A city’s hinges are its most dynamic times. Those are the in-between hours – the mornings and evenings, often overlooked or designated uninteresting when compared with the bulk of day and night. They are when the city swings from one mode to another. They are when it reveals itself.
Take a morning in Cardiff – after the stuff of night, prior to the business of day.
This is when the city forms itself; when it creates its day.
Stripped of cars, streets appear bare but systems are whirring.
An early worker confronts a screen in a grim office block. A woman wanders into the adjacent room, makes a hot drink and wafts out again. On the street below, someone strides purposefully.
Yesterday’s rubbish bags are stacked high around lamp posts in the malls. Surely they’ll be removed before the shoppers arrive.
Delivery trucks line the streets, orifices open.
I trace the milk vendor by the rattling of his cart.
A clutter of tables and chairs is quickly given its daytime persona.
A paper recycling trolley sits outside the market doors. The man who pushes it has disappeared inside. Perhaps he’s collecting paper. Perhaps he’s collecting gossip and a morning coffee.
Buildings are prepared for the day. Footpaths and tiled entrances are spruced.
Doors are opened but disallow entry. It is the hour of the select few.
A pinstriped chap opens multiple locks on a bank door while his co-worker watches. I refrain from photographing this security-sensitive moment. When I return later, one of the men is crouched inside the glass door, undoing the floor locks for more staff – but not yet the public.
Behind closed doors and in full view, organisation continues.
Loiterers are more obvious at this hour when there are fewer people. They stand or crouch in recesses, smoking, eating. Some more intentional people out on the footpath glance up and down the street, hands jiggling in their pockets. Pre-work smokers chat in pods of two or three.
A meat wholesaler talks to me of his memories of market towns before supermarkets undercut the individual retailer. He understands people’s desire for the one-stop-shop but misses the diversity and the sense of community.
And that’s the key: engagement. Before the rush begins, with its throngs of averted eyes, there is engagement. The manager of an automated supermarket has time to answer my questions. The driver of a passing delivery van reaches his arm out the window to grasp the bloodied hand of the meat man. The butcher comes jovially out from his shop and settles in for a chat. Near the church, a man unloading beer from a huge truck sings loudly, injecting a little joie de vivre into the lives of passers-by.
In a park close by, two men comment on life and rest their beers on the hut bench. Perhaps they are the one constant as the city swings on its hinges through the day.
Around them, the early morning city gradually merges with the later, less nuanced version of itself.
And we leave it to do so.