Every week in the UK brings news of another international bank, investment firm or City institution announcing that it will never require staff to come into work ever again (Schroders) or, if they do, will force them to go into quarantine for two weeks if they dare to travel with ordinary people on public transport (the Carlyle Group). The financial world is doing a very good job of implying that the pandemic is nothing to do with them and that, if you don’t mind, they’ll wait this one out. Meanwhile there are other businesses making headlines too – the ones that are laying off staff as retail crumbles and restaurant groups stutter.
These two stories are not unconnected. The chief execs running for the hills (or at least second homes in the Cotswolds) are turning their backs on myriad businesses, small and large, that in the past have taken care of their glass-tower employees via their shoe-repair shops, florists, cafés, car washes, hairdressers, cocktail bars and more.
In good times companies talk a lot about corporate social responsibility and how they support the community. But now? When times get tricky then it feels as though many of them are all too willing to wave bye-bye to all that. What’s most galling is that the deserters come across as being rather smug about their decisions and oddly proud of shifts that will leave so many small businesses to fend for themselves, or more likely fail. Clearly, social responsibility has its limits.
I’d recommend that, after their country walk, the Cotswolds bankers watch the Apple TV series Home. In particular the episode about the artist and activist Theaster Gates, whose home is the South Side of Chicago. We interviewed Gates for Monocle some years ago for a story on urban heroes. Since then he hasn’t paused and his legion of achievements is inspirational.
Gates grew up in this neighbourhood but the luck of having a good family, talent and an education that delivered meant that he could have left for a leafy outpost long ago. However, he had a commitment to place and wanted the South Side to have the things that you’d find in white neighbourhoods. But the South Side was in bad way. There was a so-called “white flight” postwar and as these residents left the inner city so did the resources and the jobs. The South Side fell into decay when people became nervous of the big, bad city.
Today, however, where other people see a long-derelict property, Gates sees a home, a library, a coffee shop, a meeting space, artists’ studios, even a sawmill. One of the buildings that he’s taken over and given new life? A bank. When things got difficult the executives closed down this important part of the community and, a few years ago, it was earmarked for demolition. Then Gates stepped in. Today it’s the Stony Island Arts Bank, which includes one of the most important archives of black culture.
And all this has happened because of one person’s unwillingness to run away from adversity. Gates has used his ability to bring people into buildings and make them feel safe and wanted. And though the Square Mile is not Chicago’s South Side, it needs more people who have the grit of a Gates. People who know that crowing about never having to go to work again has brutal consequences. People who understand that we only make communities when we sit together. And that Chicago, London, Paris et al deserve better than this.