Sunday, May 31, 2009

How shopping for a bathing suit is really studying for my exams

Lyn H. Lofland, sociologist and scholar, defines the public realm as the place in the city where we interact with strangers. Her definition of the city is intentionally broad and inclusive - "a permanently populous place or settlement" - and her definition of stranger is two prong. There are both "cultural strangers . . . those who occupy symbolic worlds different from our own" and "biographical strangers . . . those we have never met before". In other words, the latter are simply people we don't know, the former are those who somehow see or live in the world differently than we do. Richard Sennett - sociologist, scholar, and Guardian-appointed "public intellectual - discusses in his book The Fall of Public Man the key occupier of this public domain, the cosmopolite. A cosmopolite, as derived from the French usage in the 1730s, "is a man who moves comfortably in diversity" (the gender specificity is an entirely different dissertation).

The public realm was once a realm of necessity, when the world's population was largely illiterate and news traveled via the town crier and passed by word of mouth. The public realm was where all entertainment, if there was time for any, happened and all commerce was conducted. Everyday movements between sustenance collection and waste disposal happened in the streets - the city's most regularly and necessarily occupied public realm.

For the ancient Greeks, the public realm was the realm of freedom. The private realm was weighted with the minutiae of daily living, including the hard work of being in charge. But the public realm was a zone of equals, a place to express opinions freely, of intellectualism, debate, and the development of individuality (again, gender, slavery, and land ownership are their own dissertations). Aristotle as interpreted through Hannah Arendt, philosopher and cultural scholar, differentiates the pre-political from the political public realm in that the former was a place where decisions were made through violence and the latter where decisions were made through speech. The public realm was a place where we learned to negotiate, where we developed what Lofland calls "political maturity" and what Sennett elaborates as a place where "men can act together without the compulsion to be the same."

Much of the literature on the contemporary city discusses the death of public space (here - particularly as architects, urbanists and planners - we are assuming that the public sphere or public realm is geographically grounded in an actual place, public space). Books like Sennett's The Fall of Public Man and Michael Sorkin's edited volume, Variations on a Theme Park: the New American City and the End of Public Space talk about the postmodern city and the militarized, thematized, and commodified versions of pseudo-public space we most commonly find today. Disney theme parks are referred to in nearly every book on the subject, as they are the example in 3/4 scale of the sanitized city where everything - from experience to speed - is branded, polished, duplicated, and sold. Lofland, Sorkin, Ed Soja, Margaret Crawford are all asking some version of the following question - what is public space today? And, is this the public space we are destined to have? Is The Grove (substitute your local mall/waterfront development/downtown revitalization project here) the best we can do?

I was at The Grove/Farmer's Market last night, and it was certainly packed with 'public'. More than a mall with limited entrances, tight boundaries, and an inward focus, it does have places to wander, to sit and talk, to meet strangers even perhaps. Because The Grove is connected to the more economically congenial Farmers Market, it is sort of economically diverse. Sort of. At the Farmer's Market there are movable chairs and benches where groups of various sizes can gather, eat, chat. And though commerce happens there, bartering certainly doesn't. And though conversation happens there, debate certainly doesn't. And though there are strangers, they are most likely to be the biographical rather than the cultural kind. And, even if they are the cultural kind, they tend to be a mere skim off the top of the cultural depths that we know live in LA. And, neither The Grove nor the Farmer's Market is either a grove or a farmer's market. So, among the many, many things that keep The Grove and the Farmer's Market from being real public space - including that it's more theme than market and more mall than not - is that it's not held in common, there are no public rights, and it's not where we learn to be good citizens.

Hannah Arendt likens public space to a great collective table - held in ownership by no individual, shared by all who are seated at it, yet also lasting far beyond any meal, any set of meals, any lifetime of meals. The table connects us, yet separates us at the same time. Without the table, there would be no common ground. yet without the separation, there would be no diversity. And, too, the table outlasts us all. Says Arendt, "If the world is to contain a public space, it cannot be erected for one generation and planned for the living only; it must transcend the life-span of mortal men.. . . Without this transcendence into a potential earthly immortality, no politics, strictly speaking, no common world and no public realm, is possible."

Secondly, public space supports public rights. At a minimum, public rights allow access and occupation. Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris - urban planner and expert on public realms such as the sidewalk and bus stop - documents in her co-authored book Urban Design Downtown: Poetics and Politics of Form, the way privatized spaces (particularly shopping malls) were initially court ordered to fulfill the public role they seemed to be hijacking from the plazas and streets of the city. Now, the privatized city is more the norm than not and we can't imagine any mall cop in America that would allow a protest, the distribution of leaflets, picketing, or political solicitations on mall property. As a matter of fact, we've reached a point where plazas and streets have developed strict regulations intended to maintain order and keep out the 'messiness'.

