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#5- 29: Whose city is this?

Editorial: Whose City Is This?

In this issue we return to a leitmotif of our platform’s work since Chto Delat was formed in 2003 – the right to the city, specifically, the city where many of us live and work. Back then, during Petersburg’s tricentennial year, some of the group’s founding members organized an action, “New Foundations of Petersburg,” in which they demonstratively abandoned the historic center for the outskirts. There they symbolically laid the cornerstone for a new city informed by avant-garde practices in architecture, art, and social organization. In the manifesto they wrote for this occasion, they argued that the city’s political and cultural elite had resorted to a suffocatingly conservative rebranding of Petersburg’s history. Long-dead neoclassicism and art nouveau were promoted to the exclusion of other – revolutionary and dissident – currents in that same history: the brief flowering of the first avant-garde and constructivist architecture during the twenties and early thirties, and the nonconformist arts and literature community of the late Soviet period, not to mention the three political revolutions of the early twentieth century. Skipping over potholes underfoot and scanning a skyline of leaky rooftops as they wandered this distorted cityscape in their imaginations, the authors of this manifesto also rued the fact that not a single structure worthy of the term contemporary architecture had been built in Russia’s so-called cultural capital since Petersburg reverted to its original name in 1991.

In this issue we return to a leitmotif of our platform’s work since Chto Delat was formed in 2003 – the right to the city, specifically, the city where many of us live and work. Back then, during Petersburg’s tricentennial year, some of the group’s founding members organized an action, “New Foundations of Petersburg,” in which they demonstratively abandoned the historic center for the outskirts. There they symbolically laid the cornerstone for a new city informed by avant-garde practices in architecture, art, and social organization. In the manifesto they wrote for this occasion, they argued that the city’s political and cultural elite had resorted to a suffocatingly conservative rebranding of Petersburg’s history. Long-dead neoclassicism and art nouveau were promoted to the exclusion of other – revolutionary and dissident – currents in that same history: the brief flowering of the first avant-garde and constructivist architecture during the twenties and early thirties, and the nonconformist arts and literature community of the late Soviet period, not to mention the three political revolutions of the early twentieth century. Skipping over potholes underfoot and scanning a skyline of leaky rooftops as they wandered this distorted cityscape in their imaginations, the authors of this manifesto also rued the fact that not a single structure worthy of the term contemporary architecture had been built in Russia’s so-called cultural capital since Petersburg reverted to its original name in 1991.

What a difference seven years have seemingly made. Since 2003, the local powers that be have embraced a plan for “aggressive development.” It features the full neoliberal menu: architectural and infrastructural mega-projects (such as the Gazprom skyscraper project that is the focus of this number), mega-events (e.g., the 2006 G8 summit and the annual Petersburg International Economic Forum), promotion of high-end tourism, an allegedly investor-friendly climate, and, in recent months, gestures towards the “creative economy.”

To say that this developmental path is all wrong would be to ignore the considerable problems inherited from the socialist period by the city’s new administration. These include a huge quantity of dilapidated building and housing stock (pre- and post-Revolutionary), the largest number of communal flats of any city in the former Soviet space (several hundred thousand Petersburgers are thus still waiting on Soviet-era “queues” for free or low-cost single-family housing), the near-total collapse of the city’s once-mighty heavy industry (and the fact that much of that industry was or is located in the city center, with the environmental hazards this poses), and the deterioration of infrastructure, from water mains and pavements to centralized heating plants. There is also the fact that many ex-Leningraders have been glad to exchange the “equality in poverty” and lack of social mobility of the Soviet era for cheaply privatizable flats, new cars, shop shelves stocked with all the same consumer goods available in “Europe” (whose living standards the city’s political elite say they want to achieve for the city), an abundance of cafes, restaurants, and nightspots, the possibility to travel (if only to Finland), and the opportunity to pursue careers unimaginable only twenty years ago. Boosted by increased tax revenues and significant federal subsidies, the city administration has in fact engaged in a number of highly visible, if not always effective or environmentally benign, public works projects. As the city’s major landlord (another legacy of the Soviet era), it has also become the chief lobbyist of the construction and commercial real estate businesses. Their numerous, profitable interventions in the urban space are even more palpable (sometimes painfully) to ex-Leningraders. We cannot undertake a serious analysis of this unique but essentially post-socialist city (much less a resistance to its current transformation) without acknowledging this prehistory and these nominal successes.

