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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Monday, October 14, 2002
    Territories at the edge
    David Sheppard writes about the 'inner city'. I'm with him, and I'm sure he'd agree with this niggle, but that phrase seems just a bit inadequate today, to describe the realities of the social and political urban landscape. A bit hackneyed (if you'll excuse the pun, Hackney being an example - it's hardly 'inner', it's out east, but its character fits Sheppard's descriptions of the areas of our conurbations which are lacking in resources, struggling, suffering, (old-fashioned word:) poor).

    In the years since he wrote Built as a City we've become far more aware of the poverty of outer estates, of pockets of rural deprivation, in addition to the difficulties of the inner cities. And trends in development seem to be turning back in favour of inner cities; my old Toxteth parish takes in recent riverside developments which transform it into a yacht-club paradise the far side of the dock road (with attendent problems and all sorts of issues - for another blog, not this one).

    The excellent www.spikemagazine.com today features an interview with Iain Sinclair (see previous blogs) on his new book London Orbital, which describes Sinclair's year 2000 walk around the M25. As the interviewer puts it:
      ... this was his unique project - to walk anti-clockwise around the motorway and the areas that it enclosed from Waltham Abbey, exploring the huge tranches of unknown territory that lay bounded by the M25 outside of the city centre. And in doing so, comprehending the scale of the invasion of commerce in these zones and witnessing, as it were, an invisible landscape disappear.
    One of his observations about what he found along the way concerned the recommendations of the Urban Task Force report, about housing for the South East, and the colossal amount of 'brownfield renewal' deemed necessary in and around the capital:
      "These seem to be projections made from a very privileged metropolitan standpoint about something that's going to happen 'out there', without true knowledge of just what actually is out there," he says. "The notion of decanting swathes of the populace into these amorphous nowheres, these liminal territories at the edge of the city is, I think, a nightmare prospect."
    Therein a hint about a new urban 'poverty' - or possibly old, dressed up differently: as the article continues,
      This, as London Orbital makes clear, is precisely what the city has always done with its undesirables and madmen. Sinclair - an altogether different kind of asylum seeker, but nonetheless wandering around, not knowing entirely where he is - says that he was amazed to find the French philosopher Michel Foucault's hypothesis about the optimum distance that asylums should be placed away from the city - 20 miles - so palpably confirmed.

      "I was dazzled by the Holloway Sanitarium [now Virginia Park] - the ultimate heritage - asylum conversion," he tells me. "The thing that disturbed me [about other asylum conversions] was the absence of memory - all traces of what had been there before had been cannily erased, including the name."
    So... no contradiction with David Sheppard, but enriching the discussion he engaged so well from the sixties to the nineties. Perhaps a new urban theology could adopt Sinclair's rich language, and build discussion around those 'territories at the edge'.