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More than jobs and making money

10. November 2020

The Corona-lockdown has severely affected retail, as economic analysts show. Whether true or not, the Berlin department stores of Karstadt seemed to use the lockdown to explain its crisis when its planned closures made the news in October 2020. The debate after Karstadt’s announcement of closures on the need to save the department stores from disappearing was narrowly economic. The debate on its apparent causes – lockdown and home-shopping – appears scant, as if digitalization is something we just live with. So, when we can buy all that we need online – and much more as the Algorithm will propose whatever else we ‘need’ – why bother saving a department store? How may such stores and surrounding shopping streets matter for our social life? Does it matter all that much when, along with home-office, we’ll be doing more home shopping?

A reason to rub shoulders

It matters. Excessive staying at home affects the city’s social fabric. The city needs us to go out and about in order to stay democratic, trustful, cohesive. The city needs us to go out and about and be annoyed: annoyance has always been fertile for civic urbanism. The city needs us especially in streets and squares with all sorts of stuff going on whilst shopping and strolling happens, too (so I am excluding shopping malls here). The need for department stores as anchors, and shopping streets more generally, contains two arguments. They bypass whether with Karstadt, the capitalist sharks are just playing their game with Berlin’s politicians in their own interest. They also go beyond the question of how many jobs preventing a closure will save. More broadly, they argue against staying at home beyond absolute necessity and, fully unfashionably, against digitalization. I suggest that urban social life needs shopping streets that serve more than immediate needs of daily produce. Such streets help us do stuff – strolling, gazing, parading and simply passing through – which, first, enhance meeting chances between strangers which contribute to public trust and, second, may allow inclusive space for practices that many see as ‘deviant’.

Both arguments rest on the idea that diverse infrastructures make people rub shoulders regularly on their way to someplace else – say, the train station or the department store, the organic delicatessen or Shishabar. They rub shoulders with people unknown, but about whom they gradually come to know something. Such sites acquire a public familiarity where we share space with people often very different from ourselves but whom we learn to ‘read’ socially. Commercial streets with sufficient diversity allow strolling, gazing and parading. A street full of organic grocery shops or burger shops would be too boring. But they allow these performances in combination with the regular routines of people on their way to someplace else and with people doing other routine things – things we may all do at times, but not all of us do in the street.

The need for functional diversity

Why may such performances then, first, matter for public trust? Closure already threatened Wedding’s Karstadt at the corner of Leopoldplatz and Müllerstrasse about 10 years ago, when C&A left the next-door building in favor of a nearby shopping mall. Local organizations and shopkeepers, whom we interviewed at the time, feared that the shopping street would face further decay. A local paper prophesied a future for Müllerstrasse as ‘Billigmeile’, or street of one-dollar-stores. It is not easy to address such fear without sounding like being ‘against’ shops that cater to low-income people and support commercial gentrification. What they feared was the loss of functional diversity, a term central in The Death and Life of the Great American Cities, a book which Jane Jacobs (1961) wrote against the bulldozering of dense urban neighborhoods in favor of modernist planning the 1960s already. She argued that mixed-use streets enhanced meeting chances and allowed a safe, vibrant life under watchful eyes of shopkeepers and other regulars. Public trust, or a shared understanding that when something happens to us, others will be there and ‘have our back’, enhances feelings of safety. It also affects our capacity to work our way through differences. In the early 1990s, Robert Putnam (1993) showed that public trust enhances democracy. In his later Bowling Alone (2001), he warned that if we all bowl alone rather than in clubs and leave our streets and squares, trust and other forms of social capital diminish. Jacobs and Putnam may have been a romantic, favoring a form of urban life that is not the reality of most urban residents, who live in suburbs, as geographer Roger Keil (2017) tirelessly points out. Yet where urban life is dense, the concern remains.

Public trust a by-product of everyday routines

We asked 250 random Wedding residents 10 years ago whether they regularly went to Müllerstrasse just for a stroll. We found that such strollers more often talked to strangers in the street and more often ran into people they knew from elsewhere. This had nothing to do with local friends or family. The street itself generated a public familiarity. Those who had it trusted more than others would help them in need, had a stronger sense of belonging and felt safer in the neighborhood. Answers to the same questions asked around Kottbusser Tor in 2019 to around 200 random residents show similarly that users of shops, eateries and bars experience more public familiarity, and when they do, are more likely to feel safe and expect others to be there for them. When we are done with our current survey on social consequences of Corona, we will be able to say whether staying at home to limit Corona-cases has affected such patterns.

Are trustful people going out more or does the going out create the trust? We don’t know. It makes no differencefor the question whether it matters to be out and about and whether we need an urban infrastructure that allows those on their way to some place else to share space with those simply ‘there’. Trust in a diverse city requires ways to either form itself or find expression – and diverse shopping streets weave a fabric that enables this. Our fluid public encounters compare to the threads of a cloth woven, touching yet not closely knitted together, as in the knitted fabric of our networks of friends or family. In contrast to neighborhood meetings or community garden, this fabric emerges as the by-product of everyday routines. 

