The current confluence of the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic and popular political demonstrations has provided strikingly urgent examples of how city space may be actualized as a projective medium. By “projective medium” I mean to describe a repurposing of urban environments wherein public space serves as a canvas not only for the circulation of artistic representations or political slogans but for the staging of interventions of imagination, a testing ground for potential futures. Within the past few months we have seen dramatic and unprecedented reconfigurations of public space: first in the widespread “lockdown” and “stay at home” measures designed to mitigate the viral transmission of COVID-19; and secondly with irruption of mass protests against police brutality and extrajudicial killings of people of color. Both of these “moments” have offered profound illustrations of the social production of space, as well as ways in which the physical infrastructure of the built environment is an inherently politicized terrain.
In the early days of the Coronavirus quarantines reconsiderations of urban space focused on absence and withdrawal. Photographs of unoccupied Los Angeles freeways and deserted downtown districts circulated widely online. At the end of March the New York Times published a photo essay documenting quietude throughout the five boroughs with the title “New York Was Not Designed For Emptiness.” The fascination with emptied city spaces is certainly linked to visual tropes of apocalyptic fiction and representations of humanity’s end depicted so often in popular culture: the silent streets and vacant plazas served as visual confirmation of the otherwise “unseen” virus, and visceral reminder of our ultimately precarious civilization. The allure of these images may also be linked to a desire for (psychological) distance from the biological threat. Writing in the Verso Books blog, Rob Horning credited such photographs with reinforcing a sense of “exemption” from the vagaries of the natural world and from the virus itself:
“Our ability to appreciate these images doesn’t underscore our ultimate harmony or interconnection with the natural world and the life that purportedly re-emerges when the highways are finally vacated. Rather it lets us use mediation (our ability to consume representations) to rearticulate our exceptionality. We can assume the subject position of the camera and pretend that makes us immune to being objects in the world.”
The onset of “social distancing” induced an attitudinal shift in how we related to the shared spaces of everyday life. The withdrawal from public places to the atomistic dwelling of self-isolation created a sort of vacuum, opening up a space in which new meanings and relations could be introduced. In many cities around the world residents rediscovered the balcony as a link between the individual and communal worlds. Balconies have always served as liminal spaces between the publicity of the street and the privacy of the home. During quarantine these sites gained renewed significance as spaces for performance and communication. Neighbors socialized from across their respective railings, and a new routine developed where residents would gather to applaud medical workers from their balconies at appointed shift-change times.
The mass migration indoors prompted rediscovery of the built environment as communication medium in other ways. I am particularly fond of the various projects that involved projecting films onto the sides of buildings. In Rome the cinema organization Alice nella Città began scheduling regular projections of classic films, and encouraged any citizens with the ability to do so to implement their own screenings. In Berlin the Windowflicks project hosted screenings by projecting movies on the walls of residential courtyards. (On a somewhat related note, I was disappointed to learn that Vulcan Video, a beloved DVD rental business in Austin, TX and one of my most frequented locales when I lived in that city, did not survive the Coronavirus outbreak.)
At the end of May the insular isolation of “stay at home” measures reversed into a dramatic reclamation of the streets. In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands police, residents of Minneapolis turned out en masse in the neighborhood where he was killed. The initial days of the demonstrations saw vandalism and destruction of corporate businesses in the neighborhood beginning with an AutoZone store. (In addition to semiotically presaging the eventual advent of “autonomous zone” in popular discourse and U.S. urban imaginaries, the prominence of the AutoZone and other automotive businesses in the subsequent unrest throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul testifies not only to the dominance of car culture in U.S. spatial design, but also to the legacy of highway expansions and car-centric development that decimated predominantly Black urban communities throughout the 20th Century.)
During the first two days of protests a Target store nearby the site of Floyd’s death was thoroughly looted and vandalized. In addition to the store’s interior being effectively gutted, the exterior walls were blanketed with spraypainted messages. In the days that followed political graffiti and anti-police slogans became a ubiquitous visual element of the demonstrations unfolding in cities throughout the United States, even occupying part of the backdrop for Donald Trump’s infamous bible photo-op in Washington D.C. Here again the latent potential for the built environment to serve as a projective medium was dramatically actualized. The pervasive presence of political graffiti messages recalled the spraypainted slogans of the May 68 demonstrations in Paris, just as the scenes of civil unrest evoked the 1968 U.S. urban riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Over the past three weeks the urban uprisings have continued to spread throughout the U.S., perhaps reaching their temporary apogee with the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ). The CHAZ designation refers to the occupation of a six-block area in central Seattle centered around the vacated East Precinct police headquarters. Since it’s emergence in popular discourse the message and meaning of the CHAZ has been the subject of public debate. Authoritarian discourses have demonized the occupation as a terroristic takeover, while more amicable readings of the space have characterized it in terms of a festival atmosphere with arts and music. Several early accounts featured images and accounts of a film screening in the CHAZ: participants watching Ava DuVernay’s “13th” on a projection screen set up in an occupied intersection.
As with the aforementioned outdoor cinema projects implemented under Coronavirus quarantine, the urban reimagining of the CHAZ features film screenings in urban space, a repurposing of city streets as movie theaters. It thus offers another opportunity to consider the built environment as a projective medium. Again, this sense of “projective medium” extends beyond merely repurposing urban infrastructure as a material support for communication. Yes, the occupied urban space of the CHAZ features murals, spraypainted slogans, and other forms of artistic and political representation. But the greater “message” of the occupation is a radical rethinking of the logics underlying the organization of urban life itself. The various artistic interventions launched in response to the COVID-19 outbreak similarly call into question certain unspoken assumptions undergirding collective dwelling.
(In distinguishing between the “form” and the “content” of these creative repurposings of urban space it is important to recognize that the content in the respective cases is obviously significant. The CHAZ occupiers were screening a documentary about racial inequality in the United States, a subject clearly connected to the broader socio-historical context and political intent of Black Lives Matter protests. Would we interpret the scene differently if the CHAZ audience was watching “The Wizard of Oz,” or “Trolls 2”? Similarly, how would our understanding of the outdoor screenings in Rome and Berlin be altered if the organizers were projecting political documentaries instead of classic films?)
Both the Coronavirus pandemic and the urban demonstrations have prompted a reimagining of the structures that shape our daily lives. Rather than idle speculation or “mere” philosophical musings, the emergent issues underlying these provocations present themselves as urgent and unavoidable. They reveal the necessity of the radical reassessment of social reality.
Most of the questions prompted by the Coronavirus have to do with resuming “business as usual” in a way that will prevent another outbreak. What will work and schooling look like after the lockdown? Will telecommuting become the new norm? Should theaters and concert venues reopen to full capacity? Will any area of life return to its pre-pandemic state? The questions and demands voiced in the ongoing anti-racism protests feature a different focus, but they also call for sweeping structural reforms. Calls to “defund the police” have been explicated as a “reimagining” of what public safety and community-oriented state initiatives can look like. These twin crises thus raise awareness of infrastructural and social failures (of the healthcare system, of adequate preventative measures, of policing procedures, of systemic racism, etc.), but they also draw attention to failures of imagination. Questions about what kind of world we want to live in are increasingly superseded by questions of what kind of world will enable us to survive.
While the twin events represented by the global pandemic and anti-oppression uprisings therefore share significant similarities, they may be productively differentiated by the directional orientation of their respective inciting elements. The shock and disruption of the Coronavirus outbreak can be characterized as a movement inward driven by an outside impetus, whereas the protests represent an outward movement compelled by inner antagonisms. Social distancing and “safer-at-home” self-isolation measures were restrictive responses to an outside foreign force (foreign or alien in the sense that the virus is not human, not in any sort of xenophobic or Sinophobic sense as conveyed by the “Chinese virus” and “kung flu” dysphemisms). The mass occupations of city streets and other urban spaces was an expansive outwardly-directed response to failures and contradictions within the society itself, including inherent racial injustice, class antagonisms, and a generalized precariousness engendered by neoliberal capitalism. The two movements thus represent two imperatives to reimagine our world: one compelled from without, the other incurred from within. (There were, of course, many interrelated and exacerbating factors connecting the pandemic response with the protests, such as the economic disruption, soaring unemployment, disproportionate health outcomes along racial lines, etc.)
One way to interpret the sudden transition from vacant, socially-distanced public spaces to massively occupied city streets is to view space as a blank slate onto which various forces or groups project their politicized messages. However, it would be misleading to consider the urban as an empty signifier, or city space as a neutral container subject to contestations over who gets to fill it with meaning. The built environment is always already a politicized terrain, shaped by value-laden design decisions and governed by policy and force. Urban space emptied of content does not reveal the material landscape as a merely objective fact or value neutral background for social life. Instead, both the images of emptied city streets in the time of Corona and the scenes of massive demonstrations in public space attest to a fact that the urban form shares with all communication media: the medium is the message.
