Home Opinion Down(town) and Out: Making space for “everyone” but marginalizing everyone else

Down(town) and Out: Making space for “everyone” but marginalizing everyone else

Mike Martez Johnson

In peak Madison “punitive to the poor, proceeds to the privileged” style, a constellation of forces led by Mayor Paul Soglin are agitating for renewed pressure on Madison’s homeless – and by extension, black, LGBT youth, veteran, and poor – community. An ordinance to place time caps on downtown benches is leading the charge to criminalize residents for successive city councils’ and mayors’ inability to address homelessness and affordable housing needs. Additional efforts related to panhandling and “public space” is also on the move, to the great frustration of advocates who had applauded the city for a pivot to a Housing First strategy.

It is worth wondering if affordable housing strategies were deployed first to soften the blow of these draconian measures, a cynical attempt to cause division and frustration in the advocacy community which has remained unified in opposition. There is also something to be said about the deployment of city resources – likely in uniform – to police and enforce these efforts. In a dose of good news, a federal appeals court ruling in Chicago ruled that an ordinance ban on “peaceful panhandling” – similar to Madison’s was unconstitutional.

More recently, under Mayor Soglin’s order, the Philosopher’s Stone installation – a common gathering spot of Madison’s homeless and disposed – was removed, with additional arguments about “public spaces for everyone.” In a piece by Susan Schmitz, President of Downtown Madison, Inc (and a member of the City Equal Opportunities Commission), she reinforced this public space discussion:

“This isn’t about any particular group of people. It’s about setting standards of acceptable behavior in public places that apply to everyone.
Madison Mayor Paul Soglin’s proposal for time limits on downtown benches, sidewalks, and city property could be helpful. So could many other approaches to bringing about change and deterring negative behaviors.
We all need to work together and remember that this city was built to be clean, safe, and beautiful. We need to be proud of our public spaces. We need to feel safe in our public spaces. We need to use, embrace and share our public spaces.”

It has a nice altruistic sound to it, which fits Madison perceived inclusiveness, but in reality we know that standards of behavior in a town famous for its drinking culture do not apply to everyone.

Case in point: Just this past weekend, a largely white and middle-class collection of visitors descended on Madison for the Great Taste of the Midwest — 1,000 different beers from 150 different breweries — essentially for the purpose of getting loaded for the weekend. No punitive measures were deployed for this hoppy horde, no show of force or intimidation for the ale-y anarchy. An attitude of indifference is a common occurrence during the fall semester as well, for both students and alumni, where drunken belligerence is taken as an indication of a shared heritage. We know from the media that white drinking culture is treated with a “boys will be boys” privilege, underwritten by the fact that money is being poured into the economy which lets local leaders turn a blind eye to behaviors such as catcalling, physical violence, sexual assault, and public urination, as Salon’s Brittney Cooper notes:

“…Implicit in her stories was a truth we refuse to tell: These young drunk white men were dangerous. Menacing. And they are made more dangerous precisely because their disrespect for public space and private citizens is seen as mere play, mere college kids having a good time, rather than as a threat.
But what the events in Keene suggest is that white folks often test the bounds and limits of public decency and order with little long-term reprisal. There were some arrests, and some tear gas. But no dead bodies. No stigma about white anger. No come to Jesus meetings about White America’s problem children. No public discourse about these “menaces to society.” As many commentators on Twitter pointed out, there’ll be no articles about the absence of white leadership, or about how white folks just need to learn respect for public property.”

The exact things that have motivated a call for “zero tolerance” changes at the top of State Street go unaddressed and are, hell, practically encouraged at the bottom and everywhere else.

There is a second more subtle issue in play – the quasi or full privatization of public space and the culture those spaces represent under the guise of making public space for everyone. Jill Sebastian, the creator of the removed Philosopher’s Grove, noted about the underlying values of the project, “When I was initially enlisted to create something, basically, I was asked to create a democratic space, a space that was open to all and that you didn’t have to buy a cup of coffee in order to spend time on State Street.”

“The exact things that have motivated a call for ‘zero tolerance’ changes at the top of State Street go unaddressed and are, hell, practically encouraged at the bottom and everywhere else.”

State Street’s historic character has always been that it should and was open to anyone, anything, and any moment. From marches celebrating President Obama’s historic victory to declaring Black Lives Matter, from students celebrating Final Four games to students challenging immoral wars, it embodies certain spirits of Madison. But like so much these days, that history is being used to encroach on public space, with corporately branded and sponsored events meant to be for “everyone,” but ultimately catering to a small segment that is mostly white, mostly middle class or higher, mostly to benefit business interests and not the broader community interest. A Jacobin piece titled “Branding the Commons” points out –

“Even when cities are being planned, the importance of keeping the public, public is often lost. Emphasis is placed on “placemaking” as though the existence of certain goods within a city is enough. The Project for Public Spaces, for example, offers “eleven principles for creating great community places,” but none mention protecting public ownership.
The organization suggests finding partners in development, apparently unaware that many of those partners will request privatization as a condition for their involvement and that privatization threatens the ways that “people of all ages, abilities, and socioeconomic backgrounds can. . . access and enjoy a place.
Once a city’s public areas are privatized, not only can the physical appearance of undesired people in those areas be denied (as at American Tobacco), but the culture itself can be sold as a commodity — all at the expense of the original community, both its physical spaces and the social activities that depend on them.”

It is critical that local leaders, residents, and the various advocacy groups are committed to true public spaces, which will truly be shared among all of us.