Monday, October 8, 2007

The City Spectacular

Sometimes, the extent to which I'm capable of missing the obvious blows my mind. This week, I've been working my way through Securing the Spectacular City, an analysis of the political economy of Seattle development that is modeled a bit on what Mike Davis did with Los Angeles in his City of Quartz. It had actually never occurred to me that the trend toward cities as upscale islands of wealth might be related to globalization, but now that Timothy Gibson points it out, I'm feeling like someone who's been napping for the last decade of so.

Gibson describes how changes in technology, most notably the shipping container and the internet, put an end to the Fordist idea that the purchasing power of the worker was linked to the overall success of the economy. Demand-side economics were replaced by supply-side economics, or the idea that tax breaks, R&D subsidies, and other incentives to corporations would spur production, and that benefits would trickle down in the form of jobs and lower prices. The technology allowed corporations to take production anywhere they like, and globalization became the way of the world. As locales compete to create the best "business environment" for manufacturing and services to locate, unions, the power to tax, and the ability to regulate all lose out as regions engage in a "race to the bottom" to attract footloose capital.

While none of this is news (Reich, for example, describes the same processes in his new book, and the outlines were becoming clear twenty years ago), I'd never really considered what this meant for American cities. While some cities, like Cleveland or Newark, never recovered from deindustrialization, others have found their place as glittering command and control centers for the new globalized capitalism. While manufacturing processes have decentralized, the complex coordination of this needs to occur somewhere. Moreover, most large corporations subcontract major pieces of their work, like accounting, legal, and marketing, out to other businesses to maximize their flexibility and keep costs down. Urban centers who are able to offer a business core where all of these services are localized will win the competition to woo global capital.

The most successful cities then are those who have managed to position themselves at the crossroads of global markets and present themselves as attractive, dynamic, places for creative, educated, upper-income professionals to make their homes. Seattle has succeeded fabulously. Gibson describes in some detail the history of recent Seattle development and how building cultural meccas such as Benaroya Hall rolled over other priorities, such as building a hygiene center for homeless people at the Glen Hotel property.

The question this raises is this: is our history of making Seattle an attractive haven for global capital at the expense of homeless and low-income people the way it has to be? It certainly makes sense of our pre-occupation with eliminating visible homelessness. As an urban condo boom is poised to flood the downtown with upper-income professionals, the wheels are grinding to eliminate any elements who might make the newcomers feel unsafe.

Police, for example, seem to have greatly escalated their harassment of homeless campers who exceed the capacity of Seattle's shelter system. The message that they are unwelcome in this city, while not explicit, is nonetheless being made clear. Meanwhile, lower-income people are being pushed out by rising rents all the time.

Are compassion and economic diversity necessary casualties to Seattle's success as a "world class" city? Or is there another way? Is there an alternative to pushing homeless and low income people out of the city and off the radar?

1 comment:

Dr. Wes Browning said...

If the homeless are housed in buildings like the subsidized building I live in, most of them will become as invisible as the ruling class wants them to be. Most of the people in my building prefer to stay within it whenever possible.

Homeless people don't want to be around greedy pigs, any more than greedy pigs want to be around homeless people. Give the homeless a place to retreat, and they'll go there.

Maybe that's what we have to do to sell housing to the filthy rich bastards that run this city. Tell them the homeless are ready to surrender. They just need buildings to hide themselves in.