how the world works, spatial poetics

On gay bars, and the geography of belonging.

1. Some years ago, I created this blog to separate my writings on theatre and on geography – people were confused about why both, and no amount of saying ‘theatre is a building’ and ‘a performance is all about invisible lines in space’ and ‘architecture and urban design are about making spaces for people to come together’ made a difference. Perhaps things have changed; but I still have two blogs.

2. Taylor once said: “The first time I entered a gay bar was the first time I felt I had found my people.” I never forgot that sentence.

3. The first time I entered a gay bar, I also felt I had found my people. It didn’t matter that there were mostly gay men around me, and that I wasn’t a gay man. It took a long time to work out why this was so.

4. I have had conversations about this, long, important, difficult, many times. Here is one I have had, almost identical in form and content, with two women. Both were basically straight, and both were working out how queer they were through how they related to me.

Both said it was not right that they felt unwelcome, or were expressly excluded, from gay bars.

I said, both times, that gay bars were created for gay people. That they were the one place where a woman could hit on another woman without having to worry about being rejected for being a woman.

They said: that is demeaning to gay people and to gay bars, to reduce their identity, their social life, only to sex.

What I should have said is that it is the rest of the society that has historically reduced gay people, their identity and their social life, only to sex.

But what I said instead was that they didn’t seem to be aware that gay bars, historically, were safe places for gay people, islands of safety and belonging, tiny places where a queer person could be part of a majority, where they could be surrounded with people like them.

And they said they too felt safer and better among gay people.

And I said: you are welcome to do all you can to gay up your local bar or cafe or restaurant until you feel sufficiently safe there. But when you’re in a gay bar, you are being allowed into a space that has been fought for, carved out, protected, maintained, you are a guest, and that must be OK, because everywhere else it is queer people who are guests, and often not very welcome.

In particular, these women took umbrage with lesbian bars, where they felt particularly unwelcome. It didn’t seem obvious to them that their own hostility to lesbians – with their short hair and butch ways, what they perceived as an exclusionary uniform – was hugely contributing to the problem. No amount of explaining that lesbian bars are particularly difficult to maintain, that they are a financial sacrifice more than a money-making enterprise, and how closely related this is to the historical exclusion of women from public spaces, could convince them. It didn’t seem apparent to them that they preferred gay bars to lesbian bars because they were uncomfortable in places that had a majority of women – not even queer women, just women – because these were by default uncool places, whereas gay bars, for them, were cool places. They didn’t see themselves as parasites on social spaces; they didn’t see themselves as gawking; they didn’t see themselves as disrespectful. Even when they disclaimed that this or that butch lesbian is ugly and they would never fuck her.

5. I once witnessed the following conversation, in Silver Future in Berlin.

I was sitting at one of the outside tables with a friend, next to a table of three straight people, next to a lesbian couple (these were judgements made with a corner of my eye, you will soon see why), when suddenly the couple got up and went inside. A second later, the waitress came out to tell the straight people they needed to leave, because they had offended a customer.

They were confused and wanted to know why. As more of the management team came out to talk to them, we were able to hear the entire conversation.

The couple got offended because one of the straight men had addressed them as ‘ladies’. One of them identified as trans*, and went straight to the management to complain.

The men were surprised. They had gone in to order some crisps from the bar, and the waitress had told them the bar had run out of crisps, but “the girls next to your table have just been given a whole bag, so you might want to ask them to share”. Having been told to speak to “the girls”, they did.

The management wouldn’t budge. They said: “You are heterosexual. You can go to any of the dozen bars in this street, and you will be welcome. Our patrons can’t. Our job is to make sure our patrons feel safe here.”

The straight people said they didn’t mean to offend, it was a mistake, could they apologise in person? No, said the management, they don’t want to talk to you, they want you to leave.

This conversation went on for good 45 minutes. My friend said: “Only in Germany. In any other country, they would be either kicked out or not, and it would take all of five minutes for that to happen.” But they discussed, and discussed, and discussed, and eventually they shook hands and the straight people were allowed to stay. Which I think was fine; and I also think they learned a lesson.

