x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Spectacles and the city

This month's World Cup is expected to emerge as the most-watched spectacle in television history. But with that many eyes trained on South Africa, one has to ask: what's been hidden from view?

Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National.
Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National.

This month's World Cup is expected to emerge as the most-watched spectacle in television history. But with that many eyes trained on South Africa, one has to ask: what's been hidden from view? Just in time for the international tournament, the United Nations recently released a special report examining the way cities are transformed - sometimes for the better, sometimes to the detriment of their most vulnerable citizens - by so-called mega-events like the World Cup, the Olympics, or a World Expo.

The mega-event is a uniquely modern invention. Like most varieties of spectacle, its origins can be traced back to Hollywood - or at least to Tinseltown's general vicinity. It was 1932. The world was groaning under the Great Depression, and Los Angeles was gearing up to host the 10th Summer Olympics. Before then, the Olympics had been a relatively low-impact affair. Aside from a few new or spruced-up athletic facilities, the games tended to make few lasting marks on the places that hosted them. But the 1932 Games ushered in a new paradigm in the relationship between cities and mass events.

To an unprecedented degree, the organisers of the 1932 Games saw the Olympics as a chance to kick-start the economy of Depression-era Los Angeles. But they also realised that the city itself bore too many unbecoming signs of the economic crisis. And so they did what any film producer would do: they built a set. The world's first Olympic Village was built from scratch several kilometres away from central LA in the picturesque Baldwin Hills, which overlooked both the Pacific Ocean and another local wonder. "Overshadowing the vast motion picture factories of Culver City," wrote the New York Times, the purpose-built compound resembled "a baronial motion picture estate".

Press coverage of the Games, stirred to a froth by the local apparatus of celebrity journalism in Hollywood, was likewise unlike that of any previous Olympics. By the time the games were over, the mega-event had entered its infancy - a now-familiar mix of athletic spectacle, media hype and aggressive brick-and-mortar urban renewal. The Olympic Village became a standard of future Games, and more and more drastic changes to the urban landscape became the norm when cities played host to the world's attention. As the UN report explains, organising mega-events has become "a component of cities' strategic planning, with a view towards repositioning them in a globalised economy". In some cases, that has translated into lots of building - not only of stadiums, but of infrastructure and complexes that can later be repurposed as affordable housing. But just as often, mega-events mean tearing down and turning out.

By now, the old 1932 version of the mega-event looks positively quaint. In fact, it's been turned on its head. In the lead-up to the World Cup, the city of Cape Town built a special compound several kilometres outside the city. Only this time, it's the unbecoming signs of economic disparity that have been pushed to the fringes. Thousands of poor citizens have been relocated to Blikkiesdorp - "Tin Can Town" in Afrikaans - a camp of just under 2,000 identical corrugated metal huts about 16 kilometres outside the city.

South Africa's take on the mega-event is not an exception; it is the rule. Delhi has announced its plans to become a "slum-free" city in preparation for this summer's Commonwealth Games - an effort certain only to exacerbate poverty by pushing the city's most vulnerable workers far away from the sources of jobs - and Shanghai reportedly demolished approximately 18,000 homes to make way for the 2010 Expo. What has happened since the birth of the mega-event? Cities have become spectacles, and spectacles have become cities.