Public Space in the City

The readings this week offer an intensive look at the role of public space within the city and the rights of the public (especially the lower echelons of society) to occupy that space.

In The “Creative Class” and the Gentrifying City, Ocean Howell from the University of California, Berkley, argues that “the Love Park debates illustrate the extent to which “bohemian” or “countercultural” lifestyles are becoming institutionalized as instruments of urban development.” In this debate, skateboarders play the central role.

The City Beautiful movement reached Philadelphia in 1906 and cut a diagonal swath across the grid structure of the city. This parkway ended at a plaza, Love Park or JFK Plaza, next to the town hall. For the beginning of its history, this space was well used and pleasant for all. However, through Reganomics, the life of the plaza was overtaken by the outside portions of society now underserved by the state. This condition lasted until all that was left in Love Park were “Brown-baggers, Homeless-and Rats.” However as part of the “Rats” came skateboarders or as Howell would call them “shock troops of gentrification.” Howell argues that the skateboarders slowly bring higher culture into modern public spaces that are otherwise forgotten and un-activated. Skateboarding began as working-class kids in backwards hats but in the 90s turned into a $1.5 billion industry. Some of the public, particularly the mayor, criticized the skateboarders, in much the same way as they did the homeless, for creating an unwanted environment of deteriorating facilities.

This opposition did not change when the boarders raised $1 million for upkeep of the plaza from a private sponsor. This offer brought up larger issues of sponsorship and the role of corporations in public space, yet the real opposition seemed to center around the direction in which the mayor wanted Love Park to develop. He imagined the traditional method of growth, bring in businesses (just not skateboarding companies), opera halls and stadiums and the development (gentrification) will follow. Yet others like Professor Richard Florida stressed that in the modern city, the productive elements had changed. Places need to be open and free to attract the culturally creative and THEN the economic drivers would follow. Skateboarders are the first step, the shock troop, for the advancement of the “creatives.” This is why Florida and others stress to keep Love Park open to all. Ultimately though the author points out, the skateboarders and even the “lower creative” are just cogs in the gentrification machine and will soon be moved out of the successful space they helped create.

From Philadelphia we move to an issue in Howell’s city of Berkley. In The Right to the City, Don Mitchell sets the stage in 1989 with the Chancelor of the University of California Berkely trying to push forward a proposal to build housing on the historically significant People’s Park. This situation again brought up the issue of people’s rights (specifically homeless peoples rights) to occupy public or open space. This historically free and un-mediated park was the site of many demonstrations and riots in Berkley’s past. However also in the era of Regan, more friction began to occur between the homeless and less politically-minded UCB students. The university dropped its plans for student housing on the lot but demanded a change from the peoples’ free use policies. They partnered with the city to simply add additional facilities and structure which was again met with rioting. Mitchell continues the paper discussing peoples’ rights to the city specifically beginning with the example of the agora in Greece. In this place of civic interaction, free access was not given to all. For example in the “public space” only the official public were allowed, of which slaves, woman and foreigners were not included. This model of exclusion was even continued into the beginnings of the United States. Yet modern times, Mitchell asks if the homeless are considered legitimate citizens and believes that the People’s Park represents the legitimacy of homeless people within the society. Furthermore Mitchell questions the power of physical public space in digital, MTV, times. He slowly overturns this argument as he asserts that the internet has little public visibility. Could the Seattle WTO protests have been so visible if they were only digital? Is there any place for the homeless in the digital, can they be seen in the same way? Can a revolution ever be totally and completely digital?

Through these articles important questions about society and government’s view of public space is brought to the forefront for discussion. Who has control of the city’s open spaces? Is it free for all, or does the majority have the right to displace an unruly minority? And to what degree is this whole discussion ultimately about the role of gentrification and economics in the shaping of the structure and history of the city?

Crown St
New Haven, CT 06510