6. We speak a lot, in feminist and queer circles, of safe spaces. And, as someone wrote recently, in the light of the Orlando massacre: If you can’t wrap your head around a bar or club as a sanctuary, you’ve probably never been afraid to hold someone’s hand in public.

7. Or how about that time when I was dancing in a club on a gay night, and this man, whom I superficially knew, started coming too close, grinding against me and trying to kiss me. And I said: “You need to stop, or I will make a complaint.” My bag, wallet, were in his car. It was not nice, it was not safe. He didn’t stop. I moved away, to dance far away from him, my eyes closed to protect them from the strobe lights, when I literally felt his tongue in my mouth.

I walked off, to the bouncer, pointed at the man and said: “He is bothering me.”

The man got kicked out within seconds, and the bouncer watched over as I took my bag out of his car. The man drove off, angrily, and sent me a barrage of text messages about how I can’t relax and how I have ruined everything. I knew, then, that I had just dodged a very dangerous person. Or rather, the club had protected me. No one asked what I was wearing, how much I was drinking, or whether I was leading him on. One word from me was enough.

A gay club is a safe place, among other things, because the burly man at the door understands the meaning of consent.

8. Because we live in a world in which gay panic is a legitimate defense for murder, because we live in a world in which a woman who got raped gets told “what did you expect if you were drunk?” and the rapist gets defended as “too drunk to have known better”, because we live in a world in which trans people get murdered every day, because we live in this world, gay bars and clubs are a sanctuary. A sanctuary in short supply, and I understand why semi-straight women find them comfortable and want in.

But this, too, is about consent. To understand consent is to understand that you don’t have the right of access to everything: a man’s tongue doesn’t have the right of access to any female mouth, and a straight person doesn’t have the right of access to every queer space.

And unconscious privilege is when you think you do.

9. Late at night, a friend and I name all the lesbian bars that shaped us, and which of them have closed. They have mostly closed.

10. Or how about this: the first gay party I went to was in the offices of an NGO, in the basement of a residential building, and the door was unmarked and the address was not listed anywhere. As a security measure. “We don’t want a bomb thrown in,” joked one of the organisers, but it wasn’t just a joke.

11. It was only after an entire year spent mostly in queer spaces that I noticed that straight men talk so much more than anyone else, in every social situation. That straight women listen and laugh, so much more than talk. That their opinion is rarely solicited, waited for, made space for. Suddenly, all those feminist separatists made so much more sense.

12. And Stonewall was a gay bar.

13. I am no longer offended by those sex nights for gay men only, when women are banned from clubs where they are normally welcome. I am no longer offended when people of colour ask white people to shut up and listen. When butch women ask other women to shut up and listen. When femme women ask other women to shut up and listen. I no longer feel insufficiently butch to be in a lesbian bar. I no longer feel insufficiently nice to be female. I no longer get confused about what to do when a person intrudes into my personal space or doesn’t understand that my “no” is a full sentence. This has been a great gift of having spent so much time in queer spaces: a more nuanced understanding of the extent, and of the limit, of my freedom. A more nuanced understanding of privilege, of difference, of the fact that we need different things at different times and that’s OK. I can ask for what I need, and so can anyone else. It took a long time to work it out. And it happened in gay bars.

It goes beyond being able to hold someone’s hand without fearing that a rock may come your way.

It goes beyond feeling safe enough to close your eyes when kissing someone.

It goes beyond knowing that the people around you grant you the right to close your eyes on the dancefloor without fear of sexual assault.

It goes beyond, but it starts with this. All of this.

It starts when you first find yourself surrounded with people just like you, and ends with the realisation that you are all different from one another. And it starts when you first find yourself surrounded with people that are completely different from you, and ends with the realisation that you are all the same.

14. This is why the queer community, everywhere in the world, has reacted so strongly at the attack in Orlando. A gay club is not just a club. It’s a home, a safe space, and a sanctuary.

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how the world works

Video: The Gift of Fear

Watch The Gift of Fear on PBS. See more from The Open Mind.

