“Without a model, you are nowhere. A nation that can’t make models is a nation that doesn’t understand things, a nation that doesn’t live.” –Bodys Isek Kingelez
“Without a model, you are nowhere. A nation that can’t make models is a nation that doesn’t understand things, a nation that doesn’t live.” –Bodys Isek Kingelez
Annie Savoy: What do you believe in, then?
Crash Davis: Well, I believe in the soul. The cock, the pussy, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days. [pause] Goodnight’ (From ‘Bull Durham,’ (film), 1988).
2. Description of Gilead:
The lawns are tidy, the façades are gracious, in good repair; they’re like the beautiful pictures they used to print in the magazines about homes and gardens and interior decoration. There is the same absence of people, the same air of being asleep. The street is almost like a museum, or a street in a model town constructed to show the way people used to live. As in those pictures, those museums, those model towns, there are no children.
This is the heart of Gilead, where the war cannot intrude except on television. (From The Handmaid’s Tale (Book), Margaret Atwood, 1985).
Last year, I wrote about the myths of the ‘New South’; the buried ghosts of race, class, and history that lie just under the freshly-paved surface of places like my hometown of Durham, North Carolina. The contradictions and juxtapositions where it is possible to accidentally stumble across a slave graveyard while playing frisbee-golf, artisan coffee and bagel in the other hand. Where the rustic decay of tobacco curing barns shares space with the upturned red clay of a luxury subdivision construction site; where you might, if jogging through the woods, come across the remains of a stock-car speedway: the ‘Cheerwine’ and ‘Pepsi Cola’ signs still visible through the thick loblolly pine trees. And we could digress into the tropes of the Southern writer: air so heavy with humidity that you can’t breathe; grandma smoking a cigarette on the back screened-in porch; the way cicadas sound in July; the roll of thunder in an afternoon storm. I remember how that air smelled like tobacco on some days, or how it smelled right before the rain. The way you could hear at the same time the “crack” of a baseball bat hitting a ball and a passing train.
Ok, enough nostalgia.
Amazon.com and Apple Computers – two of the world’s largest and wealthiest companies – are looking at my modest hometown for their East Coast headquarters locations; Durham was one of the NYTimes’ “41 Places to go in 2011”, and I hardly recognize the place. There are condos selling for millions and new ‘mid-century modern’ hotels with swanky pool decks where I can’t afford a cocktail. Damn, Durham. Damn.
But let’s wind the clock back to 2001-2011, 10 years that really shook the ‘Bull City’: one ‘Staircase’, one ‘Lacrosse Case’; two popular documentary films; corrupt district attorneys; and a whole lot of dredged up skeletons of race, class, sexuality, and just pure Southern-Gothic weirdness. An exotic dancer accusing rich white boys of racially-motivated rape. A mansion that is a movie set and a real-live crime scene. Even the image of a woman (possibly) getting attacked by a bard owl, and slowly bleeding to death as her bisexual husband drinks wine by the pool. ‘The Staircase’, and ‘The Lacrosse Case’, three years apart, and linked by a creepy, dystopian movie filmed on-location that features, in one scene, a man’s body torn to pieces by angry handmaids.
If that ain’t Southern Gothic, I don’t know what is. You got nothing on this, Harper Lee.
Durham, the little tobacco town that punches above its weight, has had a few representations in film. One of these films, ‘Bull Durham’ (1988) was actually written for, set in, and filmed on – location in Durham. For that movie, Durham’s (then-abandoned) tobacco warehouses, old-school minor league baseball stadium, and kudzu-covered telephone poles made for a cutesy, wholesome backdrop for the love story between Crash Davis, the veteran ball player (Kevin Costner), and Annie Savoy, the no-bullshit, superstitious, Southern belle (Susan Sarandon). This year (2018), Durham celebrated the 30th-anniversary of the film, with a local screening at the Carolina Theater and on a big screen in outfield of the original ballpark. The ‘Hit Bull, Win Steak’ sign in the outfield that was erected as part of the movie set, still graces the outfield in the new (larger) stadium for the Durham Bulls Triple-A baseball team.
Some other movies were filmed locally (but set elsewhere) due to North Carolina’s film tax-credits, which, for a time, made the state one of the most popular filming locations outside of California. These tax credits are no longer, and film-making has moved to other (southern) states like Georgia and Louisiana. But Durham was the backdrop, strangely, for some pretty dystopian films (a sign of things to come, since life imitates art?)
For example, ‘Firestarter’, with Drew Barrymore, based on the Stephen King book, was filmed on-location in the Durham area in the early 1980s, taking advantage of the modern architecture of the ‘Research Triangle Park’.
Shortly after ‘Bull Durham’, the original film adaption of Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaids Tale’ was filmed in / around Durham, released in 1990. Much of the story involves the relationship between the Handmaid known as ‘Offred’ (or ‘Of Fred’, played by Natasha Richardson), her ‘Commander’ (played by Robert Duvall), and the Commander’s wife, Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway). The filming location for much of the story was the 1935 mansion at 1810 Cedar Street in Durham’s ‘Forest Hills’ neighborhood, a graceful area of mature trees and winding roads. The home was designed by noted local architect George Watts Carr for the prominent local Buchanan family (pictured below in a scene from the film).
