Shimmering Surfaces, Toxic Atmospheres, Incendiary Miracles: Public Housing and the Aesthetics of Re-Valorization in Salford UK

Aitken, John orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-7261-1332 and Brake, Jane (2020) Shimmering Surfaces, Toxic Atmospheres, Incendiary Miracles: Public Housing and the Aesthetics of Re-Valorization in Salford UK. In: Gentrification Around the World. Palgrave studies in Urban Anthropology, 2 . Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 83-106. ISBN 978-3-030-41340-8

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Our work does not seek to enter the long-standing debate surrounding the critical definitions of gentrification; consequently, we tend to employ an alternative vocabulary, such as development, redevelopment, displacement, social cleansing, and accumulation by dispossession. We place emphasis on observing, identifying, analyzing, and in some sense artistically inhabiting the processes at work in a particular scenario, rather than searching for an essence or immutable set of characteristics. In the area of Salford, UK, where we are based, there are many redevelopment projects and each one manifests particular localized interventions, public–private partnerships, and distinct urban imaginaries. These must be placed within the wider context of local government attempts to transform post-industrial Salford into a “global city” by 2025 (Salford 2025). As artists living and working collaboratively in the area, we witness at a granular level the impact of the spatialization of capital as it unfolds around us. For thirteen years, our longitudinal study has recorded through photography and site writing what Knox (1991) termed “the restless urban landscape” of Salford as it changes. Utilizing methods such as urban walks, re-photography, site writing, and the production of walking tours, we have attempted to produce a critical spatial practice that acts as a counternarrative to the persuasive corporate discourses of the alleged regeneration around us. No doubt we are part of what Scott and Swenson (2015) term “a groundswell of art” since the turn of the millennium that “has engaged the politics of land use.” A central object of our paper is an analysis of the visual culture of gentrification. This includes the way developers in Salford have utilized certain aesthetically charged materials, surfaces, and spaces to orchestrate landscapes and environments in order to communicate to the potential city dweller or investor. The coordinated iconography of these elements frames redevelopment within a conceptual and affective reading for these key publics. These transformed areas provide a stark contrast to the city’s former industrial or postwar welfare landscapes and are instrumentalized in narratives of regeneration. In addition, we analyze the placemaking and marketing materials produced by developers. These materials find form in photographs, films, and brochures, both in print and online. These visualizations provide a highly seductive aesthetic and sensory vision of urban life, blending aspiration and fantasy to produce emotive geographies (Jansson and Lagerkvist 2007). Making “sites into sights” (Gregory 1999) through such marketing material is now an established part of the visual economy of gentrification but one that has often eluded the extensive gaze of academic researchers (Bodi et al. 2017).

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