If I could give a single gift to American women, it would be to lift from them the idea that they are required to be polite, that they are required to engage in conversations with strangers, that someone who offers them help is a ‘good person’ or a ‘nice man’. I talk a lot in the book about the words ‘nice’ and ‘charming’. ‘Charm’ is a verb. It’s not an adjective. A person doesn’t have charm, they use charm, to compel by allure. So a single gift that I could give, and that I try to, is to teach young women – I would have a high-school class, to answer your question very directly – that teaches young men to hear ‘no’, and that teaches young women that it’s alright to speak it explicitly. You know, when you and I say no, it’s the end of the discussion. When a woman says no, it’s the beginning of a negotiation.

Safety expert, and non-radical-feminist Gavin de Becker.

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how the world works

The problem seems to me to be twofold. The first is that righteousness, which always is dependent on a Manichean division of ethics and politics, stokes the fires of a sectarianism that has blighted radical politics for over two centuries. The historic tragedies and outrages of Left totalitarianism are enough reason for any of us who still identify as socialist to choose inquiry over conviction, to favour the nuances of contradiction and doubt. ‘Political correctness’ is a phrase so over-indulged by conservatives that its very use now seems trite and banal, but twenty years on from the culture wars we need to acknowledge the truth that strident identity politics and postmodernist obsessions over symbols and language led to a straitjacketing of feminist and socialist thought. Against the logic of a war metaphor, I don’t see such an acknowledgement as a retreat but as necessary work. The work is twofold: we need to learn to listen, as much as we need to learn again how to communicate. For we all know that smug people, regardless of their politics, don’t listen.

via The Toxicity of Smugness | Melbourne Review.

The Toxicity of Smugness | Melbourne Review

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how the world works, policy & design

The perplexing urban news today…

Huffington Post reports the first report of hospital treatment costs in the USA, released by the Federal Centre for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which reveals that hospitals in vicinity of one another differ by as much as 1,000% in how much they charge for same operations. Say, $7,044 versus $99,690 for the treatment for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. HuffPost discusses the inefficiencies, inequalities, and lack of transparency in the market-driven and unregulated US healthcare system. For anyone not inured to the idea that a health problem might ruin you financially, this is a frightening read.

Twitter, meanwhile, brings me two articles about Adelaide policy concerning food trucks: on May 7, the council met to discuss higher concession prices, and on May 8 to decrease the number of concessions. Both, it seems, in order to protect fixed food businesses, who endure higher costs of operation, and who pay rates that fund the council. This might be systemic irrationality at its finest, punishing a service that is thriving financially precisely because it is agile, flexible, and thus able to be where it’s needed when it’s needed, while minimising loss at other times.

Restaurant offer in Australia, in general, is extremely erratic, and it seems to me that it has a lot to do with high operational costs combined with low footfall of low-density neighbourhoods (most of them). In perfectly functioning residential neighbourhoods I have lived in, it is not unusual to have 50-80% of cafes close by 3pm, and finding an open restaurant after 9pm can be difficult even in relatively central areas – the high cost of operation and wages does not warrant staying open past peak-hour foot traffic. How we’re making better cities by protecting that business model from food vans, oh, I really couldn’t say.

To continue the story of irrational legislation, here is a US-based article about the collateral of bad residential zoning. So, for example, “in Milbridge, Maine, seasonal workers sleep in cars and tents because employers can’t build enough housing for them—courtesy of state standards that needlessly inflate the cost of such housing.”

The article above connects NIMBY-ism to class warfare, which ties in nicely with Catriona Menzies-Pike’s critique in New Matilda of a notion that she calls the ‘cultural elitism of the new middle class’. This would be the way those with money feel not just better-paid, but genuinely BETTER people than those without. And which I discuss, to some extent, in my little piece on Brunetti. Menzies-Pike disagrees, but disagrees mainly with one particular book. The whole thing, seemingly, falls neatly into a culture war instead of rising above. But I digress.

Since today is clearly the day of bashing Adelaide, in this article for Kill Your Darlings, Connor Thomas O’Brien tell how you can kill independent culture by state-creating and state-funding their competition. And this fantastic interview with Dr Ianto Ware details how the creeping changes to the Australian Building Code, planning act, and liquor licensing laws have converged to undermine the Australian live music culture. Oh, we need more of this kind of analysis, and we need more of this kind of analysis actually informing policy. I am currently doing a small research on how temporary use could be helped by changing a couple of small, harmful laws of exactly this kind. There is a lot of legislation we have and don’t really need to have…

But not all is bleak. Here is Urban Catalyst from Berlin, giving a talk about how temporary use of space can be used in urban development.

