“The question of who can occupy public space…”

Fall break is over, and the commute to class is as joyous as ever. Here’s some of what I’ve been reading.

I see public culture as socially constructed on the micro-level. It is produced by the many social encounters that make up daily life in the streets, shops, and parks – the spaces in which we experience public life in cities. The right to be in these spaces, to use them in certain ways, to invest them with a sense of our selves and our communities – to claim them as ours and to be claimed in turn by them – make up a constantly changing public culture. People with economic and political power have the greatest opportunity to shape public culture by controlling the building of the city’s public spaces in stone and concrete. Yet public space is inherently democratic. The question of who can occupy public space, and so define an image of the city, is open-ended. Talking about the cultures of cities in purely visual terms does not do justice to the material practices of politics and economics that create a symbolic economy. But neither does a strictly political-economic approach suggest the subtle powers of visual and spatial strategies of social differentiation. The rise of the cities ’ symbolic economy is rooted in two long-term changes – the economic decline of cities compared to suburban and non-urban spaces and the expansion of abstract financial speculation – and in such short-term factors, dating from the 1970s and 1980s, as new mass immigration, the growth of cultural consumption , and the marketing of identity politics. We cannot speak about cities today without understanding how cities use culture as an economic base, how capitalizing on culture spills over into the privatization and militarization of public space, and how the power of culture is related to the aesthetics of fear.

This is a selection from the wonderful urban sociologist Sharon Zukin, in her article “Whose Culture? Whose City?” When I first read this section I thought of Orlando’s long-running struggle to restrict panhandling and group-feeding in public spaces.

Here is Billy Manes, in 2007, covering the then-newest movement on that front:

In 2000 the city came up with the blue boxes: 35 three-by-15 spots, outlined in blue, designated as downtown panhandling zones. And last year, the city made national news with a feeding ordinance designed to restrict homeless gatherings in public areas.


The new law piggybacks on the blue boxes with a proposed nighttime ban on begging, even in designated zones. Once again, the goal is to keep downtown user-friendly by diminishing “aggressive” panhandling behavior. The new law is rooted in citizen complaints. Orlando enlists an undercover “downtown transient detail” to catch offenders that has resulted in 287 arrests since December 2005 (eight of them over 22 hours of patrolling this August). The punishment for panhandlers can be severe as a $500 fine and/or 60 days in jail, but typically isn’t.

This combination of policies represents an effort to indelibly change what constitutes public culture and for whose class-based consumption it is directed towards in a space that is “inherently democratic.” When Zukin later writes that ‘real’ cities are microcosms of larger social and economic forces, Orlando is one of those places. In a state where 91 percent of non-farm private employment is in the service sector, growing income divergences increases social segregation and privileged influence on public culture. Thus, these types of ordinances defining acceptable activity in the public commons will continue to reflect social bifurcations in an hourglass economy.


One response to ““The question of who can occupy public space…”

  1. Pingback: “It’s just extra people being in a place they don’t belong.” | Punditocracy·

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