On April 4th 1968 Martin Luther King Jr was killed by an assassin’s bullet. In the immediate aftermath African Americans took to the streets of several U.S. cities in a wave of riots and unrest that lasted for days. The killing of the most visible and influential figure of the civil rights movement provoked an irruption of anguished anger which was further stoked by years of simmering tension and resentment in America’s disinvested and disenfranchised urban black communities. Pittsburgh was among the U.S. cities to see significant tumult, with nearly a week of riots erupting in the Hill District, the city’s center of black life and culture. I still occasionally encounter Pittsburghers citing the Hill riots as an example of blacks “irrationally” destroying their “own” communities as a historical rationalization for longstanding social and economic plights facing Hill residents, as well as implicitly justifying the American apartheid of residential segregation and uneven spatialization. The King assassination riots became emblematic of what came to be known as the “urban crisis” in the United States. A young Richard Sennett responded to the urban unrest of the late 1960’s in his classic work of urban sociology, “The Uses of Disorder.” Sennett’s timely and prescient text presaged the advent of affluent “gated” communities and other emerging forms of social stratification and segregation. Defying the forces of entropy, Richard Nixon made the urban crisis a substantial element of his 1968 presidential campaign as the “law and order” candidate, a rhetorical strategy echoed in Donald Trump‘s 2016 presidential run.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has created an excellent interactive retrospective titled “The Week the Hill Rose Up.” Another Post-Gazette story explores the history behind August Wilson’s play Two Trains Running, which dramatized the fallout of the Hill riots.
From CityLab: “Cities on Fire 1968 – Urban America after MLK”
The Washington Post has marked the anniversary with an article on how then-mayor of Cleveland Carl B. Stokes “helped save his city from burning” following the King assassination.
Writing for the ACLU, Jeffrey Robinson reflects and observes that fifty years later “we remain two societies, ‘separate and unequal.'”
- Addendum (4/6/18): How the Pittsburgh Pirates persuaded the MLB Commissioner to postpone opening day in the wake of King’s death.
Since this past summer I’ve been immersed in my dissertation project, and this increased workload has not only affected my overall output on this blog but has diminished my ability to draft content based on its mere timeliness. I was photographing the Monroeville Mall (of Dawn of the Dead fame) the day before George Romero died last October, and failed to seize that kairotic moment to observe his passing and my personal history with his films. I had a second opportunity around Halloween when there were a series of zombie-related events in Pittsburgh, including a screening of Day of the Dead and discussion with cast and crew. I’ve also been planning on writing up my thoughts on Blade Runner 2049, yet this still hasn’t materialized more than five months after the film’s release. Now that we’re seven weeks into 2018, I’m trying to at least recognize some contemporary cultural resonance before the whole year passes.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the myriad soul-stirring, heartbreaking, and perennially radical events that transpired worldwide in 1968. A time in which, amongst other things, the war machine seemed to rage out of control and a peace movement formed to meet it. A time when revolutionary leaders emerged to galvanize collective action and imagination, and assassins rose up to cut them down. A time of unprecedented protests and street demonstrations which were often subdued with violence. It’s the revolutionary energy of the late 60s zeitgeist that Hunter S. Thompson beautifully eulogized in his famous “wave speech.”
And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
I was born nearly three decades after these seismic cultural shocks, and am still trying to grasp the sheer scope of the various events. Many of the movements and moments associated with 1968 involve irruptions in media and urban culture, and so have great resonance with my own area of inquiry. I began my dissertation last year, which was the 50th anniversary of Lefebvre’s writing on “The Right to the City.” Lefebvre was of course a significant intellectual influence for the May ’68 events in Paris. The year is also a watershed date for U.S. cities and the country’s “urban crisis.” My current home university, the University of Pittsburgh, is hosting a series of events through April considering the impacts and lessons of 1968 from global perspectives. Throughout the year I have the opportunity to engage with speakers, texts, and places connected to this legacy, and will be remarking on them in as timely a fashion as possible. I will try not to squander too much felicity. As expressed in a May ’68 slogan: “If we only have enough time…”
News came out this summer that Anthony Bourdain was in town to film a Pittsburgh-based episode of his Parts Unknown program. I like Bourdain and his tv shows, and I am weirdly passionate about Pittsburgh, so I was eagerly awaiting the episode, especially after we learned of his visit to our favorite local bar (I say that like it’s some overlooked hole-in-the-wall; I’m talking about the Squirrel Hill Cafe, aka “The Cage,” which is an East End institution and deservedly so). Ahead of the episode’s premiere last night I saw several articles online calling Bourdain’s trip to Pittsburgh “inevitable.” Pittsburgh was an inevitable stop, they argue, because the city’s booming food scene and consistent ranking as a most-livable city has put it in the national spotlight. Pittsburgh has gotten a fair bit of national attention the last few years, but let’s not kid ourselves. Bourdain and crew came to Pittsburgh because he’s on the 10th season of his show and they’ve already gone to the exciting cities, so the only thing that made a Pittsburgh-centric Parts Unknown inevitable was the show’s continuation.
When word broke last June that Bourdain’s crew was filming around town user rockandrollcityplan posted this forecasted episode rundown on the Pittsburgh subreddit:
“Once downtrodden steel town (que shot of the Carrie Furnace) now changing in the face of gentrification that is creating a burgeoning food scene based on tradition (visit to Pierogies-Plus and then Apteka). Talk about a tradition of pushing out the city’s African American population with a visit to the Hill District (shot of the arena site and then new construction in East Liberty as a juxtaposition). Walk around Squirrel Hill and remark how one of the country’s largest Jewish enclaves is filled with a new Asian population (Everyday Noodles) but some vestiges of old Pittsburgh remain in its dive bars (Squirrel Cage). Something, something, filler in the Strip District… interview with Fetterman.”
Aside from Everyday Noodles and the Strip District, which did not appear in the episode, this prediction ended up being pretty spot-on. Now, the basic narrative beats of the episode can be inferred from Bourdain’s approach across the last 9 seasons of his show. I would characterize the overriding theme of Parts Unknown as old-vs-new: how places have changed, what has emerged, what has disappeared, and what it all means to the people who live there. And within this overriding theme I think there are 2 sub-categories that an episode of PU can fall into: (1), charting the (ostensible) erosion of local culture and tradition in the wake of globalization ; and (2), defying audience expectations about a place by showing that their stereotypical views are outdated and do not reflect modern conditions. There are other threads that run through many of the shows, like “the price of success” (new local businesses are doing well but they’re sowing the seeds of gentrification!) and “accepting the transience of existence” (tradition diminishes but a new generation emerges).
So now that I’ve seen the episode, what do I make of it? Overall I was very impressed with the episode, and by the people and places the producers’ decided to include. I have to qualify my take on the program by saying that I am not a native Pittsburgher, have only lived here for four years and will likely move away in the not-too-distant future. But I have loved this city from my first day here, embracing its wonders and its flaws, and a great deal of my scholarly research centers on the city’s past, present, and future. Based on my experience here I thought they did a decent job of representing Pittsburgh, showcasing scenes of everyday life along with glimpses of the extreme ends of the economic divide, and was ultimately a more nuanced portrayal than I anticipated (not that I expected much in the first place). My criticisms of the presentation have to do with what was included rather than what was left out (Pittsburghers will surely argue endlessly about the episode’s grievous omissions), so let me run through some of the things I did and did not like about the show.
- The opening teaser featured hand-made pierogie production, which might seem hackneyed to Pittsburghers but it’s also unavoidable.
- The first sequence took place in Bloomfield, the neighborhood nearest and dearest to my own heart. I spotted some familiar neighborhood characters in the background and the sausage and peppers are all-too-familiar. Coming home across the Bloomfield Bridge I see the bocce players there regularly, even late into the evening. As I said I like the neighborhood, but a table of meats and sauce being overturned and spilling onto the ground seems like an apt representation of Bloomfield.
- Wasn’t sure they would feature the Hill District, very glad that they did. An integral part of this city’s history and character that far too many Pittsburghers pass by unawares on a daily basis.
- Bourdain’s ride-along with Sala Udin captured one of the most characteristic aspects of the Hill District: the neighborhood’s vocality, the call-and-response culture of friend and neighbors acknowledging one another on the street (even when passing in cars, as was seen in the episode).
- The Hill District sequence also featured my favorite image of the entire episode: a woman ordering lunch at Grandma B’s wearing a Penguins jersey and a hijab .
- The neon lights of Kelly’s at night seemed particularly telegenic.
