Zero-slum game

Danny Dor­ling on end­ing ur­ban squalor

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE - Slums: The His­tory of a Global In­jus­tice By Alan Mayne Reak­tion Books 320pp, £25.00 ISBN 9781780238098 Pub­lished 28 Au­gust 2017 Danny Dor­ling is the Hal­ford Mackinder pro­fes­sor of ge­og­ra­phy at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford. His lat­est book, The Equal­ity Ef

The word “slum” is a rel­a­tively re­cent ad­di­tion to the English lan­guage. Alan Mayne would like to see it die out. It is an in­sult, he claims, al­though he does not draw analo­gies with other per­haps more ob­vi­ous in­sults. “Ur­ban poverty is real,” he writes, “and so are dis­ad­van­taged neigh­bour­hoods, but slums are not.”

He has a point, but I sus­pect the word “slum” is too use­ful to lose. It is not sim­ply deroga­tory; not just a de­ceit. I sus­pect we’ll see the clumsy phrase “dis­ad­van­taged neigh­bour­hood” dis­ap­pear from our lex­i­con much ear­lier than we lose the word “slum”.

“Slum” is en­trenched: slum area, slum clear­ance, slum hous­ing, slum land­lord, slum tourism, slum youth (slum­dog). It has sunk it­self in too deep for the word to be quickly lost or ban­ished; it will have to be re­claimed, like “queer” and “folk”.

“Slum” ar­rived in English in the 1860s or 1870s and is of mys­te­ri­ous ori­gin – a word spo­ken long be­fore it was writ­ten down. Shortly af­ter­wards, or so Mayne claims, “Re­form­ers and en­ter­tain­ers had to­gether cre­ated the slum de­ceits” that make up the stereo­types as­so­ci­ated with the word. Slums, he says, have con­no­ta­tions of de­fi­ciency: they evoke il­lu­sions of sep­a­ra­tion from the city, and of be­ing the home of the “other”; a place that’s a breed­ing ground for crime.

In truth, slums dif­fer greatly from one an­other. The peo­ple within them are not de­fi­cient in any­thing but money and luck. The city re­lies on the peo­ple of the slum; they are not of a sep­a­rate kind, apart from the fact that they are made to ap­pear dif­fer­ent through stereo­typ­ing. As for crime, crime hap­pens ev­ery­where, but to­day most of­ten and most dan­ger­ously by the peo­ple who drive cars too fast. The most com­mon crime in the world is speed­ing. Slum dwellers mostly don’t own cars.

Mayne’s ar­gu­ment is en­tic­ing. It could be used to link con­tem­po­rary cam­paigns against gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and so­cial cleans­ing in Lon­don with ac­tivism against crude slum clear­ing in the poor­est of the world’s cities to­day. How­ever, he ig­nores the suc­cess of re­form­ers and the re­al­ity that some jour­nal­ists and writ­ers por­trayed. (A good ex­am­ple is Friedrich En­gels’ de­scrip­tion of the short-lived Lit­tle Ire­land slum in Manch­ester in The Con­di­tion of the Work­ing Class in Eng­land.)

For a few years as a stu­dent in the 1980s I lived in the part of the Ben­well area of New­cas­tle upon Tyne that was later slum­cleared. It was not just the cheap- est part of the city, it was also the most run­down. Prop­erty was worth lit­tle.

My mum vis­ited one day and hap­pened to say to the woman on the step next door: “It’s nice here, isn’t it?”

“You don’t have to live here,” replied the neigh­bour. Within a few years, no one did. To­day the area is green fields.

My mum was not be­ing face­tious. She thought that the Ben­well flats we lived in were nice and large. As a child she had seen the damp in­sides of the back-to­back flats near her home in Leeds. They too were al­most all slum-cleared. There was no way of prop­erly ven­ti­lat­ing them, let alone putting in fire es­capes – the flats only had a front door so there was no other way out, and the back room had no win­dows. Mayne sug­gests that adding a bath to such hous­ing would have made it hab­it­able. Not by to­day’s stan­dards.

