Re-imagining the city – a day of talks and actions to reclaim the City
After a morning of truly inspiring talks – with Doreen Massey discussing ‘Spaces of finance’ focussing on the City of London, and Nishat Awan showing us beautiful maps made by radical collectives as a tool for social change – a group of 30 intrepid explorers ventured out onto the streets of the City of London armed with a megaphone, picnics, Twister, badminton racquets, street Bingo cards, and a curiosity about the increasingly blurred boundaries between public and private space. The closure of that ‘public’ space that is Paternoster Square, and threats of evictions from our truly public space at St Paul’s, had woken us up to the stark reality that our city space is being rapidly privatized with just some of the consequences being the exclusion of ordinary people from vast swathes of the city and the stifling of protest in the city – both of which have serious implications for the state of our democracy. Our grand walking tour of the City of London – part of a wider project at Tent City University which is mapping and researching public/private space in the City of London – aimed to investigate the increasingly blurred boundaries between public/private space by playing in the space and seeing what responses we provoked, as well as noting our own experiences of the City. This emphasis on play in the City was inherently political as we were creating and reclaiming public space, albeit temporarily. The City of London, dedicated almost solely to capital accumulation for the elite, had this main (dis)function disrupted and displaced as we used the City in more productive and creative ways, as one participant noted – ‘that’s the most concentrated amount of fun the City of London has ever seen’.
Our large group pushed against the sea of pinstripe suits as we made our way up Cheapside towards Guildhall, home of the City of London Corporation. This collective walking through the streets itself was a wonderful experience as we talked and got to know each other and spotted things that one pair of eyes may overlook. As we walked, people shouted out things to fill out their street Bingo which was designed to provoke us to see our City differently – try to spot chickweed (wild food in the City of London), urban wildlife (other life rather than just humans inhabiting the space), signs of poverty/inequality (that the City of London tries its best to hide), CCTV cameras (constant surveillance of our activities), people using space in an interesting way (usually it’s just people walking purposely from one place to another, or shopping). Reaching the Guildhall Square, a large ‘public’ square, we found the main entrance blocked by large steel fences – the City of London is afraid of protest at this site and so has erected these fences to keep protest out. A couple of days earlier, protesters from Occupy LSX had been kettled here by the police and some arrested after an action here on the evening of the Mayor’s banquet in which they highlighted how the banquet represented gross concentrations of wealth and power. Our presence here was also in solidarity with them. Determined that we still have our picnic at this site, we set up our blankets and wicker basket outside the barricades and sat down and shared food together. We set out some innocuous looking cupcakes, which with the use of an icing pen, quickly became politicised cupcakes demanding ‘Defend the right to protest’. In times like today when any form of protest is being quickly quashed, it was important that we were innovative. If a police officer were to approach, the offending cupcake protest could be quickly gobbled up before the cupcakes or the group could be arrested. However, it wasn’t police that we had to worry about. A security guard approached us requesting that we move because a van needed to enter the square and we were ‘blocking’ its entrance. He assured us that despite the steel fencing we could actually enter the square from the entrance around the side. Unconvinced, we decided to test this. And indeed a small number of our group almost made it to the square, until a different security guard called them back and prevented us from entering. We asked him why we couldn’t enter the square when it was a public square. He told us that he had let others in but he wouldn’t let our group in because ‘I don’t like you’. He changed tact at one point, deciding that we couldn’t go in because ‘I own it’ but then refused to tell us who he was. When he asked who our leader was, one young man piped up ‘we’re an autonomous walking group’ to which the man responded, ‘fuck off’. Having discovered the true nature of this ‘public’ square, we decided to move on as we had a lot of ground to cover.
Our next stop was the ‘inside out’ Lloyds building on Lime Street. Again, the beauty of collective walking was watching people’s responses to this crazy building. My mistake (which I have just discovered now much to my dismay) was to get this Lloyds (as in Lloyds insurance) building confused with Lloyds TSB Bank Plc, which as taxpayers we own a hefty 43.4% stake. What do they expect if they call themselves the same names? So sadly, we do not own 43.4% of this building, and so I guess requesting a ride in the elevators half way up of our publicly owned space was never going to happen as it isn’t actually ours. Alas we cannot ‘go beyond architecture and actually turn things inside out’ as Doreen Massey suggested when we believed the inside out building was 43.4% public. However, Lloyds insurance was involved in the slave trade and so they still deserve to be turned inside out. Our presence was not in vain. With giant steel pipes and elevators towering over us we found a courtyard area in which to ceilidh. Our ceilidh leader Vic (the only type of leader that we want at Occupy LSX) stood on a bench in order to conduct us. At this point, a young security guard approached us rather sheepishly from Willis, fortunately it was only to request that Vic step off the bench, and we were allowed to continue our ceilidh. Sandwiched between the two huge towers of Lloyds and Willis, we swung our partners round and round and jumped and shouted in the middle of the circle. Workers peered down at us from their windows, and so in some way we most definitely disrupted the flow of capital through the city. It was such a surreal and wonderful thing to be ceilidhing around in the City of London. Everyone was laughing and dancing – it was an incredible sight. The black marble slab seats and the grey paving, and the towering glass and steel buildings became much less hostile and lifeless when your spinning about uncontrollably. In a strange bit of psychogeography, a fellow walker found a Wikipedia page for nearby St Andrew Undershaft church which described another dancing event a long time ago and student unrest as well: ‘The church’s curious name derives from the shaft of the maypole that was traditionally set up each year opposite the church. The custom continued each spring until 1517, when student riots put an end to it, but the maypole itself survived until 1547 when a Puritan mob seized it and destroyed it as a “pagan idol“’.
Our final stop of the grand tour was the impressive looking RBS building on Bishopsgate of which the tax payer most definitely owns 84% and the adjacent seemingly ‘public’ Bishops Square. With this overwhelming majority of the building we hoped that we could use the modestly sized foyer area to hold a discussion on the nature of public space and ways of reclaiming the city. However, after speaking to one of the three security guards standing outside the building, it was quite clear this was not the public space we hoped it would be. So we set of to investigate Bishops Square instead, which does allow entry – only not to protesters. Stuck to the sign reading Bishops Square was a plastic A4 pocket which contained documents from a recent High Court of Justice hearing on November 2nd. The notice banned ‘Persons unknown entering or remaining without the consent of the claimant on the Bishops square estate, London E1in connection with protest action’. Within the document they had included unclear black and white photographs of protest actions against RBS – perhaps to illustrate exactly what we must not do. After being bemused by this document for a little while, we proceeded to play badminton and Twister and sit and discuss the issue of the right to the city, exhausted after our tour of the City.
Whilst we certainly covered a lot of ground, having a lot of fun in the process, there is more of the City of London to be explored and played in, to be reclaimed for public use. After our grand tour, maybe capitalism will chug along for another day, but perhaps at Lloyds insurance tomorrow there will be an empty desk as a worker finally pursues their dream of being a Scottish dancer.