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how the world works, policy & design

In the (local) news today

There is a short article in The Age today about the scheme to revive the Docklands, Melbourne’s notoriously unsuccessful waterfront development, with temporary shops. The scheme is managed by Renew Australia, who founder, Marcus Westbury, has a longish think piece on his blog about the progress so far. Very interesting piece, although with a slight error worth correcting: Docklands isn’t really a testimony to the problems of masterplanning, because there was no masterplan for the Docklands. As even Wikipedia knows, Docklands was developed with the minimum possible coordination between the different developers and their building plans – in fact, only insomuch as to make sure there would be infrastructure, because (in a wonderful summary of what it means when a ‘small government’ doesn’t interfere with citizen freedoms)

It did not take long for the realisation that the lack of government coordination in infrastructure planning would create problems. Developers would not invest into public infrastructure, where benefits would flow on to an adjacent property. This was corrected by allowing developers to negotiate for infrastructure funding with the government. The Docklands Village precinct was planned for a residential and commercial mixed development, but, in late 1996, that plan was scrapped when it was announced a private football stadium would be built on the site.[10] The site was chosen for its easy access to the then Spencer Street Station (now Southern Cross Station), and it was intended to be an anchor for the entire project and provide for a clear signal to the long awaited start of the Docklands project. However, this would create a huge barrier between the City and Docklands.

On one level, it’s hilarious that the Docklands authorities are now employing the power of creative makers to rejuvenate the failed redevelopment. Remember what was there before the redevelopment? Oh, yeah: hugely popular underground dance parties. Wow, maybe that didn’t really need to go…

Meanwhile, Alan Davies reports that the cement truck driver who killed a cyclist in Brisbane in 2011, when he attempted to take over without changing into the right lane has been found not guilty. The cyclist was struck by the rear wheel of the truck. His helmet was shattered, and his body, found 25m down the road, had to be disentangled from his mangled bike. The lane which was asked to contain the cyclist and a cement truck was 3.1-3.6m wide, thus slightly wider than the recommended width of a two-way bike path in Victoria.

However, the Australian society apparently doesn’t think this kind of driving is a problem.

Meanwhile, in The Conversation, emergency doctor argues that helmet protection is absolutely necessary for cyclists. Apparently, studies of cyclists brought into emergency hospitals show that the ones wearing helmets survived more & better than the ones that didn’t. Sure. You could make the same argument for pedestrian armour ®. But no one ever, ever, researches cyclist deaths and injuries in Australia by looking at how many involved collision with a motorised vehicle. Say, a cement truck pushing for space in the same lane.

The idea that motor vehicles might be the really important part of the public health issue here just seems so far from anyone’s agenda. No wonder Australian cyclists often speak in such enraged tone. Different European countries have legislated minimum safe distance that cars need to take from cyclists, as well as automatic assumption of driver guilt, should a car strike a pedestrian or cyclist. The commenters under the helmet article point out that probably saved more lives than any mandatory or non-mandatory helmet. Because I would like to know how many lethal cycling accidents in Australia DO NOT involve a motorised vehicle.

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Urban news

Richard Watts at ArtsHub announces a new arts precinct planned in the former Collingwood TAFE. Australia loves ‘precincts’, which seem to be largely understood as a single-use mini-neighbourhood (and which I would argue is a quintessentially suburban concept of how a city works). Besides, Collingwood TAFE is essentially a single building; why not call it a hub?, or a centre? However, it’s a very large site, occupying almost an entire city block, and any provision of land at sub-market rates currently does good for diversity in the uber-expensive Australian cities, so precinct away.

The Atlantic Cities has a wonderful article on the pedestrian staircases linking up Cincinnati. The stairways have, apparently, become hubs of crime and many have been closed, while neighbourhood groups have sprung up to restore them. The photos warmed my heart enormously, because my hometown is full of staircases like these, just as narrow and steep, and one of the favourite things I do with my expatriated friends when we’re back in Rijeka is literally run up and down them (up is for stamina, down is just pure joy). It is interesting how social problems in Cincinnati have caused this slightly extreme urban landscape to be so quickly declared off-limits and unsafe. It made me wonder if social inequality has some kind of inverse correlation to landscape beauty: the more you have of the former, the less allowance can be made for the latter.

