Fast Company

David Harvey's Urban Manifesto: Down With Suburbia; Down With Bloomberg's New York

"New York? The whole damn place has been turned into a suburb," sneered David Harvey, startling a roomful of New Yorkers who prided themselves on the same things he derided: the makeover of the city's parks; the new network of bike lanes; the pedestrian malls along Broadway. "The feel of the city is losing its urbanity and being made okay for suburbanites to enjoy Times Square," he continued, going on to condemn New York's gentrification not on aesthetic or nostalgic grounds, but for being at the root of the financial crisis.

Harvey is having a bit of a moment in America, as much as any neo-Marxist economic geographer can. Earlier this month, his lucid explanation of the "econopocalyspe" (accompanied by animated whiteboard doodles) was a modest hit on Boing Boing. Richard Florida borrowed his concept of the "spatial fix"--the idea that capitalism gets bigger and badder every time it's wriggles out of a crisis--for his latest book, The Great Reset. And Harvey's own book-length explanation of the crisis, The Enigma of Capital is set to be published on these shores in September.

On Tuesday night in Manhattan, Harvey discussed "experimental geography" and the role cities and suburbia played in the crisis. Starting from the idea of a "geographic unconscious"--"the way we think of space and time as 'natural' when they're really constructed,"--Harvey blamed suburbia for brainwashing Americans into being good capitalists.

But the connections between urbanism and capitalism go deeper than that. In an essay published in New Left Review, he drew connections between Haussmann's Paris, postwar America, gentrification and China's instant cities. In each case, the construction efforts employed huge quantities of labor and required new forms of capital and credit, whether FHA mortgages or CDOs. In his estimation, China's breakneck urbanization and the appetite for raw materials this creates is the only thing propping global capitalism up.

At the same time, gentrification has become just another name for suburbia. "Shopping malls, multiplexes and box stores proliferate," he wrote, "as do fast-food and artisanal market-places. We now have, as urban sociologist Sharon Zukin puts it, 'pacification by cappuccino'. Even the incoherent, bland and monotonous suburban tract development that continues to dominate in many areas now gets its antidote in a 'new urbanism' movement that touts the sale of community and boutique lifestyles to fulfill urban dreams."

And New York is the biggest offender of them all. "The billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg, is reshaping the city along lines favourable to developers, Wall Street and transnational capitalist-class elements, and promoting the city as an optimal location for high-value businesses and a fantastic destination for tourists. He is, in effect, turning Manhattan into one vast gated community for the rich." Harvey is merely putting into Marxist terms the same laments offered recently by Patti Smith ("New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling... So my advice is: Find a new city") and the anonymous blogger behind Lost City, who viciously described Bloomberg's city as "homogenous, anodyne, whitewashed, suburban, toothless, chain-store-ridden, ordinary, exclusive and terribly, terribly expensive. A town for tourists and the upper 2%."

Cities like New York "are increasing being constructed around spectacle," Harvey argued Tuesday night. "One aspect of capital is that it wants to move faster and faster; capital cannot abide a long period without change." In cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Mumbai, this change is being brought about by land grabs and slum clearance. In New York and other financial capitals, it's gentrification "making cities a spectacle that is instantly consumed." In other words, we're blinded by the lights to our Matrix-like existence. "We're all suburbanites now, without knowing it," he said. "We're all neoliberals now, without knowing it."

In its place, Harvey has called for a "right to the city" to be recognized as a human right. Considering the urban tsunami that's coming--3 billion additional city-dwellers on top of 3.3 billion now--he has a point. The future of humanity is an urban future, and at this moment America is staring at millions of home foreclosures while China is bulldozing neighborhoods as it sees fit.

Like any committed socialist, Harvey ended his brief talk with a call to arms (a theorist's call to arms, but still): "We've got to revolutionize the geographic subconscious; we've got to revolutionize daily life--that's what really matters. In changing the city, we change ourselves. The real question is: what kind of people do we want to be?"

[Image via flickr/CarlMiKoy]

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4 Comments

  • RubyNYC

    I am a bit surprised by this (very brief) summary of Professor Harvey's arguments. The waters that surround NYC made our city ideal for Capitalist manufacturing and the wholesale exploitation of migrant and immigrant workers. With nearly all of those jobs outsourced, the economy of NYC must be redirected towards tourism. Boss Bloomberg is perfect for this task, since he has made 16 billion dollars turning wheels that produce absolutely nothing. However, the improvement made by NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe should not be lumped in with this kitschy trend. The greenery, serenity, influx of birds, and free events all offer a welcome respite to our mind-numbing jobs and latte chit chats.

  • benjaminhemric

    From a quick reading of this article, it seems to me that David Harvey’s arguments are similar to those that have been expressed in a number of other articles, books, panel discussions, etc. in recent years, and thus it seems to me that these following general comments might apply:

    1) David Harvey and other Marxist-inspired writers (and their otherwise non-Marxists admirers, too) seem to be assuming that the "natural" state of cities like NYC was the rampant decay that hit “great American cities” (using the Jane Jacobs phrase) after World War II. (In NYC, the rampant decay hit relatively late, beginning in earnest, so it seems to me, in the late 1960s.) They seem to forget that significant parts of NYC, including places like Times Square, etc., were actually very middle-class before that.

    Before the post-WWII decline of American cities, "great American cities" like NYC were brimming with middle-class (and upper-class too) facilities: stores (e.g., "Macy's"), theaters (e.g., "Radio City Music Hall"), restaurants (e.g., Schrafts, etc.), districts "Herald Square," etc.), spectacles (e.g., "Times Square"), various city parks, etc.

    Were cities "suburban" then?!