Order and messiness are exactly what Don Mitchell in The Right to the City discusses as the very vitality of urbanity. To Mitchell and Anthony Vidler, who writes the introduction to the text, a sanitized city is not a city worth living in. Mitchell asks very important questions about public space - who can be there, when, and what can they do? In other words, who is the 'public' and what rights do we all share? Mitchell focuses on those who are homeless and argues the very salient point that if you have no private space to return to, you are forced to live out the entirety of your life in public. If, then, you are restricted from public space - either formally (laws, regulations, gates, patrol) or informally (harassment, psychological barriers like intimidation, lighting, the removal of benches or aggressive sprinklering) then your very existence is criminalized. In his words you simply have no place at all to BE. Henri Lefebvre, the originator of the right to the city argument, takes that one step further when he claims that we all have the right to the oeuvre -- the right to be a part of the production of the city itself, the right to active participation, to identity, ownership, investment, even play. Iris Marion Young adds to those the right to self-determination and the right to self-development.

Finally, public space must maintain some form of cosmopolitanism. To be cosmopolitan, to live among difference and to recognize its value, produces tolerance. Says Lofland, a "great city is, in and of itself, a settlement form that generates cosmopolitanism among its citizenry; it is a settlement form that produces - by its very nature - a populace that is far more open to and accepting of human variability, far more inclined to civility and less to fanaticism and smug parochialism than are the residents of more homogeneous and intimate settlement forms like tribe, village or small town." In other words, urbanity makes us a more open civilization, more willing to accept -- even invite -- strangers to sit at our common table.

The loss of all these attributes is blamed on everything from the industrial revolution which first separated living space from work space to the car and the computer. The most interesting theories, though, don't wax nostalgic for a pre-technology era but recognize the value of advancement and call for new ways to be public which, in turn, create new geographies of public space. Urry and Sheller who call for a "civil society of automobility" pose one of my favorites.

Which brings me to the point.

A friend of mine posted a link to a 2006 video that I had never seen (though 43 million other people have). It's a completely hokey, tear-jerker of a story, turned movie, turned movement. The free hugs movement. (Click here to see the movie and read the story) But it's also about free speech rights, breaking gender stereotypes, embracing difference (literally), and the risk of urban messiness. What I love about the movie and the movement and the DOING of it all is that it's about making public space. As Lofland also said, the public realm is ageographical until it HAPPENS somewhere. This is one reason big empty corporate plazas are not all that public - there is no one there doing anything and those who are, according to Loukatai-Sideris's case studies, are mostly white middle class males in business suits. Or they were.

Public space is changing for many reasons, but most importantly, because we want it to. Because those same people who don't want to work in a cubicle and hold out for retirement benefits are also a growing collection of mixed race, emergent entrepreneurs who volunteer in Africa and do reverse graffiti.

Because we're looking in new places, too. Street vendors are hip in LA. Tight money means alternative capitalism and it means being more wise with limited resources - space included. And higher gas prices, even though they've gone down since last summer, mean more walking, more public transit, more bus stop use, more biking - more ways to be in the public realm, to mix with strangers. But to become cosmopolitan, you have to choose to recognize and appreciate difference and the responsibility of the commons. You don't have to hug a stranger - though there is something really joyous about that Juan guy - but you can recognize the value in difference, the importance of conversation with strangers - in every sense - and the significance we gain by being actively intermixed with the messiness of the city.


Arendt, Hannah. (1958) “The Public and the Private Realm,” in The Human Condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lefebvre, Henri. (1991) The Production of Space. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Lofland, Lyn. (1998) The Public Realm: Exploring the City’s Quintessential Territory. Hawthorne, N.Y.: Aldine de Gruyter.

Loukaitou-Sideris, Anastasia and Tridib Banerjee. (1998) Urban Design Downtown: Poetics and Politics of Form. Berkley: University of California Press.

Mitchell, Don. (2003) The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space. New York: The Guillford Press.

Sennett, Richard. (1992) The Fall of Public Man. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.

