white photograph showing crowds of the recently deported dogs on the pebbled foreshore of a gently curved bay. Another shows packs of them perched on an outcrop of protruding rocks amidst the calm surf.
Apparently the dog’s desperate howls carried across the water and were heard at night in the city’s streets, taunting the residents with their own barbarity, before their miserable deaths following bouts of enforced cannibalism. The rationale behind this canine annihilation was an organised program of thorough street sweeping catalysed by a municipal urge to modernise Istanbul. Regarded as potential menace, public nuisance and risk to both civic order and sanitation, the street dogs were removed as a means of modernising the city to make it more palatable to the European gaze.
Through interviews with shop keepers, street vendors, the homeless and propertied residents, Zimmerman’s film touches on the crucial and always relevant notions of urban space, precarity and revitalisation. It focuses on the contemporary plight of street dogs in Istanbul, who returned to significant numbers post WWI, and illuminates the compassion with which they are now treated in what could almost be interpreted as a collective act of absolution. It is said that each mass expulsion of the strays was accompanied by a natural disaster in the city, regarded by the people as divine retributions for their brutal undertakings.
The film reveals a community displaying tenderness to these dogs that I suspect viewers in Australian cities couldn’t begin to comprehend. These more-than-human companions are not tolerated in return for the services they provide to humans, as assistance dogs in our public spaces are tolerated. Rather they constitute a key part of street life because, quite simply, that is where they belong; off leash and somehow majestic despite their often mangy appearance.
Numerous scenes throughout the film show the generous offerings left out for dogs by residents. Cut-off plastic bottles serve as bowls of food and water for the strays who all appear to be rather lovingly named. Anecdotes from interviewees, often humorous, indicate just how important these animals are in the city streets.
John Berger narrates passages from his novel King: A Street Story throughout the film; breaking up the street interviews and images with his lispy, sonorous voice. Perhaps the most crushing of these passages relates a conversation between the book’s main human character, Vico, a homeless man, and the protagonist King, a dog:
A mistake, King, is hated more than an enemy. Mistakes don’t surrender as enemies do. There’s no such thing as a defeated mistake. Mistakes either exist or they don’t, and if they do, they have to be covered over. We are their mistake, King. Never forget that.
It is crushing because it touches on the tragedy that is concerted forgetting; a practice so routinised in our own cities. Routinised not only by those who design and regulate these spaces, but also by those of us who pass through them, often unaware of what is being ‘covered over’ and forgotten as we appropriate the city with our consumption or employment or socialising.
In Australia’s rapidly redeveloping cities, we appear to be adept at cloaking the everyday impacts of dominant planning practice. Particularly, we cloak how contemporary, and enduring modes of governing have enforced displacements and erasures of certain bodies, both human and more-than-human, from privileged urban spaces. These become our blind fields, our conscious and perverse redactions of both time and space; history and belonging. And as Berger writes, they must be covered up so that we may carry on, unquestioning the status quo.
Or as Sartre, ever perceptive, noted, ‘we must know the truth very exactly in order to conceal it’.
Before the screening of this curious and almost other-worldly film, I spoke about Melbourne’s urban renaissance narrative to the small crowd that gathered at Bargoonga Nganjin, the North Fitzroy Library. This is the celebratory story this city tells itself, and the world, about its rising from the ashes; its transformation from a ‘doughnut city to a café society’ affected at the end of the twentieth century. It is a story about people and place, and like all urban stories, it is rife with historical silences.
My research looks for counter-memories—subjugated histories—which sit in the shadows of the dominant planning stories that we tell ourselves about our city. I’m particularly interested in what I call alternative planning imaginaries, or other ‘ways of seeing’ to deploy a Berger term, or ‘another way of telling’ to use one of his other familiar phrases.
These alternative planning imaginaries unsettle the dominant narratives that define ideal urban form in our entrepreneurial city, where space is commodified and almost sterilised to suit a particular type of citizen; the consumer. And to suit a particular worldview of progress; one based firmly on endless growth, materialised starkly in Melbourne’s precocious suburban and vertical sprawls.
I’m not saying that the vibrancy and liveability that we have come to expect of Melbourne is to be rejected. But I am interested in who and what is left out of this framing. And which historical memories we have erased in order to bolster this version of our ‘spectacular city’.
In excavating quieter, more sidelined stories, I am in effect, rubbing against the grain of official planning history. A very necessary task.
As for so many others, John Berger has been my intellectual lodestar for many years. His prose, poetry and essays guide my thinking in myriad ways. I recall an author describing Berger as a writer who ‘thinks with feeling’, and another who highlighted the core question of his work as being ‘in what ways do we belong to the world’. Both of these attributes seem necessary to those of us who think critically about urban space in the contemporary city, where finance capitalism so often overrides human logic with speculative need, resulting in subsequent high vacancies, and dialectically, pervasive homelessness.
Often there is no real concern for belonging as we deregulate our urban space; handing chunks of it over to global capital for the colonising. Expanding the state government’s tax base without sufficient distribution of that revenue to ensuring the poor can safely and securely belong in our cities.
