Seth Neu is an official CAPA blogger for summer 2017, sharing his story in weekly posts on CAPA World. A Marketing & Management Information Systems major at the University of Minnesota, he is studying abroad in London this semester.
In this week's post, Seth talks about exploring how the city of London is developing through field visits.
When considering classes to take abroad, my only criteria was that they were not some mundane courses that I could just as easily take at my home university. So, fitting my criteria perfectly, I elected to take a class entitled "Exploring and Analyzing the Global City: London". A class revolving around exploration of the themes, history, and people that have molded London into the megalopolis that it is today, and how this extends to the rest of the world. The best part of the class being the weekly field trips, meaning half the class is spent traversing new parts of London.
Photo: view from Greenwich Hill
The field component of the class brings us to an eclectic mix of locations throughout the city, areas that I most likely would not have explored elsewise. While there, we are pushed to learn about the new area, immerse ourselves in it, and view the happenings with a more discerning eye. And, possibly most important, the trips take us outside our comfort zones and bring us face to face with the problems that plague the world at large, but can be seen with particular transparency in cities, such as oppression, gentrification, and social class inequality.
Our first visit was to Greenwich, a real hike from where I am staying, over an hour tube ride. The area is known for its royal history, maritime prowess, and birthing the Prime Meridian. Basically, a bunch of stuff I don’t care about and would never visit if not forced by mandatory attendance. But that’s the great thing about this class! It forced me to go to Greenwich Village, and I’m actually really happy I did.
Photo: David Bowie mural in Brixton
The view from the top of the hill in Greenwich Park alone would have made the trip worth it: spread out before me was the entire city of London. I was also intrigued by the courtyard in front of the Old Royal Naval College. As I stood, sandwiched between two buildings that were built at the very end of the 17th century, with no modern buildings in sight, I almost felt like I had been transported back 300 years. Until everyone took out their phones to take pictures, that really shattered the illusion. The Queen’s House was another part that I found surprisingly enjoyable. Although the house was dull from the outside, inside was intricate architecture and a rich art collection.
The following week found us heading southwest to Brixton. An area that has been mostly known for its prolific nightlife and music venues. Most notably being the birthplace of the late and great David Bowie. A stunning mural of David Bowie resides on a Brixton side street, painted by the Australian artist James Cochran. A few streets away from the mural is Pop Brixton, an area completely enclosed by salvaged shipping containers. Aside from the creatively repurposed shipping containers creating quite the picturesque spectacle, Pop Brixton is also a great place to grab a bite to eat or hear some live music.
Photo: street art in Shoreditch
Creating a stark contrast with the trendy (a euphemism for gentrified) parts of Brixton, is the barrier wall. The wall is a concrete behemoth. The purpose of the wall is dual: it is a social estate that houses people, but it also forms a blockade to shield the community of Brixton form the extensive social estate complex that resides behind the wall. The massive social estates are notorious for being crime-ridden and poverty-stricken. On the opposite side of the wall resides a brand-new luxury apartment complex. The flats go for upwards of 750,000 pounds. This is gentrification.
The introductory gentrification we saw in Brixton was a perfect segue into our next field trip, Shoreditch. The posterchild for gentrification, Shoreditch is best described as the Brooklyn of London. It is known for being a creative hub, replete with fashion, music, art, and food. Within five of minutes of exiting the subway, I said to my friend, “In my entire life, I have never seen so many well-dressed people in a single place.” And no wonder everyone is so well-dressed; the Shoreditch area is full of boutiques and carefully catered vintage stores.
Photo: street art in Shoreditch
However, the most notable part of Shoreditch is the street art. It is everywhere. You cannot go a block without seeing some form of graffiti, poster, sculpture, or the like. Our class was fortunate enough to have a guided street art tour, a truly unique experience. The tour guide was a street artist himself, for the past 15 years he has been coloring the walls of Shoreditch (both legally and not so legally). He also had no qualms about using expletives and adding humor, which only added to the eccentricity of the tour. A self-proclaimed “street art nerd,” our guide had an encyclopedic recall for literally every single piece of art we encountered. The street tour brought us through both the extravagant parts of Shoreditch, the parts I was describing earlier, as well as the impoverished parts. It’s both startling and saddening to learn that fashion boutiques selling multi-thousand pound purses reside only a few mere blocks from one of the most destitute areas of London; the child poverty rate is nearly 50%. This is the result of gentrification.
Photo: community park in Shoreditch
As the tour progressed, we slowly made our way towards the edge of Shoreditch, which forms a boundary with the towering financial district. One of the last roads we traversed featured a meandering brick wall, several blocks long completely covered in street art. Directly adjacent the wall was a newly erected luxury apartment building, which signaled the start of financial district and money. It was at this point that the implications of gentrification were fully revealed: the contention between the old Shoreditch and the new Shoreditch was nearly palpable. We concluded our tour at easily the most intriguingly dynamic park I’ve ever seen. From afar, it looks like a junk yard, but as you get near the anomalous park comes into focus. The park is built from abandonment: old car tires form animals; reclaimed furniture forms communal circles inside huts built from recovered timber; old signs have been repainted promoting peace and unity; and one section has turned ugly concrete into a lovely garden. The park is scheduled to be torn down next year to make room for luxury apartments.
Seth's journey continues every Wednesday so stay tuned.