texts by Jasmina Tesanovic and Bruce Sterling
Street-Smart Cities by Jasmina Tesanovic
I like them big, I like them dirty, I like them loud, and I DON’T like them “smart.” My cities. That’ s why I like Belgrade, Cairo, Los Angeles, Rome… They have the streets smarts that smart, technocratic cities lack. Utopian visions of “smart cities” always look like Internet switching centers: shiny air-conditioned barns devoid of people. “Cities” without citizens.
After Belgrade survived its most recent war, Belgrade became a world capital street smart city. When first Share Conference was held in April 2011, the streets of the city were flooded with people. Who knew that Belgrade had so many eager high-tech geeks? Finally leaving their screens to come came out of hiding, hibernation or just gestation. No one had seen them gathered in one public place; it had never occured to them that they might have something to say and do as an urban community.
But they hacked the city, they opened the sewers of the mentally-gated mainstream, and something flooded out…Some passive-aggressive stench of misery! Life stinks and Belgrade rocks! Along with that unseen portal in the fortress city, something gushed in: foreigners with their words and gadgets. Not only does the street-smart city exist, its system is full of cracks.
Share By Day was not a wisecracks conference: we were just being there. We had less to say and more to be, and it was smart. Share By Night was awesome: music, river, booze. Those underground city smart people, together with bewildered foreigners, both ready to share despair and knowledge.
So what, if it is not “about revolution”! What is it all about: internet, fun and joy, hacking, civil disobedience, power to the people, electronic, social media, new media, diy, hacktivism. Something changed the balance, and sent the elements whirling like a Calder mobile.
Belgrade is a city on the run, it was built randomly, continuously, without a master plan, and it was regularly destroyed — commonly by people from its own multiethnic population. Like some brassy Ottoman coffee-maker, often broken more often repaired, Belgrade grinds its citizens, its friends and its foes. At the end of this street-smart process they are a heady brew.
Belgrade is a cultural favela, it is an outlaw capital. It was always a capital, even as the capital of war crimes! The infrastructure of a city is not the city, these bricks, sewers, wires, circuits and signals are all contingent things, like a glove for a hand. When creative people in that city get a grip, then the streets come alive, the city lives!
Three Lives, Three Cities by Bruce Sterling
People in Belgrade sometimes wonder why I’m often in Belgrade, yet I’m never there when it makes any sense, or when anyone expects to see me there. Well, I pursue a modern “multilocative” lifestyle. I have three cities and three lives within them.
Beograd is the home of “Boris Srebro,” a gloomy and acerbic writer of dark Eastern European fantastyka. Torino hosts “Bruno Argento,” an artsy Italian fantascienza writer who likes European high-tech. And Austin, the capital of Texas, is the home of “Bruce Sterling.”
Of course, these are just writer pseudonyms, like online avatars in the great game of globalizatsiya. The variety keeps me interested. I learn things this way.
All three of these towns have invented parallel methods of functioning in modernity. Their differences are local, while their commonalities demonstrate what kind of world we all share as contemporary people. Anything that is fully shared by cities as distant as Belgrade, Torino and Austin is just how life is nowadays.
Since I’m a novelist, I like to call the temperament of the twenty-teens “Dark Euphoria.” The atmosphere at Share Conference, for instance, was extremely “Dark Euphoria;” it’s feelings of startled excitement and gleeful bewilderment in basic conditions of terror-war and economic depression. That’s the modern sensibility of Dark Euphoria, which clusters around two poles of existence that I like to call “Gothic High-Tech” and “Favela Chic.” “Gothic High-Tech” and “Favela Chic” are forms of cultural behavior that are more or less forced on all of us by the vagaries of our contemporary infrastructure.
