Tuesday, 28 June 2016

New Radical Chic, Temporary Urbanism and the Progressive City?

Johnnie Crossan - University of Glasgow

Inspired by the post ‘Crusties, Punks and Subversives: street scene anarchist style’ this piece is concerned with a certain aesthetic: a left wing aesthetic – of sorts. I am interested in the ways in which some city place-marketing initiatives in recent years have attempted to appropriate the visual cues and symbols of the radical urban activism of the left to promote places as creative and ‘edgy’, typified in the phenomenon known as temporary urbanism. I am interested in the de-facto role of some political activists as gentrification ‘trailblazers’, and I am also trying to understand why the material culture of the radical urban left appeals to many urbanites.

New radical chic differs from ‘radical chic’ in a number of ways. The latter refers to a coming together of figures from primarily the left with celebrities and socialites who adopt, promote and sometimes patronise the ideas of these political personalities. This is exemplified in images of Don Cox, field marshal of the Black Panthers in Leonard Bernstein and Felecia Motealegre’s sitting room (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radical_chic). While motivations for such alliances may be sincere attempts to promote what they see as progressive political ideas both parties, the radicals and the elites, almost always face criticism for ‘selling out’ or being insincere. In the UK we sometimes refer to this phenomena as ‘Champaign Socialism’. Oxymoronic and always used in the pejorative the suggestion here is that the high-life takes precedent over radical political life.

New radical chic is different from the above in that it shuns the visual cues and symbols of high society. The material political culture of new radical chic rejects the celebrity lifestyle and sees the socialite as a symptom of the problem of excess and overconsumption in society. As such new radical chic disdains bling and always dresses down. Presenting an image of authenticity is paramount for new radical chic protagonists and purveyors alike. The authentic life here is a frugal life articulated through a politics of environmentalism and, if not committed anti-capitalism, recognition that capitalism’s excesses must be brought to heal. New radical chic is also an urban phenomenon that reconstructs the derelict buildings and underused green spaces of the post-industrial city in line with a DIY aesthetic. 

The sartorial references of this world are many and varied and almost always slightly ill-fitting! Examine more closely those hipsters that look as if they’ve been dragged backwards through a vintage clothing store and you may well catch glimpses of the crusty, the punk and the subversive. You’ll see political badges and t-shirts, black hoodies and Palestinian Keffiyehs alongside home-knitted jumpers, flannel shirts and all manner of Vans. Hunt and Phillipov (2014) in their essay on ‘Nanna Style’, a key strain of new radical chic, note that while these consumption patterns manifest in a variety of forms, “such practices are frequently articulated to politics of anti-consumerism, environmentalism, and sustainable consumption through which lifestyle choices are conceived as methods for investing in – and articulating – ethical and social concerns”. This resonates with the more militant sensibilities of the DIY hardcore scene, which for Martin-Iverson (2011: 2) “seek[s] autonomy from capital” but nevertheless struggles to “free itself from an antagonistic relationship with its ongoing processes of expansion, enclosure, and exploitation”.

New radical chic is written across places. Its protagonists are place-makers. The temporary urbanism most associated with creative amateur- and community-led regeneration is in part created and in part appropriated by these spatial culture hackers. The spatial and aesthetic references of this landscape borrow much from the squat and the social centre. What Ferrell (2012) calls democratic anarchic urbanism, and Franks (2000) calls Guerrilla Architecture: these spaces inspire the new radical chic.

Examples can be found across the advanced capitalist world. London’s leftwing café culture, which for Kingsley (2012) marks a return to the lefty café culture of postwar Paris, appropriates the ad-hoc design features of Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zones. Moving up a scale to the level of neighbourhood regeneration futurist Bruce Sterling, in the US technology magazine Wired, refers to the Australian urban renewal project Renew Newcastle as “Favela Chic” (2009). The reference to favelas is used by Sterling to highlight and celebrate the informal organization and accompanying aesthetic of this particular regeneration project. Andres (2013), writing about a similar project in the French city of Lausanne, uses the term weak planning to capture this bottom-up and amateurish production of space. Opposed to master planning “which relates to the process of designing and implementing a development vision for the site and beyond” weak planning affords tenants the opportunity to enact “innovative and alternative” (ibid) experiments in interior, architectural and public space design. Moving further up the spatial scale Berlin is arguably the creative and experimental city par excellence. Claire Colomb, amongst others, has argued, that “from the early 2000s onward, […] the creative, unplanned, multifaceted, and dynamic diversity” of the city’s many temporary uses of space has been “gradually harnessed into urban development policies and city marketing campaigns” (Colomb 2012: 132) (see https://www.wm-urban-habitat.org/eng/germany/).

