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Private insurrections: the commons of the private realm

You would be forgiven for not noticing. In fact, it is the very interest of capital and its allied hegemonic forces to disguise itself in plain sight. But, a wolf hides in sheep’s clothing: the commons – spaces of truly democratic agency and appropriation – is no longer where we expect it to be. Instead, parks, plazas, and streets – all commonplace materializations of the “public” realm – have been co-opted by hegemonic interests and rendered tools of discipline and control.

Recent scholarship has analyzed past planning interventions to reveal this reality, namely Barbara Hooper’s feminist critique of the Haussmannization of Paris and Alvaro Sevilla-Buitrago’s historical account of the creation of Central Park in New York City. Both Hooper and Sevilla evidence this claim with episodes from planning’s Euro-American history, positioning both planning and planners as critical actors in the narrative of urban dispossession, differentiation, and enclosure. Touching on queer and gender theories, Hooper investigates the Haussmannization of Paris to unearth masculinist strategies of disciplining a “disorderly” city and its embodied populace. For Hooper, Haussmann’s surgical incisions throughout Paris’ public realm enacted a regime of “rationalization and regularization” meant to eradicate “the dark and disorderly spaces in which the plot thickens, revolutionaries hide, [and] prostitutes and criminals escape policing.”2As a “disciplinary strategy of differentiation and control,” Haussmann’s physical interventions produced new “discretely bordered and hierarchically ordered ‘spatial cells’”3that reorganized the very fabric of Paris to the whims of the bourgeoisie. The very infrastructure of the public realm – its streets, which previously served as the stage for collective appropriation by the working class and other subaltern publics – now operated to suppress the visibility of and resistance by these oppressed publics.

The design and implementation of Central Park emerged from this same tradition but enacted its spatialization through different logics. While Haussmann sought to eradicate pathologized urban forms – the disorderly street and slum – and replace them with his own “rational” vision, the designers and proponents behind Central Park intended to foster urban civility by insulating a new orderly public realm from the disorderly street. In New York City, just as in Paris, subaltern communities often blurred the distinctions of public and private space, troubling bourgeois values.4In response, “Central Park constituted a first attempt to tame the rough-and-tumble of the streets through an enclosure regime conceived to eliminate the processes of spontaneous appropriation of public space and to educate the users in a pattern of heteronomous spatial practices.”5Like Haussmann, hegemonic interests leveraged public infrastructure as a tool of control. The park, although publicly accessible and culturally coded as “natural” and “un-urban,” signified “the production of [civilized] urban publics through the taming of collective uses of space,”6resulting in the “dispossession of subaltern commons.”7

These two episodes exemplify and contextualize an insidious pattern: in both cases, hegemonic interests mobilized the public realm – sites that are loaded with cultural meaning as common and collective – to limit collective appropriations of urban space. In disguising control within the infrastructures of the collective, planners have historically rendered their disciplinary strategies invisible. In addition to complicating and furthering the distinctions between physicallypublicspace (streets, parks) and sociallypublicspace (the commons), these projects also sought to more concretely delineate the strict borders between public and private realms. As Engels astutely recognized, spatial interventions do not solvethe urban problem, but rather redistributeit spatially. As the public realm increasingly became the site of policing, surveillance, and performed civility, the private realm absorbed the displaced pathologized actions of subaltern publics. By outlawing specific behaviors from the public realm through greater policing, the social function of the private realm more clearly crystallized: “a disembodied [orderly] ‘public’ domain [emerged] as somehow separate from the embodied [disorderly] ‘private’ domain.”8Political discontent, female sexuality, emotional intimacy, homosexuality, child rearing, and the social reproduction of subaltern peoples – these demonized actions found and continue to find themselves backed into hidden, private spaces where collective mobilization is neutered by isolation from one another. Resistance has fewer and fewer outlets in the public realm and so is stunted in the shadows. These urbanization strategies dovetail to produce a new urban code of civility that disenfranchises subaltern classes, suppresses modes of insurrection, and supports hegemonic urban interests.

However, the logics that underpin this hegemonic project already show signs of unraveling. Although the regime has succeeded in redistributing pathologized publics to isolated locations out of sight from the bourgeoisie, this very process reveals the arbitrariness of the delineation between public and private spaces. As both Hooper and Sevilla purport through their historicized investigations, hegemonic projects like Haussmannization and Central Park produce a constantly churning renegotiation between what is public and what is private. The public realm, once the site of dark disorder, was recast as a new space of order; in turn, the private realm, formerly envisioned as a domesticated, orderly space, became a new sanctuary for disorderly deeds. Although the physical infrastructures of public spaces (streets, parks) and of private spaces (the home) remain the same, these physical sites take on new social purposes and fail to perfectly contain bounded definitions. As Hooper succinctly states, “order and disorder are…abstractions,”9and as such, expressions of both order and disorder leak out of their inchoate bounds. If the concepts of “public” and “private” cannot hold on to static, meaningful definitions, their usefulness in delimiting permitted appropriations begins to erode. All we are left with then are physical sites of infrastructuralpublicity or privacy – sites that carry no preordained social meaning beyond ownership and access.

As evidenced by the inherited built forms of Paris and New York, hegemonic forces historically have drained the democratic commons from the public realm, coopting many streets, parks, and plazas for their own means of social reproduction. But what is stopping us from imagining a commons of the private realm? The democratic commons is not fixedly tied to public infrastructures. While hegemonic regimes have sought to disenfranchise subaltern publics by forcing insurrection into isolation in private infrastructures like the home, the way forward may be to reimagine these very sites as platforms for resistance. How do the pathologized appropriate space when they are not permitted to do so in public? Perhaps a constellation of private insurrections already exists, scattered across the urban.

Brett Merriam is a candidate for the Master in Urban Planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

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