Don Mitchell, PhD Geography, Rutgers University, is Distinguished Professor at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. His specialties comprise: cultural, urban, and historical geography, public space, landscape, labor, social theory, and Marxism. His publications are grouped thusly: on landscape and laborers; on public space, radical politics and marginalized peoples; on culture, geography, and general trouble making. He approaches these three areas of study through a broadly Marxist, and certainly radical and materialist, framework, starting from the position that scholarship and political commitment cannot be divorced.
Mitchell recounts the controversial decision for UC Berkeley leadership to partner in 1989 with the City of Berkeley to wrest the People’s Park from its marginalized users and turn control over to middle-class and student interests, who believe the conservative argument that in order for public spaces to work, they must be safe, orderly. From the 60s through 80s, Cal students became increasingly conservative, actively avoiding the space, though one official admitted the park was no more dangerous than anywhere else. It was just a matter of perception.
“Activists see places like the Park as spaces for representation. By taking place, social movements represent themselves to larger audiences” (125).
Following Lefebvre’s (1991) two visions of public space, Mitchell argues this is a battle between the City’s desired the park’s representations of space — planned, controlled, orderly — and the park’s experienced representational space — appropriated, lived-in, used for and by the homeless. Without this park and like public spaces, these and all similarly affected homeless struggle and fail to “represent themselves as a legitimate part of ‘the public'” (115). Theirs is a “double-bind” (118) in that they are at once too visible and too defenseless against the interests of late capitalism.
Bringing Fraser’s (1992) subaltern counterpublics to earth, Mitchell avers public space “constitutes an actual site, a place, a ground within and from which political activity flows” (117). In the contemporary city, meanwhile, privatization has been prioritized, evoking Sorkin’s (1992) “disneyfication” of the United States. Boyer (1992) proposes that even diversity in a public space is often artifice: “territorial segregation created through expression of social difference has increasingly been replaced by a celebration of constrained diversity” (120).