“Knightsbridge is an un-English activity,” says York. “The former gratin [upper crust], a combination of old toffs, Knightsbridge Americans who wanted to be old toffs, plutocrats who wanted to know The Form, people who weren’t here for funny-money reasons: all those things have been completely obliterated by a mad kind of very, very gauche overseas money. It’s absentee money: the kind of money that has bodyguards. It is the world of Maybachs and absurd-looking Ferraris in absurd colors, and kids who buy them straight out of the shopwindow. These people have no substantive relationship with anything British at all. It’s everywhere: I can’t emphasize enough how everywhere-ish it is.”
Many in London are uncomfortable not just with the flagrant display of super-wealth but also with the rising number of absentee residents who are based in foreign countries. “Those people who do buy these houses, particularly the bigger ones, in many cases don’t buy them to live in permanently: they are part of a portfolio,” said Bendixson. “That doesn’t add much jollity to your street: houses with the shutters down and nobody there.” Edward Davies-Gilbert, of the Knightsbridge Association, sees the area gaining the flavor of “a ghost town, peopled by ghost blocks.”
What I find interesting is that with many of the paragraphs you could substitute “London” with “Vancouver” and you’d have a similar story.
A popular trope in modern fiction is the dystopic tower: a skyscraper that becomes its own self-government and slips into chaos. The building-a symbol of the future-becomes a trap for all those living in it and a blight on civilization.
JG Ballard wrote one the seminal book with High Rise. The last two years have each seen a movie where a high rise is controlled by drug lords who terrorize the inhabitants and live above the law.
There’s actually historical precedent for this theme. I’ve written before about Kowloon Walled City; a recent article in the New Yorker entitled Slumlord takes us inside a new Kowloon Walled City, Caracas’ Tower of David (there’s also a great Time article here).
From one side the building appears finished; all glass and steel. From the other, it’s a vertical shanty town, with concrete favelas stacked on top of each other.
The text paints a vivid image of life inside the slum:
The halls were angled to admit light from the wall-to-wall windows at the end of the building, but they were still dim. On the unfinished floors, people had built small homes out of painted cinder block and plaster. Many kept their doors open, for better air flow as much as for sociability, and I could see them busy with everyday life: cooking, cleaning, carrying pails of water, taking showers. Music played here and there. Daza [the guy who organized the squat and runs the building] had rigged up a generator-powered water pump and each floor had a tank, but the water supply ran unpredictably through pipes and rubber hoses.
The Tower has several bodegas, a hair salon, and a couple of ad-hoc day-care centres. On the ninth floor, I visited a small bodega, where Zaida Gomez, a white-haired, garrulous woman in her sixties, lived with her mother, who was ninety-four. She showed me the cubicle next to the shop, where she had settled her mother, a tiny birdlike woman who slept on a bed right next to one of the plate glass windows. Gomez kept a fan going all the time, because the window made the room baking hot.
Gomez was one of early pioneers of the Tower, and she told me that, at the beginning, things had been terrible there. The Tower had been ruled by malandros [property invading gangsters], she said, shaking her head; there had been beatings, shootings, killings. But now she was able to leave the door of her shop open, something she had never been able to do in Petare, the slum where she had lived before. Her shop sold everything from soap to soda pop and vegetables, and to bring in supplies she made the journey up and down nine floors several times a day. It was tiring, she said, but she couldn’t afford to pay the mototaxis [the first 10 floors include a parking garage and you can get a ride to the top on a motorcyle], who charged fifteen bolivares (about eighty cents) for each ride. She had a daughter who helped her, and a grandson.
The article is worth reading in its entirety as it contains several almost unbelievable stories about how surreal life is in Chavez’s Venezuela.
It’s the second last Wednesday of the month so the local drug dealers walked down the street from their corner at Hastings & Abbott to the Money Mart. You recognize them on sight; they’re not very subtle at exchanging packages.
There was a lineup out the door at 10am; one woman was so distracted by doing her makeup she didn’t notice that her heroin tube fell out of her purse.
The afternoon brought the normal cavalcade of ambulances and other emergency vehicles. There was an odd beauty as their lights shone off the water that slicked the streets after the day’s rains.
Who knows what tonight holds. I won’t find out as I’m going home, but if you want to find out, this unique DTES beauty pageant should repeat itself on November 21st or so.
I’ve been in Vancouver for a while now and one of the things I am simultaneously ambivalent towards and shocked by is the Downtown East Side.
The neighbourhood is a whirlpool that attracts broken people from across Canada (and I don’t mean “broken” as an insult; the horrors that these people have faced are arguably unrecoverable; read here). Since I work here, I’m regularly exposed to scenes of deprivation and wretchedness that are unimaginable elsewhere in Canada (hell, in most of the world…).
But the truly scary thing is that you become immune to it; you simply stop being shocked by the truly bizarre things you see on a daily basis. Things that would cause civic outrage elsewhere simply being the banality of everyday life.
Here’s a snapshot of different events I witnessed in August alone. I almost lose track of these things. How would your city respond?
A tourist family is walking down Carrall trying to find Dr Sun Yat Sen Gardens. They look down the alley and see two men in the midst of a drug deal. Money is changing hands; pipes, pills and weed are arranged like a shop on top of a dumpster
My tech partner and I go for a coffee. As we pass a doorway we notice the junkie slumping in it. His hands are covered in blood and he’s injecting a needle in his hands (presumably the only place he can find a vein); his hose lies on the ground. It’s 11 am on a weekday.
A man walks across Cambie so high that he can’t move in straight line. His feet have become lead and he’s lost the ability to talk; all he can do is moan in ecstasy as the heroin courses through his veins; we pedestrians hope he won’t walk into traffic.
A woman stands over a man on Hastings. She repeats her refrain over and over again like a prayer: “Can you hear me? Do you need me to call an ambulance?” He’s lying on the concrete, visibly intoxicated this Tuesday afternoon and possibly in danger of rolling in front of a bus.
The man stands in the middle of the sidewalk clutching his crotch but it’s too late. He’s soiled himself. Urine streaks his pants and trickles out his pant leg, meandering towards the gutter. He groans a low curse to himself.
The buzzing noise is piercing and out of place. This is, after all, a park and war memorial. Glancing around I notice the source: a thin angry-looking man is having a tattoo applied to his face; his friend wields the needle and for some reason they’ve chosen to do it in the public space.
Four police cars litter the intersection – but there are no police to be seen. Further down the block another four squad cars have jumped the sidewalk; a line of police tape cordons off two buildings. An office attempts intimidation with an enormously overpowered machine gun. An hour later they’re all gone and it’s as if nothing ever happened.