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.)