Gripes and omissions:
- No Liberty Tunnel shot. This is the biggest omission for me, way more than any bar or restaurant that went unmentioned. Arriving in Pittsburgh through the Liberty Tunnel is one of the great unique experiences that this city offers. From my first time careening through the tunnel in a U-Haul truck, to every time I return home after a trip, it is always a spectacular sensation to have the world open up upon exiting the tunnel as the city and river valley bursts into being all around you.
- A small pet peeve, but Fetterman’s addressing Bourdain as “chef” is anachronistic considering Bourdain’s current full-time gig. If anything his honorific should be “TV Producer Tony,” or is it like the Presidency where you carry the title even after you leave office?
- Other folks seem very upset at the wrestling sequence’s inclusion; it didn’t bother me, as a non-native Pittsburgher and non-wrestling fan I recognize the wrestling angle as an idiosyncratic quirk of the local culture.
- The demolition derby, on the other hand, seemed out of place and served as a particularly weak ending to the episode. After traveling well beyond the Pittsburgh city limits, the show closes with scenes of automotive carnage underneath some banal closing narration from Bourdain. I’m paraphrasing from memory but this captures the gist:
“What will become of Pittsburgh? How do we welcome the promise of change while preserving what we love about our past? There are probably no easy answers, so for now, let’s just wreck some cars.”
I mean, I get that this show is essentially ‘food & place porn’ that airs on the wince-inducing middle-of-the-road CNN, but even with these measured expectations in mind, that’s a strikingly sophomoric and flippant sentiment to go out on. You’re already equivocating, so why use even more unnecessary weasel words? I mean, “probably” no easy answers? Why not just say that there are no easy answers? Would that risk offending the viewers who believe that there are easy answers, whatever their personal brand of myopic small-mindedness might be?
I’ve watched all of Bourdain’s tv series and enjoy each of them to varying degrees (Cook’s Tour is a grainier grungier early cut and The Layover is the underappreciated peak-travel-tv Bourdain), and his Zero Point Zero crew do excellent work but their reliance on certain templates becomes evident once you’ve seen enough of their productions. One of their favorite go-tos (more evident lately in their non-Bourdain projects) is the technique of editing around a big laugh. Need to transition to the next scene? Insert a clip of everyone having a nice big laugh then cut. And the derby finale sequence represents this sort of “big laugh” thinking on a larger scale: throw up some noise and spectacle to distract the viewers so we can make the big out. And Bourdain’s perfunctory closing narration plays a part in this as well, since who’s going to notice the utter vacuity of your parting words with all that slam-bang car crashing and little-kid-American-flag-waving going on?
I get it: Pittsburgh is so uninteresting the film crew had to drive 30 miles outside the city to film an *ahem* rural, all-American crowd enjoying a demolition derby. Television is a visual medium, after all, so perhaps they couldn’t find sufficient visual spectacle within the city limits. It is important, too, to recognize that Pittsburgh can’t represent all of the greater region, and the rural population is an important part of the contemporary political condition as indicated in the episode’s discussion of the state turning Republican in the last presidential election. But without any semblance of full-circle denouement or contextualization within all that had preceded it, this closing sequence was muddled and disappointing.
After the episode aired I went back to the Pittsburgh subreddit to gauge reactions. Initial responses were overwhelmingly negative, which is perhaps to be expected. Every place means many different things to the people who live there, and it is impossible for a 40 minute TV program to fully capture and represent the essence of a city from even a single individual’s perspective. The user-base of reddit probably skews young, and a number of the negative comments seemed to be responding to perceived attacks upon their generation and lifestyle choices. Among the perceived slights were dispersions cast on millenials, bicyclists, craft beer aficionados, and suburban residents who travel into the city for sports and other entertainment. What these commenters are overlooking, and others in the forum have pointed out, is that the show is called Parts Unknown and aims to represent the sort of lived experiences that are usually absent from mainstream media discourses. I mean, people actually expected a Rick Sebak-style milquetoast promotional showcase of the city? The bottom line is that if these self-identifying millenials want to be constantly catered to and reassured in their lifestyle choices they have no shortage of outlets.
Another theme in the negative reactions, and one I find much more troubling, is indignation that the Hill District was even featured in the episode at all. Apparently this historic neighborhood “doesn’t represent our city.” One commenter particularly criticized the depiction of the deleterious effects that the Civic Arena’s construction had on the Lower Hill. This person characterizes the Hill District’s development as sacrificing “a dying neighborhood in exchange for economy”. Ignoring the obvious vapidity and implicit racism of this statement, I have to ask what “dying neighborhood” this person is invoking? The vibrant Hill District of the 40s and 50s that was destroyed by this malign urban renewal scheme? The neighborhood which was among the most culturally verdant African American communities in the country? The neighborhood that produced August Wilson, Teenie Harris, and Gus Greenlee’s Crawford Grill? Or is it the Hill District of today that is “dying”? The one that remains cut off from the rest of the city (spatially, racially, economically, etc.) 60 years after the Civic Arena project? The one that is so far removed from the eyes and minds of most Pittsburghers we are angered when it appears on our television screens?
Make no mistake: the history of the Hill District, both good and ill, is integral to Pittsburgh’s identity and to its place in the history of this country. Pittsburgh mills may have contributed to the building of skycrapers and the defeat of tyrants, but the razing of the Hill District is just as significant to the history of our national consciousness. It is a history of residential segregation, uneven development, the destruction of black homes and neighborhoods, racial ghettoization, concentrated poverty, and discriminatory policing. More than 100 years ago the journalist Lincoln Steffens wrote about political corruption in Pittsburgh in his book The Shame of Our Cities. Pittsburgh’s industrial production and pollution may have earned the city’s nickname of “hell with the lid off,” Steffens said, but the city’s political landscape was “hell with the lid on.” The sprawling parking lot on the former Civic Arena site that once connected the Hill District to downtown Pittsburgh, and the bungled attempts at redeveloping that land, are continuing sources of shame for this city.
As Anthony Bourdain has pointed out, there are no easy answers. But who needs answers when we can go watch the demolition derby? Let’s go wreck some cars.
Demolition of the last building in Penn Plaza started late last month. When I stopped by the site this weekend I noticed light poles along the perimeter had been plastered with stickers reading “Homes not Whole Foods.” A lot of ambivalence surrounds the development, with many housing activists and other concerned Pittsburghers seeing Whole Food’s abandonment of plans to build on the site as a victory. If it is a victory, it’s perhaps a Pyrrhic one, as it came to late to save the homes of hundreds of displaced residents. The re-development will continue regardless of whether the anchor tenant is Whole Foods or another company. Also, now that Whole Foods is under new ownership following the purchase by Amazon last month, maybe the high-end market will be back in the mix. Scenes like this are not unique to Pittsburgh, of course, but once again affordable housing has been demolished in the city without replacements or alternatives being prepared.
Notorious Pittsburgh graffiti artist Daniel Montano, known by his writer’s alias MFONE, died on June 11. Montano was among the most prolific and high-profile writers active in the city, and was seen as the successor to MOOK, another notorious local artist who left his mark on the city’s graffiti culture (as well on several city landmarks, as can still be seen on the 10th street bridge). This picture shows a memorial next to mural along Penn Ave between Bloomfield and Garfield.
Development continues along the Penn Ave corridor through Bloomfield-Garfield, although I haven’t seen evidence of the “phase two” road reconstruction project beginning in earnest. This stretch of Penn has been among my favorite areas in the city for the past two years, and for that same period of time I have been meaning to photograph the area as it is now because I know it’s going to change drastically and soon. Long-standing local businesses like bike shops and tattoo parlors stand alongside art galleries and cafes. This environment is of course conducive to certain patterns of gentrification. The influx of high-end retail will eventually begin along Penn, with the residential developments bound to occur on the Garfield side of the avenue. I’ve been saying to my wife since we moved here, “Just watch: this whole area is going to change.” Last week I spotted a boutique underwear store as well as a sign advertising a forthcoming smoothie and juice shop. The area is home to robust community organizations and several beloved local businesses, so it remains to be seen how these changes are handled.
A Media History of the City
A media history of the city could take on any number of forms. The shape of this history would largely be determined by how we defined its key terms. How should “the city” be understood? Such a history could begin in ancient or pre-historical times, starting with the earliest human settlements and urban agglomerations. On the other hand, it would also be possible to select a single moment along this vast timeline and analyze this temporal snapshot to see how various media are intersecting with urban life. This history could even be a contemporary history of modern media practices and institutions and their role in the urban experience. The other key question is how “media” should be understood. What media should be included in our study? How inclusive or exclusive should our definition be? Depending on how expansive our definition is, our history could begin by looking at human settlements established in pre-literate societies where spoken language was the primary communication medium. Our history could also look at the development of alphabets, and the role of various writing media such as tablets, papyrus, and parchment in facilitating the construction and governance of cities. Our history could instead follow a traditional mass communication view of modern media. In contemporary New York City place names such as Radio City Music Hall and Times Square attest to the impact that media of mass communication has made in urban spaces.
