Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Cleaning Up" Cities, Sliding towards American Brasilias

Suburbanization has perhaps been the central feature of the reorganization of power and property in the United States over the past half-century. Contemporary policies of crime control and those of suburban land management are intertwined in myriad ways. There’s plenty of work to be done in investigating dialectics here; some of Jonathan's recent work suggests that homicide has been a central conceptual and material pivot in the post-war period's respatialization of capital-as-real-property. Similarities closer to the surface are patent as well. In addition to managing risk and minimizing security contingencies at the expense of other values historically valorized in Western democracies, both suburbanization and governing through crime have been driven by top-down policymaking, typified by phenomena like Celebration, Florida or the War on Drugs. Both are characterized by master-planning and grand visions of uniformity.

While grandiose, top-down city/suburb planning has been common in the United States since at least the days of Robert Moses, it’s worth noting that this country has never taken on the project of building a modern, “model” major city from the ground up and actually seen it through, as Brazil did in the creation of Brasilia. Geoff Manaugh’s thoughtful architectural blog, BLDGBLOG, recently uncovered a stillborn and forgotten American Brasilia called California City. Designed by Nat Mendelsohn, a real estate developer, sociology professor, and would-be Robert Moses, and meant to “rival Los Angeles,” California City is still the 3rd largest city in the state in terms of geographic size. But its population has hovered around 12,000, its enormous manmade lake has dried up, and it now lies as a surreal “geoglyph” known primarily as the home of a several-thousand-bed state prison.

It’s hard to imagine what an American Brasilia might look like without ending up with an image of the contemporary American suburb. Even now, the meticulously planned, strictly policed, demographically homogeneous, and decidedly un-urban suburb functions as a sort of psychological retreat for Americans increasingly focused on a perceived crime epidemic (and even for those without the means to utilize it as a physical fortress). Crackdowns by mayors like Rudy Giuliani and Frank Rizzo have perhaps eroded popular disgust with the city since it reached its nadir in the 1980s, but the image of the city as hotbed of crime that must be "cleaned up" and made safe for commerce persists. Indeed, the larger planned cities that still exist in the U.S., like Irvine, California, tend to remain in the low six figures of both population and average income: small enclaves of affluence more than cities per se.

Still, walking around San Francisco’s Mission District, Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, or Chicago’s Pilsen, it’s easy to witness the entrĂ©e of suburban commercial and demographic patterns into the city, a sort of white flight back to the urban, epitomized by grand plans like Jerry Brown’s Oakland 10k Housing Initiative. It’s an open question whether we should understand such developments as just another phase in a long line of "urban renewal" projects typified by neighborhoods like Chicago’s Hyde Park (and perhaps, in the shadow of its fallout, Woodlawn) or a new phase, less top-down and more folk, less typified by Moses and more typified by the emergence of a new urban bourgeoisie into the "safer" spaces created by increasingly punitive crime control measures. Social mores incubated in suburbs often governed by strict covenants on land use and xenophobic views of perceived city-dwellers, which promise ever more strict governance of crime, may follow.

It would be a mistake to treat such urban overhaul as nothing more than a symptom of ever-shifting capital, instead of recognizing it as a spectacular historical development with potentially dire consequences. Crime control policies, whether "quality of life" ordinances, omnipresent security cameras, or dragnet-style arrests, continue to play a central role in gentrifying American cities like New Orleans and San Francisco. The worrying aspect of such developments, at least for those of us who would trade the uniformity and perceived security of the suburb for the variety and dynamic unpredictability of the city, is that in spite of the failure of plans like California City, we may end up with American Brasilias, or elite-planned, tightly controlled, suburbanized cities, after all.

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