if you build it, they will come: placemaking and waste-making in the post-industrial city

At first glance, everything else made some sort of sense except the bocce ball courts. Pulling out every third tree made sense to city planners who were anxious about drug dealing, public drinking, and the other similarly shady details that they suggested had been sheltered in the shadows of the park’s canopy. And dismantling the enormous pergola made sense to anyone who didn’t want a great big rain-shelter in the park. (Seattle is, after all, affectionately called the “Rain City,” and free outdoor shelter space is in absurdly short supply.) Food Not Bombs used to hand out food underneath it on rainy Sunday afternoons, so this generally seemed like a counterproductive move from our perspective—and presumably also from the perspective of the sixty or seventy people who queued up under the shelter to eat with us—but the local business association, which signed off on the new plans for Occidental Park, seemed to have made its peace with the idea. One presumes they had their reasons for imagining the park better off without the proverbial huddled masses huddling proverbially under it during the odd downpour. At the public commentary session I attended (along with quite a few other Food Not Bombs volunteers and homeless advocates), deputy parks superintendent B.J. Brooks suggested that the space previously occupied by the pergola might eventually be earmarked for an outpost of Tully’s Coffee or Starbucks. And this too, from an ever-so-slightly mercenary, pecuniary perspective made sense: Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighbourhood, home to Occidental Park, has long vacillated between mascot (and tourist attraction) for Seattle’s historic identity and magnet for the down-and-out. Anything that attracted extra financial or cultural capital to the neighbourhood could help tip the balance. Such businesses can, according to the city’s Downtown Parks and Public Spaces Taskforce, “activate” a park. Which is to say: “Retail activity can create interest and bring activity to the parks, which will, in turn, improve park safety and perceptions about the parks as attractive, welcoming destinations.” Not at all coincidentally, the taskforce suggests that businesses also act as “‘natural monitors’ to discourage and report uncivil or illegal behavior.” And of course they don’t fail to mention that business in the park contributes to city revenues as well.

Occidental Park’s million-dollar facelift in 2006 was part of the taskforce’s scheme to make the city’s parks more “people friendly and diverse.” They wrote, “As rising numbers of individuals and families look to downtown as a livable and active residential area, it’s time for Seattle to make its downtown parks the beautiful, vibrant and welcoming public spaces they were meant to be. As downtown booms, the parks should bloom.”  Borrowing the euphemisms of “revitalization” and “renaissance” from so many other urban redevelopment projects around the country and the globe, the taskforce seems to be saying that the newly landscaped parks should be part and parcel of the new urban landscapes of prosperity attending the comparative boomtown which Seattle has become in recent years. Their vision for a people-friendly space seems to be circumscribed by a public whose fortunes are wrapped up in the market—what I call a market-public.

Of course, that the park was already friendly (or, at least, not thoroughly hostile) to a different, largely unsheltered kind of public life did not go unmentioned. Far from it, the fact that the park was in regular use by homeless people and substance abusers was consistently mentioned in the same breath as its need for change in newspaper reports and blueprints of the new park. One local resident was quoted as saying, “Almost anything (the city) could do would be an improvement. (The park) has been such a disgrace. On the north side is where the mentally ill people congregate, and the south side is where the drug dealers hang out. This is going to let some sun in.” Implicitly, the interests of the mentally ill, the addicts, and the homeless users of the park are at crossed purposes with Seattle’s sunny social and economic prospects.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Katie Comer, of the local business association, explained the fundamental logic behind the new design: “What we’re trying to do is replace the negative activity with positive activity.”

The park’s facelift, and some of the tensions attending it, I would like to suggest below, scratch at the surface of the intimate relationship between the aspirations of market-publics in cities like Seattle, which have profited from the globalised circulation of goods, services, and finance, and the abject forms of life and economy which are generated at the margins of the markets public.

None of which quite explains the bocce courts.

Bocce ball isn’t very popular in Seattle, you see. Even mayor Greg Nickels, a strong proponent of the new park, needed a bocce lesson when he held the park’s opening ceremonies in 2006, (ibid). One of my Food Not Bombs comrades who grew up in New England contrasted Seattle’s near-nonexistent love of bocce ball with her experiences of Italian-American neighbourhoods in North Boston, where bocce ball is the done thing: “Did they think if they installed bocce courts, packs of old Italian men would suddenly materialise in the park?”