In order to limit the scope of this essay, I will frame my response as a curriculum overview for an imagined undergraduate course on media and the city. Framing the response in this way provides a framework and rationale for defining the terms of our analysis and the range of history we can reasonably attempt. A typical U.S. undergraduate introductory course in media studies approaches its subject using the “big 5” traditional media: newspapers, magazines, film, radio, and TV. For the sake of this essay, and imagining a potential undergraduate course based on this subject, I will structure my response around these “big 5” traditional media. Also in following the structure of a typical undergraduate media course, the history I present will correspond to the history of mass communication in the United States. The history I offer here is mostly confined to the 20th century, and focuses on U.S. cities. As such, this imaginary course I am outlining could be called “History of U.S. media and urbanization.” In what follows, I offer five key moments in this “media history of the city,” with each moment corresponding to one of the big 5 traditional media. Each entry will offer some historical information on the development of that media form, and a case study that illustrates the intersection between media use and the life of city. Finally, I will offer a sixth moment and case study that accounts for more recent developments in digital media and technological convergence, as well as salient aspects of urban life in the 21st century metropolis.
Moment One: Penny Papers and Newsboys on Strike
Early colonial newspapers tended to be political in nature, what were called the “partisan press” as opposed to commercial papers. In the 1830s, technological developments associated with the industrial revolution allowed for new paper production practices. Expensive handmade paper could be replaced by cheaper mass produced paper. Before this change in production, newspapers cost about 5 cents to purchase, which was relatively expensive for the time. Therefore newspaper readers tended to be affluent. Using the less expensive production techniques, publishers could sell papers for as cheap as 1 cent. Thus the “penny press” or “penny papers” were born, and this is the moment when newspapers truly became a mass media. Newspaper publishers had long relied on subscription service for reliable purchases of their papers, but in the penny press era individual street sales became an important part of the business model as well. One of the major penny press papers was the New York Sun owned by Benjamin Day. Under Day’s stewardship, the Sun privileged accounts of the daily triumphs and travails of the human condition, what are now known as “human interest stories.”
The penny papers introduced many innovations that remain part of the newspaper industry today, including assigning “beat” reporters to cover special story topics such as crime, and shifting the economic basis for publishing from the support of political parties (as in the “partisan press” era) to the market. The penny press era gave rise to an increase in newspaper production with an emphasis on competitive, profitable papers. This economic environment set the stage for some of the most famous newspaper barons to enter the scene. For instance, Joseph Pulitzer bought the New York World, and William Randolph Hearst bought the New York Journal shortly thereafter. Pulitzer pushed for the use of maps and illustrations in his papers, so that immigrants who were not fluent in English could understand the stories. Both Pulitzer and Hearst used bold headlines and layouts to attract reader attention. These practices became emblematic of the yellow journalism period, a term that also connotes sensationalism and even unscrupulous journalistic standards. Pulitzer and Hearst papers did call for social reforms and drew attention to the poor living conditions of poor immigrants in the cities; however, the papers also embellished stories, fabricated interviews, and staged promotional stunts in order to increase reader interest and boost circulation. In 1895, a conflict began that would go on to boost both papers’ fortunes. The island of Cuba had been a colony of Spain since the arrival of Columbus, and in 1895 an insurrection began against Spanish rule that would become known as the Cuban War of Independence. At the time Hearst and Pulitzer were engaged in a war of their own: a circulation war. Hearst’s and Pulitzer’s papers used the conflict to sell papers and boost circulation, deriding Spain in headlines and calling for U.S. intervention. In 1898 the U.S. ship the Maine was sent to Cuba and exploded and sank in Havana harbor, with hundreds of sailors killed. The World and the Journal ran headlines like “Spanish Murderers” and “Remember the Maine,” and the Spanish-American War is still remembered as a prime example of propaganda in the U.S. media swaying public opinion in favor of war, even when facts were misrepresented or embellished.
Benjamin Day’s New York Sun did not offer a subscription service, and instead relied solely on individual street sales to make a profit. To better distribute his papers, Day placed a wanted ad seeking workers to sell the newspapers on the street. Day expected adult workers to respond to the ad, but he found instead that children inquired about the job instead. The first vendor he hired was 10 year old Irish immigrant who would take bundles of papers onto a street corner and shout out the most arresting headlines to get reader interest. Soon this became a new and pervasive method of selling newspapers on city streets. These newspaper vendors or “hawkers” were also called newsboys or paperboys, although girls were often found in their ranks as is evident in many of the photographs taken of children news vendors at the time. These children worked long hours, often through late nights and early mornings, and even sleeping on front stoops or in the street, something also attested to by photographs of the period. Vendors would buy bundles of newspapers from the publishers, and they were not refunded for unsold papers. In 1899, in the wake of the boost in circulation numbers precipitated by the Spanish-American War coverage, many publishers raised the price of newsboy bundles from 50 cents to 60 cents. In response, in July 1899, newsboys refused to sell Pulitzer and Hearst papers. Newsboys demonstrated in the thousands and broke up newspaper distribution in the streets. One gathering blocked off the Brooklyn Bridge, disrupting traffic across the East river as well as interrupting news circulation throughout the entire region. Pulitzer tried to hire adults to vend his newspapers but they were sympathetic to the newsboys’ plight and refused to defy the strike. He did hire men to break up newsboy demonstrations and to protect newspaper deliveries. The newsboys asked the public to not buy any newspapers until the cost of bundles was lowered and the strike was resolved. Eventually the publishers relented: although the cost of bundles was not decreased, the publishers agreed to buy back unsold papers from the newsboys. The strike ended in August 1899, two weeks after it had started.
The 1899 Newsboy Strike is a significant moment in the history of U.S. media, U.S. urban life, and U.S. labor relations. New York City was built by a great deal of immigrant labor, and many of these laborers were children. It is important to remember and acknowledge this important part of U.S. urban history. The 1899 strike was credited for inspiring similar newsboy strikes in Butte, Montana and Louisville, Kentucky. It is an important story in the history of labor law reform in the U.S., even though it is not as well-remembered as landmark events such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. While the newsboy strike did not lead to the sort of immediate reforms that the Shirtwaist factory disaster did, it did impact the implementation of child labor laws in the city over the following decades. Furthermore this case illustrates the practices of distribution and circulation that newspapers relied on, as well as the political economy of the media and its relationship to national and global politics.
Moment Two: Muckraking Magazines and the Shame of the Cities
The modern magazine has decidedly “urban” roots. The word “magazine” originally referred to a storehouse for munitions. The first use of the term to refer to a publication was in 1731 by “The Gentleman’s Magazine” published in London. The publisher of “The Gentleman’s Magazine” used the pen name Sylvanus Urban, and this is what I meant when I said that magazines had “urban” roots. As with newspapers, developments of the industrial revolution such as conveyor systems and printing processes allowed for less expensive manufacturing practices, and therefore magazines could be sold cheaper and reach a wider audience. Another significant development was the Postal Act of 1879, which reduced the postal rates of magazines to the same price as newspapers, making the cost of a magazine subscription affordable for more Americans. Additionally, more and more jobs and people were moving from rural areas to cities. As increasing numbers of immigrants came together in urban cores, national magazines helped facilitate the formation of national identities as opposed to local or regional identity. Relatedly, the increase in the number of dime stores, drug stores, and department stores created new venues for consumer items, and magazines offered new venues for advertising these items. Ladies’ Home Journal was known for running the latest consumer advertisements, and became the first magazine to reach a subscription base of one million customers, reflecting the growth of the female consumer base.
In addition to sustaining and reflecting the growing consumer economy in the country, magazines also played an important role in social reform movements. Jane Addams reportedly first read about the settlement house movement from a magazine article (possibly from an article in Century magazine). With her interest piqued by the article, Addams and a friend soon travelled to London to visit the first settlement house, Toynbee Hall. The settlement house movement advocated the establishment of “settlement houses” in poor areas where middle class volunteers would come and live, with the goal of alleviating conditions of poverty and creating solidarity among the social classes. Two years after visiting Toynbee Hall Addams opened the first U.S. settlement house, Hull House in Chicago. Addams also wrote articles about the settlement house movement for magazines such as Ladies’ Home Journal and McClure’s. Another important role of magazines in social reform movements was related to photojournalism. Magazines had the ability to reproduce high quality photographs, giving them a visual edge against other media of the day. In the late 1880s an emigrant to the U.S. named Jacob Riis became shocked at the living conditions in the New York City slums and purchased a detective camera to document life in these areas. Riis exhibited his photographs as part of a public lecture presentation called “The Other Half: How it Lives and Dies in New York.” The lectures became popular and Riis wrote an article based on his lectures for Scribner’s Magazine. His project was eventually published as a book.
