CH 1: On the edge of the city

1278678712668Liza Fior studied architecture. She was born in London where she continues to practise as one of the founding partners of muf architecture/art. The work of the practice negotiates between the built and social fabric and between public and private in projects that have been mainly focused in East London but not exclusively so.muf were winners of the European Prize for Public Space and nominated for the Mies Van de Rohe Prize and the Swiss Prize for Architecture for projects with limited budgets and briefs enriched by the unsolicited research which was and continues to be, entwined into every project. Read more about Liza here.

Liza Fior on Arrival City Chapter 1: On the edge of the city

This morning I walked down Brick Lane in Tower Hamlets at 8.40am and at the junction where a sign states ¼ mile to the ‘city’ (London’s financial district) was almost run over by a young Bengali woman driving a BMW. In one near miss encounter Doug Saunders’ entire thesis is proven. I kept walking, past other women who looked both poor and were busy with children. If Doug’s thesis were correct the BMW driver would live in a low rise house in a cul de sac, the second group in the 5 storey Peabody housing and towers – but she was driving fast and I didn’t have a chance to ask her.

I found the book’s segue into building form and life chances a disruption in a narrative flow which seemed more about setting a scene – and wonder if the rest of the book will carry on with this theme. It grates because it doesn’t acknowledge the complexity of Tower Hamlets* but instead relies of singular examples and then extrapolates from there. (1)

WhitechapelOne route out of Whitechapel [in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets]is education. If a reader would like to know more, visit At this all girls school every pupil take part in a 6 week course called urban adventure where they canoe and cycle and even camp, unusual for London in the locality.

I have the honor of being given Chapter 1 to respond to where the author sets out his thesis care of one example – Liu Gong Li, a place completely unknown to me – and a second one – Tower Hamlets, which I probably know too well to give the author a fair chance.

As a child I was outraged by inconsistencies between illustrations and text and so inevitably I approached the second example of Tower Hamlets looking for the pleasures that come in the recognition of detail. The danger of an overview is that it can so easily be just that. Rather than sweeping generalizations the book uses detailed examples in order to make its points, something which, when familiar with a place, just emphasizes what is not being dealt with. Whereas I enjoyed the description of Liu Gong Li – we saw more of it, met more residents and, unlike Tower Hamlets, witnessed within the chapter itself its origins and its subsequent transformation. Other readers, have you visited Liu Gong Li? Did he get it right?

The description of Liu Gong Li fits much more closely our preconceptions of the right mode of description – i.e. the literary tropes of diaspora literature – in its detail of the minutiae of survival. I am thinking here of Zangwill’s “Children of the Ghetto” (2), where a penniless widow is instructed how to buy lemons at market and sell them individually in the street as a first income – incidentally, to position herself at that very same block in Brick Lane. Doug Saunders convinced me in this descriptions of a village which deliberately allowed itself to be absorbed into a city, where its maintenance of village-ness was in its multiple small-scale enterprise.

altab ali parknational language day at altab aliprocess altab ali

Altab Ali Park: muf have worked  across Tower Hamlets but most recently  on 3 linked sites one of which was Altab Ali Park in Whitechapel. The park makes visible some of the multiple histories of this site. Four former churches but also a Sharheed Minar monument to the  language martyrs and memorial to a murdered garment worker Altab Ali  mentioned in the book. The long plinth marks the profile of one of those lost churches, the fragments of portland stone the location of the original “white chapel”. Even on quite cold days this is a platform for more than one thing at a time a companionable place to sit which makes is way across the former churchyard. Once a year up to 5000 people come to mark their respects to the martyrs for the preservation of the Bengali language at midnight and line up on the plinth waiting for their turn.(2nd image) Lastly a compilation of images of  the research process- an archeological dig for 700 volunteers to locate the churches and Alpana painting to mark the shrine before we commenced construction.

