The effort to “hide certain kinds of people” in public spaces


Grand Central Terminal, exterior, 42nd St. at Park Ave. N. side, New York, NY (circa 1913)

In a 1998 article for the journal City & Society, CUNY professor Cindi Katz published a commentary on “Excavating the Hidden City of Social Reproduction” on the privatization and revitalization of New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. She briefly describes the prevailing thinking on social reproduction — the process(es) of perpetuating social structure — and how the privatization of public spaces has been an exercise in power for hiding some processes that “neoliberal” interests would prefer to keep out of the public realm.

Her focus is on the revivification endeavors pursued by the Grand Central Partnership, the public-private organization that manages the Grand Central Business Improvement District. Here are some selections from her description (various emphasis mine):

The Grand Central Partnership coalesced to deter further corporate flight from Manhattan, and to revitalize midtown in ways that would draw new forms of investment and bring middle- and upper-class visitors — local and not — back to New York. The strategy worked.

The Grand Central Partnership makes visible certain relations of wealth and power while explicitly hiding their undergirding and fallout. The stunning renovation of Grand Central Station as much as anything else in New York marks a landscape of power that both hides and hounds away the uneven relations and material practices of social reproduction that enable and produce the contemporary urban landscape of “globalized capitalism. The simultaneous revealing (of spatial forms) and hiding (of social relations) that has been their stock in trade has allowed the Partnership and its allies to revel in the success of a city recaptured for the wealthy with few noticeable qualms or objections.

A large portion of this motivated-push to “clean up” the area surrounding the terminal was the displacement of the homeless.

Katz continues:

What I found most instructive (and distasteful) when I first heard the Partnership’s mission in the late 1980s at a lecture by Daniel Biederman, President of the Grand Central Partnership, was that homeless people were problematic in this scenario insofar as they were objects — litter in the executive’s path — and not as subjects, that is, people who might have been made jobless as a result of the shift in the city’s employment structure from manufacturing to the finance, insurance, and real estate industries during the previous two decades. Or that they might have been displaced from their homes by any one of a number of events during the same periods including landlord abandonment, the drying up of federal support for public or low-income housing under Nixon, and later, steep increasing in housing costs in many parts of the city. Or that they might have suffered the effects of deinstitutionalization in the 1970s which proceeded without the development of appropriate neighborhood or household support services.

Homelessness was a problem in midtown because homeless people were depressing at best and menacing pests at worst.

She then goes on to recount a particularly reprehensible practice. One of the Partnership initiatives involved hiring some of the homeless at below-minimum wage to do “cleaning, maintenance, security, office, and ‘outreach’ work” during the renovation process. That last part was an effort to “convince” (re; harass, or in some instances physically assault) other, non-cooperative, homeless citizens to utilize the Partnership’s shelter network or to vacate the area. Later the organization was sued by an advocacy group and ordered back pay and overtime for some forty workers.

Yet there were other aspects to their work that revealed the desire to create a sanitized space in the image of a middle to upper-status homogenized ideal. Katz describes the construction of a “grand staircase” as an appeal to a historical authenticity that never existed:

Yet all the pains taken to render visible this formal feature — to make a bold statement concerning the authentic Grand Central Terminal — are mirrored in the counter effort to hide certain kinds of people who inhabited and worked in the space, in many cases for decades. Their trace has been removed as inauthentic — a part of the landscape not worth preserving.”

The displacement of people represented a broader category than just the homeless. They included much of the previously-accepted groups that utilized a public space (she lists shoe shiners, pamphleteers, and retailers) with much greater freedom of arraignment. Some of these types of groups were still allowed, but they were much more regulated and controlled in their activities — a restriction of use that, again, reflected the desire to maintain a manufactured, safe, image for a certain socioeconomic class of people and not others.

Katz, on the motivation for control:

Akin to the anxiety about origins, concerns with middle-class safety and what seems to be an increasingly common presumption of class right to a certain kind of unperturbed passage through the public environment has resulted in the removal of all kinds of people from Grand Central and ins environs, suggesting that they have, at best, unequal rights to the city.

This concept of who has a ‘right to the city’ is a recurring theme in the public space literature. But Katz’s framework for exploring access and movement through public space is grounded in the perspective that social visibility is an important phenomenon in the public realm. If we’re to accept that all citizens have a right to a certain level of access and use of space, then we should ask what happens to those groups who, through various practices, are rendered invisible in the public consciousness. This process of recognition and representation is a topic I’ll explore later, and very similar to Katz’s contentions here, on the production and transformation of public spaces.


5 responses to “The effort to “hide certain kinds of people” in public spaces

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