The Shape of a Neighbor(hood)

Last spring, I was listening to a radio panel discussion about the development of downtown Los Angeles. Vitalizing the downtown area was said to bring in people from around the county as well as tourists from around the globe. The participants weighed in on the topic of homeless residents around Skid Row, an area of downtown in which streets lined with tents serve as improvised housing to a population estimated at 10 thousand men, women and children. While the speakers agreed that the crime rate is lower in downtown LA than other “livable” parts of the city, lack of safety and sanitation were still attributed to Skid Row. One councilwoman stated that other areas of LA don’t tolerate homeless residents, and downtown shouldn’t have to either. The panelists suggested again and again that the image of strollers would be a sign that downtown Los Angeles is a friendly place to be and therefore the project of revitalization would be successful and worthwhile. Ironically, though never mentioned, many people do use strollers downtown- like shopping carts, for collecting cans and storing and mobilizing their life’s possessions.

Conversations like this, hosted by NPR’s Air Talk, are one of many places that (some) city residents inadvertently share their anxiousness and disdain about the status of others. In less than ten minutes, the speakers touched on what took the last century to construct and deploy: the modernist urban project. Today the same rhetoric continues the aim of what amounts to a sweeping under the (concrete -and -barricaded) carpet of basic human rights. While the demand for safety, sanitation and the aesthetic city persists, those (human) rights are only afforded to those who can afford them. Around the country, communities of people without homes are marginalized and forced into the position of transitory individuals. This migration often makes relationships difficult to sustain, thereby disabling the possibility of a unified group or unified at least for social and/or political purposes. Despite this trend, some resistances have been successful, even if they simply result in the increased visibility of such groups, and by extension, individuals.
The topic of managing the residents of Skid Row was discussed and circumscribed in one term: homeless. In this specific conversation, the word was repeatedly tied to conditions such as unsafe and unclean, and, relying on the make up of the word, persons without a home. Although statistical information was offered regarding the lack of crime in the area, participants still characterized the people and area as criminal. Already, representations of street residents are aggrandized and mythified in popular culture, certainly community members that seek to dis/re/locate Skid Row might chose a more articulate word to describe the neighborhoods’ residents.

To insist on this term –homeless or transient, is to create a binary in a social imaginary, that assumes there are people with homes, with some sort of definite stability, without change. These words in no way begin to describe the very flexible position of (not) having a home, instead, they illuminate and codify the constantly changing situation of only specific people, without coming to terms with the instability of us all. While this logic is at risk of flattening the many differences between, say, myself (spending just over a grand/month for housing) and a neighbor, who sleeps on a discarded mattress down the street, I hope to point to the extreme porousness of such delineations.

Even the word “home” connotes a particular structure regulated and maintained with specific aspirations, usually defined and coded by city councils and community boards, made up of the same people who participated on AirTalk’s broadcast. If community members, presumably with homes, entertaining the fantasy of permanent stability, are making up the rules of what constitutes a home, maybe looking at them, or us, could make visible the construction of the term ‘homeless’. Since we are conducting the ways in which individuals or groups are defined, examining that frame might get at how we render others.

Roslyn Deutsche investigates the figure of the homeless individual by pointing to our own constructions of space as a way of mitigating the claims to territories. She investigates the dialectic between private and public spaces to render them one and the same. Meaning, public space is constructed to sustain private interests. Parks and city streets are not, in fact, for the use of just any citizen or visitor, instead they work to produce a façade of productivity and sustainability for a specific community. Any image that counters this ideologically driven façade would result in conflict. That conflict is propelled by those (home/ business owners) who seek to capitalize on such a space; their rejection of conflict points a guilty finger at those (homeless/ transient) who are now (re)produced as intruders. This is exemplified in the radio show by the speakers’ desire for removal of residents of Skid Row.