Sheller, Mimi and John Urry. (2000) “The City and the Car,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, vol. 24(4). 737-757.

image credit: Damon Winter, The New York Times

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Five Dollars a Day

I spend $1 a day on breakfast, $7 a week. I get 100% of almost every vitamin and mineral in that and I'm basically eating a whole grain, organic brownie. Yumm. I thought I was pretty efficient and frugal until I started following Julie's blog. In honor of Hunger Action Day (May 20th), Julie Flynn is committed to spending only $35 a week on food, the equivalent of the typical food stamp allowance. When I first got her email I ran my food budget quickly through my mind. I thought the $7 breakfast deal was pretty good (a few cents per vitamin?), and add to that about $3 for lunch per day, $21 a week. So, that leaves me about $7 for dinner, snacks, and treats, not including the occasional glass of beer or wine or (forget it!) a $1.75 Diet Mountain Dew. Living in LA, I've seen glasses of wine that cost more than the value of a full week's food stamp allowance. It's certainly a city of extremes.

I went back through my budget over the last three months (yes, being a student again and living in LA, you've got to keep track of every penny) and I spend somewhere between $96 and $112 a week on food, about $15 a day. That's groceries, eating out, caffeine, snacks, and alcohol (including one magical, smoky, heavenly beer float at Golden State Cafe and a highly subsidized set of birthday dinners - thank you everyone). At that rate, which is not so extravagant, those on food stamps could eat for two days, and lunch on a third. What happens the rest of the week?

Julie is also doing this whole experiment as a vegan, and selectively as an organic vegan (she has some great tips on her blog about priorities and resources). She's asking us to just simply read along, offer pointers and suggestions, provide support, think about what we consume, and, most importantly, recognize how difficult it is to be healthy, socially integrated, and low-income (yes, food and alcohol are huge aspects of our social lives and pressures - see the grilled cheese incident of May 19th on Julie's blog). Also, be sure to click on the "Congressional Food Stamp Challenge" and see how Congress members in 2007 - on $21 a week - fared in their own efforts to understand the dire consequences of poverty on health.

Eating on a miniscule budget for a week is hard, for a month is at least four times harder yet brings with it real awareness and activism, but for a lifetime, having to eat on $35 a week is truly tragic, with consequences beyond malnutrition like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease from eating cheaply which often means high carb, high fat, and low nutrition. In addition, we often equate food with love, ritual, celebration, seasonal cycles, not to mention pure joy, sensuality, and sensory stimulation. I can't imagine a life lacking the simple beauty of good, healthy food. Though it happens in this country for millions of people each day.

Here is Julie's original message:

To all my friends, family, and supporters:

Today, May 20th, is Hunger Action Day.

In honor of that, I would like to invite all of you to follow my Blog. For about a week and a half now, I have been living on $35/week for food as a vegan. I am attempting to eat a healthy, environmentally sustainable diet on a budget that represents a typical food stamp benefit allowance. I am only shopping at stores that accept food stamps. Through this experience I am exploring the barriers low-income Americans face in the quest for healthy food by living the challenge myself.

This is a month long experiment, and the Blog will likely continue to explore these issues all summer. For now, I am posting every day. Each post is different - sometimes an article, sometimes a recipe, sometimes a reflection. Here is the link:

I would love if you would support me by "Following" this Blog, or by passing it on to friends. A large part of this is about increasing awareness about the intersections between poverty, food, health problems, urban pubic health, and sustainability. The more people that know about this experiment, the better. As you will see in the first post (it gives all the background info- I suggest you start there), there is an interactive/participatory element to this. After reading, let me know if you want to contribute as well.

Have a great day, and thanks for reading.



A final note, there are many people trying to be proactive in combating their own limited choices, limited space, and limited access to healthy food. The South Central Farm was the largest community garden in the country and was lost due to a various and shady mix of greed, deals, and development. In June of 2008 a new documentary was released on the South Central Farm called The Garden. It was nominated for a 2009 Academy Award (along with Trouble the Water, one of my very first posts on this blog). It documents an ongoing story of activism and injustice. At the end of May it will play in DC, New York, Telluride, Salt Lake City, and Amherst. In June it will play in Charlotte (at Park Terrace, my old movie theater), Portland, San Diego, Denver, Louisville and Tucson. For updates, specifics, and more locations see their website or their page on Facebook. You can also volunteer or attend the rally to mark the third anniversary of their eviction from the abandoned incinerator site at 41st and Alameda. This is one small way to combine our new awareness with action.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Hope and Loss

I don't remember who spoke at my commencement - either of them. My best friend's girlfriend was valedictorian, which was a total shock at the time as I had never even noticed that she was all that smart. I might have fallen asleep from complete exhaustion at my grad school graduation. I hope for this next (last?) one, I'm well-rested and old enough to appreciate whatever stellar scholar, statesman, or activist (!) is chosen to impart wisdom on my not so new steps out into a not so new world. That one is still a few years away. As a faculty member, I teared up on more than one occasion at the small, College of Architecture ceremonies where the full faculty and student body march together into the salon space of our building, and we let go of the hands we have held so tightly (see the blog entry three weeks ago) and reward their unique skills and often flamboyant personalities with big name and beautiful book awards. The Randy Beavers award has always been a personal favorite, awarded (if I remember correctly) to the graduating senior who lives life to the fullest and exhibits some form of computer savviness. Almost inevitably, that award is given unanimously and with little debate. The Randy Beavers winners are quirky visionaries - odd, energetic, funky, some would say dancing to the beat of their own drummer, but they sparkle.

