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28/6/2018 / Issue #018 / Text: Sun Meng

Going Under

We could not escape the City. The Floods had taken back much of the land and destroyed many buildings. Sure, the City was not hit as badly as others and the centre was fortified against the sea with a sturdy retaining wall, but the old buildings weren’t made for the new weather. The hard rain and the heat. The Monsoon. But the City adapted quickly. It was remarkable really. 

As a political island-state, the City had an air of Utopia and it was never short of capital—or architects—but after the Floods things changed. After the First Pulse, the City declared a state of emergency. When the waters subsided, its infrastructure was severely affected. Its Nervous System went into shock and needed rewiring, and its inhabitants were plunged into a housing crisis. The City appealed to the private sector, of course, and some Game Investors pounced on the opportunity to install something new. Tabula rasa. Sure enough, whatever public land that was not flooded was leased out, with designs of transforming the urban playground into a semi-private garden of the future — for our safety and security, of course. The spaces where we once roamed free became near impossible to find. We were rained out, then reigned in. What remained of social housing had a waiting list that stretched back to the last century, long before the Floods, and rents in the new buildings were pitched far above what we could afford. Then other kinds of walls went up. Gentrification. The new buildings came with their own kind of people. Regulators who ensured everything was kept according to their order, that everything worked smoothly and that everyone stayed in their place. They did not police, as such, but installed a new kind of Governing System, that wasn’t immediately obvious. There was no list of rules and regulations. Participating and accessing their world seemed to have more to do with who you knew and how you interfaced; how you held your body and spoke. To us, theirs was a world obscured by code words and secret handshakes. If we did not somehow already know what to do, it was as if we were invisible.

It was said the City had become a theme park of its former self a long time ago, but it remained eccentric and embraced experimentation. It had a reputation for being open-minded, hedonistic, and according to the Conservatives, debauched. This latest intervention was not so much a top down effort to bring order to chaos, but something much more pernicious. A new paradigm had been initiated. If we couldn’t comply we would be marked, marginalised and managed as artifacts of a bygone era. Junk media. Inoperable and inefficient. Obsolete. For some time we tried to fit into the gaps and get on with our lives. Our numbers had thinned. Those who remained had nowhere else to go. The cracks and interzones let in just enough air to keep us alive, but we were also trapped. I might have a job for a month running a speakeasy for a start-up, or be able to access some cheap space for a few weeks between contracts. It was hustle and motion. A kind of micropolitical activity that was stimulating, for sure—a buzz—but ultimately exhausting. It was nerve-wracking trading on favours and credit, working for Kleingeld and wondering where one would be sleeping next month or next week. Without alternatives, we pulled in tighter and dug in. As part of the detritus of the Alt Stadt we thought of ourselves as the City’s cultural base, its DNA. We just had to work out how to express it. The City had become, not entirely hostile, but somehow allergic to us. If we wanted to survive we had to inoculate it.

My grandparents arrived from the Mega-Cities, standardised box-developments rolled out over the ruins of the Alt Welt after the last Big Water. It was a hostile era. Migrants were treated like criminals, who could be warehoused and managed as an industry resource. During the Clean Up, there were opportunities to work in the Arid Zones and my Elders engaged a broker to arrange a contract. They became Working Poor; effectively indentured labour, struggling to pay off their contractual debts. Theirs was a common migrant story. Work hard against all odds. Sacrifice, save, invest, repeat. Build something to pass on to the next generation. The Long Game. My parents built on those foundations and pulled themselves out of debt. But I didn’t want those things. Growing pains. Was I spoiled? Probably. I refused to comply with family expectations and became something barely recognisable to them. A hybrid? A bastard? A mutant. I can appreciate my Ancestors’ efforts, and with some hindsight, I realised that their gift—my inheritance—was just enough freedom to choose. ‘Give ’em enough rope…’ Well, I didn’t hang myself. Rather, I cut loose. 

When I arrived to the City, I had a little money and a handful of contacts. I moved into a space with some friends of friends; five or six of us occupying one hundred square metres with a sink and a shower in the kitchen. We curtained off enclaves and built our beds high, close to the ceiling, to make the most of the space beneath. There was a steady flow of characters passing through. I wanted to experiment. Sex and drugs, of course, but also with living communally. The variety of lifestyle choices and ideas I was exposed to was stimulating and for the first time in my life I felt free to experiment and grow. One morning in the kitchen a lover blew some kind of tobacco up my nose. It seared my nasal passage and my nose began to run. I thought I must be bleeding as my eyes puffed and reddened with tears. Minutes later, when the haze subsided, my mind was perfectly clear. I could see the social façades that governed our day-to-day lives and for the rest of the morning I felt self-assured and decisive. Re-living this memory, in the aftermath of Gentrification, it struck me that this was what we needed now.