She may be onto something. While bocce is probably not Seattle’s next big thing, the bocce courts were suggested by a New York design firm which specialises in what it calls “placemaking.” (Or, if you like: “If you build it, they will come,” as my friend described the apparent logic behind the bocce courts and the heralded Italian septuagenarians.) The group, Project for Public Spaces, calls placemaking “both a philosophy and a process.” On paper, this approach to planning “takes root when a community expresses needs and desires about places in their lives,” (ibid). In the case of Occidental Park, though, the firm’s suggestions for activating the park were openly “heretical” to local residents’ sensibilities—in the president’s own words, no less—taking more after the landscape architecture of Copenhagen than the Pacific Northwest. Fortunately, at planning meetings, local residents had the chance to red-light the worst of these suggested heresies. The astroturf remained a mere splotch of green pencil. And the park’s existing totem poles, ivy, and firefighter statue escaped the proposed chopping block. (While the trees weren’t so lucky, they were at least in some way commemorated by the post-facto judgement of the courts in favour of several residents who sued to keep them in the park.) Bocce courts and brick paving (replacing the old cobblestones) mustn’t have seemed like much of a concession, in comparison.

Nonetheless, the Costneresque globalism at work here (Seattle-come-Copenhagen-come-North-Boston-by-way-of-New-York) reflects a speculative, utopic vision of the future of public life shared by a lot of urban redevelopment projects (along with the vitalistic euphemisms—which sound a bit worn out these days, ironically enough). Envisioning Seattle’s park of the future, for example, the taskforce describes “a vibrant gathering space for a broad, urban democracy.” Their meeting notes add variety of evocative sketches of this urban vision, from “a visual outdoor gallery” to “the backyard for downtown residents… a place for a picnic, barbecue, or a glass of wine,” (ibid).

It’s telling that they describe it as a backyard, rather than, say, a living room. (A place to play a very civil game of bocce ball, but not to get a night’s sleep. A place to drink a glass of wine, but not a forty-ounce of malt liquor.) The market-public conjured up in this speculative vision invariably engages in a relatively civil (read: bourgeois, or at least not especially cheap) kind of public life, and then has somewhere to go home to at night. (City attourney Mark Sidran’s civility laws in the 1990s, after all, included an 11pm curfew for the parks.)

But it’s even more telling that, surpassing all these sketches, the very first priority listed for the park of the future is that it be “clean, clean, clean,” (ibid).

In other words: “Out, damned spot.”

The grit and disorder of urban living are characteristic stumbling blocks for the speculative urban utopianisms of city planners and developers. From the renaissance in the last thirty years of “broken windows” theories of public order to the sixteenth century French edict to lock up one’s own “sullied waters” indoors, described in Dominique LaPorte’s The History of Shit (1993), cities have often reckoned their worth by the identification and negation of what, in contrast, seems derelict, dis-eased, and dirty. What is, in anthropologist Mary Douglas’ terms, “matter out of place.” But the secret of these incipient utopianisms is that they are never very far away from their erstwhile dystopias. While the ideals of civilisation (“making civil”) are put to work fashioning “socially useful values and goods,” LaPorte explains, waste is every bit as much their product, discursive and material: “The necessary outcome of socially profitable production, it is the inevitable by-product of cleanliness, order, and beauty,” (14). Cities in particular, he writes, embody the intimate antagonisms between the civil utopianism of the market and its roots in the production of waste:

“The town, as opposed to the country, becomes the site of the rot-proof and advances a new space of the visible. Where shit was, so shall gold be. And with its entrance, gold proclaims its implicit and ambivalent relation to excrement. Beautified, ordered, aggrandized, and sublimated, the town opposes itself to the mud of the countryside. But in so doing, it also exposes itself, in the notoriously virginal face of nature, as a place of corruption. ‘The bourgeois reeks!’ ‘He stinks of money!’ So says the citoyen… If the shit that glows in the fields becomes the lasting gold of city streets, the stench of shit lingers where gold sleeps,” (LaPorte 1993, 39).