John Berger is well known for his BBC television series, Ways of Seeing, from 1972, which later became a best-selling book. In this work, he provides the reader/viewer with ‘not only an idea but also an invitation to see and know the world differently’. As Ali Smith wrote in her commemorative essay on Berger, it was this powerful debunking of visual hegemony that made her realise that ‘there is more than just seeing, there are WAYS of seeing’. And this is because, as Berger argues, ‘the relation between what we see and what we know is never settled’.
As planners, architects, designers, commuters, consumers, and everyday people in the city, I wonder, what do we see in urban landscapes? What don’t we see? And how might we see and know the city differently?
Zimmerman has said of Tasķafa that ‘it is made as part of an ongoing resistance against a single way of seeing and having to be’. She is drawing on Berger’s notion of ‘looking’ as inherently political. ‘We only see what we look at’, he writes, ‘to look is an act of choice.’
But what I’m interested in is what we look away from, what we unsee in urban landscapes. What kind of act is this? And what are the implications of our looking away from certain bodies with regards to how we are designing and regulating urban space? Although Zimmerman focused on the more-than-human in her film, she clearly states that it is ‘not finally about dogs’, but rather about how we see and know and share our cities beyond the glare of hyper-commodified space.
The unseeing within planning discourse and practice keeps certain bodies in the margins, particularly with regards to the violence through which social relations are remade as cities develop and change. The violence that I speak of is the ordinary violence of the everyday: chronic, not catastrophic. This is a pernicious, banal, and often normalised violence, or what Walter Benjamin called a law-preserving violence.
As legal scholar Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos argues, ‘spatial justice is entirely contingent upon the violence of space, brimming with unequally strong bodies vying for the same spatial emplacement, same resources, same privileges and same temporalities’.
An example of this unseeing of certain bodies, and the chronic everyday violence that results, is found in Melbourne’s urban renaissance narrative. This oft-quoted planning story is founded on the premise in popular imagination that the central city was a hollowed-out core. A doughnut city.
Depopulation was certainly an issue, as with many postwar cities, however what is striking is that the marginal inhabitants were, and continue to be, invisibilised in the retelling of Melbourne’s transformation.
Market-oriented urban policies and frameworks in the 1990s focused on the supposed emptiness and decrepitude of the inner core; stressing the need for repopulation, and developer capital, to ensure vitality, diversity and economic stimulus. The precarious city-dwellers merged into this agenda of renewal. They came to be seen as obsolete, decayed and unproductive much like the inner area itself.
‘Postcode 3000’, the policy framework driving the urban transformation, focused on relaxing planning controls, and stimulating the property market, to maximise residential development in the inner-city. The problem, according to policy makers at the time, was clearly represented to be the absence of an inner-city population that could reinforce the commercial prospects of the city. In other words, Melbourne needed well-resourced inhabitants who would remain, and consume, at the end of the working day. Crudely put, the city needed people who would drink coffee on the footpath.
The strategy was an apparent success. Melbourne has only recently finished its reign of seven consecutive years as The Economist’s most liveable city.
A recent monograph charting this dramatic re-birth titled Urban Choreography traces the design transformations of the central city. Melbourne, the introduction states, ‘is now emerging as a city with a depth of character and urban buzz that is palpable, ineffable and unfinished’. These are certainly the characteristics of Melbourne’s transformation that have been celebrated globally and firmly retailed.
However, as a reviewer of that book lamented, ‘Few of the contributors…attempt to identify the transformation’s wider implications, including the key question of who has benefited from the changes’. I argue that the beneficiaries are obvious, and standard to urban renewal stories globally. The more relevant question is who remains unseen in the retelling of this narrative, and what are the enduring implications of this with regards to spatial justice in Melbourne today?
The erasure of certain bodies from Melbourne’s urban renaissance narrative harkens back to a problem which was identified in planning thought at the time; the worrying emergence of a ‘doughnut city’. A city that was hollowed-out of desirables and needing stimulation.
Fixation on solving the problem of the ‘doughnut city’ meant no policies were put in place to support those who did occupy the city, but with fragile tenurial relationships and tenuous footholds in the housing market. Propositions were suggested, but nothing was followed through. This was a symptom of an existing tenancy rights crisis in the inner city; and issue which continues to plague contemporary metropolitan Melbourne.
My survey of archival documentation and discussion with outreach workers employed during this time, reveal that Melbourne’s ‘doughnut city’ was replete with cheap accommodation that housed the homeless. This included private rooming and lodging houses, cheap hotels, crisis and emergency accommodation. Clearly, as is common with most last-resort refuges, much of this accomodation was not ideal. Indeed, conditions were often abysmal, violence was frequent and secure tenure was almost unheard of. All of these challenges, however, could have been rectified if these people were appropriately acknowledged and political will was present.
The so-called ‘doughnut city’ of the 1980s offered approximately 4000 affordable beds to those in need. Today, there are around 160 available as ‘crisis accommodation’ in the central city and inner suburbs, with approximately 400 last-resort beds available in total in the metropolitan area. This is extreme atrophy. It is all the more shocking when we acknowledge that there has been no net growth in Victoria’s public housing stock since this time, and social housing continues to decline as a proportion of all housing stock. At a national scale, Anglicare’s recent ‘Rental Affordability Snapshot’ revealed there were no rental properties in any of Australia’s capital cities affordable for singles on unemployment benefits.
