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Centrality in lockdown


Written by
Anna-Louise Milne

How did students and MA Urban History and Culture programme director, Anna-Louise Milne, adapt when they could no longer pursue the fieldwork and on-site learning that is the bedrock of this programme?

Paris is the densest urban area in the global North. In the couple of weeks before the French government implemented strict lockdown measures, that density felt everywhere in your face, on your hands, in your head as you tried to get a measure of what was clearly happening and at a speed that was always just that little bit faster than our ‘best’ estimates. With the students enrolled in the MA in Urban History and Culture at the University of London Institute in Paris, I was deeply caught up with thinking about centrality and centralities, wrestling with the long legacy of Henri Lefebvre’s thinking about urban history and sociology and how his concept of centrality resonates with our lived experience of cities today. That had been the subject for our module through the second term, and as the city was shutting down, we were due to meet in a particularly disturbing ‘centrality’, the Drancy Holocaust Memorial, which is a bewildering mirror-faced building in one of the poorest districts in the wider Paris area, located just across the road from the actual social housing blocks that were the Drancy camp throughout the Nazi Occupation of Northern France. It was in Drancy that over 100 000 Jews, the vast majority French citizens, were held in appalling conditions prior to deportation East where most met with immediate death. It’s a place you have to see to get a full measure of its desperate banality, its confounding proximity, and the entrenched neglect within which it sits, all of which is displaced in an equally confounding way by the immediately adjacent state-of-the-art museum from within the walls of which you stare at the flats now returned to their original purpose of social housing for the poorest categories of the population, often refugees. It’s a place that flips any obvious sense of centrality on its head, requiring us to think the primary drivers of urban history from the periphery even as we observe the continued relegation that is everywhere apparent.

But we never got there. Not as a group. I had thought we could probably manage it, in those last days before lockdown, given that we were mainly interested in how we would move between the different coordinates of what we are supposed to visit (the museum) and what we would turn our back on to do so (the housing estate). The risk of too much proximity between us seemed minimal. But even that minimal distance escaped us, when we decided collectively that we had to postpone. And we have yet to reconvene in space, creating our own ‘centrality,’ as a class situation can and should be for the duration of a shared project of learning.

I’m confident we will manage to do that again before this year’s MA programme is over in September, and perhaps we’ll make to Drancy still, and mark that fact by stopping for a couscous or equivalent to celebrate the successful completion of everyone’s dissertations.

But prior to that, it has also been an extraordinarily challenging and rewarding experience to continue the work on these complex centralities of urban living and history with the students through the weeks of lockdown. Because we have continued, and they have continued most importantly, despite the need to relocate back to the UK or the US in some cases, or for those who stayed, having to accept that the city that is their object of study is only very minimally available to them – available for ‘first necessities’ and not for the sort of exploratory and embedded research that is the hallmark of this MA programme.

Not only did we switch all work and oral assessments online, but the students had to switch their focus towards substantially different projects. They did this with impressive creativity. The guiding concept remained centrality, but they approached it as a projective or aspirational horizon, analyzing the fascination that buildings can generate before they even exist; or as the dispersed but unshakeable trauma of the Occupation that runs like a mesh of silences stories across the city of Paris; or as a newly open ‘construction’ of knowledge commons by the amazing public library in the Pompidou Centre, a 1970s utopia of culture-for-all in the heart of the city, now finding new ways to turn itself inside out to reach ever more numerous users. Architectural plans, virtual landscapes, snippets of film, novels, online catalogues… all different avenues for thinking urban centrality in a time of physical distancing.

The questions we have all been asking ourselves since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic were everywhere resonant in the student work. What sort of togetherness lies ahead of us when these exceptional restrictions are relaxed? My own most pressing concern was how to replace the fundamental pedagogical process of encounter with our objects of study. I had to dig deep into my own archives and trawl differently through library databases to find ways of making sites such as Drancy ‘present’ to the students for the first time. But to what extent can ‘Drancy’ ever be present to us, even as we stand between its time-worn buildings and its shiny new museum? Having to construct it before us on a shared screen in a combination of images and words threw into sharp relief what is also fundamental to this process of collective learning, and this was a good corrective to any thought that it would be enough just to get there. Our production of knowledge happens between us, as we work relative to one another and with what we have to hand or digitalized in a database. This was also strikingly evident in the intense care and attention that this MA group has paid to one another’s projects, as if this situation of dispersion made us realize how valuable it is to work together.

I have no doubt that walking to Drancy or elsewhere, as a group or individually, as restrictions in Paris are reduced will bring us other sorts of insights. Hard ones, I reckon, as these weeks have been most difficult to bear in spaces where social and physical mobility is already so challenged, like Drancy and the ‘zone’ between it and our central Paris locations. But in the meantime, this student group found a new footing to work on, and in the long run I think the work will be all the stronger for it.