In 1992, riots ripped through South Central Los Angeles, leaving fifty-four people dead and $900 million in damage to large swaths of the city.(1) The riots, while initially sparked by not-guilty verdicts in the Rodney King police beating trial, were the result of years of economic and social marginalization and segregation experienced by the city’s lower-class black and Latino communities. Los Angeles is a city of extremes; a city polarized between the gleaming office towers, Hollywood glitz and luxury housing developments of the whites who own and manage it, and the ghettos and barrios where blacks and Latin American immigrants – the janitors and manual labourers who keep the city running – live in crowded tenements amid third-world squalor. While it might seem easy enough to simply write the riots and segregation off as phenomena unique to Los Angeles, this is not the case. While the general urban situation in the rest of the developed world may not be as extreme as in LA, the symptoms of racial and economic segregation are visible everywhere and growing worse. Public policy and private interests have launched a sustained, if not always intentional, attack on the urban poor; and central to this assault has been the changing face of urban public spaces. The privatization and militarization of public space, occurring across the developed world, is building for the future a city ever more hostile to its impoverished populations.
Public space has long been recognized for its importance as a social safety valve, a place where different classes and ethnicities can mix, ultimately creating a more peaceful (and ideally, more equal) society through their interactions in public parks, markets and streets. Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of New York’s Central Park, recognized these qualities in his creation. “No one who has closely observed the conduct of the people who visit the Park can doubt that it exercises a distinctly harmonizing and refining influence upon the most unfortunate and most lawless classes of the city.”(2) The diverse interactions that can occur in public spaces are the breeding ground for tolerance and the foundation for real democracy in our society. As Kevin Mattson has observed, “By associating together for public discussion, citizens learn the skills necessary for the health of a democratic public: listening, persuading, arguing, compromising, and seeking common ground.”(3) Likewise, the dearth of discussion and genuine interaction brought on by the decline of public space has been a factor in the comparative decline of Western democratic structures, and the explosion of urban conflict. As genuine public spaces are replaced or neglected in favour of the privately-owned, quasi-public zones of chain store-filled downtown malls and pedestrian tunnels, the accessible interactivity that public spaces provide is replaced with a new environment of buying and consuming, available only to those with the cash to participate. The privatized spaces of malls and tunnels are open only to the “desirables” - those with the appearance, purpose and financing to contribute to the “friendly shopping atmosphere” conceived by the space’s owners. All other parties are excluded, effecting the physical segregation of the city into the parallel worlds of the haves and have-nots. While this division existed before the “mallification” of the city, the privatization of public space has strengthened the divide, giving this prosperity gap a concrete, bricks-and-mortar foothold in the foundations of the urban environment.
The history of shop-lined malls and walkways for the elite dates back to the raised corridoio vasariano of Florence’s Medici merchant-rulers (from which the city’s elite could watch the hustle and bustle in the streets below, and through which they could escape from the city in times of armed revolt), and to the eighteenth-century Paris arcades, where nobles could shop, sheltered from the rain, in exclusive boutiques. However, it was not until the rise of North American consumer culture after the 1950s that these halls of policed and mediated consumption came to replace legitimate public spaces and become ubiquitous in the first-world urban environment. The completion of the first fully-enclosed shopping mall in a Minneapolis suburb in 1956 sparked a whirlwind of building, a commercial coup that would topple the regime of public square and open air market, replacing them with privately-owned and operated malls, places where free speech rights were non-existent and non-shoppers forcibly removed. The climate-controlled homogeneity of these suburban installations would soon be recreated by urban planners anxious to bring the white middle-class back to city centers they had recently abandoned. As urban renewal projects leveled the most vocal and visible pockets of non-white city life, replacing them with civic buildings, urban malls and the occasional office tower, a new medium of pedestrian travel came to replace walking the streets of the city core. Elevated walkways and underground tunnels began to be built, connecting the office towers and new shopping centers of the downtown and facilitating travel between these privately-owned