A city without a soul?

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The inner city community life in George Town is precious – and to lose it would be unforgiveable, says Gwynn Jenkins.

If you walk down Armenian Street today you will find a mixed community of residents and retailers, living working, worshipping and using the street and the city as an organic entity, where neighbours are known and space and lives are respected. In the mornings as the pavements are washed at the start of the day the streets are full of ‘living culture’. It’s time for a chat with the neighbours, our regular road-sweeper, stop a local dog chasing a guy on his bicycle, and smile at the occasional early-bird tourists. The street is ours, it’s a while before this peace is invaded by the suburban ‘community’, which arrives with their gas-guzzling, heat-generating, polluting status symbols, which litter the landscape outside their art galleries – there seems to be no other use for our homes, once we have been asked to leave.

Inevitably it seems, what we enjoy, others want to possess – but destroy in the process. Today, news came through that four houses opposite the house, are for sale, and the tenants given three months to leave. If the rumour be true, I’ll have lost a community who cares and respects each other – whose 24-hour presence in the street makes it safe, whose sounds are those of worship, families and friends, not the aggressive intrusion of burglar and car alarms. These are not the first – as three houses full of tenants recently moved in when their former home was taken back by its owner – replacing my neighbours who had to move. These were inner city dwellers, but our old neighbours including a rattan weaver have moved on in the continual flow of peoples that this city has experienced since the Repeal of Rent Control in December 1999.

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The residents in the row of four houses are by no means the first community to be asked to leave. An additional row of houses is rumoured to be threatened with a similar fate – one a bicycle repair shop, another a barber with famed ear-cleaning techniques, and another a temple amongst the remaining residential homes. Further into town, another row of tenants have been given notice too.  Like the others, these are survivors of the  Repeal of  Rent Control;  they have histories and connections with the urban life and as a result provide an interesting ‘otherness’ for the tourist gaze, as well as support and sustain the local economy.

Ironically, there is no shortage of vacant ‘heritage’ properties  – a rough estimate suggests 500 derelict and dilapidated as well as vacant ‘restored’ properties exist around town. These could well be sold to the eager heritage investor were it not for absentee landlords, unbreakable trusts, or unwilling owners. If these remain as empty scars on the urban landscape and the remaining historic communities move on, what will the new owners experience? They will still view the dereliction and areas of unoccupied heritage buildings, but would have replaced the richness of George Town’s multicultural neighbourhoods with themselves. Is this the intention of the Unesco World Heritage Listing?

Just what has Unesco listed? The ‘tangible and intangible’ living heritage communities, and the buildings in which they live and work? Or has it listed the perception of what the city could be – gentrified by the local and international professional upper-middle class, whose romance with the inner city seldom goes further than the physical fabric and dreams of the reinstatement of the communities who abandoned the “squalor” of the inner city for their suburban lives long ago?

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Historic cities such as George Town have evolved over centuries. What is common to all is the organic reciprocity, the interrelationships between each community and neighbourhood, which is almost impossible to be found in the suburban districts, where, for the vast majority, relationships are formed between home, lift, car, road, and mall.

The safety and comfort of belonging to a ‘community’, however, is envied and has encouraged the ‘gated community’ concept for those who can afford their suburban security.

The fact that there are still a few communities hanging onto their urban village life is nothing short of a miracle as the city of George Town in its entirety had been sliced up on the drawing board since the early 1970s, when planning experts saw fit to zone the city as commercial with little or no understanding of just how the city worked. The reciprocal relationship between businesses – market and supplier, the employment patterns  – the availability of nearby cheap labour where most walked to work, as 50 per cent of the population worked within their neighbouring streets, and the other 50 per cent – school kids, home makers and the elderly – were evident in their use of the wet markets, schools, coffee shops and hawker stalls – all sustaining the local economic health of the city.

The Repeal of Rent Control caused the eviction of many communities and the remaining few, as seen today are now under threat of gentrification as the perception of property values rises beyond reality, coincidentally on the announcement of Unesco World Heritage Site listing.

As tourists flood to see the living cultural heritage of George Town – the living cultural heritage is forced through economics to move out and the yuppies move in – who will celebrate the plethora of daily rituals and almanac of festivals, which enthral us all? Who will pay respects to the Hungry Ghosts, the Datuk Kong and the Datuk Keramat? Or patronise the street markets full of fascinating foods special to each festival celebrated by the local communities?

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All these will vanish alongside the communities as the once holistic city finalises the fragmentation process.  It’s hard to believe that this is what Unesco wanted and yet this phenomena has been observed before – the commodification of culture and the dysnification of the urban landscape, perhaps this reflects more of the management and interpretation of the sites, than Unesco itself.

George Town could be different – it needs to think out its self-imposed cage – it needs to understand and value what it has now before it dreams of what it could be. Most of all, those who make the decisions that guide our landscape should come down to town in the early morning – leave their cars out of site and enjoy the joy of an inner city community as it greets the start of a day. It is precious, and to lose it would be unforgivable.

Gwynn Jenkins is an Armenian Street tenant

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