Sub/City People

The following is inspired by the book ‘The Mole People’. For the ignorant amongst you; The Mole People is a book by Jennifer Toth that came out in 1993 and shocked its readers by suggesting that up to five thousand people were living in the subways of New York, even down to seven stories below the city. Despite the inevitable debate on the truthfulness of her story, the chapter of the book in which Toth talks about the cultural meaning of ‘the underground’ turns out to be a thought-provoking piece of writing.

“In the United States, convicts, prisoners of war, and slaves worked in the underground until the Industrial Revolutions when such labor, particularly mining, was reserved for immigrants — the newest segment of the population and the one most desperate for money. The social degradation of underground laborers helps explain why the underworld came to be dreaded as a region of sorrow and death.”

After reading this, something occurred to me. One of the things one might not think about immediately when confronted by the word ‘underground’, is another word which has literally the same meaning. The suburbs. However, the word ‘suburbia’ rings completely different bells in most ears. Whereas the underground is associated with chaos, dirt, danger, ugliness, poverty, vermin, basically the waste bin of society which is still in some ways exciting, the Suburbs have always held a standard of cleanliness, taste, structure, safety and wealth but also a certain colorlessness, boredom and oppression. Strangely enough, two common factors appeared and one of them comes up in an essay by the Dutch author Joost Zwagerman. He argues that the home in suburbia is the

“…concretization of the four pillars on which millions of Americans base their identity and self-realization: paradise, the pastoral, the picturesque and the frontier. (…) Sometimes the embarkation goes hand in hand with religious grandeur, that presents suburbia as the Promised Land: ‘You can obtain much of the old frontiersman’s independence while (…) having a fullness of life (…) in the real up-to-date suburbs, of unfettered Nature, (…) the promised land.’”

This view of the suburbs coincides with several accounts of the ‘mole people’ Toth encountered, for instance in the case of ‘mayor’ Ali M., who exclaims: “We may not have the comforts of living aboveground. But we are a superior people. We’ve purified ourselves. We don’t allow just anyone to come and live with us. We allow only those who we can save, those who can believe in the human spirit above all else.” His favorite book is Claude Brown’s ‘Manchild in the Promised Land’.

The second parallel is that as well as people living under, people living outside of the cities (beware, not on the country side, that is a completely different issue altogether) are scorned by society. Or to be more precise, by the people in, and of, the City, which brings forth a second question; what are City People compared to Sub City People? Or rather, what do City People have what Sub City People don’t and what gives them the right (or duty) to mock them?

To answer this question we need to look at some of the connotations that are linked to the city and the sub-city. First of all, if the common element of the City and Sub City People is the City, the city forms the Center, figuratively speaking, and the Center is measured from the ground level upwards. High buildings that hold rich firms, symbolizing a form of excess and abundance. Imagine the Chrysler Building , the various penthouses on top of skyscrapers and in Amsterdam, club/restaurant 11. The higher, the wealthier. In contrast to this stand the homeless living seven stories below New York’s Grand Central; the ones who haven’t seen daylight in over five years are probably the most hopeless low-lives and the people living way outside the city probably can’t afford a nice, cosy but small place within the Center or aren’t willing to give up their peaceful lifestyle to live near the excitement of the City, typifying a lack or loss (of closeness).

The City People have it all, they live in between. This exactly represents the biggest attraction of the City; the fact that it has elements of both worlds: it can be busy and quiet, wealthy and poor, high and low at the same time. I am prone to say ‘one size fits all’, but of course that would be an offense to the City People, convinced of their own uniqueness and exclusivity. But what this means, is that the Center actually is not the center. It is a mishmash of different people, different places and different attitudes. So what I instead propose is not an overall judgment of City or Sub City People and appoint one of them to be the superior, but to define the City (and this can be the hard city, soft city, erotic city or even pop-up city) as the new Class. You are no longer black or white, female or male, but City or Sub City as a new category added to the already extensive list within identity politics. To write about and to identify with the City is nothing more than articulating just another identity trying to be fixed somewhere in the world, where there in fact is no possibility of fixing it. And as long as City and Sub City People strive to be secured, fixed and located the classless society will move further and further down the road.