Today Barack Obama received an honorary degree and gave the commencement address for the graduating class of 2009 at Notre Dame University. It was controversial for a pro-choice President to be given such a dual honor at a Catholic University. It was controversial, and brilliant. Brilliant for Notre Dame, sure, because they are a University first, a place of learning and a center of knowledge whose faculty and graduates most certainly want to be a part of national debate on important issues. But what was truly brilliant was the speech itself or, rather, the event itself. Today issues of women's rights, reproductive freedom, prevention and wellness, humor, humility and educated options took center stage and close-mindedness, narrow visions, cynicism and condemning rhetoric were rebuked. Today our President recognized the opportunity, like he does on occasion, to take often litigious animosities and daylight them on common ground. There are objectives we can all agree on, he said, and for those where we do not, let us all have the decency and maturity to conduct intelligent and informed debate at the common table of humanity. His is a world free of extremists, and I want to live in that world.

Though Obama received a standing ovation on entry to the ceremony and loud support for his pro-active stance to reduce unwanted pregnancy and support stem cell research, several key figures in Notre Dame administration refused to attend. Notre Dame President Emeritus Theodore Hesburgh was shown regularly on camera with a face blank of any expression (this may or may not have been intentional or negative, but the guy was most definitely not clapping). Obama referred to "Father Ted's" accomplishments several times in his speech, but the most moving was the last. As this date marks the 55th anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision that integrated our schools, Obama recalled the Civil Rights Committee appointed by President Eisenhower that influenced the 1964 legislation. Father Ted was on that committee. From Obama's speech:

And years later, President Eisenhower asked Father Ted how on Earth he was able to broker an agreement between men of such different backgrounds and beliefs. And Father Ted simply said that during their first dinner in Wisconsin, they discovered they were all fishermen. And so he quickly readied a boat for a twilight trip out on the lake. They fished, and they talked, and they changed the course of history.

The fished, and they talked, and they changed the course of history. It's the telling as much as the tale, is it not? Remember that next time you find yourself arguing with an unreasonable zealot.

For those who don't see the world our way, Obama said, that's alright. That's alright, he said, as an abortion protester screamed out during his speech; we do not shy away from discomfort. And we do not do things easily. To me, those are the most significant diversions from the path of the eight years prior. Mediocrity is easy. Sarcasm and cynicism are easy. Compromise for the sake of compromise is easy. Laziness is the path of least resistance. What isn't easy is getting it right, doing the work. What isn't easy is demanding the best case scenario, the best quality, the fairest option, the most thorough information, and an outcome that is good, not just good enough.

In California, we have an election this coming Tuesday. It's astonishing the difference between the values inherent in Obama's speech and those latent in the California initiatives. It's not a big election, so it's not content that I'm comparing so much as approach. As you may or may not know, California is going bankrupt and its legislators submitted their annual budget months and months beyond the official mandatory deadline. This alone led to a financial crisis as government-paid employees were forced to take unpaid days off and reduced pay to help ride out the unknown conclusions. When a budget was finally delivered, California found itself deep in a bad financial hole.

Propositions 1A-F that we will be voting on this coming Tuesday are supposed to help fill in some of that hole. I'm no economic or government expert, but in reading my ballot and my 63 page voter reference guide, my conclusion is that the California legislators are lazy, baffled, and ineffective. This is obviously not news to some, but even a glance at the quick reference guide shows the absolute absurdity of the current measures. Try this one: Voting Yes on 1C means both that "Lottery payments to educational institutions would end, and the state General Fund would increase its payments to education to make up for the loss of those lottery funds" and "Prop 1C guarantees schools get the same level of lottery funding as they do now." These two sentences are in the same column of the same government-produced voter education guide. The summary in the back tells us that it's this very General Fund that is facing a $40 billion shortfall over the two year span from 2008 - 2010. So, if 1C is approved, do schools get the same level of lottery funding they do now, or do they get replacement funding from the already bankrupt General Fund? Both? Neither? Nothing?

