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Quality of Whose Life?

It’s a sign of the mean times. Sandwiched between a cigarette ad that incongruously promises to make us “Alive with Pleasure” and another for MD T-U-S-C-H, a doctor—of sorts—who eradicates hemorrhoids with the painless swish of a laser scalpel, is The Sign. Positioned to rest above the head of a subway rider, a white thought balloon floats on a field of black. The words in the balloon appear to drift up from the mind of the passenger below. Surely these are the thoughts of the people.

I’m SOOOO glad

I got this seat. GOOD, now I can relax.

(deep breath) Haven’t even seen

a panhandler for a while. WHOOPS, spoke too soon.

TeRRIFic. MY LUCK he HAD to pick this car. Hey. HEY, buddy.

Over here—over my head. See that?

It says it’s illegal. Come onnnnn! Can’t I just

SIT HERE without getting hassled?!!

Change?.…….yeah, THIS is what

I’d like to change.

Actually, these aren’t the musings of the masses, but a “public service” message courtesy of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of New York City. Nor is it merely an isolated anomaly of social cruelty on display. No, the MTA’s public service message is part of a popular political campaign that’s rolling through Americas cities. It’s a symbol of the campaign to restore urban “Quality of Life.”

Over the past five years, a number of historically liberal cities like New York and San Francisco have elected as mayors conservative former law enforcement officials. Front and center in the campaigns of what the Wall Street Journal praises as a “class of new-wave mayors” is a contemporary spin on the old Law and Order mantra. Its name this time around: Quality of Life. The first time I saw a Quality of Life Enforcement patrol car in New York I nearly keeled over laughing; I was tempted to walk over and tell the officers that I was having a lousy night and to ask for their assistance. I’m laughing a lot less now.

Reasoning that anyone young is a threat to safety and order, cities like Newark, Hartford, and many others set up early evening curfews for those under eighteen.

It began in earnest here when mayoral candidate Rudolph Giuliani—a former U.S. Attorney and present day incarnation of Eliot Ness—conjured up the bogeyman of the “Squeegee Operator” as public enemy #1. (For those yet unaware and unafraid, this “operator” is that elusive figure who darts from the shadows, wipes your car window with a dirty rag, then asks for a quarter for their dubious service.) His promise to vanquish this monster—as well as the lackluster performance of the previous mayor—sealed Giuliani’s victory, and one of his first public acts was to arrest these poor unfortunates in mass. This jab for public order was followed by a one-two political punch as Giuliani and his not-too-untouchable force of New York’s Finest went after cars with loud stereo systems, impounding the offending vehicles; apprehended graffiti writers, publicizing a call-in campaign for citizens to report acts of graffiti in progress; stepped up the usual sweeps of people without homes, getting them off the streets and into the tubercular shelters; and conducted a general round-up of sidewalk vendors, errant bicycle messengers, and kids skipping school.

Across the country, San Francisco’s mayor, former Police Chief Frank Jordan, unveiled his “Matrix Program,” a militaristic strategy to sweep the city, grid by grid, block by block, of people without homes. Seattle and Santa Cruz, waxing nostalgic about the days of vagrancy statutes, passed new laws against public sitting in business districts. And back East again, reasoning that anyone young is a threat to safety and order, cities like Newark, Hartford, and many others set up early evening curfews for those under eighteen.

The liberal response to these offensives was swift … and predictable. In the Bay Area, the group Food Not Bombs continued serving food to hungry people in public places and getting arrested for their trouble, and Street Watch, borrowing a tactic from Oakland’s Black Panthers, began trailing police to make sure they don’t stray too far from protecting and serving while rousting the homeless. In New York, demonstrations against the new anti-noise ordinances—the enforcement of which seems to target primarily young, non-white kids and their cars—were held, and local Streetwatch patrols were formed. And, as always, academics churned out unreadable articles for obscure journals extolling the revolutionary “agency” of spray-painting, boom-box-playing youth.

The progressive’s criticism of the law and order approach to Quality of Life is sound: you can’t get rid of social problems by suppressing them and sweeping them under the rug. Homeless people live on the street because they don’t have homes and the shelters are hellholes. People beg for money because there aren’t enough jobs for those who can work, and no half-way houses or de-tox centers for those too sick or strung-out to take care of themselves. The progressive rationale is also decidedly civil libertarian: protecting the rights of individuals against the power of the state.

