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The Politics of Seeing Within the Global City

Following the template of NYC, the primary way of seeing in the global city remains, above all, “move on there’s nothing to see here,” and the deprivation of sight is commensurate with a new kind of colonialism.

A glittering Pudong at night across the Huangpu river in Shanghai (photo courtesy flickr.com/gags9999)

If nothing else, there was to be beauty. At the beginnings of Ronald Reagan’s neoliberal revolution, Roy Batty’s dying declaration from Blade Runner (1982) was a vision of transcendence: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate.” That cyborg future has mutated into Trump’s bathetic “beautiful” wall that makes an aesthetic out of sensory isolation and xenophobia. There were once eight million stories in The Naked City (1948) but now there’s only one: the endless rise of the one per cent of the one per cent.

The galaxies are far, far away now. Blue-glassed shine walls in the invisible wealthy, while eddies in the heat-dazzled smog block their view from a 90th-floor penthouse. Who’s even looking anymore? The fracturing upon fracturing of social life has made the global city so economically, formally, physically, and culturally divided that it cannot be seen from a single point of view.

In 2011, the world changed — statistically. For the first time, the majority of people worldwide lived in cities. That majority has already risen to 54% and is expected to reach 66% by 2050. What were previously known as “world cities” during the era of high imperialism (1857–1945) depended on culture, trade, and war, following networks established by colonialism and directed by nation states. The global city is a metropolis whose primary relation is to other global cities, not to the nation where it is located. It is defined by its level of integration into the world-city network. From Shanghai to Johannesburg to New York, the global city has reconfigured itself “back to the future.” It now looks more like 19th-century Paris than 1970s New York: a literally gilded center, epitomized by super tall buildings for the spectacularly wealthy, surrounded by extended zones of racialized hyper-segregation and poverty.

What comes with the seamless integration of corporations into global urban networks is human inequality. London and New York have long been ranked the top two global cities in these terms of global connectivity, and they are now almost unlivable for all but the wealthiest. New York City acknowledges its segregation but has no idea how to change it. Young people buy 275-square-foot studios for $1300 per square foot and celebrate. For up-and-comers like Johannesburg — which jumped three levels on the global city ladder since 2000 — the result has been that it is now the most unequal city in the world.

This isn’t gentrification. That was before. That was artists living in 18th-century houses in London’s Spitalfields by candlelight, or Spike Lee making Fort Greene hip. Now there is invasion, control, and expulsion — or to give it the proper name, colonialism.

Eats End Film Festival screening of the silent movie Nosferatu in Crispin Square, Spitalfields (image by Spitalfields_E1 via Flickr)

Recently in Crown Heights I saw a micro-drama of this process. On one side of the street, dilapidated 19th-century brick tenements with multiple occupants in each building, with a white van moving vehicle loading up outside. On the other, the tenements had been demolished, and a faux-modern brick apartment building entitled the Olmstead Luxury Residences (note the cute misspelling of Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of nearby Prospect Park) was being completed with the addition of unbreakable Samsung CCTV cameras every fifty feet. Five hundred square feet one-bedrooms are presented as “the ultimate Brooklyn lifestyle.” Maybe so, but this is colonialism by another name.

The city is on permanent lockdown. There are more active NYPD officers than Belgium’s military personnel — a country with three million more people than New York City contains. In addition, National Guard are deployed at all transport hubs and the new 800-strong Strategic Response Group of the NYPD is said to be organized to deal with terrorism and civil unrest.

Coco Curranski attack Formation (image by Coco Curranski via Flickr)

I’ve only ever seen them arresting young people of color in the subway. For Frantz Fanon, colonialism depends on the barracks and the police station to create an “aesthetics of respect for the established order.” That’s become normal in New York: the photographs of firetrucks, the 9/11 Memorial and attendees standing for the national anthem at Yankee Stadium.

Following the template of NYC, the primary way of seeing in the global city remains, above all, “move on there’s nothing to see here.” The police have always said that to us. In a way, they’re finally right. It used to feel like they were denying citizens the right to see what was self-evidently there. Now it seems that it doesn’t matter whether anyone sees or not. Eric Garner was choked to death on video in Staten Island and the only person punished so far has been Ramsey Orta, who shot the footage (albeit for a prior offense).

Back home, “move on there’s nothing to see here” is what a traffic cop might say to other drivers at the scene where a driver’s been stopped. It’s often been these stops that have led to the death of African Americans at police hands. And even when there has also been body-cam, dash-cam or civilian visual documentation, it has not made any difference to the court verdicts. The police maintain the established order and that is right so the pictures must be wrong. What many have wanted to see as exceptional, even aberrant, action is the everyday means of sustaining the global city network that is the new form of global colonialism.

Colonialism has been coming home for a while now. Its most violent return was as Fascism in the 1930s and 40s, diagnosed at the time by W. E. B. Du Bois and other Black radicals like Aimé Césaire and Fanon. The counterinsurgency tactics formed in defense of specific colonies after World War Two became what the US military call “global counterinsurgency,” or GCOIN, in 2006. What is now called the “homeland” is defended as if it were a colony against a somewhat mystical insurgency that can appear anywhere at any time, thus requiring armed troops and police everywhere at all times.

GCOIN has notably changed, whether in colonial locations from Afghanistan to Yemen or as a form of domestic security. In 2006, it wanted to separate the majority from the insurgents by creating better conditions and understanding their needs. Now GCOIN just administers failed states worldwide, including the US homeland. Far from the all-seeing state of high imperial ambition, today’s colonial regime just wants to win the news cycle and manage its optics. Its symbolic figure is not the counterinsurgent on the ground but the drone. Flown from remote locations, often equipped with missiles, drones are a visible and audible surveillance. While they can punish, they cannot prevent or otherwise intervene. In short, they are of a piece with the closed-captioned television that saturates global cities.