Despite the abundance of new construction sites and increased opportunities for consumption and leisure, however, the atmosphere of the city in 2010 is in many ways more stifling than in 2003. Petersburg’s new boom period is undergirded by soft political authoritarianism, staggering corruption, and a populism that satisfies some of the general populace’s real and imagined needs while also www a vigorous assault on all the often-contradictory achievements of the previous three hundred years. These include the tsarist-era utopian architectural showcase in the historic center (feebly protected by its status as a Unesco World Heritage Site and a set of federal and local laws mostly honored in the breach), and the Soviet era’s extensive albeit highly problematic, partly failed development of industry, science, education, culture, public housing, recreational areas, and public transportation.

Politically disenfranchised, some Petersburgers express their opposition to this state of affairs by organizing nonviolent, largely symbolic campaigns when developers threaten to demolish old buildings (far from all of which are actually “dilapidated”) and clear-cut parks and squares to make way for ever-more shopping malls, hotels, office blocks, and “elite” residential towers. Occasionally, these campaigns are successful, as in the recent popular mobilization in defense of the square on Ivan Fomin Street. Mostly, however, they fail because the city’s non-elected executive branch and its courts have more important constituencies to service than a still rather scanty, poorly organized grassroots.

The failure of ad-hoc coalitions to reverse the onslaught of neoliberal “renovation” does not add up, however, to much more than personal financial triumph for the bureaucratic and business elites. (Although the stubborn efforts of the grassroots have at least firmly placed these issues on the local political and media agenda.) The age when authoritarian power or capital, untempered by other social forces or aesthetic considerations, could produce masterpieces of architecture and urban planning might not have passed entirely (or everywhere). Where, however, these factors of resistance are almost altogether lacking, as in Petersburg today, what we end up with is a proliferation of sturdy “boxes” that, at best, perform limited practical functions. At worst, we end up with wretched faзades whose helpless allusions to “architecture” are merely designed to camouflage a web of dubious legal machinations and financial flows.

Our impression, first expressed in the “new foundations” manifesto – that practically everything erected in the city since 1991 is a feeble imitation of the historic built environment or of something vaguely recalled from a contemporary architectural journal – has only been reinforced over the past seven years. It is no wonder that planning authorities and developers have scrapped grandly declared “avant-garde” projects by Norman Foster, Dominique Perrault, Kisho Kurokawa, and other international superstars. Such expensive flourishes are beside the point when the point is putting money in the right pockets, maximizing sheer square meterage (most of which is hardly intended for Soviet-era queue-waiters and other welfare beneficiaries such as WWII veterans), clearing the ground for new construction, and streamlining bureaucratic processes so that this “development” continues ad infinitum.