Well and good. But the new conservatives have a logic too: the “broken windows” theory. This theory holds that minor acts of public transgression, if not nipped in the bud, give permission for larger ones. If a window pane is shattered and not immediately repaired, soon the door will be broken down, the furniture carried away, and the house set ablaze.

In a world where so much is already controlled by others, our sense of space—physical, mental, visual, auditory—becomes increasingly precious.

Textbook criminology logic—however sound—doesn’t win elections; the new law and order folks have public sentiment on their side as well. Sixty-eight percent of New Yorkers polled five years ago complained about a decreasing “quality of life.” Even taking into account that New York is the city that people love to hate, this is a significant statistic. But if you live in any big city it’s also no surprise: having your windshield wiped with a dirty rag doesn’t endear you to either the wiper or their defenders. Graffiti, for the most part, is asinine and self-aggrandizing, and a bother to have to continuously paint over. Window-shaking music at three in the morning is an attack on any semblance of calm and quiet that might exist in an urban area. Buying back the stuff that’s been stolen out of your car doesn’t win you over to the side of street vendors—even the majority of non-criminal ones—that clog the sidewalks. And although the MTA’s thought balloon message isn’t a big hit with straphangers, it’s not because people don’t think these mean and hostile thoughts; quite the opposite. Perhaps the wheedling tone of the sign misses the mark, but the sentiment does not. Very few people who ride New York’s subways can say that they don’t cringe when they hear the first few words of a panhandler’s plaintive spiel. The sign comes all too close to articulating the dark Hobbesian thoughts that rage through one’s mind all too often in an urban environment … not something, by the way, that civilized people like being reminded of by the MTA.

Forced intimacy and an unremitting assault on the senses are what make living in a city exciting and exhilarating; the slamming together of different worlds is the essence of cosmopolitanism. It can also drive you crazy. From the moment you rise in the morning until you lie down at night, your space is tightly circumscribed by forces outside of your control. In a world where so much is already controlled by others, our sense of space—physical, mental, visual, auditory—becomes increasingly precious. The key to urban civility is understanding that space is something so valuable that it cannot be allowed to be dominated by some at the expense of others. Increasingly, however, Americans feel this space contracting, and they’re pointing the finger at the most visible violators: the homeless, the beggars, the kids.

The current political climate and electoral success of conservatives sometimes seems like proof that democracy is not such a good idea after all. Conservatives have hijacked some valid and popular ideas lately. While progressives defend the individual’s right to exist and express themselves in public, conservatives have come to power—at least in city politics—by defending the public as a whole. In brief, conservatives are defending what used to be a progressive cause: Public Space.

Ever since the Enclosure of the Commons in Western Europe, the fight for space common to all and dominated by none has been a part of the progressive tradition. In Feudal times, Commons were just that: land that, although owned by Nobility or Church, was according to law and tradition to be used in common by all people. With the dawn of Capitalism more than five hundred years ago, things began to change. Trying to catch up to an emerging business class, the Lords and Bishops realized that they could make more of this new thing “money,” if instead of appropriating a share of the peasants’ crops as they had for centuries, they raised sheep for the emerging woolens industry on the land the peasants had been using. All bets were off: away with the rights and privileges of the Feudal social contract (none too great for the peasant in the first place). The landlords first fenced off the common land, enclosing it for sheep pasture and calling it “private property.” Then, in due time, desiring even more land, they began the “clearing of estates,” a euphemism for giving the peasants the old heave-ho, onto the roads, into the cities, to surprise work in the new cloth factories.

This expropriation of common lands “is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire,” as Marx pointed out, and while most of the blood was that of the peasants, they didn’t always take things lying down. Sure, many of the resulting rebellions and revolutions ended in defeat or disaster, but the ideal of public space free to all and infringed upon by none is firmly rooted in the liberal and radical traditions. As the twentieth century draws to a close, though, something odd is happening: conservatives, under the Quality of Life banner, have sold themselves as the latest defenders of the public faith.

While many in the neighborhood defended the rights of homeless people to live in the park, others defended the park as a public space.