In the dystopian city for which Durham provides the backdrop in the ‘Handmaid’s Tale’, the mansion (pictured) is the home of a high-ranking officer (Duvall) in the post-apocalyptic ‘Gilead’, a monstrous theocracy that replaced the United States after religious extremists staged a coup. In the mansion, we see the ‘ceremony’ take place: a horrific monthly religious ritual where the handmaid (Richardson) has sex with the Commander (Duvall) while lying between the legs of the commander’s wife (Dunaway). In Gilead, Handmaids are able to bear children, while most women are not (because of an environmental-toxin related infertility pandemic).
Other scenes filmed around Durham include public hanging of traitors to Gilead (downtown), and a graphic and dramatic public execution scene filmed at Duke Chapel on Duke University’s campus, where the handmaids are urged to rip apart a man accused of rape. This, as it turned out, is ironic on many levels.
We will return to Duke in a moment.
In 2001, Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in her home, 1810 Cedar Street (the same mansion as used in Handmaid’s Tale filming). Life imitates art.
Peterson’s husband, Michael Peterson, a local author, newspaper columnist and once-mayoral candidate, was accused of murdering his wife, and after one of the longest murder trials in North Carolina history, was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Peterson and his defense team maintain that Kathleen died as a result of an accidental fall, while prosecutors (and the jury) claimed she was murdered by Peterson by blows to the back of the head. Adding to further intrigue and controversy in the case was that the state presented as evidence both Michael Peterson’s bisexuality (sexual liaisons with local men), and the death of a family friend under similar circumstances in Germany in the 1980s. Michael Peterson served 8 years in prison before being released under house arrest. Later, the court determined that evidence had been mishandled and prejudicial, and Peterson was offered a re-trial. Rather than face the unknown outcome of a second jury trial, Peterson opted for an ‘Alford Plea’, in which he plead guilty, but maintained his innocence, having already served his time in prison and thus, walked away a free man. Questions remained about how, if not by murder, Kathleen Peterson died in such a bloody way. One local theory involves a possible owl attack, since the lacerations on Peterson’s head could match those of an owl’s talons, and micro-fibers were found on her corpse. The owl attack alone would make for a great Southern Gothic short story.
The case and surrounding publicity was gripping and macabre, generating much international press. It was also personal for those of us from Durham, since the Petersons were a well-known local family. I went to college, incidentally, with Kathleen Peterson’s biological daughter Caitlin, who initially maintained her stepfather’s innocence but later came to the personal belief that he was guilty of murder and sued her stepfather (Michael Peterson), successfully, for wrongful death.
In 2004, the French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade released ‘The Staircase’, a documentary about the Peterson trial and surrounding controversy. This was later followed up with a sequel, ‘Last Chance,’ in 2013, and the ‘Staircase III’, in 2017 – which followed the subsequent developments in the legal case and further trial proceedings. The whole series was picked up and released by Netflix in 2018, and has garnered critical acclaim and strong ratings.
I am not so interested in whether or not Michael Peterson is, or is not guilty; or whether or not Kathleen died as a result of accident or some other cause, including a possible owl attack. I am more interested in the Southern-Gothic tableau of the mansion itself, the scene of dystopian fiction (where Natasha Richardson’s character murders Robert Duvall’s character by cutting his throat) and also the scene of the bloody stairwell death of Kathleen Peterson. I am likewise fascinated by, and disturbed by, the undertones and fractures of race, class, power and privilege; homophobia and elitism; corruption and collusion that the case unearthed; Durham’s seedy and complex underbelly exposed for the whole world to see in the Netflix series.
But ‘the Staircase’ was only a precursor to another ‘case’ that also tore open Durham’s civic fabric, and has also been portrayed in film: the saga of the Duke Lacrosse case.
In 2006, just three years after the trial of Michael Peterson, scandal again erupted in the Bull City that again tore apart the fabric of the tobacco town and exposed some latent (and pretty ugly) simmering race, class, and cultural divides. This time, the focal point was the elite Duke University, one of the nation’s most prestigious (and also a filming location for The Handmaid’s Tale).
The story, in a nutshell, goes like this: three white members of Duke’s lacrosse team, all from affluent suburbs in the Northeast / Mid-Atlantic USA, were accused by a local exotic dancer by the name of Crystal Mangum of violent rape and beating, along with racial insults and other detestable behavior. Mangum had been hired to dance at a party the lacrosse team was hosting on Buchanan Street, in Durham’s Trinity Park neighborhood (*incidentally, the neighborhood where I grew up). Trinity Park features historic houses and is across the street from Duke University’s Georgian-style East Campus, known as Trinity College. The neighborhood is a mix of student housing (in subdivided homes and apartment buildings) and single family homes, many of which are owned by Duke faculty.