The aforementioned McClure’s magazine was a hotbed of reform-minded journalism at the turn of the 20th century. At the end of the 1800s the magazine had published exposes on the working conditions of miners and corporate practices of the Standard Oil Company. In 1901 journalist Lincoln Steffens published the first article in a series on corruption in U.S. cities. Steffens first went to St. Louis and reported on the machinations of the local political machine. Next he went to Minneapolis, and found the mayor and police chief colluding to take bribes for local houses of prostitution. Then he went to Pittsburgh (Pittsburg at the time), writing that “if the environment of Pittsburg is hell with the lid off, the political scene in the city is hell with the lid on.” The final entries in the series were based on visits to Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York. The series was eventually published in book form in 1904, titled The Shame of the Cities. The articles made Steffens a national celebrity and inspired a trend of similar expose articles in magazines, including Cosmopolitan’s “The Treason of the Senate”. Steffen’s magazine articles became icons of the muckraker movement, so called by president Roosevelt because they climbed through society’s much to cover the stories. The muckraking journalists are an important part of U.S. media history, and the social reform movements are an important part of U.S. urban history.
Moment Three: Movie Palaces and a Tale of One City
As with newspapers and magazines, the development of motion pictures was closely tied to technological and social developments occurring as part of the industrial revolution. Developments in celluloid film, electric lighting, and the mechanical gears to turn film reels all contributed to technological underpinnings of film as a mass media. In France the Lumiere brothers invented one of the earliest film cameras, and the first film they shot was of workers leaving their family factory in Lyon. In the U.S., Thomas Edison developed the kinetograph, and shortly thereafter established an association of film and technology producers called the Trust. The Trust was a consortium of U.S. and French producers who agreed to pool film technology patents. Edison had also made an arrangement with George Eastman to make the Trust the exclusive recipient of Eastman’s motion picture film stock. To escape the control of the Trust, independent film producers left the traditional motion picture centers of New York and New Jersey. They went west, eventually settling in Southern California which offered cheap labor, ample space, and a mild climate that allowed for year-round location shooting. Southern California became the center of the U.S. film industry, and Hollywood became a toponym for the U.S. studio system (and remains metonymic of that industry today). The Hollywood studio system was built on vertical integration, which meant ownership of every means of the movie production process. This included production (everything involved in making a movie), distribution (getting movies to theaters), and exhibition (the process of screening the movies). Edison’s Trust tried to get the edge on exhibition by controlling the flow of films to theaters. The Hollywood studios instead decided to buy theaters themselves. The Edison Trust was eventually ended due to trade violations, and the Hollywood studios controlled every part of movie production and circulation. Paramount studios alone owned more than 300 theaters. During this period of film exhibition, movie studies built single-screen movie palaces, often ornate architectural achievements that offered a more hospitable viewing environment. Some of the most ornate and expansive movie palaces were built in Chicago. The architectural firm of Balaban and Kurtz designed many of the most famous, including the landmark Chicago Theatre (originally called the Balaban & Kurtz Chicago Theater). Other Chicago theaters built by the firm included the Oriental, the Riviera, and the Uptown theaters. The Uptown theater was the largest movie palace built in the United States.
In 1906 of a group of Chicago officials, designers, and business interests met to discuss the various problems facing the city. The Columbia Exposition a few years earlier had been received as a great success, but now problems of overcrowding, congestion, and the growth of manufacturing in the city were causing concern. This group of stakeholders met over a period of 30 months, and in 1909 they finalized their agreed-upon plan. The Chicago Plan proposed sweeping improvements to the city including rehabilitating the waterfront, redirecting railroad traffic in the city, and redesigning streets to permit better flow in and out of the business district. The mayor signed off on the proposal and then ordered a massive public relations campaign to promote the plan. Informative lectures explaining the plan were held throughout the city, articles and editorials were published in the newspapers, and the proposals were even summarized into a textbook that was taught in city schools, and a generation of Chicago school children grew up learning the values of the Chicago Plan. Also produced as part of this campaign was a two reel film titled A Tale of One City. This film was screened in city movie theaters continuously as part of the vigorous PR effort. Communication scholar James Hay has written about the role of the film in promoting the Chicago Plan as a significant moment in the history of urban renewal projects. The role of the film’s exhibition in the promotional campaign demonstrates the significance of the networks of film distribution and exhibition in reaching a mass audience, but also how the architectural design and location of downtown theaters in the city center made movie theaters important sites for engaging the public and shaping the vision of future urban development.
The Paramount decision of 1948 ended vertical integration and required studios to give up their theaters. This ended the era of studio control, but opened up new venues for film screening such as art houses that exhibited foreign films and documentaries, as well as hundreds of drive-in movie theaters for the millions of filmgoers who now had automobiles. As Americans moved to the suburbs, the movies did, too, building new forms of theaters in multiplexes and then megaplexes. While industry expressions such as “blockbuster” harken back to the role of downtown theaters in film exhibition (the term refers to patrons lined up “around the block” to get into a movie theater), most of the movie palaces have been repurposed, disused, or destroyed. Methods of film distribution and exhibition have significantly changed, and the downtown theaters and movie palaces have been largely replaced by suburban multiplexes. The example of A Tale of One City shows, however, that for a time downtown movie theaters played an integral part in the public life of the city.
Moment Four: Radio Remotes and Mediated Urban Nightlife
The groundwork of popular broadcast radio was being established during the late 1800s. Developments in telegraphy and the theoretical proof of electromagnetic waves were among the chief developments in this early history of the medium. The rise of the new medium of the airwaves was soon reflected in the built form of the U.S. metropolis, which was also turning increasingly skyward. By the 1920s and 30s radio broadcasters were transmitting from the Metropolitan Life building in Manhattan, and the Chrysler and Empire State buildings were designed and built with spires to serve as antennas for broadcasting radio transmissions.
In 1923 a nightclub called the Cotton Club opened in the Harlem neighborhood of New York. The Cotton Club was a whites-only establishment, even though the club featured many of the premiere African American performers of the time. In 1927 Duke Ellington and his band the Washingtonians opened at the Cotton Club. Not long after, a Manhattan-based radio station began broadcasting Ellington’s performances live from the Cotton Club. Scholar Tim Wall has written about the Ellington remotes (the radio industry term for these live, on-location broadcasts) as occurring during a moment of transition for both radio and jazz. The technological, organizational, and cultural futures for the new medium were still being explored and negotiation. The broadcasting of jazz music was significant during this period as well. In 1929, radio network WABC began broadcasting the Ellington performances. WABC broadcast nationally, so now Ellington was being transmitted coast-to-coast. As Wall argues, the national broadcasting of jazz music represented the intrusion of urban life and culture into the country. In 1930 another radio network picked up the Ellington broadcasts, and now the performances were heard on the flagship stations of NBC’s Red and Blue networks. These broadcasts grew Ellington’s fame, and he recorded more than a hundred compositions during this period. The Ellington broadcasts represent a significant moment in the regulatory history of radio, but also the attempts of the young medium to establish a cultural role for its programming. The case of the Ellington Cotton Club remotes also represents how urban culture and performance, and especially African American culture, was being mediated through the shifting systems of national radio networks.
Moment Five: Sitcom Suburbs and the Urban Crisis
Television truly became a mass medium in the years following World War II. Housing subsidies and entrepreneurial real estate developments privileged private suburban construction. Many Americans left urban centers to move to the suburbs, which had a lower tax base. Home ownership doubled between 1945 and 1950. As Americans left cities, and therefore also left the downtown movie theaters, music halls, and other urban venues of recreation and entertainment, radio became a cheap alternative to the movies. The years 1948 and 1949 saw peak radio listenership. After that, television replaced radio as the dominant medium in the home.
In addition to the role of housing policies and subsidies in spurring suburban development, there were also many discriminatory housing policies designed to keep U.S. minorities from moving into suburban communities. This practice has been referred to as American apartheid, and is one of the driving factors of the “urban crisis” that developed in U.S. urban life and discourse during this period. The scholar Dolores Hayden has used the phrase “sitcom suburbs” to refer to the homogenous developments that were also depicted in many of the nationally popular sitcoms during this period. One early flare up of these tensions happened in the Los Angeles area. In 1965, California voters passed a proposition that effectively repealed a fair housing act designed to alleviate discriminatory policies that prevented black and Mexican Americans from buying and renting in certain areas. Shortly thereafter, riots began in the Watts district and lasted for 5 days. More riots occurred in U.S. cities in 1967, and again in April 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. In each of these cases, the U.S. news media broadcast TV images that have become iconic of these riots and the overall “urban crisis” that came to dominate discourses on U.S. cities for decades.