The Ty­ne­side flats of Ben­well had not been ren­o­vated for decades. Damp had risen to the

sec­ond storeys and the roofs were get­ting near to be­ing be­yond re­pair. They could have been saved, but they had be­come a slum be­cause they had been left to de­cay for too long. The rich of the city had ne­glected Ben­well. The rich of Eng­land had ne­glected New­cas­tle.

Slums are not made by the poor but by the rich, or at least by some be­com­ing richer. They are ar­eas where many (if not most) prop­er­ties are un­fit for hu­man habi­ta­tion, but what is seen as be­ing un­fit – like the ma­te­rial goods you must lack to be seen as poor – changes over time.

As liv­ing stan­dards im­prove, what was once seen as de­cent hous­ing be­comes slum hous­ing. And if hous­ing across an area is ne­glected, it will de­te­ri­o­rate into a slum. This is just one way in which the word could be re­claimed rather than aban­doned and dis­cred­ited.

“Un­fit for hu­man habi­ta­tion” means dam­ag­ing to health. Slum hous­ing, along with sew­er­age and rub­bish dis­posal, has been a pub­lic health is­sue for as long as we have un­der­stood the im­por­tance of pub­lic health. Mayne dis­parag­ingly points out that the term “un­fit for hu­man oc­cu­pa­tion” was still used by a Bri­tish MP in 2015. He may not be aware that an an­nual sur­vey of English hous­ing is car­ried out to as­sess its fit­ness.

Mayne also points out that slum clear­ing is of­ten an ex­cuse for land grab­bing by the rich; but it has not al­ways been that way, and need not al­ways be so. In the past in Bri­tain, pri­vate-sec­tor slums were re­placed with de­cent pub­lic-sec­tor hous­ing. Peo­ple could not be­lieve they were be­ing so well housed. In Ja­pan, high­erqual­ity multi-level apart­ments which house more peo­ple bet­ter than be­fore re­placed two-storey slums in very re­cent mem­ory. But con­tem­po­rary Ja­pan is as eq­ui­table to­day as the UK was at the height of pub­lic home build­ing.

Slum clear­ance tends to be a land grab by the rich mostly in times and places of high eco­nomic in­equal­ity. Mayne col­lects ex­am­ple af­ter ex­am­ple of slum dwellers be­ing stereo­typed and dis­par­aged, as “in­ca­pable” or “in­ad­e­quate and un­able to cope”. This is use­ful, and the quan­tity of such ex­am­ples is shock­ing. But the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of slums has not al­ways been about sham­ing a group sin­gled out as liv­ing be­low a line of sup­posed de­cency.

The global in­jus­tice this book seeks to ad­dress is the in­jus­tice of la­belling peo­ple as slum dwellers. How­ever, hav­ing to live in slums is at least as great an in­jus­tice. Iden­ti­fy­ing groups of peo­ple with­out work has not al­ways been an ex­er­cise in sham­ing the work­less, or in sug­gest­ing that they do not have work be­cause they are some­how lack­ing. Sim­i­larly, iden­ti­fy­ing groups of peo­ple as be­ing in­ad­e­quately housed, as liv­ing in slums, is not al­ways an ex­er­cise in sham­ing the slum dwellers.

The same can be said for those who are il­lit­er­ate. Iden­ti­fy­ing a group as not be­ing able to read is not al­ways about fo­cus­ing on their be­ing de­fi­cient but some­times about ac­cept­ing that to­day it is nec­es­sary to be able to read. That was not the case a cen­tury ago when many peo­ple could not read. And it may not be the case in a cen­tury’s time if ma­chines read for us.

The word “slum” and what it de­scribes might even­tu­ally end up be­ing tem­po­rary, as the au­thor would wish. Af­ter all, slums are about mass ur­ban­i­sa­tion, a process that is draw­ing towards an end as the world’s pop­u­la­tion moves to sta­bilise at between 9 and 11 bil­lion, and cities no longer grow ever larger.

Slums need not al­ways be with us. But all hous­ing has a shelf life. Even­tu­ally it all needs to be re­placed. Work­ing out how to re­place hous­ing in fu­ture with­out the emer­gence of new slums will be part of work­ing out how we live as an ur­ban species. Only then will we no longer need the word “slum”.

Slums are about mass ur­ban­i­sa­tion, a process that is draw­ing to an end as the world’s pop­u­la­tion sta­bilises and cities no longer grow

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