We all urinate, sleep and passively stare in space at times – but the context matters

Why may the aforementioned performances then, second, matter for inclusion of ‘deviance’ and why is that a good idea? Any city includes its outcasts: people whose ways of spending the day and night are defined as deviant: not conforming to mainstream norms and sanctioned, by law or socially. I learnt from sociologist Howard Becker (1963) that deviant behavior depends on whether the agents receive social or legal punishment for actions. This helped me see why some ‘drinking scenes’ are a problem, but not the Aperol-spritz drinking racing-bike riders who sunbath on a Neukölln lawn as if there was no sign ‘Stay off the grass’. We all urinate, sleep and passively stare in space at times. Quite a few of us may get drunk, talk to ourselves, scream in anger, smash a fist against a wall or yell at someone. Some of us may free our minds with joints or party drugs. Some newspaper readers sitting on their sofa reading this right now harasses someone in their homes. I learnt from Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger (2000) not such rituals themselves, but where, when, and in whose co-presence people do them defines them as openly deviant, if not even dirty and dangerous. Our need to read streets in a socially predictable way plays a big role in why such behavior in public becomes dirty and dangerous: it violates dominant expectations of public behavior, as Ervin Goffman (1971) said in Relations in Public, and thus may shake our sense of order and or what I have called elsewhere (Blokland & Nast 2014) our comfort zone. We may reject the idea of outcast from any political perspective. But the city without outcast is yet to come.

Bus stop at Müllerstraße © Kaspar Metzkow

Squares with little functional diversity – nobody passing through on their way to someplace else, no bus stops for waiting at, no windows for gazing, no department store to enter – with abundant co-habitants with nothing but the street to scream, talk to themselves, make money, get drunk or fall asleep, may lose the diversity of users. A square in this area, Leopoldplatz, has seen smart planning interventions over the years to tackle some of the discomfort that outcasts had triggered. But the potential for such interventions stems from the multiple uses and variation in publics which was there all along: people going to the department store, waiting for the bus, entering the train station or having breakfast at Simit Evi, watching over the busy street. An urban fabric with enough everyday use, of various routines can absorb an urban outcast most easily – ideally with help from good design interventions. A sense of order, then, may be shaken most easily when a small deviation works as grotesque because of a totalizing homogeneity in outdoors (!) behavior, as has sometimes been suggested for the segregated wealthy neighborhoods of suburbia. A sense of order may also be shaken because the expected street codes of what many Berlin residents have learnt to see as normatively ‘normal’ are challenged by behavior that appears ad hoc or initially unpredictable. People’s repeated encounters with socially defined outcasts cease to produce such discomfort if and when a space contains substantive diversity of all kinds. A diversity of users permits the absorption – and thus inclusion – of deviance.    

An urban fabric in times of COVID19

Such an urban fabric depends on functional diversity, which brings us back to the start. Diverse shopping streets, especially with department stores as anchors, invite consumers who do not ‘need’ anything. This produces a different urban fabric than do sites where such infrastructures have disappeared. This claim that these are essential is not new. It goes back to pleas for more urban diversity in urban planning of about five decades ago, and to studies on what makes a city safe, and to analyses of shrinking cities, in places like Leipzig (!) of thirty years ago. Bringing this claim back seems like a necessity in these times that remind us of the days of what Jacques Ellul in 1988 described as technological bluff. The idea that digital living is an unchangeable fact of future life or that home office and home shopping constitute a new, fixed reality, a chance or even progress, may be a “gigantic bluff in which discourse on techniques envelops us, making us believe anything and, far worse, changing our whole attitude to technique” (p.xiv). Technical possibility doesn’t equal progress. Things that we have to do in crisis – like staying home – do not make them normatively right in all dimensions. In most debates on the consequences of Berlins lockdown so far, very little has been said about urban public life. The role of vibrant shopping and leisure streets for a public life of trust, democracy and for a victory of public familiarity over fear for ‘dirt and danger’ has yet to be rediscovered.

Market at Leopoldplatz next to the Karstadt Store © Kaspar Metzkow

References

Becker, H. (1963) Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance. The Free Press. New York.

Blokland, T., & Nast, J. (2014). From Public Familiarity to Comfort Zone: The Relevance of Absent Ties for Belonging in Berlin’s Mixed Neighbourhoods. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 38(4), 1142-11

Douglas, M. (2002) Purity and Danger. Routledge, London

Ellul, J. (1988) The Technological Bluff. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids

Goffman, I. (1971) Relations in Public. Basic Books, New York

Jacobs, J. (1961) The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Penguin, New York.

Keil, R. (2017). Suburban planet: making the world urban from the outside in. Oxford: John Wiley & Sons.Putnam, R. (1993) Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton University Press, Princeton

Putnam, R. (1993) Making Democracy Work. Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.

Putnam, R. (2001) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Simon & Schuster, New York

Talja Blokland is professor of urban and regional sociology at Humboldt University of Berlin and director of the Georg Simmel Centre of metropolitan studies. This essay – published first in German in the newspaper ‘Tagesspiegel’ on 22.08.2020 – draws on her book Community as Urban Practice (Polity, 2017). She currently leads, together with Prof. Hoering, a project financed by Berlin University Alliance called ‘Social Life under COVID19’ (corona.hu-berlin.de), an extension of the project ‘The World in My Street’ which is part of the SFB1265.