Saturday, June 22

Downtown is for Zombies

The great urbanist Jane Jacobs proclaimed that ‘ down town is for people’. Jacobs both declared and demanded this back in 1958 and since then cities have either endeavored to deliver on this vision or wilfully ignore it; while in the end, most undertake piece-meal attempts towards recognizing it as an aspiration, if not a reality.

New Zealand cities undergo sporadic attempts to deliver such a downtown, usually due to whatever mayor, council, and vested interests are in power. Sometimes they are successful –  perhaps most notably in  Wellington under Fran Wilde and then, Mark Blumsky.  But the crucial element in what occurs is in fact wider society and the desire for – or failure of  – social cohesion that exists, or is expected.

Social cohesion is undergirded by a belief in the necessity of the social; that is, the way we live with, for, and amongst each other – despite our differences. The social is more than community, for communities are limited as to who is “included” – which is a kinder way of saying that communities are in fact defined by who they choose to exclude – and why.

This is why we tend not to speak of community cohesion and certainly not of the community contract. Rather, we use social and societal cohesion and talk of the social contract. For that seeks to include everyone and operates both vertically between levels of citizens, institutions, and local and central government, and horizontally across diverse communities, institutions, and interests. But when social cohesion collapses and the wider social contract breaks,  we tend to find a rise in anti-social behavior.

It is apparent from a series of recent incidents that inner city New Zealand, across a variety of locations, is experiencing a rise in antisocial behaviour and the collapse of any notion of social cohesion and a social contract. The reasons why are not as complex as some may wish to make them – but not as simple as others wish to say they are. I want to state, quite seriously, that what we are seeing is the zombification of our inner cities.

In George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) the shopping mall becomes the site of a clash between zombies, non-zombie humans, and bikers. Society is broken and both violence and consumption rule. The zombies want to consume, for that is their one residing meaning, the humans seek refuge amidst consumerism and then get distracted by it – and as for the bikers, their violence in search of consumption is what enables the zombies to break into the mall. Romero’s zombie film is about the horror of modern life, about the way consumerist culture provides no place of refuge. The mall, that temple to modern consumerism, becomes a prison and then a place of death and destruction: a place unsafe for both the living and the living dead. Today in New Zealand, downtown has replaced the mall as the site and sight of our zombification.

Central to the power of the film is when one of the humans realizes who the zombies are: ‘They’re us’… So when I refer to the zombification of our inner cities it is crucial to remember that what and who we are encountering there are in fact ‘us’. That is, fellow human beings somehow thrown into an existential and moral anti-social limbo by the collapse of any notion of society.

It would be easy and simplistic to ‘blame covid’  and certainly the unnamed contagion that gives rise to the zombies in Romero’s film makes it tempting to do so. But we need to remember that these issues were all in play well before covid; rather covid (and by this I mean both the pandemic and more so our societal response to it) served to amplify and intensify what was already in existence, it did not create something ‘new’. Rather, what covid did do was actually hasten the destruction of any notion of a social contract and social cohesion for those already feeling marginalized, ignored, and in effect, discarded.

But it also, in its destruction of livelihoods and communities, in the turnaway from in-place, in-person social connection, in the reinforcing of increasing educational and economic inequities, in the increased lack of faith in government and institutional solutions and actions, in the seemingly unstoppable rise of anxiety and the attendant collapses of hope and meaning, in the intensification of a long-simmering rage and despair, ‘long covid’ means we all still run the risk of our own, personal zombification: living but dead, seeking meaning only by an unthinking, individualized drive to consume. And for those who can’t consume, those discarded or excluded, meaning becomes the act of violence, the act of power over others: the non-solution that in turn just creates ever-more zombies and zombie zones.

We are as a nation, as individuals, as communities, all suffering what I term ‘societal long covid’ – and it is this which has created the zombification of our inner cities. Our ‘societal long covid’ has amplified the loss of any communal, let-alone societal, hopes, values, and meanings.  For what was meant to be a time of ‘coming together for the common good’ was in fact, for many, the experience of increased stress, distrust, and division and the recognition that for most, there was no such thing as ‘a common good’. Rather there was, and are unequal outcomes and benefits and so what we actually have in common is a sense of lack and loss, not a ‘good’. 

We also need to remember that our inner cities were under increased stress before covid: retail was struggling, hospitality was struggling, they were run-down, dirty, and violent spaces with only a few small areas that seemed vibrant and safe – let alone ‘alive’.  Few wished to live there by choice – and of those who did, many couldn’t afford to do so. And then we shut everything and everyone down. Many in certain suburbs celebrated this government-enforced release from the social because they had the social, employment, and economic capital to do so. 

But my sense is that for most, covid lockdown fundamentally changed something for the worse and we struggle to regain whatever it was that ‘was there’ before covid. This is what I mean by ‘societal long covid’. What we lost was any sense of ‘being a people’ and being a people in spaces that are ‘for people’. Our inner cities are now for those deemed ‘non-people’: those who are socio-economic zombies, those who are moral zombies, those who are social zombies. And, crucially, ‘they’re us’ – we are just ‘not there yet’.

Romero’s film was a critique and commentary on the failings of American society. I want to suggest that our zombied inner cities, in their decay, despair, and lack of hope and meaning beyond consumption and violence, are our contemporary symbols of the failings of our New Zealand society.  Our contagion is societal long covid and we have given up as people, given up on people, given up acting and thinking of, for, and about other people. If we want to make our downtowns for people, we have to first make our society for people and that means recovering, remaking, rebuilding and rearticulating a sense of social cohesion and a social contract. It is not the retreat into community, for this would mean ‘down town is for our people – and not them’. Rather social cohesion and a recovered social contract  means downtown is for all people.

As Wellington in the 1990s showed, cities could do something positive and inclusive, even as many areas of wider society faltered. But that was then, this is now.  For we can now see that it was allowing certain cities to flourish while wider society often declined that set the foundation for what became ‘societal long covid’.  Today, we have hopefully learned that we can’t allow some cities to succeed and others to fail, we can’t allow cities to succeed and our towns and regions to fail. For zombies are everywhere – and ‘they’re us’.