With this displacement, and the current housing crisis in mind, the ongoing laudatory reminiscing of Melbourne’s revitalisation in public commentary appears ill informed and distasteful. It effectively erases all memory of a city that offered housing in its more accessible, central core to those in need.
This history of homeless occupation, and the geographies of displacement that were subsequently unleashed by Melbourne’s urban renewal process, remain largely undocumented in the city’s planning history. Contemporary homelessness is now almost naturalised as a matter of fact, intractable and entrenched; the regrettable other face of our liveable city. As sociologist Zygmunt Bauman made clear, ‘the poor will always be with us’. However, what we are not so confident about, he goes on, is ‘the tricky question of how the poor are made to be poor and came to be seen as poor’.
The disregard for the un-commodified body within the popular and planning imagination has perpetuated ongoing tensions with regards to visibility and recognition in Melbourne’s central city. There is an urge, in contemporary Melbourne, to unsee homelessness. This doesn’t mean that it is hidden; that these people stop existing. On the contrary homelessness has become almost hyper-visible, and yet we often choose not to see, we choose to look away. This notion of unseeing is about social optics, not physical presence.
Initiatives such as lockers to store the personal belongings of the precariously housed can be regarded as well-intentioned and necessary but also as a way of normalising and disciplining homeless presence in the absence on any viable housing policy. There is also an urge to incapacitate, with changes to the City of Melbourne’s homelessness protocol moving from a more ‘rights’ based approach to a ‘compliance’ approach. Congregating numbers are restricted, belongings are confiscated.
The so-called ‘activated’ central core is not tolerant of the city’s surplus population. There are fewer and fewer places for the homeless to belong, beyond the radius of service providers were they present as transitory clients.
To be sure, visible homelessness has become emblematic of the City of Melbourne in recent years. An estimated 400 people sleep rough every night in Melbourne’s CBD and inner suburbs, although methods of quantitative census deployed by the biennial StreetCount are limited because members of this cohort, particularly women, seek out hidden places.
Regardless of the actual numbers, the homeless have become impressively visible in recent years. We see them camped in alcoves and doorways, begging and sleeping. We move around their belongings that creep out onto the thoroughfares. We buy Big Issues. We look away.
This visibility, of course, is in addition to the more concealed homeless, the marginally housed, which amounts to some 82,000 people on Victoria’s public housing waiting list; expanding, it is estimated, at roughly 500 names a month. The Council to Homeless Persons argues that Victoria suffers a current staggering shortfall of some 103,000 social housing properties.
This is not to downplay the immense work that homelessness advocates are doing to pressure the government for greater investment in public housing, which is certainly shining a light on the dire situation. But, when you have a state government that commits two billion dollars to the development of a new prison and other correctional facility upgrades in their budget, and only 200 million to public housing, one begins to wonder, cynically, whether they presume incarceration might substitute for the housing needs of the homeless. This warehousing of the disenfranchised would certainly be a sweeping of the streets.
John Berger’s essay ‘The Soul and the Operator’ was published before the turn of the century, but is equally applicable to today. He writes:
The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but the result of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied—except by individuals—but written off as trash. The twentieth century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.
I wonder, to those of us exposed to the cruel realities of our city’s streets, what do the swelling ranks of visibly homeless signify? What are these rough sleepers a reminder of? Individuals down on their luck, or people erased from place, made hyper-visible in their loss.
As AbdouMaliq Simone and Edgar Pieterse, urbanists and academics, write in their recent publication New Urban Worlds: Inhabiting dissonant times, ‘part of the seemingly constant redoing of urban life, its inherent restlessness, pushing and shoving people and things around, stems from an ongoing obsession with redemption. Here the inheritances of the past now to be remade, preserved or effaced in the present need to be redeemed…’.
Earlier this year, Melbourne witnessed another murder of a young woman, Courtney Herron, in our public space, proving once again that it takes catastrophic violence to highlight the chronic, everyday violence that the homeless are subjected to—those who must sleep in hidden places, and often die there. Our collective concern regrettably wanes with time, and we find ourselves looking away from the housing crisis which plagues Australian cities, distracted instead by congestion and transport infrastructure cost blowouts. We fool ourselves thinking socio-technical fixes will satiate our needs in future cities, rather than accepting that housing crises undermine, and always will, our urban life.
Berger questions in another of his essays, ‘A Professional Secret’, ‘Is it possible that the courage not to shut one’s eyes can offer another kind of redemption?’ And I think that this should be our commitment. To forge new ways of seeing, of not looking away, as Zimmerman has done in her film and Berger did relentlessly in his written work. And so come face to face with the often-cruel realities, and inheritances, of our urban space. Perhaps it is from here that we can come closer to enacting change, by cultivating what Berger called an ‘undefeated despair’ that catalyses us into action alongside the most vulnerable.
Claire Collie is a landscape sociologist, mother and gardener. She tweets @clairevcollie
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