Following the riots President Johnson appointed a special commission to investigate the causes of the unrest, and suggest how to prevent further unrest. The Kerner Commission detailed several factors that contributed to the urban riots, including explicit and implicit racism and housing discrimination. The commission also called attention to the news media for coverage that misrepresented facts of life in these cities and contributed to a deepening of divisions between white and black Americans. The Kerner Commission’s concerns were echoed by media theorist George Gerbner in his cultivation theory of television, which posits that increased exposure to violent TV programming cultivates a worldview in the viewer in which they perceive reality to be more dangerous than it really is. This period of urban fear and flight, the move to fortified homes and gated communities, has analogous developments in media coverage and development up to today.
Moment Six: Oppa Gangnam Style
Our history so far has taken us from 1899 to 1968. In this last section, let us catch up on some of the developments that occurred in the last 60 years or so. Developments in microprocessor technology led to a computer revolution. Beginning in the 1980s, home computers became more popular and were predicted to revolutionize daily life. Developments in graphical user interfaces allowed everyday, non-technical users to approach computers. In the late 1960s the U.S. defense department began researching a redundant communication system that could remain intact following a nuclear attack. The project. ARPAnet, eventually developed into the Internet. Web browsers and HTML, such as Tim Berners-Lee’s “worldwideweb” launched in 1990, have enabled the Internet to become a mass medium. The computer revolution has also lead to unprecedented technological convergence. Computers connected to the internet have access to the full array of media content. Developments in smartphone technology have changed what was once merely a phone in a mobile device and site of media convergence, and increasingly the favorite device for media consumption and production.
On December 21, 2012, a milestone was reached. The music video for Psy’s “Gangnam Style” became the first video on YouTube to receive one billion views. The case of Gangnam Style can tell us a lot about the state of mass media industries, as well as the state of cities, in our present moment. Psy is a K-Pop musical act, which stands for “Korean Pop,” a genre originating in South Korea. His global popularity points to the importance of transnational media flows in the contemporary media environment. For instance, the increasing importance of the Chinese box office market for the Hollywood studio system. Also, the fact that his popularity spread globally via the Internet indicates the significance of media convergence, as well as how digital platforms for media circulation have upset the traditional forms of media dissemination, as well as changed our metrics for gauging media success (i.e. YouTube views versus box office, Nielsen ratings, or circulation numbers, etc.).
Gangnam Style also tells us a lot about cities in the early 21st century. The title of Psy’s song refers to the Gangnam district in Seoul, South Korea. The Gangnam district is known for its affluence, and is a hip and trendy neighborhood. This association, and the apparently mocking portrayal of lavish lifestyles in the music video, have led some commentators to interpret the song as a satirical and subversive critique of conspicuous consumption. It should be noted that Psy’s own comments about the meaning of the song do not support these interpretations. Regardless, the Gangnam Style example can help illustrate the valorization of cities that has been a trend of post-industrial economics and post-modern cultural practices. In the 1970s New York City went through a fiscal crisis. City services were sparse, the city government almost went broke, and crime and visible disorder in the city reached peak levels. As part of the city’s recovery and repositioning, the I ❤ (love) NY branding campaign appeared. This campaign has remained hugely popular, and is representative of a postmodern consumption of the symbolic capital of cities. Another salient example would be the tote bags sold by American Apparel that just list names of global cities (Madrid, Tokyo, London, etc.). These cultural products, and the Gangnam Style song, are indicative of a revanchist return of capital to city centers. These examples, and indeed neighborhoods such as Seoul’s Gangnam, also point to the role of gentrification as a global urban strategy for development. In this way, Gangnam Style can serve as a vehicle for addressing some of the most pressing issues facing urban citizens today.
I’ve recently returned from London where I attended a workshop on Urban Change and Moving Images hosted by the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image. It was intellectually gratifying to engage with scholars of film, media, and cities over several days, as well as personally refreshing to indulge my lifelong passion for cinema. In addition to the screening sessions in the BIMI cinema, we also enjoyed multiple sojourns across the city to tour historic cinema sites and contemporary production locations. There was also a “mediated city” walking tour, particularly relevant to my research interests, that highlighted various media and communication infrastructure embedded in the urban environment. I relished the opportunity to discuss film and visual culture with scholars and colleagues, and also to share perspectives on urban change and space/place between London and Pittsburgh.
One of the Pitt film students presented on skating spaces in Philadelphia and London, so after the workshop the doctoral students made a pilgrimage to the Southbank skateboard mecca. The Southbank skate park is notable for its decades-long history as part of London’s urban fabric, as a locus for urban art forms, and also as an example of successful opposition to redevelopment. In 2013 the Long Live Southbank coalition successfully prevented a redesign that would’ve removed the extant skating space. It’s a rare example of anti-redevelopment victory (similar campaigns against the redevelopment of Love plaza in Philly were not successful), and raises significant questions about the various factors affecting such movements in cities around the world. The iconic 5 Pointz mural space in Queens possessed at least as much claim to cultural and historic significance as Southbank, yet these claims were challenged in court and ultimately the space was demolished.
It was a great trip and a much needed rejuvenating jolt of creative energy as I begin working on my dissertation project in earnest. The only downside is that I’ve had to reevaluate and overhaul my current research projects in light of the insightful feedback and innovative scholarship offered during the workshop. In addition to critical theories of film and visual culture my major takeaways from the event included ways of historicizing and theorizing media infrastructure in urban space, perspectives on the role of film in mediating experiences of space and place, and new (to me, at least) models of participatory research praxis. It can be tough coming back to Pittsburgh after spending some time in a such a rich and endlessly fascinating city as London, yet trips like these are a reminder of the global flows and phenomenons of development that can be seen manifesting in cities around the world, and a realization of the fecund opportunities for research and exploration waiting to be actualized. And, of course, it’s always good to come home.
This essay was originally written as part of my PhD comprehensive examinations. It was written to address connections between theories of the public sphere and concerns about public space, and to conceptualize the urban environment as a public realm.
Questions of space have always been implicated with the concept of the public sphere, but the idea of space has been conceptualized and applied in various ways within this context. Carragee’s challenge for scholars to address the nexus between public sphere theory and the study of public space has a solid foundation in the pertinent implications for civic life, attempts to connect academic perspectives and planning disciplines, and his own analysis of the impact of urban design on the character of public interaction. I agree with Carragee’s assertion that a vital public sphere requires vital public spaces. I am less inclined to agree with his claim that communication scholars have been silent on the issue, as there have been moves to address the communicative implications of the built environment through approaches such as material rhetoric. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to consider how scholars of communication and other fields have approached this nexus, and how this line of inquiry might be extended.
To properly address this question about the relationship between public space and the public sphere it is helpful to define our terms. Both “public space” and “public sphere” have been used by different actors to signify differing meanings. The Habermasian formulation of the public sphere posited a novel form of social interaction facilitated by a network of institutions comprised by physical locations and mediated discourses. Following this model, scholars have understood the public sphere as a discursive space rooted in place-based communication as well as mediated exchanges. Catherine Squires has defined the public sphere as “a set of physical and mediated spaces” in which people come together to identify, express, and deliberate interests of common concern. Nancy Fraser has characterized the public sphere as “a theater” for social interaction where political activity is actualized through the medium of speech. The public sphere can also be understood as a particular kind of relationship among participants. This relationship is mediated by these historical forms of sociability enacted at specific points in space and time. Kurt Iveson refers to public spheres as “social imaginaries” that are always in the process of being formed. The public sphere has also been understood procedurally (or processually), as a normative ideal founded on a set of principles intended to guide interaction.
The meaning of “public space” may seem obvious, but this term too has been conceptualized in a variety of ways. Notions of “public space” can be rooted in the physical characteristics of a location, the institutional structures and policies affecting a place, or the types of uses and activities undertaken in the space. Seyla Benhabib offers a procedural definition of public space. Understood procedurally, “public space” is any space that, through public address at a particular time, is transformed as a site of political action through speech and persuasion. In Benhabib’s formulation, “public space” is not merely “open” space, or physical, absolute, geographical space. More to the point, public space is never merely space in this physical sense. This represents an approach to public space that contrasts with Carragee’s view of public space as material, empirical, and concrete, as opposed to the public sphere which he sees as more conceptual and virtual. In Benhabib’s procedural definition these realms are not so clearly distinguished from one another.
