In search of identity
It’s 2 AM. A weird noise is coming from the kitchen. I wake up and go and check. 4 AM. It is too hot in my room. Grasping for some fresh air, I open the window. Tweet tweet tweet. Tweet tweet tweet. Should I check my Twitter account? No, the accumulation of news about COVID 19 is kidnapping my feed. Tweet tweet tweet. Birds! Real birds in the city centre of Leeds, now taking over the city of around a million of us, urban dwellers. Breathing the utterly fresh air from my window, I look at the street. An overturned trash can is saying hi to me for a third consecutive day. Why does no one bother to leave their flat and pick it up? Trash can require the public, these days it has none. A metro train in the distance is crying – apart from essential workers (thank you NHS workers!), it has an even smaller public than the trash can outside my flat.
It’s 5 AM and after a long struggle, I manage to fall asleep. The odd noise of the central heating wakes me up after a while, as I pay extra attention to sounds around me – staying alone in my 5-bedroom flat is rather scary. I put my worn-out trainers on and go for a run. The University of Leeds, my home for almost a second year now, looks rather empty – apart from some occasional internationals – the campus has no public.
In the field of urban geography, we tend not to define what a city is. What is Leeds? Is it a location on the map? Where does it end? Does it end where the suburbs start or when you reach Yorkshire Dales – but wait, also the landscape of the latter is occupied with daily visitors from Leeds, why is it, too, not Leeds then? Or maybe Leeds are the shouts of loud students from the Hyde Park area, wild sex in a student flat, a daily prayer at one of the many mosques in the city, or a drag show at the famous nightclub the Viaduct? Or maybe the morning rush hour at the Kirkgate market where you can get anything, from Caribbean Mofongo to fresh fish from the east coast. Or is Leeds the businessmen pretending to work in London, or is it the edgy artists trying to copy Manchester’s brutality but not really grasping it? Or is it the old souls that pretend to look for the historical spirit of York? Leeds is postmodern. It is in search of its identity. And that is why I love it. It tries to be everything – London, Manchester and York at the same time, but is authentic in its own, unknown way. Whilst visiting me, a friend once said: “You know, it doesn’t hit you immediately, like Liverpool. But you start deeply appreciating Leeds after a while.” Exactly, the diverse public makes living in Leeds really “edgy”.
But this public must meet. It needs public space, all the buses, busy streets, the University, a club, a mosque! Without public space the public does not exist – it is irrelevant. Now, during the lockdown, I sit by my window, wondering how people meet to fuck. How people pray. Where do they get weed from? How can they draw graffiti? It feels as though Leeds has been robbed. Out of its own public. Does Leeds even exist now? Or is it only individual houses, individuals, confined to their online space and bedrooms? I return from the jog and I really need to pee. I flush the toilet – how many people flushed the toilet at the same time in Leeds? Must be a lot. I think – is the sewerage system the only public space that is still used by all of us? I am hungry and I use Uber Eats. The driver delivers my salad and leaves it in front of my door – social distancing. My best friend sends me a selfie from her flat in Leeds. My boyfriend calls me and we talk about our traditional meal at Spoons whenever he visits me. It is 8 PM and people go outside and clap for the NHS workers.
Leeds still has a public. It still exists, I imagine. Maybe, when all of this is over, I will go out and draw my own graffiti, saying “Thank you, Leeds!”.
I am now going to bed, knowing I won’t sleep. Now, when streets are empty, you see the brutality of big cities, also you, Leeds. How many homeless people? At the beginning of this letter, I noted that the overturned trash can outside my house had no public anymore. I regret saying that. It was probably overturned because of the young mother desperately searching for some food or other essentials that students left when fleeing the city. I am hungry and I ran out of bread – it is almost midnight, and I go to the local 24-h Coop. Probably my peer will approach me and ask me for some money – I wonder… Even if he coughs, he will never get tested for COVID 19. Leeds, and England in general, forgot about him years ago, why would they care about him now? The Anglo-Saxon hyper-capitalism, the British reality, is failing Leeds. Oh, if only it was a city-state, I would gladly be its citizen. For now, I am just a resident in Leeds, an EU student in post-Brexit Britain. Yes, Brexit is still a thing.
Stay safe and healthy. Lots of love from the postmodern Leeds.
Economics and Geography student at the University of Leeds, Laidlaw research scholar, Young researcher at the Queer Memorials project, young diplomat. Interested in urban, queer and art geography, loves poetry and performance. Youth leader at CET Platform Society.