structures without ever having to enter the uncertain world of the city’s streets. Minneapolis led the way once again, opening its first “skyways” in the mid-1960s. For white, middle-class office workers, already used to the newfound protective, homogenous comfort of suburban living and shopping, the climate-controlled passageways were a dream come true, a method of escaping the cold reality of the streets below. As race and class stratification worsened on the streets of Minneapolis in the 1980s as a result of recession and ongoing cuts to social programs, the Minneapolis-St.Paul Skyway became a filter, a refuge for urban professionals from the streets they had now come to fear. Security firms received contracts to post guards whose purpose was to “subtly dissuade the poor, infirm, black, Native American, and mentally ill from entering the skyway system without explicit and closely monitored business.”(4) Informally, visual codes and cues informed all potential users of the Skyway system that anyone not dressed appropriately or behaving in an acceptable manner was unwelcome. Through both direct and indirect policing, the Minneapolis Skyway had become the exclusive domain of a middle-class that had abandoned the city’s streets. Elsewhere in North America, almost every major city had made an attempt at reproducing the Minneapolis model. Some, such as Toronto and Montreal, built their pedestrian pathways underground, while other systems, such as Calgary’s “Plus Fifteen” and Charlotte’s “Overstreet Mall,” borrowed more directly from the Minneapolis model. All saw the same exacerbation of urban segregation. In Charlotte, William H. Whyte commented that the “Overstreet Mall has created a virtual apartheid in the city, with middle-class whites above, and blacks and poor people below.”(5) In Calgary, the success of its elevated system came at the expense of outdoor pedestrian spaces, such as the Stephen Avenue Mall, which was once a vibrant street but now stands almost empty, its stores closed.
The effect of these walkways and tunnels has been to create a two-tiered urban environment, with a privileged class able to live and shop within climate-controlled, comfortable suburb-like isolation, while condemning the city’s less fortunate to the streets outside. This privately owned infrastructure imposes what can only be described as a middle-class tyranny on the downtown. Its spaces are policed by private security guards instructed to exclude “undesirables” such as the poor, coloured and homeless, and “undesirable” activity such as protests and “loitering”(6) (the latter having come to represent any activity that doesn’t involve shopping). The chain stores within its mall-like passages have, unsurprisingly, pulled business away from the old, store-lined streets of the downtown core, leading to increased vacancies, depressed property values, and an ever-spiraling flight to both the suburbs and the suburb-like pedestrian systems of the revamped downtown. As conditions in the city continue to worsen as a result of cuts to social spending, too many people have lost faith in the idea of a socially diverse, multiracial, tolerant public realm. Fleeing into quasi-public spaces, from which the targets of their often self-fulfilling fears can be excluded, the middle-class has agreed to structures of segregation, structures with little possibility of dialogue between the classes. And when these structures alone are insufficient or impractical in defending the narrow interests of the consumer tyranny that now rules the cities of the developed world, politicians and businesses turn increasingly to militaristic defenses.
Nowhere is the militarized city more apparent than in Los Angeles, where defending the wealthy is a multibillion dollar industry, giving birth to an arsenal of security systems and an ongoing obsession with enforcing social boundaries through the use of force and militarized architecture. Wealthy neighbourhoods on the west side of the city have been built as, or converted into, high-tech fortresses, their upscale streets and homes surrounded by security fencing and electronic gates, and patrolled by private security contractors. There are nearly a hundred thousand security guards in the Los Angeles area, most of whom are visible minorities, earning little more than minimum wage(7) as they guard the wealthy against people like themselves. It is impossible to enter these fortress residential developments without the invitation of a resident. Older affluent neighbourhoods of the city, following the example of the new fortress developments on the periphery, are winning the right to withdraw their streets from public use and erect security gates of their own. Along with segregating another pocket of middle-class residents from the burgeoning immigrant population that surrounds them, this action alone has resulted in a 20% rise in local property values in neighbourhoods such as Whitley Hills.(8)
