Cultural Time Zones and the Global City

What is a cultural time zone? Think of tennis, says Melissa Tandiwe Myambo in a fascinating essay in New Left Review. On the international tennis circuit, all the courts and facilities must meet certain standards, with only minor local variations.

“Thus, the tennis tour allows professional players to circulate globally while remaining inside a specific cultural time zone that is more or less the same everywhere.”

Much the same thing is happening to our cities, Myambo argues, especially those that, like Johannesburg, are pursuing “global city” status. Shoreditch is to London what Brooklyn is to New York, and a similar “hypsterification” effect is taking place in districts of Johannesburg, as the Central Business District spreads out in what real-estate boosters call a “creative halo”.

If you’re one of the well-paid city workers who can afford the eye-watering property prices that are the cost of hipsterdom, this probably sounds like a positive development. For most people, however, it isn’t. Such uneven development in the creation of a global city leads to heightened inequality, marginalisation and the displacement of existing communities.

In Johannesburg, Myambo writes:

“There are ‘First World’ cultural time zones, moneyed suburbs such as Saxonwold and Morningside, that are reminiscent of a wealthy North American city—six-lane highways, residential streets lined with blossoming Jacaranda trees, luxurious malls with marble restroom facilities, English-language schools with manicured lawns and sparkling blue swimming pools—not so far from overcrowded shantytowns where four dozen people are expected to share a pit latrine.”

Such inequality, of course, is the legacy of apartheid, and it can’t all be laid at the door of the hipsters or the property developers trying to create a global city. But the problem, for me, is the top-down development, the escalation of inequality to unsustainable levels. Cities should be improved, definitely—but shouldn’t we start with the pit latrine, not the luxury mall? Shouldn’t the improvements be accessible to the people who live there?

I remember the fights over gentrification in Harlem and Brooklyn when I lived in New York, and similar struggles in Shoreditch and other parts of London when I lived there. The issue in both cases was not resistance to progress but the way in which local people were excluded from the fruits of that progress. Existing residents were pushed out while a moneyed elite moved in, and the stark and increasing urban inequality led to resentment. For example, when protesters attacked a hipster cereal cafe, the organisers said:

“We don’t want luxury flats that no one can afford, we want genuinely affordable housing. We don’t want pop-up gin bars or brioche buns – we want community.”

In the aspiring “global cities” of Africa and Asia, there’s an additional disturbing element, which Myambo hints at in her essay. They are still playing the old post-colonial game of trying to catch up with their former colonisers. The cultural time zones they seek to create are Western, with only token nods to local culture in the names or design features of some of the shiny new buildings. The whole game, like tennis, was designed by others.

“The referees of the modernity game are still Western—and so, win or lose, are the rules. We have so internalized them, it seems, that we do not even realize the degree of our own colonization, which is becoming a process of barely visible self-colonization.”

Do you recognise the phenomena of cultural time zones and the global city, either from your own city or ones you’ve visited? What do you think of gentrification? Let me know in the comments. And be sure to read the full essay for some extra nuances I couldn’t cover here.

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There are 2 comments

    1. Thanks for the link, Isolete! That looks like a great exhibition. You’re right, it’s a problem in so many cities now. Urban renewal and improvements are great if they benefit the people living there, but so often these days they exclude existing residents and increase inequality.

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