In response to the allegations, the Duke Lacrosse season was cancelled by university president Richard Brodhead, and the team coach, Mike Pressler, resigned under pressure. Durham prosecutor Mike Nifong (who was also on the prosecution’s team in the Michael Peterson case, three years prior) suggested the alleged rape was a hate crime, due to the racial slurs (allegedly) overhead at the party and due to the racially-charged nature of several emails sent (about the party and the hiring of strippers, by other members of the team).
Once again, Durham was thrust into the national and international limelight, for all the wrong reasons.
Eventually, it came to light that prosecutor Mike Nifong had withheld evidence that exonerated the three accused (pictured above); and further details emerged that the accuser, Crystal Mangum, had lied about being raped. Mike Nifong was subsequently disbarred; and state attorney general Roy Cooper (now North Carolina’s governor), dropped all charges. Still, the city, and the university, were tainted by the fact that the party did take place; that strippers were hired; that disgusting emails and misogynistic / racial slurs were indeed uttered. The fact remains that an elite university, full of (mostly) affluent students from (mostly) other places, can be an uneasy bedfellow to a Southern industrial city with a high African-American poverty rate and a city where nonwhite residents outnumber white residents.
Once again, the case was turned into a documentary feature-film that exposed Durham’s simmering race and class divides; poor town-gown relations; local mistrust of Duke’s elite students and administrators; and dysfunctional and incompetent (to a criminal degree) legal apparatus and court system.
The 2016 film ‘Fantastic Lies’, by Marina Zenovich, was the most recent of several other films and TV-documentaries about the scandal (including an episode of ESPN’s “30 for 30” devoted to the scandal.)
And the case had even bigger implications: it may have even helped to spawn the ‘Alt Right’ movement, which reared its ugly head in the election of Donald Trump and now has a place in the Oval Office. Stephen Miller (pictured above), one of the architects of the ‘Alt Right’ and some of Trump’s controversial nativist policies (such as the Muslim travel ban and the proposed wall on the US / Mexico border), was a Duke student at the time of the Lacrosse scandal and an outspoken campus conservative. He appeared on shows like Nancy Grace to decry the way the lacrosse players were being treated and what he thought was a culture of blame and antagonism on campuses like Duke and elsewhere. This, of course, is a conversation that is racking college campuses today, as angry white conservatives react to the proliferation of identity-based movements such as #metoo and #blacklives matter and have sought to bring conservative and controversial speakers like Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos to speak.
Now: would you like a sweet tea with your biscuit?
On Thursday, June 14th 2018, London Breed was finally declared mayor of San Francisco, after a hard-fought campaign and close election that would have been historic in any possible outcome: Breed is the first African-American female mayor of the city, but opponent Mark Leno would have been the first gay male and third place finisher Jane Kim would have been the first Asian-American woman. As such, the birthplace of American identity politics revealed a very identity-political outcome. All three candidates shared a similar platform – namely, cleaning up the streets and dealing with the large homeless population and addressing the housing affordability crisis – though Breed offered a slightly more aggressive approach toward the homeless, a hot-button issue and one around which liberal San Franciscans are losing patience. The intractability of the homeless problem is just one of the reasons that Breed has a daunting job ahead of her. San Francisco, and many of its suburbs, are in danger of slipping completely out of reach to not only the poor and working class, but the middle (and even upper-middle) class as well, fueled by a relentless economic boom that has come to be known as ‘San Francisco 2.0’. Yet, as an historian knows – booms don’t last forever, and the Bay Area has always hit higher-highs, and lower-lows, than many other American city-regions, back to its early days as a rough-and-tumble gold-mining and shipping center. Creative production here is more fervent, but creative destruction, all the more violent.
Fittingly, and in this context, Geographer Professor Emeritus Richard A. Walker released what may be his magnum opus a few months prior: ‘Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area‘ (2018 PM Press). ‘Gone City’ reads in some parts like an election primer, thematically organized around many of the key issues facing San Francisco and the wider Bay Area, a Manichean and messy urban conglomeration which Walker presents as a double-edged sword of unimaginable progress and innovation alongside incredibly troubling poverty, homelessness, and inequality.
The professor of Urban Studies at the University of San Francisco and gentrification scholar Rachel Brahinsky rightly accused Walker of being something of a ‘Marxist Booster’ (while reviewing the same volume at the AAG Annual Meeting in New Orleans, April 2018): Walker seems torn between a lifelong love affair with the Bay Area’s golden mythology and promises at the same time that he skewers and vilifies the current state of the region. This is one rather strange contradiction in a book full of (economic) contradictions, and there are a few other drawbacks, which I will return to later.
