Who does the city belong to? Isn’t that question settled once for all?

“Who does the city belong to?” It is the first question asked in every classroom, lecture, seminar, workshop, conference on urban planning and management. Isn’t the answer to it too obvious and settled once for all? Or are we not asking question for the sake of questioning? Probably, we are. City is for its people. City belongs to its people, its citizenry. The root of word citizen is certainly city. “Who does the city belongs to?” is not a relevant question any more. What we need to ask ourselves is how we are going to meander through the interest of various social groupings based on caste, class, religion and other criteria, without losing the essence of diversity in a city.

In the “neo-liberal” times of ours, as they say, there is growing anxiety to reclaim public spaces. The reclamation narrative has a particular tone and language attached which belongs to those who are affluent.  It seems that there is a conscious effort to ensure that there is uniformity in the character of reclamation.

Sometimes I feel that this urban space reclamation is a new fad of upper middle class and middle class artsy fartsy people. What reclamation, it is all gentrification, isn’t it? They shall reclaim spaces from ‘authorities’ and those who run ‘illegitimate businesses’, yes, while reclaiming they all be superbly nostalgic about past, which probably was not very different from present in so many ways.

To add to my ramblings, almost every second or third day, late in the night around 1 -2 am while passing through Hosur road I see “working class” women standing and waiting for trucks to come and pick up the garlands they have made during the day. Aren’t the roads and city unsafe for them at those late hours? They too take that challenge of being out at late hours and most of the times ‘Unaccompanied’ by men. But their struggle is not worth celebrating as a part of mission urban reclamation, it is only when few middle class and upper middle class women who declare themselves to be feminists move around late in the night under the ambit of ‪#‎whyloiter campaign that we shall applaud.

While I don’t intend to question the legitimacy of such campaigns, they have their own place in our societies. And let me also acknowledge they at times do change perceptions but their view is too narrow and restricted. All that is fine, but, what I don’t understand, why is picking waste from streets of the city at four in the morning and selling it later for recycling, or loading garlands in the trucks at two in the night not a tactic to lay claim over the city- a way to make cities safe.

Remember Jane Jacobs, eyes on street? Leave aside appreciating; it is not even worth acknowledging, for man such campaign organizers- these women don’t even exist. Or if they do, it is too banal- for our always out on street but still arm chair activists! Not so juicy story for sold out still claiming to be independent and free media.

There I end in the middle as I’ve to go out to reclaim the city during the midnight hour! Yes, the city belongs to me, to you and others too. It belongs to those who loiter, it belongs to those who pick waste, it belongs to those who have already slept, those who are drunk and smoking their heart out, it also belongs to those who are assaulting and those who are being assaulted. Maybe the last part is too much, but isn’t it true? ‘Who does the city belong to?’

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One thought on “Who does the city belong to? Isn’t that question settled once for all?

  1. You raise a lot of interesting issues. I think the upper middle class interest in public spaces is complex. Surely gentrification is there. That is a complex issue. We know it is better and safer to have vibrant mixed income neighborhoods than walled ones where people exit the gates and drive to the malls. (In that way, urban villages are healthier than upper class colonies–in part because they are more mixed and more alive.) But with gentrification often comes displacement, of course.

    I think it is good when middle class women assert their right to public spaces. The Why Loiter folks are right to point out that the effort to separate them from public spaces is tied to the idea that we need to sanitize our areas of ‘bad’ (i.e., poor, Muslim, low caste) men. In fact, sanitized neighborhoods are not safer for anyone–rich women, poor women, or men, for that matter. Lively streets are safer for everyone.

    By the way, I think the Why Loiter folks are onto something interesting, but I agree that even if they make a very interesting point between the relationship between the demonization of working class men and control of middle class women, there is more to be said about the plight of working class women. I recently was in Hong Kong and spent a Sunday in two public spaces that were taken over by tens of thousands of working class house hold workers on their off day. They were loitering, they were having fun, and it was powerful. It seemed clear to me that their collective access to public space had to have an impact on them as workers and people, not just women. Something to think about. We don’t have anything like this in Delhi, and we should.

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