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

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