A Lonely Shop Window

David Hamers

 

Walking, sitting, waiting, eating, drinking, dancing, demonstrating – what don’t we do in public space? Well, a lot, actually. Not everything can be seen. And not everything is tolerated, although increasingly more things have become so in recent decades. We see more flesh on the street than before. We hear more music there. Terraces have occupied the squares, there are city beaches, and we work on our laptops in the park.

Consequently, the city’s use and appearance have gradually changed. Over the past year, this change has been rapid. The coronavirus put an end to festivals and ushered in the sanitiser pump. Suddenly, we had to queue to get into the supermarket, shopping required a reservation, and theatres closed their doors. Meanwhile, many took long walks through the empty city and discovered previously unvisited neighbourhoods on their new round. Formerly indoor activities also moved outside: neighbourhood drinks took place on the street with 1.5 metres of social distancing, and local parks became de facto gyms.

These abrupt changes are on top of the transformations that have been going on for some time. The city changes. If there’s one thing that typifies cities, it might be that: change. For example, where offices for a long time were places for concentration, they have increasingly developed into meeting spaces. That was until the tide turned and employees fled the open-plan offices and started working from home. The fact the pandemic forced us to meet our colleagues at home – on the computer screen, of course – was unexpected. For many, the term interface took on a new meaning, that of a membrane that literally mediated between faces: close-up at a distance, with movement and sound, enhanced by chats and emojis, but also accompanied by disturbances, noise, misunderstandings, annoyance and fatigue. But the Zoom screen does not let everything through, which in some instances is annoying, but in others, it is a good thing. How this new screen-based work will influence the city’s usual places of work remains to be seen. The same applies to the commute: will the stairs to the attic room replace the bike ride to the station for good, or will we again board the train en masse?

Alongside the workplace, the shop is also indicative of how the city is changing. Online shopping has been the cause of vacant retail units for years. Boxes piled up where shelves used to be, and ‘For Rent’ signs pasted over shop fronts reveal our collective behaviour. We buy less in the city and increasingly shop from home. Corona increased this tendency over the past year. The busy shopping street and the packed store became, for those who like them, much less appealing. And also in the case of shopping, just like with work, the effects can be felt on the street. An empty shop window’s impact on a shopping street is similar to that of a discarded washing machine on the corner of a residential street. A lonely shop window is evidence of decay. For passers-by, this may at most be annoying, but visitor numbers start to dwindle. Pop-up and concept stores can temporarily disguise the downturn. However, there will come a time when the excessive retail rent that property owners want to maintain will threaten the public quality of the city. The annoying thing is that, as with a decaying tooth, widespread rot can soon set in.

A row of tarnished shop windows is an unattractive sight. This is not only due to the lack of beautiful things behind the window. In an empty shop window, your own reflection becomes conspicuous. If, instead of walking by the window, you stop for a moment, you will soon discover you are staring at yourself – at someone with a somewhat orphaned expression. What am I doing here? There is nothing in front of me, and nobody is walking past me neither. It is not only the shop window that is lonely.

Street View reprogrammes the empty shop windows. This is important for the city and valuable for its residents. Up close, the screens disclose events from far away. This can confuse and disrupt. What a weird place; it looks so different. What strange things they do there; such behaviour wouldn’t be possible here. Or rather, we did that here too, not so long ago; we don’t do that anymore: would we do that again? Moreover, not only is there a lot happening on the screens behind the shop window, but something is happening on the street in front. Passers-by slow down, gather round and become visitors. This prompts questions. How do we do these things again, looking together, being watched, and discussing our thoughts and what we see? Look but don’t touch. An unvarnished opinion, a cautious question. Perhaps not only to housemates, family or good acquaintances but also to the strangers we need to form an audience, even if only briefly for this programme.