Graveyards of distinctiveness: how cities are making us all the same

Passengers on the Seoul metro, wearing a uniform familiar from cities around the world. Image: Getty.

The latest column in the “Critical Cities” series, which questions the rise of colossal and globalising “Urban Industry”.

Globalisation amounts to tsunami after cultural tsunami, flattening out our differences. Aside from the “Middle East”, where men wear the thawb, and across the Indian subcontinent, where women wear sari and salwar kameez, the rest of us, when not at work, wear variations on a uniform of blue jeans, T-shirt and trainers. Trendsetters from Jakarta to Delhi, Cape Town to London to Toronto, are a carbon copy of tech start-ups tattoos, beards, rolled-up trousers, and bicylces.

Portrait photographs taken on Ellis Island, the gateway new immigrants to New York were required to pass through, show that, in the early 20th century, even people from different parts of Europe wore distinct clothing. What would a portrait photographer capture people wearing as they pass through a US port today? Westernisation – or as they say in polite society, “globalisation” – is flattening out our differences and distinctiveness.

Graveyards of distinctiveness

The centralisation of the world’s population into cities, a result of forced and heavily promoted urbanisation, is one of the main reasons for the rapid destruction of many thousands of distinct languages.

As people are uprooted and abstracted from reality, their survival in cities depends on finding and keeping work. Fitting in – minimising chances for discrimination, and maximising opportunities for work – means adopting the everyday practices of the dominant group as quickly as possible.

Self-reliance and independence are not possible in cities. Yet integration and assimilation results in the steady decline of a person’s existing culture, as they amputate their own culture in an attempt to adopt and be seen to adopt the governing group’s practices and values.


The process of levelling out and enervating one’s identity is actively encouraged in schools, local and national events, and heavily championed in academia. Often one is told to minimise, hide or give up one’s culture for entirely contradictory reasons like “tolerance” and “community cohesion”.

The London School of Economics’s Professor Richard Sennett, in his recent input to Deutsche Bank’s Urban Age 10 event, emphatically stated:

“In order to make the city more tolerant we should have a less strong identification with home. We should learn to use the city and live in the city in a more impersonal way. It is why I have argued against the many, many projects that seek to strength community.”

This is a profoundly troubling statement: while it didn’t go unnoticed on Twitter, frustratingly, it was not challenged as it ought to have been in the LSE lecture theatre at the time.

The Urban Industry persistently promotes cities as places of “cosmopolitanism” – often alongside photographs of people in street cafes, crowd shots at public events or families visiting museums. Cities, they say, offer a mouth-watering slice of cosmopolitan culture.

Cosmopolitanism, however, isn’t as so many want to think it is. Cosmopolitanism is the idea that human beings are the same: global citizens, citizens of the world, citizens of one thing – people who share a morality and an outlook and a willingness to dissolve away differences. This almost always results in the enervating of identities, except for consumable and somewhat superficial attributes like food and festivals.

While London, for example, has a high percentage of non-English people, it is White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) norms that dominate the public sphere of schooling, culture, law and politics, as well as penetrate homes, places of worship and study. It is difficult to think of even one structure or institution that is today influenced by Bantu laws or Nyulnylan language, for example.

Like Sennett, Professor Saskia Sassen, at an earlier Deutsche Bank Urban Age 10 event, also extolled the “sausage machine“ processes of cities, saying that they

“… shape an urban subject and urban subjectivity. [The city] can override the religious subject, the ethnic subject, the racialised subject and in certain settings, also the differences of class.”

Cities, despite effervescent statements of “complexity”, “diversity” and “incompleteness” are sites of high-speed cultural homogenisation. Cities are the graveyards of distinctiveness.

Unfortunately, persuasive academics like Sennett and Sassen celebrate and actively encourage this position. The processes of standardisation speed up in cities – perhaps in ways similar to Moore’s Law and computer processing speeds – doubling in ever-shorter periods.

An advertising hoarding for British style housing in Shanghai. Image: Getty.

Lingua franca

The death of distinct languages is particularly informative and illustrative of urban processes. Without use, a language dies. Without language, a culture has a death sentence.