This essay will further explore influential notions of public space, the public sphere, and their relationship to one another. The first section will review significant and influential approaches to this nexus as represented by three prominent theorists. The second section looks at how the contemporary city has figured as a key referent in discussion of public space and the public sphere. The third section considers how the introduction of networked communication technologies has complicated understandings this relationship. Finally, I conclude with some contemporary issues facing work in this area.
Three Models of the Public Realm: Arendt, Habermas, Sennett
Hannah Arendt was a political theorist who wrote about power, authority, totalitarianism, and democracy. In one of her best known and most influential works, “The Human Condition,” she surveyed different conceptions and enactments of human activity beginning in ancient societies. The second section of this book is dedicated to “the private and public realms.” According to Arendt, life in ancient Greek society was divided between the private realm and the public realm. The private realm was the sphere of the household, and the public realm was the site of “action”. Activity in the private realm was preoccupied with bodily necessities, whereas the public realm was free of these necessities and in which one could distinguish oneself through great works and deeds. Arendt further proposes a dichotomy of human life based on the concepts of “zoe” and “bios”. Both words are etymologically linked to mean “life,” but Arendt is distinguishing human activity into two modes: animalistic (zoe) and humanistic (bios). This distinction between zoe and bios is connected to Arendt’s notion of life in the market versus public space, which she also refers to as the private realm (oikos) and the public realm (polis). Arendt considers the market an impoverished place where subjects are treated as animals, mere consumers driven to satisfy bodily and selfish needs. In the context of the oikos, one’s human identity and individuality is of no importance: in order to purchase a commodity, you need only pay the appropriate price, regardless of who you are. In the public realm, by contrast, the individual identity of each subject does acquire prominence. Through public discussion subjects or speakers are recognized as unique human beings who are inexchangeable with anyone else. Without language, human beings live on the level of “laboring animals,” merely concerned with continuing their lives. Through the medium of linguistic communication, humans open themselves up to the existence of others as well as the existence of a world that is shared with others. This then is the key idea in Arendt’s distinction between the private and public realms: people live privately as animals, and as humans only in public. Arendt valorizes the types of relations in ancient cities such as Athens, but she distinguishes between the built environment and the polis. She says that the polis, properly understood, does not refer to the physical city-state but to the relations that emerge from acting and speaking together, regardless of where the participants are. “Not Athens, but Athenians, were the polis.”
Jurgen Habermas defined the public sphere as “the sphere of private individuals come together as a public.” Similar to Arendt, he also considers this “public” relation as rooted in and a consequence of discourse and communication. Habermas’ notion of the public sphere is based on an empirical study of voluntary social associations and literary practices that emerged in Europe in the 18th century. The emergence of a “debating public” and an ethos of local governance were tied to the development of “provincial urban” institutions. These included coffee houses, salons, and theaters. Habermas’ study of the bourgeois public sphere is not only an account of specific historical phenomena, it also represents a normative ideal for rational-critical debate and deliberative politics. As such, Habermas’ theory has been interpreted as distinctly aspatial, not concerned with physical spaces but rather only an abstract discursive space. Several critics have argued that in order for Habermas’ theory to function as both a historical social explanation and a normative political idea, as his study proposes, it must be founded in an understanding of situated contexts of specific communities.
Richard Sennett is an urban sociologist who has written extensively on city design, public life, and civic engagement. His first book, “The Uses of Disorder,” argued that excessively ordered environments stifle personal development, and that people who live in such environments end up with overly rigid worldviews and insufficiently developed political consciousness. Sennett calls for practices of city design that allow for unpredictability, anarchy, and creative disorder that will foster adults better equipped to confront the complexities of life. In “The Conscience of the Eye” Sennett suggests that the built forms of modern cities are bland and neutralized spaces that diminish contact and wall people off from encounters with the Other. His remedy for this condition is a creative art of exposure to others and city life that should instill an appreciation for and empathy with difference. “A city,” Sennett says, “should be a school for learning to live a centered life.” Sennett’s book “The Fall of Public Man” outlines the decline of public life since the 18th century. In the 18th century, Sennett argues, public and private space were more clearly delineated than today. The disappearance of public space in the 20th century is attributed to a rise in intimacy and narcissism associated with industrial capitalism. In an essay titled “The Public Realm,” Sennett situates his approach to public life in relation to Arendt and Habermas. Sennett describes Arendt’s model of the public realm as inherently political and based on public deliberation in which participants discard their private interests. He calls Arendt the champion of the urban center “par excellence,” as the population density of urban centers provides the condition of anonymity that he sees as central to Arendt’s ideal. Sennett considers Habermas less interested in place than Arendt, as his theory includes mass produced texts such as newspapers as sites for the public sphere. For Habermas, Sennett states, the public realm is “any medium, occasion, or event” that facilitates free communication among strangers. Regarding his own approach, Sennett defines the public realm as “a place where strangers can come together.” He emphasizes that the public realm is a place, traditionally understood as a location on the ground, but Sennett states that developments in communication technologies have challenged this sense of place. Today “cyberspace” can function as a public realm as much as any physical place. Sennett also argues that “the public realm is a process.” As is evident in the arguments from his books summarized above, Sennett believes that shared spaces that accommodate unplanned and unmanaged encounters between strangers are beneficial for personal and social development. His emphasis on incompleteness and process, as opposed to fixity and determination, recalls Chantal Mouffe’s concept of agonistic Pluralism. Mouffe challenges the ideal espoused by Habermas that the deliberative ideal should be consensus reached by rational individuals. She argues that for freedom to exist the intrusion of conflict must be allowed for. The democratic process, Mouffe says, should provide an arena for the emergence of conflict and difference. Similarly Sennett says that daily experience doesn’t register much without “disruptive drama.”
The Modern City as Public Realm
In her book “Justice and Political Difference,” political theorist Iris Marion Young writes of city life as a normative ideal for communicative and political interaction. Young states that urbanity must be understood as an inherent aspect of life in advanced industrial societies, and that the material of our environment and structures available to us presuppose the forms of interactions that occur in these spaces. By “city life” Young refers to a type of social relation that she refers to as “a relation among strangers.” Urban experience, and in particular urban spaces, provide ideal conditions for the exposure to difference lives that a politics of difference should be predicated on. Young states that public spaces are crucial for open communicative democracy.
In “City of Rhetoric,” rhetorical scholar David Fleming argues that the city is the ideal context for the revitalization of the public sphere. He proposes an ideal space of relation that is between the intimacy of friends and family, on the one hand, and the mutual suspicion of strangers on the other. Fleming argues that the built environment and public space of the city is perfectly situated between users, relating and separating them at the same.
Don Mitchell has written about the “disappearance of public space” in the modern city. In a similar vein to influential critiques of the Habermasian public sphere, Mitchell states that the ideal of public space “open to all” has never been an existing state of affairs, but the ideal of public space circulates to powerful effect. For instance, Mitchell says, the circulation of the “open” public space ideal has served as a rallying call for successive waves of political movements to utilize space for activism and inclusionary ends.
Mediated Spaces and Mediated Spheres
Since Habermas’ formulation the idea of the public sphere has included elements of mediation. Habermas directly implicates the mass media in “The Structural Transformation,” citing the role of literature and the press in establishing the bourgeois public sphere, and the impact of television and other commercial mass media in diminishing the public sphere. The advent of the World Wide Web in the 1990s spawned enthusiasm from some regarding the deliberative and participatory potential of the medium. To some, the Internet seemed to realize all the ideals of Habermas’ public sphere. It was universal, non-hierarchical, based on uncoerced communication, and enabled public opinion formation based on voluntary deliberation. By these principles, and many others, the Internet looked like the realization of the ideal speech situation. Iveson suggests that the procedural understanding of public space allows various media to be understood as “public spaces” because they facilitate the formation of publics. Other scholars have considered media as new “spaces” for interaction. Sheller and Urry have compared new media to Arendt’s “space of appearances,” suggesting that in the digital age this “space” may be a “screen” on which public matters appear.
Still other scholars have voiced opposing accounts of the relationship between virtual spaces and the ideals of the public sphere. Don Mitchell has argued that the Internet can never meet or surpass the street as a public space, saying the infrastructure of the medium precludes certain uses and political opportunities. Public space remains crucial because it makes it possible for disadvantaged groups to occupy the space in a way that is precluded in virtual space. This space is especially important for homeless people because it is also a space to be and live in; a space for living rather than just visibilization. Iris Marion Young also addresses the distinction between physical space and virtual space with her concept of “embodied public space.” She says that media can facilitate public address and formation, and in this sense is not dependent on physical space. To the extent that public space is shrinking, or that individuals are withdrawing from public space, there is a democratic crisis. She uses the term “embodied public space” to refer to streets, squares, plazas, parks, and other physical spaces of the built environment that she deems crucial to allowing access to anyone and enabling encounters with difference. These spaces allow varieties of public interaction that are fundamental to her notion of city life as a normative ideal.
