Schlemihls and squatters: undesirable urban people and places and utopian imaginaries

Presented at: Canadian Society for Jewish Studies Annual Conference, Montreal QC

Both Jews and punks are generally (mis)represented as predominantly urban cultural groups—both with histories of being “undesirable” people who occupy marginal and “undesirable” spaces of the city. Yet, little scholarship directly investigates their spatial practices and experience or their relation to dominant city-making processes such as urban planning. What is the relationship between (un)desirable people and (un)desirable spaces? Who controls the definition or creation of urban desirability? From the theoretical traditions and lived experiences of both the Jewish Diaspora and subculture, several common conflicts emerge with dominant spatial practices that control and order the city: the struggle for integration without assimilation; incongruities with the essentialist fixing of identity in territorially defined space; and negotiating perception of group identities that are systematically misrepresentation and misunderstanding from the mainstream. I argue that a radical reimagining and reading of urban place-making is possible through the alternative perspectives and practices of a multitude of marginalized and alternative groups that together can guide us towards “messier” analyses of spatial tactics and traditions. In contrast to traditional urban planning approaches, ideals and narratives, these tactical traditions have adaptively circumvented restrictions, covertly contested exclusive and dominant claims to territory, and facilitated repeated reconstitution and relocation of marginalized groups. As a preliminary iteration of this hypothesis, this paper looks at intersections between Jewish thought and subculture theory that suggest alternative readings of place-making in contrast to mainstream planning along two themes. First, I consider how futurity and utopia are imagined and enacted through spatial practices in examples from both traditions. Second, I will look at redefining style as ethics vs aesthetics as a way to open material analyses of space beyond the formal readings most commonly employed in planning and architecture histories. Finally, I elaborate on how these two alternative approaches to reading space might be rooted in shared experiences of being “undesirable” urban cultural groups.

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