Vertical solidarity

Those viral videos (now in both senses of the word) of Bolognesi in chorus, singing Bella Ciao from balcony to balcony, are joined by clips of Madrileños at their windows, clapping, cheering and clattering pots and pans in praise of the city’s key workers. Alfie Temple Stroud, a Welsh student in Urban Studies who lives in Madrid, sees a vertical solidarity emerging in his city.


Suddenly, the soul of the southern city seems elevated above the street, away from the gutters and the more corporeal levels of urban life, more perilous now even than they are habitually. The void above the road, the chasm between walls appears obviously to be the auditorium to the theatre of the city – perhaps some part of the stage too.


Maybe this real-life drama is only drawing attention to a dimension of urban life that is always there, but escapes our notice. The domestic architecture of the Mediterranean does seem especially characterised by the balcony, the window, the roof terrace: just picture a Venetian, an Andalusian, or a grand Côte d’Azur façade.


Photo by Alfie Temple Stroud


The townscape backdrop to the window of your room is architecture to be read, and the frame of unknown lives within. It can carry subtle symbolic meanings and clues that help us understand the city life around us, and in which we might perceive some aspect of our urban identities.


In semi-voluntary self-isolation in Madrid, I’m spending as much time as I can on my balcony, and as little time as I can unthinkingly staring into my neighbour’s darkened living room.


In semi-voluntary self-isolation in Madrid, I’m spending as much time as I can on my balcony, and as little time as I can unthinkingly staring into my neighbour’s darkened living room.

The window is like a screen: sometimes a TV screen, broadcasting the entertainments of city life; other times more like a computer screen, offering a (sometimes inadvertent) means of expression - the withered palm branches of last Easter, drying laundry, pot plants…


Across Madrid, emergency-yellow banners on windows and balconies proclaim ‘SOS MADRID’ followed by the name of an inner city area suffering from the rent rises, antisocial behaviour and displacements that are the side-effects of rampant gentrification and touristification. Others promote the allied campaign, #lascasasnosonhoteles. They appeal – to whom? politicians? fellow citizens? tourists? – literally over the heads of the mainly oblivious, unintending gentrifiers beneath.


Here is more yearning for solidarity, for society, for community, from balcony to balcony, window to window, apart from the travails, the churning transit and transactionality of street life. The very existence of three to five storeys of life above the street, above the third-wave coffee shops and poké bars, might be an ordinary, residential break on the commerce-led change; but speculation, property investment and Airbnb are seeing to that.


There is undoubtedly something salutary about the existence of this slower life above the street, and about the yearning for solidarity and for the urban good life that, as ever, the Italians are teaching us about. Mutually isolated, it is – very evidently – currently a great comfort and relief to many, and simultaneously seems all the more precious. Perhaps in Naples, where, famously, some of the upper-floor windows surely can’t be the requisite 2m apart, they are the very means for subverting the decree on social distancing.


The balcony, or the window made for gazing from, has other advantages too: to my knowledge, Jane Jacobs, the great American prophet of humane urbanism, didn’t dwell on them particularly; but they provide plurally, piled high, exactly that animation and passive surveillance, the eyes on the street that she thought crucial.


There is undoubtedly something salutary about the existence of this slower life above the street, and about the yearning for solidarity and for the urban good life that, as ever, the Italians are teaching us about.

And yet looking out at the vertical life of the city, the image of a smoking tower also comes to mind. In June 2017, 72 people died in a fire, trapped on the upper floors of Grenfell Tower, a state-built residential tower in West London. An inquiry into that tragedy is ongoing, but some of the injustices behind it are already clear. A majority of those who died, for instance, were categorizable ‘black and minority ethnic’ (BAME) in a district of London over 70% white. How so? The geographer Danny Dorling, in his 2011 book titled So You Think You Know About Britain?, pointed out that across England, BAME residents are more likely to occupy the higher residential floors of such blocks. And they’re not mostly in penthouse suites.


Photo by Alfie Temple Stroud


These sorts of micro-segregations aren’t unique to London, or even to Britain. Gentrification and touristification seem to have a vertical dimension everywhere; and, when you think about it, the variegated urban politics of climbing the property ladder and looking down on your neighbours characterises contemporary development in most big cities. Cruel ‘poor doors’ and penthouses are coming soon to a luxury tower near you.


When I lived on the second floor of a six-storey duplex block in East London, which had been built in 1964 as social housing but was complexly disassembled by privatisation into a British Battenberg cake (Google it) of public and private, I felt a quiet but confident sense of community with those around my block and in the tower opposite; but I didn’t know who they were. I saw their silhouettes and the little sparks of their cigarettes at night, or their blue-lit living rooms; but I didn’t know them if I met them. The neighbours I knew were those I walked past, our horizontal neighbours, on the deck walkways outside the door.


Why the difference? I don’t believe in architectural determinism, that fuel to prejudice that patronises and writes-off the residents of stigmatized high-rise social housing. Although from another angle, it is hard to imagine how such spirited urban solidarity would manifest among the self-isolating residents of suburban cul-de-sacs or long rows of net-curtained terraces. Perhaps we are about to find out, as quarantine reaches the cities of northern Europe. But above, below, beside – it's all neither here nor there.


No, I never got to know my neighbours in that East London estate better than the night, at 4am, we were evacuated by the police because a gas leak put us all at risk. Standing around in the street in the dark, in pyjamas, shut out of our homes for several days, was in fact a precise inversion of my present self-isolation. Yet the effect was similar, despite the radically different urban architecture. We got closer.


Standing around in the street in the dark, in pyjamas, shut out of our homes for several days, was in fact a precise inversion of my present self-isolation.

So here’s to the balcony, the window, the roof terrace balustrade; thank Palladio for the relief they’re bringing, across the housebound South. But they are, ultimately, no obstacle to viruses or the vertical injustices of urban life arising from the streets below; and they are no cure either, necessarily, for isolation, whether law-enforced or the more quotidian kind of urban loneliness. It’s the Italians and the Spaniards singing and cheering from them, this week, who show us how to do solidarity – and show us the significance of the people and patterns to be found in that normally-ignored vertical dimension of city life.


This story was shared by Alfie Temple Stroud, a Welsh student in Urban Studies who lives in Madrid, Spain.

Join our global movement: spread stories & follow us

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Instagram