The War Against Public Spaces

What kind of a world do you want to live in? Do you like the fact that you feel like there’s never anywhere to go, there’s never really anything to do, and worst of all: not only do you have nowhere to be, but there’s nowhere you can go unless it’s to buy something and then bring it back to your tiny, overpriced apartment?

Yeah, me neither.

I’d like to live in a world where we actually had public spaces: somewhere we could all congregate and have a free exchange of thoughts and ideas, and a place where one didn’t have to pay just to exist. But there’s a war on pubic space. Modern cities lack parks, and other free public spaces where people can gather to have a conversation (Halsey 3). We love to get all wet in the panties over capitalism, but the fact is, private enterprise just isn’t that good at prioritizing some of the basic amenities a human being really needs (Halsey 2-3).

An increasingly popular solution to the homeless problem across the world is to design surfaces so that homeless people can’t sleep or loiter on them (Rosenberger 1). These surfaces range from basically putting metal spikes to concrete bumps on anything flat or anywhere you might actually try to lay down if you’ve got nowhere else to go and you have to sleep in cities like New York and park benches in Salt Lake City with armrests in the middle so the homeless can’t lie down to sleep on them. It’s also worth noting that the war on public space is global: there’s pay-per minute benches in China which emit a series of uncomfortable studs if you overstay your welcome, and benches in tokyo with elongated seats and shortened backrests designed to prohibit anyone from sleeping on them (Omidi 2).

Cities have grown across the world, and so has the global homeless population (Chamie 1). 2% of the world’s population is homeless, and 20% lacks adequate housing, though experts say these figures may be under representative of the real amount of homeless and inadequately housed because social structures (laws, regulations, social stigma, among others) discourage both the cities from accurately reporting how many homeless they house, and these social structures discourage the homeless and underhoused from coming forward to represent themselves. So far the efforts to end homelessness have been useless half-measures. “The Coalition For the homels.org” states: “The fundamental cause of homelessness is the widening housing affordability gap. In New York City, that gap has widened significantly over the past decades, which have seen the loss of hundreds of thousands of units of affordable rental housing (Proven 1).”

Their solutions include affordable permanent housing for those who have been subject to only temporary affordable housing which usually doesn’t create a chance for them to ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’, because as it turns out, is basically impossible. Statistically speaking, your parents income is a huge predictor in your income, especially if you’re a man (Mitnik 8-9). Homelessness and income inequality, and a lack of opportunity are important factors to consider when we ask ourselves what’s happening to all the public spaces, because we’re entering an era where income inequality keeps growing, and the wealth among the most wealthy is rising as well: The rich are literally getting richer while the poor get poorer (Stone et al. 2). In 1989 the top 1% of the wealthiest people in America owned just under 30% of the country’s wealth, and the bottom 90% of Americans controlled a little over 33% of the country’s wealth. In 2016 the wealth controlled by the top 1% shot up to 49%, where the bottom 90% of Americans control of the wealth dropped down to less than 23% (Stone).

My points so far might seem to have little to do with my original question: What kind of a world do you want to live in? A world where fewer and fewer people have more money than they could possibly do anything with, and more people every day across the world become homeless (Chamie 2)? Or do you want to live in a world where there’s no more poor people, middle class, wealthy, and then leaps and bounds ahead of even those people the super rich?

There’s a great short story by Kurt Vonnegut called “Harrison Bergeron”, that starts off “The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal in every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else (Charters, Vonnegut 1306).” And in the story a woman named ‘Diana Moon Glampers’ holds a position called the ‘Handicapper General’, where she basically slaps some sort of bag over your head if you’re too pretty, or if you’re too smart she implants a radio in your ear which emits a high pitched whine that makes it impossible to think too hard. This is the kind of equality some people think when socialists like me say we want equality. That’s not what I want, and I don’t think we should be trying to weaken people who are smart, diligent, good looking, or exceptionally gifted in some way other than inherited wealth.