Pplaque denoting "right to pass" on Los Angeles sidewalkWhile the radio show continued, it became clear who the speakers were not; there were no representatives of Skid Row or other people living on the streets to defend their use of what was now the topic of debate. Instead, speakers, in this instance speakers commercially tied to the small pocket of downtown, have the privileged position of reinscribing a specific representation of the area and its current residents. Using rhetoric like “safety” and “sanitation” participates in what has come to be the institutionalization of poverty and homelessness in the United States. The right to safe and clean shelter supercede the right to any shelter at all. Informal claims to the streets and its uses are unwelcomed, yet met with language that superficially sets out a concerning, caring agenda. It is not my intention to suggest that conditions on the streets are suitable for living; rather, I hope to point to the patterns of marginalization that renders people invisible, or not part of our/my community. Deutsche has noted, our constructed environments, be they linguistic or architectonic, are routinely aimed at pushing out what is perceived as a source of conflict.

Mark Wigley writes in his article “Bloodstained Architecture” that architecture is always constructed for an exclusive audience. Historically, buildings were signs of power for such groups, and the meaning those structures had for others was rarely considered. Wigley says, “The very notion of architecture is part of a complex cultural mechanism that negotiates the ever shifting relationship between private and public. That is to say, architecture is very actively involved in the construction of multiple over-lapping systems of exclusion- or withdrawal. It is first and foremost, an art form of exclusion, but this exclusion- which I am suggesting is always in some sense violent- depends on an image of its own innocence”.

When one takes a critical look, this image of innocence, like that in the language of ‘safety and sanitation’ is easily found in the built structures of Los Angeles. From the shape of bus benches, to the landscape around freeways, the city denies the use of ‘public’ space to its citizens. In my neighborhood alone, on the southeastern edge of Hollywood, many sidewalks have embedded brass plaques that mark the space and authority of ‘private’ property. On parts of Wilshire Blvd. an actual brass line denotes this. Houses that don’t have bars on the windows (the poor woman/man’s security) boast signs that read “Armed Response” letting outsiders know that either they are not welcomed in, or possibly, the occupants are trapped in. This condition, what I will call being ‘trapped in’, has proliferated around the city that is notorious for its other trappings, the car and ‘Fantasy Hollywood’. Is the condition of being 'trapped in’ the individualistic ego haphazardly unfolding or having a panic attack? Either way, it propels the idea that you’re on your own to make it through; the same ideals perpetuated from the top: any form of allegiance with one another’s struggle might bring you down. Hard work is required to at once, disperse and contain populations in order to maintain the separation of homed and non-homed. Signs of this are everywhere, finely blended into the architecture. Custom made iron bars on windows, decorative bus perches, and gated public parks are all marks of aestheticized trappings, some implicitly exclude, others actively repel.

The goal would be to forget or never acknowledge the degrees of separation, but this only works on those of us who can afford to forget. Mike Davis writes in City of Quartz, “In many instances the semiotics of so-called ‘defensible space’ are just about as subtle as a swaggering white cop. Today’s upscale, pseudo-public spaces- sumptuary malls, office centers, culture acropolises, and so on –are full of invisible signs warning off the underclass Other. Although architectural critics are usually oblivious to how the built environment contributes to segregation, pariah groups –whether poor Latino families, young Black men, or elderly homeless white females – read the meaning immediately.” Programs the city promotes like Design Out Crime are publicized to prevent crime (read “conflict”) through environmental design intended for use by homeowners, businesses and municipal land and buildings. The program includes concepts like “natural surveillance” and “territorial reinforcement.”

To help create this environment, tips are offered such as, “fences around housing developments can be designed in ways that avoid creating hiding places for criminals” (read “people to sleep” or “have sex”) and another tip-“plant prickly vegetation below certain external windows”. While the planners here are aware of criticism like that of Davis, they add, “The biggest obstacle of Design Out Crime may be an initial misconception by some critics that [CPTED] techniques involve the creation of fortress-like architecture: cloistered gated communities, buildings with forbidding facades, or defensive architecture. In reality, all of these principles may be implemented in a way that remains aesthetically pleasing and will enhance the visual character of the entire city.

