Walking in the City

In Walking Between Slums and Skyscrapers, Huang describes global cities as nodal points of local and global compression where the conflicts between “new” and “old” are ongoing. By global compression, Huang refers to the vast urban space that is being reconstructed to fulfill its role as a hub of transnational capital. On the other hand, “The local compression means the consequences of the global spatialization such as the influx of foreign laborers and the severe housing problem for ordinary people who have to jostle for living space with the top-level professionals coming to the city with the global flows” (Huang, pg 54). Fitting this pattern, the grand, profitable spatial forms of Cape Town are made possible by compressing the living spaces of the local people. Following Huang there is a visible gap between the “representational space” for global flows and the “hyper-dense representation” of space that has been further collapsed to accommodate the urban densities of population and housing. Also the privatization of public spaces and expanding urban glamour zones challenge the people living in the slums. Cape Town is a city in which rich people are competing for more land to manipulate and squatters are perceived as a “threat to public order and public prestige” (Huang). Michel de Certeau (1984) depicts his vision of urban space in “Walking in the City” as “a texturology in which extremes coincide – extremes of ambition and degradation, brutal oppositions of races and styles, contrasts between yesterday’s buildings, already transformed into trash cans, and today’s urban irruptions that block out its space.” A walker can best describe this urban texture as the vernacular areas of the city that have vibrant colors and culture contrasting with the fast-paced transnational areas that represent power and prestige.

            In this section, we will take a “walk” through Cape Town, keeping in mind the words of Huang and de Certeau. As de Certeau (1984) demonstrates, imagination and semiotic analysis are effective in showing how “everyday life has a special value when it takes place in the gaps of larger power structures.” As opposed to standing at the top of a skyscraper and looking down at the organized wave of urban life below, de Certeau asserts that one must step into the grasp of the city to gain a more complete understanding of its reality. Wandering through unrecognizable places, observing spatial boundaries and the (dis)order given to the cities by planners will help the “walker” identify the large disconnection between the citizens/residents global dream and daily realities (Huang, 2004; de Certeau, 1984).

In the article “Privatizing Cape Town” Mcdonald explains how Suez, a large private water company, has made it a point that they are going to be operating nationally and internationally. Companies like these are examples of why privatizing core services such as water, sanitation and electricity hurts lived spaces of slums or squat dwellers. The result of shifting a city service like sewage to the private sector is that if payment isn’t received, residents will end up seeing sewage running down the street. There was also a general sense amongst the cautious group of respondents that government should remain in charge of other services that are highly subsidized, such as libraries, clinics, community halls and swimming pools, where “customers are unable to pay the full economic value of running services”. This concern, according to Mcdonald, reflected a broader apprehension about privatizing highly subsidized services and how this might affect the city’s capacity to cross-subsidize services in low-income communities.

Ulf Hannerz (1996), in “The Cultural Role of World Cities”, very accurately defines four groups of “city walkers” in global cities, including transnational corporate elites, “Third World” migrant populations, cultural producers and consumers, and tourists. Each one of these groups is well represented in the city of Cape Town. It is very important to note, as Hannerz emphasizes, that the perception of the “walker” depends heavily on the role they play in the global market. The question is which of these groups really owns the rights to the city? Opportunity of different sorts attracts a large portion of the aforementioned groups to Cape Town. For example, corporate elites are more likely to see profit and expansion opportunity in the “ungentrified” spaces that can be transformed into marvelous nodes of complex transaction in the global market. For “Third World” migrants, Cape Town is also a welcoming haven of opportunity full of places to work and make a living even if they may have to invent their own jobs in the informal economy. Partially as a consequence of the migrants’ vision, the metropolitan population of Cape Town continues to rise. Moreover, Hannerz states that cultural producers and consumers make up a connection between market and form-of-life. Although not all cultural producers and consumers are slum-dwellers, there seems to be a great overlap among them. On the contrary, according to Hannerz, some indigenous people living in the center of the center-to-periphery flow of diversity try to avoid the diversity so that it does not impinge on their lives. Many tourists come into the city and avoid seeing the vernacular urban areas and stay in the globalized areas because it is more “known” and they are afraid of the “unknown” areas. Furthermore, tourists are mostly observers; although they don't get around to "refunctionizing" anything, they do reorient local production to serve their own desires. More importantly, tourists turn local culture into spectacle. As we can see within Cape Town, cultural producers/consumers and tourists transfer culture between the transnational playing grounds and its hinterlands.

According to Emporis, Cape Town is one of the fastest-growing cities and could soon be a “mega city” in the world. It is projected that by 2015, Cape Town will be home to 10 million people, with the vast majority of growth taking place in the slums. In the documentary video “The Art of living Service Projects in Cape Town,” Alison Fast literally walks through the slum districts of Cape Town, giving us a phenomenal view of the challenges of living in slums. The compression of vernacular space by corporate privatization of public space and expanding urban glamour zones create many of the problems that we see permeating the slums. Unable to rely on the transnational space of the city for residence, poor lower-class workers of Eastern Cape Town are forced into the “periphery.” Although, as I have stated on the slums web page, the “periphery” of the upscale areas of Cape Town primarily refers to the metropolitan area that is figuratively detached from the middle and lower class countryside, such as Khayetlisha and Langa. The concentration of the poor in waste-ridden, public service-less slums is not a result of personal choice. In fact, Davis (2006) in Planet of Slums attests, “Urban Africa, of course, has been the scene of repeated and forced exoduses to clear the way for highways and luxury compounds.” Thud in the article “The migration and development nexus in Southern Africa,” Crush mentions that as the black population grew on the outskirts of Cape Town in Cape Flats, the apartheid regime sought to solve the "problem" by establishing new black neighbourhoods. Khayelitsha was established in 1985 and large numbers of people were forcibly relocated there, mostly peacefully, but occasionally accompanied with violence.

Cape Town gradually has been transforming into a big commercial hub in Africa, and is growing exponentially causing global space to expand and therefore compress local space. The new high-rise building and many of the other skyscrapers proves Tsung-Yi Michelle Huang's point of discussion in Walking Between Slums & Skyscrapers. One point of discussion relevant to our study of neoliberal globalization is the author's argument of dual-compression. Cape Town’s new development is the perfect example of “dual compression” as it is transformed from an “urban area” to a “glamour zone” for the international crowd as well as maintaining its attraction for the local community. 

Walking through slum districts, like Alison Fast did in the documentary, people can truly portray the desperation and unease of the slum-dwellers. Through my research of the slum districts, the privatization of public spaces and elite districts of Cape Town, I can virtually feel the tension that continues to build between the two contrasting groups. The slum-dwellers are practically drowning in the filthy unsanitary environment they live in and the corporate elites stand tall inside of high-rise buildings making hardly any move to better the living conditions of the poor Cape Town citizens on the ground. Why? Whose city is it? If we’re talking power, privilege, and prestige, the answer is quite obvious. It may be that simple on functional grounds, but deeper consideration should take into account morality, history, and culture – in which case, native Cape Town citizens may very well own the city. 

A Documentary Film on the work being done by the The Art of Living Teachers and Volunteers in Cape Town.