Everyday stability and the (un)certainty of spatial division

I’m just home from two interesting but – from my point of view – rather peculiar conferences (from the view of most of the other conference participants, however, I was the peculiarity). One on Urban Morphology in Nicosia (Cyprus) and the other on Space, Violence, and The Political in Galway (Ireland). The reason behind this route is that I’m developing an argument that applies theories from both Urban Studies and Political Geography, so I wanted to see whether my application functioned in the eyes of urban scholars and political geographers. It did, but that is not really the topic of this entry.

The topic is rather the connection between everyday tensions/stability and dividing walls that plays out in quite a few postwar cities (e.g., Belfast, Nicosia, Jerusalem). I had never been to Nicosia before and what stroke me on the very first day is that the division seems so stable, so uncontested in the everyday – when people go to school or work, when they eat at restaurants or drink at bars, or when they just stroll around the city. The northern part of the city is Turkish and the southern part is Greek. Two almost perfect halves clearly delineated by walls, barbwire, UN soldiers, and police from both sides of the ethnonational division. You can cross quite easily – at least as a visitor but, from what I saw, also as a local – between the two sides and people do, seemingly without any hassle. This “easiness” of crossing or at least seeming stability made quite an impression on me, especially as I began comparing it with Belfast. I used to live in Belfast – in the middle-class, trendy, and/or student part of the city (around QUB), but I frequently ventured around the city – which just like Nicosia is divided by walls and barbwire and urban blight and gates, but in a much more fragmented way. Belfast is locally often described as an ethnonational patchwork. The west is Catholic (apart from Shankill of course), the east is Protestant (apart from Short Strand of course), the south is “mixed” (read: middle-class) while the north is “divided into many small pieces” rather than mixed (read: working class). This extensive fragmentation – where any walk of 1-2 km from the city centre, in any direction, will lead you to cross multiple dividing lines – is riddled with spatial insecurities and with people protecting “their area” from “them”. This is materially noticeable in flags, curb stones, murals, graffiti but also how people (might) react to those they do not know or recognise. While I did see some similar things in Nicosia, it was much less obvious to me. This can be attributed to time (the Cypriote war ended when “the Troubles” began), my untrained eye (it was my first time in Nicosia while I have both lived in and researched Belfast), and a different political situation (there seems to be a more positive trajectory in Nicosia than in Belfast, especially in the light of Brexit).

But what I think also might explain the difference – at least partly – is the spatial un/certainty of the two cities. Nicosia is divided by one unsurpassable and almost mutually agreed wall that produces a clear cut division between its two city halves – this creates spatial certainty in the sense that people both know which side is “ours/theirs” and are comfortable in that this status quo will remain in the foreseeable future.  The result is that Nicosia might be contested, but that people’s everyday life is largely not. In contrast, Belfast is divided by many different, overlapping, and multifaceted (in terms of direction, locality, composition, etc.) walls that are contested and that divide the city into many and often ambiguous pieces – which creates spatial uncertainty in the sense that people might both be unsure which part is “ours/theirs” (the lines are shifting from corner to corner, from street to street, and from tree to tree) and scared whether today’s dividing lines are valid tomorrow. The result is that the contestation that plagues Belfast sneaks into every corner of people’s everyday life. What thus seems to be the case is that a non-contested everyday is positively correlated with the level of certainty and unambiguity of spatial division. While I’m not making the case for dividing people completely from each other – and thus avoiding coexistence – I think it is very wise not to force integration upon people. Otherwise, division and contestation may never leave people’s everyday.