Yet, as an anatomy of the economic geography of America’s tech hub, the book succeeds on many levels. It is timely, ambitious, and thorough, realized through Walker’s decades-long expertise in the region and avuncular familiarity with the region’s key players, politics, and quirks. Firstly, the (urban) scale addressed in the book is comprehensive and larger than many studies of San Francisco, which tend of focus on and fetishize the 49-square mile city which is really just a dot in a massive sprawl of more than 8 million people. Walker takes a bird’s eye view from Santa Rosa in the North, devastated by wildfires in Fall 2017, all the way down to Gilroy (and beyond) in the South, a distance of more than 100 miles (for British readers, a slice of land that would extend from London to Birmingham and beyond). It is at these far-flung exurban clusters, Walker argues, that the new, multi-racial working class and working poor are increasingly gathered, serving the economy of the network of cities comprising the Bay Area. Likewise, Walker’s overview spans from the beaches of the ‘Penninsula’ – that silicon-encrusted, moneyed hub often representing the core of the tech industry and ethos (Palo Alto, Mountain View, Cupertino, et al.,) – eastward beyond Oakland to Stockton and Modesto, fringe cities that have suffered in poverty and structural sclerosis at the same time that San Francisco has gone from ‘rich’ to ‘super rich’. This region-level thinking is welcome, and missing in planning, policy and politics in an area where topics like housing and transportation often end (inefficiently and frustratingly) at municipal boundaries and county lines. It may be that only an economic geographer and lifelong Bay Area resident like Walker can zoom out, and in, so effectively, and the book succeeds thus.
Secondly, the book covers a lot of topical ground, peeling back layers of the tech economy that span the social, structural, spatial, environmental, and political. What gentrification looks like in San Jose versus Oakland; the texture of the region’s unique multi-racial dynamic (majority non-white, and increasingly so); the ecological and natural consequences of so much money concentrated in one place; and perhaps most thoroughly, why the Bay Area housing market (and associated problems) has no American (and few global) comparisons. For example, Walker has the best explanation I have yet come across of why the local housing market is a demand, rather than supply, problem. Walker argues, convincingly, that too much demand (at the high end), fueled by an overheated tech job market, means that no amount of housing supply will result in socially-just housing processes. This needs to be argued more frequently and forcefully, and as convincingly, among local policy circles and among the chattering classes of the pseudo-progressive, pro-growth governing elite – including the new mayor, London Breed, who maintain that increased supply is the key to curing the affordability problem. This is also the line of the dominant local urban think tank, known as ‘SPUR’, and what has become known as the ‘YIMBY’ (‘yes in my backyard’) coalition. Few, other than Walker, are suggesting that there are simply too many high-paying jobs.
Where the book falls short, in addition to Walker’s somewhat rose-tinted glasses of the overall allure and innovation of the region over it’s history (an attitude that is frequently ingrained among those remaining Marxist-daydreamers who struggle to move beyond Berkeley, 1967) – is its optimistic assumption that ‘Left Coast Values’ will win the day and present unified, radical solutions. Walker identifies, in early chapters, a vast, multi-racial, multi-cultural working class, which, in his framing, spans restaurant workers, teachers, delivery drivers, and even mid-level professionals who would be ‘elite’ in any other metro but in San Francisco struggle to pay basic housing costs. This Bay Area working coalition will, in Walker’s hope, unite across racial, class and cultural lines and implement a more equitable future (or, ‘tech-uitable’, to use local parlance). To make this case, he points to several turning points where various cities have taken steps to roll-back some of the excesses in development and growth (such as San Jose / Santa Clara County putting in anti-sprawl regulation, spending on light-rail, and densifying in a new-urbanist way from the 1980s-present; or the rent controls and workers’ protections erected in cities like San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland). Walker seems to buy into the current California self-image of being a sort of progressive reaction to all that is wrong with the rest of America, but this viewpoint is too temporal, too ‘Trump vs. the West Coast’, and too reliant on the flickering, dimming candle of Governor Jerry Brown, finishing his final term. It is no accident that Brown was first governor in the 1970s, when Walker was enjoying his Marxist reading group as a young Berkeley scholar. Walker writes (what may be) his last book as Jerry Brown finishes his last pieces of idyllic legislation. Walker acknowledges that Brown, and other California progressives, have not exactly shied away from neoliberal tendencies like increasing the prison population, rolling back environmental regulations, and maintaining a pro-growth (business-friendly) agenda – but he could be even more expository of the multitudes of hypocrisies, back-peddling and self righteousness that are endemic to Northern California politics. And a little self-reflection, Richard: how lovely is the view from your home, high in the Berkeley hills (or wherever it is?)
I am not convinced of the (social, economic) resilience of the Bay Area, nor of California’s potential to be a progressive beacon moving forward. I have come to know too many desperate souls who would live anywhere else, if only they had the means to do so. I have also come to know my own students, many of whom are immigrants or the children of immigrants, and who do not share the 1960s-Summer of Love or Berkeley-radical values set of Walker and his cohort. These students, quite understandably so, want a better life for themselves and are aiming not to transform the region in some sort of unified working class uprising, but to pay off their debt and bring home a paycheck.