Arrival City begins simply with our author establishing his premise that another category can be added to the taxonomies of cities, the very specific condition of a city, or part of a city, to host transition but also to allow entry. Unlike Foucault’s description of a heterotopia as an open place but one that has this property of keeping you on the outside (3), Saunders gives as one example, the 18th century South American house with its room just before the entrance for the visitor passing through; but the room didn’t open into the house itself and so the visitor could not penetrate the interior of the family home. Whereas the arrival city does have two doors: one a connection back to the place you came [from] (for the sending back of money earned and a maintenance of old ties); and the second a bridge into the host city/nation itself – a two way stretch. Liu Gong Li is too young to have really proven itself and Tower Hamlets…it needed more pages.

(Full disclosure-I have never been a member of a book group if I have completely missed the normal etiquette, my apologies and I look forward to reading the next chapters alongside your insight.)

1. For examples of descriptions of the complex terrain of Whitechapel, see essays by Michael Keith, the former leader of Tower Hamlets Council who is now a professor specializing in migration studies at Merton College, Oxford or the novel, The Islamist (2007), by Ed Hussain
2. Israel Zangwill, Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People (1892)
3. Architectural Association School of Architecture. In: AA Files, 69 (2014), from an essay originally delivered as a radio program

By Liza Fior.

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Maryama Ali says:

    I really wanted to enjoy the first chapter of arrival city unfortunately I found the structure of the text to be complex and over complicated, especially within the passages about the arrival city of Liu Gong Li, China. There were passages in the text that seemed unnecessary to put in an example of that would be the scenery transitions. From the readers perspective we clearly understand the state of the city, yet Saunders has repeated the same busy streets, garbage ridden roads, and smoke filled skies more than once. I would have enjoyed the compared and contrast of what the city looked like before as a small village of 70 (p.7) and after its transition as a “self-built settlement of rural escapees, known in China simply as [an] Urban “villages” (cun)” (p. 7).

    Despite the complexity of chapter 1 I understood the concepts that Saunders was projecting. Which was the fact that an arrival city is a key to success for the rising middle class. Moreover, an arrival city abolishes the horrors of rural poverty and ending inequality (reference p. 20).
    This major concept somewhat illustrates the difficulties my parents had to go through when coming to Canada. As they and other Somali immigrates made due with the situation they were in in order for their children and I to have a “good life”. Lui Gong Li, China was a city that I feel very emotionally disconnected towards but enlighten to know and understand, thank you Saunders. However, the latter half of the chapter one (Tower Hamlets, London, U.K.) was where my interest were at.

    Everyone seems to be all over the place when it comes to those who migrate out of rural areas, but Saunders also made it clear that people have their reasons to move out of them as well. As a child I would never ask my parent what they’ve gone through or why they’ve chosen to come to Canada (I’m not even sure if they had a choice). But the look on their faces when they watch the news about their home or segments that were similar to their stories was enough to tell me how much they want to go back. The Tafader’s journey is a unique one as they have bared resilience and determination for the sake of their British-born children who soon became a grand part of their community’s success.

    The guardians of the Tafader children “devoted [their time to] establish a homeostatic relationship between village and city [because that is] what [an] arrival cities do” (p. 29). Moreover, “the children of the close are united in a set of aspirations: to be accepted in the center of [cities] society, to own a house, and never to work in a [an odd job]. Almost all of them, especially the girls, have managed this” (p. 32). London became (and is still) an apparatus of that “functions for its second generation as a great integration machine” (p. 33). However, there is something that Saunders mentions that didn’t sit well with me and that was the “strong ties” he addressed that second generations held to their “original” backgrounds. I have these feelings because I fall under the same category as the Tafader sisters but I often feel completely foreign with my own peoples because I’m “too western or too Canadian”. Then again this might be just another section of the chapter that I may not understand because I never grew up in an area that is not predominately close to my own culture, as the girls were. Nevertheless, the latter half of chapter one still interested me because it allowed me to understand another form of what arrival city is. My only wish was if Saunders expanded that part of the chapter a bit more.

