Who makes the City?

My contribution to the Goethe Institute's Cities and Citizenship Project in New York, May 2014

In the Spring of 2007, three New York City museums joined forces to honor the work and legacy of the most ambitious master planner and builder the city had known in the 20th century. As a leader of several public agencies for more than three decades, Robert Moses changed the face of the city like no one else.

Prior to the simultaneous 2007 shows at the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum and the galleries at Columbia University, the assessment of Moses' legacy in urban planning and architecture circles had been virtually unanimous. Moses was vilified for destroying neighborhoods and communities in the name of his technocratic vision of the modern city. He displaced tens of thousands of families under the guise of slum clearance, rendered residential areas uninhabitable by running highways through them and created public housing ghettos that aggravated social problems rather than solving them.

The 2007 exhibitions, however, were surprisingly kind to Moses. They painted a more nuanced picture of his efforts, and emphasized the merits of his work over its flaws. The political climate in the city had shifted back to favor of the kind of grand urban planning initiatives that Robert Moses had pursued. New York had entered a new era of top down urban planning. Contemporary New York provides an environment, in which citizen participation in planning decisions has become extremely difficult. Such was the brackdrop for the New York chapter of the Goethe Institute's "Weltstadt" Projekt, entitled "Cities and Citizenship".

In 2007, when Robert Moses' legacy was re-assesed, mayor Michael Bloomberg was five years into his 12-year tenure as mayor of New York, which ended in January of 2014. From the beginning, Bloomberg had had urban planning ambitions on a scale that the city had not seen since Robert Moses. And not since Robert Moses had anyone been as successful as Bloomberg in changing the face of the city.

Bloomberg has re-zoned 40 percent of the city's territory, changing or eliminating the traditional limitations placed on the usage of certain areas. On his watch, neighborhoods have been rededicated and developed, more often than not for high-end housing and retail, while manufacturing has all but disappeared from the city. The underutilized post-industrial waterfronts have been built up, Midtown and Lower Manhattan have seen an enormous construction boom. And on the Westside of Manhattan an entire new community, conceived entirely at the drawing board, is coming into being.

The Bloomberg administration started a new era of large scale urban development in New York City. The mechanisms by which he achieved his development goals and realized his vision of the city were more subtle, but every bit as effective, as those of Robert Moses. By enabling strong alliances between politicians and developers, he stifled democratic participation in the planning process.

More than fittingly, the three-day conference on "Cities and Citizenship" in Manhattan's Greenwich Village opened with the screening of "The Domino Effect," a documentary film that explored exactly how public participation is suppressed in Bloomberg's New York. The film makers, Megan Sperry and Daniel Phelps, spent several years filming the efforts of the residents of the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn to prevent a dramatic demographic shift in the area after the main employer, the Domino Sugar factory, closed in 2004. (see separate article).

The screening set the stage for an intense two-day multidisciplinary brainstorm on how citizens might be empowered to address the pressing issues of our time and help improve life in New York and cities in general. Not least, because the conditions for participation have become extremely complicated here, New York proved to be a particularly fertile ground for such exploration.

This became most evident in the presentations of practitioners such as Susanne Schindler, Matthias Hollwich and Susannah Drake, architects with civil missions who have successfully pursued projects or are pursuing projects in New York City. (see separate articles). Dealing with the conditions in Bloomberg's New York has forced them to re-think and expand their roles as designers and architects and develop a new kind of creativity in putting their craft to use toward social ends.

Hollwich, Schindler and Drake might be called activist designers, a new breed of designers that Weltstadt curator Mitchell Joachim chose to place at the center of the New York project. With his own project "Terreform" Joachim considers himself to be one of these designers, who no longer think of "good design" as merely aesthetically enriching our everyday lives. This new generation of designers, ranging from architects to industrial designers, strive instead to "actively contribute to shaping society." Joachim considers them "applied sociologists."

One of Joachim's primary goals for the conference was to create a dialogue between such applied sociologists and actual academic sociologists. It was a true experiment to find out whether the two groups would be able to find a common language and perhaps help answer each other's questions.

The first concept that the theoreticians and practitioners tried to close in on was that of participation and citizenship itself. The social scientists' historical and theoretical models were juxtaposed with the practitioners' real experiences of participation as well as their utopian visions of it.

The political scientist Andreas Kalyvas of the New School for Social Research in New York, set the tone for the debate with his "counter genealogy" of citizenship as he called it. In tracing lived participation from ancient Athens all the way to the Occupy movement he devised a concept of what he calls "seditious citizenship". Seditious citizenship according to Kalyvas runs counter to official conceptions of citizenship, which are constituted mainly by participating in the political institutions of the state.

His idea of participation is quite the opposite. A good citizen according to Kalyvas is an active citizen, one that "takes part in factional strife." The protester, the revolutionary, in this sense is a better citizen than the person who limits his participation to the voting booth.