But a city is more than a collection of pretty old (or new) buildings, square, and parks. Urban space is also a reflection of the configuration of productive and social forces. What can we say about a city whose administration is willing to spend millions (while refusing to disclose the exact sum) on an annual, live-televised, open-air mass entertainment for school leavers (an otherwise laudable endeavor), but is unable for three months to remove snow and ice from streets and roofs, leading to the flooding of 31,000 flats, while on the streets hundreds of pedestrians suffered physical injuries? Why is the per-kilometer cost of the city’s first, as yet uncompleted ring road so much higher than similar highway projects in other parts of the world? Should another superhighway (the planned Western High-Speed Diameter) be built along the borders of a nature reserve? Can the city’s ecology sustain 1.7 million automobiles and the 80% of total air pollution they cause? What considerations of efficiency dictated that the world’s once-longest tram network should be partly destroyed to make way for endless traffic jams? (The city had 1022 kilometers of tramlines in 1988, but in 2010 this figure has dropped to 500 kilometers.) What are we to make of a construction boom borne on the backs of rightless, poorly paid migrant laborers, who are also rewarded for their efforts with endless harassment by police and violence at the hands of neo-Nazis? Can most of the city’s extensive inner-city factory spaces be successfully converted into art galleries, wine bars, and loft housing (that is, into a kind of business-class aesthetic nature reserve)? Should all industry be banished to the far suburbs so as not to disturb the idyll of office workers, shoppers, tourists, and affluent art lovers? Should more inner-city residents also be exiled there to make way for new hotels to house the ten million tourists the administration had once planned to attract this year (but in fact didn’t attract)? Why is the city’s “central park of culture and rest” ringed with high-end residential towers when a good proportion of the city’s inhabitants still dwell in communal flats and dormitories? Why is the water at all the city’s beaches so wretched that the health service recommends that no one swim there? What is the environmental impact of current and planned massive land reclamation projects in the Neva Bay and Gulf of Finland? Why has one of the few legislative initiatives authored and successfully lobbied by grassroots organizations – the city’s 2007 law on protected public green spaces – been scuttled by the administration and legislature only three years later? How many Petersburgers can afford to pay the citywide average price for a square meter of housing – 2,239 euros – when the average monthly wage is only 683 euros? Should families in arrears on their apartment maintenance bills for over six months have their flats auctioned off by court order, as national legislators are proposing? (According to official statistics, 10% of Petersburgers fit this category; the average monthly bill is 55 euros.) Why are all public protests – “sanctioned” and otherwise – turned into massive police actions? Why are the recommendations made by the public at “public hearings” on proposed development projects roundly ignored? Why are riot cops present at some of these hearings? (Is “the public” a threat to itself and to “public order”?) Why do electoral commissions routinely strike grassroots candidates for district councils from the ballots?

In the final analysis, all these questions boil down to the question we ask in the title of this issue: whose city is this? To whom does it belong? The answer to this question is sadly obvious: to the people with money and power. The city belongs to the people who are able to extract profit from real estate speculation, the sale of “ownerless” plots to developers, the “renovation” of “depressed” neighborhoods, the transformation of a glorious past into a unique commodity that (after a little cosmetic touch-up) will do good business on the international tourism market, and the introduction of for-profit education and medical care. You don’t have to be a Marxist to understand this elementary truth: a city, like a factory, belongs to the people who control the profits and the means of production. And just as factories do not belong to their workers, neither do cities (not only Petersburg) belong to the people who live in them.

The “beauty” of a symbolic mega-project like Okhta Center (the controversies surrounding it are dramatized in the screenplay reproduced in these pages and analyzed in an accompanying article) is that its obscures this vital question, as well as the question of what the development of our city could – and should – look like. Because they have the power to build the tower and other heaps of pseudo-post-postmodernist junk, the city’s political elite aspires to present itself as progressive while labeling its opponents reactionaries who want to live in a wholly conserved “architecture museum.” The city’s democratic intelligentsia, on the other hand, has proven unable, since perestroika, to articulate an alternative “social commission” that could rival authoritarian capital’s brutal anti-vision for Petersburg’s redevelopment.

This is the source of the desperate pseudo-polyphony in The Tower: A Songspiel. All the players in this vaudeville have answers to the question, “Whose city is this?” Their rotely recited refrains, however, mesh perfectly to produce the dead end figured in the film’s finale. In the real-life city of Petersburg, there is more going on (both good and bad) than this noisy silence, but the net effect of dozens of major seismic shifts and thousands of micro-changes is the same. No longer revolutionary or utopian, but neither more livable, the city threatens to become a half-shabby, semi-shiny, heavily policed consumerist hell, a non-place with high-cultural pretensions, thousands of shopping malls, and millions of cars stuck in traffic.

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