polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Summer in the City

by Cristiana Strava

Cooling off in the Bronx (2011). Source: Charles Brigand

In 1927, the Times reported that more than three thousand people had spent the night sleeping on the sand at Coney Island in order to escape the stifling heat of their tenements. Patrolmen had been assigned to stand guard over the sleepers. Many more spent their nights in Central Park, while others piled up on fire escapes to survive the sweltering heat of New York in July. Over the years, the image of children cooling off in the spray of a fire hydrant has become synonymous with summer in the city. Too poor to escape to the Hamptons, working class New Yorkers transformed available public spaces into impromptu vacation spots.

Sleeping on a fire escape in New York (1938). Source: Weegee Collection

Today, city officials and entrepreneurs attempt to provide options aimed at both locals and potential tourists. Capitalizing on a certain fetishistic obsession with "authenticity," they appropriate working class spaces and practices and regulate them or present them as fashionable. Sharon Zukin, an urban sociologist and staunch critic of New York's gentrification, refers to this process as "pacification by cappuccino," a scenario in which urban space is "imagineered" as an entertainment event for the consumption of those who can afford it.

This phenomenon is taking place worldwide, and what better season than summer to capitalize on people's use of city space?

Paris Plages on the Rive Droite. Source: Choblet et Associés

An urban summer staple, Paris Plages is perhaps the most famous and chic of European city beaches. Many Parisians abandon the city in summer for the South of France or countryside vacations. Since  2002, the month-long transformation of the Seine's banks (with the recent addition of La Villete) has aimed to offer a comfortable recreation space for those who remain in the city. The attractions of Paris Plages are mostly free and open to all. An "open air drinking ban," however, has meant that those who once brought a home-made picnic and bottle of wine might now be forced to avail themselves of the many and, according to some, overpriced Paris Plage brasseries instead.

Amsterdam City "Beach" on the roof of the NEMO Museum. Source: Tino Morchel

Beyond the issues raised by the commodification of public space, critics have questioned the environmental impact of carting in large amounts of sand for such a brief period of time. However, several European capitals now proudly present their summer residents and visitors with at least one man-made beach. Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, Moscow, Prague and Vienna — to name just a few — are converting city spaces into sandy urban oases for a few weeks every summer. Amsterdam boasts no less than four city beaches, while Copenhagen's most famous summer splash spot is a riff off Copacabana, at least in name.

While London has so far resisted the trend, one can still enjoy sand in the shape of a couch in front of the Globe Theatre on the South Bank — before the tide of the mighty Thames wipes it away. Alternatively, during those brief spells of good weather, for £1.50 you can lounge for an hour in a Hyde Park deck chair.

Sculpting the sand on London's South Bank. Source: Normco

Deck chairs in London's Hyde Park. Source: Andy Pallister

In Moscow, known for turning into a boiling cauldron in summer, the range of choices is also rich. Until recently, most sunbathing and swimming spots were appropriations of existing river banks and parks rather than eventified realms. Now from Kirovsk and Strogino to Serebryany Bor (a longtime favorite for nudists), Muskovites can enjoy refurbished sporting and barbecue areas equipped with WiFi.

Serebryany Bor sunbathers. Source: In Moskau

There is nothing evil about providing city dwellers with options for an urban vacation. However, there is something disconcerting about government officials allowing corporations to reap financial benefits from social activities that were once free and improvised, as public space becomes more and more scarce.

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