Finally – Walker may be slightly (and only slightly) nearsighted to overlook the racism that permeates, sometimes violently, the interstices of the Bay Area’s fabric. Walker paints a picture of a harmonious (if unequal and structurally-divided) metropolitan example of a post-racial America, a vision of things to come, when whites will no longer be a majority. I see, almost daily, a deeply suspicious white community; an equally suspicious community of color; and feel that racial strife is never far beneath the surface (here or anywhere). Just this week, a white woman was caught on camera verbally lambasting a Filipino-American family at the checkout counter of a supermarket in working-class (and extremely racially diverse) Daly City, in San Mateo County. I often tell my friends, and believe strongly, that if there is a race war in America, it may just as easily stem from the Bay Area as from Michigan, Alabama, or the Texas-Mexico Border. There may be a time, in the future, where Bay Area residents are ready to move beyond their identity politics, but I am not convinced that time is soon.
But even though this on-the-ground view may be obscured in Walker’s bird’s-eye-approach, the book is important, and should be required reading for London Breed and all others seeking to understand this complicated, beautiful, ugly region. And lessons learned in the Bay Area can, and will, apply to other cities and regions- especially as information which is defined and developed in these silicon circuits increasingly comes to shape and define humanity, delivered by a drone.
Don Mitchell (1995, 2016) has debated the nature public space, and why under late capitalism, public space has a tendency to both ‘end’ and be produced again. Mitchell suggests that on one hand, capitalism (under neoliberal urbanism) destroys ‘real’ public space due to market pressure, while producing ‘abstract space’ (such as digital space). On the other hand though, and simultaneously, contestations and teritorrial struggles surrounding the ‘death’ of public space produce new ‘real’ public space (for example, as local governments are pressured into reaching agreements with developers to develop new public parks or urban plazas, or are forced to scrap development plans completely). So, as a space for publics is destroyed in the name of market-led development, a new space for publics is often born out of resistance to the destruction.
For Mitchell, there is no substitute for tangible, physical public space. The ‘homeless cannot live in the internet’ (1995), and therefore, Mitchell is somewhat disparaging of extending public space into the digital, or into the many hybrids formed by neoliberal partnerships and state-society-market interstices. Geographers like David Harvey (2012) are quick to note that resurgent activism around the world continues to be anchored to urban squares, parks and plazas, despite (and due) to the advent of a networked digital public.
Peoples’ Park, Berkeley (above) is a frequent referent for Mitchell, who has portrayed Peoples’ Park as both embodying what a true public space must – an open place for encounter, occupation and representation – but also, as a recurring site of struggle. Peoples’ Park is a 2-plus acre urban green in Berkeley that is technically owned by the University of California, but since the 1960s has been a site of homeless assembly (during the day) and also a symbol of the American free speech movement, which has its origins in 1960s Berkeley radicalism. Therefore, the site has taken on a larger-than-life meaning for free speech advocates, homeless advocates, and for anyone mythologizing the Berkeley ideal (and 1960s activism in general). Mitchell has argued that Peoples’ Park has faced challenges on several occasions over its 50-year lifetime (various threats and plans to develop and secure the site), but each time has generated activism in one form or another which has (until now) saved the park and retained its ‘public’ status. Some of these tensions have been dramatic, such as the riots in the 1990s when renovations (including more lighting and volleyball courts) were proposed for the park. These plans were scrapped.
However, faced with a severe housing shortage for students and with lingering (and growing) complaints over drug use and antisocial behavior in the park, the University of California decided in May 2018 to develop the park into student housing (1000 units) and also, permanent supportive housing for the homeless. A small amount of green space would be preserved. This decision came after extensive consultation between the U.C. Regents and the local community, and is viewed by some as a compromise – addressing the needs of both the student community, increasingly priced out of Berkeley – and also, providing supportive care for the homeless residents who use the park.
If Peoples’ Park – which has symbolized for decades the true nature of public space – is developed, then is public space truly dead? Was it ever a public space at all? Is there, or can there be, a definition and theoretical understanding of the nature, texture, scales, and forms of public space, suited to both the residual neoliberal urban era and the age in which digital technology has re-shaped socio-spatial relations? Is the dominant understanding of public space too tempered by dominant / Western frames of what constitutes the ‘public’ v. ‘private’ spheres? And whose / which public, anyway? Public space, even in its truest and most democratic form, has never been equally produced or accessible (for example, by women; people of color; the disabled or elderly; LGBTQ persons, the homeless; the poor; other peripheralized groups over time).
These questions do not have a quick answer, but certainly deserve further discussion by spatial theorists who often fall back upon Lefebvrian and neo-Marxist interpretations of the nature of ‘space’ under late capitalism and time-space compression. These explanations and arguments have done little to produce new space for the marginalized.