“Gothic High-Tech” is Gothic in the Edgar Allan Poe sense: it’s abandoned, hollowed-out, haunted, lost, decadent. “Favela Chic” is chic in the sense of being popular, modish, transitional, new and untried. All modern cities everywhere have some aspects of “Gothic High-Tech.” Commonly, these are large, solid, former analog industries and institutions that have been obsolesced, disrupted or offshored, leading to their Gothic collapse. These cities also all have “Favela Chic” zones where semi-legal, immaterialized, highly inventive conniving and hustling is the order of the day.
Let me try to illustrate this through example. Torino, Beograd, and Austin, for all their apparent political, ethnic, religious and economic differences, are physically quite similar cities. They are three inland regional capitals, of about the same size and population, situated on rivers. Like a shark, a porpoise and a mosasaur, they’ve all been shaped by the pressures of urban evolution.
So let’s consider how these three cities respond to modern life.
Torino: stuffed animal.
Austin: tech incubator.
The Beograd “splav” is a semi-legal houseboat perched on the banks of the Danube. Due to flaws in Belgrade’s odd, post-communist real-estate relations, it’s easy to get away with a wide variety of gray-market entertainments on these boats and barges. So these watery restaurants, nightclubs and speakeasies have become a major source of the town’s reviving tourist economy. Styish, popular, cheap and poorly regulated, but also advanced and modish, the splavs are “Favela Chic.” They make money.
Torino is a former automobile manufacturing hub cratered by Asian competition. This means a huge industrial acreage that will be beset with Gothic bats and rats if not reoccupied at cheap rates. The result is the “stuffed animal,” a building created for some lost purpose whose actual inhabitants are doing something else entirely. The “Eataly” Slow Food market, occupying the hollow bowels of a former FIAT plant, is a typical Gothic High-Tech “stuffed animal.” It is monstrous architecturally, but it makes money.
The Austin “tech incubator” is a garage or cubbyhole occupied by gamer or web-developer start-ups. These enterprises are very plug-and-play and very fly-by-night. Most tech startups die rapidly, but are quickly replaced by others with a similar ethos and often the same personnel. Despite their Favela Chic anonymity and rapid turnaround, they make money.
Beograd: rural depopulation.
Torino: EU regulation.
Austin: environmental disaster.
Belgrade is vastly more prosperous than the ethnically menaced and economically flattened Serbian hinterlands. So Belgrade acts as a population sump, a growing city in a state with a very low birth-rate. Around dynamic Belgrade, rural villages collapse as they fill with the elderly. One response is to reclassify these derelict areas as magnets for green tourism.
Torino’s immediate surroundings benefit hugely from generous EU agricultural subsidies. The landscape outside Turin is a rather Disneyfied rural hinterland of wine lakes and butter seas. Some of the less productive mountain villages are in rapid demographic decay.
Austin is suffering an environmental disaster in which sustained drought, unheard-of summer temperatures and raging wildfires are destroying Texan crops and cattle. Since water policies favor cities, this intensifies urbanization, at least until the wells and reservoirs give out.
Beograd: gypsy dumps.
Torino: immigrant neighborhoods.
Austin: barrios and ghettos.
Nine percent of the Beograd population are Romany. Since they double as trashpickers, they tend to live in makeshift housing in dumps and metal-recycling centers. These are classic favelas of an underclass without access to real-estate property relations. These junk-homes are often made of oddly high-tech debris, such as waterproof signage vinyl and butchered car-parts.
Torino lost a third of its population to blue-collar decline in auto manufacturing. Instead of shrinking toward death like Detroit did, Torino chose to liberalize immigration. This policy attracted clusters of Libyans, Somalians, Ethiopians, plus some other non-Italo-speaking fraction populations such as Bangladeshis, Peruvians, Filipinos and the globe-spanning offshore Chinese. These migrants tend to cluster in Torino, but not in old-fashioned ethnic enclaves of “little Peru” or “little Bangladesh.” Instead, these modern Turinese foreigners live in weirdly globalized districts, places with the scrambled ethnic mixture of an airport lounge.
