Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Projects of Reassurance

As I mentioned last week, I've been reading Timothy Gibson's Securing the Spectacular City: The Politics of Revitalization and Homelessness in Downtown Seattle, and this relatively obscure four-year old urban planning textbook has pretty much rocked my world.

Over the past thirty years, says Gibson, new technologies have forced cities everywhere to reinvent themselves in order to remain viable within the new globalized economy. Seattle, with its thriving centers of upscale consumption, diverse cultural offerings, stunning natural assets, and thriving downtown core, has fared better than most.

This, however, has come at a cost. As elites have managed to sell corporate and developer interests as being somehow identical to the needs of "Seattle," the city has become increasingly geared to the upper-income consumers and workers that this development was designed to attract. Thus, we have a downtown condo boom where at least 4,500 new units of downtown housing are slated to become available over the next three years at an average price of $750,000, and a housing affordability crisis where the eighty percent of us with more normal incomes are, more and more, left to go elsewhere.

This rehabilitation of our urban landscape is as much psychological as it is physical.

In pop culture terms, our city has transitioned from the gritty scenes of Cinderella Liberty, where James Caan haunts Seattle's working class bars and rooming houses and tragically falls in love with a good hearted prostitute, to the cloying Sleepless in Seattle, where Tom Hanks, an architect, meets Meg Ryan, a journalist, and they presumably go on to spawn above average children and live happily ever after in a land where everyone in sight is a middle-class professional or better.

Within the popular imagination, many still visualize our urban centers as something akin to Dirty Harry meets Blade Runner. A few years ago, my wife and I went to a concert downtown with her parents, who usually divide their time between Riverside, CA, and Issaquah, WA. The show let out, and they insisted, as a matter of safety, upon giving us a ride from Benaroya Hall to the Nordstrom parking garage six blocks away.

They are more normal, I think, than we are.

For cities to succeed and attract the consumers that business desires, says Gibson, people need to be convinced that the waters are safe. This depends upon something he calls "projects of reassurance." These are the various tools that have been developed in cities across the country to suppress the inconvenient urban poor.

As our cities have become centers of upscale consumptions, downtown interests have worked to gain the same sort of control over the built environment that a suburban mall might enjoy. This typically looks like heightened policing, new laws aimed at the visible poor, the privatization of public space, and the expansion of private security.

And we are easily convinced that this is both normal and in our best interests.

Much of the time, it seems that those of us who are active on issues of homelessness and poverty are working with concepts that are fifteen to twenty years out of date. This means that we're forever playing catch-up, as the reality of our times continues to operate several steps beyond our reach. We need to smarten up and figure out what time it is.

1 comment:

Steven said...

Tim, I recently started reading your blog, and as I have no blog of my own, and this post seemed relevant to an issue I've been thinking on, I post it here as a somewhat long-winded comment. Apologies for the word count, but it was nice to get it off my chest!

A small example of Seattle's strategy to minimize public seating is the recent refurbishment of Occidental Park. When I heard the old paving stones were to be replaced to provide improved accessibility, I thought, "That seems reasonable--those stones are uneven." I noted also that bocce ball courts would be installed and, wide-eyed soul that I am, I thought, "I am glad the bocce players of Seattle have been heard!"

When the refurbishment happened, much of the public seating in the park was permanently removed. Now the seating is metal chairs, which can be removed at the whim of an unknown authority. The benches across the way (which weren't even part of the refurbishment) were removed (this is where Food Not Bombs used to do their free Thursday dinner). The only permanent public seating left in the park is around the bocce ball courts--I imagine the idea was to provide seating for spectators: "You can sit in this park if you have a legitimate, sporting interest in competitive endeavor..."

I have never seen bocce played on these courts. I don't know who asked for them. Now the people who used to sit on the park's benches use the spectator seating. I wonder how long until that, too, is removed. Seattle: a place where we do not sit; a place where we walk about, on important errands, perpetually!