There is a dearth of literature (though it is now emerging), on urban ‘gray’ spaces – those informal spaces neither public nor private, with use that is pop-up and informal, away from institutions, structures, and policy (see for example Kimberly Kinder’s ‘DIY Detroit’, 2016, or Gordon Douglas’s ‘Help Yourself City’, 2018). There deserves to be a more cohesive and central ontology of black public space, given the absence of black bodies from literal public spaces but also from spatial theoretical discussion; on queer public space, given the oft-foretold ‘death’ of queer space (really?); a better and more humanist discussion on homelessness in contemporary public space and different forms/understandings of ‘home’ and belonging; and finally, a more fully-linked discussion on scale and the networked nature of contemporary public space as imminently local and fixed while also global, fluid, and temporal.
These tensions and debates have long existed, but are as of yet, unresolved.
Meanwhile, the standoff at Peoples’ Park continues – reactions to the university’s May 2018 announcement have been mixed, but in true Berkeley style, there is unlikely to be decisive action soon. Until the bulldozers arrive (or even after), public space lives.
“I have often wondered, and it is not a pleasant wonder, just what white Americans talk about with one another. I wonder this because they do not, after all, seem to find very much to say to me, and I concluded long ago that they found the color of my skin inhibiting. This color seems to operate as a most disagreeable mirror, and a great deal of one’s energy is expended in reassuring white Americans that they do not see what they see… People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster” (James Baldwin, in Ebony, 1965).
Scene 1: ‘Walking Backwards’ in Singapore (Singapore Art Biennale, 2009)
The artist (Amanda Heng, pictured), walks backwards against the tableau of Singapore’s glassy, neo-gothic and modernist towers of finance. She walks past the colonial-era churches and administration buildings; some re-purposed as posh hotels and museums. She walks past the tropical landscape and the taxis passing, passengers inquisitive. She holds her shoe in her mouth, biting and eating her high-heel, occasionally drooling. She is barefoot. In her hand, she holds a mirror: the mirror reflects the cityscape and at once Singapore is elongated and shrunk; bent and refracted; reversed and upended. An alternative city is presented; another path is traveled, another script is written.
The authoritarian city and its designated imaginaries are interrupted, reconstructed.
A crowd of observers follows Heng. Some drift away, others join. The crowd is at times confused, enthused, perplexed, bored. The reflected Singapore, barefoot and backwards, shoe in mouth rather than bought at the mall, is an uncomfortable and disorienting place. The hyper-planned City-State is unplanned, unlearned, unfocused. What does this other Singapore look like – the upside down; one in which the racial hierarchy (CMIO, or “Chinese, Malay, Indian, Other), long convenient for colonial rulers and now entrenched in daily life – is scrambled and re-framed?
For more on Heng’s intervention, and theoretical linkages to De Certeau, Walter Benjamin and Debord / Situationist Internationals, see Goh (2014), Luger (2016).
Scene 2: The Story Told by Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC, March 24th, 2018
I stand in front of the memorial on a sunny Spring day in Washington. I see in front of me the names of thousands lost to this vain war, fought in the name of someone’s ‘Domino Theory’ and the promise of American export markets. I see myself, reflected. Who am I, this visitor to Washington? I see the city reflected. The masonic monolith to Washington in front and behind me; the trees a duplicate of themselves.
Being at the Vietnam memorial, designed by artist Maya Lin, is a process of becoming. Its reflective nature differentiates it from, say, the World War II memorial nearby, grandiose and monumental in scale. As Cheryl Krause-Knight (2011:27) explains, ‘Viewer reactions to the memorial, even beyond the artist’s intent, attest to its ‘publicness’.” Miles (2004:103) notes that the memorial, as a mirror of collective mourning and imaginary, was quickly embraced “by an unusually diverse public.” Lin’s own impulses, in which she stated that her goals in the design were to avoid sensationalism, invite personal interaction, and trust the viewer to “think without leading her to specific conclusions” (Lin, quoted in Finkelpearl 2001:116 ,119), are, according to Krause-Knight (2011), “consummately populist ones.” Young (1993:6-7) observed that “in the absence of shared beliefs of common interests [memorials such as this] can lend a common spatial frame to otherwise disparate experiences and understandings of a fragmented populace.”
But what of this fragmented populace, and its populist voices? I look again at the mirror / monument, and see reflected a different kind of image – a visiting school group, numbering at least 50, waiting behind me in the queue to process past the memorial. They hold flowers, reverent facial expressions, and each wearing the red “Make America Great Again” hat. Populism reflects populism, and the memorial continues its becoming.
Scene 3: The City Yet to Come? (Berlin 1931 or Anywhere, Anytime)
Berlin, 1931, as reflected at the Kit Kat Club in the imagination of author Christopher Isherwood; later adapted into John Van Druten’s 1951 play “I am a Camera”, and later, the critically-acclaimed musical and film “Cabaret”. The film’s final scene is one in which, rather than the audience viewing the cabaret stage, the viewpoint is reflected in a mirror to the audience. No longer the bohemian and libertine Weimar-era party-goers: the audience reflected is now a blurred representation of the Nazism that would consume Germany and the 1930s in fascist fire.
As always, the mirror reflects the city that is, and the city yet to come.
