I can’t remember which teacher I had who suggested writing around the idea as a way of working through it, getting closer to it. Whoever you are, thankyou so much, it was a good piece of advice that I’m putting into practice in this here post.
So there are two organising concepts that have been rinding up in this urban-y thought project that I am designing. These are poverty in public and the geopolitics of urban renewal.
By ‘poverty in public’, I mean the literal public appearance of poverty, marked as it often is by the public categories of ‘sleeping rough’, ‘begging’ or ‘panhandling’; also as homelessness, precarious housing, public housing. These are the subject of intensive social control and public management; evinced in first world cities by gentrification and by slum clearing in third world cities.
I’m also thinking of it in terms similar to those set by Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner in their 1998 essay Sex in Public. As they assert there, “there is nothing more public than privacy” (547); that which we declare to be private and protect as such can be seen plain as day in efforts at re-making public space, in that case through certain re-zoning laws and their impact on queer community life.
The private, the space of intimacy, “distracts citizens from the unequal conditions of their political and economic lives, consoles them for the damaged humanity of mass society, and shames them for any divergence between their lives and the intimate sphere that is alleged to be simple personhood.” Indeed, “[i]ntimacy has been privatized; the discourse contexts that narrate true personhood have been segregated from those that represent citizens, workers, or professionals” (559). Hence, one might infer, the malady of the practices and phenomena of poverty in public that I note above.
The public is also the sphere in which class is articulated and tensions over urban space are manifest:
“Respectable gays like to think that they owe nothing to the sexual subculture [of say, adult bookshops] they think of as sleazy. But their success, their way of living, their political rights, and their very identities would never have been possible but for the existence of the public sexual culture they now despise.”
The bypassing of such a wedge in the re-making of urban space may be enacted with the eye to the public that is implied by poverty in public. Berlant and Warner describe an urban resistance populated by those who “intended nonheteronormative worlds because they refused to pretend that privacy was their ground; because they were forms of sociability that unlinked money and family from the scene of the good life.” (565)
Poverty in public, in a really very old-fashioned sociological sense, is deployed in order to highlight the divide between public and private spheres, which can ‘hide’ social problems from collective contestation. I am hoping it will allow me to ask how the arcs of urban renewal and socio-economic redistribution might correspond. Which brings me to the geopolitics of urban renewal.
I think I first realised that I was asking a geopolitical question when one of the ‘minor’ urban projects I’ve been musing on was described as “favela chic”. As Brazilian cities have ‘gone global’, the favela has become a garden-variety stereotype of urban poverty: the damning oppression attached to such dwelling on one side of the world turned in to the romance of the ‘informal’ (read: minor, DIY) on the other. What is generally posed as failed urbanism in Rio (requiring the aggressive Choque de Ordem program) is sold as indie chic in Australian cities, or something rather more gauche.
‘Favela chic’ follows on from the classed distinction between sleaze and respectability that poverty in public latches onto above. In the global city that distinction is a geopolitical one – the repurposed empty building is a live site that references local hopes for the good life as well as the imperative of the city’s participation in the global economy. It is this imbrication that, I’m willing to wager, means the slum, the camp, the favela are so easily re-coded away from systems which might support the material survival of the vast majority of the planet. In such a way, urban renewal – from minor to corporate – has a geopolitics, a crackly politics of geography, the writing of earth.