‘Harnessing’ the ‘dynamic diversity’ of Berlin’s temporary use landscape by urban elites has been carried out concurrently with the eviction of many of the city’s squats. These creative and ‘edgy’ trailblazers, which have long made use of spaces left derelict by the state and capital, are often subject to the brute force of the law by way of eviction (see Vasudevan 2013). Squatters are replaced with creative entrepreneurs whose lack of financial capital is offset by their abundance of cultural capital. This offers the potential of returning financial rewards to property owners but, of course, excludes those urbanites without adequate cultural capital. The new users, however, are in a highly precarious position. In “possession of a thorough aesthetic education” (Deslandes 2013) but without structural mechanisms that would have once supported them, they further a process of economic gentrification that will ultimately price many of them out of the city village they helped create. This process has prompted Andres to call the weak planning stage “the watching stage” (2013: 762). Landowners and the municipal authorities cannot themselves bring about the desired future (i.e. increased rents) so, by way of incentives – short-term rents, relaxed planning policies (e.g. sui generis use lease agreements, late night opening), they invite a creative demographic in and ‘watch’ the de facto regeneration period closely, deciding on the optimal time to step in and employ a more co-ordinated master plan (ibid). Returning to the image of ‘favela chic’, Deslandes criticizes Sterling’s incongruous coupling of ‘favela’ and ‘chic’ for omitting the process of exploitation and exclusion that underpins the temporary urban phenomenon.

Moving across the Atlantic to the US, Rosdil (2011) paints a more positive picture of this form of cultural-led gentrification. Using the term progressive cities to refer to a raft of progressive policies adopted by a number of US cities she argues that the relatively affluent young workers that follow the creative types into the post-industrial city harbor political preferences that, amongst other things, favour participatory decision-making processes, a congenial approach to catering for non-traditional identities and a “greater responsiveness to the needs of the socially disadvantaged” (ibid: 3472). Rosdil’s point here is that a “culturally unconventional cohort of professionals” that “has rediscovered the charms of city living” (ibid: 3484) has significant political capital, which they are using to pursue a new vision of the urban community based on radically different principles to the profit first logic that has for so long determined the contours of our urban environment.

I employ the term New Radical Chic to the material culture of temporary urbanism to draw attention to the political motivations and consequences of this highly contested urban practice. On the one hand, as evidenced by Rosdil, new radical chic is not only inspired by the visual cues and prompts of radical left wing urban activism but seems to signify the propagation of many political ideas nurtured in the squat and social centre around participatory democracy, environmentalism and social inclusion. On the other hand, new radical chic may well be yet another marker of capitals ability to appropriate, exploit and enclose!


Andres L (2013) Differential Spaces, Power Hierarchy and Collaborative Planning: A Critique of the Role of Temporary Uses in Shaping and Making Places. Urban Studies 50(4): 759-755

Colomb C (2015) in Vasudevan A (2013) Metropolitan Preoccupations: The Spatial Politics of Squatting in Berlin. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell

Deslandes A (2013) Exemplary Amateurism: Thoughts on DIY Urbanism. Cultural Studies Review 19(1): 216-227

Franks B (2000) New right/New left: an alternative experiment in freedom. In: Hughes J and Sadler S (eds) Non-Plan: Essays on Freedom, Participation and Change in Modern Architecture and Urbanism. Oxford: Routledge

Ferrell J (2012) Anarchy, Geography and Drift. Antipode, 44:1687-1704.

Hunt R and Phillipov M (2014) "Nanna Style": The Countercultural Politics of Retro Femininities. Media and Culture 17(6).

Kingsley P (2012) The Return of Leftwing Café Culture, Guardian, accessed at http://www.theguardian.com/politics/shortcuts/2012/oct/21/return-leftwing-cafe-culture.

