Space that can be defended, but against who?

OK, so there was a way of making buildings called modernism and it was great and then it wasn’t, and in fact it was Hitler! and Stalin! and bureaucracy! and groundnuts! and the fundamental illegitimacy of the state! and there was that block of flats they blew up! and let’s all laugh along with James C. Scott’s hilariously arch titles while the Right operationalised postmodernism as a technology of power.

So instead of modernism, we invented defensible space which had a bit of garden and a hat on the doorway and a shitload of heavy security fencing everywhere and that was All Better and now we don’t talk about any of those guys except for the Crazy People. We can’t call these crazy people Dirty Fucking Hippies because they dress sharp. But they are Not Serious.

And then. In Marcus Garvey Village, a Housing Solution Gone Awry. (Much praise to the NYT subeditor for an instantly recognisable NYT headline but without using the verbs “mull” or “weigh”.)

About 10 years ago, Susan Saegert, a professor of environmental psychology at the City University of New York and two doctoral students looked at life in the structures and found that the courtyard areas, a hallmark of the design, became a nexus of the drug trade in the ’80s and ’90s precisely because they were shielded from public access and view. What was meant to foster an elevated sense of privacy instead contributed to criminality.

The irony. The other arm of the postmodernist Right now shows up; nobody gave up on legibility, surveillance, or state power with regard to the police, now did they. Of course, we know how to fix that!

The most dispiriting irony about life in Marcus Garvey Village today is that its residents could not possess less of a sense of control over where they live. Crime has abated but a heavy and oppressive police presence has not, residents told me. Marcus Garvey Village is patrolled by a private security force as well. When I visited several weeks ago with a colleague, guards insisted on following us and tried to claim, inexplicably, that we could not talk to residents on their stoops or in their apartments even if we were invited in.

One resident, Jamal Matherson, told of seeing a friend pinned down one evening a few weeks ago by three police officers for no obvious reason when they were talking outside their building. Another resident talked about seeing a little girl on a stoop approached by a police officer who checked her drink to make sure it did not contain alcohol (she was having iced tea). If you happen to be having a glass of wine on your stoop in Cobble Hill, the chances that a police officer will tell you to stop are roughly equal to the chance that a schnauzer will pass on an excellent stock tip. If you are drinking wine on the stoops of Marcus Garvey Village you will most likely be questioned and given a ticket.

So, can we even begin to theorise what might have led to such an unprecedented malfunction?

Since the construction of Marcus Garvey, the poverty rate in Brownsville has not gone down; it has gone up — to close to 40 percent today from 29 percent in 1970

Oh hai, Old Economy Steven. It’s…as if the poverty and inequality was something to do with the problem. That said, this is also something that was true of Bradford:

As one former official at the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development told me, Marcus Garvey actually makes the ailing towers of the Housing Authority so heavily concentrated in Brownsville “look good.”

The medium-rise stuff got so dreadful they knocked it down. I remember delivering a washing machine from the West Yorkshire Co-op to one of them – the tenant was all for throwing the old one out of a window rather than toting it back down, because down is harder, and so was I but the driver said no; the towers improved with some maintenance, a caretaker, and the economy picking up a bit. What did happen to that? Ah.

2 Comments on "Space that can be defended, but against who?"


  1. Exactly. A point block with one entrance/exit can be an extremely secure and private place to live, especially with the assistance of a caretaker/concierge. The problem is that the shops in the surrounding area have all closed, the space around the flats is covered with litter, and you have to walk past various druggies and rowdies on your way anywhere. But these factors aren’t the fault of modernist architects, despite the fact that they might not have fully considered the broader picture in their designs.
    It is evidence of the triumph of ‘postmodernism’, as you point out above, that modernist designs are judged in a politico-socio-economic vacuum. Architects only design buildings, they don’t commission them, finance them, plan the surrounding area or control the population. Perhaps a bit of context might be in order.

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  2. …precisely because they were shielded from public access and view. What was meant to foster an elevated sense of privacy instead contributed to criminality.

    See the much earlier work of the urbanist William H. Whyte whose work led to the the revitalization of a lot of urban spaces in NYC that were formerly very seedy and dangerous. He helped to remake Bryant Park which used to be surround by hedges and was not a place you’d want to go in the 70s and 80s unless you were looking to get high/head/mugged.

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