This week, the renowned ‘Theater of the Oppressed’ (ToTO) practitioner Jiwon Chung generously led a workshop in my UC Berkeley ‘Populism, Art, and the City’ course. Chung has had a long career studying and applying Agosto Boal’s methods of ToTO / ‘forum theater’, in which the human body embodies power and oppressor / oppressed through movement, dialogue, and metaphor.
Through several curated exercises, Chung illustrated different power geometries – some that were physical, some emotional, and some more situational and dialogue-based. Through the practice of assuming certain shapes, uttering single words and making sounds, participants were able to embody and perform interpretations of power dynamics and different tactics / methods for resistance, subversion, and co-opting.
In the exercise above, Chung (pictured) asked participants to arrange the chairs (pictured) in ways in which one chair was more powerful than the others. Hinting at Foucault’s (1980) ‘circular’, rather than hierarchical view of how power operates, Chung noted the multiple ways of reading power in any given architecture. If one chair is placed ahead; it has all the power and yet none. If the chair is placed on top of the others, it has power that can be removed if the base becomes precarious.
In another activity, (pictured above), participants played the roles of student (facing) and teacher (back turned). The student was asking for an extension on an assignment; the teacher was attempting to stand firm on “no”. The difficult negotiation of playing (even non-deliberately) the role of ‘oppressor’, and the many contradictions inherent, made this challenging for both players.
Other activities involved movement only: a participant in the center of a circle, hands outward, led two others, who then led two others, and so on, until the whole room became a swirling mass of human movement which was more chaotic at the circle’s outer edges. This, explained Chung, represents the power dynamic of a society, an institution, a capitalist economy, or a State (a school of fish? A complex adaptive system? a digital network?). The point being that the individual at the center can dictate a mass of related actions / reactions by relatively small movements; those at the outer edges must fight harder to stay with the circle.
Where, within these power dynamics, are the spaces for resistance – for upending, for changing the dynamics and erasing the boundary between oppressor, oppressed? Participants had differing ideas and creative visions, from slight variations in movement, to ‘tickling’ to induce laughter, empathy to disarm, strength to make weak, taking photos to expose (Wikileaks exposes tyranny!). Through the 3 hours of activities and conversation, the group of participants came to understand not only Foucault; but the nature of power; institutions; and resistance in practical and applicable ways not possible in a normal theoretical discussion.
The afternoon left me thinking about the tremendous generative potential of such theater in today’s divided paradigm; one that is increasingly re-shaped and re-framed along both authoritarian and populist lines. Digital networks circle around the guiding hand of powerful ‘tech’ titans. Yet, micro-interactions online are capable to ricocheting upwards to transform the tech companies themselves.
Groups divided along partisan lines – red state, blue state, green state – come together in populist fervor around shared sentiments of oppression, even if “the oppressor” is not always tangible (globalization? the EU? immigrants? the police? the gun lobby? the tax collector?). The ways that solidarity can both unite – and liberate – deserve broader exploration in the age of identity politics and neoliberalism’s fetishizing of the individual.
What potential is there to use ‘Theater of the Oppressed’ – long treasured by activists, mostly on the left, as a mainstream tool to bridge these divides and further conversation, facilitation, cooperation, transformation? The power of such theater has been recognized by governments such as Singapore, who first banned the practice after it was associated with Latin American Marxists but later re-instated the practice as a useful tool of nation-building. This brings up further questions – can ‘Theater of the Oppressed’ be used to coerce, to solidify, to divide, and to reify oppressive power systems and structures?
Above – Forum Theater in Singapore (Courtesy of the TheOnlineCitizen).
What is the implication of a center-right, authoritarian government like Singapore frequently deploying forum theater to help build nation and national harmony – is a fascist state a sort of macro-scale performance of Boal’s theater? Can the ‘Alt-Right’ use such methods to gain solidarity around white nationalist causes, twisting conceptions of oppressed / oppressor?
Larger questions such as these generate intrigue for further study, or further performance-based dialogues as we (as a society) continue to reckon with, and struggle to define, a global landscape of power that is rapidly shifting in both emancipatory and repressive directions. *
I had the pleasure of making a first visit to Japan over the holiday break – Tokyo, Kyoto, Himeji, Kobe, and the small mountain town of Takayama. Japan and its somewhat mythologized urbanscapes are one of the places often represented, symbolized, and stereotyped in film and popular imagination – the great economic competitor to America’s post-war boom; generator of ‘better’ cars, electronics, games, and cartoons; and succumbing to the nuclear-monster Godzilla’s destructive whims. The disconnections, contradictions and synergies between US and Japan have been perhaps carelessly portrayed in films like ‘Mr Baseball’ (the failed USA baseball player finds fame in Japan, and a love interest to boot); or more recently, Sophia Coppola’s ‘Lost in Translation’, featuring the actor-playing-the-actor Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson (wife of a travelling businessman), largely cloistered in their Western-enclave Park Hyatt hotel, overlooking a vast city they lack the skills (or desire) to engage with.
