Paradoxes in public space

Public space in New York City (NYC) embodies the nation’s paradoxes. Some of it is fantastic, imaginative, almost utopian – but the corporate dead-hand is never far away. In other places though, there’s a neglect reflecting a different, forgotten America, but one where people may be more free to express and enjoy themselves.

I recently spent a morning in Bryant Park on 42nd Street, with the beautiful New York Public Library at its eastern edge. It was idyllic: flowers in bloom, birds, expensive coffee and a sense of calm in the heart of the city. In the past, I’ve been there on summer evenings for free, open air film screenings, the kind of experience that can make you feel that NYC truly is the greatest city on earth.

Bryant Park and New York Public Library
Bryant Park

But Bryant Park is a classic example of something that’s a blight on cities – Privately Owned Public Space, or “POPS”. This apparent oxymoron has become the norm in many places, but is a particular feature of NYC. In a metropolis designed with buying and selling land in mind (that was the main purpose of the grid system of linear, standard sized city blocks), it’s perhaps no surprise to find recreational space also privatised and commodified. However, POPS play an insidious role in both perpetuating what Samuel Stein calls “the real estate state” and as tools of social control.

In many cities, but perhaps more so in NYC, providing seemingly free-and-easy public, but in fact, up-tight private space, is now a firmly established part of the property developers’ play-book. They use POPS as bargaining chips with planners and politicians, but always with a cynical eye to protecting their own commercial investments – giving a bit with one hand, taking much more with the other.

Despite its qualities, Bryant Park, became notorious for how it circumscribed and controlled the behaviour of people using it and excluded others altogether. On my recent visit, the appearance of apparent inclusiveness was belied by the absence of homeless people utilising such lovely surroundings. Although this didn’t happen, I think it’s a fair bet that any who tried would be very quickly removed. They would fall foul of the long list of rules that govern Bryant Park and other places like it.

Again, NYC has a particular history of public space being a site of conflict. Tompkins Square Park, in the East Village, was the scene of big labour movement rallies in the late 19th century, anti-Vietnam War protests and violent police action to clear it of homeless people in the 1980s. The jewel in the crown of the city’s open space, Central Park, was created only after clearing it of working class Irish and African-American communities in the 1850s.

Today, the most impressive expanse of new NYC public/private space is along four miles of the Hudson River, including the striking Little Island, a multi-layered pontoon park, with amphitheaters, free concerts and general lounging around areas. It’s splendid, a kind of 21st century version of London’s 18th/19th century pleasure gardens. But these are the relatively small crumbs from the table of the massive corporate property developments that line the river.

Little Island, Hudson River Park

Elsewhere, the public domain is less glamorous. Walking many miles around the city, I’ve been struck by how decrepit the everyday environments of some working class communities are. Their condition can seem to spiral downwards from one block to the next, at the end of which roads are like rutted tracks, litter and refuge pile up, playgrounds crumble and pavements are completely overgrown and abandoned.

Pavement/sidewalk in the Bronx

One such area is along Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, but this is also where Hip-Hop was born. Legend has it of a global, cultural phenomenon that grew from local, informal street parties. I think it’s safe to say that no such behaviour would be permitted in Bryant Park or on Little Island. But similar urban creativity endures. Some of the dancers who perform for a few dollars on the Subway are worthy of expensive Broadway shows and between the cracks of decay, people still find a way to enhance their homes.

The creative sidewalk, Bronx

Public space here underlines my feeling that New York City is the best and worst of what a city can be. POPS are a grotesque distortion of urban life, but they could be easily taken into workers’ control (after we’ve got the banks) and flourish with the kind of spontaneity Lewis Mumford had in mind when he talked about creating “cities for lovers and friends”.

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