Theater of Cruelty

A unmasked city


All cities wear a mask; it is common to obscure the class distinctions and ethnic differences of urban geography with consensus-creating, discriminating statements in the media.

For example, Oslo's persistent east / west edge schism is trivialized – and often sublimated – in the political and cultural public. Well-known is the repulsive argument that follows automatically in the wake of any criticism directed at Groruddalen's anti-human slum environment. Immediately satisfied groruddøler get the word in the newspapers and the TV route, the critics are branded as condescending besserwissere with contempt for ordinary people's lifestyle and preferences. They themselves – the taste judges – live on exclusive Frogner or Grünerløkka and make quick safari trips into the apartment block jungle to get their snobby prejudices confirmed.

The debate should be about post-war cynical urban planning and the rational zone thinking that isolated the low-wage groups in barren "sleeping towns" outside the city center – but it does not seem to interest the establishment. Could the reason be that the blame for this failed urban construction lies with the two dominant power factors in our modern society, the capitalist forces and the parliamentary duo Conservative-Labor Party? The system's spokesmen obviously have a bad conscience, because everyone can see how differently treated "east" and "west" are in Norwegian cities, therefore the problems are pushed under the rug with the Jantel law as a polemical tool. You should not think that you know anything about Groruddalen, Fyllingsdalen and other urban communities in this country.

So it was in the United States, a nation we like to compare ourselves to, until Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and uncovered the real face of the tourist-popular city. Suddenly, it was not the legendary jazz and blues venues of Bourbon Street that captivated the journalists. The Bush regime was taken to bed. The truth about American city politics came one day.

"Who Should Live in New Orleans?" Was the title of Naomi Klein's free-speech article in Dagbladet on October 3. Klein demonstrated that although 67 percent of the city's residents are African American, and whites make up 27 percent, they envision "a new-and-better city the way the white elite envisions New Orleans in the future", following the reconstruction, demographic changes that causes many residents to talk about ethnic cleansing. The extent of the flood disaster, Naomi Klein explained, is simply due to geographical conditions and "reflects the fact that wealth and wealth in New Orleans are measured in meters above sea level." The driest areas of the city are also the whitest. "When it comes to the hundreds of thousands of residents who got their houses and housing complexes destroyed by the flood," argues one of the city's leading lobbyists, they must reckon that the ghettos are a saga just for now, building mixed-use residential areas "where rich and poor , black and white, live side by side ». Against this utopian vision, Klein put the paradoxical notion that thousands of homes are empty in New Orleans, where homeless people can move in during the day, but a local activist predicted that "the bourbons in the city's best neighborhoods would have a hysterical attack on someone with a 'rent coupon' had moved in "and added that" this is sure to be interesting ".

"When all illusions are drowning", was the title of an article in the Norwegian-Danish edition of Le Monde diplomatique (October 2005), written by the author Mike Davis. The hardest hit by New Orleans' 1,3 million inhabitants, the victims of the tidal waves from the lakes that "broke through the notoriously inadequate river dikes – not as high as in more affluent areas – that protect the predominantly black eastern New Orleans, as well as the nearby white working-class suburbs. ", The flood immediately gave the name" Lake George "after the president who failed to" build new dikes and did not come to assistance when the old dikes burst ". Davis also noted that "New Orleans' most famous tourist destinations and the most upscale residential areas are on higher ground" and thus escaped, and although Bush claimed that "the storm did not discriminate", in fact all aspects of the disaster were "shaped by inequality and race ».

"Katrina revealed "the extent to which the promise of equal rights for poor African-Americans has been breached at every level of government," Mike Davis wrote. A researcher admits that they knew in advance what a hurricane could cause, but nothing was done to prevent the event. "In fact, the Bush administration has built a Maginot line against al-Qaeda hypothetical threats while neglecting dikes, storm dams and pumps." And Davis added that "the bitter economic and ethnic divides that have long made New Orleans the most tragic city in the United States," not least because "the elite of New Orleans and their allies in City Hall want to pressure the poorest part of the population – who get the blame for the growing crime – out of town ».

Finally, Mike Davis stated: "The ultimate goal seems to be to make New Orleans an amusement park for tourists – Las Vegas on the Mississippi River – with chronic poverty hidden away in swamps, caravan parks and prisons outside the city limits."

So can an angry Mother Earth, possibly plagued by our lack of organic sense, unmask a city. It is difficult to imagine that a similar natural disaster will occur in Norway, but this does not make the measures – the equalization of differences in the cities – less necessary. The Norwegian architecture and urban planning debate closes its eyes to the faces of our cities' social and ethnic Janus, in a supreme self-sufficient attitude, but the book «The city as a symbolic space – Urban politics, urban discourses and gentrification in Old Oslo» (Byggforsk, 2005), written by sociologist Oddrun Sæter and ethnologist Marit Ekne Ruud, can be a useful start.

Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim and other Norwegian cities are characterized by US-like conditions. What is needed for something to be done, with or without Katrina tragedies as the triggering factor?

Jan Carlsen is a freelance architecture writer.

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