How Mobility-by-Proxy Aesthetically Gentrifies Amsterdam’s Empty Streets

Recently opened branch of Gorillas in Amsterdam West. Image by the author.
How have bike delivery services changed the aesthetics and politics of the cityscape during lockdown? Daan Wesselman discusses mobility-by-proxy, visual branding, and "gentrification on wheels" in Amsterdam.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a dossier on “Lockdown Aesthetics and Gentrification.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

In my chapter in Aesthetics of Gentrification, I discuss a typical case of a government-led and culture-led gentrification project in Amsterdam in which a former school building was repurposed for artist studios, exhibition spaces, and a hostel — all in the middle of a neighbourhood dominated by social housing and an ethnic minority population. My case brings together two aspects of gentrification: displacement1For a touchstone study, see Peter Marcuse, “Abandonment, Gentrification, and Displacement: the Linkages in New York City,” in Gentrification of the City, ed. Neil Smith and Peter Williams (London: Unwin Hyman, 1986),153-177. and the role of aesthetics in gentrification (as a particular look and as the foregrounding of aesthetic categories through the prominence of arts and culture).2See, for example, David Ley, “Artists, Aestheticisation and the Field of Gentrification,” Urban Studies 40, no. 12 (2003): 2527-2544; Vanessa Mathews, “Aestheticizing Space: Art, Gentrification and the City,” Geography Compass 4, no. 6 (2010): 660-675. I argue that the reused school works as an engine of gentrification not by displacing people but by displacing the aesthetics of the area.

The aesthetics of gentrification should be understood along the lines of the work of Jacques Rancière.3Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: the Distribution of the Sensible, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2004); Jacques Rancière, Aesthetics and its Discontents, trans. Steven Corcoran (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009). Simply put, aesthetics for Rancière involves an organization of what or who can be seen or heard in the first place. Rancière calls this the distribution of the sensible, which gives some people a place and a voice, and renders others invisible and mute. Aesthetics therefore is politics, and vice versa. The “look” of a working-class neighbourhood is thus a political-aesthetic configuration. Likewise, the gentrification aesthetic — as in my case of the reused school — politically shapes who has a place, a voice, and a visual presence in an area.. I argue for recognizing that such aesthetics are not superimposed on a blank canvas but displace the aesthetics that were there, and thereby render the voices of the existing residents aesthetically and politically mute.

Lockdown in Amsterdam during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in the first months of 2021, provides a different case for understanding this connection between gentrification, aesthetics, and displacement. Lockdown itself is a new distribution of the sensible, organizing who has a place in the city streets and who does not. Under these conditions, the gentrification processes at work in my area of Amsterdam (Amsterdam West) continued to shape the city in political-aesthetic terms, but in a surprising way that revolved around groceries.

General lockdown restrictions made the streets quieter, but grocery shopping was still necessary of course. Because of social distancing and shops allowing only a limited number of customers inside, the streets featured long queues for supermarkets, particularly at stores catering to the less affluent. However, the more affluent middle-class residents — or to simplify for my area of Amsterdam: the gentrifiers — increasingly turned to delivery services for food and groceries. This mobility-by-proxy for the gentrifiers during lockdown produced another political–aesthetic reconfiguration of the Amsterdam streetscape.

The newly opened branch of Gorillas in my neighbourhood illustrates this new relation between displacement, aesthetics, and gentrification. Gorillas started in 2020 and rapidly expanded from Berlin and Cologne to other cities in Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, and France (at the time of writing further rapid expansion is in the works). The company’s aim is to change the way people shop for groceries. The company’s manifesto addresses the importance of delivery on demand (as can be seen in the image above, they advertise delivery within ten minutes), reducing food waste, cutting car traffic and parking, selling local produce, etc. Make of that what you will, though it should be noted that the concern of Gorillas for their riders – for example, by employing them directly – is an improvement over common exploitative models in the gig economy.

A Gorillas rider. Image by the author.

The Amsterdam cityscape during lockdown was markedly changed by a great increase of bike delivery riders on the streets, and Gorillas stands out in this political–aesthetic reconfiguration because of its own aesthetics. Whereas other delivery services usually feature a bag with a logo and company colours, and sometimes a jacket, the aesthetics of Gorillas are extended across its website, app, stores and riders. Even though the company uses so-called “dark stores” that only function as warehouses for delivery of goods (my local branch is in a former office space, for example), Gorillas is highly visible in a variety of ways.

As can be seen in the image of my local branch above, the company is visually present through branding on the window, like any shop. More importantly, the QR code and image of a mobile phone — the text says “Have you heard about Gorillas?” — directs passers-by to the app, relying on the intertwining of urban space and digital platform, and aims to extend its presence through local word-of-mouth. In addition, a large crew of riders usually hangs out outside the branch before they fan out across the neighbourhood to make deliveries. Those riders are themselves a notable exception in the streetscape, not only because of their uniform with recognizable branding but because they all wear helmets. In bike-centric Amsterdam wearing a helmet is an exception, even when on an e-bike like the Gorillas riders. Comparable companies like Deliveroo and Takeaway.com, for example, don’t generally have riders with helmets, and the general public rides almost exclusively helmet-free. In all aspects of its operation, Gorillas thus cultivates a clear visual presence in the streets.

Since the platform caters particularly to the gentrifiers in my area of the city — which is a simplification, but then again the seven flavours of kombucha on offer from Gorillas speak volumes — I argue that one should see this visual presence as gentrification on wheels, spreading out across the streets, literally.

Lockdown thus resulted in a new political–aesthetic organization in the streets: a contrast between static queues in front of shops for the less affluent, and an expanding flock of bike riders delivering food and groceries to the gentrifiers’ doorsteps. The socio-economic disparities play out all the more visibly in the dimension of mobility. For the less affluent, having to go out to the shops entailed exposure and risk. By contrast, the gentrifiers could offset the restrictions through an army of delivery people and thereby displace health risks onto a newly expanded class of workers, many of whom lost their (precarious) jobs early on in the pandemic. Hence, gentrification here results in a form of displacement, but rather than being residential in nature, it is a displacement of health risks.

Importantly, this process should also be understood as an aesthetic organization of the streetscape, where a noteworthy inversion took place under lockdown. Spatiality and mobility are part and parcel of the distribution of the sensible, in Rancière’s terms, which determines who is visible and has a place in the city streets. But the gentrifiers’ mobility-by-proxy affords them the possibility of remaining invisible in the city streets themselves, with riders and platforms such as Gorillas taking their place.

At the time of writing, many restrictions have been lifted and the Amsterdam streetscape has largely returned to what it was before. As a result, the army of bike delivery people stands out from regular traffic less than under lockdown. Yet the pace of expansion of Gorillas is increasing. So with the streets returning to normal, the political–aesthetic contrast between supermarket queues and bike delivery riders is going to be less stark, but the expanded possibilities for gentrifying the city streets through mobility-by-proxy are likely to remain.

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