‘Whose Streets?’ is a new History Workshop Online feature which reappraises the history and heritage of streets as politically active rather than neutral territories in the organisation of public life. This series of short articles, each accompanied by a mapped ‘spatial story’, invokes a range of cities (Amsterdam, Sheffield, Tulsa, London, Turku and New York) and voices (urbanists, literary scholars, historians of activism, digital heritage specialists and community leaders).
This brief article is intended as a point of departure rather than as a thematic itinerary of the ‘Whose Streets?’ series yet to come. It opens by thinking about what it means to live through the jarring collapse of public life in the midst of a pandemic and how this moment might stimulate new radical histories of the urban commons. Since the outbreak of COVID–19, familiar public spaces, neighbourhoods and streets have been transformed as lockdowns and social distancing restrictions change the way we live and move around in cities. Amid the life and death urgency of the public health response and growing possibility of post-vaccine recovery, the suspension of social contact can seem like a secondary issue. Yet concern is growing that the pandemic has accelerated the terminal decline of the urban public sphere and led to a form of ‘Agoracide’ despite the emergence of alternative online communities.
In the UK, late into a third long-drawn-out lockdown in early 2021, the need to recover the something missed which is afforded by peopled spaces feels overpowering: the warmth of the impromptu get together, the novelty of elbow jostling density, the awareness of felt proximity, mutuality and support. A sense of a wounding deficit at the heart of communal life is accompanied by a not always entirely rational fear that places of common assembly might not be fully recuperable. I am thinking here of the devastating contraction of industries which depend upon the commerce of public life for their survival, such as hospitality, live music, Arts and entertainment.
Pavement drawing outside school by Rowan Briggs Smith during Lockdown 2020. Music by Hungry (Spotify) ‘During lockdown 2020 I decided to make a pavement artwork outside Comberton Village College. I know my friends are missing being at school, and that the teachers are missing us too. I wanted to use my art as a voice to acknowledge that.’
These fears are inflamed by sections of the press that since early in the pandemic have launched a sustained reputational assault on visitors who gather at parks, shopping streets, beaches or to protest. The mass contravention of public health restrictions in these ‘hot spots’, is understood to be rife. Fulminating sensational reports about ‘covidiots’ are accompanied by heavily foreshortened images which give a misleading impression of the extent to which social distancing rules are being broken. These reports are biased towards multicultural and poorer metropolitan districts, and care little for the fact that many of those seeking outdoor space lack access to private outdoor spaces and gardens.
The ebbing away of the pandemic will present a tangible opportunity to look outwards towards radical models for occupying and being with others in public space; opportunities to abscond from the choreographed, compartmentalised and palid comfort of a Zoom chat or our own over-familiar households. There is hope that forces of renewal can spring from this gnawing sense of felt absence, and the contraction of a foreshortened public realm that is its correlate.
Cities in Denmark have seen an increase in the repurposing of public space for recreation, play and exercise. New forms of distanced interaction (a ‘new proxemics’) have led to the diminishment of the public realm and many spaces of sociability, but they have also called attention to the value and importance of streets as spaces of social infrastructure – as walkable, green and liveable locales.
Through their occupation of urban public spaces, the Black Lives Matter movement shines a light on historic mechanisms of policing, violence, surveillance and racist urban planning. This feature takes its cues from protest chants which challenge historical mechanisms of spatial power, and the codes, regulations and rhetorics of urban design that turn city streets against those they are meant to serve (through processes of regulation, gentrification, segregation, inequitable policing, privatisation, exclusion or securitisation).
Rather than acting as silent partners in the destruction of public life, it is imperative that producers of historical knowledge and commemorative agendas take account of the street and actively engage in the work of remaking the commons and ‘the social practice of commoning’. I hope that the ‘Whose Streets?’ feature will act as an extended strip map linking urban neighbourhoods together – amplifying radical histories of public space, and potentially generating new forms of proximity, affinity and solidarity across distance and time.
Peter Jones is an early career academic whose work examines the intersection between literary realism, mass entertainment and urban locality during the nineteenth century. Peter teaches at Queen Mary, and is working on a book project provisionally titled The “Roaring Cauldron”: The Dialogic Landscape of Victorian London. His published work focuses on the history of street markets and the way music halls shaped literary culture. He is Vice-President of the Literary London Society, a Fellow of the RSA and co-ordinated ‘Stray Voices’, a research network which explored the unsettled history of homelessness, and was supported by the School of Advanced Study. You can follow him on twitter @PTAJones.