A case study of this strange inversion is the fate of Tompkins Square Park in New York City. Located in the heart of the Lower East Side, this popular park became a de facto homeless shelter in the mid 1980s. The poor and unfortunate, priced out of housing in the neighborhood by gentrification and the conversion of Single Resident Occupancy hotels (SROs) into co-ops, and rightfully scared of the shelter system, began to make the park their home. As a place where people now lived, the park no longer worked as a public space.

People who lived in the surrounding neighborhood often complained about feeling like intruders in someone else’s private space when they came to visit the park. This sentiment was expressed less by the new yuppies—who, after all, now had spacious apartments made from the ex-SROs—and more often by their poorer neighbors who had large families and small apartments and counted on the park as a safe and open place that they and their children could go.

The issue of what should be done about the park was bitterly contested. While many in the neighborhood defended the rights of homeless people—given their other options—to live in the park, their slimier counterparts, grouped around the local friend-of-developers City Councilman and Business Improvement District heavies, defended the park as a public space. They won.

In a move that would make Frank “Matrix Program” Jordan proud, our last mayor called in riot police who literally occupied the neighborhood for over a month. Everybody living in Tompkins Square was evicted and the park was sealed off and closed for renovations for a year. When it reopened—with newly enforced curfews to keep those pesky destitutes and loud late-night teenagers out—it was a beautiful public space, popular once again as a place to bring your kids and relax outside of your decrepit tenement.

For those opposed to the rise of conservative rule, the message is clear: we have to wrench back the issue of public space. This doesn’t mean joining the blue shirts as they police the young and the poor—as our late, liberal mayor tried to do—but redefining the whole debate.

We have to continue the attack on the root cause of homelessness, panhandling, street selling, and squeegee operating, namely poverty. But to defend the rights of the homeless to not have homes (a bizarre idea in any case) and to support individual expression that violates public space will only succeed in getting most people in this country to despise us; an identity which fits well with lefty rebel posturing, but stinks as actual politics. Instead, it is the roots of these things—poverty, alienation—that have to be exposed as the real attack on public space and quality of life. We have to take the offensive by pointing out who the real space thieves are.

Commercial interests define, defile, and dominate our public space far more than panhandlers and graffiti writers have ever done. Art galleries, educational centers, atriums, and parks—all former public, or at worst private-charitable, amenities, are brought to us today courtesy of Corporate America. Although business sometimes does a nice job creating semblances of public space—especially when the result can be used as advertising for themselves—often their public/private spaces betray the true feelings these corporate giants hold for the public. Interrupted by only a few cold, abstract sculptures, a barren cement plaza stretches out in front of the Bank of America Building. On a nearby wall, a brass plaque informs that this space is “Open to the Public” and declares with finality that the minimum requirements of public space have been duly met:

This urban plaza contains four trees, 171 linear feet of seating and certain other features which either meet or exceed the applicable requirements as stated in the New York City zoning resolution.

Such beneficence astounds.

Dazzled by the new privatization faith and hit with a decreasing tax base as cities polarize into the poor who can’t pay taxes and the rich who don’t, municipal governments are turning over large chunks of what the public originally paid for and still uses to the private sphere. And the public amenities they can’t sell outright are transformed into space to be exploited for commercial use. The Parks Commissioner of New York proposed selling ad space in Central Park to raise revenue for routine maintenance, and already leases Bryant Park to the fashion industry to make up for budget cuts. Public toilets, in Europe paid for by the government, are erected here by private companies in exchange for extensive advertising space in public areas. In Fort Wayne, Indiana, city officials announced that they are selling advertising space on the sides of their police cars. And in school yards across eleven cities, Van Wagner Communications is selling ad space on basketball backboards, creating a “National Backboard Network.”

Public space is not only a physical entity but a cultural one as well, and here the privateers have been equally rapacious.

Public schools seem to be a special target for the new privatization gurus, not only in terms of turning the whole school over to for-profit corporations, but in carving out commercial spaces in the old public ones to deliver up a “captive audience” of malleable minds. Channel One, with its diet of lite news and heavy advertising is now watched in over 12,000 public schools. Not to be outdone, corporations are sponsoring their own school curriculum. Eastman Kodak and Kmart have put together a program for second graders called “It’s a Snap” that will teach youngsters about nature and—you guessed it—cameras. Revlon has teamed up with educational book publisher Scholastic Inc. to prepare teaching guides to help engage students in classroom discussions about good hair/bad hair days and their favorite hair-care products. Public schools, it turns out, also have surfaces aplenty for advertising messages. Colorado Springs has decided to sell ad space in the gym, hallways, and buses of their local schools. But don’t worry—it’s educational: the kids are going to help design the Burger King ads that will adorn district buses and lure their playmates into the realm of the Whopper.