Each of these propositions seems to be some form of complicated shell game, where money is borrowed from the future, moved from here to there, and those who lose out are the educators, the children of the poor, and the mentally ill. An LA Weekly article quotes Paul Goodwin, a researcher on how this ballot is being received, as calling it "paralyzing-confusing". Yes, and then some. Again quoting the voter information guide:

"The 2009-10 budget depends on access to about $6 billion related to three propositions on this ballot - $5 billion by borrowing from future lottery profits (Proposition C), up to $608 million by redirecting dedicated childhood development funds to help the General Fund (Proposition 1D), and about $230 million by redirecting dedicated mental health funds to help the General Fund (proposition 1E)".

If these are not passed, "the Legislature and the Governor probably would need to agree to billions of dollars of additional spending cuts, tax increases, and/or other budgetary solutions to bring the budget back into balance. It is unknown what these alternative actions would be, as they would be determined after this election." Probably?

Oh, and it goes on: "Even with the adoption of the 2009-2010 budget package and assuming that all of the propositions on this ballot pass, it is expected that the state would face multibillion-dollar budget shortfalls in the coming years.... Consequently, based on current projections, the state will need to adopt billions of dollars in additional spending reductions, tax increases, or other solutions..."

So, the options are this - we can, on Tuesday, say it's okay to cut K-12 educational spending, children's services, mental health services, and simultaneously raise taxes OR we can refuse to grant consent to our 'leaders' irresponsible treatment of our most vulnerable, most marginalized, and most at-risk and demand that they go back to the drawing board and seek options that are not mediocre, lazy, and abusive.

In light of all that, 1F we should all approve. This initiative prevents pay raises for our legislators in budget deficit years. My gosh, how generous.

For more information, give it your own shot at

Bonus photo of Notre Dame architecture graduates with building models on their mortar boards a la Beaux Arts Ball:

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Mail for people who need it most.

I love mail, which means I love mailmen (mailpeople? letter carriers). These are folks - men and women - who deliver to our doors the gift of words. Sure, this was more common before mail went digital, but I still covet the perfect postcard - that ideal combination of collective image and personal thought, recto and verso as Derrida said, the Kodak-spot image we all share of the world on one side, and the scrawling, hand-written, forcibly succinct personal story on the other. Postcards are a kind of history - of a place, of a relationship, of a person. The lineage of image, caption, selection, notation, address, stamp, receipt, display, save, and rediscover can knit together a life. The Raleigh 2000 project was about this, as was the A to B work I did here in LA last year.

But there's something special about the fact that a person, a live person, hand delivers the mail to you. Oftentimes they are walking from house to house, carrying that big blue mail bag like they have since the mid-1800s. One of the few provisions in the American constitution regarding the form of the country itself requires that the government upkeep routes for the delivery of the US mail. Newspapers and correspondence via horse and stagecoach tied us together long before highways and the internet. The westward expansion is the dual story of population migration and mail delivery.

More so, mail is ritualistic. My mother writes me real letters in her beautiful handwriting. My father sends me articles with my name written at the top - a record of his reading with me and my interests in mind. My friends send me postcards when they travel, particularly postcards of roads.

But this Saturday, May 9th, all of our mail carriers take on some additional weight. For 17 years the NALC (National Association of Letter Carriers) has conducted a nationwide food drive on the second Saturday of May. Members of the 300,000-strong postal union in 10,000 cities across the country will collect non-perishable food items from us, then deliver them to food banks, pantries, and shelters in the neighborhoods where they are collected. In New York and Chicago you can take your donations directly to the post office branch near you between May 4th and May 9th.

Appropriately, Campbell’s' Soup will donate an additional 1,000 pounds of soup to a food bank chosen by each of the ten post office branches that collect the most food. Last year, letter carriers collected a record 71.3 million tons of food; this year, the need is even greater.

Rain, sleet, or snow, they bring you your mail. The bills and junk, yes, but also the surprises and treats, birthday cards, reminders, love notes, books, and memories. And only once a year they ask you for something back, and offer to be the free conduit that delivers your goodness to those who really need it. This Saturday, let's help our letter carriers fill up those big blue bags with food. For more information, go to the NALC website.

Two quick congratulations: Loveswell's opening night got rave reviews. It plays through June 7th (see last week's entry for more information), and my friend and founder of the Street Soccer USA league, Lawrence Cann, is on the front page of the NY Times Region section for his work with homeless players - check it out (and see previous blog entries on the Charlotte Street Soccer team, or see Kicking It! now on hulu).