This conception opens up the question of where the conditions for such participation can be found in the city of today. In New York, in particular, as several conference participants pointed out, the spaces for such "insurgent citizenship," or simply for free speech, have become extremely limited.

The prime example for the limited possibilities of such insurgent citizenship of course is Zuccotti Park, the privately owned public space where in 2011 the Occupy movement created a utopian space for democratic participation. The space was cleared by the authorities under the pretense that it represented unsanitary conditions for the people that inhabited it without the necessary infrastructure.

This argument, of course, ignores the very elaborate infrastructure that Occupiers had actually created in Zuccotti—complete with eating and hygienic facilities, a library, a media center and various spaces designated to support various forms of interaction and debate.

According to (among other conference participants) the anthropologist Vyjayanthi Rao, this ignorance of an infrastructure created by citizens rather than institutions is similar to the ignorance that policy makers and researchers alike display when thinking about the anarchic dwellings on the outskirts of mega-cities such as Mumbai. Conventionally these dwellings, like Zuccotti, are regarded as a problem, a disgrace. Such a view, however, according to Vyjayanthi, prevents us from seeing the infrastructure that is actually there, sustaining the people and enabling us to learn from them.

Obviously, being able to appreciate citizen-driven democratic spaces requires a radically broadened conception of citizenship. Colin Jarolmack of the Environmental Studies Department at NYU, for example, posited that the idea of citizenship should be extended to include pigeons. Pigeons, reviled by New Yorkers as "flying rats," and the like, represent an anarchic part of nature that trespasses our public spaces, according to Jarolmack. They refuse to remain within the boundaries of the space allotted to nature in our cities (e.g. parks) and spill into the spaces reserved for human use. Like the Occupy movement, they appropriate public space in unintended ways.

Jarolmack thinks we should welcome pigeons and their unintended use of public space and care for them as a vital part of "the ballet" of the street. Of course, this is intended as a metaphor for encouraging citizens to use public space according to their own needs instead of conforming to prescribed usages.

The reality in New York, however, remains light years away from such ideals. In fact, Marianne Moglievich of NYU showed that, if anything, it has become far more difficult in recent years for citizens to own or inhabit the democratic social space.

As recently as the 1960s, Moglievich argued, Mayor John Lindsay prevented urban riots that took place in cities across the country at that time by allowing city streets to be used as a place for articulating dissent, at times even embracing it. Lindsay himself marched down Fifth Avenue along with peace activists and civil rights leaders. Moglievich juxtaposed the permissive atmosphere of those days to the recent installation of pedestrian zones in Midtown Manhattan. These zones, Moglievich argues, create the illusion of participation. In reality however, they limit the pedestrian to his role as consumer instead of as a citizen, much less as an insurgent citizen.

As much as the conference participants agreed on the necessity of expanding the concept of citizenship, they agreed that---in the age of the dramatic challenges posed by global warming--- the relationship between nature and the city needs to be rethought.

Lynette Widder of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, for example, argued for letting more of the "Hinterland" into the city, in effect deconstructing the traditional concept of the city as that which is "not nature." The supply of natural resources upon which the city depends, should be increasingly moved inside the boundaries of the city, in effect softening the demarcation.

Widder's ideas are a move toward an ecological conception of the city that is also embraced in the work of Matthias Hollwich with his utopian vision of a "Metreepolis" or in the work of Mitchell Joachim's Terreform group that seeks, among other things, to fuse architecture and biotechnology.

In New York City with it's almost 600-mile shoreline that is seriously threatened by rising sea levels, these debates have an urgent and concrete ring. During Hurricane Sandy in 2011 400,000 homes were flooded and large parts of the city were without heat and electricity for weeks, in some cases months. Certain neighborhoods in Staten Island and Brooklyn have not been rebuilt to this day.

Eric Klinenberg of NYU's Institute for Public Knowledge is closely involved in the planning commissions that are discussing how the city should respond to rising sea levels and the threat of devastation and flooding.

Learning from the mistakes of 9/11, after which New York literally fortified itsself and dramatically reduced space for democracy and participation while ramping up surveillance and policing, Klinenberg feels that armoring the city against flooding at immense cost is not the answer.

Providing for letting nature into the city, Klinenberg thinks is the more sensible way to go. At the same time, asking populations of flood prone areas to move and effectively making living on higher ground a privilege for the wealthy contradicts ideals of democracy and participation in other ways.

The "Cities and Citizens" Project provided no easy answers to questions like the ones that Klinenberg, or the activists of Williamsburg facing gentrification and displacement, are struggling with. It did however provide plenty of ideas for enhancing how we think about the contemporary city and the role of its citizens within it. And the conference showed how new and creative models of citizen activism in an environment of suffocating, top-down urban governance, can be successful.

Goethe Weltstadt official website

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