Indeed, Design Out Crime seeks to discourage fortress-like architecture and generate designs that invite the kind of positive activity that deters crime.” Here, it is clear that the city sees aesthetics (read innocence) as playing a role in the prevention of crime, again, reinforcing the ideology that the image of productivity matters. Some of the built environment is constructed with crimes like burglary, or worse, rape, in mind, and this act of what I will call ‘exclusionary architecture’ is different than say a bus bench designed to keep people from sleeping- what I will call ‘repellent architecture’. Yet both depend on constructs of the ‘other’, the perpetuation of fear, and a binary conception of public and private spaces. That is, the construction of the ‘other’, as seen in the characterization of people without homes, translates into dangerous or unsafe, which fuels fear and the need to, again, make a strict separation-or- segregation. Wrigley aptly illuminates this by saying, “The point is that the definition of the line between public and private is itself an active participant in the violence occurring on either side of it, whether domestic or public.

We tend to talk most about violence in the streets but if you are going to be hurt or killed, it will probably happen in your house by somebody you have loved or claims to still love you. The private house, a symbol of a withdrawal from the lack of definition and predictability of the public to a space of safety and security, is actually the most dangerous place. It is where you are most likely to die.” Other programs such as the city’s StreetScape Project utilize streets, parks and public spaces to project aesthetics that attract certain populations and discourage others. The StreetScape Project unites local officials, businesses and neighborhood community groups for “enhancement [of sidewalks or streets] for community identity and beautification in the public right of way, including street lights, trees, crosswalks, street furniture, bus stops and landscape plantings.” These programs seem to promote a participatory environment, and relieve the city of some responsibilities, as noted on the Design Out Crime website, “In these tight fiscal times, cities must look beyond traditional policing methods and examine all possible ways to enhance public safety. Cities need to find creative, cost effective ways to stop crime..”. The precondition of such participation is induction into the category of resident, neighbor, citizen. Where the city aims to afford agency to its residents, it makes clear which residents are considered eligible for participation.

Architecture designed to exclude can blend in, or project innocence far more easily than architecture designed to repel. Mike Davis discusses such designs by charting the history of downtown’s urban planning and the city’s management of people without permanent homes. He notes that the fortress effect of downtown, with Bunker Hill’s “super blocks” and “mega structures”, is an intentional strategy designed for total separation from Broadway’s Latino population and Skid Row’s encampments. It is not hard for some people to find places to relax, at the California Plaza or the garden atop Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, but less than ten blocks south an outdoor afternoon nap could entail a fine for violating the Nuisance Abatement Program- Municipal code 11532 for standing or lingering outside any of the area’s businesses. Irony would be an inadequate word to describe the location of skid row- with a backdrop of the Toy District’s battery operated fun against the city’s poorest poor. Codes, laws, hyper surveillance, fences, metal store facades, and razor wire are just some of the explicit signs of repellant architecture. Other features, such as lack of public toilets and randomly programmed sprinkler systems have been installed to deter people from occupying the areas. “Sweeps” occur that involve the bulldozing of any (makeshift) structures in the area; according to one man, the cops do sweeps at least once a month. In other parts of the city, bumproof benches are divided into sections to make sleeping difficult, sidewalks are sprayed with water to discourage sleeping, and dumpsters are locked with everything from elaborate gating to pad locks.

Artist Nils Norman succinctly documents this type of repellant architecture in his book “The Contemporary Picturesque”, which looks to the urban centers of New York and London as sites of such exclusions. He writes, “…street furniture became a subtle, and not so subtle strategy in the battle to manage and supervise the flow and distribution of crowds……The process in part was a deliberate training and perhaps more importantly an internalization of new rules and expectations..” These techniques have been employed in cities across the country, and yet all the bum-proof benches in the world won’t house, feed or provide the basic human rights that are denied to the nations’ poor. What is provided is an on-going whitewash of events that sets the average middle class citizen apart from and indeed, opposed to, our very neighbors.