In all of this fracturing transformation, long-ignored colonial-era monuments made simply to be looked at have become newly visible, the old colonialism standing in for the new. Protesting monuments is an act of reverse appropriation. There is no symbolic form for dispossession in the global city. There is no location that can be occupied to stop the  spread of the global city. Occupy Wall Street prefigured the effort to resist urban global capital by taking over a public-private stretch of concrete laughably known as a park and calling it the occupation of New York City.

Michael Fleshman, “Occupy Wall Street March 16, 2012” (2012) via Flickr

Nice try. On November 15, 2011, after people were expelled from Zuccotti Park, it was cleansed and barricades were put around it. Eviction, cleanse, barricade: the metonym for the global city. Today, the monuments are barricaded, a substitute target for those who protest the global city. It can feel like last-ditch resistance. It might become the first step toward a new, more nuanced and historically aware means of appearance for all those Occupy used to call the 99%.

Julian Dunn, “You’d never know Occupy was ever here” (2013) via Flickr

Stand in Columbus Circle in New York City and the contradiction between the colonial monument and the sky-dwelling global city comes into sharp appearance. In the middle of the traffic-surrounded circle is the 1892 Columbus Monument. It was erected by Italian-Americans to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival in the Caribbean of Cristóbal Colón as he was called by his Spanish patrons, known here as Christopher Columbus. He was Italian only because he was born in the independent city state of Genoa, which four hundred years later became part of the new nation of Italy. The monument is fake news.

Colonialism itself is certainly fake news with its claim to what was imagined as “empty land” (terra nullius). That moment of claimed conquest is commemorated on the pediment of the monument in bronze bas-relief. Columbus strides heroically onto land, while indigenous people hide in nearby bushes. The implied violence of this relief was acted out in the 1930s, as historian Timothy Kubal has documented, with clashes between pro-Mussolini fascists and anti-fascists on Columbus Day at the monument. Both Mayor LaGuardia and Governor Lehman found their boilerplate addresses about American idealism greeted with fascist salutes.

The Columbus Monument today is just a feature in the giant picture window of the Time Warner Center. It should certainly be removed and the circle should revert to being known as Grand Circle. But it has already been displaced as an emblem of colonialism by the row of super-tall skyscrapers along 57th Street. Each serves as its own self-enclosed luxury city, without land, people, or restraint. They are marketed above all for the views from the desired upper levels — above 700 feet — where the Atlantic becomes visible. This abstract and panoramic view of the city is the disdainful, disembodied, super-tall aesthetic. There’s nothing to see here.

A different kind of monument is being created for the global city. Consider The Vessel, at the center of the Hudson Yards development, designed by Thomas Heatherwick, who claims that his “monumental design piece will act as New York City’s new public landmark.” Most likely that public will actually consist of tourists looking for places to take photographs from The Vessel’s “154 intricately interconnecting flights of stairs — almost 2,500 individual steps — and 80 landings,” which make it a giant piece of exercise equipment. The treadmill was introduced into colonial prisons post-slavery as a moral punishment. Now it’s going to be the oversized platform for performing public penance for not being rich enough to afford a Hudson Yards apartment (which starts at $3.8 million). Calling this work The Vessel all too clearly evokes transatlantic slavery and colonialism, the pasts that cannot be so easily made invisible. Plus, all the Yards are stolen land, erased possibility, privatized futures, abolished collectivities. The development would be better called “The Hold.”

The Vessel being constructed (photo by the author)

The Vessel is empty and without content as a precise depiction of the global city that wants to create a seamless experience for its elite denizens. Without fanfare, New York City removed the monument to J. Marion Sims in April. Sims, a huckster and experimenter on enslaved women’s bodies, had served his purpose. Displayed first in Bryant Park, the statue was moved to 103rd and 5th Avenue in 1934 to stand opposite the New York Academy of Medicine. It worked to mark boundaries. North and east of the statue was so-called Spanish Harlem, hoops, and public housing. To the south and west was Museum Mile and whiffle-ball in Central Park. Today, an I.M. Pei designed Mount Sinai hospital towers over the area, complete with a medical school named after corporate raider and Trump adviser Carl Icahn. On 103rd Street, North Park Tower, still under construction, offers “convenience and modernism perfectly balance[d] to create your own private sanctuary.” There’s no need for distracting and divisive street markers. The building is its own sanctuary from the multitude.

Statue of J. Marion Sims behind barricades (photo by the author)

If the super-talls and The Vessel seek to make a definitive statement of the global city’s rise to power, decolonization is the question of how to resist it. How do the dispossessed find answers? Start from where you are. In schools, decolonize the curriculum. In visual work, decolonize your medium. Decolonizing museums is sufficiently obvious a step that it’s in the New York Times and the president of France is signed on.

To overturn the established order in the global urban regions where most of us live requires a rupture that goes beyond these necessary first steps. The colonial city created what philosopher Hannah Arendt famously called “the space of appearance,” in which to conduct politics. Admittance to that space was far from universal and depended on having certain personal and social credentials. How can those now excluded from the even smaller minority that control the global city appear to each other?

Protesting the monuments makes that exclusion visible. It takes difficult work to see that such exclusions are not the same for all those excluded from the global city. To call the movement to remove monuments identity politics is to miss the point. The claim to appear to each other is a claim to existence — the first goal of all abolition movements — made without preconditions, but while recognizing how ancestry and history has shaped us differently. That is what democracy, yet to be experienced in the global city, might look like.

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