Second-generation urban dwellers, particularly intercontinental migrants, regularly don’t speak the same language as their parents, a condition labelled “First Language Attrition”. Conforming is often a matter of survival for “minorities”, perhaps understandable given the level of prejudice inflicted and prosperity dependent on successfully mastering school exams. Within three generations an individual can be entirely alienated from their relatives’ language and experiences, and also of knowledge of living a pre-urbanised life.

Despite the hype about London’s “diversity” – a key element of the city’s pretentious claim to be one of just two “global cities” – English is overwhelmingly the dominant language, with 80 per cent of London’s population using English as their main language.

There are just 53 main languages spoken in London according to the 2011 Census. In Papua New Guinea, currently one of the least urbanised places on earth, over 800 distinct languages are spoken today. There are still over 2,000 living languages across the continent of Africa. Cities, contrary to the Urban Industry narrative, have been swiftly undermining a world abundant with distinctiveness and diversity.

Without language, the culture that created it swiftly dies and is either disappeared or appropriated and then repacked for and by the dominating group. It is nearly impossible to resurrect a language and culture once this occurs, though there has been a very small handful of dead or near-extinct languages being re-started (Hebrew is one of them).

For the last century, every 14 days one of the world’s remaining 7,000-plus distinct languages has been killed off and supplanted with English, Spanish, Arabic and Mandarin. Today, 95 per cent of the world’s population speaks just 6 per cent of the world’s languages. It is estimated that by 2100, though probably earlier, over 50 per cent of existing languages will be have been destroyed, leaving us with just a handful of dominant, though graciously self-confessed “rudimentary” and “bullying” languages.

Citizenship itself is often dependent on the successful passing of spoken and written language tests, and the controlling group of course determines the language chosen for testing. Citizenship is conditional on passing spoken and written English tests for the US, Australia and Canada. (In Australia alone, there were over 600 distinct languages before the British invaded in 1788.) 

English is the official language of 83 nations and regions, few of which are remotely geographically close to England. Only recently, British prime minister David Cameron said that families would have to be broken up and their members deported if one or more didn't speak English.


People in cities dominantly use and have the greatest access to the Internet and the World Wide Web. English dominates the internet, the ultimate homogenisation tool, with 851.6m users (26 per cent of the total). Chinese is next with 704m (21 per cent). There is then a dramatic drop to Spanish with 245m (7.5 per cent) and Arabic with 155m (4.8 per cent).

Perhaps more importantly, currently 54.2 per cent of all web content is English and a tiny 2.1 per cent is in Chinese. Despite there being 497m Hindi speakers, making it the third most-spoken language in the world, just 0.03 per cent of websites are in Hindi.

Perhaps our grandchildren will be left with just the English, Mandarin and Arabic languages. Perhaps English will dominate officialdom to the four corners of the world. Perhaps a Chinese elite will rule the world, but will have to use the English language to do so.

Same clothes, same languages, similar ideas, morals and understandings; the world is getting smaller and many, like Sennett and Sassen, see this as unreservedly a good thing. The decline of distinctiveness and the rise of sameness are regularly legislated for. We see this with language tests for citizenship, compulsory education, proscribed curriculums in schools and a global standarisation for laws and finance.

The argument is that sameness increases the chances for communication, collaboration and tolerance. Advocates regularly suggest alikeness and familiarity with each other results in a reduction of war and other conflicts. Polite society also like to call it “harmonisation”. (Perhaps it is worth noting at this point that the majority of crimes against persons happen in the home, by people known to the victim, very often a family member.)

Communication and collaboration are also argued to be good things in and of themselves. Some even argue sameness is important in the pursuit of creating level playing fields, so that everyone can compete equally. Others argue they find the regularity and repetition of clothing, languages, architecture and ideas comforting, evidence of a global village, a sign of progress.

Yet the result is the same: globalisation is flattening out our differences and enervating our distinctiveness.

If you follow the money it is evident that these processese, almost entirely and without exception, benefit western nations and just a small select elite of other nations. If you follow the politics, having a handful of cities that contain most of the world’s population, where its inhabitants have over generations had their distinct cultures eviscerated from them, you find a people who no longer know who they are, which is a nudge politician’s utopia. Our cultures, our different and differing identities are arguably the most valuable thing we have, not just for ourselves but also for each other. Without culture and identity we are the walking dead. 
 
