Hello from the Other Side

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Although I have written a lot about social mix, cities still remain divided, or perceived as divided. The four directions of a compass are often used to make a distinction of some sort. Who hasn’t heard of the so-called Iron Curtain that divided the socialist East from the capitalist West? And nowadays, when geographers are referring to the global North or the global South, the North is the new framing of the First World, or the developed countries and comprises ironically also most of the ‘western’ countries. The South on the other hand, is the new concept for the Third World or developing countries. But also on much smaller geographical scales, the north and the south are used to distinguish one from the other, better from worse, richer from poorer.


The southern banks of the river Clyde for example, have a rather infamous reputation according to inhabitants of their northern counterparts. When you don’t have any purpose of going across the river, you simply don’t. Although I have lived in Glasgow for almost four months now, I indeed have never found myself in the position or need to take the Squinty Bridge to the other side. How residents think of the south side, became very clear when I asked a local to tell me how he felt about the area. He said that friends would ask him if he ‘got his shots’ before going to the south, and he would rather invite friends who lived there over to the north, because the south would be just somewhere you would not like to go and have a drink. On the other hand, because the south is a – presumably partly because of its reputation – relatively cheap area, some also said that it is becoming a more attractive area.


Not surprisingly, the natural boundary of water and more specifically rivers seems to divide cities everywhere, also in Amsterdam. Here the role of North and South is reversed, with the South looking down on the North. The city of Amsterdam is split by the IJ, an important water way for trade shipping from and to the North Sea. Therefore, the construction of bridges is nearly impossible due to the fact that they would have to open almost all the time, or have to be sky high. The result is a ferry service, which runs indeed very frequent and is free for everybody, but nevertheless makes the threshold to go to the North (Noord) higher, although the geographical distance is relatively short. Moreover, by southern citizens Noord is seen as a residential area for the rough working class. But again, this is changing and processes of gentrification are also taking place here, because almost every other neighbourhood is becoming too expensive for the average citizen to live in.


Difference is also made based on other natural features. In the Netherlands for example, The Hague has a part that has been built on sand, and a part that is built on moor. The richer inhabitants live on the sandy part, the poorer on the moor part. Moor was perceived as bad soil for building and the source for many health issues, what resulted in the working class mainly residing in these areas. The wealthy were of course able to go to better areas. And whereas in the Netherlands distinction based on height differences is hardly possible, in Glasgow you can find traces of these kinds of divisions. According to some of the people I spoke to, Park Circus is only reserved for the wealthy that can literally look down upon the surrounding neighbourhoods and have a magnificent view on the city.


It is interesting to be aware of how a geographical situation may lead to certain images about the areas and its population. Moreover it is remarkable to see how the physical environment shapes the social environment. The people of ancient Greece already noticed this and argued that climate would have an influence on people’s behaviour. But that boundaries, both natural and artificial, do have a lot of implications for people that are exposed to them, is one thing that we can be sure of.


By Rosa de Jong


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