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OP-ED: A city’s inner worlds

  • Published at 06:36 am August 23rd, 2021
Dhaka city urban

We should aim to understand the city from the perspectives of the marginalized

Last week, I returned to Dhaka after living abroad for about four months; while the flight approached the airport, I had a glance at the city I lived in almost my entire life. It seemed like a quiet and calm city from above. Yet, as soon as I crossed the arrival terminal, the warm wind came across; I heard overlapping screams of happiness or frustration. Then, finally, I returned home through the busy streets -- it was a contrast to the view of my city from the aeroplane, not shielded from the hustle and bustle experienced on the ground.

This contrast of the city became apparent to me as I recently read Michel de Certeau’s 1984 essay "Walking in the City." He contended: A walker transforms each spatial signifier into something else. And to understand the dynamics of the city, one must experience it from the ground, though from up above we may get a bird’s eye view.

For example: In the expensive parts of Dhaka, there are some green areas used as parks and walkways. These are exclusive to the residents and guarded by the security personnel so that outsiders cannot intrude. People come anyhow, and sometimes the security guards inhibit the supposed outsiders from sitting on park benches. But the residents, and especially the residents’ association members and officials, get a salute.

How different persons walk or conduct themselves in particular spaces and how passers-by and security guards perceive them initiate different responses. Hence, a spatial understanding in terms of the physical characteristics of an area would never acknowledge the social inequality; instead, it would only grasp a partial view, as the view from an aeroplane -- a rosy glimpse of any city.

Walking the city roads, we can identify the visible differences between the different segments, such as the upper and lower class areas. The external differences are detectable by the width of the roads, the availability of footpaths or green spaces, the number and density of people living in the houses, the accessibility to people who do not live in the area, and so forth. 

For instance, in some parts of Dhaka, even rickshaw-pullers are given distinctive “vests” that they must wear to enter certain areas. So now, people must take three rickshaw rides from Baridhara to Banani, for example, while one ride was enough previously. Besides, many apartment complexes in Dhaka are “secured” with guards, closed-circuit cameras, monitoring, etc.

Any city and its different segments are perceived differently by the city-dwellers. Depending on the area’s physical characteristics, we assume how risky the site could be to roam around alone after dark.

The city’s unworthy areas lack effective public services such as education, housing, health care, waste management, roads and transportation, utility services, etc. The poor condition of citizen services in these areas is often regarded as the result of the negligence of residents, rather than inadequate resources available to these people. Contrarily, at the same time, in many working-class narratives, wealthy people are immoral who lead a lifestyle not akin to the age-old cultural values.

How one perceives the city is important because cities are growing bigger but facing inadequate housing, transportation, utility services, office and business spaces, etc. In the face of these crises, the policymakers usually solve these problems to renew the concerns perpetually. 

In ensuring public health, making the city aesthetic, meeting the needs of businesses, traffic requirements (railways, streets), the working-class people are expelled from the centre of emerging cities. Development works usually drive the working-class people outwards from Dhaka’s central areas -- into new slums. The story of progress and development stigmatizes those who are deprived by the very structure of the city.

During the last three decades, the construction of gigantic marketplaces/shopping centres, residential areas, high-rise office complexes, transportation projects, etc have reconfigured Dhaka. As a result, working-class people have lost housing, and new slums keep appearing on the city’s outskirts.

Though the city’s different areas represent quite different demographic characteristics -- income, employment, literacy -- the segregation does not result in zero interaction between them. Instead, surrounding the affluent areas of the city are pockets of areas where low-income groups live. They usually provide manual labour services to these places as house help or private vehicle drivers. 

Walking the streets of Dhaka, one will see beyond the pleasant view of the city illuminated with neon lights and glossy billboards advertising expensive products -- the invisible and visible boundaries and social injustices.

The dimensions that a walk in the streets or any other public space reveals often remain obscured by the rhetoric of progress and, as such, keeps us aloof from the challenges humanity faces in the age of capitalistic globalization. 

In Michel de Certeau’s opinion, even though we get to see the whole of the city from above -- as an ivory tower view of the policymakers -- it gives us a distorted view of the everyday reality of the population. Thereby, the city remains out of our grasp.

We ought to explore the invisible, unexplored, and unexamined. We should aim to understand the city from the perspectives of the marginalized, as Friedrich Engels did in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845). It will apply to cities across the globe as working classes are everywhere oppressed underneath the abundance of the owners of the means of production.

Yet, we should keep in mind that it would be a mistake to claim some unified “view from the ground.” There are many stories to hear and explore.

Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka. Currently, he works as a research fellow at the International Institute of Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden University, the Netherlands.