by Chase Padusniak
Published by Verso, 2012 | 206 pages
It is difficult to read any thoughtful account of urban life in twentieth-century America and not draw comparisons, voluntary or otherwise, with Jane Jacobs’ landmark study, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). As a resident of Greenwich Village, many of her observations derive from her experience as a New Yorker during Robert Moses’ postwar infrastructural purges, but in Death and Life Jacobs generalizes her analysis of one aspect after another of American urban planning. While she devotes much attention to the impact of monumental civic architecture and eminent domain projects on urban life, I have always regarded her analyses of street-level structural detail as ultimately more significant. Having read it, a city dweller cannot help but observe how sidewalk width, window height, and the length-width ratio of city blocks, to cite only a few examples, all contribute to the intangible character of a neighborhood. In Jacobs work the minutiae of the urban landscape grows rich with significance and consequence.
Previously invisible aspects of cities are also the subject of David Harvey’s Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. But if Jacobs’ study focuses on the causal relationships between infrastructural detail, large scale planning, and social welfare, Harvey brings our attention to the movement and accumulation of capital that silently guides the creation and destruction of civic space. We hear echoes of Jacobs in his deep antipathy for the forces that guide development and “renewal”, but where she takes issue with the methods chosen by the city planners of her age, Harvey – also the author of the superbly informative A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford, 2007) – lays the blame for urban dysfunction squarely at the foot of liberal capital markets themselves, made manifest here in the form of leviathan real estate developers in bed with civic leaders beholden to the “Party of Capital.” Modern cities, chez Harvey, are expressions of the worst ills of late capitalism, dense accumulations of self-perpetuating wealth and power whose leaders routinely betray the citizens that sustain them; the city itself is a mechanism for facilitating the net transfer of capital from poor to rich (an image that resounds throughout much of Harvey’s work). Harvey illustrates this mechanism in case studies of considerable detail in cities both domestic and international. Upon finishing Rebel Cities, it is difficult to object to Harvey’s conclusion, which he draws again and again in a variety of contexts: absent political intervention, the house always wins.
Much as Jacobs’ Death and Life renders the average pedestrian a savvy critic of street width and park design, Harvey’s study will have a transformative effect on the general reader (less, perhaps, upon one already well-versed in the tropes of Marxist geography and leftist urban studies). By observing the natural class alliance between the “urban growth machine” of bankers, developers, and construction companies, for instance, as well as the mechanisms by which securitized mortgages allow financiers to externalize the risks that inhere to this machine, we begin to see our cities differently. Landlord-tenant relationships, condominium development, and the creation of shared green space all take on a distinctly sinister tone; it is a rare event, no matter how seemingly benign or beneficial to the public, that does not, in the end, further skew the imbalance between capital and public interest. Harvey devotes much energy here to demonstrating the extent to which this process is systematized. He writes: the “point in mentioning all these various forms of exploitation and dispossession is to suggest that in many metropolitan regions such mass practices are systematically visited upon vulnerable populations… For much of the low-income urbanized population, the joint excessive exploitation of their labor and the dispossession of their meager assets constitutes a perpetual drain upon their capacity to sustain minimally adequate conditions of social reproduction. This is a condition that calls for city-wide organization and a city-wide political response.”
This last point serves as introduction to what may make this book most relevant today: it’s reckoning with the Occupy movement. Though this last chapter (“#OWS: The Party of Wall Street Meets Its Nemesis”) is too brief to balance what precedes it and remains frustratingly inconclusive, Harvey nevertheless offers a real pathway to understanding the value of the movement in a broader economic context. If the first six chapters of the book make for a bleak portrait of a well-fortified system of money and class power that wields the city as a powerful tool for self-sustenance, Harvey’s conclusion demonstrates why the disorderly and unfocused Occupy movement was, in fact, a vital response to that status quo. A nascent movement focused on any one or several components of the system would be quickly dispatched by another sympathetic component of that same system; accordingly, a diverse congregation, working at cross purposes, may have very well have offered the most resilience. While no effort is made to offer comprehensive prescriptive solutions to the deeply unsettling social ails he describes, Rebel Cities renders visible many details of urban organization that remain, for most of us, invisible in plain sight.
Scott J. Ordway is Visiting Assistant Professor of Music at Bates College. Much of his work, including his three symphonies, responds to landscape, urban culture, and social geography. For more information about current projects, including new multimedia works addressing urban life in Philadelphia and Detroit, visit www.scottjordway.com or follow @scott_ordway.