Poor Little (Formerly) Rich Us

Whether or not we’re actually on the brink of collapse, as newspaper headlines suggest, it’s pretty clear that—for our generation, at least—the days of dizzy abundance are done for. Even before the financial debacle's culmination in the past few weeks, very obvious warning signs had been piling up for quite some time, particularly in cities. Consider the sordid impasse of authorities faced with post-industrial, post-conflict, and post-disaster displacements; the thoughtless oohs and ahs sputtered at the urban fireworks extravaganzas of Dubai, olympic Beijing and other undemocratic, environmentally reckless city-building enterprises; the debunking of the creative city, the downtown renaissance or countless other urbanity-as-lifestyle jingles; the proliferation of substandard living conditions in the global slums rivaled by the proliferation of paranoid securitization measures in the global capitals; the spurious urbanisms of the Third-meets-First world crash sites; the brand new urban wastelands of foreclosed properties, ghost resort towns, or the aborted new economy's boomed and busted office clusters.

All of these factors add up to an eerily coherent landscape of failure, a probable breeding ground for a new urban—or afterurbanculture of poverty. Before getting into the details of what this actually means, we should recognize that we're not talking about the heavily mediatized, teary-eyed, dried-snot, food-stamp, dollar-a-day, We-Are-the-World concept of poverty, a sentimental and distorted view that considers destitution an exotic and rectifiable predicament. We need to see ourselves as part of the flaw. Failure isn’t always unintentional or accidental, and doesn’t necessarily call for immediate, direct or self-evident “corrective” measures.

We have to overcome our inability to cultivate, maintain, and/or deploy the collective intelligence that cities are supposed to encourage. What are we really learning from cities? Trading planning for packaging and reducing policy to product placement? Taking to heart the Jenny-from-the-Block motto of "used to have a little and now have (or want to have) a lot"? Pushing a pop chart urbanism of annual top whatevers? We’re so concerned with making our cities “successful” that we forget how to make them smart.

It wouldn’t hurt to realize that many places usually considered urban mishaps are in fact closer to premature paradigms. These afterurban extremities have given us—for years, or decades even—a hint of things to come, of the obstacles and opportunities we’re only beginning to face and assume elsewhere. We have to refocus on contexts of shortage and conflict and understand how they work. A different kind of inventiveness is required here, one that faced with the worst makes the most out of the least. We should start taking cues from failed urbanisms, considering they're nothing more than a crude and intensified reflection of our own contradictory standards.

Soon enough we might be absorbed into a new culture of precariousness: one of raw self-preservation, struggle for access, and profound instability. If we do manage to revert from consumer society’s holy trinity of speed, excess, and waste (says Zygmunt Bauman) into a time of pause, scarcity, and smart reuse; understanding poverty as vital urban failure—a situation that reveals something about ourselves as opposed to something we can and should “resolve”—could be our best chance to identify and attack the overwhelming restrictions and challenges of these circumstances. Poverty usually goes hand in hand with realism, it disenchants, it brings forth the dirty workings of things. Failure is a sort of active reminder and hopefully—at the risk of sounding like some sort of perverted Pangloss here—a potent drive for change.

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