Stop the x save the y

I CAN’T FEEL THE outrage. It’s true that Westconnex, the planned motorway to be constructed through and underneath Sydney’s inner west, is bad. It’s a model of combined woeful planning, culture war assumptions about transport, shocking public relations, and kleptonomics: a chuckleheaded set of map lines straight from love-in seminars between baked-in NSW Treasury headcases and cynical bagmen from the usual consultancies. It’s a highway project that would shame Robert Moses, who, when all was said, at least believed in the public good and not simply transport efficiency. It has been and will be a crappy project from the get-go to the eventual ribbon-cutting ceremony, and it should justify every vociferous demonstration, tree ribbon, and lie-in. Yet I can’t quite gather the strength to be infuriated. What is worth saving?

The opposition to Westconnex follows a time-honoured aesthetic and set of organising principles: ‘Stop the x, save the y’, where the values for x and for y are almost infinitely exchangeable. This an heroic formula which traces a genealogy to aesthetes and historical preservationists in the Britain, to conservationists like the Sierra Club in the United States, and most of all, to the variety of small-scale and local community-based urbanism as understood by Jane Jacobs and other mid-20thC critics of high modernism. Activist victories like the salvation of the Greenwich Village in New York City from motorways preserved its architecture, but more importantly, established a process through which objectors could organise opposition to projects: local activist groups, residents’ forums, community groups, rallies.

The 1950s through 1970s, the golden era for such urban conservationist movements, developed what we would describe today as an open-source blueprint for community opposition. Anyone, anywhere, can use the formula without restriction. It is so familiar it could almost have a style guide: residents’ action groups (RAGs) with acronyms, hand-painted signage, rally chants, not-happy photographs with folded arms in local newspapers. The visual language is unmistakeable, from the acrylic paint on canvas, to the dogs, to the floppy hats. Where other protest traditions, such as the trade union practice of picket lines, have their own language (flags, raised fists, camp fires), the residents’ group’s aesthetic says: we are respectable, we are organised, we value what is ours, and we claim a venerable tradition. I’ve got mine.

The key thing to appreciate is that all such movements define that which already exists as by definition worth saving. X and y are inseparable. Where a RAG comes into being, so does a specific imagined state of local being, out of history, out of change, out of time. The inner west around Newtown, the y to be saved, is a forever place of relatively low density, highly educated families, and street trees. It is nostalgia ossified. Never mind that the place has changed, irrevocably, in the last twenty years, from a down-at heel suburb of immigrants and boarding houses, into a ground zero of auctions and spivs, or that almost none of the street trees are more than forty years old.

‘That which appears is good, that which is good appears’, wrote Guy Debord of the spectacle in 1968, of the way he thought power worked, but he might have been describing the soixante-huitards’ later self-interested protest movements of their home ownership. The model, because it puts at the forefront the terrible consequences of change, freezes an imagined view of what is there, and makes myth of the present. Against the proposed development, that which is at risk—even if it doesn’t necessarily exist—is worthy. Stop the x, save the y.

The algebra needs criticism. Even if x ought to be stopped, y may not be worthy of salvation. The inner west is, in many ways, becoming terrible, and getting worse. Westconnex, which threatens the inner west with roadways, now only threatens a vertiginously gentrifying inner urban centre of rather lovely homes, owned by (by definition, now) millionaires. Speaking personally, it’s my place, with which I’m familiar over a lifetime, and which I love, but whose propertied residents are emphatically, with their wallets, rejecting people like me. No residents’ group has ever carried a ‘stop the housing price increase’ or a ‘we love new public housing stock’ sign. They may campaign for rent caps for existing residents, but who could imagine a RAG campaign for more new people to move in? ‘Campaigning for more public transport’ is not a substitute here. The only vision of the future in this model is the inner west, like it is now, but with more trains serving the people who already live here. A housing boom destroys a place even more completely than any possible engineering project can.

For all their bulldozer-happy crimes against architecture, the high modernists at least dreamed of a better society and a new city, and dreamed widely: of whole cities, not just local areas. The modern vision was of whole cities shared by equal partners in a future, rather than local communities grasping tightly to what was theirs. In many ways their worst legacy, from the 1950s onwards, was to have lost, and allowed plain old accumulation of capital to do the dirty work of saving the lovely Federation architecture, and ridding inner cities of ordinary people.

It’s time to invert the recipe, and establish a better vision of how our cities might be. Stop the formula-resistance, save the modernism!

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