When Murray Melbin published the Night as Frontier in 1987 he made two broad conclusions. Humans would eventually reach the ‘end’ of night’s frontier. And, antagonism would be ongoing between diurnal and nocturnal populations. In this post I want to explore how these conclusions continue to find relevance in contemporary cities, and how they are becoming articulated through the right to the city debate. I then want to show how I am developing these ideas in my thesis to suggest a crepuscular right to the city.
Melbin’s Night as Frontier (1987, the Free Press)
For those unfamiliar with Melbin, I’ll briefly elaborate what he meant. Melbin documented the spread of shift work, lighting networks, aviation traffic, gas stations, restaurants, department stores, radio and television broadcasts across all hours of the night. From this he argued that time was a container, being colonised and filled ‘differently’ in the modern city. So much so that the night could now be considered a new ‘frontier’. The colonisation of night was compared to Westward terrestrial expansion known as the U.S. frontier. For Melbin, both frontiers were characterised by stages of advance, a sparse and homogeneous population, escape and opportunity, a wider range of ‘tolerated’ behaviours, lawlessness, and policies to exploit and regulate. Returning to the first conclusion, the ‘end’ of night’s frontier would not mean the total occupation of every hour, everywhere, but there would be settled patterns of development. At this time “a condition of our ventures is that we must accommodate the course we set in motion” (1987, p. 136). There was, for Melbin, no going back. For his second conclusion, he argued that the ‘daytimers’, or the vast diurnal population, would not tolerate too much intrusion from nocturnal activities, and this would be an ongoing source of tension in urban areas.
Back in present day, and forgetting the antiquated terminology of frontiers, do Melbin’s conclusions continue to find relevance? I’m not convinced about ‘settled’ patterns of development. But cities do continue to see a range of antagonisms between diurnal and nocturnal interest groups. Melbin’s questions endure: how do we learn to live with the consequence of after dark activity? What consensus can there be between diurnal and nocturnal rhythms? Yet the questions are articulated in different contexts.
The night time economy debate, for example, has seen constant tension between using the night to foster economic growth, and desire to maintain order in cities (see Shaw 2012). Pubs, bars and clubs bring taxes and revenues to city and national budgets playing a central role in neoliberal urban redevelopment projects, but they are also criticised for spectacular night time scenes of alcohol, intoxication and violence. So too, for decades the International Dark-Sky Association has raised awareness of increasing levels of light pollution. They argue the night sky is cultural and natural heritage in danger of being denied to future generations – destroyed by unsustainable, inefficient technologies that illuminate our cities for after dark activity.
Very recently these issues have also been articulated through the right to the city.
Laam Hae, for instance, has studied nightlife in New York City. This work is empirically focussed on dance subcultures, and has a broader concern with political representation and gentrification in post-industrialising cities (Hae’s book can be found with Routledge 2012 and articles in Urban Studies, Urban Geography, ACME). Hae has shown how nightlife has been used as a ‘fix’ to promote gentrification, but gentrification has, in turn, changed the nature of NYs nightlife. Hae has documented how this contradiction has led to a greater politicisation of nightlife activities and ‘pro-nightlife’ activism, which serve as a lesson for the right to the city and urban cultural/social life.
In another case, Jason Prior et al (2012) have called for the realisation of a ‘nocturnal right to the city’. Looking at sex premises in Sydney, they characterise the sex industry as a (predominately) nocturnal activity that abrades the dominant moral geographies of the city – framed by notions of privacy, noise and heteronormative family values. The industry, they say, is kept in check through property rights that structure when, where and how it operates (see also Hubbard et al 2013). Prior et al are primarily concerned with property rights, citizenship and sexuality – including the emergence of sexual commons – and the ‘nocturnal right to the city’ is used more in its literal sense than providing a conceptual framework. Yet it is a tantalising and welcomed prospect to develop.
In my forthcoming thesis, I also look to bridge discussions of night (and day) to the right to the city debate (in the broader context of Lefebvre’s work). The right to the city has a convoluted history and development that need not be rehearsed here (see Mark Purcell’s recent commentary/review; also Brenner et al 2011; and Kipfer et al 2013). Lefebvre’s right to the city isn’t only the right to the material, political and social resources of the city as it already exists. It is the right, ‘the cry and demand’, to participate in the future city, to remake it as you see fit. It is a call for greater participation and democratisation of the production of space and the unfolding of urban society.
Over 25 years since Melbin’s conclusions, striving for a nocturnal right to the city, means striving for an equal share of ‘colonised time’. Or in other words, a right to the city that already exists. In my thesis I am instead trying to push concepts of day and night, light and dark, the diurnal and nocturnal dialectically to reveal new ways of understanding the human relationship to both. From this perspective we needn’t see antagonisms around sex premises, dance halls, and the night time economy as inherently different to the concerns of the International Dark-Sky Association. These are symptoms of an inability to adequately relate to day and night in the city. In separate parts of my thesis I am therefore attempting to bring these disparate nocturnal/diurnal antagonisms into dialogue.
A crepuscular right to the city is not then the rights of particular interest groups, which might become broadly defined as ‘nocturnal’ or ‘diurnal’. The ‘daytimers’, as Melbin called them, resisting nocturnal intrusions into their habitual patterns of city life. A crepuscular right to the city reinterprets day and night in the future unfolding of the city, with the impetus to rethink and politicise days, just as much as nights. Redefining and rethinking the human relationship to both day and night as a means to achieve the right to the city.