The best city stories we’ve spotted around the web this week take a look at the rise of “companionship businesses” serving lonely city dwellers, discover an apartment building in Berlin where homes have been turned into storage units, hear stories of gentrification in Brooklyn and imagine a future where the top decks of London’s buses are reserved for the super wealthy. We’d love to hear your responses to these stories: just share your thoughts in the comments below.
“Why isn’t there a Starbucks for hugs?” That was the thinking behind Snuggle Buddies, a service offering people dedicated cuddling companions based in New Jersey. The company is one example in the growing trend of companionship businesses across the US. Not all of them simply include cuddling, of course; another service, RentAFriend, does pretty much what it says on the tin, hiring out people with whom you can just go for a walk or grab a coffee. According to its founder, Scott Rosenbaum, many of its customers are business travellers without friends in the cities they visit or people who just moved to a new area and don’t yet know anyone.
“The advent of professional cuddling and friend rentals seems to be serving a distinctly modern need,” writes Olga Oksman in CityLab . “Everyone I talked to in the companionship industry echoed the same view that while digital technology may provide connection, it doesn’t provide physical touch and can’t replace real-life friendships.” And although cities are full of people, they can often be quite alienating places.
Rosenbaum’s inspiration behind RentAFriend came from a similar service operating in Japan, “where social isolation is more common than in the US and where there are special cafes where lonely customers can drink coffee in the company of stuffed animals.”
Grassroots climate activism
Grow Heathrow, a four-acre “off-grid” community which supports villages struggling against the expansion of nearby Heathrow airport on the outskirts of London, call themselves a “grassroots struggle against climate change”. While the COP21 talks continue in Paris, Al Jazeera takes a lookat this example of climate change resistance playing out on the ground. Grow Heathrow produces its own power, uses recycled materials, grows food and distributes the surplus to nearby villages. Despite an ongoing High Court eviction case against them, activists at the site continue their work of “cultivating cultures of community resistance”.
In New York City, every building with more than nine units has a caretaker, known as a “super”. Photographer Gesche Würfel was intrigued by the basement spaces these supers live and work in and set to record them, in their often shrine-like quality. “The supers tend to be migrants, especially from the Caribbean or Latin American countries,” she explains in an interview alongside a gallery of her pictures in Uncube . “They find ways to bring their home country into their space, by, for example, putting up pictures on the basement walls that depict scenes of their old homeland … Normally we think of basements as dark places that you don’t want to go to but these places were very inviting. It does seem that the idea of ‘storing an identity’ in terms of creating a sanctuary is an important thing.”
In the city of Flint, Michigan, poisonous water was flowing out of taps for about 18 months. It still would be, were it not for a group of citizen activists who worked hard to prove their drinking water was unsafe. As Next City reports , there is an investigation under way into how officials managed to let their public consume poisonous water.
Flint, a distressed community northwest of Detroit with about 100,000 people, has been in and out of emergency management since 2002. It was under the supervision of an emergency manager in April 2014, when the city made the ill-fated choice to use the Flint River for its water while a new regional water authority is being constructed, rather than sign a pricey short-term contract with Detroit, which had been providing it water for decades.
What if our London buses had exclusive areas for the “elite”? Artist Max Colson’s animated video takes us inside a vision of a public bus with a premium top deck and a budget area below. In the form of an advert, the work is a parody on what London’s current changes – privatisation, booming luxury real estate, foreign investment prioritised over homes for citizens – could result in. “In a political landscape that has seen the scrapping of the requirement to build affordable houses to rent, the demolition of social housing, and the rapid gentrification of some of the city’s poorest areas, we could just be looking to the future of London’s increasingly fragmented society,” Louise Benson writes in POSTmatter .
Turning homes into storage units
As property prices rise steeply, many are forced to live in ever smaller homes. But where’s the space for all their stuff? “The demand for storage spaces is on the rise, especially in dense capitalist metropolises,” writes Florian Heilmeyer in Uncube . “People need more and more space to keep the things they don’t need all the time but are too good to throw away.” Self storage is becoming increasingly popular, with dedicated buildings taking up space in city centres as well as outskirts – to the extent that in Berlin, a building that was designed as an apartment block for people to live in has now been converted into self-storage units. So, stuff trumps people – what’s next, storage cities?
Gentrification in New York
Alongside a brilliant op-ed about affordable housing in New York City, the New York Times shares personal stories of residents forced to relocate from their Crown Heights neighbourhood in Brooklyn due to the impacts of gentrification.
In prewar apartments, glossy new kitchens are replacing tired old ones. Limestone fixer-uppers are commanding seven-figure prices. Cocktail bars are opening where fried chicken used to be sold from behind bulletproof glass. And the New Yorkers who lived there are drifting away, their former homes renovated to make way for white college graduates and young families.
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