The contemporary markets and market-publics upon which globalising, post-industrial cities like Seattle have often hung their collective aspirations have been built on just such kinds of placemaking and waste-making. On one hand, if you build the bocce courts (or the stadium, the art museum, the symphony hall, and so on) the markets-public will come. On the other hand, the abject people and things exempted or excepted from these public efforts will have to go somewhere else.

Not without payoffs of a kind, mind you. Despite a progressive divestment from the urban safety net by upper tiers of government over the last thirty years so, for example, Seattle’s economic successes have allowed it to channel its tax revenues to the human services budget and insulate many of these programs from cuts made at the state and federal levels.

But these projects also produce and segregate urban cultural economies. Market value and marketability are reckoned dialectically—an accumulation of value at one end of the spectrum implies a comparative depreciation at another. And market-publics reckon value spectacularly through public circulation, and are therefore bounded by spectacular wastelands. Elsewhere, I have written mainly about waste as the discursive and material counterpart of these markets and publics. But, of course, markets and publics must exist in space, as must the waste they make. The geographies through which they are performed and produced are often metropolitan in scale. The “shining city upon a hill” of popular imagination is inevitably superimposed onto erstwhile metropolises of surplus and waste, surfeit and want.

With all this in mind, maybe the full irony of the following observation become clear: On the Sunday after the Occidental Park’s grand reopening, when the chain-link barriers had come down and Food Not Bombs was once again able to hand out food from the middle of the park, neither the old Italian men nor the young urban professionals materialised to take advantage of the bocce courts; But undeterred by the new courts, or the absent canopy, the crowd of hungry and homeless people waiting to eat with us was no smaller than on any given Sunday in the old park; And, while they waited, some of them were playing bocce ball.

(This is an excerpt adapted from my doctoral dissertation, completed in 2013.)

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About artnoiserhetoric

So much to say, so little time... Watch this space.
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2 Responses to if you build it, they will come: placemaking and waste-making in the post-industrial city

  1. Meg says:

    Every bit as good as I thought it would be!

    Some thoughts, which I guess I’ll order sort of by paragraph:

    The comment about businesses being natural monitors to discourage uncivil or illegal behavior reminds me of the story I think I told you about unlocked cars in the North End. That same friend that I stayed with also liked to tell me about the Nonnas in their lawn chairs. They would be out all day when the weather was nice, talking and seeing everyone who came up and down the street. When he got home on a nice spring day his son would often ask him whether the Nonnas were out yet, as if they were flowers. I suppose like businesses and the mob, they act as natural monitors (though Nonna’s and the mob perhaps are more likely to approach
    someone directly, or call their mother, than turn to the police).

    So, onward to paragraph 7 or so: It’s the North End, not North Boston (North Boston would be a vague term meaning maybe the north metro area generally. And Boston has the South End,
    and also South Boston (Southie), so if there was a North Boston it would be distinct from the North End.) Something along the lines of “Boston’s Italian-American neighborhood (singular), the North End” would be appropriate. (Or neighbourhood…)
    Singular, I guess, becasue even though there are surely Italian-Americans elsewhere it’s considered the Italian cultural center of the city.

    There’s something about my mental image of old men materializing, and the bocce courts, that I don’t think I expressed, or really fully formulated before. The thing is, if the park was in the ID and bocce courts were proposed, perhaps comments at public meetings woud have been along the lines of “But people will trip over them doing Tai Chi!” But what about Pioneer Square? The bocce courts, to me, didn’t seem out of place, but begged the
    question, what would be in place? Maybe it’s a New England/Boston bias of mine, but I wouldn’t consider Pioneer Square a neighborhood. In that a requirement for a neighborhood would be actual neighbors, as opposed to businesses. So the fact that the city seemed to be trying to not only start a neighborhood from nothing, in a retail/service center area, but also homogenize and pasteurize (that is, increase retail activity and decrease loitering) while doing so, was both fascinating and disturbing to me becuase it seemed to show a total lack of understanding of what culture, or a neighborhood, is. Also saying that bocce is the “done thing” in the North End makes it sound hip I think, the “traditional” thing maybe would be more appropriate. I don’t mean to say that neighborhoods have more culture when they’re homogeneous, even a little park like Occidental would have had plenty of room for both bocce and Tai Chi, or whatever else neighbors might want, if the area actualy existed as a neighborhood.. To jump back to the first paragraph, you describe
    the neighbourhood 🙂 as vascillating between mascot for historical identity and magnet for down-and-out. For readers unfamiliar with the area a more detailed picture of it might be helpful, maybe emphasising how many service centers are there, and how many/few housing units.

