New York Is Committed to Covering This Essential Moment
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For months, the pandemic has kept us away from one other and from public space. The city closed playgrounds, dog runs, swimming pools, and public buildings. Parks were left open, but on sufferance. The curfew is a warning: The streets belong to the police, which tolerates their uses during daylight hours and for sanctioned behavior only. Violators will be clubbed. The marches are, by contrast, a way of declaring that public space belongs to the public — that protest, assembly, movement, and expression are not just abstract concepts but activities that can only take place in our collective home: on Fifth Avenue, on the plaza in front of the Barclays Center, on whatever corner an angry New Yorker might choose. The streets are where the violence against blacks often takes place, and the streets are where they must be remembered, where the authorities must be called to account.
The president and his allies articulate a different set of rights: the freedom to feel safe behind walls and gates. To them, a city is a collection of private and government buildings: a real-estate portfolio. In their worldview, streets are an unfortunate necessity, even a menace. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper described the city as a “battlespace,” to be dominated rather than shared. Esper recanted, but the attitude he expressed remains official policy. When Senator Tom Cotton calls for a full-scale military invasion of America’s streets, when the White House expands its perimeter with a quasi-medieval set of defenses, when the president trudges past a graffiti-encrusted public bathroom in Lafayette Square so he can hoist a bible and grimace in front of a boarded-up church, when the government guards the Lincoln Memorial from invented menace with a paramilitary phalanx — when all this strutting and snarling gets translated into weirdly gripping photographs, it’s clear that law and order equals the protection of real estate. These postures asserting the primacy of buildings, with their reassuring walls and locks and property lines, over the borderless badlands in between. That’s why looting has become such a flashpoint: not because it depletes society’s stock of deodorant and sneakers but because smashing a store window violates the boundary between public and private property.
Looting is a threat to civic life, especially in black and immigrant neighborhoods, where business owners lack the resources (or the insurance) to rebuild. But conservatives who howl about the appropriation of private property are less squeamish about the privatization of public property. The ultra–New Yorky oxymoron “privately owned public space” refers to areas under corporate control, where companies make the rules and citizens are permitted to loiter, because they are potential customers. The plaza at Hudson Yards, for example, is really an outdoor vestibule to a shopping mall. The concrete areas outside co-op apartment buildings seem indistinguishable from sidewalks, but if you linger there, you may be ejected. Even the security apparatus treats public space as sacrificial: Office buildings everywhere have been fortified since 9/11, which shifted the potential blast zone out of the lobby and onto the street. The super-tall towers along 57th Street exist because their builders, investors, and buyers see Central Park as an expensive amenity, best enjoyed from behind a glass wall, 1,000 feet up in the air.
In the last week, protesters all over the country have come to see their barely walkable cities the way New Yorkers always have seen theirs, as a matrix of public space that must be fluid, free, and safe for everyone at all times. The freedom to walk outside and shout is a bedrock of American democracy. Yet in many places, exercising that right means fighting the city’s layout and design. Protests have jammed bridges and blocked traffic not just out of an urge to disrupt but also because the only way pedestrians can move around en masse is to borrow a few acres back from cars.
The street is where Black Lives Matter meets transit activism, which can sometimes be at odds. When you’re fighting to keep black men from being murdered and children from being poisoned by lead paint, demands for bike lanes and pedestrian plazas can seem like a twee form of urbanism, even omens of gentrification. But both groups see the city street as a common good that anyone of any race should be able to navigate freely, without a license or a reason, or any equipment other than perhaps a pair of flip-flops. This principle may seem self-evident, but defending it demands constant struggle. Most cities administer their streets as conduits for enclosed private fiefdoms armored in steel and mounted on wheels. And so, when cops clear protesters from an interstate so that traffic can flow again, or gas them down on a highway verge, when personnel carriers roll through downtown Washington and NYPD officers ram their SUVs through a crowd, one of the laws they are enforcing is the principle of Vehicles First.
A city’s sense of freedom resides in its streets. Most New Yorkers understand that intuitively, but it’s a challenging concept if you’re an insulated VIP who shuttles among properties in a motorcade and has little familiarity with the spaces in between. Donald Trump, the only president ever to move from a Manhattan apartment into the White House, has only ever known the sidewalk as the unfortunate no-man’s land between his gilded bubble and an idling limo. Andrew Cuomo, a car enthusiast, can’t understand why more lanes on a bridge might generate more traffic. The SUV-addicted Bill de Blasio insisted for weeks that the only way to take cars off the street so that pedestrians could keep out of sneezing distance from each other was to flood every corner with cops. Power means never having to walk. Absolute power means the ability to control when others do.
Now the defenders of real estate are pitted against Occupy All Streets, and regardless of which side declares victory in the short term, the future of our cities is at stake. Especially in New York, violence in the streets constitutes a dreadful threat. The city has weathered months of lockdown, fear, disease, death, and economic calamity; now, a lethal brawl or a wild shot, a stampede or an arrest gone wrong, could sicken the city for years. Macy’s can restock, window glass can be reinstalled, charred police cars can be replaced. But faith in the future is fragile, and if it drains away on a bloodied pavement, it could turn New York back into a city of deadbolts and barricades, where residents hunker down or leave and the plywood storefronts never go away.