About a month ago I came across a number of articles, including this one in the Portland Tribune about proposed budget cuts to Portland Parks and Recreation, and particularly the recreation centers, in light of increasing costs in labor and facilities. In the last week, the city has released the complete budget proposal, which includes shuttering a number of community centers, and dialing back programming at the existing ones, due to a budget shortfall of around $6 million.
This is an incredibly shortsighted decision. It goes against the city’s purported values, including equity and sustainability. It will shut down long-standing facilities that will be difficult, if not impossible, to recover, which serve their communities in terms of both physical public spaces, and relationships that have been built up over years, if not decades.
As a scholar of public spaces, I think about how places for gathering in our cities support good lives for people in everyday ways. In my own ethnographic research, I found that elders who belong to a swim team in a local community center report better health as well as an emotional support network as a result of having a local community center to attend every week. Other benefits of public space to the body politic and to neighborhood vitality have been well-documented in ethnographic and large-n studies; this is more than just a feel-good endeavor.
To take one specific example from this budget year, it is cynical to pit the Sellwood community center (which is proposed to be shuttered due to expensive repairs) or the Laurelhurst dance center against the centers in the eastern (poorer) part of the city, with the idea that the relatively-more-affluent families will fend for themselves. Indeed, all should be funded. Decisions like this increase inequality within and across neighborhoods. That is: as one community center goes, so eventually will go all. The ‘realignment’ proposed in the budget (to consolidate programming in bigger centers, rather than support many neighborhood centers) is just the first step.
Furthermore, the notion that the relatively-more-affluent don’t need common public spaces along with everyone else, takes them out of the fight for good public amenities, as they become less and less served by them, and ‘public’ comes to be equated with ‘the worst the city has to offer.’ We have seen this with public schools across America, and we will see it with our public spaces if we treat them like pawns of a particular budgetary year.
The community centers provide recreational, arts and cultural programming, and a place to hang out, for so many. This value is never sexy or photogenic. These centers don’t have epic events, just a slow, plodding everyday vitality that connects people to one another in the halls and on the steps. Senior citizen yoga, ballet for small boys and girls, beginning guitar for people who never plan to become musicians, basketball for young people to enjoy the thrill of playing; these are the small ways a city stays public, and keeps the worst of our increasing American inequality at bay. Those who fight for the cause of public space tend to be few, because we weren’t set up to have to fight for it year upon year.
In a more pragmatic vein, with climate change, the city is suffering hotter and smokier summers, colder winters, and less predictability in terms of when Portlanders will be able to spend time outdoors. This particularly affects small kids, their parents, and our elders. The community center and the pool must be at the center of a plan for climate resiliency, not an afterthought. Anything less will lead to a weakening of our social ties and a retreat into our homes and tribes just at the moment we could use more time together, learning in everyday ways how to build a more just future based in cooperation and sharing of space.
Just as Portland must fight to keep a roof over the head of all her citizens, we also must fight to keep a home for the public in our long-loved community centers. Budget priorities are social and cultural priorities. Beyond the kid in tap shoes, or the elder who keeps fit with their friends is a question of our dedication to public life in a moment at which the social fabric itself is fraying. It would be thin reasoning if a city that has attracted tremendous wealth in the past few decades did not figure out how to marshal enough revenue to maintain these spaces in a meaningful way.
We published an article in Urban Geography: “User fees and the permeability of public space at municipal pools and bathhouses in New York City, 1870 – present.” Find the article here.
In this article, we combined my archival research from The Amphibious Public with Laura’s work on municipal policy-making, particularly in terms of fiscal decision making. Using pools and bathhouses in New York City as an historical example, we show how fees were administered (or cancelled) at various times in the city’s history in order to promote values, uses, and public-making by different groups. Put differently: paying the fee at the pool has a social dimension! It is not just a way to pay for operations (though at times it has), but rather it sets up a relationship of the user to public space that is markedly different from free general entry (though anyone who uses New York City pools in the summer knows that those have plenty of restrictions as well.)
Looking forward to hearing from you. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
This coming Saturday night, Sept 15, I will be at La Mama theatre in New York City, in conversation with playwright/director Kevin Doyle about the new play from his company, Sponsored By Nobody, THE AЯTS.
The play deals with the history of federal arts funding in the US, particularly the founding and subsequent de-funding of the National Endowment for the Arts. I am there to chat because of the paper I published this past spring in Arts and International Affairs, entitled Goodbye to the NEA?
I’m so pleased to be part of this effort connecting academic study with the arts as a topic, and with art in live theatrical performance. See you in NYC!
Hi all! Some news!
Starting now, I’ll be a (Visiting Assistant) Professor at the University of Toronto, in the Department of Geography and Planning. I’m on leave from Portland State University, as my partner got a job here in Toronto (UT-Scarborough: Arts, Culture and Media) and we decided to come and see what Canada has to offer.
In our first 48 hours here, Canada has offered us Greek food, a lot of rain, and very polite immigration officers.
I will miss my students and colleagues at the Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning sorely, but I will be back to visit, continue archival research, sit on some graduate student committees, see friends, and swim in waterfalls.
This fall, I’ll be teaching an undergraduate class called Urban Planning Processes, and a graduate class called Planning Decision Methods. I look forward to learning a new city — its history and its systems — and meeting students with a different perspective.
If you’re in town, get in touch and we’ll go get dumplings!
I got to review City Unsilenced: Urban Resistance and Public Space in the Age of Shrinking Democracy, an edited volume on protest around the world in the last decade, centered on Urban Public Spaces, for the journal, Urban Studies.
“In response to austerity politics and market-based governance of urban land, large-scale social protest has erupted in the public spaces of cities across the globe. In City Unsilenced: Urban Resistance and Public Space in the Age of Shrinking Democracy (Routledge, 2017), editors Jeffrey Hou of UW-Seattle and Sabine Knierbein of SKuOR, Vienna – both scholars of the dynamics of public space – have compiled the stories, strategies and theories derived from social movements in urban spaces since 2011. In this volume, the collected authors demonstrate how public spaces in cities operate as both the subject and object of civic unrest.”
Check out the full review here and let me know if you can’t get behind the paywall.
I was quoted in Quartz magazine (online) regarding a recent spike of white people calling the cops on Black people in public spaces. (BTW, it’s the reporting that is new, not the bad behavior of white Americans.)
“Calling the police in these instances is about having “the power to say you don’t belong here,” says Naomi Adiv, a professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University, whose research explores power dynamics in public spaces. Adiv says that the issue of who is feared, and who is seen as having a “right” to be in a certain space, is deeply intertwined with race and the US history of segregation.”
In which I get to speak about my research to students! (Or, this is one of the best parts of my job.)Posted: May 11, 2018
The Institute for Sustainable Solutions (ISS) Student fellows invited Dr. Jola Ajibade and I to speak to them at their monthly event.
What a wonderful and smart group of students! I say this without exaggeration — they were so engaged and thoughtful. Here are some photos of the event (credit: Maria Sipin).