    2) I think that the Marxists (and left/liberals, etc.) are greatly confusing the issue by, more or less, equating “suburbia” with the presence of middle-class residents, stores, etc.

    While it’s obviously true that post-WWII suburbia was intended to be an exclusive haven of the middle-class, still I don't think middle-class residents are the actual defining feature of suburbia and what sets them apart from cities. (See my comments directly above.) There’s still a big difference, whether Marxists (and their non-Marxist admirers) like it or not, between a middle-class city district and a middle-class suburban one. Ignoring, or attempting to erase, the difference between these two very different types of built environments adds no value to the discussion, so it seems to me, but only confuses it.

    3) For a different – and much, much more useful, in my opinion – understanding of how cities (and suburbs) and city regions relate to economies, one should read the books of the great urbanologist (although she didn't like the term, "urbanologist") and non-Marxist economist, Jane Jacobs, particularly such books as “the Economy of Cities, Cities,” “the Wealth of Nations,” “Systems of Survival” and “the Nature of Economies.” Reading her works (which are virtual odes to cities AND commerce), one sees that commerce is the essence of urbanism – not the corrupter (or suburbanizer) of it.

    4) Nevertheless, I do think that it's true that Manhattan has, in fact, become increasingly “suburbanized” in “recent” years. But it's not at all because Manhattan has become safer, greener and more middle- or upper-class. Rather, it's because (at least in part) many New Yorkers (especially, ironically, those who seem to do the most complaining about “gentrification” and “suburbanization”) appear to have lost touch with the middle-class / commercial roots of genuine urbanism.

    Two examples come to mind:

    1) The template for New York City streets used to be blocks lined with “urban” buildings (built out to the lot line) and brimming with commercial store fronts – this both enlivened the urban streetscape and provided plentiful opportunities for commercial experimentation (and non-chain stores). But ever since the “tower-in-the-park” inspired revision of the zoning code in 1961, it is not uncommon for such streetscapes to be rebuilt in quasi-suburban styles -- e.g., having a big, store-less empty lobby placed behind an “urban” version of a "front yard" (a/k/a a bonused plaza) or at the end of an urban version of a suburban "cul de sac" (a/k/a as a bonused mid-block plaza).

    The net result is deadened, suburban-like streetscapes and a somewhat handicapped, deadened “suburbanized” economy.

    2) In the early days of suburbia, it was the economically vital big city chain establishments (e.g., department stores, movie theater chains, etc.) that colonized suburbia. Now it's suburban chain establishments that are colonizing big cities – not uncommonly, by the way, actually setting up shop in "big boxes" that were originally built as big city department stores!

    So the question is, if city residents like to patronize such establishments (which they apparently do), why did cities wind up importing such establishments from the suburbs? Why didn't more such stores develop in cities (or, more particularly, in New York City) in the first place? The demand has, apparently, been there. Why has NYC wound up being "colonized"?

    I wonder if at least part of the problem was, along with a general suburbanization of the built environment (see my comments above), the existence of overly restrictive, post-1961 zoning laws (and other overly restrictive business regulations) – regulations that discouraged (and perhaps may still be discouraging) innovative and popular new businesses?

    Benjamin Hemric
    Sat., July 31, 2010, 2:05 p.m.

  • keenplanner

    Granted, New York and San Francisco are certainly expensive and continue to gentrify, but this was a phenomena that started with Reaganomic deregulation and the dot-com boom, respectively. To blame gentrification on urban improvements that both cities are racing to embrace would indicate that the author has abandoned the construct of time in his odd reasoning. American cities are following the lead of international cities. Cities that offer pedestrian, transit, and bike accessible amenities, safer modes of non-motorized travel, and vital public spaces. How is the need to not own two cars (average cost: $6500 per car per year) contributing to gentrification? Urban and suburban environments differ greatly in both the amount of parking, density, and proximity to cultural events, as well as many cappuccino options that aren't Starbuck's.
    And Patti, people are finding new cities. Oakland has attracted many of the young and restless crowd that have been priced out of San Francisco. There's a head-spinning art scene, and new restaurants and cappuccino outlets spreading like poison oak. The result? Urbanization, and gentrification.
    While the idea of organizing a mass exodus of angry Marxist hipsters to Cleveland or Pittsburgh looks good on paper, they will need jobs to pay even the low rent. They will be barristas. They will continue the viral spread of cappuccino sedation that fuels Harvey's unfounded fears.

    ...and I the only one who noticed that most young, idealistic Marxists are raised in middle-class suburbias? I, and most of my friends were.

  • spartan2600

    Actually, NYC just announced big cuts to public transportation the NYT announced a week or two ago. I don't know what Harvey's argument on bike lanes is, but I would think it is a cheap way to give the impression of more transit opportunities, but biking is really only an option for those with plenty of disposable time and a bit of money (like the yippies in the upper 2%). It is not a substitute for cheap, high-quality public transportation. The working-poor cannot afford to bike to work for several reasons.

    Harvey, as any Marxist would, counts Reagan's deregulation just a part of the neo-liberal deregulation process that started with the dismantling of Bretton-Woods, and the dot-com boom a result of such deregulation.

    NYC and most cities are not creating more public spaces. A mall is definitely not a public space- just try to exercise your freedom of speech there.

    "most young, idealistic Marxists are raised in middle-class suburbias"

    Unfortunately its the middle class that have the money and free-time to read and think about Marx. Most of the poor are too busy surviving. This clearly is not the case in most countries though, Central and South America have large poor, leftist movements.

    Perhaps the article did not make it clear, but Harvey does not agree with Patti Smith that everyone should just give up and leave to another city. He supports the Right to the City movement, which means reclaiming the city from the powers of gentrification and replacing it with a movement to create good jobs, more public spaces, improve public transport, etc.