Artists like Norman work in a way that begins to challenge the type of histories and current practices of cities, such as Los Angeles, whose exclusionary and repellant architecture reject a portion of its population. Most notably, artist Krzysztof Wodiczko created a project, entitled Homeless Vehicle, during one of New York’s particularly violent periods toward homeless individuals. Wodiczko writes, “The shelter vehicle attempts to function usefully in the context of New York City street life. Therefore, its point of departure is the strategy of survival that urban nomads presently use….. The goal of the vehicle project is, therefore twofold: to fulfill the need of homeless people for a means of transportation and shelter, and to aid in creating a legitimized status for its users in the community of the city.” This project, well documented and theorized, gives me a starting point to think about how artists might participate in countering or dismantling social imaginaries that produce catastrophic divisions between, for lack of better terms, “us and them”. Wodiczko uses a strategy of replication in which he spectacularizes (makes too big and ridiculous to ignore) the common image of a cart used by a homeless population. It is an absurd act, both dystopic and useful: it codifies (via documentation) the condition of street living, yet offers practical modifications to an organizational system necessarily utilized by “urban nomads”.

Artists Lucy Orta and Micheal Rakowitz utilize similar strategies; they design and create with the needs of a specific population in mind. Their aim is not to solve a problem or attempt humanitarian intervention, rather it is to involve the social dimensions of humanitarian crisises. Orta, trained as a fashion designer, starts with clothing- objects that protect and project the subject. In her work Refuge Wear, Body Architecture, Collective Wear and Habitent (fig. 2) she makes ponchos that transform into tents or life rafts, and clothes that act as sleeping bag or other survival mechanisms- all with technologically advanced fabrics (that refract heat or reproduce the functions of the skin). Each grouping of clothing/structure corresponds, in function and title, to specific situations, whether it be the influx of refugees into France from Rwanda or conditions of living on the streets of a city. In Collective Wear Orta allows the structures to house and clothe several people. The theme of collectivity becomes more and more apparent in her later works, both in terms of process- working collaboratively with various groups, and in end product- suits that depend on and are made for more than one person. Paul Virillo says of the work, “They made me think of how we resort to collective body practice to survive. To survive one is obliged to form a pack. Primeval animals lived in packs.” Whether depending on animalistic metaphors or capitalistic ones, Orta’s work renders collectivity as essential to human life.

Adding another take on collectivity, or rather a forced collectivity, Michael Rakowitz produced a project entitled Parasite (fig. 3). The project involves hooks, plastic, tape and an external HVAC system (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) to construct tent-like structures that inflate by attaching to an outdoor vent, that recuperates spent air and creates shelter for an occupant. This project also involved collaboration and a contextual setting. Rakowitz writes. “ I proposed my concept and first prototype to a homeless man named Bill Stone, who regarded the project as a tactical response. At the time, the city of Cambridge had made a series of vents in Harvard Square “homeless proof” by tilting the metal grate, making them virtually impossible to sleep on.” Rakowitz built seven prototypes and gave them to residents of Havard Square.

To rely again on animalistic metaphors, Rakowitz quotes Dr. Kazimir Tarmon, “There is “tension” between a host and its parasite, since the host endeavours to get rid of the foreign body, while the parasite employs new ways to maintain the connection with the host”. This is paradigmatic of all the strategies employed by Rakowitz, Orta and Wodizko. That is to say, all the artists are actively engaging with the host, the city, capital, disrupting the social imaginary and replacing it with another image. I believe they are employing several strategies that could maybe be seen as ’techniques for noticing’ in art practices. As noted before, Wodiiczko’s work uses the spectacular to expand on and make visible the object, which is to make visible the condition. Each artist replicates and expands on what is already being made or pieced together for specific living conditions. To take the catastrophic and make it visible as such is, in these particular situations, a political act. On the one hand, the objects are all useful: they can function and could possibly improve the conditions of the intended user.