These, and many other portrayals, have a somewhat imperial / colonial bent – the United States was, after all, an occupier of Japan from the end of World War II to 1952 and still maintains a heavy military presence. And follows in the older tradition of orientalist portrayals of ‘the East’, which typically feature Western-male (macho) characters interacting in a subjegative and misogynistic manner with feminized and passive Asian characters (both male and female) (see ‘Madame Butterfly’, ‘Miss Saigon’, among others).
In approaching Japan – the world’s third (nearly second) largest economy, and Tokyo – the world’s largest urban region, at approximately 37 million people – I was conscious of my own formative views of Japan partly based on these tropes; and of the urban literature on Asian cities and ‘comparative urbanism’ which both falls back upon, and departs from, myths, stereotypes, and assumptions.
Rem Koolhaas mused that ‘A skyline rises… in the East’ (in Roy and Ong, 2011), a fairly common ‘otherized’ view of the unapproachable, vast, and super-scaled East Asian metropolis, a place of envisioned strange, hyper-modern processes; buildings too-tall to scale; populations too vast to count.
However, Roy and Ong (2011) caution that “the vagaries of urban fate cannot be reduced to the workings of universal laws established by capitalism or colonial history” (2011, introduction). Aihwa Ong suggests moving away from an assumed comparison of cities like Tokyo with any one model or trajectory toward / through modernity, proposing that:
“alternative modernity,”…suggests the kinds of modernity that are (1) constituted by different sets of relations between the developmental and the post-developmental
state, its population and global capital; and (2) constructed by political
and social elites who appropriate “Western” knowledges and represent
them as truth claims about their own countries.’ (Ong, 1999: 35).
In our 2015 paper (Ren and Luger, IJURR, 2015) we navigated the ways that approaching Asian urbanism through a ‘cosmopolitan’, comparative lens is a necessary, but fraught process: how to chart and define observations from places like Tokyo without reference to parallel modernities, patterns, systems? How to engage across language and cultural barriers, looking down at a city from a hotel room, without remaining trapped in the ‘observer, outsider’ lens – is there in fact value of reconciling ‘outsider’ perspective in making valid observations, connections, assumptions? How to talk about a place like Japan without exoticism, orientalism, imperialism, tokenism?
Am I therefore wrong to say that Tokyo’s neon canyons – vast, confusing and beautiful; the trains, gliding like ice dancers with perfect precision; the food, universally outstanding and artistic; and the general pace of life I observed – measured, methodical, process-oriented, are unique and inherently “Japanese?”
Must we always speak of alternative, multiple modernities, or can there be a sort of middle-ground between a distinctive ‘Japanese’ urban modernity (a unique blend of ancient Japanese textures, 20th-century destruction and reconstruction, largely American-financed; and 21st century Pan-Asian blends) and a global, urban, 21st century modern form?
This seems to remain the key tension between urban theorists striving to form a unified urban ‘model’ in which urbansim assumes a ‘planetary’, modern form and exists at once, in all places – (see Brenner and Schmid, 2015; Scott and Storper, 2015) and those who reject this, proposing that site-specificity may be incomparable, incommensurable, impossible to reduce or universalize. Logan, 2011 asked, ‘to what do we compare China?’
My observations were complicated further by living where I do, in the polyglot and cosmopolitan California Bay Area, home to not only one of the largest Japanese diaspora populations, but huge Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino and Taiwanese communities as well. The food I eat on a regular basis, and elements of daily culture in San Francisco, take on bits and pieces of traditional ‘Japanese’ characteristics, blended uniquely with the broader Northern California melting pot. It is not, therefore, foreign to encounter those who do not speak English; to be asked to remove shoes when entering a home or business; to eat green tea ice cream; or queue for 2 hours for sushi or ramen (as is common in Tokyo).
Perhaps, it is the land itself – the earth, mountains, soil – that are incomparable and most uniquely situated to a place, most uniquely Japanese. People, ideas, foods, cultures, religions and technologies move, blend, and replicate; mountains like Fuji (holy in the Shinto religion) do not. It was in the zen gardens of Buddhist/Shinto temples that surround Kyoto that Japan seemed to present itself in its purest form; unique formations of rock, trees, moss and soil charged with spiritual and symbolic significance. At one garden, pebbles formed the shape of Mount Fuji itself. This was, I thought to myself, Japan, and nothing is lost to translation.
Brenner, N. and Schmid, C., 2015. Towards a new epistemology of the urban?. City, 19(2-3), pp.151-182.
Logan, J. ed., 2011. Urban China in transition (Vol. 60). John Wiley & Sons.
Ong, A., 1999. Flexible Citizenship. Durham: Duke University Press
Ren, J. and Luger, J., 2015. Comparative urbanism and the ‘Asian City’: Implications for research and theory. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 39(1), pp.145-156.
Roy, A. and Ong, A. eds., 2011. Worlding cities: Asian experiments and the art of being global (Vol. 42). John Wiley & Sons.
Scott, A.J. and Storper, M., 2015. The nature of cities: the scope and limits of urban theory. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 39(1), pp.1-15.