Martin-Iverson SR (2011) The politics of cultural productionin the DIY hardcore scene in Bandung, Indonesia, Doctoral Thesis, accessed at https://www.academia.edu/4689757/The_politics_of_cultural_production_in_the_DIY_hardcore_scene_in_Bandung_Indonesia.

Rosdil D (2011) Civic Culture, Sub-cultures, Non-traditionalism and Progressive Policy: Using Value Change to Explain New US Development Strategies in the 21st Century. Urban Studies 48(16): 3467-3486.

Sterling B (2009) in DesLandes (2013) Exemplary Amateurism: Thoughts on DIY Urbanism. Cultural Studies Review 19(1): 216-227

Vasudevan A (2013) Metropolitan Preoccupations: The Spatial Politics of Squatting in Berlin. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Crusties, Punks and Subversives: Street scene anarchist style

John Crossan - University of Glasgow

A few years ago I took part in a march and demo that was held in support of both a student occupation of a university building and a university lecturers strike that was taking place at the same time. I held one pole of an anarchist banner that read ‘No Gods, No Masters, Free Education for All’. During a rally at the march’s end press photographers began to take photographs of the banner and, in particular, the guy holding the other pole. He was a punk. Full on punk with doc boots, acid-wash denims, biker jacket with a mix of badges from the musical (e.g. anarcho-punk) to the political (e.g. smash capitalism). He also had a Mohawk hair-do. Pleased to be off-camera, I was not in any way begrudging of the attention given to my 1970s throwback comrade – who I noticed had a very middle-class accent!

The episode briefly discussed above is one of many in my activist life where dress has played a significant and not unproblematic part in the drama of street-level politics. I’ve been thinking about the relationship between clothing and politics for a while although this is the first time I’ve attempted to formulate those thoughts into written form. My politics verges to the libertarian left. Although I don’t define myself as an anarchist – more of a libertarian municipalist (see Bookchin 1993) this socialist tradition of political practice that aims to build a society based on mutual aid and mass democratic participation seems a sensible and worthy cause. My route into anarchist politics came via an impromptu visit to a squatted Dutch social centre almost 20 years ago when I was in Amsterdam on holiday. I spent a couple of hours with people who lived in and/or used the space, eating food, talking politics and being fascinated by the strange order of things. I was intrigued, excited and maybe a little uneasy with the irregularity of the décor and the bizarre mix of vestimentary styles on display. 

Brian Martin (2007) suggests there are three forms of anarchist dress – the “hippy” (arguably a more appropriate description would be the crusty) the “punk” and the “subversive”. The latter refers to the black bloc (see below). All of these looks are intimately connected to the urban environment – the punk and subversive manifestly so and the crusty in a less obvious but important sense. In various ways they all subvert urban space.

Halfacree (1996) using the term “new tribe” (but describing the crusty) comments that this particularly rural pariah originated from what the police termed an “unholy alliance” (Blakely 1992: 1043) between ravers and new age travellers. This introduced the latter to rave music, whilst introducing the ravers to the environmental politics of the new agers (Halfacree 1996). Halfacree described this group as the “new right folk devils” who were “out of place in the country” (Halfarcree 1996: 42). The radical land and environmental activism of the crusty, which was given legislative (dis)approval in the 1996 UK Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, also challenges the excesses and enclosures of city life. As troubling for the city is the rustic earthy colours and dishevelled contours of the crusty’s garb, which unsettle the clean Apollonian straight lines and unbroken Dionysian curves of urban form.

Woman in crusty-style clothing mocking a police officer at an anti-Criminal Justice Act demo 1994  ©Giles Moberly/PYMCA

The punk is the most individualised of the three anarchic looks offered here. In the punk we see, paradoxically, the purest expression of western society’s attempt at fashioning the body politic. Dick Hebdige’s (1983) sociological work on youth culture remains the most elegant and thought provoking study of the punk phenomenon as an embodied politics of refusal:
punk practice has reaffirmed the centrality of the body [..] as an object to be constructed, reconstructed, deconstructed. The body as canvas and stage. The body as metaphor, as site of contradiction, as a mutilated place […]. Dressed in Armageddon chic, clothes for Britain to go down the drain in, the punks played with and played back the rhetoric of crisis, made the word flesh (Hebdige 1983: 85).
Like the crusties not all punks are anarchists. Some punks move within a far right neo Nazi scene. That being said, arguably the most well known contemporary expression of punk life is the Hardcore scene, which for the most part espouses left wing and egalitarian political views around, for example, anti-militarism and anti-authoritarianism.

