Urban Futures: Critical Commentaries on Shaping the City

By Malcolm Miles; Tim Hall | Go to book overview

2

Differencing the City: Urban Identities and the Spatial Imagination

DOROTHY ROWE

They open a door and all they've got behind it is a bathroom or a lounge. Just neutral spaces. And not this endless maze of present rooms and past rooms and the things said in them years ago and everybody's old historical shit all over the place

(Zadie Smith, White Teeth, 2000:514)

The frustration that Irie Jones articulates in this public outburst to her parents and their friends whilst travelling by bus across London (from Willesden Lane to Trafalgar Square, from suburban periphery to national centre), seems an appropriate starting point for a chapter that concerns itself with speculations on urban futures and cultural identity. In her irritation, the teenage Irie compares her own family existence (as the mixed-race daughter of a black Jamaican-born, England-raised mother and a white English father, who is also pregnant by one of the identical twin sons of her father's Bengali best friend and war compatriot) with her imagined vision of how she perceives other families in Britain to be. The idea that there are any 'neutral spaces' is of course just that: an imagined concept that deftly serves to foreground Irie's own struggle for a postcolonial subjective identity within contemporary Britain. 1White Teeth is a resolutely urban novel. It both exposes the contradictions inherent in any easy search for a stable cultural identity within a small metropolitan cross-section of society that is constantly in flux, and facilitates explorations, such as this one, into the possibilities for cultural identity and urban futures. Indeed, as Stuart Hall has observed:

cultural identity is a matter of 'becoming' as well as 'being'. It belongs to the future as much as to the past. It is not something which already exists, transcending time, place, history and culture. Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories … they are subject to the continuous 'play' of history, culture and power.

(Hall, 1990, cited in Hall and Sealy, 2001:103-4)

In particular, it is the role of the city in the continuous re-invention of cultural identity and the concomitant 'play' of history that is central to this chapter. City identity is something that I have explored within the context of western art historical modernism for the past few years (Rowe in Meskimmon and West, 1995; Rowe, 1995; and Rowe, 2003). Caught up as an Asian woman in the hybridity of my own adoptive Anglo-German upbringing, Imperial and Weimar Berlin have been and still are central to my professional concerns as an art historian. However, it is the recognition that European urban modernity was predicated not only on the power of industry, speed and communication technology 'at home', but precisely on the economic prosperity that such developments could be used to forcibly harness 'abroad', that any consideration of European modernist culture should by default take account of its interdependence on the colonial 'other'. It is the significance of modernism and its implications for the present that has directed me towards a 'different' conceptualisation of the city for the purposes of this chapter. 2 As Homi Bhaba has exorted, 'the Western metropole must confront its post-colonial history, told by

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