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Rebecca Solnit, 'Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism'
Living in an area being ravaged by development in the name of the Olympics, in a London changing fast with the influx of foreign capital, I recognised a lot in this study of the experience of seeing much of the heart and soul removed from your community.
Written from within, and at the height of, “the siege”, this book reads as a call to action to those whose lives will be fundamentally affected to take control over the forces of change.
Solnit mixes anecdote, research and a significant amount of personal involvement, with the photographic projects of Schwartzenburg and others to document and explore a period of high-speed redevelopment in the low-income and bohemian neighbourhoods of San Francisco in the 1990s.
One such project illustrates the point - images of many of the individual and much-valued stores that the 60+ Starbucks in the city have now replaced.
While the photos cut straight through to a significant loss of character and humanity, the text explores the dynamics of gentrification by which a low income area is gradually opened up and made safe and eventually desirable for the mainstream. Capital, in its many guises, moves in too (particularly, in San Francisco, the dot.com/high tech industries) and evictions, rent hikes, demolitions, and erasures follow. Diversity and distinctiveness give way to homogenisation and the death of what the city is so vital for - a space where people can remake themselves, the place around them and new ways of living.
What happened in San Francisco was both a particular cultural crisis and business as usual in a society where “urban renewal” writ large or small is inevitable and those who lose out are dispersed and remain uncounted.
Solnit is careful to guard against an oversimplification of the process, suggesting the part we all play in forming, but then changing, the place where we live.
Perhaps the most searching question she poses is how to play a role in making positive change within our communities rather than merely protesting, often when it is too late, to the actions of others.
The book is an inspiring document of how artists, activists and communities not only resisted change but attempted to take the initiative in order to determine for themselves the context of their own lives.