In the corner where we fight for children’s independent mobility, the British National Trust publishes a cute little list of things to do before you’re 11 3/4. It’s a sad thing that this needs to be stressed, but heck: children need independent exploration. It’s important for their intellectual, physical and psychological development.

Meanwhile, Chinese scientists create the influenza virus in the lab. The pressure is mounting on the US to close Guantanamo Bay as the total hunger strike of the inmates continues. The US also rejects the idea that the pesticides, banned yesterday by the EU, have caused the collapse of bee populations globally and suggest it’s better not to do anything until we’re sure. The collapse of the garment factory in Bangladesh, which has claimed 429 lives as of this morning, has sparked a pressure campaign on fashion multinationals to force their subcontractors to treat their workers better, through better pay and more control. Very interesting, as fast fashion has become a global industrial force, and created entire landscapes of mass labour, production and accommodation in near-slave conditions. The images of this landscape are likely to remain a mark of our time the way industrial slums defined the 19th century.

In the ‘cool new things happenin’ corner, here’s an article on iFixit, a company that teaches adults and kids how to fix electronics, in order to boost science education in the US (they say kids are even more interested than adults). Improv Everywhere design a performance/reality theatre service in which they help texters walk on the street while they text. Global Press Institute is an organisation trying to replace clueless foreign correspondents with local women reporters, on the grounds that they simply know more, and should be given a voice. As a literate woman who once dated an aspiring foreign reporter dude, who told me he wanted to write about my country (of which he knew nothing) in order to give me and my people a voice, I say: go Global Press.

Here is also a little essay on Berlin’s Stumbling Blocks, the best public sculpture and also memorial I have ever experienced.

Meanwhile, on the more trivial side of things, IBM makes a nano-animation with atoms, which is very cute. And Warren Buffett opens an account on Twitter.

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Urban matters in the news

The Age reports that the $680 million dollar plan to redevelop the back of Federation Square (in the centre of Melbourne) into a unified design (a park with a conference centre, assembly hall, hotel, school, and underground car park) is under threat. The Napthine State government will instead on Tuesday release a “request for industry submissions”, a signal the site could be opened up to a range of private developers, instead of the State Government commissioning LAB studio (the company behind Federation Square). It is not entirely clear from the article if the reason is in the lack of funding (at $680 million, the entire development costs about a third of what Myki did). However, the comments below the article raise fears of yet another Docklands fiasco.

To remind the short-memoried and inform the non-Victorians: the redevelopment of the former docklands of Melbourne into a waterfront precinct was conducted without top-down planning as we know it. State Government sold the land, often below market prices, to private developers and gave them free hand with the design. The resulting space, although expensively put together and supplied with public transport quickly and well, has been so universally unloved and unsuccessful in attracting people that it has been given over to Renew Australia for a revitalisation through temporary use barely a decade since completion. Federation Square, on the other hand, has become the symbol of the city.

Meanwhile, Tony Abbott, the leader of the Opposition and the man some think will become Australia’s new Prime Minister in September, has asserted that his government will not fund any urban rail projects, saying that Australia has no tradition of federal funding for urban rail, only roads. Abbott has vouched support for an urban road project in Victoria, however, despite it costing more, being a significantly unprepared, and having flow-on benefits estimated at only half of the costs (as opposed to the 1.3 benefit-to-cost for the Melbourne Metro rail tunnel Abbott is promising to shelve). He is taken to task for policy lunacy by a number of analysts, most comprehensively in The Conversation.

The Age reports that much of Australia’s coal reserves may be prohibited from burning, given the global climate change policy constraints, and the increasing likelihood of limiting the rights of energy companies to mine their known fossil reserves (the same issue was discussed in great detail in Rolling Stone in July 2012). This would mean an effective write-off of large assets for energy companies, and a serious shake-up of the Australian economy. But then, as the Rolling Stone article notes, it is in the nature of markets that companies have their value tied up in unmarketable assets like polaroid cameras or typewriters, all the time. Simultaneously, The Conversation reports that the global demand for coal is dropping.