I will suggest this might be an attempt to simply participate in imagining alternatives. And on the other, they are all dangerous; they find ways to make an inadequate condition more livable, which again calls into question the very condition of living. Another aspect of the projects are their ties to consumerism. By the nature of their objectness, no less, “Art” objectness, they are products. One way we are often defined in capitalism is by our ability to consume. What designer or manufacturer makes for people who (are perceived as) rarely have the means to consume? What is the consumer demographic of a person without a home, without (much) money? As artists, I believe that they are playing the part of such a designer or manufacturer, and thereby acknowledging specific needs or perhaps desires of people who are not considered in a capitalistic paradigm.

Finally, all the artists have created a habitat of sorts. Here, they have all contested a singular notion of home or living space. This act, requires us to consider not only the codes and laws that define home and habitat, but also the people constructing such terms. The context of each project is intricately related to conditions of poverty, neo-liberal legislation, dialectics of public and private space and relationships that asks questions about adequate living and basic human rights. Viewers must consider who they are in relationship to others, whose desires of mobility and stability constitute identities and to what end. One must be aware that the artist is not absent from positionality- she is most recognizable as an arm of the host. If this true, what is the investment of the host? Why are we/they so fixated with our parasitic partners? And what are our ethical responsibilities, whether they be in art practice or daily practice, to not pre-determine the status of others, yet define the very idea of basic rights?

Deutsche, Rosalyn. Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics. MIT Press, Cambridge MA; 1996. pp. 275-279
Wrigley, Mark. “BloodStained Architecture” Post Urban Ex Fragmentations Sub and Dis Constructions. Ed. Ghent Urban Studies Team. 010 Publishers; 2002 pp.281-294
Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles Verso, New York; 1990 pp.223-240
Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design
City of Los Angeles. July 2, 2004. <>
Wrigley, Mark. “BloodStained Architecture” Post Urban Ex Fragmentations Sub and Dis Constructions. Ed. Ghent Urban Studies Team. 010 Publishers; 2002 pp.281-294 (One could extend Wrigley’s point through the figure of the car. We have terms like defensive driving, news shows that tell us how to protect ourselves while on the road, how to defend ourselves against road rage, car jackings, and car theft. In terms of trappings we have finger touch recognition, automatic locks and seat belts, and alarms, and yet the car, a must have in LA, is probably the deadliest object in the country. The car also represents the image of individuality (we don’t have to watch too much TV to get this), an American dream that is ours to control.)
City of Los Angeles. July 7, 2004. <>
City of Los Angeles. July 2, 2004. <>

Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles Verso, New York; 1990 pp.223-240
City of Los Angeles July, 12 2004
It should be noted that Los Angeles’ The Street Furniture Program, which provides bus shelters, automated public toilets (none of which are located in the Skid Row area), and kiosks are maintained and operated at no cost to the city through a joint venture between Viacom Outdoor, the multi-media giant and JCDecaux, the largest street furniture manufacturer in the world. It seems that both companies generate funding for such projects through advertising.
Comment from an informal conversation I had with a resident of Skid Row in spring of 2004.
Norman, Nils. The Contemporary Picturesque Book Works, London; 1988. (While LA has its share of anti-person architecture, and a long history of defensive building, I believe that the city has features that NYC and London do not, namely good year-around weather and abundant space, which act as alibis for lack of services and the treatment and visibility of the city’s poor to go unnoticed.
Wodiczko, Krzysztof. Critical Vehicles: Writings, Projects, Interviews. MIT Press, Cambrigde, MA; 1999. pp76-84
Ibid pp.119
Ehrlich, Ken and Brandon Labelle. Surface Tension: Problematics of the Site Errant Bodies Press, Richmond, British Columbia Canada; 2003 pp49-53
We can reference the civil rights era and the power of boycott as way to excerise rights- as well as more recent example, after Sept. 11, 2001, with George Bush’s advice to shop as a show of America Patriotism.