    Paragraph 10 is perhaps my favorite, the contrast between a backyard and a living room. (Would astroturf have inadvertantly made it more of a living room? A sort of wall to wall carpeting, probably more comfortable to sit and sleep on than pavers). Along with an expanded description of the neighborhood, the removal of benches and the pubic toilet need
    more emphasis I think. And it’s just occured to me in thinking about
    this comparison that many of the people that the citry wanted to discourage from using the park only look like they might sleep there, but are actually using it as a backyard, because it is the backyard of the shelter they stay at. But of course it’s all about the type of liquor you drink at the park, and the clothes you wear. And whether you share your picnic with people you don’t know 🙂

    And, on to paragraph 15 or so! “If you build the bocce courts (or the stadium, the art museum, the symphony hall, and so on) the markets-public will come”. Is that true? I see the bocce courts as an acknowledgement that the markets-public are looking also for the sort of elusive thing that commercialism can’t produce, that grows often out of the “grit and disorder” of a community, Boston’s North End for example was a gritty, disordered immigrant community at
    one time, back when bocce arrived there.

    Sherman Alexie’s short story, What You Pawn I Will Redeem (http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2003/04/21/030421fi_fiction?currentPage=1) is set in Pioneer Square, and I think sort of ties the market and non-market (that is the community, cultural, knowing your neighbors, elusive to city planners, thing I’ve been yammering on about), together. Well I suppose it doesn’t so much tie them together as sort of throw whatever value has accumulated at the market end back over to the non-market. In any case, you might enjoy it and find in it some more good literary quotes to use! In the P-I article about the park reopening I get the impression that the new “crowd” of workers using the park are sitting alone in chairs, reading their books, while the old crowd is congregated on the benches by the bocce courts. It makes me wonder if there wasn’t more to the bench removal than discouraging sleeping. And along those lines, it’s not surprising that the people who know each other are the only ones I ever saw play bocce, it
    being a group sport after all. Whatever happens to Pioneer Square, the image of Alexie’s three Aleuts sitting on a bench will be the sort of Pioneer Square I remember: (“I sat on the bench with them. We sat in silence for a long time. I wondered if we would fossilize if we
    sat there long enough…..”Do you guys know any songs?”) Good stuff!

    Ok, I hope that’s helpful, and not too off subject.

    • Meg! I took your advice and added a bit more about the social geography of Pioneer Square, and about the removal of the benches and the toilet in the first section… the amendment led me here, to the original recommendations for the park by the Project for Public Spaces: http://www.seattle.gov/parks/proparks/projects/PioneerSqReport6-22-04.pdf
      There’s a wonderful (horrifying) part of the report (p.39) where they call the old benches as “anti-social.” I can’t help but picture the benches barking at poor young urban professionals who try to sit down on them with their lunch!

      I also quoted you in the footnotes as follows:

      “The thing is, if the park was in the ID [the International District] and bocce courts were proposed, perhaps comments at public meetings would have been along the lines of, ‘But people will trip over them doing Tai Chi!’ But what about Pioneer Square? The bocce courts, to me, didn’t seem out of place, but begged the
      question, what would be in place? Maybe it’s a New England/Boston bias of mine, but I wouldn’t consider Pioneer Square a neighborhood. In that a requirement for a neighborhood would be actual neighbors, as opposed to businesses. So the fact that the city seemed to be trying to not only start a neighborhood from nothing, in a retail/service center area, but also homogenize and pasteurize (that is, increase retail activity and decrease loitering) while doing so, was both fascinating and disturbing to me because it seemed to show a total lack of understanding of what culture, or a neighborhood, is…
      “…Would astroturf have inadvertently made it more of a living room? A sort of wall to wall carpeting, probably more comfortable to sit and sleep on than pavers… And it’s just occurred to me in thinking about
      this comparison that many of the people that the city wanted to discourage from using the park only look like they might sleep there, but are actually using it as a backyard, because it is the backyard of the shelter they stay at. But of course it’s all about the type of liquor you drink at the park, and the clothes you wear. And whether you share your picnic with people you don’t know.”

      Does that sound alright?

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