Jodi Dean has persistently criticized the “inclusionary ideal” promoted by the internet as an ideology of technocracy that she calls “communicative capitalism.” Dean’s article “Why the Net is Not a Public Sphere” challenges claims that the Internet can enable the ideals of the public sphere. In the public sphere ideal, communicative exchange is supposed to provide the basis for real political action. Under conditions of communicative capitalism, these exchanges function merely as message circulation rather than acclamations to be responded to. Political theorist Robert Putnam posited a decline of social capital in U.S. communities since 1950 in his book “Bowling Alone.” Putnam cites evidence of civic decline indicated by decreased voter turnout, public meeting attendance, and committee participation. The book’s title refers to the fact that while the number of Americans who bowl has increased in past decades, the number of people who participate in bowling leagues has declined. He attributes this fall in social capital to the “individualizing” of leisure time enabled by television and the Internet. Sherry Turkle has similarly argued for a technologically-promoted decline of physical proximity and interaction in the book “Alone Together.” Iveson has responded to such criticisms by arguing that the “stage” and “screen” (or “print” and “polis”) should not be seen as mutually exclusive arenas. Rather, he points to examples where movements of co-present interaction were facilitated through, managed by, or arranged around mediated forms of interaction.
There are several areas where continued research into the relationship between public space and the public sphere could be productive. First, it is important to consider how networked technology and mediated communication have changed the use of public space. Have the dispersed networks of power, access, and participation diminished the potency of public space for realizing political agency? Are these changes reversing Arendt’s formulation of the public and private realms? Has the logic of the market short circuited the function of the polis? Have new uses of public space emerged, and have traditional uses disappeared? It is now common for bodies to occupy physical space while their gaze and consciousness are directed not at their environment but at their various devices. How does this change our understanding of and approach to public and shared spaces? What does mean in relation to Mitchell and Young’s arguments about the role of “embodied public space”? In light of pervasive mediation in daily life it is important to affirm the fundamental importance of physical locations as public space.
Secondly, it is important not just to consider physical and virtual space in a dichotomous relationship, but also how they interrelate. How are digital technologies and mediated communication intersecting with the use of public space, and vice versa? To be clear, the phenomena at the core of this question are not new. Habermas’ model of the bourgeois public sphere concerns the relation between mass media and association in public space. More recently, the political uprisings collectively referred to as the “Arab Spring” brought attention to this issue. After social media and text messaging were use to organize demonstrations in Cairo, Egypt that eventually led to the removal of president Mubarak, pundits and media theorists began referring to this social movement as the “Twitter revolution.” Again, it is important to differentiate between the means of communication used to exchange information and organize bodies, and the site of political protest as represented in this case by Tahrir Square.
Finally, the implementation of information technology into the built environment is raising questions about the role of technologies in public space and civic life. In a November 2016 article, urban media scholar Shannon Mattern considered this issue in relation to the implementation and subsequent shuttering of the LinkNYC terminals in New York City. The LinkNYC initiative involved replacing telephone booths throughout the sidewalks of Manhattan with kiosks that provided access to electricity and wireless internet service. The city government promoted the terminals as places where tourists could access maps and online information and New Yorkers could charge their cell phones. The resultant “misuse” of these terminals, exemplified by people using the service for watching pornography or illicitly downloading media, resulted in the program being suspended indefinitely. Mattern uses this example to argue the importance of “vital spaces of information exchange” in our public spaces. She suggests that ideologies of “data solutionism” have influenced planning commissions to the detriment of small, local, and analog data perspectives that she considers essential to urban life. Mattern encourages city planning boards and project committees to include librarians and archivists in their ranks in the interest of such spaces of information exchange. At stake, Mattern argues, is the nature and well-being of our democracy.
These are just a few of the issues and questions that I think should inform future research into the relationship between public space and the public sphere. My own work is informed by these questions, and my interest in “smart city” policies and practices of implementation seeks to extend and challenge the conceptual zones outlined in this essay. Related questions explored in my research include: changing conceptions of public and private infrastructure; shifting models of civic engagement; and the predominance of market rationalities and discourses in (re)shaping the built environment. These questions are likely to only increase in prominence in the foreseeable future, and unforeseen developments are always arising. The essential questions of public space and the public sphere, however, will remain of crucial importance in our increasingly interconnected collective lives.
I used to live one street over from the Penn Plaza apartments, one of the last affordable housing complexes in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood. The other low income rental units and high rise housing towers, built as part of sweeping urban renewal projects starting in the 1960s, have all been demolished and replaced with market-rate apartments and retail space. In the summer of 2015, the 200+ residents of Penn Plaza received notices that the property owners had sold the land for redevelopment, and giving tenants 90 days to vacate the premises. Following uproar from tenants and other community members who were shocked at the manner in which this decision was made and communicated, the city intervened to delay both the evictions and the demolition (the second of the two buildings is still standing, and people still living there have until March to relocate).
The developer’s plans for the Penn Plaza space was finally revealed this past summer: new high-end rental units and businesses including a Whole Foods grocery store. Whole Foods has earned ire for its expensive and sometimes outlandish offerings, is identified with an affluent-white consumer ethos, and has become iconic of gentrifying development (see the season-long gentrification arc on South Park in which the arrival of Whole Foods in a formerly divested neighborhood is treated as the catalyst for a demographic shift). The announcement that the Penn Plaza site was to house a new Whole Foods carried a particularly bitter irony because there already is a Whole Foods in the neighborhood, essentially across the street from the proposed location (calling it a stone’s throw away seems accurate). The current Whole Foods store in East Liberty opened in 2002 amidst the arrival of similar corporate retail outlets and other new developments that heralded the neighborhood’s rapid gentrification. The market was built as part of a suburban-style shopping center with accompanying parking lot that seems to be invariably congested and unfailingly irritating to shoppers, cars and buses trying to pass by on the street, and especially pedestrians using the adjacent city sidewalks. The new Whole Foods would include a larger parking lot, part of what a company representative described as “new opportunities to surprise and delight our expanding base of shoppers in Pittsburgh” (blech).
Last week the city planning commission unanimously rejected the developers’ proposal for the Penn Plaza site. This decision was unexpected, and received cheers and ovation when it was announced in the commission meeting. Why had the commissioners resoundingly rejected the plan? Their decision seemed to hinge upon a perceived lack of community engagement. As reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
“It begins with and ends with the community engagement piece. And at the end of the day, I don’t believe there was any evidence that there were result-oriented parts of the application and presentation that proved that the community gave input,” said commission vice chairwoman Lashawn Burton-Faulk.
The representative for the developers disagreed with this assessment:
Jonathan Kamin, attorney for developer LG Realty Advisors, said afterward that he was disappointed with the decision, arguing that the proposal met all of the requirements needed for approval.
He disputed the commission’s contention that the plan lacked community input. He said the developer held more than 35 meetings with the various constituencies and groups, adding it was “public engagement like the city has never had.”
What to make of this discrepancy in interpretation? Why did the planning commissioners consider the level of community engagement deficient when the developer believed they had conducted an unprecedented degree of engagement? At issue is the very definition of community engagement and the standards to which such practices should be held. Community or public engagement has emerged as a procedural standard in urban planning and development, and while such engagement practices may fall short of realizing the ideals of deliberative democracy to which these terms seem to aspire, at the very least it has been accepted as part of the “due diligence” of the development process. In this most recent decision on the Penn Plaza development there is an evident contrast between standards of quantity and standards of quality. The attorney for the developers cited the number of public meetings held as evidence of “public engagement like the city has never had.” The commission members, by contrast, cited a shallowness of responsiveness as indicative of the poor quality of engagement. Can one-way communication be considered sufficient “engagement”? In this case the planning board is arguing that it cannot; the developers may have held 35 meetings informing attendees of their plans, but their process did not reflect any substantive response to community input, and this was a crucial factor in the commission’s rejection. Of course, one major question that bears asking in this case is: why was there no requirement for community engagement before people were displaced and their homes destroyed?
It remains to be seen what will become of the Penn Plaza site (as well as the ostensibly public park space situated on the lot), and although the planning commission’s decision doesn’t reverse the displacement of hundreds of East Liberty residents, I still find it heartening. This decision signals that city managers are taking community engagement seriously, holding such practices to a standard beyond a mere perfunctory formality, and requiring they be more meaningful than an empty gesture. I am currently working on a study of community engagement practices in another major redevelopment project in Pittsburgh, so I found last week’s news of the planning board’s decision especially salient. More than affirming my own interest in studying community engagement practices, it demonstrates that the theory and practice of public engagement can bear material consequences to urban development projects. I hope that this result will inspire planners and developers to raise their own standards for community engagement.