  2. Dear Liza and other readers, I was mostly wondering how you look at one of the last sentences in chapter 1: “Still, London arrival city has functioned better than those in Berlin, Paris or Amsterdam […] There is now a robust and well-invested education system with many special programs aimed at immigrants.” Do you feel the same? I always thought that the government in the UK had/has few specific measures for migrants. Relying more on self-reliance and having no specific integration policy (more general policies then for target groups). In other words: Is Tower Hamlets a functioning integration machine thanks to or in spite of government interventions?

  3. Liza Fior says:

    Are there specific integration policies, well Tower Hamlets has invested in it’s schools – there are local ales of integration and beyond eg the local Member of Parliament Rushana Ali moved to the UK at 7 attended a local school ( but equally there are high levels of unemployment amongst older women. So investment in education is a pretty direct commitment, local universities Queen Mary and London Met proactively recruit their immediate populations.
    But equally there ave been reductions in English as a foreign language teaching.
    The UK and Tower Hamlets are feeling the cuts in public spending.

  4. Jimohal Francis says:

    In this chapter, Doug Sanders makes the reader think deeply about a definition for the “Arrival City”. As a child of two immigrant parents, I would view the arrival city as a place where individuals decide to get away from their native country to pursue a new life in a city(of a new country) where they can obtain citizenship in which provides them with the access to social goods, new opportunities for themselves and their children. On page 10, Doug Sanders describes the ‘Arrival City” as ‘a place of transition’. For Sanders, a place of transition means that people are coming to new land for a change.

    My parents came to Canada from two different countries, my mom is born in the Caribbean and my dad is from Africa. The more I got engaged into this chapter I began to see myself in the shoes of my parents, I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been for them to leave their friends and family members to a place where they know no one. On page 18, Sanders talks about how sacrifices can damages relationships. I have family and friends who had been left back in the homeland as their parents migrated to new countries to search for a better life in order to provide for their children. In some cases, many children felt that their parents has abandoned them as they go to the West.

    Not only does the city changes the newcomers, but the newcomers can change the city. The sacrifices my parents changed their lives but also provided me with the chance to be part of the change that impacts Toronto.

  5. Amrit- Paul Sandhu says:

    Chapter one of the Arrival City, by Doug Saunders accurately depicts the struggles of the transition between rural and urban lifestyle. The struggles that came with turning the village of Liu Gong Li to the urban center that is Liu Gong Li showed forceful assimilation of village people into this new capitalist agenda constructed by the government of China. Without much other governmental guidance people were forced to fend for themselves in which caused the emergence of these “arrival cities”. Tower Hamlet in London was a different emergence of an arrival city; it showed the foreign movement of immigrants that allowed them to put their foot in the door to one day achieve greater. A common trend in both scenarios is the willingness of first generation sufferers to sacrifice in order to prosper through the success of their kids.

    There are many differences between the situations in China and the UK. Firstly there is a difficult transition made by immigrants in a new social realm and language barriers. Facing inequalities based on race further exacerbates the struggle of doing something more. Whereas in China the these issues were not existent as people were of the same ethnicity; it was just based on qualifications (which did not lead to success as exemplified by the person who had to pay for 3 generations- kids, split with his wife, as well as seizure medication for father). There are also cultural differences (at least from these 2 scenarios); where in China people are established as is, in terms of families and the change comes during that time. Families are thus torn, whereas in the situation in Tower Hamlet the father was sent there by his parents to attain success and he was able to have a family when he did not have to do slave work for the Pakistani family.

    I want to however question the cities that become stagnated and do not evolve into arrival cities. For example the Queensbridge Housing project in Queens, New York was original meant for a family with approximately $3000 a year who were majority white (in 1950s). After this many minorities became more prominent in this area which drove the white people out of the neighbourhood. This now minority populated area then lost government subsidies and it became a slum. People in this area were forced into a vicious circle of poverty; poor people led to less tax money which led to inadequate schools. Therefore when people went to school them never received an education that allowed them to leave the slum and kept them stuck. Therefore, my question is in regards to the role of government in developing arrival cities; how do they ensure these cities promote growth rather than stagnation?