EU is debating a biopiracy law which would force pharmaceutical companies to compensate indigenous people for using their traditional knowledge in creating new medicines. This comes days after EU introduced a limited ban on neonicotinoids in order to protect its bee population. For those of you who don’t know, bee populations have been collapsing around the world, causing huge concerns for our food safety. The ban is limited, and there are other threats to bees, but this is a step in the right direction. (As an aside, EU has been encouraging urban beekeeping for years to counter this same beenocide. Bees thrive in urban conditions, and many small and large users have put beehives on their roofs – most notably the Paris Opera.) Chief Science Adviser to the UK government, meanwhile, thinks it’s a mistake.

The Conversation proposes that Australia change its current model of healthcare funding (per patient visit) to the one employed in the UK, and most of Europe, which is based ongoing care provided per patient per year. Inadvertently, it explains to me why the primary medical care in Australia is so poor compared to what I was used to in Croatia, why no doctor keeps your full medical record, and why it is so hard to get a GP to listen to you: there is huge systemic incentive for “six-minute medicine.”

In Croatia, however youth unemployment hits 51%, making me very sad. Slavko Linić, the Minister of Finance, however, meanwhile claims it will take 10 years for the country to recover from the crisis.

Cyprus parliament accepts a hugely controversial €10bn EU-IMF bailout, which brings a levy on bank customers, fierce austerity measures, and effectively destroys the country’s economic model.Paul Farmer at GOOD has an interesting personal story of treating people with asthma in Haiti, Eric Garland reports on the dismal condition of towns along the iconic Route 66 in the US, The Morning News tries to explain a whole bunch of global cities in New York terms in order to explain to New Yorkers where they might want to live should they move there. A solar plane flies over San Francisco. And Eric Garland explains when you should and shouldn’t work for free.

And this is what happens when you wring a washcloth in zero gravity. Video straight from outer space.

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how the world works, poetics of life

What Brunetti can teach us about social class

Brunetti, the cake institution of the Italian community around Lygon St in Melbourne, has moved from its large and beautiful premises on Faraday St to its historical premises right at the centre of Lygon St. The resulting make-over, if anything, makes Brunetti more Brunetti-like: larger, blinkier, more marbled, more noisy, more over-the-top and Italo-glammy, more resembling of a train station, and more confusing. Cakes, coffees and food are still ordered and picked up at different places, and coffees still lose their patrons – but there’s now a greater bar surface on which lost coffees will accumulate.

But I should make it quite clear that I may sound unkind, but I LOVE Brunetti to tiny bits. Multiple visits ensued, as did some vigorous discussion between Carl N-P and me, centred around a very simple issue: we love Brunetti, quite unironically, and we can feel the disdain it earns us from our more Aussie, less woggy, hipster friends. This hipster disdain is real, and its judgement clear-eyed: Brunetti is too large, too un-intimate, too train stationy, too mediocre in its offer, to really have a heart. There’s nothing exclusive about it. It’s for tourists and suburban visitors with no taste.

But we know from Pierre Bourdieu that all taste questions are class questions, and no taste question is more loaded with class than the choice of food in Melbourne today. And what’s really interesting about Brunetti is that it doesn’t fit with the Australian notion of class (which is an essentially British notion of class, transplanted). Brunetti is profoundly Italian in its general business functioning, and thus fundamentally a product of the Mediterranean class system.

The two are quite different. The British upper classes have always been imported into the country, and so have the products they consumed. As one rises up the class system, one has a greater ability to travel, to import ingredients and cooks and expertise, and this knowledge, which is hard to access, validates their class position. The Mediterranean (although perhaps I am also speaking of European societies with a deeper democratic tradition) has been fundamentally peasant for a longer time (mass urbanisation only occurred in the 1950s), and its peasantry and artisans have always produced all or most of its food. (This, it may be worth saying, is much more common than the British way, which is globally exceptional.) And, if the lower classes are growing, killing, preparing and cooking the food of the upper classes, they need to have very fine specialist knowledge of this food if it is to be any good. So no specialist knowledge could possibly be assumed. Indeed, the opposite: the lowly peasant and artisan are specialists in their field.

