I’m still on this Authenticity kick from earlier in the week. I’m also supposed to be studying for my History of Town-Planning exam tomorrow, so like any good writer, I’m getting a twofer (two for one) and blogging about how we interrogate the authenticity of ideas in Town-Planning.

It is less of a boring subject than it sounds, I assure you.

During the industrial revolution, cities became a pretty nasty place to be if you were working class. Engels (as in Marx and) talks about it, Charles Dickens talks about it. It was a weensy bit of a screw-up. At the same time, there was work and money in the cities, and so the small towns were dying, because people were leaving them in droves to live in appalling slums in the industrial cities, because that’s where the jobs were. Lots of Very Learned Men gathered in various important places to lament about the loss of the Golden Days of Yore (I have my own thoughts about that link), and the scourge (some said tumour, some said elephantiasis, no I am not embroidering) that cities were on the land.

Then this dude called Ebenezer Howard arrived. “Aha,” says he, “But here’s your problem. Cities are a terrible scourge and a blight and generally in very poor taste, but people like them. Might be a plan to figure out why.”

He then went on to propose the only way to limit the growth of cities, was not to ship people in train-loads back to the healthsome countryside and start them at once on growing rutabagas, it was to give them an option that they wanted more. Something that was a sort of best of both (like the new Albany loaves, tastes like white, is as healthy as brown), all the attractions of a town, with all the peace and pleasure of the country. For this he coined the term Garden City.

And then he sold it, harder than anyone with a gap-toothed smile and a lurid tie has ever sold any used car. (If academics now wrote with the kind of pizzazz that Howard did back then, PHD defences would be a spectator sport). Unfortunately, much like the Albany bread, I fear, the Garden City never really worked as planned. Something about its various implementations was mostly, sterile somehow and forced. Not enough jobs, not enough civic spirit. Not the revolution that Howard hoped for.

But, ideas tend to hang around a lot longer, and be a lot more flexible than their proponents. There is a strong argument that it’s from this idea of Garden cities (the feel of country living within the urban jungle) that we got the seeds of Suburbia. Which is, simultaneously, a good thing, a heinous thing and a pervasive and dominant reality.

So, here comes the crux of the argument. There is a school of thought that claims that the Garden City, as an idea or concept, has become tainted and corrupted. The reasoning goes like this: A lot of Apartheid township and homelands planning invoked the names (and some of the principles) of the Garden City, and those settlements were both tools of legislated, national segregation, and often, pretty lousy places to live. Also, post 1994, housing and gold estates like Dainfern, call themselves a Garden City and claim that they have been designed and function on Howard’s principles. And those housing estates are socially exclusive, mostly on income, but at this point in Johannesburg’s history, you can’t quite separate that from race, and this kind of social exclusion kinda makes the city’s spatial fragmentation problem worse.

So, we have been taught that the Apartheid Township and the Post-Apartheid Housing estate represent a corruption of the Garden City model. In this they reveal, at best, a sort of inherent naiveté about the model, and at worst, a latent dark, exclusionary, side.

My question is this: how do we know that these aren’t just bad places? What makes them Garden Cities, and what makes them Garden City enough, that their failings come to stand for the idea’s failings?

Because we have to interrogate theoretical models, especially ones like the Garden City, from long ago and far away, and doing it on a completely abstract level, line by line say, from Howard’s writing, tends to be a bit useless on the ground, so a pretty good way to interrogate an idea is by interrogating it’s on the ground realities.

But this is where the waters also get sticky, because deciding that an on the ground reality is a bad thing or a failed thing, is really hard ( I could write for years on that, but I’ll be merciful today), and when you’ve managed that, deciding what makes it a bad thing is even harder.

You could say, for example, that the golf-estates in Joburg aren’t really garden cities at all, because they’re kind-of built on the value of exclusivity, and Howard was pretty anti- that. You could say they claim to be Garden Cities, because it looks really legit on glossy pamphlets (because exclusivity is expensive, and needs to be marketed as such), or that the Garden City is a socially acceptable mask for a much nastier, darker, intent. You could say they were aiming for Garden City and missed, because someone didn’t do their reading (or maybe they did, and if Howard was living now, that this is exactly what his Garden Cities would look like. Any one with a working knowledge of the Necronomicon is welcome to put it to him and get back to me). Any one of these arguments would mean that we can’t use the manifestation to make claims about the model. That these manifestations are not true representations, and that using them as such is just bad science.

Anyone who has been following my last few days of ranting and has persevered with this long and dry post might get a feeling for where I’m taking this.

In the world of a story, depending on the kind of story, there are often three types of characters. There are those whose sole existence is to drive the plot forward, there are those who are there to represent something, be the embodiment of an abstract ideal or thought, and then there are the folks who just are. The people in the story who are closer to life and messier and more complex, and often a little realer than the characters who represent. This is the woman who is old and wizened and in a wheelchair, because she used to smoke a pack a day and was involved in an industrial accident way back when in the story world. The young man who is a  medic and chem-engineer and Indian because his parents were Indian and because he was really into forensic pathology as a kid (If you think kids can’t be into Forensic Pathology because it has too many syllables, go find a kid and ask it the names of it’s favourite dinosaurs). These kinds of characters can still fail (like housing estates can fail broader society, even if they are not the avatars of the garden city), and be crap and offensive (link). They can speak back into unwitting tropes and stereotypes and biases, ignorance and carelessness. But be careful of judging them only on how well they represent their gender, race, able-bodiedness, class, ethnicity, profession.

Because the minute you start doing that, you have decided (maybe without even realising it) what Authentic means for that gender, race, ability-level of body, class, ethnicity or profession. And you don’t get to do that. No-one does. Even if you are a young man who is Indian because his parents were Indian and that’s kinda how it works and a Chem-engineer and medic because he was fascinated by forensic pathology in childhood. You don’t get to call me out on the way I write that character, because it’s not Authentic to your experience of such, because you don’t have a monopoly on that experience.

You do, however, get to call me out on all my Forensic Pathology factual errors, and please do, because I’d like to be a bumbling idiot for the shortest amount of time possible, and I like learning stuff.

You do get to call me out on how I’m spelling that character’s name, although I might turn around and tell you that that’s how he spells it (but then I damn well better have a reason), because you go and fight with most modern parents about the Authentic spelling of Siobhan.

My point is not, don’t fight with people when they write stupid things, because its complicated and your opinion of the thing’s stupidity may be the one that has to be corrected.

My point, is that when you’re dealing with weighty absolutes like Authenticity, you need to keep asking yourself ‘Whose?’.



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