A good question to ask any organisation or person arguing that you or I should give up our culture or identity to fit in is get them to list what they themselves have given up, and what they are asking their children to remove from their own lives. It will become evident very quickly that their list very short indeed. 

Deepa Naik and Trenton Oldfield are the founders of This Is Not A Gateway, and the editors of Critical Cities series of books.

This is the fourth column in the Critical Cities series. You can find the first three at the links below:

1) Urbanisation is not natural or inevitable. It’s being inflicted upon us by the forces of capitalism.

2) Everything you thought you knew about cities is wrong.

3) Against the tyranny of progress: How did we come to see urbanisation as part of human evolution?

“Critical Cities: Ideas, Knowledge and Agitation, Volume 4” is out now from Myrdle Court Press.

 
 
 
 

A warped mirror: on gentrification and deprivation on London’s Caledonian Road

The London Overground crosses Caledonian Road. Image: Claude Lynch.

Capital cities are, more often than not, a focal point for the stark divide between rich and poor – places where the most economically deprived meet the most economically empowered. In London, these divides can be more than stark: they can be close, even intimate, and there are districts where crossing the street can be like entering a different world. One such street is the Caledonian Road.

Known local as “the Cally”, Caledonian Road runs for about a mile and a half, from Kings Cross to the Nags Head junction in Holloway, and was built in 1826 to provide a new arterial route to the north from the West End. At first, developments on the road were sparse; among the first notable buildings were the Royal Caledonian Asylum, which gave the road its name, and H.M. Prison Pentonville.

For some time, the northern half of the road was seen as far removed from central London, which stymied development. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 19th century residential development really got going. By the time Caledonian Road station opened on the Piccadilly line in 1906, the area was flush with Victorian terraces.

These, though, mainly lay on the eastern side. To the west, the proximity of King’s Cross prompted the development of heavy industry, particularly the clay kilns that were helping to build Victorian London proper. The divide had begun:  the east side of the street, the area known as Barnsbury, was notably quieter and calmer than the west side. Ever since the 19th century, the ‘V’ formed by Caledonian Road and York Way has been known for a high incidence of gang violence and social problems.

As in many parts of London, the end of the Second World War brought a chance to start from scratch. Many of the slums to the west of the Cally had been bombed to smithereens, and those that remained still lacked gas and hot water.

But this was the era of municipal dreams: Islington council cleared the slums and constructed the Bemerton Estate. Instead of reflecting the industrial history of the area, the estate reflected Barnsbury back at itself, treating Caledonian Road as some sort of warped modernist mirror. The square gardens of Barnsbury were reimagined as the spaces between the highrises of Bemerton, and this time, they were actually square.

The estate was immediately popular, its open design prompting a renewed sense of community in the west. But it didn’t last.

Square gardens on one side, not-so-square on the other. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric

As far back as the 1950s, Islington had already become synonymous with gentrification. Forty years later, before moving to Downing Street, Tony Blair’s London residence was Barnsbury’s leafy Richmond Crescent. House prices in the area have gone through the roof and now Barnsbury is mainly home to a the professional elite.


At the same time, though, Caledonian Road’s warped mirror has given Bemerton the exact opposite: in spite of attempts to rejuvenate it, downward spiral of deprivation and antisocial behaviour have blighted the estate for some time The promise of inviting square gardens and communal living has been inhibited by crime and poverty; the gardens lie empty, while those in Barnsbury thrive.

The disparity of wealth across Caledonian Road is regrettable. That’s not just because it speaks to a wider segregation of London’s rich and poor – a phenomenon exemplified last year by the Grenfell Tower fire in Kensington & Chelsea, the richest borough in Britain. It’s also because, in the Bemerton Estate, planners had thought they saw an opportunity to offer more Londoners the idyll of square gardens and leafy streets, often reserved for the richest.

It might be too much to claim the estate as a failure; events such as the Cally Festival aim to bring together both sides of the road, while other council programmes such as Islington Reads help to foster a greater sense of neighbourhood.

Road should never divide us; rather, they should unite those who live on either side. The spirit of Caledonian Road should cross the gap – just like the railway bridge that bears its name.