Krzysztof Wodiczko, Homeless Vehicle, 1988 (Source: Medienkunstnetz.de)
‘Some things have to be done that are going to be ultimately very good for the city.” Donald Trump, 28th February, 1997
Neoliberal urbanization, and its ‘common sense logic’, has many spatial articulations. These range from high-rise condominiums offering an exquisite privatized life, to seductive advertising hoardings, and shiny new public spaces, often portrayed as free from political and economic significance, bar their ‘openness’. Underneath this image-making strategy is a highly complex and well-oiled machine of real estate financialization with all its trappings, including the intensified regulation of urban space. The close alignment of image-making and pursuit of private profit with the regulation of space has, at least since Rudolf Giuliani’s ‘zero tolerance’ approach to policing of the 1990’s, served to produce what Neil Smith labelled the ‘revanchist city’:
“Revanchism blends revenge with reaction. It represents a reaction against the basic assumptions of liberal urban policy, namely that government bears some responsibility for ensuring a decent minimum level of daily life for everyone. That political assumption is now largely replaced by a vendetta against the most oppressed – the workers and “welfare mothers,” immigrants and gays, people of color and homeless people, squatters, anyone who demonstrates in public.” (Smith, 1998, p.1). [Tom Slater Open Source on Revanchism]
What is perhaps most striking in the context of the recent U.S. election, is the extent to which Donald Trump’s rhetoric and action can be viewed as closely aligned with a revanchist world view, traceable to his rise to fame in 1980’s New York. Emerging at various stages and in various forms, Trump has demonstrated his long history of ‘othering’ that ranges from the depicting of street vendors as a ‘plague’ that is ‘infecting’ the city of New York to the taking out a full page advert in 1989 where families are portrayed “… as hostages to a world ruled by the law of the streets, as roving bands of wild criminals roam our neighbourhoods.” That the latter picked up directly on the now infamous ‘Central Park Five’ case is testament to his desire for trial by media from an early stage.
A central feature of revanchist tactics is to render one’s own vision of the world as clean and pure, while also ensuring that it is set out as being in the wider public interest. In this regard its ‘common sense’ approach mirrors the wider neoliberalization of urban space while also highlighting its failings. In furthering its agenda the neoliberal city renders privatization as though normal, while dislodging the poorest of society to its edges and subsequently denuding them of public space itself. It is a process that both produces and re-enforces the uneven development of space. The emergence of this reality in 1980’s New York, and Trump’s role in it, was summarized by the artist Krysztof Wodinczko as follows:
“Very rapid, uneven development. With the building of new housing and real estate projects for upper-middle-class residents, there was also a process of destruction of the buildings where poor people lived. Trump was only one of a large number of real estate corporations that were basically owning Manhattan. But he was special because of the visibility and upfront decor which was appealing to those who are in love with richness.”
Indeed, the sheer levels of such uneveness is rendered in graphic form by Wodinczko’s ‘homeless vehicle’ of 1988, which, in the words of Rosalyn Deutsche, disrupted the “coherent urban image” of a city dominated by wealth accumulation. Moving into the 1990’s and, as is demonstrated by Smith, the combination of wealthy individuals such Trump and Giuliani’s desire for ‘law and order’ produced a perfect storm of urban revanchism — labeled in short as ‘Giuliani Time’. Under the mantra of ‘zero tolerance’ policing and the intensified rounds of neoliberal urbanization, it was a city in which the homeless became further marginalized, if not criminalized, and housing activists came under increased pressure. It is from this period that we see the coming to dominance of revanchism as a ‘normal’ feature of urban space set to travel far and wide. This, as is argued by Alison Mountz and Winifred Curran, is indicative of the production of ‘a cult of the personality’ around Giuliani, allowing his own private business venture to have a direct influence in locations such as Mexico City and his ideals to travel on a global scale.
The intervening years have witnessed an intensified spread of neoliberal ideals, with different brands of revanchism emerging in different contexts, globally. What is perhaps most worrying about current day neoliberal urbanization is the manner in which the very real consequences of the privatization of urban space often continue to be ignored within urbanist circles. Indeed, the normalization of what Smith labelled ‘planetary revanchism’, has recently been highlighted by the ramblings of Patrik Schumacher at the Berlin Architecture Biennale. In a speech that garnered the nickname ‘The Trump of Architecture’, Schumacher declared: “Housing for everyone can only be provided by freely self-regulating and self-motivating market process.” He continued to outline his desire to privatize all public spaces in London and celebrated global capital for its supposed trickle-down impact. that such a high-profile figure could be so unaware of the actual impacts of private-led urbanization is a worrying feature of the assumptions embedded within the upper echelons of contemporary urbanism.
Closer to home, as Dublin enters another round of property-led development, there is a need to be aware of the normalization of revanchist tactics and insertions in space. In a city marked by its uneven development and attendant inequalities we need to be aware of the meaning and significance of spatial markers of revanchism, such as has been recently highlighted in the case of the anti-homeless spikes at the Department of Social Protection. That the Science Gallery has sought to tackle the significance of such features as part of their ‘Design/Violence’ exhibition is indicative of how important it is to pay attention to the slow normalization of such tactics within urban space and beyond.
Tracing revanchist approaches to urban space back to individuals such as Trump in 1980’s New York is testament to the dangers of a slow normalization of regressive attitudes at various scales. Calling such tactics out for what they are will become a significant challenge for the coming years.