The city’s new downtown core, built with $2 billion in public subsidies after financial institutions came close to abandoning the city during the 1960s, is likewise protected from the Latino communities that surround it by a freeway and the regraded slopes of Bunker Hill. Pedestrian links to the surrounding neighbourhoods, including the old downtown, have been systematically removed, making it almost impossible to reach the downtown on foot. These physical barriers have not been sufficient to prevent an influx of street people into the area as Los Angeles’ homeless population skyrocketed, fed by an explosion in undocumented immigration from Central America and the deep cuts to social programs that occurred in the 1980s. Reacting to the perceived menace, business owners, city planners and the police have implemented a whole host of measures to make life as uncomfortable as possible for the residents of the street. “Bumproof” benches, barrel-shaped and impossible to sleep on, have been installed. Park authorities have installed overhead sprinklers to drench would-be sleepers at random intervals during the night, and area merchants have followed suit. Garbage bins are now cradled by three-quarter-inch steel rod cages armed with outturned spikes. Policing has been targeted at confining the city’s homeless population to Skid Row, a ten square block poorhouse, effecting what is referred to by city planners as “containment.” Attempts to create safe havens and encampments for the city’s homeless have been repeatedly broken up by the LAPD, at the request of downtown merchants and developers. Performing periodic sweeps, the police tear down shelters, confiscate possessions, and arrest any who resist. The head of the city’s planning department explained, “It is not against the law to sleep on the street per se, only to erect any sort of protective shelter.”(9) The police have also taken an active hand in the ongoing privatization of Los Angeles’ few remaining public spaces, convincing the city to remove the few public toilets in Skid Row (the city already had the fewest public toilets of any North American city). There will be no public restrooms in the new LA subway system either, again on the advice of the police, who identify them as “crime scenes.”(10) The alternative to public washroom facilities is, as Los Angeles’ redevelopment agency advises, the quasi-public ones found in restaurants and office towers. These can be happily and selectively made available to tourists and office workers, while access can be systematically denied to the urban poor. Finally, in a public health outrage, as no outside water sources are available for drinking and washing in Skid Row, the homeless are often forced to bathe in and even drink from the sewer effluent that flows down the Los Angeles River on the edge of the downtown.
The city’s hundreds of thousands of working poor, meanwhile, face similar levels of harassment and segregation. The LAPD maintains community-level blockades of what it calls “Narcotics Enforcement Areas,” restricting entry to area residents “on legitimate business only” and subjecting them to random searches. Police have also targeted Latin American street vendors inside and outside these zones. “Mayan women selling such local staples as tropical fruit, baby clothes, and roach spray have been rounded up in the same sweeps as alleged ‘narcoterrorists.’ ”(11) Police offer the convenient suggestion that these street vendors are “look-outs for drug dealers.”(12) While these tactics have generally met with the favour of older residents and local politicians, the police actions reinforce existing class and racial segregation, and discourage legitimate public activities that would normally thrive in public spaces and improve the living conditions of those involved.
In recent years, residents of Toronto have seen the awakening of the forces of militarization in their own city. With the introduction of targeted policing and the passage of the Ontario Safe Streets Act, police and lawmakers have taken a significant step towards the Los Angeles model of urban segregation. The Safe Streets Act bans “aggressive” panhandling such as squeegeeing, which had arisen as a significant method for street youth to make enough money to survive and eventually move upwards. One young street resident accurately described the Act as designed “to protect people who have a nice family and a comfortable home. It's so they don't have to feel that something might not be right with the world. That some people might not have what they have.”(13) Meanwhile, targeted policing, already a long-standing policy in cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Berlin, has directed extra police units into “hot spots,” areas which have been subject to complaints regarding community and tourist safety. The police then target visible groups, such as the homeless or large congregations of youth, in an effort to move them out of the area. These two policies have the effect of criminalizing whole sectors of the population, from street people and working poor to youths who happen to be on the street, and especially those of visible minorities. Targeted policing, rather than actually addressing the social needs and safety concerns of those it targets, only pushes these people out of one neighbourhood and into another. While popular with residents and business owners, the practice reinforces the psychological segregation between these privileged classes and those who are targeted.
