Organisms of Urban Decay: Crippled Communion in City Arcade
Using a wheelchair in the city is complicated. Potholes and uneven pavements are dangerous to everyone, but they are particularly risky for people who, like me, have wheels. The greater the age of an urban development, the less likely you are to find dropped kerbs where you need them, and the more likely it is that you’ll come across doorways too thin for a wheelchair, OR stairs in the absence of sorely needed ramps and lifts. City Arcade, where the wonderful Shop Front Theatre has been based for the past thirteen years, is no exception. Built in the early sixties, and chronically neglected for many years since, City Arcade’s crumbling tile floors, twisting metal staircases, and awkward shop doors are poorly suited to my needs as a wheelchair user. And yet: I love it. I love it so much. After years of threats that have never quite materialised, it’s set to be demolished in the near future, and the idea of replacing it with something shiny and new makes me feel a bit sick.
My relationship with City Arcade is deeply personal. As a teenager, I spent my Friday Nights at Young’s Hobbies (sadly now defunct), a card and board game store where I played Magic: The Gathering with a group of adults who had taken kindly to me, and offered me the space I needed to learn and grow as a person. In 2016, my husband and I first announced our engagement to a group of good friends taking a smoke break on City Arcade’s cold metal benches. In 2019, my first creative work for theatre was hosted at The Shop Front; an opportunity that led to so many others that when I graduated university later that year, my career as a freelance artist was ready and waiting for me. Today, City Arcade is where I feel safest in the city; as my own body crumbles, I am comforted by its decay.
But as much as I love City Arcade, I’m acutely aware of the fact that if I had been as disabled in 2016 as I am now, I couldn’t have played at Young’s, because I would have been unable to climb the stairs. In many ways, the space encapsulates a troubling dichotomy inherent to my experience of urban life. The parts of the city I love the most are simply not built for people like me. I’ve been wanting to make art about this issue for quite some time, but I could never find the right words. This year, though, I was afforded the perfect opportunity to figure them out; a week to spend at my own devices in the Shop Front, shortly before the space will be closing its warm and welcoming doors for good. The residency that Theatre Absolute gave me was open ended, and very low pressure, with no expectation of output. These kinds of opportunities are extremely valuable for exploring new ideas, particularly when the work you’re making is experimental in nature. I ended up spending most of my time exploring the city, and taking photographs of what moved me. This is research that I would not have been able to undertake without access to the Shop Front as a base to rest and manage my chronic illness when I needed to.
The work I’ve produced is quite different from what I expected to make (apologies to Julia and Chris!); I was anticipating that I’d mostly be writing, but the images I made through my research were able to communicate the complex ideas I have been working with much more effectively than my words. Perhaps the writing will come later; I will have to wait and see.
(Warning that some of these images are art nudes (sorry again))
Textures of the city:
I spent the first two days of my residency exploring Coventry in my wheelchair, going for long walks, and taking myself to places that aren’t entirely safe for wheelchair users. I took pictures of the interesting textures I found, close ups of dirty and crumbling surfaces, and small decaying things. There’s this beautiful line from poet photographer James Kearns (@unkearnsed); “The only thing stronger than concrete is anything that can change.” I heard him perform in 2018, and I’ve been carrying that line with me ever since. Something I love about urban decay is the way that the organic creeps back into inorganic spaces. It’s inescapable. Even concrete will take on shifting and soft shapes eventually. I wanted to document that process, because I think it’s so beautiful.
City and Body:
A lot of people really don’t like Coventry’s brutalist architecture, but after the past three years of pandemic, I’ve grown to love it completely. It’s the architecture of crisis. I think it’s difficult to understand why these harsh grey buildings are so meaningful if you haven’t lived through something really awful. I think the great thing about brutalism is that it meets you where you’re at. It doesn’t ask you to be happy. It embraces the ugly and the strange. With buildings like that, there’s nobody too ugly to come inside.
I think that meaning is drawn into sharper focus by decay. I really see myself in these spaces. Throughout my life I’ve been told in no uncertain terms that my body makes me unlovable. There are so many ways that my body is “wrong.” It’s fat, and trans, and crippled.
It’s also really fucking beautiful.
I love these incredible broken parts of our city because, like my body, they are flawed and they are beautiful. These images help me to capture my communion with the city; the emotional and sprirtual meaning that I find in urban decay.
Places I cannot go:
In contrast, these pictures explore the immense vulnerability and risk inherent in my choice to navigate Coventry’s inaccessible landscapes. Stairs aren’t the only physical barrier I face, but they are the most obvious.
I took these pictures on my own, carrying my wheelchair to places I cannot go. It was difficult and painful, and had substantial implications for the management of my condition. But that’s kind of the point. I see these images as a reflection of the impossible expectations that are placed upon disabled people every day. The systems we’re expected to navigate to access benefits, healthcare, and accommodations that are our legal right, are difficult by design. The things we’re asked to do to access PIP, for example, they might as well be asking us to drive a wheelchair up a flight of stairs. That’s how difficult it is. I mean for these pictures to draw attention to the immense barriers we face in accessing public life. It’s not just about the stairs, it’s everything they represent.
This image, I think, captures the conflict of my relationship with City Arcade. I’m comfortable here, I’m able to relax. But I have to leave a part of myself behind.
The very place I’m sitting is the problem; the things that exclude me and the things that help me feel at home, they’re one and the same. You can’t separate them. Sometimes you just have to sit with the mess.
by Katie Walters, October 2022