Feature: “Where Ordinary Activities Lead to War: Street Politics in Seth Tobocman’s War in the Neighborhood”

How to Cite

Oakley, K., & Tay, J. (2006). Street: Feature: “Where Ordinary Activities Lead to War: Street Politics in Seth Tobocman’s War in the Neighborhood”. M/C Journal, 9(3).
Vol. 9 No. 3 (2006): 'street'
Published 2006-07-01

This issue of M/C Journal called for a wide multidisciplinary exploration around the notion of ‘street’. The papers we received offered this diversity and range from discussions of everyday activities to seeing the street as a site for events, conflicts and the possibility of new learning. They explored a range of social meanings and cultural ramifications engaged in/on/off and around the notion of street.

Street in its most conventional sense represents the link between physical places, but more than that, spaces where cultural negotiations are made. They are everyday spaces where the informal meets the formal, and the public meets the private. In other words, they are spaces where unanticipated, sudden encounters may take place, or where ordinary space may be made special. Their utilitarian purpose may be subverted and they become ‘special’ spaces and sites where Formula 1 races, charity runs, street parties, revolutions, protests, and markets occur. They may be formalised sites known for consumption, entertainment, and recreation or where drugs, sex and gambling are found behind closed doors.

Feature: “Where Ordinary Activities Lead to War: Street Politics in Seth Tobocman’s War in the Neighborhood

Vanessa Raney’s piece, like many of the others, deals with the street as a site of potential political and social conflict. In this case, she describes elements of the urban experience of New York as represented in Seth Tobocman’s graphic novel War in the Neighbourhood. This centres on the relationships between squatters, the police, politicians and the media in a classic conflict about gentrification or the uses and ownership of urban space. Raney compares the representation of this battle in the novel, with historical and current conflicts about urban space and the place that street plays as a site for these conflicts. Street is not community in the sense beloved of current politicians – a banal consensus about law and order – but the site for contestation and in a few cases, resolution.

Thus, streets are not accidents, they are shaped by social and economic changes, cultural imaginings and practices. In “Vigilant Citizens”, Cameron Muir investigates a conflict that took place under the guise of a public petition in the city of Dubbo, New South Wales, Australia in 2003. The petition was for the Carr government to “do something” about the “uncontrollable” criminal children who were taking over the streets. That the children were often Aboriginal was not directly mentioned. Muir tracks the media discursive practices and the government’s campaign of fear leading up to this moment of moral panic, arguing through the idea of Statecraft that the desired order for one’s streets can serve to exclude the rights of these others.

Continuing of the theme of order and disorder in the public imagination, Irina Gendelman in “The Romantic and Dangerous Stranger” contrasts the reception given to a sculpted hobo, versus the real hobo on the streets of Seattle. Entwined within the figure of the real hobo are a range of prescribed representations, all of which demand a disciplining of the body and the public spaces – made safe for normalised occupations. Gendelman argues that this ‘othering’ is achieved in part through the control (Foucault) exterted via media discussions of what are the acceptable and stable boundaries of society. To conclude, Gendelman returns to Jane Jacobs’s argument that, as there is no one element that makes the city vibrant, so there is no singular investment that can create cultural capital in the city for all, but that inclusive, well-used public spaces remain one of the best ways to build trust among strangers..

We then move back to Australia, to “Imagining King Street in the Gay/Lesbian Media” and the construction of its place-identity. The media can create shorthand for class and lifestyle differentiation in television land – think Coronation Street, Sesame Street, 42nd Street, Wisteria Lane (Desperate Housewives), or Ramsey Street (Neighbours). But in the local and community newspapers, these socio-economic distinctions come to be replaced by subcultural affiliations of localness. In his comparison between the two iconic gay and lesbian streets in Sydney, Andrew Gorman-Murray’s investigation is driven by the gay/lesbian newspaper discursive portrayals that recreate King Street as alternative and secondary to Oxford Street. His analysis re-emphasises the integral notion of places and streets as social and cultural constructs, open and liable for constant representations, manipulations and challenges. He argues that streets, like identities, are not stable in meaning, they are negotiated subjectively over time and shift according to the imagined constructs, in this case, of the local papers.

Street is the social platform for urban displays of inclusion and exclusion: loitering on the street, street kids, living on the street, wrong side of the street, and graffiti on the street, all present conflicting notions surrounding shared city spaces. Melike Turkan Bagli and Sebnem Timur present a personal account of an accidental experience of loitering in a foreign street, “A Bodily Sign of ‘Doing Nothing’: Loitering or the Silence before the Storm”. Faced with this cultural translation at the moment of arrival, the author deliberates on the semiological and discursive impact of what ‘no loitering’ could mean. In hindsight and with adequate cultural context, the notion of loitering is made sense of in relation to the “Chicago Anti-Gang Loitering” law of 1992 and the element of criminality located in the Act. While loitering is clearly a cultural and historically specific term, its ambiguity to the reader emphasises the dissonance such public signs may serve.

In the next article, Paula Geyh takes us above the street, transcending the street even, in “Urban Free Flow: A Poetics of Parkour”, to examine the popularity of parkour through a BBC advertisement. Such practices can commonly be regarded as a form of street culture even as their main purpose is to avoid the street! Street thus becomes the main structure against which parkour-ism can be defined. Geyh’s analysis of parkour as a form of physical poetics is dependent on the context of the urban cityscape and the ability of the body to transcend the street below. The street with its multiple meanings is once again defined as another form of social space, one that represents the barriers and repression of urban life.

Knowing your back streets distinguishes one as a local rather than the outsider. Being street wise is integral to top selling computer games like Grand Theft Auto, Gangland or Sim City, where the strategy lies in competent negotiation of streets. Or, as Robert Sweeny in “Code of the Street: Videogames and the City” argues, many videogames centred around urban centres often reinvent ways of looking and imagining the street and its utilitarianism. Skateboarding and graffiti become challenges to the player, casting them as active agents of the city in games such as Tony Hawkes’s Underground and Getting Up: Contents under Pressure. Sweeny suggests that the players will perhaps harbour a different view of marginalised activities, having ‘performed’ them in the videogames. But what are the actual effects these games have on the players and their relationship with the cities? How is de Certeau’s idea of walking in the city appropriated for videogames when now the urban may be experienced more often via the screen than in actuality? Thus, this article posits the city as an interface which serves as an overriding context for game playing – and walking in the city may perhaps be read differently forever after an interactive walk.

Finally, Andrew Hickey’s paper “Street Smarts/Smart Streets: Public Pedagogies and the Streetscape” considers the street as a site of instruction or learning. As we move through our streets we are bombarded by advertising messages, directed by public signage, influenced by our fellow walkers and disciplined by multiple codes of behaviour, implicit and explicit.

The papers in this volume reflect different aspects of that learning – how do we learn how to be citizens? How do we learn about ownership and inequality? Exclusion and inclusion? At a time of high levels of insecurity in the global North, fear of crime and suspicion of outsiders, these papers suggest that the street still has things to teach us that we can not easily learn in other ways. The street is a particular form of public space, but one that, these papers suggest, precisely because of their role as marginal spaces and as sometime sites of context, cannot easily be replaced.

Kate Oakley & Jinna Tay
M/C Journal ‘street’ Issue Editors

Author Biographies

Kate Oakley


Jinna Tay