The British/Australian class system assumes that, as you rise progress from the lower to the higher classes, you consume totally different products – you move from spam to leg ham to jamon iberico – because, in this system, class is understood as marked by taste, which is fundamentally related to access to imported goods, and the change of taste which occurs as you travel through society is understood as a progressively higher level of civilization. So, as trends trickle down, good taste (which is to say, civilisation) needs to find rarer goods: as previously unavailable foods spread downwards, they lose their currency as markers of civilisation, and become tainted with plebeian tastes. Just look at the short-lived glory of sundried tomatoes.

The Mediterranean class system is not related to civilisation at all, because there, taste is not related to access: because all produce, good and bad, is commonly grown local plants. As you progress through the classes of the Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Croatian or Greek society, there is no fundamental difference in WHAT people eat. They eat the same things, but people with more money eat slightly better versions or larger quantities. Whereas the poor man might buy 100g of cured ham and make carbonara, the rich man will buy a kilo and bake it. The differences in classes, therefore, are largely defined simply by income, not by access. What there is of taste is related to the ability to appreciate and recognise quality, not the product itself. And the relationship between class and civilisation is nowhere near as unambiguous because, as said before, the peasant and the artisan will know more about food than the wealthy eater at the end of the process. To return to those sundried tomatoes, an educated Mediterranean person would quite impatiently point out by now that there are sundried tomatoes, and then there are sundried tomatoes – because the ability to tell the good ones from the bad ones carries much civilisational baggage. (*)

* To understand better this nexus between income and quality of ordinary things, here’s an example. A few years ago, in Vogue Italia I read one of those short-form generic questionnaires with creme de la creme of the Italian fashion industry, about their summer holidays. One question, I remember, was ‘what is luxury for you’. A large percentage of answers (from the likes of Valentino, Dolce & Gabbana, Rosita Missoni, etc) was ‘linen bedsheets’. I remember this to this day, because linen bedsheets seemed eminently achievable, and still do, whenever I forget about how much they cost.

I would argue that this unity of taste prevents the creation of entire closed-off worlds, stratified by income, as social classes are in Britain. It permits to see them much more clearly for what they fundamentally are, which is income brackets, unrelated to moral or civilizational outcomes. It also puts a brake on the constant trend-chasing that characterises the British popular taste – also because definitions of quality don’t change all that much. What was good in 1970s is still good today.

To return to Brunetti: what it is, in all its train stationy splendour, is something very Italian, and very un-Australian: it’s medium. It might look big and brash (if you hate it), or bold and beautiful (if you love it), but it is very consciously medium: it offers consistent range and quality, it’s not too expensive, it’s not bad, it hardly ever changes, and it serves a standard range of products made with care, but without fetishing them. Sure, it is entirely made in marble and busier than a train station, but so is almost every bar and cafe in Italy. You can buy delicious, expensive cakes in Brunetti. You can have some very good pizza. But you can also buy freshly ground coffee and freshly baked bread – and I buy both, because Brunetti sells them at best value for money by far.

The ‘pure’, upper-class alternative would be Baker D. Chirico around the corner, whose bakery looks like a Bauhaus spaceship and whose bread retailed at something ridiculous even before the commodities boom. Or single-origin, $4 coffee at St Ali. But that’s exactly what Brunetti is NOT about. Brunetti is a happy medium: it has mass appeal, and its products are reliable. Its aesthetics seem nouveau riche, but that’s just because it’s Italian.

That’s why we Mediterranean people love going to Brunetti. It’s urban democracy in action. Brunetti is entirely class un-differentiated, thus immune to snobbery. One day you will sit next to the Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne University, and on another night next to a Lebanese gang. Your coffee will never be single-origin, but it will never be bad either: and you know you will be able to get the exact same short macchiato in 50 years’ time, by which time St Ali will have moved on to selling moon water.

And there is respect in that, we concluded after a long discussion, a respect for the taste of people on medium and below-medium income. If that seems like an ordinary thing, imagine had an Aussie bakery gained mass appeal in the 1970s, instead of Brunetti. Imagine what that bakery would be like now. It would have 10,000 franchises around the world, all the size of Bunnings warehouses, cakes would be made in Chinese factories out of corn syrup and dead cows, and there would be a buzzer on every table, to let you know when your thickshake is ready to pick up.