Austin, as a consequence of slavery and Mexican secession, has had Mexican and black segregation areas since the city’s founding days. The borders ooze around a bit with the decades, but everybody knows who belongs where, except for immigrants, who often seem unsure of the unspoken rules of American race politics.
CHIC CONSUMER DISTRICTS.
Beograd: Knez Mihajlova.
Torino: Via Roma.
Austin: Congress Avenue.
Belgrade’s Knez Mihajlova street is an axis of political power that leads from the city’s ancient river fortress toward its capital building. This street has been ground zero for Belgrade’s transition to consumer capitalism and is the prestige address for international retailers. Occasional riots, demos and other financial setbacks haven’t been able to halt its relentless gentrification, though, since most stores are less then ten years old, the street is still markedly less genteel than it was during the Austro-Hungarian empire a century ago.
Torino’s Via Roma is a Savoyard royalist marble arcade, brimming over with the cream of La Moda. Via Roma sells high heels and incendiary lingerie to Swiss and German housewives.
Congress Avenue is an Austin axis uniting politics, education and banking. Since most Austinites prefer to dress in rags, it has never caught on as a major shopping district, but it’s got plenty of theaters, bars and cosmic-cowboy honky-tonks.
FESTIVALS FOR FOREIGNERS
Beograd: beer festivals, huge music festivals, and (recently) a high-tech festival.
Torino: huge food festivals and small high-tech festivals.
Austin: huge music festivals and huge high-tech festivals.
Beograd: Nostalgic Serbian nationalist-peasant gear, heroic sports-fan gear.
Torino: Italian shoes and lingerie.
Austin: country-western warehouse outlets, cowboy boots, cowboy hats, rattlesnake belts.
Beograd: Eastern Europeans, fellow ex-Yugoslavs, Danube boaters.
Torino: Swiss, Germans, French, Austrians, some Arab or Russian moguls.
Austin: US snowbirds, Mexicans, German cowboy tourists.
Beograd: un-rentable ex-Communist workers’ housing barracks.
Torino: abandoned, unfixable UNESCO world-heritage brick baroque heaps; derelict heavy industry barracks.
Austin: former downtown railway-packing districts, derelict fossil-fuel plants, abandoned airport, flood-prone creek zones.
STYLISH ANTIQUE AREAS
Beograd: Zemun, Kralja Petra
Torino: Stile Floreale district
Austin: Hyde Park, Travis Heights
All these disparate areas flourished during the Belle Epoque before the first World War, and have never had to struggle much to outmatch successor districts built in more difficult eras.
Beograd: the law-abiding, prosperous capital of functional European state.
Torino: the former Italian royal capital in permanent shadow role as “industrial capital,” “media capital,” “cultural capital,” “creative capital” or anything else that is seasonal and intellectually stylish.
Austin: The Texan curse-of-oil capital becomes a clean-energy capital; Austin is “Kept Weird” as an eccentric darling of the Creative Class.
So that’s what these cities are like nowadays. They differ, but they’re not as distant as one might think.
To show this let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine that the populations of these three cities were magically divided into thirds and scattered among all three cities. In other words, everybody picks up and relocates, everybody becomes “multilocative.”
Beograd becomes a polyglot city that is Serbian-Texan-Italian. Torino is Italian-Serbian-Texan. Austin is magically Texan-Italian-Serbian.
Obviously there would be some confusion — for about six weeks.
After that brief transition, however, Belgrade would be blessed with a relatively sober, politically capable, technically advanced population. Somber Torino would be completely electrified and dynamized. Austin would become by far the most sophisticated and soulful city in the American South.
You might think that, since these cities were all shared the same people, these three cities would become just alike. They’d be globally flattened, homogenized places, they’d lose all their local character, they’d be like big airports. That’s what people tell us that globalization does to us…. but frankly, I just don’t believe it. Humankind is more perverse than that.
No, I’d wager that these three cities would be LESS alike than they were before.