London’s seamy side revealed in new exhibition

London has always had an underworld, a dangerous side. Just go out late on a Saturday night and you’re sure to see a fight. For many, the hint of danger is one of the city’s attractions, at least if you don’t have to deal with it full time.

Back in the 18th and 19th century, there was nothing attractive about the St. Giles Rookery. It got its name because tiny apartments were stacked atop one another like birdhouses. Only the poorest of the poor lived there–the beggars, the prostitutes, the gin addicts. Especially the gin addicts. Gin was a national addiction, a cheap way to get blasted. Gin addiction was immortalized in Hogarth’s engraving Gin Lane, showing a drunken mother accidentally knocking her baby over a railing while a tradesman hawks his tools and a man hangs himself within view of an uncaring crowd.

Hogarth was no teetotaler. He liked a good drink, as his engraving Beer Street shows. It’s the same scene, gentrified. Industrious drinkers of real ale prosper and flirt in clean, attractive surroundings. It must have seemed like heaven to the denizens of the Rookery.

A new exhibition by the Museum of London looks at the lives of these nearly forgotten people, thanks to an excavation the museum sponsored at the site of the old Rookery. London’s Underworld Unearthed: The Secret Life of the Rookery features finds from the excavation along with contemporary and modern depictions of this Hell on Earth.

The finds remind us that these were real people living here. Children’s toys, simple crockery, and trick glasses used in drinking games give us a glimpse of their lives, and the gin bottles hint at how many of them died. The modern art, created by Jane Palm-Gold, draws comparisons with today’s urban blight. The permanent collection at the Museum of London is well worth a visit too in order to get a better understanding of one of the world’s most fascinating cities.

The show runs until June 3 at the Coningsby Gallery.

[Hogarth prints courtesy Wikimedia Commons.]

New tour takes visitors into LA’s ganglands

Tourists looking for a thrill in Los Angeles can now take a bus tour of the city’s most dangerous ganglands. For $65, LA Gang Tours takes visitors around the city, pointing out gang graffiti and stopping at sights like the Los Angeles Riverbed, Florence Avenue, and the Pico Union Graffiti Lab.

It seems tourists are always drawn to places with a dangerous auras and violent pasts, places that are the complete opposite of our comfortable lives at home. The question is, do we go to these places, places like the slums of Mumbai, the townships of Johannesburg or the streets of South Central LA, because we want to understand what life is like for the people there, or do we go to gawk or just so we can say “I’ve been there”? And do these tours actually help the communities that are put on display, or do they make them a spectacle?

LA Gang Tours was created by Alfred Lomas, a former gang member, who says the tour will create 10 part-time jobs for ex-gang members who will lead tours and share their own stories. He says his goal is to help residents of South Central,”to give profits from the tours back to these areas for economic growth and development, provide job/entrepreneur training, micro-financing opportunities and to specialize in educating people from around the world about the Los Angeles inner city lifestyle, gang involvement and solutions.”I’d actually be curious to take the tour, which is scheduled to run once per month. It sounds like, in this case, the tour may be run in a way that takes a more anthropological, rather than exploitative, look at the community. The tour bus is unmarked, and out of respect for area residents, riders on the tour are not permitted to take photos or video.

While in Cape Town, I had the opportunity to tour Robben Island, the prison where political “criminals” were held during apartheid. When the tour guide, himself a former prisoner, was asked why he would do this – lead tours and relive the pain of his imprisonment every day – for a living, he responded with two reasons. One, he said, was because he wanted people to know what happened. The second was that every boatload of tourists that came to the island meant one more person who would have a job.

Perhaps it’s naive to think that welcoming a bus-full of tourists once a month could help solve the many problems of the area. But if offering the tours keeps one more ex-gang member employed running tours and out of gang life, well, at least it’s a start.

[via Chicago Tribune]



Cameras for Kibera, a non-profit project to help Kenyans

The Dutch project Cameras for Kibera is aimed towards helping young Kenyans become video journalists in order to help them tell the stories about Africa’s largest slum. Kibera, Nairobi is home to possibly as many as 2.5 million people who live in crowded conditions of poor sanitation, poor housing and very little possibilites. For the most part, the plight of the people who live there has been largely overlooked which is one reason for the video project. This particular video was created by Rocketboom Field Correspondent Ruud Elmendorp who videotaped one of Camera for Kibera’s video journalists at work.

The thing I like about this project is its matter of fact approach. It shows people having a life despite the odds, but also points to the fact that help is urgently needed without making the people themselves sound pitiful. Cameras for Kibera is an offshoot project of the Dutch Hot Sun Foundation. If you have video camera you’re no longer using, here’s a possibility for putting it to use.

Slums Are Home to Almost One Billion People

I spent some time in London this week. The city has a special place in my heart and that’s not only because the Tate Modern gallery is located there. Although it’s a big part of it. This power-plant-turned museum can–perhaps like no other modern art museum–truly catch the Zeitgeist.

Fortunately, I was able to catch the very last day of the Global Cities exhibit; a fascinating expose of the changing faces of ten global cities: Cairo, Istanbul, Johannesburg, London, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Mumbai, Sao Paolo, Shanghai and Tokyo. It explores how each of them deal with its size, diversity, density, form and speed of growth.

Interesting stats:

  • In 2007, for the first time in history, one out of every two people in the world will be living in a city
  • One of of three city dwellers (almost one billion) currently live in slums
  • Cities produce 75 percent of the world’s carbon emissions
  • London is the world’s 360th fastest growing city, adding only 2.3 residents an hour
  • Shanghai is the 8th fastest growing city in the world, adding 29.4 new residents each hour
  • 66 percent of the population of Sao Paolo is under 20 years old
  • Cairo’s residential density is 36,500/km2, nine times more than London’s
  • Tokyo is the largest urban region in the world with 34 millions people, 80% of which use public transportation daily (comparing with 10% of LA residents)


Polo’s Bastards on Rio De Janeiro

Not to dampen anyone’s last remaining holiday cheer or weekend hours, but if you’re up for a reality check read I suggest taking a peek at this nicely written piece by Chris Wirth on Polo’s Bastards. With a certain amount of caution the author sets out on a tour of the Rocinha favela (one of Rio’s largest slums) in a group of five which includes him. Thinking it would be some sort of “poor people safari” he had his reservations and thought the people in living in the slums surely didn’t need another Third World outsider with their cameras coming around half teasingly. Setting most of his caution aside he let his curiosity seize control and went to experience the favelas tucked within the Rio’s lush green hills for himself by way of the tour. Although the almost uncontrollable drug, gang, and lack of public service problem remained like any other day when the author wasn’t on tour, he still found the spirit of the people in the community in good condition. I won’t go so far to tell you everything he discovered and how he felt as he departed from one of the world’s largest slums. I’ll only suggest you do a little of the reading on your own. For those wanting to tour Brazil who have not already you might learn something extra aside from the sun drenched beaches packed with bikini-clad women or beyond samba and mix-drinks with sugarcane you’ve only sipped at your local bar.