Segregation, bred by the militarization and privatization of public space, is becoming ever more institutionalized and ubiquitous in the cities of developed world. From Toronto to Los Angeles, Berlin to Tokyo, two worlds now exist, forcibly separated by guards, architecture and the attitudes of city planners, business leaders and privileged residents, who choose to respond to their own immediate concerns of comfort and convenience rather than addressing the long-term societal conflicts that create them. Stepping into the PATH pedestrian tunnels of Toronto, or the Skyway system in Minneapolis, one enters a different world, a climate-controlled zone lit by the fluorescent glow of a never-ending sequence of identical chain stores, a world populated by homogenous middle-class office workers who can now traverse the distance between their workplace, favoured shopping center, and transit stop without ever having to step into the perceived-warzone of the streets. With entrances guarded by police, hired security contractors, and closed-circuit cameras, the owners of these private pedestrian systems are able to actively screen their users, allowing entry only to those who fit the needs of the spaces – that is, those who shop or work within them. As the systems draw middle-class shoppers and pocketbooks away from traditional zones of street-side commerce, they drive the competition in the streets out of business, worsening the conditions outside and speeding the middle-class retreat within.
As the public policies and private tactics of the cities of the developed world grow ever more exclusive and militant, they increasingly come to resemble Los Angeles, a city where the militarization and privatization of public spaces has grown out of control. A nightmare city derived from years of public policy decisions that favoured the security of wealthy land owners and tourists over attempts to resolve the fundamental social divides that have plagued LA, the city is ruled by the twin-tyrannies of profit-driven capital and middle-class fear. As the rest of the developed world comes under the sway of the same forces that have shaped Los Angeles so precipitously, the future of the world’s cities has come increasingly to resemble that envisioned by Le Corbusier in his Radiant City, a city of total segregation, where society’s elite were housed in glass and steel skyscrapers that towered above the ground-level tenements that housed the masses. Command posts for their regions, these geometrically arrayed towers were central to Le Corbusier’s plans to completely rebuild Paris after the Second World War.(14) While his plans were never put into practice, his vision has been reborn in the urban trends of the late twentieth-century, as the privileged classes increasingly conduct their daily lives in the gleaming towers and tunnels of the downtown, turning their backs on the worsening situation in the streets and fleeing to well-defended fortress communities in the suburbs after the sun goes down.
As the 1992 Los Angeles riots demonstrated, peace cannot be maintained in such segregation. However, the fallout from those five days of violence has had the effect of strengthening the forces working towards the complete segregation of the city. But such peaceful, total separation can never exist, were it even desirable. The physical realities of the dense urban realm mean that there will always be cracks, chinks in the armor of militarized security and privatized space. And as these measures become increasingly universal in the polarized city of the twenty-first century, they can only have the effect of further alienating and inciting to violence the groups that they are meant to control. Rather than continuing to take refuge behind ever deepening layers of security, the city’s privileged classes need to come out of hiding. Renewed efforts need to be undertaken to effectively include marginalized classes and communities into the economic, social and political life of the city. Through a renewed emphasis on universal housing, access to services and employment, the precipitous decline experienced by first-world cities in the second half of the twentieth century can be reversed. By successfully resisting the forces of privatization and militarization, an accessible, vibrant, and public urban environment, free of segregation and strife, may be built for the benefit of today’s generations, and those of tomorrow.
(1) Figures are quoted from Lou Cannon, Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD. (New York: Times Books, 1997), 347.
(2) Quoted in John F. Kasson, Amusing the Million. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), 15.
(3) Kevin Mattson. The Struggle For Urban Participatory Democracy In The Progressive Era. (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998), 4.
(4) Trevor Boddy, “Underground and Overhead: Building the Analogous City”, published in Michael Sorkin (ed.) Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1992), 138.
(5) William H. Whyte, City: Rediscovering the Center. (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 199.
(6) In one informal survey performed in Toronto, it was found that 64% of respondents belonging to marginalized sectors of the population had been told by police or security guards to leave a mall or other quasi-public space.
(7) Mike Davis, “Fortress Los Angeles: The Militarization of Urban Space”, published in Variations on a Theme Park, 174.
(8) Ibid, 173.
(9) Quoted in Ibid, 164.
(10) Greg Smithsimon. The Technologies of Public Space and Alternatives to a Privatized New York. (Online, 1999)
(11) Davis, 165.
(13) Quoted in Dorianna Chessa, “The Safe Streets Act: Making the Streets Safe For Whom?” Pic Press, (June 2000).
(14) R. Fishman, Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century: Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier. (New York: Basic Books, 1977), 240.