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Secret Cities

Göran Dahlberg writes that cities in and of themselves are becoming more separate and unequal in geography and civic values, resulting in states of exception becoming the rule.

secret-citiesAccording to the UN, more than half of the world’s population will, by some point this year, be found in cities. And life in most cities is rapidly evolving as borders within borders separate urban communities. Many of these are temporary, but have been for a long time, as different kinds of states of exception are becoming ever more permanent.

Borders surround communities that wish to keep themselves secret, such as gated communities, but they also ring communities that are kept secret in more subtle ways, such as slum areas and refugee camps: those who do not want to be found and those who are not to be found. Although their raison d’être differs, these communities have many characteristics in common – withdrawal, isolation, opaqueness, privatisation and fear, among others – and they are marked by the illusion of secrecy. They are flip sides of the same coin. Other kinds of borders also criss-cross geography: ticket controls on public transport, the registration requirements for medical care or education, for example, also separate citizens from non-citizens. Imposed secrecy becomes a matter of distorted visibility.

It is fear that is apparent on both sides of the borders; whether you have fenced yourself in or have been cut off, enemies are pointed out with great confidence. The external threat makes whatever the insiders have in common show itself clearly. It is easy to think that the higher and more opaque the walls, the less threatening both the inside and the outside will appear. That is, however, not the case. With rising walls the act of pointing hardly decreases; rather, it becomes an internal affair.

The Growth Of Secrecy

Poverty is visible, but manifested in disputed figures. Estimates of the numbers of people living in a particular slum community often differ radically depending on the source. In Jakarta, for example, the proportion of slum dwellers to the city’s overall population in the early 2000s was officially 5 percent, yet independent studies suggested that the figure was at least 25 percent. So, in effect, 20 percent of the city’s population was kept secret. And in huge slum areas such as Khayelitsha in Cape Town or Kibera in Nairobi, figures can differ by more than 10 percent. According to the latest estimate from UN Habitat, slum areas in general are growing by about 25 million people each year – a greater rate than urbanisation in general.

Meanwhile, gated communities are the fastest growing products on the housing market – all in the name of safety, security and investment. The gated lifestyle was originally created for the elderly and the rich, but it increasingly attracts younger people, not only in poor or extremely unequal societies with a high incidence of violent crime, but also in northern Europe, where gated housing is fast becoming a symbol of ideal living. Yet, many of those who want to live in a gated community argue that they don’t want to live exclusively with people who are like themselves. They seem to be as confused as they are afraid.

And in a move that Slavoj Zizek, the philosopher and theorist, calls the virtualisation of reality, residents of some communities in California are avoiding unreliable and expensive guard personnel, problems with waste disposal and other social services, by erecting fences and a (mostly unattended) sentry box to mark the borders of their safety zones – akin to drinking coffee without caffeine or beer without alcohol.

Permanent Exceptions

Less visible or more virtualised walls are harder to deal with. Sometimes the divisions are tolerated, sometimes not. The states of exception have, like in the case of Egypt and its continuous state of emergency, seemingly become permanent. In terms of the geography of cities, the exception has become the rule. In some Palestinian refugee camps, the inhabitants have declined the UN’s efforts to build underground sewerage systems to replace the current open gutters. The new and obviously better system would be a permanent solution, cloaking the illegal occupation of Palestinian land and the right of return,  realities that are tangible and should remain visible until a resolution is arrived at.

When you are living in a community separated by borders that you do not control and someone from the outside tells you: “Become like us and we will make the border disappear,” you know that it is not possible. The borders are going to be constructed in other ways with new names. And when a fellow member of your community says: “You will never be like them. We are the ones who want you the way you are, in your …ness”, you know that there is no such essence to you.

Gaters and encroachers, those who fence themselves in and those who are forced to encroach upon spaces, are compelled by a desire for a safe and secure home and for independence. Both groups believe themselves to be forced by circumstance to live the way they do; both dwell in the grey zones of the law; and both have reacted to the failure of state and municipality to meet their needs.

Such communities have become increasingly necessary exceptions to the dominant economic and political system. They are tolerated as long as they don’t challenge the foundations of these systems. So far, they don’t. They are rather enforcing it, and paradoxically turning it into the foundation of another system. This exceptional status appears to suit both those who choose it and those who are subjected to it: the city dwellers who are keeping themselves secret behind walls, and sometimes also the people cut off and kept secret in the slums and the refugee camps. Most of all, it suits the people who benefit from the borders to keep the secrets secret.

 

 

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