Public space is not only a physical entity but a cultural one as well, and here the privateers have been equally rapacious. New York’s mayor tried to sell the city-owned public radio station to whomever would have it, and the Feds are trying to privatize PBS (although with commercials in between each show and the continuing shift rightward in editorial stance, I’m not sure we’d ever know the difference). Its also now almost impossible to visit an art exhibit, a symphony, or a play without seeing the logo of tobacco giant Philip Morris someplace. And this isn’t noblesse oblige. Recently threatened by a proposed no-smoking ordinance, Philip Morris called in their chips, asking the New York arts community to lobby the City Council on their behalf—which they did. Veni, Vidi, Vici, as the company’s logo proclaims.

The idea that all public life is material to be exploited for commercial possibility has become so natural to us that when Spy magazine, in an elaborate hoax, approached sixty corporations with an offer to have President Clinton endorse their goods on national TV via “product placement” in a public address, not one company caught on to the gag, and only one refused outright. All of this relatively recent marketing development builds upon a century of commercial colonization that we now take for granted: billboards on our highways and streets, advertising on our buses and subways, and public airwaves clogged with radio and television commercials. This unbound commercialization is, by any criteria, far and away the most invasive appropriation of public space. And yet it remains unmentionable, a non-issue in the mainstream debate on Quality of Life.

Corporate dominion over common space affects the public’s quality of life in other, less visible, ways as well. Although corporations would have us believe that it is through their generosity and because of their civic duty that they bestow upon us these new private/public sites, they lie. Quite simply, they are subsidized in their colonization of our own space by us. While both worker productivity and corporate profit margins have risen, corporate taxes fell from from one-third of total federal revenues in the early fifties to less than 10 percent today. And this official rate hides the fact that through tax abatements and charitable write-offs most corporations pay almost nothing come tax time. Every art exhibit, every atrium, every “learning center” is a tax break, and this means less money flowing into the public coffers from corporations and more from us. Less tax money means less public spending on housing, parks, libraries, schools, and mass transit systems; less spending on those things which form the foundation of a public sphere and really do affect our quality of life.

Privatization makes a mockery of the very idea of public space. When you shoot hoops courtesy of Nike, go to school to be persuaded that you’re part of the Pepsi Generation, watch public TV sprinkled with ads for Mobil, eat lunch at a public space where rules are set by a real estate company, visit an art exhibit courtesy of the cancer czars, call a cop covered in advertising, and are told what to think on the subway by Newport, MD T-U-S-C-H, and the MTA, are you going to consider any space “public”?

People really aren’t stupid. Kids who put a marker to subway walls don’t see this as a desecration of public space, but of space they don’t own. In a society where intrusive advertisements and corporate logos are the lingua franca of identity—of asserting that you’re somebody—is it any wonder that young people advertise themselves through tags on walls or their choice of loud music blaring out of the back of a car? To use advertising jargon, they are simply trying to cut through the clutter. If the law and order “broken windows” theory of social decay is credible, it must be understood that Corporate America smashed the first window of public space.

As the public sphere contracts, the rest of the urban citizenry turns inward toward private comforts. Never straying far from the soothing sights and sounds of the TV/VCR/CD home entertainment command center, social circles shrink to the immediate family and a few close friends, and public interaction is limited to phone sex and wandering the Internet. Achieving a pleasant quality of life means surrounding yourself in a warm, safe cocoon constructed from whatever consumer capitalism produces and sells as a panacea for our eviscerated public world.

Meanwhile, conservative politicians, acknowledging that public space is rapidly disappearing, tap into the anger that people feel and then shift the blame away from the corporate elite and onto those least powerful: the young and the poor. Hiding their own culpability, they give the public a target for their rage and an outlet for their frustration: kick those beneath you. As “Quality of Life” becomes just a polite term for policing the poor, and the contours of “the public” are shaped to fit commercial imperatives, we are becoming a nation of post-enlightenment barbarians: privatized, atomized, and mean.