In 1967 a group of people in New York City, led by Peter and Norma Stanford, established the South Street Seaport Museum in lower Manhattan as a fairly inclusive open air public area. Their effort was an attempt to resist redevelopment of the historic neighborhood, and was largely successful for several years. Facing increasing pressure from a pro-growth city government policy, the area slowly became more commercialized starting in the late 1970s. This process was eventually finished with the completion of the Pier 17 project in 1985. There was, and still is, an impressive South Street Seaport Museum and educational facility. Yet the story of the area is one of a nearly twenty year transformation from accessible public space to privately controlled, commercialized, public space.
This conversion was the subject of exploration for James DeFilippis in a 1997 paper for the Journal of Urban Affairs. His “From a Public Re-Creation to Private Recreation” provides a brief overview of the historical trends that led to intense government influence in commercializing South Street Seaport, and what this change can tell us about the nature of urban spaces in America. These two aspects represents what he typifies as the “Political Economy of Public Spaces.”
To begin with, though, the backdrop for this political economy is the result of a broader confluence of economic and governance shifts that occurred in the decades following WWII. One part of this is a familiar story of deleterious effects from the divestment of urban industry that left the inner city economically depressed. New service-oriented jobs were located in the outer rings of cities, a movement that presented many racial and class-based spatial barriers to employment opportunities that contributed to chronic underemployment and ghettoized neighborhoods. Another component during this time period was the urban deinstitutionalization of state mental facilities, which left many former residents homeless and unemployed without a commensurate assistance regime in place. Finally, there was a twofold source of extraneous demands facing city governments; the reduction of state and federal budget support and the increasingly mobile nature of the banking and financial sectors.
DeFilippis describes the first aspect of the public space’s political economy as the emergence of the “entrepreneurial state.” Though not entirely unique to New York City, it was certainly most distinct in its (relatively) sudden budgetary dependence on the local economy. One of the inevitable consequences of this dependence was a governing regime – spanning multiple administrations – to enact ‘pro-growth’ policies. As a result, DeFilippis writes, “many local governments have changed from being the managers of social services to entrepreneurs competing for mobile investment capital.” To summarize this regime’s influence on the transformation of the South Street Seaport, he explains that this parcel of Lower Manhattan “had too much potential value for the increasingly locally dependent government to allow it remain an underdeveloped public space.” As a result the city ultimately denied funding for the museum unless the group agreed to facilitate private development of the neighborhood.
The sequence of events leading to local government dependency on the private market is an an important observation, but the second component to the political economy of public spaces are the consequences of those funding shifts. Earlier in the DeFilippis deconstructs the existing critical literature on the privatization of public spaces as extremely limiting, giving it the colloquial designation of the “Disneyfication” school of analysis. For the author these critiques overemphasize the specific architectural choices in producing space that promotes exclusion of undesirable groups. As he writes, by “focusing on design, these authors underestimate the various other social, political, and ideological factors that help to define the meaning of space.” Creating simplified dichotomies, as many have done, to define space is misleading as these places are functionally more complicated. Our conception of public space shouldn’t be confined to rough divisions of exterior or interior, nor absolutist views of in- or exclusivity, freedom or control. Instead, what happened to South Street Seaport and other, similar, changes should be considered within a framework of “opposite poles along a spectrum of different types of public spaces.”
Thus, DeFilippis argues, we aren’t really witnessing the ‘end of public space’ but the outcome of what has traditionally been a “inherently political process” in their production. Historical ideals of what constitutes public space, he notes, are rather misremembered. So for instance Habermas’ ideal public sphere appealed to a European inclusiveness that actually excluded entire segments of society. The coffee houses and salons of 17th and 18th century Europe facilitated broader democratic change, but the people in those spaces, while conceptually interacting in a more egalitarian environment, were not representative of the broader population. The ‘public’ was a class and gender-exclusive realm. Moreover, this was not an isolated phenomenon; it is an ahistorical reality.
Spatial exclusion has powerful consequences. Altering public or privately owned open spaces does more than answer the question of who can occupy public space. It alters the public consciousness, and “renders invisible those that are not included and reinforces that invisibility by allowing those included to feel that they make up the entire public.” In this sense, then, these spaces can become the representative pool of who matters. The privatization of public space in America isn’t troubling because it vanishes — it doesn’t — but that it redefines “who constitutes the American public.”