Punks at the seaside in Blackpool © Christopher Furlong 

The subversive dresses in black. More akin to a military uniform than the other styles mentioned, this particular arrangement of cloth, metal, plastic and rubber first began its assault on the city during the anti-capitalist demonstrations of the 1990s. Collectively known as the Black Bloc, John P Sullivan (2001: 123) suggests the term “refers more to a tactic employed by loosely organized, fluid, and dynamic groups […] than to a defined, regular group”. Sullivan is, in part, correct. At certain times this is a momentary, deliberately fragmented, and always moving assemblage of bodies. Their tactic is to exploit the inability of police forces “to shift from their planned method of addressing illegal demonstrations through crowd dispersal” (ibid) so as to perform their aim of destroying “the thin veneer of legitimacy that surrounds private property rights” (N30 Black Bloc Communiqué 1999) by smashing, subverting and defacing that particular form of property – “A dumpster becomes an obstruction to a phalanx of rioting cops […] A building façade becomes a message board to record and brainstorm ideas for a better world” (ibid).

                                                    Black Bloc somewhere 

The Black Bloc set themselves up in direct opposition to what MacLeod (2011) calls the “new urban political economy” and its commodification and policing of urban life. With black hoodies, vinegar soaked black bandanas and gasmasks protecting the lungs, bicycle and motorbike helmets protecting the head, shin guards and other forms of protective clothing adding bulk to the bodies underneath the black garments, the black bloc provide a visually stunning and formidable response to the brute force of the riot cops defending the sanitized apolitical dreamscapes of an urban entrepreneurial vision (Belina and Helms 2002). 

At other times, after the spectacle of large demonstrations, the visual cues and symbols of the black bloc merge with those of the crusty and the punk producing an anarchist scene. Most individuals that move within this scene don’t dress in any one particular style. Rather they mix and match the garments of each. Some anarchist sensibilities just don’t bother with textile representations of their politics, others are deliberately antagonistic towards the scene and its visual cues. Sceneism refers to what some anarchists believe to be the de-radicalization of the movement. From this perspective the scene “runs the risk of being bought out and turned into an alienating spectacle accessible to only a minority of the population” (Nachie 2003: 5).

From the outside looking in, a scene always looks more homogenous and impenetrable than it actually is. Most anarchist-influenced groups I have spent time with realize that closing the doors to the newcomer results in a debilitating introversion that is ultimately counter-productive. The strength of the anarchist scene in any city that has a significant number of anarchist-influenced activists is that these actors in costume perform the role of radical placemakers. Echoing Mattson’s work on gay-placemaking in San Francisco, the punks, the crusties and the subversives embody “non-conformist ‘rights to the city’” (Mattson 2015: 3156). My experience of the anarchist scene has been, on the whole, positive. Like many before me and many since the visual cues and prompts of the scene opened up a new language of politics that has enriched my life and from time-to-time I still like to put on my doc boots and black hoody for a night out in the town!    


Belina B and Helms G (2002) Zero Tolerance for the Industrial Past and other Threats: Policing and other forms of urban entrepreneurialism and Britain and Germany, Urban Studies, 40(9): 1845-1867

Blakey D. (1992) Our common cause. Police Review lOO (5168): 1042-3.

Bookchin M (1993) Urbanization without Cities: Rise and fall of citizenship, Black Rose Books  

Halfacree K.H. (1996) Out of Place in the Country: Travellers and the Rural Idyll, Antipode, vol.28, no. 1, pp42-72

Hebdige D. (1983) Posing . . . Threats, Striking. . . Poses: Youth, Surveillance, and Display, Substance vol.11, no.4 pp68-88

Macleod G (2011) Urban Politics Reconsidered: Growth machine to post-democratic city? Urban Studies 48(12): 2629-2660

Martin B (2007) The Well Dressed Anarchist, available at

Mattson G (2015) Style and the value of gay nightlife: Homonormative placemaking in San Francisco, Urban Studies, 52(16) 3144-3159

N30 Black Bloc Communiqué (1999) available at

Nachie (2003) Anarcho-Sceneism: What it is and how to fight it, available at