Ages before the term ‘gentrification’ was common parlance at brunch, Mike Davis wrote about spatial apartheid in City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1990). It was a quintessential study of post-modernism urbanism in Southern California, and many of his warnings about increasing control over public space have come true not just for Los Angeles, but likewise for cities experiencing dramatic growth all along the West Coast. Over 25 years after being published, City of Quartz still helps us understand how power shapes our environment, and, perhaps most importantly, tells us how we can mold the community around us.
According to Davis, who is a professor at the University of California, Riverside, spatial apartheid thrives in the post-liberal Los Angeles of the 90’s, which he describes in the chapter “Fortress LA.” For the author, this post-liberal movement refers to distance itself from “attempts to balance repression with reform” (such as the Civil Rights legislature). Instead, the 90’s brought with it the War on Drugs, Stop-and-Frisk, and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which expanded the death penalty, targeted communities of color, and led to an increase in incarceration.
Davis writes that such spatial social control “calculates the interests of the urban poor and the middle classes as a zero-sum game.” During the boom of the 90’s, urban restructuring became, as he put it, a “master narrative in the emerging built environment” that brings “new repressions in space and movement” — which, ultimately enforces social boundaries through new architectural design.
The overall economic growth experienced during the turn of the century only helped further increase social insulation as public space and recreation areas began to be replaced with pseudo-public spaces like shopping malls, office complexes, and other corporate-defined redevelopment projects.
In turn, redevelopment reproduced spatial apartheid on a large-scale by incentivizing municipalities to facilitate private development and devalue public space as a municipal policy priority.
Such prized enclaves of corporate or commercial space make use of invisible signs that alert marginalized groups (poor families of color, immigrants, houseless folks, those in need of social services) to their segregation from social spaces. (For example, the “bum-proof” barrel-shaped benches that barely serve as seats in order to make sleeping on them impossible.) Strategies of spatial control threaten to harden public spaces for everyone who experiences them, not only those condemned to living in public space.
In stark contrast to the hipster culinary delights of the recently redeveloped Downtown LA area near California Plaza, just a few blocks over, hundreds of tents line Skid Row. It’s an indelible example of how the destruction of open public space feeds into the ‘containment’ (official term) of the homeless. Skid Row includes thousands of people living on the street, funneled there to avoid arrest for setting up a tent anywhere else. The only place where LA allows camping during night hours, the blocks of Skid Row have a long history of dangerous conditions, often resulting in relapse and recidivism.
Davis wondered, as LA continued to grow and recognized the real estate value of its urban ‘containment’ core, how would it ensure its development includes resources and housing for those who have been walled off from urban renewal?
For many years, LA continued its history of containment, negligence, and criminalizing poverty, all while planning the building of two new prisons (against the protests of many community groups). In 2016, the LA City Council approved a law to limit what people experiencing homelessness could carry — only whatever would fit into a 60-gallon container (roughly the size of a city trash bin). It states that homeless people can be cited or arrested on a misdemeanor charge for failing to clear the sidewalks or failing to take down their tents between the hours of 6am and 9pm.
In 2018 alone, the Bureau of Sanitation requested $17 million for the Clean Streets program, which answers civilian requests made to the city’s 311 hotline system, scrubbing down Skid Row and other encampment areas weekly, often throwing away people’s hard-fought for belongings. Such a focus on arrest and the downsizing of property can only make it more difficult for people to find steady housing and stability.
Recognizing that these cleaning routines are intrusive and ineffective, Mayor Eric Garcetti launched the Bridge Housing Initiative, which opened its first site, El Pueblo, in 2018 and plans to open subsequent housing facilities in neighborhoods across LA.
Even as gains are made, however, local resident pushback has lead to areas around the housing facilities to be designated as “Special Enforcement Zones” with five-day-a-week tent-clearing cleaning operations. Matt Szabo, Garcetti’s Chief of Staff, explains how Angelenos themselves make affordable housing solutions difficult: “One of the biggest sources of pushback we receive when there is a planned facility — whether it’s permanent or temporary housing — is that residents fear that the location of a facility in their neighborhood will lead to more encampments.”
But there just isn’t enough space for segregated sprawl anymore. As urban centers only get denser, any solutions to the housing crisis should be collaborative and must break down the walls of spatial apartheid. Reporting on a new housing facility opening in Fullerton, Jill Replogle with KPCC Orange County reminds us that “Neighborhoods may have to step up, or they’ll continue to have neighbors who sleep in their parks.”
Instead of a “not in my backyard” mindset, Angelenos should take it upon themselves, individually, not to draw spatial boundaries and to encourage new housing facilities in their own neighborhoods and all over their city.
Housing is a basic right that should be available to everyone. When it comes to spatial apartheid in the 21st century, we have to break through the walls of social insulation, beginning with ourselves.
Andrea Delgado is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature, Cinema, and Media at the University of Washington. Her dissertation, Indelible Practices of Hope: Worldbuilding in 1990’s Los Angeles, uses literature, drama, film, Instagram, and cultural practice to explore the alternative worlds built in one urban city in the wake of increasingly neoliberal policies at the end of the 20th century. When not reading literature or writing about it, Andrea enjoys hanging out in her garden or with her partner, Kris, and their two pets, Erika the dog and Kitty the cat.
Illustration by Juliet Romano.