  6. Elena Alexandrova says:

    After reading the first chapter of Doug Saunders’ Arrival City “On The Edge Of The City” a couple of weeks ago, I made the decision to leave this chapter behind, focus on the next chapters and then come back to it later on with the hopes that I will see “On The Edge of The City” in a new perspective. This chapter was not ease for me to analyze because of the wording and constant repetition of some sceneries.

    Although I do realize that ‘creating/painting a picture is of major importance to all authors, the repetitions in Chapter 1, Part 1, Liu Gong Li, China’s story of topics such as: roads, streets, garbage, odor, construction, scenery, etc… was constantly mentioned in each paragraph and that made it hard for me to connect to theme of the book. Thankfully, all of this approved when it came to the second part of the chapter, which dealt with: Tower Hamlets, London, U.K. After that it was much easier for me to grasp and then compare and contrast the different stories that were exemplified throughout the chapter.

    “The arrival city is a machine that transforms humans. It is also, if allowed to flourish, the instrument that will create a permanently sustainable world.” (Saunders, pg 27)
    The quote above was by far of most importance to me because it portrayed a perfect picture of the world we live in today and overall it nailed the theme of the book.

    Arrival cities really do have the ability to transform people for better and sometimes for worse, depending through which point of view we are focusing on. Their complexity has allowed people to migrate into a city that is full of possibilities. At least this is the picture Saunders portrays so well within the chapter. I have mentioned that it can transform humans ‘for worse’ because of the strain on first generation migrants within the arrival cities. An example that fits this structure is this Chinese mantra in regards to the arrival city:
    “ We will have to eat the bitterness”.
    Why? To simplify it – parents cling to the desperate ideas that their children will be better off than them if they have the proper education and that can only occur if they provide them with the opportunity to relocate within an arrival city.

    I have also mentioned that people in arrival cities can transform for the better because of the opportunities they receive once they have established themselves with this transitional world. A living and breathing example of this Chinese mantra is my family. My mother had to sacrifice everything in order to provide my sister and I with a better future. We moved to Canada and left our native land, Bulgaria, with the hope that we can have a brighter future because in our country this simply wouldn’t have been possible. My mother had to struggle to learn a new language, get accustom to a new mentality and overall try to find herself within this new environment. Was it worth it? In the long run – yes it was. It allowed me to grow up with the sense that my family has sacrificed so much in order for me to truly shine, and in return I have accomplished all of my goals with pride by finishing high school as an Ontario Scholar. Now I am in university and hopefully after I graduate and find a successful job I will be able to look my mom in the eyes and say: ‘Mom, I made it, your sacrifices have paid off.’ The ability to repay my mother for all she has done for me will truly fulfill my life.
    This was one of the reasons why Doug Saunders’ “On The Edge Of The City” really hit it home for me; it made everything I have been thinking a reality, a broader prospect that doesn’t only apply to me, but to the entire world as well.

    I will conclude my commentary by stating that this quote truly projects why the topic of Arrival cities is of such a crucial importance.
    “Arrival cities key success is in creating a new middle class, abolishing the horrors of rural poverty and ending inequality.” (Saunders, page 20)
    I am looking forward to continuing on the journey of this book and connecting it to other aspects of not only my life, but to the life of our society as well. After all, we really are experiencing a transition.

  7. Kersten says:

    In Chapter 1 of ‘Arrival City’ Saunders gives the reader a thorough understand of what exactly an arrival city is and the complexity of immigration from rural to urban. He gives a detailed (and sometimes repetitive) description of what these areas look like and does an adequate job of letting the reader experience what it is like to live in Lui Gong Li as well as in the UK. The sense of reality and desire to belong to a newly developing middle class structure is what I feel is at the core of the rural to urban migration, and it makes sense.
    There is only so far that a family can go by living in small rural villages before they are at capacity of their potential earnings and can no longer prosper or even feed themselves with what is offered on the land. Globalization, and climate change are both major contributing factors to this, and most importantly, the population increase over the last number of decades.
    To conclude, I look forward to the journey through which Saunder’s will take me in this book and I’m hoping that it will paint a clearer picture of what the future of the arrival city looks like and how the world is going to adjust to this next great transition.

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