What I do think we should be doing is fostering a society where there aren’t anti-teen sirens designed to ward off loitering kids with sirens that only minors can hear, and bumps on everything to prevent homeless people from sleeping on them (Omidi 2). I think we should live in a world where everyone has a real shot at affordable housing, food to eat, and maybe an education provided they were willing to do the work to earn their diploma(s). It has nothing to do with being lazy: according to a comprehensive 1996 Urban Institute survey, about 44% of people did some paid work during the last month (Lopez 1). Another Urban Institute survey in 2002 found that 45% of homeless people had done paid work in the last month, so this number seems to hold true consistently over time, and wasn’t just a one off number (Culhane 2).

So what’s my solution to all of this? Well, you guessed it: I’m just another hippie-dippie stinko-pinko commie marxist millennial. I don’t think we need to create a gulag where every rich person gets executed (or shoot them the way the Russian royal family was shot to death), I just think we need to change public sentiment, and that’s the reason I wrote this: to make people aware of what was happening. The most important thing we could do to fight back against the growing income inequality is to form social groups to fight these changes in wealth distribution. The Occupy Wallstreet movement was kiiind of a step in the right direction, but it didn’t go nearly far enough! What we need is social organizations which exist outside of business, and outside of government. Keep voting, by all means, and stay informed (hell, run for office if you’re so inclined!) but the most important thing we can do is to create organizations and groups which aren’t companies and are apart from government. If we really want to have a voice that means we need to be organized. Start a group, maybe get some friends together. I would suggest that if you do use social media to start these groups be very cautious, because people who claim to be your allies and people who claim to be your opposition very well may be Russian spies (yeah, sounds crazy, but see this blog entry of mine for details on how Russia influenced the 2016 presidential election). But the only thing we cannot do is sit on our hands. This is the time for action, and the Government and  Big Business aren’t going to help us: we have to operate on our own. So get out there and start building bridges! Start working with your neighbor! Start a group and get onto the streets, because nothing you can do online is really going to make that much of a difference. What kind of a world do you want to live in?

Works Cited:

Chamie, Joseph. “As Cities Grow Worldwide, So Do The Number Of Homeless.” yale.edu, YaleGlobal Online, 13 Jul. 2017, https://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/cities-grow-worldwide-so-do-numbers-homeless.

Charters, Ann. The Story And Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction; Ninth Edition, “Harrison Bergeron”, Kurt Vonnegut, 2017.

Culhane, Dennis. “Five myths about America’s homeless.” washingtonpost.com, The Washington Post Company, 11 Jul. 2010, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/09/AR2010070902357.html.

Halsey, Brian. “Are We in the midst of a public space crisis?” theconversation.com, The Conversation Us, Inc., 7 Jun. 2016, https://theconversation.com/are-we-in-the-midst-of-a-public-space-crisis-56124.

Lopez, German. “11 myths about homelessness in America.” Vox.com, Vox Media Inc., 23 Sep. 2015, https://www.vox.com/2015/1/15/7552441/homeless-facts-myths.

Mitnik, Pablo A. “Economic Mobility in the United States.” Pewtrusts.org, The Pew Trusts, Rusell Sage Foundation, Jul. 2015, http://www.pewtrusts.org/~/media/assets/2015/07/fsm-irs-report_artfinal.pdf?la=en.

Omidi, Maryam. “Anti-homeless spikes are just the latest in ‘defensive urban architecture.” Theguardian.com, Guardian News and Media Limited, 12 Jun. 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/jun/12/anti-homeless-spikes-latest-defensive-urban-architecture.

“Proven Solutions”. coalitionforthehomeless.org, Coalition For The Homeless, 2018, http://www.coalitionforthehomeless.org/ending-homelessness/proven-solutions/.

Rosenberger, Robert. “How Cities Use Design to Drive Homeless People Away.” theatlantic.com, The Atlantic Monthly Group, 19 Jun. 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/06/how-cities-use-design-to-drive-homeless-people-away/373067/.

Stone, Chad. “A Guide to Statistics on Historical Trends in Income Inequality.” cbpp.org, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 16 Feb. 2018, https://www.cbpp.org/research/poverty-and-inequality/a-guide-to-statistics-on-historical-trends-in-income-inequality#_ftnref12.

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