But Brunetti is Italian, Italian culture assumes that people on different incomes have attained the same level of civilisation, and it maximises its market appeal by aiming in the middle of what-it-perceives-as a taste continuum. And phew for that.

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CITIES, how the world works

The conservatism of youth OR Gen Y OR Australia…

The problem does not lie with technology. A glance around the globe shows that the youth of other countries are doing a fantastic job of combining online with offline civic activism. The Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street Movement and anti-austerity protests in Europe show youth tweeting and Facebooking their way to radical street protest. It seems Australia is the only country where youth are cocooned in narcissistic conservatism. They’re more concerned about their own economic future at a time of wild prosperity than environmental destruction or any number of disadvantaged groups.

Brittany Ruppert, a Herald intern, attributes her generation’s apathy to prosperity. They have never had anything to fight for, except home ownership. It’s plausible. But why is a 20-year-old worried about home ownership rather than global poverty, gender discrimination or climate change? The world is more interesting than a mortgage! I’m not sure why Australia has been burdened with such a mind-numbing, spirit-crushingly boring generation of young people. Are they just Howard’s children? Is reducing your dreams to the size of a suburban home the price of prosperity?

All I know is that there is nothing more tragic than a generation without spirit.

via Why oh why, Gen Y, are you so nauseatingly conservative?.

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CITIES, how the world works

NUMMI and Japanese management

This is about two things very dear to me: Asia and industrial production. (I imagine nobody who reads Guerrilla Semiotics knew how much I am into industry until this moment, so I welcome you into the know. Just the other day I regretfully thought about how, among all the low-paid jobs I’ve ever had, I have missed out on working on the factory floor. One day I will write a long post about how industrial production is incredibly important, but I don’t think that day is today.)

Europe is very many beautiful things, but it tends towards arrogance and chauvinism – especially towards Asia, perhaps because Asia is the immediate threat, the rising competition. In my past 12 months in Germany, I have seen more incidents of open, upfront, unembarrassed racism than I have seen in 6 years in Australia (although, to be precise, it came largely from French and Italian people, not from Germans; the two times I had to break some of that residual sense of propriety we have towards haters and say ‘You are a racist’, the person saying ‘No, I’m not!’ to my ‘Yes, you are a racist’ was in both situations French).

One of the most common ways in which Europeans flatter themselves is by claiming that Asia / Asians may be doing well economically, but they have no tradition of democracy, critical thinking, and the respect for the individual. In particular, democracy gets a lot of talk-time, because Asians are considered to be prone to group-think and totalitarianism, and the example given tends to be Mao Zedong. Racism towards Asian people is rife throughout the white people’s world, and I have seen it in Australia (very often people claiming to be ‘afraid of China’s rise’ or some such thing), and I’ve seen it among educated people who hold dearly values of openness and tolerance (which is to say, it is important to them to feel that they’re open-minded and tolerant), but in Europe I was quite astounded at how readily this thesis of there is no respect for the individual in Asia was bandied about by people who knew nothing about Asia.

So, anyway: NUMMI. I’ve discovered the story of NUMMI on This American Life, and I recommend it to anyone who likes to learn new things about the world. NUMMI was one of the worst-performing car manufacturing plants within General Motors, plagued by low performance, open hostility between management and the workers, and very poor work discipline among the workers (something like 1/5 of the workers were absent at any time). It closed and then re-opened, keeping the same workers, as a part of a deal between GM and Toyota, in the 1970s. As a part of the deal, NUMMI would produce cars for Toyota, but had to learn to operate under the management rules of Toyota, which are as representative of the Japanese work culture as General Motors is representative of the American management practices.

You can listen to the entire radio program here, as well as read the transcript, but here are a few highlights outlining what happened. For training, NUMMI workers were flown to Japan, where they spent 3 months learning how to operate on a Japanese factory floor.

The key to the Toyota production system was a principle so basic it sounds like an empty management slogan– teamwork. Back home in Fremont, GM supervisors ordered around large groups of workers. The Takaoka plant, people were divided into teams of just four or five– switch jobs every few hours to relieve the monotony. And a team leader would step in to help whenever anything went wrong.

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